Monday, January 17, 2011

Tourist Traps and Traveling Revelations

Piazza San Marco at its best

Not really an exposé, but just a funny satire on tourist traps, "authentic cuisine", and the general tendency--no matter how misguided--in part of everyone to offer largely unfounded opinions of the "best" a place has to offer: "If You're Ever in Florence, You Have To Visit This Mediocre Trattoria I Know." After reading the article, at first I felt validated. The writer essentially list things I knew I had to avoid if I ever wanted good food especially in such tourist-invaded places such as Venice and Florence. Located in main piazzas, over-fantasized recreation of authenticity, multi-lingual menus, listless servers, and spaghetti bolognese, to me it's almost like a list of criteria to follow faithfully. But then, I got to thinking, are tourist traps and the opportunists that create them the problem, or is it the need for "authenticity" that is driving the authentic out to be replaced for what was merely imagined?

Of course, tourist traps exist largely because tourists have money and many would like to get their hands on the loot. But it is undeniable that tourists come to a country with certain ideas of what to find in that country, and opportunists merely offer what these foreigners look for which is largely mediocre and miles away from what they as locals know is authentic. (It's only logical--why would the "authentic" be a tourist draw if it is not specific to that place and alien to the visitor?) I am guilty of this: I always try to go to places and try the local fare, only to realize that there is no such thing as "local fare," only indigenous food made agreeable to the production realities of a commercial kitchen and the varied tastes and demands of costumers. When I went to Valencia, I was adamant about getting paella and sad when I didn't come across a dish that was anything more than decent. That is, until a Spanish friend snapped me back to the reality that Valencia is probably the worst place to get paella, and promptly brought me to a place that served more or less familiar and un-exotic dishes (the simply stewed seafood and stuffed chiles reminded me of Italy and Southern California, respectively) that nevertheless proved better than anything I had during the trip.

The mediocrity of Tuscan restaurants in Florence or Venetian restaurants in Venice have as much to do with tourist naivete as it does to the fact that tourists--even those who tout the places outside of the beaten path--are motivated by a mysterious and ultimately fictional idea of a place's "essential" cuisine. It's not enough that we have good food; it has to be a site-specific specialty offered only by those who live in that place. One time, a friend from Vicenza suggested to me that no amount of eating at good restaurants will bring me closer to the food that they eat. I wondered, the food they call "cucina vicentina"? No he said, just good food they eat everyday. Aside from the fact that the ingredients may be a local specialty and the manner of preparation was molded around the realities of the region's environment, there's nothing absolutely particular--except maybe whose nonna was making what. However, the more we make those "specialties" a thing of attraction, the more alienated they become from their original preparers and the closer they transform into oddities, attractions, and finally, tourist traps.

So what is a tourist to do? Personally, I realized that there is nothing else for me to do but to reject the need to find the "authentic" and just succumb to what is merely there. Now, I am by no means advocating a daily staple of McDonalds, chicken alfredo, or spaghetti with meatballs. (From experience, I believe that no chicken alfredo or spaghetti with meatballs offered by a restaurant in Italy could be called "quality".) "What is merely there" does not imply mediocrity or laziness. But "authentic" does not suggest "quality" either. What I am suggesting is to just enjoy what is on offer no matter "authentic" the guidebook rates it, as long as it is good and of quality. Looking back to the places I have visited, I don't particularly remember dining in restaurants or eating "local" food. The things I do remember however the most were the street food in Istanbul, hot dog in Stockholm, 100 Montaditos (bocadillos chain restaurant) in Spain, and midnight Christmas prochetta sandwiches in the footsteps of St. Pete's in Rome. I remembered them not just because they were good, but because there were others with me who didn't look foreign, eating. In the process of not fussing over the authenticity of my experience, I found myself surrounded by the place and its inhabitants, who obviously would rather just eat good food rather than fuss over what they're eating and if it correctly represents their national identity or cultural heritage. The world over, we only think of eating food and not what the food represents. The closer we get to that fact, the better we understand the place we are in.

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