Not long ago I read an article about a man who spent several months getting away from it all by living in a remote fishing village in Southeast Asia. He said that he didn’t want to be just another tourist day tripping through the land not really absorbing the true meaning of local life. It was about the same time I had finished reading a few English murder mysteries in which life in the charming village was sprinkled with tour groups parading through, gawking without the least bit of understanding of what they were gawking at.
The locals, it seems, tolerate the tourists for their money, but generally consider them to be two dimensional, none to bright, and having no lasting reality. They are just plastic figurines passing through, led by a loudmouth ignoramus holding an umbrella. On the other hand, tourists are presumed to see locals as yokels who strut their stuff on the stage until closing time when they are trundled off to someplace out of sight, while the tourists return to the real world.
We have been tourists in many places, sometime staying a few days, but more often only a few hours. Sometimes those places have been in remote foreign countries, and sometimes in towns a few miles away. They have even been in local neighborhoods not our own. Just the same, we have discovered that a few days, or a few hours, of close observation can open whole new worlds of experience that broaden our understanding of who we are as persons, especially in relationship to others who live in other places under other conditions so unlike the ones we live in. It does bother me a bit to be herded off to a venue clearly designed for tourists to get a taste of local culture, a taste no local would ever recognize. But that’s also a part of the experience. It tells me something about what the locals think we are like. The point is, even our momentary exchanges with the people of a different place and culture changes something of who we are, and, I suspect, does something of the same to them.
Our little city is becoming a destination for wine tourism. Many weekends, especially those featuring some wine event, bring in hordes of tourists who spend a few days, a lot of money, and go home. They walk down main street with the usual semi-lost look of tourists everywhere, and it can easily be said that they are not really part of our community. They didn’t homestead here. They don’t care who the mayor is. The big debate over a new high school is of no interest to them. When they leave, they will cease to exist, from our point of view. Except that they are a part of our community. They are a part of our livelihood. They influence the crops that are grown, who the mayor will be, and whether we vote for a new school. They don’t cease to exist when they leave. They take something of us with them, and they leave something of themselves behind.
What all of this adds up to is the recognition that the person serving me pizza in Pisa, and the tourist I greet on our own main street, are a more intimate part of my life, and I of theirs, than I can fully appreciate. One way or the other, it’s true for all of us. But appreciating it at least a little can change the way we look at others, perhaps enabling us to sing along with Friedrich Schiller:
Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter your sanctuary, burning with fervour,
o heavenly being!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.