I’m still on vacation this week, traveling the river route between Budapest and Amsterdam. I’m repeatedly reminded that the structures that have survived (or have been rebuilt) from earlier times tend to be the houses of worship. So, our trip winds up as a survey of churches, which in Germany reflect the dizzying history of Roman Catholic influence, followed by Reformation, followed by Counter Reformation, much of it overlaid with a nausea inducing (to my eyes at least) spray of Baroque frosting.
This trip was organized by my alumni association, so in addition to the local guides in each town, we have with us a professor of medieval history. He has given several lectures and adds to the value of the various “historical” walking tours – mostly through his facial expressions and the haste with which he moves to silence his listening device as the local guide veers from verifiable historical fact to charming but shakily documented local legend, sometimes sliding into outright fairy tale.
But even with our estimable professor on board, eventually it becomes tiresome, partly because of the level of vigilance necessary to avoid being lulled into a comfortable but completely inaccurate sense that one now fully understands the history of a given place, and partly because at a certain point it’s just not possible to absorb any more information (accurate or otherwise) about a place, or to bring fresh eyes or appreciation to yet another town’s historical sights, not matter how gorgeous (or grotesquely Baroque) they might be.
When this happens I usually make the switch from amateur historian to amateur anthropologist. It’s fun and, to me, endlessly interesting, to see how people live today, in various parts of the world. Grocery stores and bathrooms are two of my favorite places to check out, since they both deal with universal aspects of the human experience, albeit at opposite ends.
With this anthropological approach I have recently tried to develop a more tolerant, or at least curious, attitude towards what I think of as tourist kitsch – in Germany this would be the singing beer steins, made-in-china lederhosen, “authentic” beer gardens with English menus … you get the picture.
It’s easy to be irritated by and contemptuous of these commercialized cultural offerings, but in fact they ARE cultural offerings … they’re part of our current (and not really so new) culture of curiosity about the larger world and desire to make a buck. Our lecture this morning was about how the supposed bones of the Three Wise Men wound up in the cathedral at Cologne. It was mostly a story about how the Church needed relics to drive pilgrim traffic to attract revenue to this or that city. So while today it’s “genuine historical” music performances in the various small concert venues of Vienna, or buxom “authentic” beer garden servers in Munich, it would seem that the desire to rubberneck and the commercial savvy to earn money from this desire is as old as civilization itself.