Seeing Europe Again, Confessions of a First World Traveler
An entertaining and informative look at cultural differences between European and American attitudes.
Before you rent that rustic villa in an unspoiled and secluded section of Tuscany, reserve space in the cozy bed and breakfast with the individually decorated rooms, or send off your deposit to a centrally located modern hotel in the heart of Florence, you might want to brush up your Travlish, because like all living languages, Travlish is in a constant state of flux. Busy checking out which chef lost a star and what hotel added a swimming pool, your favorite travel writer cannot be expected to replace his entire vocabulary every time he revises an edition. He'll keep you up to date, but he'll do it in the lingua franca of his profession and according to its unspoken rules, the first of which is if you can't say something good about a place, think again. That's why everyone from Fodor and Birnbaum to Gault, Millau and the gray eminences who assemble the Michelin use only words that elicit positive responses, favoring those that conjure up visions of comfort, prosperity, and beauty. With thousands of favorable images to choose from, editors and publishers tend to play it safe. When in doubt, they're neutral. We live in a litigious society, and travel writers are a cautious breed who have learned never to say "shabby" when "traditional" will do and become adept at transforming mob scenes into "ambience" and a plate of indefinable ingredients into a "native specialty".
Take the adjectives in the very first sentence-- rustic, secluded, and modern. Chances are they summon up an illusion of understated elegance, of country roads winding through peaceful vineyards where the loudest sound you hear is the noise of grapes ripening under a warm southern sun. And it can be true. The thing to remember is that the identical adjectives could describe your scout camp, with its hard narrow cots, its primitive plumbing, its six mile hike to the nearest gas station, where, if you were lucky, they had vending machines. No one has deliberately tried to mislead you, but merely written a sentence in classic Travlish.
Continue to "cozy" and "individually decorated". If you're imagining down-stuffed chintz and a few fine old Jacobean pieces, you could be either exceptionally fortunate or only dreaming. "Cozy" is small; sometimes downright cramped. "Individually decorated" can mean that the people who arrived ten minutes before you have The Duke of York's suite and you have the nursery, complete with teddy bear and potty chair. Though "individually decorated" can suggest anything or nothing, it always indicates that while some rooms are magnificent and others wretched, they all cost the same. In those hostelries where the rooms have names instead of numbers, you're playing the lottery. The Samuel Pepys? The Colette suite? The Chopin apartment may have a piano, but you should test the bed. The fact that the furniture didn't come from a contract supplier in Grand Rapids isn't necessarily a virtue in itself, as anyone who has struggled to fit a month's worth of haberdashery into an antique Welsh washstand can tell you.
Used in tandem,"centrally located" and "modern" are a particularly dangerous combination because they're not only reassuring but absolutely accurate. When these code words are used to describe a hotel in a "bustling" or "thriving" city, you ought to be thinking of smog and the noise motorcycles make when they're warming up; of traffic-jams, horns, sirens, and the way streets lined with banks and office towers look after dark. You should visualize paper-thin walls, sealed windows, and those hangers
that fit into minuscule holes instead of hooking over the bar, because bustling, thriving cities attract people bent on business rather than pleasure. Mini-bars, filled with stale peanuts, extortionately priced beverages and pea-sized ice cubes are also "modern". A mini-bar often indicates that standard sized ice cubes are not available in the establishment because the person who used to bring them has been replaced by an appliance. Rooms in "modern" hotels are square, tiny, and often have balconies overlooking the bus terminal. One particularly memorable example (perhaps "post-modern") had a molded plastic unit encompassing tub, shower and sink, with a single set of faucets on a cable. The inhabitant was expected to pick them up and move them into the empty holes with each change of lavatory venue; a novelty, but a definite nuisance. If you're in town to sell Isuzus, you may not mind, but if you're on holiday, you might do well to skip B and T cities altogether.
In general, a "convenient" location is to be preferred over a central one, but best of all is a hotel described as "within easy reach" of the city's charms. Once you're in the taxi, on the Metro or Underground, what difference does it make? You'll enjoy everything more if you've had a good night's sleep away from the Harley-Davidsons and the Reisen buses. What you save by not ever opening the mini-bar pays all your cab fares. But suppose "modern" would never appeal to you in the first place. You're looking for something with charm, authenticity, spacious rooms and even fireplaces. Your favorite travel writer may even have mentioned a few places where the rooms are palatial, a term often used as a synonym for "larger than average". Those are all magic words, and it can be almost impossible to believe there can be anything misleading about them. Even so, a bit of pessimism doesn't hurt. The further east you go, the less alluring "authentic" can be. At the Urals and sometimes before, "modern" abruptly changes meaning and becomes profoundly desirable. (Travlish, like English, can be tricky.) In the Middle East and Asia, there's so much charm and authenticity in the streets that you may long for something entirely different in your accommodations.
"Spacious" and "palatial" should give you a moment's pause even in Paris and London-- perhaps especially in Paris and London. What creates the illusion of space? Emptiness. Is Versailles genuinely inviting, or does "palatial" really mean a vast room with some spindly gilt chairs around the edges, interspersed with coffin-shaped chests and plaster casts of Greek gods and busts of Roman emperors? The trouble with "palatial" is that it's often so precisely true. Where did the nobility keep their clothes? What did they use for reading light? Did they have contact lenses, hair dryers and laptop computers? Did they yearn for a jacuzzi after a long drive on the autostrada? Those urgent questions didn't arise during the heyday of palaces, so it would be unreasonable to expect to find much beyond space--vast, yawning space-- in a palace, though you can often count on a bathroom as big as the bedroom because once upon a time, long, long ago, several menials slept there.
While it may seem churlish to say an unkind word about fireplaces, one should remember that they were not originally meant for decoration or merely as a romantic adjunct to a central-heating system. No, they were purely functional; essential to survival. When choosing an accommodation with a fireplace, make sure it's in working order.
By now, a close reader will be writing his own Travlish phrase book, perhaps including specialized terms like "made to order", which is not exactly the same as "custom-made". While "made to order" only indicates that the shop doesn't have your size, "custom-made" may sometimes still mean that they will eventually create one just for you, according to your measurements and preferences, though the operative word here is "eventually". "Local handicraft" is another peculiarly seductive phrase, exciting interest even in people who'd never waste a moment in Harrod's or the Galleries Lafayette. Interested only in the genuine folk culture of the country, they're particularly vulnerable, and should remind themselves that all local handicrafts of any artistic merit whatever are exported to the United States. If a handicraft has remained local until the ninth decade of the twentieth century, there's probably a good reason. A skeptical attitude may save you a long detour on secondary roads to see an exhibit of crocheted potholders and flannelet pen wipers. Though there's no need to be as narrow-minded as the friend who said he bought all his arts and crafts at Van Cleef and Arpels, there's a valuable lesson buried deep within that flippant sentence.
Food and lodging are not the only places where Travlish surfaces. Consider the journey itself, with its panoramic views, scenic routes, and places of unusual interest. Before planning where you'll stop for lunch, keep in mind that all panoramas are located at high altitudes, the most splendid always reached by long hikes after you have negotiated the perilous roads leading to the car park at the bottom of them. While a scenic route may often begin at sea level, after a while, the sea tends to get monotonous, crowded, or both, and any scenic route worth its star will eventually begin to climb, and climb. Guard rails, because they impede the view, are often omitted at the most spectacular portions of scenic routes. By all means take them, but in daylight and good weather, keeping in mind the fact that while a "place of unusual interest" may require several hours of time, mere "points of interest" can take only a moment or so, and places of "additional" interest may be of none whatever, unless you're particularly fascinated by sarcophagi.
Someone who has spent a vacation on a tranquil, undiscovered island might want to add that "tranquil" means nothing to do at night, while "undiscovered" almost always means nothing to do in the daytime either, or the place would have been long since been modified by "exquisite" or "breathtaking", (another adjective that should be taken literally).
A variation of the local handicraft rule can often be applied to words beginning with the prefix "un". A peculiar idiosyncrasy of Travlish is that "un" can turn an ordinarily negative word into the highest praise, as in "unspoiled," "uncrowded", and even "unusual", which may often require further re-interpretation as "lacking in amenities," "desolate," and "weird". Then again, the intrepid pioneer who has found a truly tranquil, unspoiled, and undiscovered paradise probably has never told a living soul, let alone a travel writer.