Negotiating your expectations of authenticity

Think through your past travels, the places you’ve visited and the impressions you came away with. And then contrast this with the way your views on how your own hometown have changed over the years. Do you apply the same criteria? Did you encounter authenticity? Can you locate authenticity?

Pico Ayer, in his New York Times piece, argues…

Today, we crave ‘‘realness’’ as never before, and in response, the travel industry is trying even harder to provide it…  This increasingly fevered quest for the authentic can in truth be a mug’s game.

As visitors, and particularly as expectant holidaymakers, perhaps it helps to bear in mind that…

Our notion of places — which is to say the romances and images we project onto them — are always less current and subtle than the places themselves.

That link again – Can a Trip Ever Be ‘Authentic’?

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Representing place

Barcelona map exaggerating its main roads

Barcelona map exaggerating its main roads

“The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented.  It is indifferent to its pictures and picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way.” (Robert Macfarlane, in The Wild Places)

It struck me that guide books, canned tours and signed tourist itineraries could be considered similarly.  Echoing Robert MacFarlane’s words, they “carry out a triage of [a place, not destination‘s] aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a [place, not destination] is perceived and treated”.

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“The Relief of Relief”

"When this old world starts getting me down..."

“When this old world starts getting me down…”

If you love human diversity, Barcelona ain’t a bad place to be, particularly as much of that diversity can be spanned in an evening’s walk, slipping through neighbourhoods of various affluence, textures, smells, noise and colour. But this is enabled by apartment-living and jeek-by-jowl population density. Here, a house with a garden arouses curiousity. And you occasionally see where a long-term resident has acheived an abundance of mature greenery in a balcony-sized biosphere. Otherwise, the trees that line the neighbourhood streets and arterial avenues are a mere distraction; an ambience creator shot through by the metal menace, noise and fumes of a vast colony of motorists that thread in, out and around this city incessantly, daily. Which is why, when I walk up into the very hills we could blame for Barcelona’s urban intensity, I so clearly recognise Robert MacFarlane’s sentiment, “the relief of relief” (in The Wild Places).


When tourism parodies places

McCarthy's Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”.  His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:

“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”

Clearly this is pre-“crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places.  Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.

So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail?  Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable?  How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage?  How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said  idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even…  in books.


Respecting the power of food

In the country, food is a continuous preoccupation, not simply a pause to refuel. Country people know the sweat that goes into an ear of corn, a pail of milk, a churn of butter, bread warm from the oven, and the eggs and bacon that sizzle in the breakfast frying pan. Food is hard-earned and requires the proper degree of respect.

This quote from Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One immediately struck a chord, reminding me that the enjoyment of “country food” is intensified considerably when you appreciate how hard-earned it is, how it is inextricably linked to the people and place that have provided it, and how it can play with each and every one of your senses in powerfully evocative ways.


“We all need space”

“We all need space; unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.”

This quote comes from Octavia Hill, writing in 1875, in Homes of the London Poor:

“There is a small, square, green churchyard in Drury Lane, and even the sight of its fresh bright verdure through the railings is a blessing; but if the gates could be opened on a hot summer evening, and seats placed there for the people, I am sure the dwellers about Drury Lane would be all the better for it.”

Octavia Hill’s legacy may well serve as inspiration for those seeking to enable better places for people to live in (as well as visit)–places meaning inclusive, shared places; people meaning the wider community.  Small-scale, thoughtful changes can sometimes have profound consequences.


Cervezeros crafting “better places”

As well as having an interest in how different places pulse, I also love following the craft beer movement, whether that’s here in Barcelona/Catalunya/Spain/Iberia/the Med, or further beyond. So my interest leapt when I read of the marriage of both:

Modern Times exists to make extraordinary beer. But it’s also an actor in the life of this city. It has a responsibility to shape its own environment, to constructively engage with the city upon which it relies. One of the ways it will do that is by helping to transform San Diego into a better, more liv[e]able place.

The wonder of the Internet returns…  I have found a kindred spirit way out west in California!

Read Transforming San Diego if you think the liquid poetry and social catalyst of good beer can have anything to do with shaping better places to live in and better places to visit. And please comment here on what you see as the real and possible connections between the two.


Where white elephants roam amid “modern ruins”

A year or so ago a friend took me through the Marina d’Or development near Orpesa in Valencia.  Slowly driving up and down the deserted avenues of high-rise holiday apartments, I experienced a peculiar mixture of awe and aversion.  Never mind the environment, or local people’s interests, or indeed the cultural heritage that this place might once have afforded, here was economically irresponsible tourism development—grossly misjudged speculation—and it was staring me in the face.  It was ghostly, sickly, tacky and surreal.  (And Castellón airport lay redundant just miles away, and along with it, millions of Euros of public investment.)

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Sense of development

Dominant transport modes have a major effect on sense of place and other ways we experience and imagine urban places. They can both energise and afflict a place; both clutter and adorn a place with their concomitant infrastructures. Just think of cycle taxis and tuk-tuks in Indian and South East Asian cities, gridlock in LA, civilised cycling in Amsterdam, or commuters flooding off trains and metro services in London and Tokyo before scurrying away into their studios and offices. Picture the absence of cars in mediaeval market towns, or in the plazas of world heritage hotspots. Perhaps ancient tram wheels squeal out their steely call a couple of streets away. Or maybe a modern tram glides into view.

So, here’s a “thought for the day” from someone who has the responsibility of overseeing transportation as well as the social, economic and cultural life, environment and reputation of his city. Gustavo Petro:


How to build community

How to build community

“A community exists when people interact with each other, not just with you”: an infographic stumbled upon at Deskmag, a coworking magazine.