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I am a strange bird, when it comes to travel.

For on the one hand, the number one reason I crush the credit card to
go, and the number one deciding factor that informs the choices I
make in terms of where to visit, is that I am almost pathologically
addicted what we might call the banally exotic quotidien. Look, I go
to museums, I see the sights. Or at least I did in the past. But what
gets me out here is stupid stuff like street-signs and supermarkets
and the way people serve coffee and when they buy their newspapers
and where they buy them and what they look like. Laugh at me all you
like – perhaps you are a gourmand, or a sex-tourist, or you only go
where you’re likely to find, what, the best thriftstore buys.
Whatever. But in a certain way, my special preoccupation with the
everyday in my travels undoubted comes close to what travel for
pleasure and edification has always boiled down to…

People are always asking me, in the real world, if my work intersects
with that of Michel de Certeau, and the answer is always no, not
really. But, strangely enough, I am a practices of everyday life guy
through and through when it comes to those couple of weeks a year
that I’ve paid to remove from my usual activities and (at the moment)
incredibly bleak surroundings. Go figure.

But on the other hand, my little addiction to the small stuff is, in
a certain sense, something that my personality-construction is almost
categorically unfit for. Why? I am one of those people – I can’t tell
if we are rare or not – who is compulsively fearful of making little
mistakes in everyday performances. I hate not knowing, for instance,
whether it is appropriate or not to ask for a coffee à emporter at
this establishment or that. I hate not knowing how to use a subway
turnstile. I hate being baffled by menus, I hate not understand how
to hail a taxi, I fear running afoul of written or unwritten rules
about smoking in public. I am addicted to foreign newspapers, even
those I can’t read – but I am terrified of buying them, for fear that
the newsagent will wonder after I leave “Why the fuck was he buying
that if he doesn’t have the language.” It is ridiculous, I agree.

There are a few major factors that go into this personality defect
(and it is, for sure, a defect): my upbringing by fastidiously-
correct anglo-canadian parents, who made minor forms of impolite or
awkward behavior feel like, what, public urination. An pathological
need to “be in the know” about everything (this need is one,
obviously, that intersects with my internet compulsion, blogging,
etc…) doesn’t help. And with Paris in particular, it also has
something to do with my weird relationship to the French language,
which I really am supposed to know, both because of my education and
because, for chissakes, I write on and teach French authors
constantly… but even if I can read French authors in the original
at a level that has permitted me to develop, from what I can tell,
some very very insightful arguments based on microscopic close
readings of the language itself, I still cannot properly order a
fucking coffee in French, and I stand blankly stunned whenever anyone
says anything that I am not prepared for.

So I am, yes, a strange bird in my own quiet little way. (I wish my
psychokinks were more interesting – for your sake, as readers…) But
what I am wondering about today is what this combined fascination and
fear has to do with my work, the issues and texts that I am
interested in and the arguments that I am trying to articulate about
them. For one thing, it clarifies quite a lot of the backstory of why
I am so interested in a figure like Neurath
– clear, international communication-methods, which make it at once
easier to order coffee and, perhaps, less interesting to do so. But
it goes well beyond this as well.

More posts are coming, if I can keep the battery charged…

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 20, 2007 at 3:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. wow, um, terrifying in the detail that it describes me too. Even down to the reading French vs. having to speak with even the most pleasant human person. But the opening is merely patently right: to know the least thing about a city, one walks all the time as a pursuit, not en route except when one takes the public transit which should be multiple times daily, and one goes to the sights only if one has a lot of extra time.

    Will you be in France anytime between June 20 – July 19?


    May 20, 2007 at 12:20 pm

  2. I agree–it’s the details of everyday life that interest me.

    I used to have more of a mm, social perfectionism? anxiety? of the sort you’re talking about. I’ve worked on it, and it’s gotten better, but I can still relate.

    The thing about traveling then, is: maybe it’s better to feel like a foreigner on foreign turf than on your own; at least there’s a definable reason for it.


    May 24, 2007 at 10:19 am

  3. Jane,

    Christ, no, unfortunately I’ll be back in the shitty ol US by June 1. If I had my druthers, I’d just stay here in Amsterdam for the rest of my days, check the kid into an American school, and that would be that. But no – two more nights in Paris on the way back and that’s it for us this summer…

    And the walks, yes, of course. Now that we’re here with a just-short-of-2-year old, we’ve been reduced down to the essence of what our travelling has always been about, which is the walks, long, long walks…

    If I could somehow bottle and dip into the pleasure of walking in search of the IHT in a new city in my daily life back home, life would be close to perfect…


    Yes, I agree. I’m getting better here during this trip already… But I got brought up short tonight when I went into a cafe around the corner and asked for a coffee to go, which yielded a flat “no.” (“asshole,” implied). Which put me back in my place for awhile, yes…


    May 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm

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