This month I spent several days in the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Utrecht, Den Haag, Leiden. I visited museums to contemplate the work of Rembrandt and Vermeer (and Peter Vos), and I tasted pickled herring and salty black licorice. But, as always when I find myself in a new place, my best attempt at tourism swiftly degenerated into aimless wandering. After two or three obligatory queues, I was prepared to toss out itineraries and checklists in favor of straying down the first alley that presented itself. So, for the last half of my trip, I walked.
Sometimes my walking had a plan. I traced the border of the old walls of Utrecht and Leiden, which can still be discerned in the suggestive pattern of their canals. In Amsterdam, I spiraled inward in a lengthy, self-imposed labyrinth that began at the Vondelpark and ended just south of De Wallen, where I was stricken with one of my sneak-attack migraines, and collapsed for two hours outside a cafe while, on my right, the oldest-looking woman I have ever seen chain smoked three straight packs and, on my left, two children who looked barely old enough for college french kissed with admirable industry and stamina. The migraine was annoying, but beneath the blinding pain I detected a satisfaction in myself with where my wandering had brought me: surely, I thought, I am the only person who has spiraled through Amsterdam only to endure a migraine outside this cafe?
That is the source of my mania for wandering: a silly desire to make sure I have a unique experience. I might humble-brag, as I did above, that I’m “just bad at tourism,” but what could be more touristic, in the worst, most pathetic sense, than to yearn for the authenticity of the unique experience? I suppose the most egregious tourists combine this yearning with a contradictory desire to put themselves in touch with the universal essence of a place: they want a singular experience of a universal, like accidental Platonists on a pilgrimage to encounter the eternal Idea of Amsterdam itself. As a result of this impossible, paradoxical desire, tourists call forth the kitsch of a place like rotten bananas and warm weather call forth fruit flies. The inner incoherence of tourism is its characteristic passion for a personal experience of the universal.
I guess I fancy myself “bad at tourism” because I don’t really look for the universal. I think I’ve avoided the contradiction of tourism by settling always and only for the personal, for the Amsterdam disclosed by aimless wandering, whatever that might happen to be. I shouldn’t kid myself: the traveler whose satisfactions are entirely subjective in this way is really a narcissist, whose every journey outward is only a burying of themselves deeper in their own solipsism. There’s a kind of travel writing expressive of this kind of solipsism that nauseates me (Paul Theroux and Geoff Dyer at their worst are both examples of it, to say nothing of the cringeworthy genre of find-yourself travel literature led by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love), and I think the self-focused traveler is even more distasteful to me than the tourist. They might not be chasing an impossibility, but they are instrumentalizing the world, exhibiting a kind of ontological sociopathy.
So what do I think the traveler ought to be like?
I have no idea.