Friday, December 2, 2011

We're Going for the Cheese

Chesterton writes in one essay – or possible two essays that my memory has confused – about the best way to travel in foreign lands. People generally go to see the famous buildings: the cathedrals, the museums, the memorials, the state buildings, the homes of famous personages from the past. But seeing Paris, for instance, doesn't mean visiting the Louvre and climbing the Eiffel Tower, because Paris consists of Parisians, and the Parisians themselves don't make the visits of typical tourists. They enjoy the Louvre and the Tower, but, Chesterton points out, not as destinations; the Parisians enjoy these structures as the environment through which they walk to work, to dine, to shop, and to meet people. The famous buildings provide, not the focus of the city, but rather its atmosphere. Far better, he says, to travel in foreign lands for the purpose of enjoying each area's distinct cuisine – above all, its cheese.

In 2005, our family traveled to Europe fortified with this healthy attitude. In Paris, we visited the Louvre briefly and looked at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, of course. But one of our favorite memories of the trip concerns a lovely lunch we enjoyed at a sidewalk cafe, Notre Dame visible to our left and the Eiffel Tower visible to our right.

Dickens, whom Chesterton so greatly admired, seems to have had the same outlook on foreign travel. Near the beginning of his Pictures from Italy, Dickens says that, so much having been written already about famous artworks, he will say nothing of them. Instead, Dickens focuses on people, dress, food, and manners. This week, I’ve read about men playing “bowls” in a field, footpaths through trellises bedecked with grapevines, narrow streets too exiguous for the passage of a single carriage, rusty gates, gardens overcome with weeds, tanned and barefoot proselytisers for the Catholic Church, red neckerchiefs, number-guessing games, and peeling plaster. In his account of Genoa, Dickens tells about both the regional pronunciation and the town’s penchant for naming boys Giovanni Battista, the combination of which causes the streets to be filled with sneezing sounds as people greet the innumerable “Batcheetchas.”

In a passage about paintings – not great masterpieces, but the decorations at his hotel – Dickens drops some tantalizing clues about an unfamiliar English custom. Apparently, the pictures were dirty, and Dickens says that they would have pleased professional picture cleaners from London. I didn’t know about this profession before. It seems that the shops of these nineteenth-century picture cleaners were marked by a signboard that attempted to demonstrate the benefits of the service offered: a picture of death and the lady, one half dirty and the other half . . . well, less dirty. I’m fascinated and want to know which side was more covered with street grime: death or lady?

Two passages of Pictures from Italy especially capture the spirit of adventure found in this style of traveling that avoids sight-seeing. The first summarizes Genoa:
There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.
To the traveler who goes to see what a place is truly like, all these adjectives are equally welcome. The second passage even more explicitly favors the humble over the magnificent:
ARIOSTO’S house, TASSO’S prison, a rare old Gothic cathedral, and more churches of course, are the sights of Ferrara. But the long silent streets, and the dismantled palaces, where ivy waves in lieu of banners, and where rank weeds are slowly creeping up the long-untrodden stairs, are the best sights of all.
In January, Nancy and I get to travel to Italy for five months. We have a few sights we'd like to see: the ruins of Pompeii, the Senate House in the Roman Forum, David in Florence. But mostly, we're going for the cheese.

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