Tell me why you travel and I tell you who you are

From Tell me why you travel and I’ll tell you who you are (Si meg hvor du reiser og jeg skal si deg hvem du er) by Magnus Helgerud

Published by Aschehoug, 2018
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough



Bloody tourists!

You’ve probably found yourself muttering this phrase among the crowds in front of a place of interest more than once. Or perhaps you’ve overheard others directing these words at you – like the time you caused a pile-up on a busy city pavement because you were walking along with your nose buried in an oversized, fold-out tourist map. You’re not alone – either in feeling ashamed at having acted like a tourist yourself, or in cursing others for doing so.

A few years ago I worked at a large travel agency that targeted adventurous travellers, and many of my customers disregarded destinations simply because many others had been there before them – or would be there at the same time. They wanted to be the first to visit their chosen location.

‘You see, we’re not that kind of tourist,’ they’d often say, wrinkling their noses.
And I wanted to say: Of course you are – you’re just afraid that people will think you’re like all the other, ‘normal’ tourists! But the customer, of course, is always right, and so I most often ended up telling them if they did this – but not that, and went here – but not there, then they’d avoid most of the tourist traps. My customers’ greatest wish for their upcoming trip generally went something like this: to experience ‘authentic culture’ and live like locals; to embark on a voyage of discovery and feel at one with untouched nature; to help save the planet by participating in a little voluntary work. I could point at my black t-shirt, across which the agency’s motto – Be Explordinary! – was emblazoned in white letters, and assure them that they’d come to the right place. Because as my colleagues had informed me, we didn’t just sell flights and hotel bookings. We sold experiences.

So as I started having to enter increasingly exotic airport codes on behalf of my authenticity- hungry customers, I started to ask myself a few questions. These anti-tourists really did seem to hate other tourists, but was this a new trend, or an old tradition? Why do extreme experiences in nature hold such a magical draw for us, and why on earth are people prepared to queue for two hours to have their photograph taken on the rocky ledge of Trolltunga in southwest Norway?

My customers and colleagues were unable to help me with these questions; nor did I find any books that could give me a satisfactory answer. I therefore decided to take a journey through the worlds of literature, film, philosophy and art, before heading out into the real world, to look for answers and write the book I’d been unable to find. In this book, I’ll take you with me on a journey into the very nature of travel.

First, we’ll go to Rome – the cradle of modern tourism. Rome was the top destination on the grand tours of Europe taken by the rich from the 1600s onwards – if you hadn’t been to Rome, you hadn’t lived. But as more and more people came to visit the Eternal City it became important to have seen it in the right way, and from this point onwards authentic travel experiences became increasingly important.

This is why we’ll take the saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ quite literally. We’ll ride a moped through cobbled streets, spend a warm summer evening dancing on the banks of the Tiber, and try to understand why so many travellers are looking for la Roma dei romani – the Rome of the Romans, or the ‘real’ Rome. We’ll also stand in line at the Colosseum, try some meditative sightseeing, and meet living souvenirs in the form of the legendary Latin lover. Because surely there’s no more authentic travel experience than a holiday romance with one of the locals?

We’ll then travel north along the Norwegian coast aboard the MS Nordkapp, because surely there’s no other country better suited to an exploration of what’s so fascinating about the extreme? We’ll take an expedition to the ‘South Pole’ with a German guide who pretends to be Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, observe tourists as they observe the northern lights, investigate the 1800s’ answer to Instagram and discuss ‘forest bathing’. We’ll also meet people who take weekend trips to war zones, just for the thrill of it, and find out whether it’s possible to be a true explorer aboard a cruise ship.


It’s early morning in Rome. Well-dressed businesswomen and men with briefcases have taken up their positions along the counter of a bar in the district of Testaccio. They’re eating breakfast on their way to work; fresh cornetti washed down with a double espresso at an ever- increasing tempo. Thanks to pastries and caffeine, the barrel organ of the city has now been cranked up to full speed. To an outside observer, these events might look like a scene from a musical – newspapers being scanned, repartee being exchanged; handshakes given along with kisses on both cheeks. People gesticulating. And all this accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of leather soles and high heels that hurry past on the pavement outside; the tooting cars, the Vespa scooters that bump over the cobblestones.

I also stand at the counter, observing this Italian breakfast ritual. Usually, I would probably have got out of bed much later, sauntered down to the breakfast buffet of some chain hotel or other in my jogging bottoms, and helped myself to a few slices of wholemeal bread while attempting to avoid eye-contact with the other guests. But I am, after all, in the Eternal City, and I’m looking for an authentic experience of Rome. And if I’m going to achieve this, I’m going to have to live like the Romans.

Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But the

less well-known second half of this famous phrase goes as follows: Si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi. When you’re in other places, live as they live there. We might call this the travellers’ categorical imperative – a general appeal to visitors to respect the customs and general etiquette of the places they visit, so that they might expect the same treatment from those who visit their homeland. But in our search for special holiday experiences, an increasing number of us apparently choose to take this old proverb literally. We want to live with the locals, like the locals – and not like tourists.

So yesterday, I drank wine with my lunch. I spoke with strangers on the bus, and conducted loud, lively discussions with my friends at a piazza in Trastevere during the pre- dinner aperitivo ritual. I ate a late dinner at the home of a large Italian family, and managed not to drink too much wine with my meal. I yelled obscenities at an aggressive driver while on my way home. I spent the night in a real, Roman apartment where I fell asleep to the sound of the crickets outside, and woke this morning to the sound of the couple next door arguing as only Italians can argue.

And now I’m eating a proper Italian breakfast at the counter of my local bar. I’m sipping a double espresso, even though I don’t really drink coffee, as I restlessly turn the pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the sports newspaper printed on pink paper. I’m wearing a shirt and blazer, just like the people standing on either side of me, thinking that were it not for my extremely pale skin and red beard, I might have fit right in. But I’m not the only one to harbour grand ambitions to find the soul of Rome and dance to her tune.

Authentic travel experiences have long been both the travel industry’s superior sales trick and the preferred narrative of travel journalism. For example, Norwegian travel agency Lilleput Reiser invites you to ‘the real Greece’; Danish TV series Extraordinary Hotels and its host – who is given the title of ‘trend expert’ – attract viewers with ‘experiences that cannot be measured in kroner, only in meaning and content’; and if you randomly pick up any of the available travel magazines, there’s a significant chance that one of the articles you read will aim to show you the real/hidden/secret _______ (insert name of preferred city here).

This pursuit of the unique and authentic has therefore become many a traveller’s creed. We want to get under the skin of the local population and behind the scenes of the usual tourist attractions, all so that we can get closer to the real, the authentic and the unique; away from the hordes, the touristy and the false – we might call this ‘anti-tourism’. And so in order to have an authentic travel experience, the anti-tourist requires a few strategies. He might travel alone, for example – and most certainly not as a member of a large group. He’ll learn at least a few phrases in the local language; he’ll eat and stay at places that only the locals know about. And last, but not least, he’ll document and present his authentic discoveries to others. Today this documentation often takes the form of photographs – no longer destined to be forgotten in a dusty private family photo album but instead often posted to Instagram and Facebook.

Might this pursuit of authentic travel experiences abroad tell us something about who we are, where we come from – and why we travel?

One of the anti-tourist’s most important strategies is to venture ‘off the beaten path’ – when thinking about where to go to achieve this, Italy, and certainly Rome, are probably not the first destinations that spring to mind. The phrase rather conjures thoughts of Pacific islands covered in palm trees, or small cabins in the mountains, far above the treeline. But in these kinds of settings, where there are hardly any other tourists around, the need to mark one’s travel territory is less pronounced than when visiting places that everyone else has chosen to visit, too.

The search for authentic experiences, and how we position ourselves with regard to other tourists, therefore becomes very clear in a city like Rome and a country like Italy. There are always tourists here – it’s been this way since the grand tours of the British upper classes that began in the 1600s and which often featured Italy as the main destination – and the country continues to be among the world’s most visited today. This is the cradle of modern tourism. So there is no better place to help us understand how the pursuit of such authentic travel experiences first transpired, and where it comes from.

The English poet George Gordon Byron (1788–1824), better known as Lord Byron, was a magnificent example of someone who ventured off the beaten track in his search for experiences in Italy. As we’ll soon see, it is entirely plausible to assert that Byron was the ultimate anti-tourist. He constantly boasted of his in-depth knowledge of Italy’s people, language and culture, and used this to define himself as a better traveller than any of the country’s other visitors. He arrived in Italy in 1816, and his stay here would turn out to be a lifelong exile.

In his homeland, Byron was the great literary star of his age. The first two chapters of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron’s travelogue in verse published in four parts between 1812 and 1818, had been a formidable success and sold in huge volumes. The poem was heavily based on Byron’s travels through Portugal, Albania and Malta – where the character named Childe Harold ends and the author Lord Byron begins isn’t easy to determine. As a result of this adventurous and highly autobiographical poem, Byron quickly became a mythical figure in his home country. No matter what he did, all eyes were always turned on him.

In 1816 there were a number of reasons why all this attention was no good thing for Byron. He’d just entered into an amorous relationship with his half-sister, which was met with condemnation – as were the not unfounded accusations of sodomy made against him. Byron therefore wanted to get out of the limelight – the rockstar of the Romantics had no appointed communications advisor to manage his image, and so instead set sail for the south and Mediterranean shores, where the sun, wind and moral climate would present him in a much more flattering light.

The air was warm – Byron could ride his horse outdoors all year round, swim in the sea, and return to living his life as an adventurer without having to think about the consequences. Here in Italy, he could evade the gossip that accompanied his celebrity status – but he would of course also have to avoid his fellow Englishmen, who were well aware of all the scandal. Byron’s flight from his holidaying fellow citizens would become an ever-present topic in the letters he sent home.

Byron was far from the only Briton to have made his way to Italy at this time. During the 1800s it became increasingly common for affluent Englishmen to travel for travel’s sake – this is where we see the start of what we today might term the democratisation of recreational travel – and Italy was the place to go. Byron did his best to avoid the hordes of Brits who were holidaying just south of the Alps; on the day he crossed the Italian border, he wrote to his good friend, the author Thomas Moore, that ‘the north of Italy is tolerably free from the English; but the south swarms with them, I am told.’ Byron described his holidaying countrymen as being almost vermin-like – God only knows what creature he might use for comparison if he were witness to the average holidaying Brit in Magaluf or Benidorm nowadays.

Regardless, Byron kept to the northern part of Italy over the next few years. From Venice, he wrote of how the relative absence of Englishmen was the reason he had chosen to stay in the city; from Ravenna he reported that he hadn’t come across another Englishman in six months – if he did, he would turn his horse and ride the other way. Moore, for his part, shared Byron’s antipathies; when describing the age’s general enthusiasm for travel, he asserted that the English could be met with everywhere. His poem Rhymes on the Road (1823) is a lament at this fact:

And is there no earthly place,

Where we can rest, in dream Elysian, Without some curst, round English face, Popping up near, to break the vision? […]

Go where we may, rest where we will, Eternal London haunts us still.

But travelling abroad wasn’t just about getting away from other tourists and the life back home in London of which they were a reminder – Byron was keen to emphasise that he was looking for authentic Italy:

What do Englishmen know of Italians beyond their museums and saloons – and some hack, en passant? Now, I have lived in the heart of their houses, in parts of Italy freshest and least influenced by strangers, – I have seen and become (pars magna fui) a portion of their hopes, and fears, and passions, and am almost inoculated into a family. This is to see men and things as they are.

There is, according to Byron, a more correct and superior way in which to see Italy, experience its culture and get to know the country’s inhabitants – as if there is a ‘real’ Italy, and a false one. Byron’s letters and poetry from his time here are full of such digs at the region’s other tourists – at those unable to see people and things as they really are. In 1816, Byron started to position himself as separate from such travellers from day one, doing his utmost to create an image of himself as their complete opposite – as one of the anti-tourists seeking authentic experiences in Italy.

I’m actually part of a large group of Norwegians currently resident in Rome, although we could hardly be described as holidaying know-it-alls. Some of us work here, some of us are studying here, some of us are writing books here. We’ve seen St. Peter’s Basilica together, we’ve seen the Roman Forum together and we’ve visited Mussolini’s modern EUR district together. We often eat and drink together – some of us even live together, although when it comes to accommodation I’ve decided to politely decline all offers. Like Byron, I want to ‘see people and things for what they really are’ – or, more accurately, to investigate whether it’s possible to see people and things for what they really are. I want to get to the bottom of why getting beyond the usual touristy sights is thought to be so fantastic.

If I’m going to do this, I can’t be constantly surrounded by the Norwegian language, Norwegian discussions, Norwegian eating habits – the Norwegian way of life. I’m going to have to go undercover – become inoculated, as Lord Byron put it – and practise what in today’s travel lingo is known as ‘immersive travel’.

I’ve therefore rented my own Roman apartment, which I’ve found via Airbnb – the online booking service where almost anyone can create a profile and for a small fee rent out anything from the sofa bed in their living room to their spare room or entire apartment. At the time of writing, the following statement is the first thing to greet you as you click through to Airbnb’s website: ‘LIVE THERE. Book homes from local hosts in 191+ countries and experience a place like you live there.’

The welcome page attracts visitors with the company’s professional photos and videos – smiling ‘local’ individuals offering travellers both lodgings and hospitality; opportunities to eat together; intimate conversations on rooftop terraces; invigorating exchanges with the neighbour at the front door; dog walking; the cheese counter at the local market; the meditative view from the metro as it makes its way into the next station. There are no tourists with large, fold-out maps here – no persistent selfie stick sellers; no umbrella merchants who pop up the minute it begins to rain; no packed, claustrophobia-triggering metro carriages. Airbnb wants to sell me the idea of the almost commonplace and everyday – the feeling of being at home on foreign soil, a taste of what it is to live in Rome.

My apartment is situated in the area known as central Rome’s most romantic neighbourhood – a tiny shoebox of a place in peaceful and charming Garbatella, with the livelier Testaccio right around the corner. But it isn’t the Romans themselves who have told me that this is where I’ll find a Rome that’s more real and true than anywhere else in the city – rather, I’ve gleaned this information from the contributors to major web portal Tripadvisor. These users’ reviews of the area feature a refrain that goes something like this: ‘Get off the tourist track and take metro line B to Testaccio! We’d seen all the highlights and were looking for something authentic – you’ll only find locals here! When you stay in Garbatella, you feel like a Roman!’

There’s hardly a single review of these two districts that doesn’t contain such phrases. But the people writing them are tourists, providing information for other tourists, on a forum for tourists, about where to stay to avoid other tourists. These are tourists who hate tourists – and you don’t have to be a historian with an interest in tourism to find this strange. But why are some of us so obviously concerned with avoiding other tourists, and perhaps particularly so when it comes to avoiding our fellow citizens abroad? German author Hans Magus Enzensberger is one of many individuals to point out the similarities between cultural consumerism and the role of travel within society. Sitting on the sofa and binge-watching four episodes of an HBO series and a long weekend in Rome might seem like two vastly different activities, but according to Enzensberger, they both arise from the same need – that is, the need for entertainment and diversion.

In his essay Theorie des Tourismus (1958), Enzensberger describes recreational travel as a kind of manifestation of parts of modern western culture. He believes that travel for entertainment, and mass tourism in particular, can be understood as a kind of romantic escape from everyday surroundings and familiar routines.

Enzensberger also points out a problem that may arise if the traveller is continually reminded of the routine, everyday things he’s trying to forget for a brief while – and everyday life may quickly catch you in your attempt to elude reality if your neighbours suddenly pop up on the horizon. They’re a reflection of everything you have travelled so far to escape.

The psychological benefits of seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, thinking and feeling something other than what we see, taste, smell, hear, think and feel on a daily basis are of course the very reason that we continually long to ‘get away’ for a while. So viewed from this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you travel to Trondheim, Tuscany or Taiwan.

Even the Norwegian word for holiday, ferie, comes from the Latin feriae, which was used to describe a day on which no trade was carried out – that is, a day on which you do something other than what you usually do. It is this physical dislocation, and the mental change of scenery it provides, that constitutes the purifying potential of travel. I’ve decided to term this underlying motivation for setting out on a journey ‘awaysickness’.

A classic literary example of this escape from everyday life can be found in Alex Garland’s well-known novel The Beach (1996), which was later made into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. A group of relatively self-centred backpackers form a kind of idealised society beside a hidden lagoon on Thailand’s archipelago, making futile attempts to keep the location secret and prevent other detestable tourists from coming ashore and bringing their destructive practices with them.

Today, this travel philosophy is prevalent among much of the discourse surrounding tourism. One of the classic symptoms that an individual might be suffering from a touch of awaysickness is exactly this kind of longing for authentic and unique experiences. The question before us, then, is whether it is possible to cure awaysickness among the crowds of

Rome, where the density of tourists is so high.

When thinking about Rome as a place that might cure awaysickness, the film Roman Holiday (1953) offers a good example as to how. Princess Ann, played by Audrey Hepburn, is tired of her royal duties and so decides to commit the mother of all breaches of protocol by jumping out of the window and disappearing onto the streets of Rome to explore the city.

The Norwegian title of Roman Holiday is ‘Prinsesse på vift’, or ‘Princess on the Town’. The entire film is about the above-mentioned breach of protocol during an official state visit, and starts with a scene in which the English princess Ann is introduced to and required to shake the hands of a seemingly endless row of diplomats and other important individuals. It’s clear that she has a somewhat apathetic view of proceedings, but when she’s presented with the extremely busy schedule for the next day – this is read aloud to her in bed – she’s had enough. She sneaks out of the window – abandoning her court, the schedule and protocol – and onto the streets of Rome. The next morning Ann wakes up in the apartment of American journalist Joe Bradley – she introduces herself as Ania, and from this moment on the pair are inseparable as Ann uses her new-found freedom to explore Rome and discover herself.

Everything is new to Ann. She buys fruit at the market; cuts her hair in order to avoid being recognised; eats ice-cream on the Spanish Steps; enjoys a glass of wine by the Pantheon; smokes a cigarette for the first time; rides on the back of Joe’s scooter as they whizz past the Colosseum, Teatro Marcello and Piazza Venezia; dances on a boat as it moves along the river – and when a policeman from the official delegation arrives and tries to take her back, Ann punches him and jumps into the water to run away with Joe.

I decide to follow Ania’s example. I want to be a prince on the town – although I’m luckily not subjected to such strict protocol by my employer, and don’t feel the same intense need to escape my everyday obligations. Whether or not I can be deemed a prince should probably be left to others to decide – but I’ll permit myself certain liberties.

So I ask myself – what should prince Magnus get up to while out on the town? While pondering this, it occurs to me that I’ve bought plenty of fruit at the local market. I’ve already smoked many cigarettes in my life. I’ve eaten plenty of ice cream at many of Rome’s sights and drunk many a glass of wine while enjoying the view of the Pantheon. I have little interest in swimming in the Tiber, and even less in punching a policeman. But I’ve never danced on the banks of the Tiber, and nor have I ridden through the streets of Rome on the back of a scooter. Truth be told, I’ve never ridden on the back of any scooter, anywhere – but I can’t imagine a more authentic experience to have here in the city.

The first problem to be overcome is that I haven’t yet got to know many people here in Rome; the few individuals I do know who also ride scooters are all guys. I’m not sure they can give me quite the same experience, and so I decide to make good use of modern dating technology and advertise my desire for a trip by scooter to Rome’s female population on Tinder. And so on, and so forth – let’s fast-forward.

One week later I hear the beep of a horn from the street outside my apartment – it’s Lara, here to pick me up. She takes off her helmet, shakes out her hair, kisses me on both cheeks and asks me if I’m ready.

‘Sei pronto?’

I feel like I’m in a motorbike scene from Top Gun, only the roles are reversed and the bike is somewhat smaller – we’re talking about a Vespa, after all, not a Kawasaki. I pull the helmet down over my ears, flip down the visor and settle into the saddle – I’m ready! But I ask Lara to take it easy at first – as a Norwegian I have a relatively low tolerance for chaotic traffic situations and an exaggerated focus on preventive HSE measures. She laughs and tells me to hold on tight. I do as I’m told, and off we go.

The first sight we pass is the Pyramid of Cestius. When I passed it on the bus on my way to work this morning I hardly even glanced at it – it’s become just another one of the places that roll past outside the dirty bus window as I go about my usual day. Now the strange tomb is lit by the world’s best lighting technician – the low evening sun above Rome. For the briefest of moments I actually forget to hold on.

As we make our way along the Viale Aventino the tarmac gives way to cobblestones. The speedometer approaches seventy, and every time we hit a bump in the road I do a little jump in the saddle. I hold on extra tightly and try to read the road to predict the bumps – I learned this is important for the racing cyclists while watching the Giro d’Italia, so it probably applies to mopeds, too. Te devi rilassà!, Lara calls to me over her shoulder. She can tell that I’m tense. I have to relax, follow the rhythm; ride the cobblestones like a small boat rides the waves. By the time we pass the Circus Maximus I’ve got the hang of it – I even lean slightly at the turns. Beside the Colosseum some tourists take a photo of us, as if we are one of Rome’s attractions.

As we near Lungotevere the traffic gets heavier. Heavier traffic means even fewer parking spaces, and these two phenomena are inversely proportional to the Roman motorist’s level of satisfaction. Horns are beeped and beeped and beeped. An eager moped sweeps past a car, cutting it off – the driver tells the moped rider and his family to go to hell – Ahó! Li mortacci tua! – as he does his best to block the road. I bet this rivalry between two- and four- wheeled vehicles existed in Rome in Caesar’s time, too. The moped rider bangs his fist on the car’s bonnet, and suddenly it’s on. One hand flies in through the window as another flies out.

But the scuffle is over after no more than a few seconds; the lights up ahead have turned green, and the traffic is finally starting to move. There is only one absolute rule when navigating traffic in Rome: get to the next traffic lights as quickly as possible. All others – whether pedestrian crossings, speed limits (have I ever even seen a sign specifying the speed limit here in the city centre?) or parking instructions – are mere suggestions, only to be regarded as friendly advice.

Lara has an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her most skilled manoeuvres as we weave our way between the cars. She sees openings long before they appear, always selects the right route and never so much as brushes the wing mirrors of the beeping cars. Without a doubt, she’s Rome’s scooter-riding answer to Alberto Tomba. I keep this thought to myself, however, as there can’t be many Italian women who would relish being compared to a stocky ex-Alpine skier from Bologna.

We park the scooter right next to the Piazza Trilussa, an open square beside the river in Trastevere. During the summer months the piazza is full of young Italians; it’s always crowded here in the evenings, and tonight seems to be particularly busy. Two older guys have rigged up a PA system and are acting as DJs, the speakers thumping out old classics. I’m no dancer, but Lara grabs me by the hand and pulls me along – we’re going to dance regardless. I’ve already done one new thing this evening, so my threshold for doing things I wouldn’t usually do is low. And I am, after all, a prince out on the town – with awaysickness to be cured! Plus I’m clearly not the only one here with a limited repertoire of dance moves.

The DJs play tunes from Grease, some by KISS, and a range of classic Italian pop songs. When Lucio Dalla’s classic ‘Caruso’ starts to play it’s time for some slow dancing, and one of the DJs declares his love for his audience in a sonorous Roman accent – ‘Ve vojo bene!’ There’s little ironic dancing to be seen here; the piazza vibrates with joy. And then it hits me that something like this would never happen in the parks of Oslo in summer, among the hipsters who take themselves so seriously. But even more interesting is that I would never have dared do anything like this in domestic surroundings – the Roman evening has brought out an unexpected side of this relatively uptight Scandinavian.

But just as I’m standing with my hands high above my head to form the A in YMCA, I see a familiar face before me. I freeze. A Norwegian colleague is standing among a group of other Norwegians and watching us, smiling, with a beer in his hand. My neighbour has popped up on the horizon, the equivalent of the ‘curst, round English face’ described by Byron and Moore – those who, according to Enzensberger, threaten to ruin the view. Or, more accurately, those you allow to ruin the view. Regardless, the illusion is broken.