In the morning we took breakfast in the garden, under the trees, in the delightful German summer fashion. The air was filled with the fragrance of flowers and wild animals; the living portion of the menagerie of the “Naturalist Tavern” was all about us. There were great cages populous with fluttering and chattering foreign birds, and other great cages and greater wire pens, populous with quadrupeds, both native and foreign. There were some free creatures, too, and quite sociable ones they were. White rabbits went loping about the place, and occasionally came and sniffed at our shoes and shins; a fawn, with a red ribbon on its neck, walked up and examined us fearlessly.
So begins the eighteenth chapter of A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain’s mammoth travel tome first published in 1880. Even more than 130 years after he wrote it, Twain’s description of a picturesque morning in the beautiful German countryside still resonates blissfully. The weather, the sensory euphoria, the garden, and the animals all sound like something out of a Disney movie – too good to be true.
These dreamy moments are, arguably, the best moments that travel has to offer. While we think of travelling the way that Twain spends most of the text – hiking, boating, learning customs, seeing artefacts – oftentimes the most special experiences come in between the events on the itinerary. Stopping to feel the sun and eavesdrop on a local’s conversation, sitting in nature, or having a cup of tea in a quiet café or garden – this momentary pause from seeing a new place can allow one to truly feel a place; this is captured eloquently in Twain’s close attention to the sensory experience in “The Kindly Courtesy of Germans” and the relaxation epitomised by the “fragrance of flowers,” the German summer air, and the adorable rabbits and fawn. Something about travelling, likely because we are not attached to the location in the same way that we are to our home, allows us to be more immersed and invested in our environment and in these moments of beauty.
It can also be very tempting to see somewhere ‘exotic’ through rose-coloured glasses however, and one is reminded well of this just a few short paragraphs later after Twain and company have finished their picturesque morning routine:
We descended from the church by steep stone stairways which curved this way and that down narrow alleys between the packed and dirty tenements of the village. It was a quarter well stocked with deformed, leering, unkempt and uncombed idiots, who held out hands or caps and begged piteously.
The contrast between the airy, luxurious nature of the garden to the crowded, dirty environment in Hirschhorn is jarring, and Twain’s descriptive, differing diction reflects this sudden change. The move to Hirschhorn is off-putting, but it is also real. The difference between the privileged traveller, for whom every need is catered to and who can afford to vacation and enjoy leisure time, and the local beggars whose real experience of Hirschhorn is entirely different, underscores the detachment with which travellers experience a place.
Moments of relaxation and beauty seem so much more frequent and natural during travel because they are allowed to happen when we can step outside of ourselves, our responsibilities, and the ‘real’ world (and of course, because travelling is reserved for the financially privileged). While Twain moves on quickly from the beggars in Hirschhorn, it was still what stood out to me the most – the idea of the different spheres of experience that we participate in when we are travelling and how the tourist eye is trained to overlook and obscure what doesn’t square with our desired vision of a place.
Is part of travelling playing make-believe? Is the anonymity of being a stranger part of what encourages us to relax? These are questions that I wish could have been answered later on in Twain’s book, but for now, I guess I’ve learned a lot more about the nuances of German manners.
Source: A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain, published online by Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/119/119-h/119-h.htm