Sunday, September 03, 2006


As with the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, many motives sustain the appeal of travel nowadays. Some must travel for business. This has always been something of a burden. I remember once attending a conference in Amsterdam that was so demanding that I couldn’t even squeeze in a visit to the Rijksmuseum! The increasing aggravations of air travel (some of them quite unnecessary in my view) have hit business travelers hard.

Many travel for pure recreation. They like to get some sun in the winter, or just unwind from the stress of a demanding job.

Neither has been my way. I travel, I must avow, as a culture vulture, pur sang. In part I am seeking the stimulus of another way of life, to savor it for its own sake and to compare it with my own. There are languages to be practiced. Then as an art historian I look for art and architecture. In practice this often means ruins. Thus Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru are high on my list in the Americas. By contrast Argentina and Chile do not rate. I respond to almost any form of cuisine, but that is never my primary reason. Thank goodness, or my girth would be even greater than it is.

The group of culture seekers divides into two groups. The first prizes immersion. They like to linger in some particular spot-—say, a French mountain village, the West of Ireland, or the back country of Japan’s main island. There they savor the special qualities of their choice to the full.

I am not one of those. Since resources are finite and one can only travel for a few weeks out of the year I like to see as many things as I can. Of course as I am getting older I have had to slow down a bit. A case in point is my trip to Germany in July. The “hook” for this trip was a big show in Essen of Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite artists. The exhibition fully lived up to expectations. In Essen I was also able to sample something of the industrial archaeology (beautifully restored) of this German Pittsburgh. Then I went on to Cologne, a delightful city in every way, chock full of eloquent ancient monuments. (I must admit that I skipped out on an opportunity to go back to the Roman-German Museum). Then it was on to Aachen, city of Charlemagne, whose palace church figures in my first published art-historical article. I ended up in Düsseldorf, a modern, go-getter city I don’t care for—but at least I now have some idea of what the place is like.

In my experience one must keep up a good pace because one may not go that way again. This restriction is not necessarily of one’s own volition. I have visited six Islamic countries—Morocco (twice), Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Turkey (twice), and Indonesia. I enjoyed them all, but now doesn’t seem the time to initiate a travel program in that realm.

One lesson I learned way back is that one must be a trooper-—keep going! Mid-July was one of the worst hot spells ever in Germany, and they don’t believe in air conditioning. But I fulfilled the plan, and am glad I did. Still, I don’t know if I am trooper enough to handle the increasing rigors of air travel. In my view, this latest crisis about the fluids is overhyped, but it seems that people are sheep who will put up with almost anything if it is couched in terms of “security.”

There is an alternative to difficult trips. Paradoxically, one can do it in the comfort of one’s own home. So I returned to do some interior travel, staying within the bounds of my apartment. The other day I “revisited” Rio in the form of some spiffy new guidebooks on the architectural riches of the city. In sheer physical terms Rio de Janeiro is the most beautiful city I have ever seen. I won’t be going back—except that I did, the other day.

There is another, more ethereal form of “traveling,” and that is purely in the realm of the mind. I have been grappling with Mallarmé and the Symbolists for my fall course at Hunter College. September 6 is the moment of truth, when these old bones face the eager faces of the students once again.


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