Travelers, Sour & Sentimental

by David Yearsley, August 8, 2007

"I hate traveling and explorers."
—Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

* * *

We curse the journey in order to praise the destination more fully.

Already in 1778 Boswell related that Dr. Johnson detected a "strange turn in travelers to be displeased." It is the juxtaposition between traveling and being there that governs the basic discourse of travel.

Any account of a trip will begin with a lament about the conditions of transport from Point A to Point B. United has gone to the dogs. Thunderstorms in Cleveland and they made me wait in line for three hours to change my itinerary. Continental is appalling.Northwest specializes in aerial sadism. The flight attendants should be the ones doing the torture in Guantanamo Bay. The in-flight lunch pack cost seven bucks and was so disgusting it prompted my first-ever use of the air sick bag much to the fascination of the obese man next to me who took up all three seats in spite of the fact there were passengers on either side for him.

We've all had to endure these most boring of narratives from visitors, and have in turn inflicted them on those we visit.

The main culprit for the apparent decline in the quality of travel is usually said to be September 11th, 2001. One can either decry the completely illogical and hardly nerve-calming security procedures conducted at airports by TSA or blame the terrorists directly for turning our skies unfriendly.

Nonetheless, the necessary raptures about the vacation itself follow these complaints and go to show that the suffering endured was well worth it.

One must jump through the flaming hoops in order to enjoy the restorative powers of the sands of Waikiki, the splendor of Versailles, the natural splendor of the Galagapos Islands.

Of course our fellow tourists usually come in for a lot of not-so-friendly fire. Overrun with packs of Japanese. All those Fat Germans in speedos. Americans everywhere. Enough said.

Still the journey is worth it, else why would tourism remain the world's biggest industry, even while it seems the one most likely to destroy us all?

It is also an illusion to think that a need to complain about travel is unique to our age of mass tourism or to the aftermath of September 11th.

For the roots of our contemporary attitudes toward travel we must go back to the 18th century, to the golden age of the Grand Tour, when extended journeys on the European continent were made not only by the royals and aristocrats, whose families had long been embarking on long trips abroad, but by middle-class travelers as well.

The period also spawned a huge travel literature, much of it in unpublished journals (like those of Thomas Boswell and Edward Gibbon); but large numbers of publications also appeared both in the form of personal accounts, such as Joseph Addison's Remarks on Several Parts of Italy from the very first years of the century, and as general travel guides, like Thomas Nugent's four-volume The Grand Tour, which appeared first in 1749. Like so many of these books, these were reprinted continuously in the course of the 18th century to feed the appetites both of those intent on making the journey themselves or for the stay-at-homes eager to experience it vicariously.

As I attempt to give up travel altogether I have been seeking solace in 18th-century travel writing. While I have journeyed only inches through the miles of pages that stretch before me, I am sure that there can be no more acid narrator of the displeasures of traveling than the Scottish physician turned man of letters, Tobias Smollett. His Travels through France and Italy appeared in 1766 and remains an immensely readable and fascinating look at the curse and potential consolation of traveling. The book chronicles the author's two years on the continent, which began in June of 1763, just months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. This agreement brought the Seven Years' War to a close and ushered in one of the great intervals of international travel.

Smollett was one of the very first down the jet-way.

Like so many travelers of his era, Smollett was driven abroad in search of Mediterranean air for his tubercular lungs and in the hopes of overcoming at least part of the grief at the loss of his only daughter.

Because of these circumstances we can perhaps forgive Smollett his relentless petulance. But then again it is his spleen that makes the book so entertaining.

Though distrustful and resentful of foreigners, Smollett's grievances begin already on the road from London to Dover: "I need not tell you this is the worst road in England, with respect to the conveniences of traveling. The chambers are in general cold and comfortless, the beds paltry, the cookery execrable, the wine poison, the attendance [i.e., service] bad, the publicans insolent, and the bills extortionate; there is not a drop of tolerable malt liquor to be had from London to Dover."

The drama of Smollett's protracted outburst in a town in Provence where he believes himself cheated over dinner by a landlord and then is refused a departing coach by positilions in cahoots with landlord puts to shame the best ticket-counter freak-out of the modern age.

Smollett eventually ferrets out the consul but this venal official provides no help to the foreigner who, with the entire town now watching, is finally forced to acquiesce to what he sees as extortion. Fully mortified and exhausted by the entire scene, he slumps into the coach and makes his ignominious exit.

Such encounters only abet Smollett's general disgust for the French. His must be the most resilient strain of that peculiar British Francophobia which thrives to this day: "If a Frenchman is capable of real friendship, it must certainly be the most disagreeable present he can possibly make to a man of true English character." It goes without saying that he hates French food and the ubiquitous "garlick" which contaminates all the horrid ragouts inflicted upon him.

Smollett loathes the French love of food: "If there were five hundred dishes at table, a Frenchman will eat of all of them, and then complain he has no appetite."

French foppery is even worse: "The French have a most ridiculous fondness for their hair. A Frenchman will sooner part with his religion than with his hair."

Appearance and appetite reveal dark motivations: "If a Frenchman is admitted into your family, and distinguished by repeated marks of your friendship and regard, the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece. If he suffers a repulse from your wife, or attempts in vain to debauch your sister, or your daughter, or your niece, he will make addresses to your grandmother."

There are select moments in the Travels full of wonder at the beauty of the places Smollett visits and there are prescient passages on the squalor and instability of life under the ancien regime and the stupidity of duelling, among many others.

Hugely popular and influential in its day, this book provides the rhetorical compass by which so many disagreeable travelers have since navigated and complained their way through foreign terroritory.

Soon after the appearance of the Travels, Smollett was sent-up as the "learned Smelfungus" by his acquaintance Laurence Sterne in his novel, A Sentimental Journey which appeared in 1768, two years after Smollett's book. Here Smollett/Smelfungus is nothing more than a bumbling boor whose description of the Pantheon in Rome seems infinitely more absurd under Sterne's brilliant wit than it does in Smollett's own account: "'Tis nothing but a huge cock pit," bellows Smelfungus.

Instead, Sterne's novel, which of course makes fun both of the effusions of gung-ho travelers and the grumblings of Smollett and his ilk, exudes enthusiasm: "I declare, said I, slapping my hands cheerily together, that was I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections."

In the present age we rarely truly travel, that is, go from place to place incrementally, taking in along the journey the change of custom and topography. Instead we are transported at high speeds in increasingly uncomfortable circumstances, traversing dozens of time zones in a single endless day or endless night.

In these late days of the travel craze we are both Smollett and Sterne: raging against the horrors of the journey, and then effusing about the fictional joys of being there.

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