How do you experience a place? An esoteric question? Perhaps to those who sit at home. But it is a very real question to those who would venture out to travel the world.
When I was in college I took my first trip ‘across the pond’ to visit a friend who was working as an au pair in Switzerland. Not only was it my first time stepping foot off the North American continent (I had grown up visiting my grandmother who lived in Mexico so travel was hardly a foreign concept) but it was also the first non-family, non-youth group expedition. With my brand new guide book in hand, a camera and a few rolls of film (yes, I am old enough to have used film in college) I was prepared. The only problem was, I did not know what to do. So I diligently searched for every item pictured in the guidebook and tried to copy them as best I could with my own camera.
More than a decade and 25 countries later I have overcome this awkwardness in being a tourist, but I still am left to wonder—how does someone truly experience a place?
The question has arisen once again as I am the only under 50 member of a barge cruise up the Rhine
river. Each day brings a new town and with it the question. For the retiree crowd at least, it seems that the way to experience a place is to go on a walking tour, complete with headsets that allow an all-knowing guide to regurgitate his knowledge something like a mother bird feeding her young. The point is information—to be informed about the place is to experience it. When was that cathedral built? What is the significance of the statue on its spire? Who founded this city and how many years ago did it happen?
Perhaps its not entirely the retirees fault. The guidebooks and tour companies must shoulder some of the blame for the misperception that information somehow equals experience. Its not altogether surprising in the midst of a consumer culture. To experience a place must be to consume it in some way, mustn’t it? What better way to conquer a locale than to know its important facts and figures? Cologne? It’s the fourth largest city in Germany. It’s cathedral is the largest in Germany and in the top five largest in the world. It sits along the Rhine river. Check. Next?
But what if there were something more? Shouldn’t there be? Is that the big secret surrounding travel, that it is little more than being able to check places off a list or add them to your countries visited map on facebook?
Today we stopped at a town called Koblenz. It is a small, ‘cute’ German town along the Rhine, at the intersection with the Mosel River. The optional excursion was to tour a castle. I chose to opt out and instead found myself sitting at an outdoor café, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the English language International Herald Tribune. The sun was warm but not too hot, the sky blue, the apple strudel delicious. To be honest, I felt a bit guilty for opting out of the castle tour, where all of my group of retirees were to be found. But I was absolutely content to sip my coffee and enjoy the town square from my seated vantage point. After taking the last sip I got up and walked around town a bit, even doing some shopping along the way, and arrived back to the barge just as the buses were dropping off the castle-goers.
As I boarded the boat I was chastized by the tour guide. “You missed out!” she accused. But I’m not convinced. Granted, I did not spend 33 Euro to have a guided tour of a bunch of old stones on a hillside. I’m sure it was interesting—I’m not arguing with that. But what I wonder is, can simply enjoying being in a place count as experiencing it? Or, to put it more directly, can I travel without a guide book and without an ‘expert’ informing me and still consider it worthwhile? It’s not that I will never visit another museum or photograph another landmark. I’ll probably just make sure to do it after having coffee and reading the morning paper along the town square.