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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Travelers and tourists and some random thoughts

Paraphrasing Manuel Vázquez Montalbán who in turn was paraphrasing Paul Bowles: the difference between travelers and tourists is that tourists visit faraway places, and therefore know when their visit begins and ends. Travelers, he said, only know when their voyage begins. They can feel at home in faraway places.

In this sense I'm a traveler, although I've been in Spain for almost seven years now. I have my residence permit, I can work and pay taxes, but I'm still a traveler. I will never consider myself Spanish or Catalan because I will never be allowed to consider myself Spanish or Catalan. I give my utmost respect to the mix of cultures and languages on the Iberian peninsula, but I'm not fooling myself - I will never be one of them. As anywhere else, the culture is defined by centuries of slowly changing demographics, by tradition, by language, by frontiers and by generations with strong attachments to the land. If you are born here you have a right to claim it as your homeland. If you come from outside the most you can hope for is a pat on the back for trying to speak their language. You will get tacit acceptance, but you will always be referred to as the Americano, for example.

To a certain extent I've also experienced this in the States; we also tend to search for our roots back in Europe or elsewhere. Because we need to differentiate ourselves we search and create myths about our roots. But since most of us are displaced, mixed, and essentially rootless, there is a common feeling of being American. People that go there to live, that weren't born there, will eventually call themselves American. It doesn't take generations, like it does here.

This has both its positive and negative aspects. I think in the end more positive. To try to arrest the flux of people and natural migratory tendencies smacks of essentialism. Can we really arrest our natural impulses, and will this make things any better? Are people really able to engineer the perfect society? Is the perfect society this perfect homogeneous group like the Nazis wanted to make, or is it heterogeneous like the United States? Would that make the United States a form of utopia (that is, of course, if you don't agree with the Nazis)? Post modernists hate the thought of that. That's why they don't believe in anything anymore. I don't go around waving a flag, or feeling ashamed of where I come from. I just try to keep my ear to the ground, that's all.

Paul Bowles is, incidentally, the man who inspired me to ditch everything I had in the States and become a traveler (at the time, I would have gone to India even ... I just wanted to get out). The year was 1999 and I had been working seven days a week, holding two different jobs, for almost a year. By summer of 1999 I had ten thousand dollars saved up and a one-way ticket to Spain, via Amsterdam. I gave away everything I owned, bought a North Face backpack and a couple good books to take along with me (one of them was Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, the other was Water Music by T.C. Boyle which is highly recommended, and coincidentally another traveler-themed book).

On my itinerary was Morocco, partly because I knew Paul Bowles was living in Tangier. Despite rumors of his rudeness to visitors, I wanted to pay him a visit. Unfortunately he died in between the time when I bought my ticket and my arrival in Europe. I went to Tangier anyway, and it was a a huge disappointment - a far cry from the intriguing international city found in Bowles' fiction. It was filthy and downright repulsive. To this day, in fact, I would have to say it's the absolute worst place I've ever been too. There isn't even anything romantically sordid about the place. It's just a filthy hole on the doorstep of Europe.

Bowles lived in Tangier for the last fifty years of his life. I have a feeling he did so because he knew he would be left alone there. Further south there are beautiful cities like Essaouira and Marrakesh, there's the Gorges of Toudra, and even Chefchaouen, which is renowned for the quality hash which can be bought there (Bowles toked, that's for sure, as can be surmised from some of his surreal, labyrinthine short stories). So, why would anyone take up permanent residence in a hole like Tangier? One thing's for sure, you will be left alone there.

But getting back to Montalbán, who started this whole rumination by paraphrasing Bowles ...

In my opinion he was a better writer than Bowles, and I feel really fortunate that I can read him in Spanish. They were both travelers and both wrote about it, but if I had to compare them I would say Montalbán achieved two things that Bowles never fully achieved in all the books I've read by him: humor and a sense of humanity. Also, Montalbán's writing is clear, whereas Bowles' writing sometimes has a strangulated feel to it.

I'm on my second book by Montalbán, Milenio Carvalho, which is his swan song. Pepe Carvalho, -the detective/protagonist of many of his novels - has been implicated in a murder while he's on his self-proclaimed last trip around the world, accompanied by his sidekick Biscúter. They eat and philosophize most of the time, in between bursts of intrigue - in Genoa, in Athens, Alexandria, Ramallah, Jerusalem, the Bosporus straight ... I'm still reading it so I can't say where they'll end up.

Philo/political observations and eating easily take up half the space of the book. Whereas most fictional characters seem to have a superhuman ability to survive without eating, Carvalho is obsessed with filling his fat Iberian tummy. That's the great thing about Montalbán's Carvalho versus Hammett's Continental OP, Chandler's Marlowe, or Spillane's Hammer - more than a detective he's a pioneer of the palate, something we can relate to more than the archetypal badass found in most detective fiction. Carvalho is a traveler and a bon vivant above all else.

Both Bowles and Montalbán were travelers in real life (Montalbán lived out his remaining days in Bangkok), and they both injected their experiences into their fiction. The underlying idea is this: travelers uproot themselves and make the world their home. I can't say I regret anything about my decision to leave the States. Attachment to land, to a supposed identity, is illusory. Once you get out there you realize people have pretty much the same motives everywhere you go. Architecture changes, eating habits get better or worse, but people are always the same. At least from my limited experience so far.