Culture vs. Collection

A photo from Karl von Westerholt’s “The Travels of Captain Brass”

There’s a series of travel photographs by Karl von Westerholt that are the size of trading cards. The focal point of each is a monument, building or some other easily referenced cultural landmark. According to ArtDaily.org, the collection “parodies those globetrotting tourists who travel the world with their photographs like collectors and believe they have understood life in foreign parts.”

I saw the photographs at the Berlinische Galerie Museum of Modern Art when I traveled to Europe this late summer. It was my first trip abroad and the gallery had an exhibit on travel photography (“Faraway Focus”), ranging in ideas and formats that included mundane travel shots that no one takes but are key parts of the trip (at the airport, hotel blahs, etc.) and Europeans’ takes on traveling through America in different eras.

The von Westerholt shots caught my eye in particular, though; this idea of capturing the travel icons and showcasing them as though currency. They’re proof of your cultural prowess, the thing that you brought home and can now flaunt at will. Even a post on how Americans travel by The Telegraph seemed aware of this, pointing to where we like to travel: “Is it famous? Americans are there. You won’t find many of them toottling around Puglia or or Slovakia. They quest for not for the hidden gem, but for the best.” (Perhaps in our defense, the article went on to note that we do receive less vacation time than Europeans—legally, we’re not mandated any, but the average is 10 for U.S. employees—so maybe we can’t be blamed for using our limited time on bee-lining it to the Parthenon, snapping a pic, and moving the hell on). 

I’m not saying I didn’t take photos, and plenty of mine are dauntingly basic (Eiffel Tower looming over rooftops, Berlin Wall, etc.). My question is whether we do ourselves a disservice by returning home with little more than basic proof of travel.

I could also be hyper-aware of what can be deemed a *real* experience because of my previous lack thereof. I’ve traveled plenty in the U.S., but never abroad. The fact that I didn’t until just recently own a passport garnered more than a few brow-raises in recent years from fellow middle class white friends, many of whom tout their defining moments spent studying abroad in whatever foreign city.

[Yes, I’ve been hella jealous. But also I was a garbage heap in college so probably best that I kept that contained to the continental United States.]

I didn’t do a lot of planning for this trip, outside of plane and train tickets, plus accommodations. We would take a peek at a list or two from The New York Times or Bon Appetit for ideas once we arrived, but no tours or such. Aside from finding trip planning exhausting (jk I just have no concept of time and we’re lucky we didn’t miss most of our trains), I mostly wanted to sit in each city and get acclimated with it.

It worked. I know it worked because when I got back to Chicago and went out socially, it felt kind of disturbing.

WHY IS EVERYONE CONSTANTLY LOOKING AT OTHER STRANGERS IN THE U.S.?

We are constantly sizing each other up. We are competitive to such a fault that we can’t even sit down for a slice of pizza with friends and keep ourselves from angling at a pair of shoes on someone 10 yards away. We are ogglers. We’re also so aware of OTHERS ogling at US that we overdress for that slice of pizza.

I got home and wanted to slow down. The rush—and, granted, I live in a major American city—is so pervasive that I have to actively remind myself not to haul ass just so I can make it to a train that has another train two minutes behind it. Leave earlier, dummy. Or at least get comfortable with being late. I’ve fallen on the sidewalk from rushing. There was no snow or ice or anything. I was just booking it. You know who I bet doesn’t eat shit walking down the street in a light drizzle? French women.

I don’t want to feel so propelled anymore. Leaving the apartment can feel like getting launched out of a slingshot, whereas in Europe it felt like finding the right flow. I don’t want to “grab a bite,” I want to sit down for at least an hour and graze and drink. These are things I may be able to do because of my privilege (already made clear by the whole OMG I WENT TO EUROPE thing), but if I slow down and stop forcing things or stop analyzing every other person rushing around me, maybe that would be best for everyone.

That was my takeaway. I brought home some chocolate, took some photos for Instagram, but the ease is what I want to actually show people. Souvenirs are so passive and easily lost. If I’m going to claim I’m at all cultured, based on my travels, then I need to be integrating cultural lessons into my lifestyle.

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