Cultural Travel Makes me Think, Foodie Travel Makes me Sick

First, an explanation for my silence for most of the month. One week I was in Cambridge, MA for the end of the week (when I normally post), and I have also been busy preparing and grading exams, doing my annual reports for the university, writing a grant application, and revising a paper for resubmission. My desk is a bit cleaner now, and I will be back to posting more regularly now, including some posts about the final exams in my courses.

But today’s post is about something completely different. On this trip to Cambridge I stayed into the weekend and my wife joined me, and we had a chance to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Realizing that we will be in Boston again with the children later in the year and also realizing that an annual membership is less expensive than two visits, we took out a membership.

Beyond all the things we saw on the visit – particularly a superb special Egyptian history exhibit “The Secrets of Tomb 10A” – getting the membership gave me the feeling of joining a cultural community in a city that is not my home, but one I frequently visit.

And this takes me to the deeper question of why we travel. For me, the key reason is to understand the history and culture of other places. My main attractions are museums, art galleries, and religious shrines. In the Eighties and Nineties, when I travelled frequently, especially in Asia, I wrote quite a few travel pieces for the Globe and Mail, about things like Kabuki theatre, Chinese and Japanese gardens, and religious shrines.

To my profound regret, the travel pages have increasingly become dominated by foodie travelers, who travel primarily to visit a handful of upscale restaurants. And while local cuisine is a part of local culture, and for that reason deserves some attention, many foodie travel articles display little locavore interest, and simply go for the places with the Michelin stars.

I read an egregious example of this in the New York Times on Sunday April 25. In the “36 hours” feature, correspondent Jaime Gross was in Kyoto, a place so significant to Japanese culture that, during World War II, it was the only major city the Americans did not bomb.

She began by noting that Kyoto has 2000 ancient temples and shrines, and then suggested twelve activities. Four were in some sense cultural (the Geisha district, a well-known park, a museum devoted to the tea ceremony, and a comic book (manga) museum. Five were restaurants, two bars or clubs, and the twelfth was shopping. Clearly, none of the 2000 temples or shrines nor the famous Nijo Castle appealed to her.

On two visits to Kyoto, each a weekend, I rented a bike, and cycled from shrines to gardens to castles, treating the meals as refueling stops. I couldn’t imagine a more fascinating way to spend a day – anywhere.

There are two terms, both of biblical origin, I would apply to Ms. Gross’s notion of travel, at least as displayed in this article: philistine and Am Ha-aretz. The latter is a Hebrew phrase from rabbinic Judaism, literally “people of the land,” connoting people who are rustic, uncivilized, and ignorant.

The challenge of the “36 hours” concept is to accept the time constraint and make choices. That article displayed unwise and uncivilized choices. In its essence, foodie travel is about indulging the senses and ignoring the mind. A bad choice, and not my choice.

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