The other day I read a story about naked Italian men.
Read that sentence again; I’ve never written it before, and probably never will again, so really take it in.
Okay, now let me explain.
The article from The Guardian was about tourists from Italy who go to Spain or other European hotspots and do ostentatious, obnoxious things—mostly walk around naked in public places, which, if you can believe it, annoys some people who actually live there.
It reads: “Tourists used to be onlookers. Once upon a time we travelled with guidebook in hand, eyes wide open to the wonders of art and architecture, of new places and other people. Or that was the ideal. Now… the nature of travel has been reversed: the tourist is the sight, the wonder, the monster to behold.”
While extreme in its example, the story echoed long for me. I am not uptight about seeing naked foreigners flaunting themselves on the streets of the metropolis, but… wait, I misspoke, I am somewhat uptight about that.
And all of this seems prophetic, if not a sign of our modern times.
Where I live in Chicago, I see tourists all the time. You can tell them by their Nikon Coopix L830s and the way they stop to look at maps, unfolding the whole square mile of them when all they want to find is Navy Pier. “Which way is the lake?” they ask, kindly. You can tell them by the way they stand agog beside the Wrigley Building or in the slashing shadow of the gaudy Trump Tower and point up, or the way they take pictures from the bridges or the CTA, or of pigeons. You can tell them by the way they don’t intuit the change of lights in the crosswalk, standing idly, waiting for cues from the locals. You can tell them by their luggage. You can tell them by the way they buy postcards of the skyline and keychains with tiny Sears Towers dangling. You can tell them by their fanny packs. I have a special place in my heart for these people; I like to take their photos for them, beaming.
But not all tourists are so pleasant, so cautiously oblivious.
Some of them—a minority, to be sure, but a loud one—completely abandon the simple rules of social etiquette, positively yelling on the train, totally desecrating anything resembling a refrigerator-friendly photograph with The Bean. Sometimes you will see the rowdy out-of-towners causing a scene in Millennium Park, abusing the luxury of the Magnificent Mile. Rarely, they are loudly and proudly offensive about the city they’re in—hateful, ignorant, carnal.
I recall also in Cairo—a typically conservative Arab city—seeing European tourists at the pyramids wearing, as far as I could tell, little more than underwear. In Istanbul some tourists utterly forgot, utterly ignored whatever sanctity was due the holy places-turned-museums.
You travelers out there will know the sort of tourists I mean. You have heard of poverty tourism, or violence vacationers. You will have seen these people.
You know, the sort like Americans taking photos trying to rile up those beaver-hatted London guards, or making a human pyramid in Arlington, or arguing with ticket-takers in Damascus about taking your shoes off in the mosque.
The Guardian’s piece attributes this sort of behavior to a selfie-obsessed culture. I agree, but I think it’s also a need to be seen, the way college-aged boys act stupidly to impress their would-be girlfriends. Perhaps—dare I defend the overreaching critique of my generation—it’s an entitlement to be anything, do anything, to betray respectability as a way of demonstrating just how free you are.
It is mostly young people who make themselves the egregious subjects of perverted tourism rather than civilized onlookers. Much of the time this is not a problem. And even when it is, it can often be blamed on cultural ignorance. But with growing frequency, the nauseating and, often, gross social gracelessness is a deliberate act of rebellion and selfishness.
When you go on a hiking trip in a national forest, the rule is “Leave no trace.” You are visitor—a welcome visitor, but a visitor nonetheless. The point of your wayfaring is the voyage, the experience, the sights along the way. The point is not to possess, and certainly not to disturb, the locals or the scenery.
Why should vacationing in Barcelona or Chicago be any different?
Eat the food, drink the wine—for goodness sake, drink the wine!—take the photos. If you want to be part of a scene, run with the bulls.
I have been—and probably will be in the future—a stupid tourist. That is an excuse for a lot of things, and many locals find that quality almost likeable. But in an age of one-upsmanship and unashamed do-as-I-please-ishness, we could deal with a little more urban “Leave no trace.”
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.