August 30, 2023

Travelog: Lunches, Finks and Recalls 

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I’ve found myself in a bit of a tourist funk… or maybe I’ve found myself thinking that it’s near impossible to escape a tourist funk. After all, vacation takes on an impossible role in contemporary life. Vacation is (at least functionally) a coping device for the relatively privileged that takes on all the weight and challenge of one’s perpetual monotonous labor: A faint light at the end of a tunnel that one can point to during any workplace hardship or grueling week. As a reward for that labor, privileged in its compensation but nonetheless inevitably miserably capitalistic, one may get a chance to briefly experience a wonderful sedentary artwork, striking natural feature, oasis of relaxation or distinctly bustling metropolis. The lifetime of same-old same-old interrupted by the once-in-a-lifetime brush with eternity. The responsibility of vacation is an impossible feat, dragged down by expectations, a location’s independent problems and the industry of tourism, whose responsibility it is to capitalistic hellscape-ify anywhere anyone might want to go. Tourism is a process of excitement and disappointment as one realizes the predicament of the inescapability of those most pernicious aspects of reality: We cannot manufacture joy, and you certainly won’t be sold it. 

         Specifically on my mind has been an ever-the-more funk-inclined work-cation, where the foreign land doubles as a site of labor; an incomplete escape, exchanging the light at the end of the tunnel for a couple lights within the tunnel. My mom travels a lot for work. I’ve seen a work-cation firsthand, as well as the consequences as excessive expectations in compromise. More pertinently, I’m preparing to embark on my own offshoot of the work-cation, when I go to study abroad in Ireland this fall. The lines of compromise have already been drawn: It has been made clear that me and my cohort are to have fun, but not too much fun, lest we may endanger our future labor-value. It’s far from quite so degrading as the typical work-cation, but the school-cation also engenders questions of expectations, excitement and consequence. 

         I don’t know how to be a tourist, though having lived in both New York and Los Angeles, it’s hard to avoid reading the word as a pejorative. Staying with family in London I thought: How quick could one shed the moniker? What would it mean to cease one’s role as a tourist? Is it enough to attend family dinners, learn the train lines, skip the traps? Must one go grocery shopping? How many days of working in a city does it take to enter the city’s population? There might be answers for London, but London exists outside of tourism. The monster that’s swallowed up London doesn’t wear shorts because it runs warm on planes or brings a disposable camera then forgets to take it out of its carry-on at security. Other places run on tourism: Those beautiful spots of the world now discovered and served to you on a platter for just a few units of foreign currency, plus a bonus transaction fee. One cannot cease to be a tourist in those places because there is only the other side of the tourist coin: The sellers, and those working for the sellers, laboring in a purgatorial unending work-cation, where local beauty must be inevitably marred by the draining need to make a living. Last semester, a Cornell professor described his whole class as tourists, reminding us that our study-cation is impermanent, that we will leave, pictures and postcards in hand, filled with memories and repeating on drunken nights an ache or plan to return: Not all can be so lucky as to wish to return. 

         Sifting a stream of consciousness in search of cause for an unknown malaise and a perpetual repetition of “tourist,” echoing as a song in my head, I consulted movies. The cinema of vacations and work-cations alike is deep, and in it I found 3 fitting anomalies: Barton Fink, Total Recall and Naked Lunch. Though none are principally about tourism, each presents the process of travel as this departure into liminal space, experienced through an imprecise (that is to say non-traditional, primarily intellectual, ostensibly glamorous) form of labor, and buoyed by a natural process of place demystification culminating in a disturbing nesting doll of revelations. A typical vacation, work-cation, study-cation, you name it. 

         Barton Fink’s tourism is literal and allegorical: He travels across the country to Los Angeles as his hit plays give him the opportunity to make some money in the Hollywood studio system. Said hit plays follow the lives of working people, Fink’s primary interest. Thus is the second tourism, as we experience a man enamored of the idea of the “working class,” attempting to traffic in their romanticization, and ultimately unnerved by the abjectness of their situation (itself resulting from the exploitation of those supporting his play). As platonic-ideal of a working man turned literal serial killer, Charlie Meadows says to Fink: “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter.” The hammy, overwritten and yet ultimately perfect line rings true. To be capable of romanticization is to be a tourist, to be confronted with everyday reality is to be made aware of one’s tourism, but not to cast off the label. Travel as an escape exists as a privilege compromised only by the application of the word, here meaning naïve, gawking, overenthusiastic. 

         Total Recall confronts tourism not as the romanticization of the unpleasant, nor as the revelation of the unpleasantness’s romanticization, but as the revelation of unpleasantness, and the self-actualization/savior-complexity of overthrowing it. Arnold Schwarzenegger (character name irrelevant) plays a near future construction worker who seems to discover that he is in fact a secret agent with an erased mind and a fake life who must return to Mars in order to provide crucial information to the underground resistance of which he is a part of. Whether some or none of that is true is hardly important, though the whole experience might ultimately have turned out to have been a dream (or rather a prescient pre-Metaverse virtual reality vacation). What is important is that Schwarzenegger’s return home/work-cation/vacation ultimately excises a more dark underbelly than postcard worthy family photo, and that he saves the day in the end. Tourism is here not pejorative, but liberating: To vacation is to get a chance to knock oneself out of complacency with monotonous labor, to remind oneself that one has free will or, at the very least, to be allowed to purchase a reminder of one’s free will. Schwarzenegger is buoyed by a lack of expectation, allowed a sick thrill at the discovery of harsh reality, and given catharsis through his own role in providing the escape. Tourism isn’t naivete, but idealism, nor gawking, but saving. 

         Naked Lunch departs from questions of how the world should or shouldn’t be, at least in the context of tourism, and instead confronts escape as a piece of life’s darkest realities. Bill Lee is an exterminator visited out of the blue by a bug/typewriter/messenger from Interzone. Lee is informed of his role as an agent, taken to the vaguely Middle Eastern looking nation and thrown into a number of exciting, while still lethargic, artistic and sexual exercises, all under the guise of an alleged corporate espionage. The film constantly draws itself towards references of drug addiction, homosexuality (in early 20th century New York) and, of course, creativity. Lee can also be uniquely characterized at his passivity, following the will of his bug typewriter handler, ostensibly humanoid friends and possibly some sort of hallucinogenic extermination powder. Naked Lunch’s tourism can be compared to other states of disreputable idleness (creativity, addition and queerness), diversions from the acceptable manner of existence looked on with contempt unless, as with tourism, they are lent the reputability of an elite participant in them. To use tourism as an escape is to be allowed a glitch in the matrix, a moment away from the monotony of working life, a legitimate act of protest (albeit one that lacks the delegitimization of true protest). Lee’s passivity is vacation in and of itself, his idleness is bleakly pleasant: We know the only way he managed his escape was through drug use, just as the only way we might manage our escape is through a brief vacation, but we might commend escape nonetheless. 

         In any sense, I am to be a tourist for the next few months to years. I already find myself falling into the trap of romanticizing the local pub and the everyday folks who might find themselves in it after work. I may subsequently attempt a piece for my adopted school’s newspaper (if not another for the Cornell Daily Sun), where I repeat my tiresome attacks on the role of academia in capitalism, acquiring a slim bit of saviorship in the process. I hope to pass a few moments idlily, tepidly disobeying the orders that I avoid too much fun by allowing a class to go unattended and an assignment to go unsubmitted. I suppose being a tourist need not be a pejorative, even if it is being a naïve protesting idealist. 

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]