January 13, 2011

The Grand Tour

If it were possible, illustrious philosopher! to write to you without that respect which hinders the imagination by introducing a degree of fear, I should flatter myself that I could entertain you with an account of my tour of Italy. I shall do my best; and if I am not successful you will know what to ascribe my failure to.
    You were indeed right to congratulate me when my father gave me permission to travel in Italy. Nine months in this delicious country have done more for me than all the sage lessons which books, or men formed by books, could have taught me. It was my imagination that needed correction, and nothing but travel could have produced this effect (Boswell to Rousseau, 1765).
Athens, 1813
Aristocratic I am not. But then, seldom few are anymore. And yet, as only an aristocrat could in days of yore, I have travelled and learned, consuming culture as if I were entitled to it. I am not alone in this. Travel has been democratised to an impressive, if not alarming, level. What, for the millions who pack up and jet off, is it for?

I have a sense of loss, or rather, of opportunity lost. For modern travel is an empty experience for most travellers. The masses who line up to escape set about recapitulating the things from which they run as soon as they arrive at their destination. In the West, we tour in crowds of our peers, consuming kitsch that has no bearing on its location other than that it is sold there. For years, as an undergraduate living in the north of England, I sold Christmas decorations in the shape of Royal Guards to Americans. The decorations were made in China, and marked up 300 per cent. And now they sit, in their thousands, annually adorning the plastic trees of Texans, as memorials of their European tour. The English (not all of them, naturally, but as a composite generalisation) seek only a warm place to eat the same greasy food, drink the same bland lager, and engage in the same meaningless ‘relationships’ as can be found in any sleazy nightclub at home. From what I can gather, the discerning classes (a term I use to denote a relatively rare cosmopolitan intellect) of each Occidental nation carry a degree of shame with respect to their countrymen who, when abroad, represent their respective national characters in the worst possible light.

Emil Brack, Planning the Grand Tour
The world is small to us, but has become so only in proportion with the narrowing of our minds. When it took purpose, planning, and considerable effort to travel, it was undertaken with a view to enrichment – of the mind (and perhaps the purse, for some). For certain, there have always been voyeurs and opportunists, but the ideal of travel was to complete one’s education; to be enriched by cultures and histories richer than one’s own; and to return with a broadened, a more experienced mind. This possibility is upon us now, and with a simplicity of execution hitherto unknown and, for aught we know, for only a small window of time. Most of us spurn this opportunity, instead wreaking havoc on the lands upon which we trespass, in both senses.

The world, despite its borders and restrictions, is, to the privileged West, largely open. What if we were to visit it with an open mind?


  1. A subject dear to my own heart! The democratization of travel is admirable in the sense that we can all fancy ourselves 19th century aristocrats from time to time. But it would indeed be valuable if we could recapture to a small extent the magic of travel as it used to be.

  2. Doctor, I am reminded of Chesterton's phrase: 'I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind.' - When people do not take very seriously their own, they are bound to take even less seriously the foreign things, which, of course, are not foreign to those foreigners who live with them, apparently, more seriously than the tourists did with their own, even before abandonment.


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