Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Going anywhere nice this year?

Summer's on the way, or at least I think it is. Here in Chicago, you can never be sure, until one day it's suddenly 90 degrees with 95% humidity. But with summer comes travel, and there is a spate of travel journalism out this year on "lit travel," or tours to sites featured in novels and (just as often) movies. The travel section in the NYTimes ran a number of pieces this past Sunday, joining the Chicago Sun-Times and the glossy monthly Travel and Leisure ("the Europe issue"). The articles are timed, and tied in, with the release of The Da Vinci Code movie next week, as travel companies have capitalized on the book's astonishing success by arranging excursions to its locations throughout Europe.

These articles reminded me that when I thought it'd be a good idea to visit the country whose literature I was studying, I chose to go to Oxford, England - versus, say, Cambridge or London - because of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Well, because of the ITV series shown on PBS in the States in the fall of 1981, when I had just started high school in New Haven, CT. If you've seen the first couple of Brideshead programs, you know that Oxford University looks positively resplendent in them. Coming from a small rural town in CT (called Oxford!), I emotionally flunked the transition to the venerated, historic prep school I had entered, and no doubt saw in Brideshead's Oxford what I wished my new (old) school would be -- ancient, serene, romantic, welcoming (and ooh, nice buttresses!).

Fast-forward to June 1994, groggy from an overnight flight to Gatwick but eager to be romanced by Oxford sandstone, I was appalled as the airport shuttle bus turned off the A4 and headed into what the highway signs told us was "Oxford." Grubby news agents. Graffiti. A McDonald's ensconced in a mock-Tudor house. What is this, Medieval Times? My heart sank and, Bodleian Library bedamned, I wondered if I'd made a dreadful mistake.

What the travel pieces hint at (but don't develop, probably because it's too litsy-critsy: my bad) is that people go to such places not only to witness the sites for themselves, but also to walk in the characters' footsteps: that is, to become a part of the fictions that originally, but only imaginatively, transported them. Surely, lit travel answers the vain hope that a good book we're reading will never end; and travel itself meets our need to escape occasionally from (at least) the geographical boundaries of our hum-drum lives. But by physically manifesting the space(s) of fiction, lit travel takes literary identification, the way we cathect with our favorite novels' protagonists, beyond the realm of imagination and to a space where fact and fiction might happily -- or hopefully -- coexist. Those pilgrims tracing Robert Langdon's path aren't looking just to cross the Mona Lisa off their lifetime "to do" list; they are looking to play "symbologist" themselves and to see what other clues Leonardo's painting might yield them.

As the article in Travel and Leisure points out, Dan Brown's acolytes stand to be disappointed, as a notice posted in Paris's l'eglise St. Sulpice coolly disputes the claims of a "recent best-selling novel" it refuses, wryly, to name. In this particular case, I suspect that such a reality check will do little to extinguish visitors' zeal, as Brown's book prepares devotees to expect signs of a cover-up, and so to question the authority of a modest plaque. In other cases, such as the Harry Potter tours of England, operations go out of their way, Star Trek convention-style, to ensure that visitors' expectations are met (Herbology and Potions, Dragon-slaying classes? Sign me up!).

As I learned, it's a couple of miles from the A4 exit to downtown Oxford, and my anxiety ebbed once the shuttle bus crossed the Magdalen Bridge and I finally saw the sandstone spires, some charming (and freakish!) medieval gargoyles, and Christ Church's venerable dome, Old Tom. But like a lot of freshmen accustomed to seeing the university they chose depicted in the photos of sleek college brochures, I wasn't prepared to see Oxford's ancient colleges housing ATMs and Pizza Express. In seeing (and reading!) Brideshead Revisited, I had identified with Charles Ryder, so awkward and unsure upon arriving at Oxford but soon put at ease (ok, in an alcoholic haze) by the captivating, if insipid, Sebastian Flyte (once again I have to say: ooh, nice buttresses!). I didn't take to high school much better, but as we know, I eventually found my own romance in Oxford, and now that I've cathected to the city in my own way, I realize it's a pretty sweet place to visit the in-laws, Tudor McDonald's notwithstanding. It's astonishing to me, really, to think of the turns my life took because I was enchanted by the televised sight of Old Tom and the comely face of Anthony Andrews. . .

But as I don't expect to cross the U.S border anytime soon save for my imminent immigration to Ontario, Canada, I'd love to live vicariously through anyone else who is traveling someplace interesting this year, or who frequently relives a good trip from the past. So: going anywhere nice this year? Have you ever been anywhere because of a book or a movie? How did it work out? Happily ever after? Or like a Gothic novel?

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