Veteran journalist retires his passport

Libraries are devoted to it. Books by the yard tell us what to think about it. Travel. A simple enough word. Yet what exactly is it? Why do we engage in it? What impels us to shift ourselves between pinpoints on a map like oversized chess pieces on a stained and battered board?

I have been a traveler. I have written about travel. I have thought about travel. I think about it now. And what I think is that those uncounted millions of words in search of an elusive meaning can be condensed into a single aphorism and a related injunction:

“All travel examines an idealized past.” That’s one. Here is the other: “I can no longer be a tourist in other people’s pain.”

The first was written by the late Paul Fussell, author and literary critic; the second by a New York newspaperman named Pete Hamill.

Hamill’s line cuts closest to the bone. The context was Northern Ireland during a period of sectarian killings. Still, it could have been anywhere. From famine to war, from poverty to disease, there are plenty of candidates. Here, for example, is Trinidadian Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul on the view from an air-conditioned tour bus in the country of his paternal origins, India:

“The unending nullity of the peasant-serf countryside … meandering black rivulets of filth in unpaved alleys,” Naipaul writes. He speaks of a population of the impoverished, for whom the aggregate of squalor, misery and disease “no longer had a meaning.” It was, he says, “life itself.”

What he’s talking about by inference is the visitor as voyeur. And so, aware of Naipaul’s narrative of horror as well as of Hamill’s much-quoted proscription, I would decline to travel to India.

Yet my scruple rings false. It is an intellectual fraud. It is the belated guilt of a wanderer who once traveled with pleasure to more than one country reduced to beggary by the cynicism and oppression of military dictatorships. And in some half-dozen outings to equatorial Africa, I roamed vast plains in search of lion, leopard, elephant. People were not on the menu. For me and others like me, the villages decimated by AIDS and now populated solely by the very young and the very old were out of sight, out of thought.

Like most travelers, I romanticized lost worlds: Plato’s Greece; the Egypt of the Pharaohs; Shakespeare’s England; the France of the troubadours. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of sages in rumpled togas, happy peasants dancing round maypoles.

Yet what I imagined, I will now tell you, was a theater of the absurd. There was no room in my world view for plague, cruelty, violence, ignorance, lunacy, despair. I had looked with wonder at the great 13th-century French cathedrals of Reims and Chartres, and at that country’s magnificent royal palaces of Chambord and Blois. But if pushed, I think I might have conceded a reluctant truth: I would not have wanted to live in that ancient or medieval past. I was too wedded to my doctors, dentists and indoor plumbing.

So why did I travel? I do not know. Fear could have had something to do with it. Holding at arm’s length the malady of old age. The writer Clive Irving may have got it right when he called travel a rekindling of youth, a species of whistling past the graveyard.

Or maybe boredom is the simplest explanation. We escape the humdrum of our lives by joining squadrons of the similarly afflicted to stare at and photograph the ghastly travesties of modern tourism.

In Bavaria, we view apple-cheeked country folk in dirndl and lederhosen. Or at least that’s the stock image of rural Germany. And in Munich we feast on wurst and Black Forest cake washed down by foaming steins of the rich, dark local brew. We savor the forced gaiety, the false gemütlichkeit of a cavernous, drink-sodden bierpalast.

But we are innocent of history. We are unlikely to know that the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau — a genocidal killing ground — is a half-hour train ride away. The brochures, to give them their due, say something about it. You can book a tour.

Hamburg? Bergen-Belsen, where an estimated 70,000 died of starvation and disease, is an hour’s car journey to the south. Berlin? Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lie to the north. The killing of Jews and gypsies, the old and the lame and the mentally ill continued to the final days of the war. And in neighboring Austria, not far from the ski slopes of glittering Salzburg, were the Holocaust camps at Ebensee, Gunskirchen, Mauthausen …

And so the question persists. Why do we travel? What do we travel to see?

I give you Salonika, in northern Greece, with its broad leafy boulevards, its magnificent harbor promenade. The tourist brochures tell you that the city’s most famous native son, Alexander the Great, won for ancient Greece an empire stretching as far east as India.

But no word will you find about a modern metropolis that once pulsed to the rhythm of Jewish life. Nor is mention made of the atrocities of 1943, when Nazi occupiers bulldozed all but one of Salonika’s 36 synagogues and transported a Jewish community of close on 50,000 to the German death camps.

Thus in Salonika, what is it that we have come to see?

Athens, in the south of the country, the capital: a ferroconcrete city of 5 million, half the population of Greece: garbage dumpsters at street corners; refuse and dust blowing in the wind; sidewalks befouled by dogs; the never-ending roar of traffic; the air gray with exhaust fumes; the air, so often trapped in a bowl of surrounding hills, heavy with a blanket of appalling pollution.

And on a hill dominating the city, the patched, smog-stained remains of an antique temple, its fluted columns and cambered peristyle a poem of balance and symmetry.

Here, like Naipaul in India, we will ride in an air-conditioned bus — Athens is an oven June through September. We will view in comfort the old temple on its hill, or a palace guard doing balletic high kicks in pleated skirts.

Again the question: what in fact are we looking for? What is the meaning of this place? Is it past or present? If it’s past, precious little of that remains. If it’s present, you will, if you look truly, pick out the outline of what for many of its inhabitants has become an unlivable city.

Elsewhere, we have reports from today’s new frontiers of tourism:

Turkey: “Terrorist attack at Istanbul nightclub kills 39” … Egypt: “Attack on Coptic cathedral in Cairo kills dozens”…. Jordan: “Several security personnel and a Canadian tourist killed in terrorist attack … Belgium: “Suicide bombers attack Brussels airport” … Germany, Switzerland: “Berlin, Zurich: a day of violence”…. Asia: “China choking on smog; Beijing airport shuts down.”

And so I ask still again: why do we travel? Despite the philosophic dictums of Fussell and Irving cited above, I have no good answer. I have no answer at all. The question is rhetorical. It may be unanswerable.

No matter. I have retired my passport. I’m finished with it.

Alan Littell is former travel editor of The Sunday Spectator. He lives in Alfred.