After almost six weeks, I’m back! As many of you likely already know, I was in Germany since early June studying at the University of Trier. Unfortunately, the academic workload and general challenges associated with adapting to life in a foreign country prevented me from posting to the blog. Now that I’m back in the United States, however, fairly regular posting should resume. I had actually hoped to start posting last week, as my program ended on the seventh of July, but I was on a river cruise with my family and the wifi situation was atrocious. Despite the frustratingly slow internet, the trip was a nice culmination to my time in Europe, and it also had the added benefit of inspiring this post.
River cruising is certainly a unique kind of vacation. It is much different from ocean cruising – an activity predominately filled with onboard activities and general laziness (at least the Carribean kind) – as river boats have very hard space constraints, necessitating that passengers actually disembark and explore the ports or risk the onset of severe stir craziness. Given this somewhat unique feature of river cruising, I imagined that my fellow travelers onboard the Jarl would have at least a passing knowledge of Central European history and culture. This turned out to be far from the case, as some of the more absurd questions posed to our guides quickly revealed. To be clear, this was not a problem: I have certainly visited parts of the world that I know embarrassingly little about, and the point of a vacation is to relax, not earn credits toward a history degree. What did annoy me, however, was the belief held by a large minority of my fellow travelers that a two-hour tour of a city provided them with a thorough understanding of the cultural, economic, and historical background of the country we were sailing through.
One particularly amusing example of this took place during a lunch in the Munich Ratskeller. My tour group was discussing some of the ports they had visited on an earlier leg of the cruise, and the topic of communism in Czechoslovakia came up. What quickly became apparent was that one of the women who was speaking with authority on the role of communist ideology in shaping religious attitudes in the modern Czech Republic didn’t even know when Czechoslovakia became communist. On multiple occasions, she conflated the date of the Prague Spring (1968, if you are interested) with the 1948 coup that transformed Czechoslovakia into a one-party communist state. The way she told it, Czechoslovakia was a liberal democracy between 1945 and 1968 before tragically succumbing to the Reds during the Prague Spring. Ironically, the period of Normalization led by Husák after the Spring was one of the more stable and humane periods in Czech communist history. True, it wasn’t as good as Dubĉek’s reign. But it sure as heck beat Gottwald’s!
A Paradoxical Millenial wrote a great post about vacationing a couple months ago, and I immediately thought of it while enduring the historical illiteracy of this woman. His post is, of course, worth reading in its entirety, but two points, in particular, stuck out. First, he writes that “The focus [of vacations] often slides into simply seeing something, rather than learning about it.” This was certainly true during my recent trip, as many of my compatriots knew seemingly nothing about the sites we were visiting. But this problem is compounded, I think, by the complete control that tour guides have over the sights we see. During my cruise down the Danube, we were simply informed that some random church was important or significant. We then dutifully took our pictures and moved on. Given this model, it’s no wonder people fail to establish a deeper connection with the cities they visit: they aren’t exploring the city and finding the unique buildings and restaurants that appeal to them, they are simply being spoon fed sites that they are “supposed” to find interesting. A Paradoxical Millenial‘s second point, that “[for travel to broaden the mind], a deeper immersion into foreign cultures is required,” is also spot on. Frankly, I could have learned everything my tour guides explained by buying a few books or taking a class at Georgetown. The only unique feature of an in-country tour is that one can see the physical buildings and monuments associated with the history of the region. But looking at a building is hardly sufficient for the development of a deep understanding of a country and its people, and thus it’s questionable whether there is much value at all in the historical components of these tours.
Vacations are a great way to unwind, break out of the daily routine, and experience something new. But it’s important to remember that they are designed to be relaxing and safe, not thought-provoking and enlightening. I wish that the simple act of setting eyes on a Nazi building was sufficient to suddenly transform me into an expert on Nazi Germany – it would be cheaper and faster than studying at university – but it isn’t. So let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that a few days abroad can transform someone into a regional expert. It can’t.