“That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.” – Naked (1993)
I feel like I sort of fucked up a little. I was off by a day or two. I mis-calibrated. Here’s the thing: You know that expression “first world problems?” That irritating little consciousness-raiser of a trope that employs Egyptian prisons, Bolivian cocaine peasants and fly-covered Ugandan babies as parts of its grandly dismissive effort to convince you that your hangnail doesn’t hurt? Well, it has its uses. I hate to admit it, but it does. Check me out: I went on a giant European vacation and I got sick of it. I travelled to the ornate and ancient capitals of my own ancestral Continent,
wandered in a state of utter leisure among the monuments and archives of epoch-defining civilizations, and decided to go back to the hotel for a nap. I rested on pillows not two miles from Ireland’s National Museum and watched reruns of Geordie Shore.
It’s a little embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing, actually, that I can’t even just let it lie there like that – I feel compelled to add that I am not (read: am often) that type of person, that I toured the Palais des Nations, that I viewed the Trinity College Library, that I ate raclette and took the tram and unfolded the map and stood on the goddamned corner and pointed… but I just couldn’t quite make it to the finish line. It was too much. Too much leisure, too much walking and looking, too much rich food and dark beer and too many desirable things in general.
It’s a dark truth about us humans, but we’re built to suffer. We flourish in situations of violence and labor, and grow fat, scabby, and diffident in times of protracted wealth. As nations grow more peaceful, more sophisticated, more humanistically-inclined, their birth rates plummet and their suicide rates skyrocket. So there I was, you know, Exhibit A, standing in the cake shop on Dame Street, bitching about my stupid feet and deciding not to go to Dublin castle.
I know this entry isn’t really about Pristina, or about Balkan life, but it’s not entirely unrelated. When we moved to this part of the world, one of the main things on the non-“still a lot of land mines around” side of the scale was its relative proximity to the capitals of Western Europe; we came here, in part, so that we could do a lot traveling – and we are doing a lot of traveling. And in the course of doing so, I am learning about what traveling, as a human activity, actually is.
The pleasures of traveling are pleasurable only insofar as they differ from the trials of everyday life. As a Westerner in Pristina, my particular trials include things like “ramstek,” comically inadequate produce, and the aforementioned land mines (Germia Park holla!). Yours are likely different, and probably have less to do with rotten tomatoes and bees, but the mechanism remains the same: Travel, and the activities of travelers (sightseeing, shopping, wandering, waiting), are thrilling and energizing for as long as you are able to compare them to the more mundane activities of your day-to-day life. When you begin to forget, and these activities start to become a day-to-day life of their own, the sights blend together, the streets grow long and tedious, and the shops seem crazed and frivolous.
It was a great trip, not least because I learned this thing, but also for the things that I saw before succumbing to angst and decadence. As for the actual places, well, I have said already that the proudly pragmatic tradition of travel writing is not a strength of mine… but I can claim to have received certain impressions. There was Geneva, closed and beautiful, a Rapunzel city; locks and windows and intrigues. Then came Basel, the kindly old Doktor of the Rhine, dreaming among the instruments of his study… and finally there was Dublin.
Dublin is difficult. Though initially welcomed, after one too many Continental eccentricities, as a mere repository of upper-middlish Anglosphere delights (farm to table!), after a few days I came to recognize a strange little quiver that told me something else was up.
I never got it before. Not in any pastichey “Irish pub,” not in Boston or Montreal, not studying Joyce or Yeats in university. I never really, viscerally, got it – but now I begin to see. Ireland is a very particular realm of the collective human mind. Haunted; feverish; martyred; ill-adapted. Ireland left me not with a pastoral, homey feeling, but with one of wounded ferocity; of self-consumption. Strange people, the Celts. Voices in that air.
If this is all sounding a little occult, here is a picture of the time we went to Starbucks:
It is kind of an insane project, this “doing” of ancient cities in three to seven days, this dutiful trudging, this stubborn demand to be awed. Though I navigated the old towns, though I queued for the monuments, and though I photographed the symbolic-at-the time curiosities,
I can’t say that the impressions of “placehood” noted above were definitively linked to any of these landmark experiences. Similarly, though I ate at the airport restaurants, though I waited under familiar billboards, though I took guilty comfort in the bland trans-national competence of Starbucks, I can’t say for sure that any sense of distinctiveness or essence was altogether absent, even in these places.
What I can say is that I got tired. I got worn out. I walked and looked and ate and drank and consumed things both material and discarnate, and I flew back to Pristina in ruins. I suspect that tourism is actually sort of bad for a person, that we are not meant to simply wander around just looking at the world, but are instead meant to live in it. To struggle, to want, and to make our way. I suspect that travel is actually a mild vice.
Fine. Good. I can do vice.
Paris is booked for November.