Travel Kitsch

For travel (and I suspect for many other things), it’s important to have some memento of what you’ve done. This is biological: I think it’s impossible to store all memories in an easy-to-retrieve way, but I think most people can remember some bit of everything. However, it’s difficult to retrieve things in a sequential fashion (ie, Two years ago, first I did this and this happened, and then I did this where I saw that). Furthermore, some memories are ‘lost,’ in the sense that the memory is there but there’s no way to retrieve it. At least, that’s the way it works for me.

So, looking at pictures from travel, I remember things that I’d be unable to retrieve on their own.

The desire to remember is really strong; who wants to ‘lose’ experiences? I think people’s memories also turn sunny in the long-term, so it’s nice to always be prompted “hey this was a pretty good time,” or alternately “listen to this miserable experience I once had!” That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of souvenirs, which are useless kitsch that prompt memories. Or maybe people want a subtle way to show off how well-traveled they are.

It’s probably clear that I think souvenirs themselves are worthless.

I keep pictures. And I keep ticket stubs and brochures, which don’t take up much space and provide a detailed record of travel. But these usually just sit on the computer hard drive, or gather dust in an old box.

This seems sub-optimal. I don’t want to be weighed down, trapped, by a bunch of useless crap. But I think it’s cool that you can have something sitting in plain view, prompting you to re-live magical experiences.

I thought I’d come up with a solution: buy useful things when traveling. If a place is known for something, buy a good version of that there; if you can’t think of anything it’s known for, buy something generally useful. So, in Iceland I bought a wool sweater and wool gloves. In Köln I bought a plain T-Shirt. In Amsterdam, jeans; in München, a beer mug. The jeans were 15 euros, the t-shirt, 7 – they weren’t even a local brand. But because of where and when I bought them, they were extra-meaningful. I was satisfied with this solution: I thought it was clever.

Now so fast! It also means that I’ve infused everyday objects with meaning. It’s hard enough to get rid of crap you don’t need; it’s that much more difficult if it has sentimental value. For instance, if a relative gave you a book, it’s tough to discard it. You’re throwing out smoe piece of your relationship with that relative; if they’re deceased, it’s an irreplaceable part.

So it is with the jeans from Amsterdam. A pair of jeans is simply an object; even if it’s expensive, it can be replaced. I lost a button-down shirt on my trip, and although it was a nice shirt, I shrugged my shoulders. One dollar at a thrift store, so what? But when you associate a t-shirt with that crazy bike ride down the Rhine, through driving rain and howling wind, the object assumes new meaning.

And that’s the last thing I want, to get desperately attached to objects. If I outgrow the shirt, I’d have to throw away the physical embodiment of my memories, or hold onto a useless piece of crap. If I break the beer mug, I’ve destroyed a link to the past. I already own enough crap, without wanting an extra reason to hold onto something I own.

I don’t have a solution for this – some way to remember happy times without getting bogged down in useless crap. Maybe I can put pictures on the wall and collage ticket-entries across the refrigerator. But is that the same?


My last post mentioned I was going to be away from two weeks; I just returned. It was the longest vacation I’ve taken since college, 2 full weeks.

I enjoyed myself – I saw a lot of cool sights, did a lot of cool things and met a lot of cool people. But in the end, I think I’ve decided that it’s not my type of travel. Basically my vacation was staying in 4 major cities for, on average, 3 days each (Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Köln, and München).

Now, maybe I have peculiar interests. I’m not a huge fan of museums (I enjoy them but find that I reach a ‘tolerance limit’ after about 2-3 hours). I’m not into clubbing at all, and prefer quieter bars/pubs/beer gardens for drinking. I’m not a big restaurant spender, and I don’t enjoy travel shopping too much (more on this in a later post). What does that leave? I enjoy seeing historical/architectural landmarks, churches/cathedrals, parks, random streets, boat tours, farmland, forests, strange/different cheap restaurants, and drinking/talking – if I know somebody.

I’ve now done a one week and two week backpacking trips to Europe. And my verdict was the same each time (though more firm after the past two weeks). First off, I’m not a huge fan of large cities. 3 days is a strange time limit. It’s enough to see the bulk of notable landmarks, and a few museums and restaurants. But on the third or fourth day, I sort of wonder what else there is to do. At the same time that I’m pondering this, I feel a really intense pressure that I *MUST* do something new and exciting, as if just sitting around would be admitting my travel was a failure. I feel this sometimes in NYC as well, a strange feeling like “I’m near all these people who are doing crazy stuff, and I’m mostly sitting around. I’m being so lame!”

Now, my personality is not suited to the things that 80% of people do; many of them are probably at nightclubs and so on, which hold no appeal. But there’s still this foolish voice whispering these things to me.

I feel much better in small towns/smaller cities. Because the number of options is more limited. It’s the same as going to a huge grocery store, and there are 40 kinds of peanut butter, and you freeze. The number of choices available is just painful. You’re confronted with this horrifying possibility: what if you buy a sub-optimal peanut butter?! As a matter of course, when confronted with 40 kinds of peanut butter, I select the store brands, reducing the number of options to a manageable 3: low-fat/normal/chunky. I feel much better, it’s like frugality is a defense mechanism against the huge variety of choices. Brand loyalty is probably the same.

Cities are like peanut butter. I most enjoyed the city with the least (IMO) to do, Reykjavik. Things got quiet at night, people were mostly chilling in pubs and cafes, just as I was.

I also found excursions outside of large cities much more memorable. I mean, seeing the Kölner Dom (I believe it is the largest cathedral in Germany) was cool. But in the end it was just a huge cathedral, filled with hundreds of tourists just like me. It’s a dusty relic of memory. I experienced the building, but what kind of experience is that – if you’re not an architect? I suspect that 95% of those who visit stay for 20 minutes and then are on their way.

Compare with the top experiences from my trip (unordered):

  1. Traveling by small fishing boat to a windswept grassy island off the coast of Reykjavik, where there were some horses roaming free. Hiking 5-10 km around the island, looking at distant volcanic mountains and the Atlantic ocean in the distance.
  2. Riding the transit system to the end of the line in München, then hiking 4-5km to a monastery/brewery, drinking a liter and a half of beer, talking to the bored German working the beer garden (and some other tourists), and then hiking back.
  3. Taking the train from Amsterdam and getting a guided tour of Leiden (charming medium-sized Dutch city) … and Dutch blood banks with ERE member DutchGirl.
  4. Renting a bike in Köln and pedaling along the Rhine for 35-40km; enduring miserable rain and intense winds to get back to the rental place.
  5. Taking a day trip from Köln to the small town of Brühl, seeing a huge Baroque palace, and then especially seeing some tremendous parks/walkways around the grounds.
  6. Drinking 3 liters of beer outside a pub and then talking to a never-ending stream of thousands of drunk people (Australians, Americans, Germans, Swiss, English, Russians) as they left Oktoberfest.
  7. Meeting this old filmmaker who captured all the volcanic events in Iceland over the past 40 years, and watching a movie in a little theater he set up in his garage. Surreal scenes of people moving & evacuating mattresses as cinder rains from the sky, as their houses are swallowed up in what looks like black snow.

Only one of these was a ‘big city’ thing (Oktoberfest). Everything else was in smaller towns, or smaller cities (under 150k people). Much of it was outdoors.

My conclusion after 3 weeks of this type of city-hopping travel, is that I don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t remember too much about the big landmarks in cities, and much of museums. They’re functionally dead, I remember some of the pretty sights but they’re not the same as the experiences or the people. The schedule of 3-4 days per city is enough to get bored, but not enough to really get to know the place. In fact it feels like the only thing it’s good for is to take the same tourist pictures everyone else will take and be able to brag to your buddies about the sheer number of cities you’ve visited. This is a really superficial way to travel (though I admit I’ve fallen victim to ‘city-collecting’).

On the other hand, I’m still enthusiastic about long-term travel, 2-3 months per location, even though I’ve never tried it. I’ll need to wait until I’m financially independent to have time for that.

In the meantime, over the next 2-3 years, I’d like to try some different things. One would be a week (or longer) hiking trip, seeing the natural environment and tiny hamlets in a foreign country. Something like hiking for a week in Patagonia or New Zealand. Another possibility is going to some big city, spending a day or two there, and then going to stay in some smaller nearby town for a week. This probably sounds a bit strange, but it’s appealing to me (this after never having tried it…). A third possibility is a longer stay centered in a smaller (but notable) city. Reykjavik was absolutely perfect for this, with a population of 120k, very unique culture, clean and friendly, and the possibility for cool day trips or overnight camping.

In the end I’m sad that the common way of traveling is not so appealing to me. But I’m glad I learned this after only two trips and now have the opportunity to find a new mode of travel better aligned with my nature.