The New Cosmopolitan (Modern Travel for Dummies)

There was a time when cosmopolitanism, being ‘at home’ in all parts of the world, was a rare skill. Cosmopolitan travelers were forced to acquire vast and often archaic knowledge in order to move fluidly among alien cultures. Men and women of the world were multi-lingual and flexible, adjusting not only their manners but their very language, habits and subsistence to accord with the local (or native) ways. This was the custom of rare breeds of missionaries and explorers, those who set out not only to take but to give what knowledge they had, to cohabit. In ecological terms, a ‘cosmopolitan’ organism is one that is distributed throughout the world, and in nature as in man this was once possible only through adaptation. The common house sparrow, for example, makes its home nearly anywhere human beings have settled. Were it a picky eater, a particular nest builder or an enemy of strange smells or noises, it could not have acquiesced so readily to the panoply of human conditions which a global home-range affords. For millennia, the prerequisite of travel and relocation was adaptability.

For the same reason, wanderers were ultimately rare. Even nomadic cultures remained within a home range. Most humans, most flora and fauna for that matter, had learned the skills to subsist within their own region and culture. Knowledge of where the food and water is, when to reap or sow and how to build a suitable home against the elements were all specific, local details. These were learned from the older generations, along with the particular mythologies, values and biases of the local community. Freedom from these provincialisms entailed a corresponding loss of place, a sort of homelessness that compensated the loss of the local with a receptivity to the foreign and unusual. Cosmopolitanism is often mistaken for an independence of thought which comes from buffering oneself from the prejudices and particularities of the local. In reality, the cosmopolitans of the past required an immense openness, the ability to learn from the host community in order to survive.

In our globalized age, the concept of cosmopolitanism has strayed towards a more literal definition. The word cosmopolite or ‘citizen of the world’ is derived from the Greek kosmos (‘world’) + polites (‘citizen’), which comes from polis (‘city’). In other words, someone whose city is the world; or inversely, the world is his city. There is an obsession of Western globalized culture, to transform the variegated globe into a single, uniform city-state, which manifests in everything from politicians’ diatribes to universal brand recognition. Multinational media conglomerates homogenize global culture while trans-national agencies and corporations force whole continents to adopt uniform crops, trade laws, computer operating systems. Local knowledge is lost in the wash, and whole cultural systems are reversed. We no longer look to the elders to teach us what we need to know for our survival. Now it is the computer-literate, media-savvy youth who must keep their grandparents from foundering in a world which values only universal, as opposed to local knowledge. Borders are erased while whole languages become extinct. Citizens of the New World Order become cosmo-polites by default. We are all being expatriated in the comfort of our own homes.

Enter the ‘backpacker’. Fledged from the romantic fantasy of the globetrotting adventurer, and enabled by the late 20th century reduction in the price of air travel, this college-age caricature has become the bread and butter of hostels and travel guide publishers, buttressing an entire sub sector of the tourist industry. They can be spotted at every major transit station on the planet: Oversized backpack, map-in-hand, expensive socks, hat brim shading a brow that communicates only confusion and a vague, listless excitement. Ostensibly, the backpacker leaves home to find his place in the world, but what does this mean? Usually, ten-thousand steps in big-name museums, a little trail time, cheap falafel, and many nights of drinking Czech beer in an ‘Irish pub’ with Swedish blondes, speaking English and occasionally forgetting what city we’re in. This is travel within the New World Polis. One language, one culture, lots of famous masterpieces we recognize from magazine ads or art history classes. Beer factories. Attractions. We don’t find our place in the world so much as we find that the world is our place. Just like home, more or less.

There is a model of travel that is distinctly different. It isn’t found in the “off-the-beaten-path” slogans of tour operators. It requires investment. You may actually have to read something. In order to gain a better understanding of our own cultures, we must research its roots at home and its alternatives abroad. Instead of buying a Eurorail pass, why not stay in one place? Learn to speak some Italian, or Berber. Work on a farm. Build something. Teach. Give your time and sweat to a community and you will gain access to a wealth of cultural resources that even the local college students haven’t plied through. To learn about a place is to learn from the forgotten generations, who may be cagey or ungenerous with their knowledge. Luckily, sincerity reveals itself in any language. If you work first and ask questions later, you will be vouchsafed the kind of answers you didn’t know you were looking for. Let me warn you in advance: the things you learn won’t necessarily be useful elsewhere. They won’t make you a savvy globetrotter. You probably won’t get laid. It’s worth it. We are a primarily referential generation, revivalists of a fading tapestry of histories and cultures. Let us also resurrect the old-time cosmopolitan. Collector of specifics. Stories over souvenirs. The world is still a motley multitude, but not for long. The global village marches nearer. It’s time to go back to the source.

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~ by jonlib on April 12, 2007.

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