Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mullen & Munson's "The Smell of the Continent": Book Review

Cheap flights to cheap rooms in Spain, global English, guidebooks, tour guides, packaged itineraries: thank or blame Victorians. Between 1814-1914, modern tourism bloomed. Their complaints about no "meat breakfasts," bad tea, extortion, and locals unable to speak the lingua non-franca sound as familar to today's European visitor.

Richard Mullen & Robert Munson, historians with Oxford doctorates, assemble three decades of index card research turned 115 computer files, gleaned as they prepared "just under" a hundred documentaries for the BBC. Such diligence shows here packed into every page. I admit I skimmed sections, as their relentless press of immense primary research-- the narrative is jammed with quotes from diaries, novels, published and unpublished correspondence, and first-hand journalism-- does at a long sitting threaten to overwhelm the casual inquirer. Still, for those seriously eager to follow intrepid and/or annoyed British to what they called the "lions" of the capitals and the sights soon marketed to millions, this is the place to begin your armchair excursion.

Travellers early on distinguished themselves from mere tourists. Groups rallied by Thomas Cook and his rival firm Henry Gaze could afford to go where only aristocrats on a "Grand Tour" could prior to Waterloo. Individuals, meanwhile, tended towards condescension of their national neighbors scurrying to Europe-- and the latter wrote travel books often sneering at their lumpen or hapless fellow citizens abroad. John Ruskin, always lofty, did accurately observe "the poor modern slaves and simpletons who let themselves be dragged like cattle. . . through the countries they imagine themselves visiting." (qtd. 197) Mullen & Munson find his reaction typifies that of British travellers: they dislike their countrymen on holiday, and they tend to find that travel was always better before the crowds came, when adventurers preceded the mobs, and the journeyer was of "better quality" than the yobs today.

One example both rich and middle-class British in Naples might have shared was gaping at the local yokels. There a popular pastime was to feed the beggars pasta, a novelty: "watching the lazzaroni swallow as much of the long strands of 'macaroni' as possible without stopping." (262-3) The English crowds gawked at Catholic ceremonies, trying to convert the natives in the pews. They committed every faux-pas with their men attired in the "country fashion" of loud checked suits when packed for overseas adventure. Their women, distinguished too by their garish dress or tawdry fabrics, were jeered at by the French as haughty hatted red-haired dainties; their men were disdained as instantly recognizable florid-faced arrogant boors.

Chapters progress through the creation of holiday packages, the English stereotypes, the "lions" of the cities every tourist had to see; the rise of the guidebook; the hassles of passports and Channel crossings; the weariness of transport and lodging; the fear of luggage being mislaid; the reaction to the lack of sanitation; the culinary fare; the reactions to exchanging money, dealing with Catholics, and handling or fumbling the local lingo; the communications with those back home; and a brief coda on pre-WWI forays. Period illustrations from illustrated magazines offer excellent support for the mishaps related in the text.

The book closes with a survey of how much we on our own vacations might find remains from those who preceded us to tourist traps and must-see attractions nearly two centuries before. The signs may now be in German and Japanese as well as English. But by these markers of multilingualism, currency exchanges, clutched maps and phrase books (the latter topic's barely mentioned here), we see the earnest efforts of those who literally paved the way for hordes today that we mock and that we join. (Posted to Amazon US and this blog 9-13-09)


vilges suola said...

I must get a copy of this. When I lived in Cambridge, there was a brief vogue for wearing a badge bearing the legend 'I'm not a tourist, I live here'. I never bought one, but when I moved to Greece a snooty sense of utter separation from the instantly recognisable Brits abroad always made me think of that badge. I always felt flattered when Greeks guessed me as being French or Italian - I never wanted to be taken for British, and in fact never was. It was not only the Brits, though. In Athens I used to resent tourists asking for directions in French, German or Italian, with no apologetic preamble about not knowing any basic Greek. I remember standing at a pedestrian crossing with a bunch of elderly Americans, in an astonishing collection of stripes zigzags, dots and paisley (them, not me) as an elderly vagrant came shuffling by. There was murmured comment on his appearance and then one old boy beamed and announced 'y'know, it could be Christ!' to a chorus of yea-saying. Get these people out of my adopted country, I thought, petitioning Zeus to send thunderbolts. I wonder why. I was just as much a foreigner as they were.

Fionnchú said...

Typically asute anecdote, VS. It deserves its own blog entry for you; which you will probably be able to add to upon your return from Hellas. Abroad, it pleased me a bit when the tourists took me for Irish, I admit. As long as I shut my mouth, I blended in. My wife, when she lived in London in '76, said back then that shoes were the dead giveaway for Yanks, but with the global shift to t-shirts, Levis and sneakers ("trainers" to you), this may not be as easy a marker nowadays. I still think that diet plays a role in facial structure, so that an immigrant's child "looks" more native than the parents, as well as those subtle tell-tale gaits, gestures, and for us in America, how we use our knife and fork!