The Essential Tourist


I have often cited Evelyn Waugh’s solution to living in socialist Britain. Life was possible there, he decided, only on the condition that he think of himself as a tourist. Was this ruse or realism? In a deep sense we are all tourists here, even when trodding the green, green grass of home. Travel is broadening, perhaps, even in the narrow seats of coach class, but who has not been struck by the discrepancy between the seductive rhetoric of travel brochures and the hectic reality of stumbling numb from lack of sleep into a strange terminal to have one’s passport indifferently inspected? Ah, the perks of affluence.

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Not that international travel is still the exclusive diversion of the well-to-do. Almost anyone can afford to be propelled, or jetted, from one continent to another and wander along ancient streets, staring at medieval buildings, poring over a guidebook, the little canisters of exposed film accumulating as one goes. Much of the fun of it is to imagine what it would have been like to have been born in, say, Auxerre or Agrigento. Some foreigners get so caught up in this idea that they decide to alter the divine plan for their lives and settle down in strange lands.

A little village in Provence — perhaps you’ve read the books — a farm in Tuscany, even a condo in Cancun. Resident aliens. In the country but not really of it. I have a romantic colleague who cannot walk down the street of an English village without wishing he lived there. The villagers did not choose, in that sense, to live there, though of course they might leave, visit California, perhaps. But not all emigration is due to a romantic impulse.

Once my family and I made an unscheduled stop at Halifax, where my daughter underwent an emergency appendectomy. The first night the rest of us were given shelter in the immigration barracks. Once the kids were all tucked into their beds and Connie deep in her book, I wandered about the premises, thinking of the people who had passed through there into the New World. From the luxury of an ocean liner to institutional simplicity. It did not seem fanciful to think that, having sailed the night before from New York, I had suddenly arrived with my family in Canada, seeking asylum. How many families had done precisely that, come not as tourists, but as immigrants, looking from those great barrack-like windows into the great unknown with apprehensive hope.

I wrote a story about that once, or tried to, but I could not capture the sense of what it was like suddenly to have the floor removed from beneath one’s feet.

It is a cliché of our country that we are a mobile people. This seems particularly true of the many young couples who transfer from coast to coast with apparent insouciance, Cincinnati today, tomorrow Minneapolis. A house is bought, kids put in school, music lessons are arranged, but for how long?

An abiding metaphor for human life is the journey, a passage from here to there. With age the flight seems ever more fleeting — “Is it really all over already for Al?” Heads shake with incredulity in the viewing room. Nothing surprises so much as the inevitable.

But there are trips within the larger trip, and no experience seems capable of dissuading us from packing, boarding the plane, and flying off to elsewhere with a glint in our eye. Boethius said that one man’s exile is another’s home, and it is odd to think that what we find quaint is only the quotidian for the natives, much as they would find our plastic pastel lives exotic. There seems no place that isn’t a possible target for the tourist industry.

Half a century ago, the travel book was a respected genre. The author took us down untrodden paths, to places we were very unlikely to go ourselves. He was not on a package tour, but had to make arrangements as he went, stop at places that would not get a single star in our guide books. Now hundreds can make his trip at leisure.

As you read this you will be about to go or have just returned. Me too. Both. Travel is addictive. We have here no lasting city, as the psalmist says, but having seen the sights and tasted the food and marveled at the art, having been rushed and hurried and harassed, having haggled and usually lost, after spending far more than we intended, we unlock the door of our house with that indescribable delight of being home at last. Journey’s end. May the voyage of our life end as well.


This column originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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