Travels Abroad: Goethe in Personal Perspective

Tina Bounds

Foreign travel, I think, is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in life. You never really get a chance in life to explore who you really are and what you believe until you're able to leave your daily life and spend time in a place where everything's drastically different.

Of course, not all travel is mind opening and horizon broadening. Some people just go abroad in a tourist frame of mind. The only thing they want to do when they visit somewhere else is visit famous sites, eat local food, and buy presents for those back home. Tourists really have no interest in local cultures and ways of life, and don't want to think about these things while on vacation.

I admit: I've been both a traveler and a tourist in my life. Who hasn't? When I went to Disneyland, I wasn't interested in the local cultural structure and values of the inhabitants of Anaheim; I just wanted to get my picture taken with The Little Mermaid. And being a tourist is fine in its time and place, but when one goes places as a travel, ah that's when the really life changing experiences begin.

This past week, my group did a presentation on the Italian Journey of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, and while I didn't do the hardcore analysis of the literary text (I did the biography and web encoding), the topics my group discussed are still an interesting look into the character of a traveler and his discoveries abroad.

What I've gathered from his diary entries is that Goethe went as a traveller and tried his best to understand the spirit of the Italian people, not just savour local wines and see the works of great Renaissance artists. He seems to be staying with Italian friends and trying to experience the daily life of inhabitants in Rome and Naples and other places he stayed.

I myself have had two major experiences at being a traveler. In November 2000, I was lucky enough to be accepted on a homestay in Japan. This meant that for a week and a half I got to visit Sapporo, Japan while living with the Suzuki family and attending Nishi High School with their daughter who was about my age. Much like Goethe who had been told about Italy all his life by his father and would have had access to his father's travelogue describing his vision of Italy, I spent much of my adolescence watching Japanese movies and television shows and thought that I had a decent idea of what the country was like via a team of bug-eyed girls with magic powers. I suppose both of us experienced some perspective shifts when we finally got to the country we'd dreamed of.

Goethe spent almost six months to get from his home in Weimar to his far off final destination in Rome and had a wonderful time enjoying the vistas. Alas, my long journey wasn't nearly as enjoyable, as I spent 9 hours locked in the same seat on a trans-oceanic flight from Vancouver to Tokyo. The only encounter I had that matched his picturesque vistas in Southern Germany and Northern Italy is when the sun broke over the endless watery horizon of the Pacific Ocean, spreading its beams over a planet full of water. I wonder if this was the same sort of thing that Goethe might have seen out his villa window looking out over the Mediterranean Sea.

Between the two of us, I suspect Goethe had the advantage. He at least could speak fluent Italian and has many little anecdotes about chatting with the local Italians and using his gift of the gab to work his way out of bad situations and into positive ones. In one of the more memorable episodes from the travelogue, a wind strands him at Malcesine and, due to a cultural misunderstanding, is accused on being a spy. Thanks to some quick thinking and an adept use of Italian he is able to win over the crowd and turn the angry mob back in his favour. I, on the other hand, had to get by on my very basic Japanese, a good part of which consists of utterly useless expressions such as "Look out! Godzilla is coming to crush us!" Using only the very basics of the language and the help of my host-sister's half American friend was I able to make any communication headway, and certainly not to the level of conversation that Goethe was able to keep up with his Italian acquaintances. Reactions to me alternated between being impressed a foreigner knew any Japanese at all, and locals with very basic English skills wanting to try out their language abilities on me in the same way as I was doing with them.

Once I these foreign countries, both Goethe and I were lucky enough to experience what the Japanese term "homestays". Most tourists prefer to spend their time on vacation resting in hotels, places away from the bustle of everyday life where things are culturally non distinct and closer to the way back home. To the traveler, these oases are a layer of separation from the local environment and leave something to be desired. Goethe was lucky enough to stay in villas in Italy and see the sites of the cities. He has lavish descriptions of spending his time visiting plays, festivals, art galleries, historical sites, and natural wonders from these central locations. Similarly, during my own visit, I was lucky enough to stay with the Suzuki family in their small (but luxurious by Japanese standards) house in the suburbs of Sapporo. From this location, I was able to use this house to see the sites and tourist attractions of the city whether in was the high school, city hall, zoo, or scenic beachfront.

Being so close to the actual inhabitants also gives one a chance to explore that culture that a hotel could never provide. While providing a place for travelers to start their journeys from, homestays also provide a closer way to interact with the locals. The people found at hotels are generally just staff members and employees who are just there to provide service to the guests. Like most service industry jobs, these employees may act in a polite manner, but quite differently from the way they would within their own homes. With a homestay, travelers are able to connect to the people of a region much more closely. During his travels incognito, Goethe was able to meet up with the inhabitants of the various Italian cities he was staying in and whether it be in festivals in the public square or private dinner parties in the homes of the local upper classes. I was able to have a similar - if much less grand - experience in Japan. Living with an actual family showed me things that can never be properly expressed in movies in television shows, or other secondary reflections of life. For me, it was a novel experience just to see the daily life of a culture so very different from my own, and to see the ways in which different peoples do things, both their private home lives and public affairs. As similar as Japanese school may look on a show like Sailor Moon, it's a very different thing to be sitting in a foreign classroom partaking in these activities.

Finally, the greatest difference between a tourist and a traveller is what they bring back with them. Tourists travel abroad as a way to escape the patterns of everyday life, and want nothing more out of a trip than the superficial trappings of another culture. All they really want to bring back are a tan and some souvenirs. A traveler, on the other hand, tries to get the most that they can out of a voyage, whether it be a greater understanding of the other culture or themselves, and no one who spends an extended length of time in a foreign country ever comes back exactly the same as they left. While Goethe's trip to Italy may have been partially to escape from the pressures of Weimar and to experience first hand that which his father had talked about, I think that the after-effects left him at least partially changed. Whether it be a new light into his artistic and scientific endeavours, or at least a refreshed state of mind for dealing with the problems in Weimar, he seems much more content at the end than at the beginning of his voyage. I know that for myself, Japan was my first trip overseas, and my short stay there opened my eyes as to how that fascinating Asian culture works. When others discuss aspects of Japanese culture I was able to come in contact with, I'm able to give a better explanation of why things are the way they are.

While not everyone gets to travel great distances in their lifetimes, or necessarily wants to be more of than a tourist, I know that reading Goethe's Italian Journey helped me to reflect in my own travel experiences and to help put our group project into perspective because of it.