Travel: The “Authentic” Tourist

suitcaseI idolize Japanese tourists. I’ve been in Europe for three weeks now, and whenever I get lost I simply stalk the nearest pack of them. They have a sixth sense for landmarks, and all the best cameras (I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever go to Japan. Go into a tailspin, probably). I also like Japanese tourists because they are the antithesis of the odious breed I like to call the Snooty Tourist.Snooty Tourists tends to be young, hip vegetarians who are baldly disgusted by other tourists. They obsessively seeks the “real” Europe, disdaining the Vatican and the Louvre because they are “full of tourists”, and are completely oblivious to the irony of this. Inevitably these people ruin everyone’s holiday by consenting to dine only at dubious restaurants in the smelliest parts of the city, and by constantly practicing their mangled Eurglish on the locals, who hate them.

For the Snooty Tourist, a jaunt to Buckingham Palace and a peep at the Mona Lisa just aren’t good enough anymore. Nothing less than a taste of the “real” France or the “authentic” Italy will do. They hanker after tour companies that shamelessly hawk “genuine” balloon rides in Tuscany or an afternoon with “real” sausage-making peasants in Basilicata.

This is all very pleasant, but it’s hardly authentic. Most Canadians don’t hunt seals or boil maple syrup in the spring, and most Italians don’t wear kerchiefs and choke piglets with their bare hands to make bona fide Italian sausages. Given sufficient Euros, they’ll probably oblige, but don’t kid yourself: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there’s nothing “authentic” about visiting it for a week or two.


Only a fool would scorn Venice or the British Museum or the Vatican because they are “too tourist-y”. These places are beloved and thronged for a reason: because they are spectacular. There’s nothing more absurd than a tourist who despises other tourists, and will visit a place simply because no one else does. There are no tourists in Pickering, for instance, but that’s no excuse to actually go there.


Who goes on holiday to wallow in the commonplace? When my overseas friends call me up and ask me to show them around Toronto, I would never dream of making the experience “authentic”. Authentic life for a Toronto student typically entails shuffling to the TTC stop in dirty snow, followed by a luxurious lunch at Subway. At some point, we might slosh down a cup of Tim’s finest, and then end the day with a trip to No Frills to pick up some toilet paper before winding down with Canadian Idol and a hearty glass of water. That is the authentic Toronto experience, but if I shared it with my friends, no one would love me any more. So here’s to the C.N. Tower, the zoo and dinner somewhere swanky – authenticity be damned.


Another thing: I can guarantee you that try as one might, it is simply not possible to get to know the “real” France/Germany/Italy/anywhere really in a week or two. Societies are complex beasts, and the tourist lacks the time to understand them fully. As a result, the tourist can be easily tricked. I met someone in the U.S. last year, a very pleasant lady, who was delighted to learn I was from Toronto. She chatted about the C.N. tower, Chinatown, the jazz festival, then remarked, her voice pregnant with reverence, “And of course, we absolutely couldn’t see Toronto without a visit to Cora’s”. The poor woman had apparently been bamboozled by some wicked guidebook into believing that the sublime act of Torontoishness is toast at Cora’s. Incidentally, I would never eat at Cora’s; its exterior is really almost offensively yellow.


Finally, authenticity isn’t always everything the Snooty Tourist cracks it up to be. A couple of years ago, when I was living in the U.S., a friend of mine from Japan came for a visit. She asked me to take her out for an authentic American meal. So I did. I took her to a place called Applebee’s. Applebee’s is functionally equivalent to Kelsey’s, except the decor is even more neon and everything on the menu is oilier and massive. She hated it. But she asked for it; there was perfectly good sushi just next door, but she declined it on the grounds of seeking real American cuisine. I lived in the U.S. for five years, and I can personally attest that Applebee’s is where millions of genuine Americans eat actual dinner. Authenticity is no proof of goodness. And when one only has a week or two of precious holiday, why not soak up as much goodness as possible?


Yes, you can slog through the dirty, boring bits of Paris in search of an authentic French bistro – but what for? At best, you’ll pay nine Euros for a glass of wine and everyone will ignore you because you sound like an American. At worst, you’ll get lost. You’ll end up at McDonald’s, where the servers would rather scour the toilets clean with their tongues than abide your stammering Quebecois French for another moment. When you’ve finished your McDouble, someone will probably rob you.



But let’s get back to Europe. I was in Lausanne, Switzerland last week and in a fit of Snootiness, I asked my friend and most gracious hostess Isabelle to take me out for an authentic Swiss meal. She wasn’t very enthused. “We don’t really go to those places,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” Literally everything in Switzerland is too expensive, so I ignored that. But she wouldn’t budge. “We usually just go for Thai or Chinese.” Well, there you have it. Fancy a tantalizing taste of the real Switzerland? Have a spring roll.


Anyway, a few hours later, I was in downtown Geneva, tucking happily into a heap of rosti and a bubbling tureen of sharp cheese fondue at an obvious tourist trap bearing the title, in carefully lettered English (hint: the main languages of Switzerland are German and French, and the word “Swiss” exists in neither) – “The Swiss Chalet”. The thought did occur to me that Swiss Chalet, Canadian style, is funnily enough about as close to “normal” Toronto fare as one can get. This Swiss Chalet, however, was trussed up from head to toe in rustic landscape prints, false wooden panels and cozy fake fireplaces, encourage its patrons to nurture the fantasy that they had just stopped in for a spot of grub after a long day yodelling in the Alps. Yes, it was laid on a little thick, and supremely cheesy.


But such is the nature of fondue – which, incidentally, was delicious. Here’s to crass tourism.

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