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Second Letter from Europe


(13 December 2007) For decades, tourism has grown as one of the fashionable ways to shop abroad or in a different city in your own country. Less than 200 years ago, people thought of travel as a way to enrich education. Would anyone think of Lord Byron as a tourist in Greece, or Alexis de Tocqueville as a shopper in the 19th Century United States?

Sightseeing, at museums and ruins that tourist packages include, comes replete with guides who lecture their flock with memorized facts about paintings and sculptures. The group glimpses “great paintings” on the way to the Goya or El Greco section in Madrid’s Prado Museum. Some churches and museums rent head sets where tourists listen to the same patter in between mass, of course.

I marveled at the efficiency of a tape recorded art history lecture I received in the Santo Tomé Church in Toledo where one can view El Greco’s 1586 masterpiece, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.”

One hour’s drive south of Madrid, I stare from a pew at St. Stephen and St. Augustine — having descended from Heaven — helping lower the body of the pious Count into its coffin. I didn’t have to imagine people five Centuries ago praying from more primitive pews as a priest explained the miracle of Orgaz’ burial. Like ancient parishioners, I stared at Greco’s masterpiece of colors, framing and imagination. El Greco actually painted the mural to fit a wall in the church, I learned from headphones that played the taped lecture. The painting shows Orgaz’ soul, represented by a baby in the center, ascending to heaven with the help of an angel.

El Greco actually painted a portrait of his own son at the bottom left part. El Greco also painted himself in the back row of mourners looking at his supposed audience. Above, we gaze at the wonders of heaven, angels and cherubs and holy power. Below, the good townspeople bid adios to their generous benefactor, reportedly a pious man who left money to enlarge and decorate the Santo Tomé Church, which was also El Greco’s church.

Each year, on the day of Orgaz’ death, the Church collects tithes from the locals. Indeed, the Church, whose U.S. branch complains about how much money it has had to pay to victims of pedophilic priests, cannot begin to measure its worldly treasure, including some of the world’s greatest works of art. The paintings that hang in the Vatican Museum and many other churches in Italy, Spain and elsewhere bring in steady revenue.

Guides and those who rent their voices for recordings, as well as those who wrote the texts, earn their livings from the many millions who visit the key attractions — places where Spanish authorities have preserved buildings (ruins) and works of art. As my companions beckoned me to see the next masterpiece at Madrid’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I marveled over how much dry fact could be crammed into a lecture, from the date and place of birth of the painter, to the meaning of the details in the painting, to even a few words about the customs of the times without making any critical judgments, of course.

Throughout much of Europe one sees ancient buildings — or parts of them — as well as great paintings and sculptures. But the monarchies that paid for them have long since bitten the dust of history. Throughout Italy and Spain one must acknowledge how clever was the Church to contract with great painters who portrayed magnificently its myths on church walls and ceilings.

Jews did not adorn their places of worship. Indeed, their myths, simpler than Christianity (only one Testament, not two), relies largely on guilt and the awe and wonder of the natural world one must experience outside the synagogue. A friend showed us a 12th Century Synagogue in Barcelona located in that city’s ancient ghetto.

We paid 2 Euros each and a young woman began to explain in a very serious lecturing tone how this former place of worship was recently discovered and how Roman ruins were actually found underneath. She sounded almost pompous when she declared that under the Hebrew faith women and men were segregated. She showed us where the leather-bound torah was located. The room — which couldn’t have held more than thirty people — now contains a wrought-iron menorah (candelabra), with spaces for seven candles.

Jews, the guide explained, had built as many as five synagogues, though only the Main Synagogue remains. In 1995, the owner of the property offered it for sale as a bar or café spot, but, the conservers of the city’s past bought and restored the building.

Impressive, I thought. I asked the guide, who had a clear Argentine accent, why she had come to Barcelona.

“To study.”

What?

“Comunicaciones de moda.”

Fashion communications? What does that mean?

“I don’t know yet. I’m finding out as I study.”

And the anthropology you had to learn to give this lecture?

“Part of the job,” she smiled. She showed us the stand where we could buy postcards and other memorabilia to prove to friends back home that we had actually visited this shrine.

How the flashy commercial present clashes with the dull commercial past, especially in Jewish neighborhoods where vestiges, like the mikves (Jewish ritual baths), still exist. The men’s baths have been replaced by a furniture store, but its ceiling still has some original arches from the ancient period. Look carefully at the women’s bath doorways and you can still make out the spaces where mezuzas hung, small metal boxes with tightly rolled prayers inside them.

A few indistinct Hebrew inscriptions remain on the old ghetto’s walls. Some Jews actually returned to Barcelona or emerged from centuries of underground religious life — especially after Franco’s death in 1976. I saw a store advertising kosher products. In Rome, the Jewish sector contains a shop called MC Kosher — where the fast food derived only from animals whose slaughter was supervised by a rabbi, which ensured the religious quality of each juicy bite.

Tourists pour through these “historic” areas that they “must” see, looking to purchase articles (postcards, prints, doodads) to show friends and relatives at home that they had seen an old synagogue or the Vatican itself.

One anecdote reports an elderly Jewish couple returning from Rome and telling friends about their great experience in the Holy city.

“Did you see the Pope?” asks one friend.

“See him? I had dinner with him.”

“And?”

“Him I liked. Her I wasn’t crazy about.”

One unfortunate American couple about to board a cruise ship from Barcelona to the Caribbean suffered from the lost luggage syndrome. Yes, lost in or by the friendly skies! I listened throughout Europe to Americans complaining about delays, lost baggage, insults of airline staff, cramped seating — as we walked through the ancient ruins and looked at the places where chariots once raced and where great masterpieces now hang.

Tourism has replaced travel, I concluded. It has cleverly extended the domain of the great spiritual value of shopping. “Wait till I show this shawl to my friend Cecile,” said one woman, after buying a scarf from a street vendor in Venice. “She won’t believe you can still get such bargains here. Real silk and only 10 Euros.”

“Ye, who have known what ‘tis to dote upon

A few dear objects, will in sadness feel

Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal”

So wrote Byron in 1812. (Childe Harold’s Pilgrammage)

Later, he observed:

“What Heaven hath done for this delicious land:

What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!

What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!

But man would mar them with an impious hand”

Byron sounds a like a premature environmentalist, a traveler seeking the roots of his English heritage. Today such a man would give tourism a bad name. Tocqueville saw America before the shopping malls and Wal-Mart dominated its landscape. He saw “a country where they have freedom of speech but everyone says the same thing.” In 2007, the American motto seems to be: “Relieve stress and anxiety. Don’t act politically: Shop. At home and abroad!”

 

Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World
 

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