I talked about enchantment and authenticity in an earlier post, and included forest bathing as one possible source of enchantment. It’s been a long January, with enchantment in short supply. The weather has warmed up a lot this week, to a balmy 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit), making it much easier to spend time outside. And so here, for your inspiration, are photos of my forest bathing sojourn at Thetis Lake.
“How many times do we think, the cheaper the beer, the more authentic the bar? Or the grittier the streets, the more authentic the neighbourhood?”1. If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally sought out gritty places when travelling to assure yourself you’re seeing the more authentic spots in that city. But is the gritty always the more authentic? Not necessarily. Read on for a discussion of the relationship between grit and authenticity.
What is Grit?
Grit, or grittiness, can have several meanings. As a personal quality, it can refer to a type of raw perseverance. In a neighbourhood or cultural setting, though, that sense of rawness tends to take on more of a seedy, or rough quality. Dystopian films and literature often portray gritty environments, where there is an element of danger or risk. Gritty neighbourhoods may be those where the physical landscape is less polished, perhaps including some industrial buildings, or where infrastructure (e.g. highways, railways, garbage dumps, or electricity-generating equipment) might be prominent. In some ways, it can be a type of anti-aesthetic.
And, the people inhabiting gritty neighbourhoods may themselves be less polished, due to poverty, affiliation with counterculture politics and/ or art, disability, or a gang lifestyle.
According to scholar Sharon Zukin, as a protest of, and genuine dissatisfaction with, corporate culture that makes everything look the same, a growing group of people are embracing the grittier or edgier aspects of neighbourhoods. In their book The Rebel Sell, Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath argue that this type of link actually dates back centuries. They also discuss how people identifying with a gritty, non-conformist lifestyle are paradoxically driving consumerism2. Both these sets of scholars observe how those seeking the gritty often play up these aspects of society and urban life, giving them their own form of glamour. In the process, however, when the gritty is glamourized, it risks becoming just another consumer product -played up for a quick sale. Sometimes grit is even created in a contrived way for consumption purposes. Think of the designer fashion outlet using reclaimed wood from old barns. While wood re-use in such a case does have an environmental benefit, it is also linked to a consumption agenda that tries to borrow the wood’s connection to an older, authentic farming past; but it risks being inauthentic because the authenticity is borrowed, not intrinsic.
When is Grit a Problem?
Grit, or rather the love of grit, can be a problem when the trend begins to exclude the vulnerable old-timers who initially helped create that sense of grit. Ironically, their departure is linked with gentrification by people who, claiming to love authenticity (including grit) are also willing to pay top dollar to be associated with old-timers and their grittiness. But this pattern isn’t straightforward either. In her in-depth studies of four gentrifying places in the United States, Japonica Brown-Saracino wrote a fascinating study of different types of gentrifiers and their relationships to earlier residents3. Not all gentrifiers are chasing the old-timers out. She found that many want to ensure that old-timers can stay. Some gentrifiers even go to great lengths to try to make room for the old-timers.
Unfortunately, however, many are still edged out due to a combination of affordability constraints, or their own perceptions of discomfort with newcomers, and other factors. For example, Brown-Saracino described the transition of Provincetown, Massachusetts from a Portuguese fishing village to gay-friendly arts mecca with skyrocketing real estate prices. In some respects, the selective preservation of traditional village grittiness (and efforts to commodify or sell it) as well as the grittiness of gentrifiers’ artistic expressions were linked to these rising prices. Herself a member of the gay community, Brown-Saracino also found that at times the cultural clashes between the gentrifying newcomers and longstanding residents could be confusing- in part because the gentrifiers themselves had a range of different beliefs about the extent to which they should help ensure earlier residents were not displaced.
When is Grit Good? (Or at least authentic?)
Accepting for the moment that authenticity is about transcending the narrowness of one’s own self interests and looking for something bigger outside oneself , then authentic grit needs to somehow be about exposing people to things that are bigger and transcendent. Inclusion has great potential to offer transcendence. And so, at the very least, features that promote (or at least preserve) inclusivity alongside the grit would help to meet this criterion.
I’ve spoken in a prior post about my love for the Copenhagen neighbourhood of Vesterbro. And this love is precisely because Vesterbro has gone farther than most transitioning neighbourhoods in allowing for the gritty in ways that still include people (sex workers and other lower income people) who might be at risk of exclusion elsewhere. It does this by including and building generous social housing in among the gentrified blocks- and sometimes within the same buildings. When we visited this area, we were travelling with my parents, who decided to take a risk and come with us to see it. On more than one occasion while we were there, I was worried about the impact on my aging parents’ sensibilities (passionate make-out sessions in plain view and sex toys on full display in store windows factored into this.)
But my worries-and theirs- were quickly eased when we also saw mothers strolling with babies and toddlers, and older people sitting in the same park as the sex trade workers. The co-presence of people from a mix of social groups sent the signal that the neighbourhood was a safe place- for everyone.
The link between grit and authenticity is certainly complex. This posting has tried to explore some of the complexity involved, but has really only scratched the surface. Certainly inclusion is a key factor in authentic neighbourhoods- and something for the traveller seeking authentic experiences to consider. I would love to hear about more neighbourhoods that seem to have gotten the balance right. And of course, grit is not an essential pre-condition for authenticity. It is one of several elements that may or may not lend this quality to an area, or an experience.
Sharon Zukin. 2011. Naked City. The Death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York. (p. 21)
Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. 2004. The Rebel Sell. Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed. Harper Perennial.
Japonica Brown-Saracino. 2009. A Neighbourhood that Never Changes. Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
I don’t repost other people’s blogs a lot here- but occasionally it’s worth sharing some good writing done by someone else. Here is one that I enjoyed today which gives some purely local insights on why Glasgow is worth a visit.
When you travel, chances are you will want to share your experiences with people you care about. But exactly what and how are you sharing? Are you sanitizing the negative, showing only the good and the beautiful? Or are you complaining, mopey, and negative? Both of those are an extreme form of curation -being highly selective about what you convey and showing it through a particular emotional lens. When you are too selective, people miss the nuances which often give a place its richness.
Transcription lies at a different point on the continuum from curation. Transcribing is about recording something as faithfully as possible, with as little of your own interpretation as possible. Transcriptions can then be interpreted by others, making it possible for multiple interpretations to arise, hopefully with some common ground between them. But travel transcriptions on their own would likely be quite dull. How excited do you get at the thought of viewing the 500 photos your friend took on a weekend ski trip with people you don’t know? Or reading a list of every physical detail your friend saw at the Eiffel tour (2.5 million rivets, 1665 steps to climb to the top of the tower, an average of 19,123 tourists visiting per day, crying child, man in red shirt who needs a bath, 50 loud motorcycles that passed while he waited in line for an hour, or the middle-aged couple he saw smooching at the top viewing platform of the tower).
So for a traveller reporting back to his or her social circle (or even just recording for his or her own future use) which approach is better, curating or transcribing? Neither approach feels fully satisfying somehow. Then, what’s the alternative? You could alternate between the two. Or you could continue to curate, while using some aspects of transcription to spice up or round out your curation. Here are some ideas for how you might do this:
Think about yourself and your own blind spots
Do you typically inclined to overemphasize the beautiful over the ugly? The historic over the modern? Bright colours over dark? The aesthetic over the functional? The liberal over the conservative? Whatever your blind spot, consider making space for it in one of your reports back home. As an example, if you tend to ignore the functional, try exploring (and posting about) a local utility or system that helps the city thrive. You may even find it interesting and beautiful in its own right. On one trip to London, my husband and I made a point of doing a Thames river tour that went as far as the Thames Flood Barrier. It’s a piece of critical infrastructure that keeps river surges from causing damage to the city.
Use help to dig deeper
Dig deeper by looking at your destination through the eyes of one of its historic, political, or artistic figures. We’re planning an upcoming visit to Mexico City, and I’m going to try to read up on artist Frieda Kahlo, the ultimate selfie queen , and how she experienced life there. I’m looking forward to making at least one Facebook post comparing my impressions of a given site to the impact it is known to have had on her experiences and artwork.
Join the debate
Before you go, look into some of the political debates impacting the community you’ll be visiting, and try to find out what they might mean for a community’s future (discussed also in five tips for living like a local). Shape your postings back to your network with this awareness. Advanced tip: if you’re a liberal, focus on the conservative viewpoint, and vice versa.
Know your audience
Think about an interest or hobby of a close friend or relative and make space in an email to him or her discussing (and or taking photos at) your destination from that perspective. Photograph the classic cars of Havana for the car enthusiast in your life, the costume exhibits of the Victoria & Albert museum for your fashion-forward nieces, or the wildlife for your budding biologist brother.)
Show your discomfort
Consider documenting a travel experience when you stretched beyond your comfort zone is part of that. Did you get lost navigating somewhere interesting? Feel uneasy or unsure? I once went to a conference alone in Houston, Texas. While not afraid to go to Europe alone, or New York or San Francisco, something about Houston scared me. I left my wedding ring at home (swapped it for a cheap fake band so I didn’t feel naked or dishonest) because I was afraid of being robbed at gunpoint. I suspect my fear was a response to the state’s overt gun culture and permissive gun laws. I tried to curate my way out of my fear when posting to Facebook, by sounding amused about the bad urban design, and trying to be light about my time there. In hindsight, this was insincere. My reports back home might have been more interesting if I had (at least once) been more up front about my fears and how they limited me. Even if it didn’t change what I saw or when or how I saw it, perhaps it might have been more interesting if I explained that I chose not to disembark at one light rail stop on my tour of the entire transit line, because I saw people through the window looking at each other with hungry eyes. How for the first 30 minutes on my drive out of town in a rental car I kept waiting for an aggressive Houston driver to cut me off. And how this stressed me out so much that my fingers cramped from gripping the steering wheel too tightly.
How we talk about, and record our travel experiences plays an important role in their authenticity- both for ourselves and to others with whom we share them. There is value in reflecting more on your choices as you curate these experiences, and on the ways that you might enhance their breadth and or honesty (while keeping them interesting and relevant). Transcript
Living in the modern world can sometimes feel too real. Many of us long for simpler times in our own lives when we believed in magic, fairy tales, and other enchanted things. In this post, we discuss the link between enchantment and authenticity, and where you might find some enchanting and ultimately renewing- experiences while travelling.
In an earlier post, I talked about the philosophical aspect of authenticity. One philosopher cited (Charles Taylor) has spoken at length of the value of enchantment in an authentic life. To support all those seeking enchantment in their travel experiences, read on for five enchanting places and events that authentic travelers may wish to experience.
Five Enchanting Places and Events -Winter to Early Spring
1. Northern Lights
Who wouldn’t feel a sense of awe and wonder when gazing at this eerie natural display. Places to view the Northern Lights include Norway,
Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you have to spend your nights indoors. Many cities program their public parks to make them friendly and inviting for citizens to spend evenings there in Fall and Winter as well. New York City’s Bryant Park, with its Winter Village is one of these destinations. Vancouver hosts an annual Christmas Market, and for 2016 the market included a lighted outdoor maze . Selected other cities offering outdoor evening events include: London, England, which just opened up a new outdoor ice rink that is lit in the dark, Luminosity ; and the Christmas Market on the Champs Elysees in Paris . While these are commercial events, you can still enjoy the friendly crowd ambience in most of these by walking around, without actually spending money.
3. Spooky, but spiritual music in the dark
On Sunday nights from January through November, if you are in Vancouver at 9:30pm and like your enchantment to have a musical dimension, check out the Compline Service at the downtown Christ Church Cathedral (see photos of the service ). Full disclosure- I used to sing with this Choir many years ago when I still lived in Vancouver. I still love the stillness and peace of this service as a visitor. You don’t have to be religious to get something out of the peaceful, undemanding meditation it offers.
4. Spectacular Seacoast vistas
There are a range of beautiful seacoast vistas that can make us feel enchanted- especially when the surf is pounding and the wind is making you feel super-charged with kinetic energy. Some of my favourite seacoast destinations include: the Oregon Coast; Tofino, British Columbia; the stretch of Highway 101 that runs north from San Francisco; and Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
5. A Daytime walk in the forest
There is something wonderful about walking in a beautiful forest, even when the weather is bad. As someone with a dog in my life, I am often compelled to seek out these places in the rain, and am almost always the better for it. To learn more about why forests make people feel so much better, see this previous post on forest bathing.
Finding enchantment in a new place opens up a realm of possibilities for travellers seeking authentic experiences, as well as a sense of personal renewal. This blog post has covered five that are accessible and powerful during winter time. A future post will also explore spring and summer opportunities for enchantment. I’m also eager to hear others’ experiences with enchanting places and events.
Everyone has to eat while travelling. And eating has the potential to add to, or detract from, an authentic travel experience. But how do you know what constitutes authentic cuisine in the place you are visiting? Do you call out the food police? Here are two ideas to consider while looking for authentic food abroad.
Are locals eating it?
Not everything that locals do automatically expresses local culture. Locals are as likely as foreigners to patronize chain restaurants, for example. In fact, many of the international food chains dotting European and Asian landscapes are catering to a local market. In some instances, these are even adapting accordingly, at least paying some tribute to local eating patterns. (Whether this constitutes authentic cuisine, however, is the subject of another debate.) Chains aside, it may seem like the best approach is to go to a restaurant clearly known for serving local /regional specialties. But if you notice that your (would-be) fellow diners are all foreign tourists like you, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate. That local restaurant may be popular with tourists because it serves up a nostalgic version of regional cuisine. This is likely because its management believes that nostalgic food is what the tourists will pay for.
In contrast, truly authentic local cuisines still continue to evolve and adapt to new ways of being. They may start to add some fusion twists, particularly if that region has been influenced by immigration, and new immigrants have brought new herbs and spices into the mix. I will never forget eating at a locally-focused restaurant ten years ago in Rome, where I had the most amazing butternut squash ravioli with an array of seasoning I had never encountered before while eating in Italy. The restaurant, which local friends took me to, also served organic Planeta (Sicilian) wine –an up and coming brand in vogue with all the locals at the time. Bottom line: consider consulting restaurant listings that cater to locals, or that have been written by them. In large cities, Time Out guides can be helpful. And in cities of varied shapes and sizes, an increasing number of locals and ex-pats living abroad these days are also writing about great local restaurants and neighbourhoods, based on a closer relationship with the community and, ideally, conversations with friends from that culture. Some even offer food-based tours, based on their local knowledge.
Is my eating experience connecting me with the local terroir?
I only encountered the term “terroir” two years ago, but it’s an idea that resonated with me. It recognizes that the context where food is grown, raised, and/or processed will have a big impact on how it tastes. This includes how much sunlight and warmth particular crops receive (or don’t), down even to the minerals and microbes that various fruits and vegetables take in as they grow. It also considers traditional relationships between people living in the region and how they produce their food. The concept of terroir, then, boils down to respecting regional food. And, of course, giving yourself the experience of eating food that was produced in the local terroir when you are travelling.
This doesn’t have to be an elitist concept, or force you into eating only at the priciest of restaurants. Sometimes a trip to a local market or grocery store will expose you to regionally produced foods /emerging local favourites in delightful (and reasonably priced ways). But these outlets are less likely to be in the heart of a town’s tourist district. In at least one earlier column I’ve encouraged readers to live like a local by exploring the suburbs of their host city -and with good reason. Because real people live (and shop) in them. As an example, one of Montreal’s best public markets is a 20-30 minute metro (subway) ride away from downtown. In my hometown of Victoria and the nearby Cowichan Valley (1-hour drive away) there is a terrific awareness of local food culture. One of my favourite grocery stores, The Root Cellar , makes a point of selling as many locally-produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and delicatessen items as are available in any given season. To get there you either have to rent a car, or rent a bike and take the Lochside cycling trail as far as McKenzie Avenue before diverting east for an additional five minute cycle.
While there are many options for authentic eating while travelling, a good starting point is to try to find restaurants that are popular with locals and offer some connection to the region, either through the cuisine served, the ingredients used, or its popularity as a local hangout. Also consider venturing out a bit further from the downtown core, in search of food supplies grown and produced in the local terroir. This blog post has explained why these two approaches might help, and suggests a few tips for starting your own search for authentic local food.
You’re more likely to have an authentic travel experience if you’re clear on what it means for something or someone to be authentic- period. It’s also fitting to think about authenticity at the start of a new year. This post explores what authenticity means at a deeper level, before suggesting some ways this definition might help inform our travel choices and experiences.
What it means: to the dictionary and to philosophers
If you look up the word “authentic” in the dictionary you’ll find lots of references to origins, roots, and being genuine. Being one’s true self also factors into the mix. But what does this type of truth mean?
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the way we lead our life should be directed by our inner thoughts and values, rather than just external social norms. And Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor spoke a great deal about the distinction between one’s inner and one’s public self. In this way, any effort to become more authentic involves:
reflecting about what motivates and constrains us at a very primal, individual level; and
appreciating the similarities and differences between what is best for us as individuals compared with what society says we should do.
Of course, an important argument against searching for the authentic self is that it can encourage people to be, well… selfish1. But Taylor suggests that we could have our cake and eat it too. He says that a quest for understanding the true self can come without resulting in selfishness- the key is in embracing self-transcendent values and experiences. Self-transcendence means a person consciously accepts s/he is one small part of a larger universe. And Taylor argues that we must also recognize how even our authentic individual self isn’t static or constant. Instead, our authentic self is something both enabled and constrained by the broader social values and culture that surrounds us, even though our authentic self is also much more than that2. We don’t exist in isolation, but as part of a larger whole that shapes us, and which we in turn shape. So authenticity involves a search for what is good, true, and transcendent. And it’s fluid, meaning what worked last time won’t necessarily work the next time. This search for authenticity may, but does not have to, involve religion and/or spirituality. For Taylor, even time spent with beautiful music, art, or poetry, can help us achieve a certain level of self-transcendence3.
Then what does this mean for authentic travel? If we follow Taylor’s suggestions for leading more personally authentic lives, then authentic travel can involve a quest for (at least) two broad strands of authenticity. One is about finding experiences that help one embrace what is good, true, and transcendent in oneself. And another is about spending one’s travel dollars to reinforce or support, those places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions. We’ll talk about the first strand here, and examine the second in a future blog post.
Travel experiences that boost personal authenticity
What type of travel helps a person find their truest self? Following Taylor’s lines, this type of travel might involve experiences that help us set aside (at least while travelling) some or even all conventions and habits in our own lives that keep us from being good and integral people, or as good and integral as we believe that we could be. For example, an authentic traveller might seek travel experiences that propel him or her to:
lose track of her or himself in the experience;
become more curious about (and kinder to) others who initially seem quite different;
build his or her courage muscles; or
enhance an ability to be generous.
An authentic traveller could even choose experiences that help us do all three at once. (And, of course, these are not the only self-transcendent virtues around.) Also, depending on who you are and what your starting point is on any of these things, that might take a range of forms. For the inexperienced traveller, building one’s courage muscles might simply involve travelling alone for the first time, and learning how to talk to strangers from another culture. For others, it might involve connecting with a place in ways that cause other forms of personal growth- strengthening one’s navigation skills; being deprived of certain daily luxuries that we suspect may not be great for us. In his guest article for this blog, Allan Herle undertook a long overland journey by motorcycle where he felt he had more immediate contact with people living in towns in ways that were quite different from his own lifestyle. This experience helped him grow as a person. Self-transcendent travel could include volunteer experience, such as helping to build housing in another country; restore a wildlife conservation area; or teach schoolchildren English. It could help us interact with another group to learn more about other ways of being human.
The idea of authentic travel as seeking self-transcendent moments opens up a range of exciting possibilities. I’d love to hear about how other people have gained these experiences. And watch for a future post discussing places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions.
Christopher Lasch (1979) cautioned that the emphasis on exploring the authentic self in fact sounded dangerously similar to the diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder. Lasch, C., 1979, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York: Norton.
For a clear, concise discussion of Taylor based on extensive familiarity with his works, see Bernard Braman’s (2008). Meaning and Authenticity. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.