The benefits of a room with a view | On being a tourist

The benefits of a room with a view

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A Baedeker is a form of travel guide, popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, founded by Karl Baedeker and considered de rigueur for any Englishman abroad. In particular, those wealthy enough to travel and educated enough to wish to learn well-chosen tidbits about their location, yet not adventurous enough to leave the discovery of said tidbits to chance or their own initiative.

I’m telling you this because Part I Chapter II of EM Forster’s A Room with a View – a book I read and petulantly hated at school – is entitled ‘In Santa Croce with No Baedeker’. The chapter illustrates a trip Lucy Honeychurch takes with her companion Miss Lavish to visit the Florentine basilica of Santa Croce, during which Miss Lavish takes Lucy’s Baedeker from her and then promptly absconds the scene. As the embodiment of timidity, Lucy feels utter horror at being in Santa Croce, or anywhere, without her trusted travel guide. Yet to be ravished by the overt passions of Tuscany and George Emerson, she is at a loss without the familiar structure of Baedeker’s soothing pointers of where to go and, more importantly, where not to.

This scene (alongside Helena Bonham Carter’s insipid portrayal in the film adaptation) was at the centre of my dislike for Lucy Honeychurch. At the point in my life upon which Forster’s prose encroached, my own experience of travel amounted to trailing after my parents and I couldn’t see why anyone would shy away from the idea of wandering a city freely just to see where it will take them. Her dependence on a travel guide seemed pathetically pedestrian to me.

Now, however, I am myself a very awkward tourist. It’s not that I don’t want to explore new places or learn new things; I did, after all, move to the other side of the world for the second time, not so long ago. But I would argue that going somewhere to live and going travelling are two very different things. It is my days spent as a traveler in a new place that make me feel ignorant and my ignorance makes me feel inadequate. It seems that wherever I go on holiday, I always wind up at Santa Croce and always always with no Baedeker.

This week I took my first trip to Sydney and, after having spent a year carefully moulding something like a local’s knowledge of Melbourne, I was once again thrown into the turmoil of the clueless. I don’t like not knowing where to get the bus or how much the bus will cost or what sort of pass I need to get on the bus. I don’t like not knowing where’s good to eat breakfast or get a sandwich or a casual dinner or a fancy dinner or somewhere that won’t rip me off. I don’t like being disappointed when it’s not sunny or when I don’t have the right clothes. I don’t like locals looking at you like you’re stupid for taking twenty-nine photos of the Sydney Opera House like you’re the first person to preserve it in digital form.

It isn’t just that I’m a control freak; even the word ‘tourist’ has negative connotations. And I know that locals look down on tourists because I used to be one, impatiently pushing through the slow-moving hoards on London’s South Bank because I’ve only got a half hour lunch break or wondering what on earth you could find interesting about a man pretending to be a statue in Covent Garden as I elbow my way to the tube. So it stands to reason that when the shoe’s on the other foot I have a highly developed sense of self-awareness.

But finding out about a new place is sort of like developing a taste in music; it’s easy to know what’s commercial and popular, but figuring out what you prefer, discovering new things, finding your niche takes time and effort. And usually it can’t be done in a weekend. Which is why people buy a Lonely Planet or read a travel blog – because you can’t figure it out on your own. You might occasionally get ripped off in a restaurant or ask where the Eiffel Tower is when you’re standing right in front of it or spend a lot of money on koala effigies; but what is the no-Baedeker alternative? Maybe you stumble across an amazing restaurant, have the best meal of your life, fall in love with the waiter and have the heart and soul of this new city revealed to you in one unforgettable night. Or maybe you wander around all day getting lost between skyscrapers and never actually see the Harbour Bridge.

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