by Ares Kalandides
A couple of weeks ago I visited London for some days. My business appointment was fast and successful, so I had some time to enjoy myself as a tourist – something that I rarely do. I picked a hotel on Russell Square in Bloomsbury and on both days I was there, I had my morning coffee in the square gardens. But of course, I had not picked Bloomsbury by chance. Which lover of English literature would have ever walked through those streets behind the British Museum without thinking of Virginia Woolf and her circle of friends?
Yes, it was Virginia I had in mind the whole time: from the moment I chose my hotel to the minutes I passed on that bench in the square. Visiting a place for me has always meant a voyage to my own mythology. As a tourist I am looking for the things I know or think I know. And though my eyes have been trained to look for the unexpected, my senses to relish the moments of everyday wonders, my deepest pleasure comes from letting myself immerse in the memory of place. Or at least the memory of place as it has been distilled and found its way into my very personal lore.
Isn’t what we see tourists do all the time? Taking photos of the most banal monuments, the most obvious works of art, the things they can probably buy – at a much better photographic quality – in every souvenir shop round the corner? Yet, this is very similar to what I was looking for in Bloomsbury: these banal monuments, the obvious art, are part of what each of us knows about places and what we go looking for. And once we have found it, we think we’ve discovered authenticity.
Somethings similar happened to me a month ago in Denmark. I was taking photos and suddenly realized that everybody was taking the same photos I was. We were all looking for the “quintessentially Danish”, that quality which can not be found in Berlin or Athens. Or maybe what in our minds we thought of as quintessentially Danish. The more I think about the term authenticity, the more I have difficulties catching it.
The first thing that comes into mind is authentic as something that has deep roots in a place, something that relates to its tradition and history. But how far back does that go? Where is that moment in history that we consider to be “the beginning of it all”? And also, does that mean that anything new is inauthentic? Probably not or the world would have stopped evolving ages ago. Is authentic (in tourism) what has an existence beyond the tourist gaze? The elements of everyday life that belong to the locals – not the visiors? In that sense McDonald’s can be very authentic. Or do we mean by authentic the unique? The things that can only be found in that one place? But what if that is only done for the sake of tourists – is that still authentic?
As usual, there are more questions than answers. I’ll have to come back to this soon, but any comments or ideas are welcome.