Sunday, January 20, 2008

In Which I Give Myself a Survey

One of my worst indulgences now that I do not get out much anymore (I have not been on an airplane since 2001; I leave it to the public to ask themselves what sort of person in this day and age goes seven years without travelling on an airplane) is to search the internet for vacation accounts by people approximately as earnest and desiring of improvement and knowledge I am, though perhaps a touch more attractive and socially and professionally successful, who go to the same sorts of places I would go to and do the same sorts of things. This guy, for example: now he is pretty conventionally good-looking, goes to Harvard grad school, has a more ambitious plan laid out for the next six months than I have for the rest of my life, runs businesses and operates comfortably and capably in the dynamic environment of global commerce, has by any sensible measure an attractive and equally successful-looking blonde girlfriend; yet for all this impressive and visible greatness, his sojourn in Europe seems to have been as vanilla as any I might have taken. With his lovely, no doubt well-organized, and indeed for all we know perhaps perfect, girlfriend in tow at all times, he visited the most commonly touted cities and countries, saw the most famous sites, stayed in the most perfectly safe and bland hotels, ate in restaurants recommended by Rick Steves (indeed sat at the same table with Rick Steves in one of them), appreciated when appropriate the high-quality indigenous dishes and alcoholic beverages, these latter no doubt in proper moderation. There seem to been not even a brush with any arrests, nor brawls, prostitutes, opium dens, intense intellectual or sexual affairs of some duration that drove him off his original plan, nor wild nights of drunken sex with strangers in alleyways or on crowded bohemian apartment floors and the like; all in all the sort of trip that makes most men a little wistful at having behaved so inoffensively on it when they get to be about 35...but now I am projecting psychological effects where there is no reason to expect them. This guy really is of a completely foreign race of men to the likes of me. He appears to have a developed will, for one thing.

Anyway, he did a survey of superlatives at the end of his trip, and since I felt there was something strange and unsatisfying about the categories as well as most of his answers I thought perhaps I ought to try taking it myself, with much unnecessary commentary added. Also I am going to include everywhere I have been when considering my answers, which will add the Northeastern U.S. and Quebec. Here it goes:

Best Cathedral in the World: First I extended this category to include all churches of a very large size, such as basilicas, abbeys, etc, even if they are not technically cathedrals, which some people, assuming a man like me must have no conception of the subtle differentiations delineated by these terms, will not be able to resist pointing out if I do not print this caveat. Second, I am going to award separate my honors by exterior and interior. Best outside: the Duomo in Florence. The actual design and details of the architecture are perhaps not as great as other churches, but the whole experience of coming upon this building in person after winding through a series of narrow streets is a thrilling and transformative moment in one's life in a way that I still cannot exactly account for. At the same time I know someone who for no reason obvious to herself wept at seeing the Prime Meridian marked along the ground at Greenwich, so one must accept that there are unforeseen stimuli even in lives apparently devoid of serious mental activity which force a throb of humanistic emotion to wash over one. Best Inside: St. Peter's (the Vatican); Basilica of Notre Dame in Montreal. I found St Peter's, which my wife and many of my other fervently anti-Papist connections found gaudy and even a little creepy, to be both highly exciting and moving; I am also a complete sucker for overwhelming displays of marble in all its colors and artistic manifestions, of which a greater one than this is hardly to be found. I love the blue ceiling and dark wood paneling of the Montreal church, though I admit there is probably a good deal of North American bias at work in this: whenever I happen to go there I have usually not seen any comparable cathedral in some time and therefore the impression when coming into the church out of modern life is doubtless stronger. That makes it no less effective, however. I have not been to Chartres, which the most thoroughly no-nonsense intellectuals (especially, perhaps, those reared in an Espicopalian, German protestant, or Jewish environment) have nearly unanimously declared the best of all cathedrals, though I have some great photographs of it taken in the 50s that I often look at seeking some sort of humanistic inspiration. Our guy Rick Harvard went with St Paul's in London, which I like too of course, being a craven idolator of everything this building represents, but it isn't even my favorite church in London (I like the Abbey) and it doesn't have the quite the effect of fully distracting one's attention from one's own worldly matters as the other places I have named.

Hottest People: I take this to mean "Best-Looking Girls": 1. Norway 2. Wroclaw, Poland. Choosing a Scandanavian country is not particularly original but I also don't think it is possible to fully comprehend if you have not been there both how good-looking the women actually are and how extensively into the population the pool goes. It is not uncommon to see a girl who looks like a swimsuit model, or at least a candidate for Playboy's Girls of the Big Ten issue (was always my favorite college conference issue; sorry SEC and Pac-10 fans) working at a hot dog stand or a gas station. Also, compared to the beautiful women from the ex-Soviet Union that everyone is so mesmerized with these days, my impression of the Scandanavian women is that in addition to being generally intelligent they are relatively sane and materially pretty low maintenance. They support socialism, for goodness's sake and seem to enjoy things like hiking and going to rustic lakeside cottages and they tend to eschew extravagance in their travel and nightlife, perhaps having realized that being gorgeous and intelligent is more than the equal of any extravagance to be acquired by gross expenditure of riches. What is not to like? As to 2) I have written previously about my love for Polish college girls.

Prettiest Place: Bad Ischl & surrounding area (Salzkammergut), Austria. Alps. Rural getaway of Kaiser Franz Josef and other members of the Hapsburg family for hunting and hiking. Many people, particularly those with a lot of vitality, do not like this region because of the coldness of the people, the antiseptic efficiency (this place is not Brazil in terms of a raucous street life, if that's what you're into) and the genral sense of deadness (some say darkness) that does pervade the atmosphere. I am kind of a cold, antiseptic, half-dead Northern type myself however, so I felt very calm and comfortable in this environment.

Prettiest City: Paris. Rick Harvard went with Prague. I was in Prague for a year and while the old part of it is also very pretty in a more melancholy sort of way, as well as much more affordable, it does not quite soar to the heights of its Gallic rival. Like all cities I suppose, most of Prague, including the neighborhood where I lived, is actually rather grimy and polluted, full of badly built concrete Communist housing projects, corrugated-metal fences, scrap-iron yards, etc. I did love it though, and even now occasionally have a dream that I am riding the bus out in the no-man's land of the housing projects and feeling overjoyed that I had never left after all.

Best Palace: I'm not a big palace guy (mainly because the tickets to get into them are $20-30 a pop; I am very cheap). Rick says Versailles. I was at Versailles once, though unfortunately it was when I was 20 and I do not remember much of anything about it, being perhaps especially occupied on that day with thinking about drinking and why none of the international crowd of babes were coming my way. I did enjoy Hampton Court, especially the 17th and 18th century wings where Charles II and William IV resided, which one has pretty much to oneself, the crowds mainly sticking to the Henry VIII-themed areas. They had a nice tea room there in one of the old brickworked cellars too. The Breakers and the other gilded age cottages in Newport, R.I. are essentially palaces, and have about as much obscene wealth on display.

Best Castle: Nothing stands out except Karlstejn outside of Prague, and that more for the setting and approach to get to it than the actual castle, which was rebuilt in the late 1800s and is nearly empty inside. I guess I haven't been to many castles.

Castle Runner Up: Salzburg Castle was very atmospheric because I happened to be there on a dark and snowy day, but looking at photographs of it in the summer it doesn't look that extraordinary. Prague Castle is good for a city castle and looks great from far away but it is always so crowded that it is kind of hard to work up that romantic feeling. I am guessing it must be closed at night because I never heard of anyone going up there at that time, which would have been very pleasant.

Cutest Place: The reproduction of the Globe Theatre, London. It's adorable.

Wildest Place: I wish I knew. Rick Harvard chose Oktoberfest in Munich, which I have not had the pleasure of attending. Initially this gave me some hope, since you can still go to Oktoberfest even if you are nearly 40 and fat, and the primary activity at this event involves sitting under a tent at a long table and drinking enormous glasses of beer, which is something actually within the range of my abilities, for a while anyway. Then I thought that it probably isn't really very wild, then I thought it was but in a very corporate/expense account vacation kind of way that I wouldn't be a part of. My impression is that the party islands of Spain and Greece--Mallorca, Ibiza, Ios, Corfu, etc, are the truly wild places for skinny middle class white kids on budgets of my youthful dreams (The problem with Cancun and other spring break/party destinations Americans go to are that there are too many superrich and/or guys with perfect bodies who monopolize all the girls who go to such places, and the girls who don't like these guys, the type who in Europe go to Ibiza and have sex with impecunious skinny guys, seem to prefer to just stay home in the States and hang out with their tight-knit, closed circle of hand-picked cool male friends).

Best Architecture: Paris. Venice. Rome. There are many learned volumes which support me in these opinions.

Friendliest People: Italy. They made me feel how lacking in natural warmth I was myself.

Snobbiest People: Americans are probably snobbier at the individual level, about education, professional credentials and so forth, than just about anybody in the world right now, with the exception of people from India. Germans appear snobby but I think many of them are just unbelievably arrogant and prideful, particularly about their cosmopolitanism and language knowledge. I knew several Germans in Prague, one guy in particular, who were continually boasting about their accomplishments, their knowledge, correcting my ideas about all areas of human life, etc, but then they would invite me and my then future wife to go to their house or do things with them on the weekend, which an American snob would sooner slit his throat than do. I was very confused by this though at the time, since it had never occurred to me, as apparently it had to the Germans, that we were somehow friends.

Felt Most At Home: Prague. Ireland. England of course. Maybe more in some ways than I do when I am home.

Best Food: I am not a gourmet. That said, France probably does have the best food meal for meal, but I even like British food and Czech food, which are supposed to be abominable.

Most Expensive Place: New York City, because there is almost nowhere to go, and nowhere at all to stay, that is not painfully expensive. I admit that the cheap hotels and restaurants in London are pretty grotty, but at least if you want to just be in the city for a few days, especially if you are young, you have that option more readily than you do in NY.

Cheapest Place: In the area of Bohemia formerly known as the Sudetenland it was possible to have a full dinner and drink until one had to be carried home for less than $5. I stayed in a $3 a night hotel room in the mountains near the Polish border. It was neither luxurious nor warm but one did feel like a man when he awoke the next morning with a blizzard raging outside his window.

Coldest Place: Quebec. Province and city.

Most Scenic: I don't know. Vermont is very scenic. As is Maine. As is Quebec. As is Italy. As is France. As are the Alps. As is Bohemia. I enjoy most places. I like Florida.

Best Museum: I am easily satisfied with museums too. There was a museum across the street from where I grew up, in Burholme Park in Philadelphia, some Victorian lady's collection of artifacts, mainly Indian, Chinese and Japanese, probably completely mislabeled, that I thought was great. The museums in London are all good, especially since as they are free, and everything outside them costs a fortune, you have a lot of incentive to take your time and look closely at what they've got. The day I went to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square I had no money whatsoever and was hanging on till 3pm for my U.S. bank to open when I anticipated a check would clear (this was pre-internet banking and I didn't do credit cards at that point either). I tell you I remember more paintings I saw in that museum than just about anything I've done in all my life.

Best Art: See above. But overall the city of Florence collectively had the best art. One felt marinated in the highest reaches of Western Civilization just being in town. However, having read Ruskin's Stones of Venice, I sense that I missed much of great glory in that city, the history and significance of which I must confess to being almost wholly ignorant of when I went there.

Most Traditional Place: Rick Harvard says Czech Republic, and I suppose that is true, though it is probably even more true of the other Eastern European countries (I think they keep it pretty real in Moldova). Though the right-wing press depicts a nation in total collapse, there still appeared to me to be a certain amount of tradition in England. Much of Pennsylvania evokes the way America was in the 1940s and 1950s. St John's College in Maryland is perhaps the most purely traditional place in the whole world; on the rare occasions that anything novel occurs there it immediately is made into a tradition and re-enacted dutifully every year therein.

Best Accents: Ireland. Educated English. Educated Russian. Of the U.S. Southern accent I think Tennessee is where it achieves its most attractive form. When I was in Cork, Ireland I went to a fish and chip shop and there was this girl--black hair, bangs, bright blue eyes, bored-looking, leaning on the counter watching the Jerry Springer show--today she'd probably be on her cell phone--she said to me, "Would you like peas with that?" It was almost worth having been born just to hear that sentence (Yes, I had the peas, though they were cold).

Best Bridge: New York City has the best bridges in the world; the Brooklyn, the Verrazano-Narrows, the Triboro, the Throgs Neck, the Whitestone, the GW--I've crossed them all, and they're all awesome.

Best Clock: The clock of St Mark's lion on the Piazza San Marco in Venice with the bronze moors who pound out the hours on the bell is one hell of a clock. The gros horloge in Rouen is a great clock as well.

I would wrap this up better, but I have to go to bed.

No comments: