One of my favorite bands, Radiohead, has an old song that really speaks volumes to those of us who love to travel. I’m talking about “The Tourist,” off of OK Computer. The song, which comes off as a slow melodic tune, has a much deeper meaning than the lyrics might offer. Thom Yorke sings about tourists rushing through sights just so they can get through to the next one, without even taking the time to appreciate where they are.
“Idiot, slow down,” is said over and again in this song. From what I’ve read, guitarist Jonny Greenwood wrote this song when he was sitting in a square in France watching all of the American tourists running from spot to spot. Because they were in such a rush to see it all, they really didn’t see any of it. They just had the right to say they were there.
Now, I’m not trying to pass any judgment off on anyone, because like so many travelers, I too have been that tourist that gets off the bus, takes some pictures, walks around aimlessly, and gets back on the bus. It’s hard to know how to enjoy the place you’re in sometimes when you’re a green tourist. But you have to understand that you’re not getting the full picture. Living abroad in a city visited by tourists every day gave me some new perspective on that. Everyday that I would see the big double-decker red bus driving through I’d feel sad for those suckers. The best things to see in Sevilla aren’t even accessible by car.
I guess the point of this post wouldn’t be to act like a travel snob–I’m far from it. I just wanted to impart on those who don’t already know or haven’t realized it, that when you travel in a large group or with a pre-determined itinerary, you can really miss out on the best stuff. Some Saturday mornings when I wasn’t too hungover before lunch, I would walk over to the cathedral in el centro and just watch the tourists. I’d write too, and I’d think about all the stuff they were missing. One time I tried to watch a single group for the entire time they were there. I wound up watching five different groups come in, listen to a little speech for five minutes, take a few pictures, look at some gifts, and leave.
It would be stupid to assume a tourist is going to get intimate with a city in the short time they have, but you should at least try to just sit and enjoy your surroundings for longer than five minutes. On my last day in Paris I went to Notre Dame to check out what the big deal was. I’d already seen dozens of famous cathedrals in Europe, and frankly just didn’t care anymore. But I sat by that cathedral just to take in the atmosphere. Hundreds of people were rushing by, snapping the same photos, and leaving as quickly as they arrived. It seemed so pointless. In a place like that, you need to at least sit and think about why it’s become popular. With a nice spot by the river, there’s a reason it was a nice place to build a church. But no one seems to notice that anymore.
All I can really say is that when you travel, you only scratch the surface. You need to live it to really understand, but sometimes that’s not possible. So how to make up for it? Do as the locals would do. Stop rushing around, enjoy your surroundings, and think about where you are. Don’t just look at the sight, look at what’s around it. There’s more than you think.