Looking for the tourist. Part 2. Mona Lisa.

Контент 18+ (лексика, описание эротических сцен)

Maybe it says a lot that, when we travel, most of us shrink away from the voices of our own countrymen. When my Russian wife Liuba and I used to beat the paths of Western Europe, she would head in the other direction at the sound of a Russian and I would do the same when I heard an American. It was nothing to do with snobbery; we have never pretended to be aristocrats. As a matter of fact, I wanted to say 'Привет' and Liuba wanted to say, "How do you do?" But to the nationality opposite our own...

So what was it that made us despise our own kind? I think we just wanted to hold onto what magic there was in being 'away from it all', immersing ourselves in whatever we found exotic or pristine, and not having it ruined by the 'drone and gabble' of the familiar that would instantly bring back the annoyances we were attempting separate ourselves from, however briefly. In reality, I still check the American football scores, and Liuba is proud of being who she is.

But on the other hand, I have listened to American bullshit for getting on to three-quarters of a century. Do I need it in Sorrento?

OK. Because my last blog on this subject  --Tourists and Tourism -- ended up being so deeply personal (I thought about massively editing it but decided to let it stand), I would now like to attempt a more disengaged approach -- less aggressive toward the kind of tourists some of you no doubt are, and less intolerant of toward myself and my once almost limitless capacity for self-deception..

The question is, what are we looking for when we travel? Obviously, not always the same things. I know people who want to go hiking in Asian jungles. Others who want the 5-Star Hotel beach routine. Others yet who insist on controlled excursions and visiting a pre planned list of 'must see' sites. Others, still, who, like me, just want to wander around and hope to find 'experiences', interspersed with visits to the grand cathedrals, natural wonders, and points of historical magnitude.

It is still possible to give the slip to the great unwashed herd of Americans, Japanese, etc. who flock to the great capitals. Really not hard, if you are willing to settle for small towns off the beaten track where old recipes and customs are preserved. And especially if you are hip to all the high tech applications that can help you avoid, not only the rush hour traffic in Moscow, but the tourists traps in Barcelona and Rome. You can if you know how. My way has always been to decide where I want to go, book a strategically positioned but not overly expensive hotel, get there, change money, and first thing in the morning jump on one of those red tourist buses which run you all over the city -- the ones where you put in earplugs and listen to a tape recorded "guide" that you can never hear because of the noise  and the bad quality of the tape. This, however crudely, gives me the "lay of the land" -- a general sense of what there is and where to find it. Then I go back to the hotel and book excursions. For Liuba and me, it has always worked. If I were alone, I would still probably just wander around, but having a wife restores order and dictates a certain decorum.

But standing in long lines is a No-no. I wouldn't care if Jesus Christ were waiting inside the building, I am not hanging around for six hours to see Him. And what if HE were there? What would make my personal experience with Him unique? Some obscure blessing and an usher to point that I should move on, directing me to the exit?. That is what tourism is all about: the long wait, the quick 'experience', the Bum's Rush. We are like children waiting to pet the goat or swim with the dolphin. Briefly. A minute or two. Then it's someone else's turn.

And when we leave, and we are back on the sweaty avenue again, we see, not Spain, not France -- we see America. MacDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks. It doesn't matter anymore what city you are in or what airport you find yourself at. They are all the same; they just sell different football paraphernalia. It is mass production, mass 'experience', mass junk to carry back to where you came from, mass crowding at the airports. It sours on my stomach, but then again I am growing old. I am sure that has something to do with it. Yet so much of it, in addition to being grotesquely overpriced, just seems artificial. And, for example, as much as I love Italy, something in me rebels at handing over my cash to some greasy nobody so that I can admire the remains of a great edifice or aqueduct that has stood for two thousand years and which he had NOTHING to do with putting together. Just as I hate being forced to pay a "tourist tax' at the hotel. Aren't we spending enough goddamned money without a "TOURIST TAX"???

Years ago, I went to the Louvre when it was still possible to stand and look at the Mona Lisa. At first, I wasn't impressed; it is actually a very small painting. But then I found myself feeling mesmerized...gradually...the way you sometimes fall in love with a person who at first you didn't look at in such a way. I saw (and I hope it was authentic, because this painting was stolen a long time ago and supposedly found, but who knows --  art forgers, like the present day computer hackers, are arrogant and consummate assholes who really get off on 'outsmarting' innocent people ) --) but, whatever the case the Mona Lisa worked for me. So much so that after about an hour I was still gazing at her. It is one of my few extraordinary gifts that I am truly able to walk into history -- or a painting -- in this way. So I had an intimate, out-of-body experience with 'Mona.'.

Fast forward. The other day I friend was telling me of HIS recent experience. at the Louvre. Dima: "There was a mob of people, mostly Asians and Americans, many cameras, security everywhere... totally impossible to get near the painting, and when I finally got to within about four meters, though at an oblique angle, she looked like a light-show trapped in a square frame... Waste of time"

The Mona Pissa.

It was the same, he said, with the Sistine Chapel. He told me that he didn't feel like he was in the same room with Michelangelo, but rather in some Exhibition Center full of noisy businessmen and women -- a promotion of some sort. Whatever was plastered to the actual ceiling appeared almost irrelevant... It would have been more exciting if someone had started shooting and crying "Allah Akbar."  Michelangelo ? Who the hell was he?

Anyway, that's the ideal nowadays.

Final thoughts? Well, in 1970, the same week I visited The Louvre, I went wandering around in the backstreets of Paris. It was a distant, lazy, pastel afternoon, and I was restless and lonesome. I had always associated Chopin with Paris, even though I knew he was Polish. There is a melody, always played on the piano, called "Waltz in C-Sharp Minor." Most of you have heard it, even if you don't know it by name. To me, it has always evoked the Paris of my yearning and imagining.

So I was walking down that nameless Parisian backstreet, beginning to think of wending my way to my hotel (wherever it was), when suddenly, from a room inside a balcony, I heard that waltz being played on a piano. On the balcony were many old plants, some thriving, some decaying, but all bunched together, Again, I felt, as I said in my first blog about this...the 'absences'...the overwhelming absences. The midget-making gulf between who I was and who I wished to be, that seductive, yet almost hysterical craving...that hunger.

From inside that room, from which no people ever emerged, the haunting music drifted down...

It was Paris indeed.. And the Mona Lisa, well, she was a woman from old Florence who smiled at me once in an art museum. What a Big experience on a day of thin crowds in the Paris of 50 years ago..

For she was manifested in a painting. Her mysterious (some say baffling) smile sprawls eternally amid oils. But in fact this person was not 'art';  she was a woman. A woman that some real man back then, back in the Renaissance, ate meals with, spoke and even argued with, and slept with at night. This was the man who saw her and knew her naked. Who buried himself in her so deeply than babies were born because of it. How long were they together? For him...the routine. For me, five centuries later, the ineffable.

I didn't know her well enough to get bored with her. Only as she appeared on a single canvas. And maybe in real life she didn't look that way at all. Like that refugee in Afghanistan with the searing emerald eyes the photographer famously captured. Found years later, she was fat, matronly, and surrounded by kids. The raging green in her eyes was gone.

Maybe if I had seen the real Mona Lisa on a street in Florence I would have walked right past her. In the art museum I couldn't leave that woman alone, she buzzed in my heart.

Well, I am a 21th century tourist. If I want to I can buy a plane ticket and go to Louvre.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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