The Old Travelers meet the “Innocents”


I am currently wandering around Europe in the highly entertaining company of Samuel Clemens, reading his account of the long and complicated trip he took in 1867 and wrote up in “The Innocents Abroad.”

The first page of the detailed itinerary advertising the trip. As we all know, it’s simple to plan trips that sound smooth and entertaining. Taking the trip reveals a different story.

It’s nice to get away from Venice for a while, speaking of tourism. And I’d accompany the famous Mark Twain wherever he wanted to go, even if it were downtown Bugtussle, Oklahoma.  Still, his five-months-long voyage of discovery is, in many respects, better experienced from afar. This way you don’t have to put up with the insufferable man he nicknamed The Oracle, for one thing, and also you don’t have to spend any money.

The ideal travel companion, in my view, needs not only a galvanized stomach, an indestructible curiosity and no need for sleep, but a sense of humor more finely tuned than any Stradivarius. To laugh at others and at oneself is harder than it looks, but Twain has got the touch.

More than all that, he, unlike many returning travelers we have all known and tolerated (or not), is usually interesting and occasionally informative and always, ALWAYS amusing, especially when he says something that totally nails the truth.

A fairly well-known example, still worth repeating, is from his first night in Paris:

After dinner we felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion, and so we sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops.  Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.

But that isn’t the best.  The best is his portrait of the Old Travelers.

To get to the Gandakush Pass, first you have to go to a town called Dugoba, in Kyrgyzstan. A photographer known as igor_alay_2 has been there before you, as you see.

Old Travelers are hard to find because by now everybody’s on the road.  Nobody can travel like he did anymore, as we all know, because if we haven’t already been there, we’ve read or heard about it by one of a million means.  There will always be somebody who has preceded us to the remotest peak of the Gandakush Pass or some fleck of a barely-populated mini-Micronesian atoll.  No surprises left.

If you want to stroll around Poluwat Atoll, exploring its 3.4 square kilometers (1.3 square miles), I’d be willing to bet money you’ll find somebody already there, buying postcards.

But in his day foreign travel was still relatively difficult and expensive, so the Old Traveler was still at large, prepared to ruin the enthusiasm of any honest beginner.

And here is what he has to say about the ones he found in Paris:

The Old Travelers — those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know …

But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel and lie.  We can tell them the moment we see them.  They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled.  Then they open their throttle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know anything.  They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast!  But still I love the Old Travelers.  I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural ability to bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriant fertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!

If you are ever tempted to behave in this manner toward a fellow traveler (so to speak), be aware that the ghost of the sage of Hannibal, Mo. will be fleering at you from somewhere on high. It would be safer, and certainly more polite, merely to reply to whatever the less-traveled person may have said with the impregnable response with which H.L. Mencken is said to have answered every letter responding to his editorials in the Baltimore Sun: “You may be right.”

This vision from another world, another epoch, appeared at the regata of Pellestrina a few years ago. Countless hundreds were broiling in their own greasy sweat under the pitiless afternoon sun and suddenly there she was: Cool, pressed, perfect, sheltered by her own little shade. She’s even carrying a wrap! Where did she come from? Why is she alone? What is she doing here? There is NOTHING in Pellestrina to attract anyone except three hours of races once a year. She may or may not be an Old Traveler, but I’d give her about forty fathoms of slack: Whatever she might have felt like saying, it deserves admiration more than scorn.


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