Dec 04


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As much as good cheer, each Christmas reliably heralds right-wing reactionary outcry over “multi-culturalism”. This year is no different. Most notably, Bill O’Reilly informed a caller that if he was upset that the U.S., a “Christian nation”, made such a big deal about Xmas; “you gotta go to Israel”.

Less noteworthy, here in Sydney, the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph has been screeching that Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s paltry A$900,000 Christmas decorations (that’s $400,000 less than spent on Phillippines flood relief, for those counting) is the latest politcally correct jab into the heart of the little Aussie battler. As it turned out, Moore’s alleged holiday slight was more a result of shoddy journalism and, most likely, bigger fish to fry. This is not to say that Sydney’s decorations aren’t pretty lame, but I’m sure it’s more lack of imagination than lack of funding–I haven’t seen exact figures, but my home town of Portland, Maine in the good ol’ U.S. of A usually pulls off an impressive, fairly non-religion specific holiday decorations on, what I assume to be, a much smaller largesse.

In both of these cases, the staunch defenders of Christmas denied accusations of cultural insensitivity with claims that Muslims, Jews, etc… loved Christmas as much as any card-carrying member of the Moral Majority (or Family First). While I’m entirely unsympathetic to this as a defense for O’Reilly OR the Telegraph, I think, as employed by the Tele, it raises some interesting questions about Christmas’s place in the city. Do people who are otherwise uninterested in the holiday enjoy Christmas (or “holiday” in more enlightened municipalities) decorations in the city?

Sep 04

Is travel writing inherently imperialist?

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Is travel writing inherently imperialist?

Chinua Achebe seems to think so. Here’s his take on The Artist Abroad from Home and Exile:

Diverse as their individual situations or predicaments were, these children
of the West roamed the world with the confidence of the authority of their
homeland behind them. The purchasing power of even very little real money
in their pocket set against the funny money all around them might often be enough
to validate their authority without any effort on their part.

The experience of a traveller from the world’s poor places
is very different, whether he is travelling as a tourist or struggling
to settle down as an exile in a wealthy country. One could give a
whole lot of time to that subject but I am not going to. Let me just say
of such a traveller that he will not be able to claim a double citizenship like
Gertrude Stein when she said: “I am an American and Paris is my hometown”.

It’s certainly a worthwhile observation that I, as the swaggering American traveller Achebe describes, have no experience to contradict. Though there are a million apocryphal and plenty of real immigrants who would probably disagree with him. I’d love to see some examples of travel writing written by people of “the world’s poor places” that expand on this idea. There’s plenty of fiction about dispossesion (In A Bend In The River, which Achebe actually attacks in the same essay, Naipaul deals with similar themes), but I can’t think of any travel writing that tackles the subject.

Sep 04

The best way to learn about another culture is to try and sell its people useless shit over the telephone

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The best way to learn about another culture is to try and sell its people useless shit over the telephone. Or at least this is the premise behind the Working Holiday visa. The visa, which is probably unknown to most Americans, allows persons aged 18 to 30 a chance to work in another country for a fixed period of time. The visa is most popular in the Commonwealth, where it seems to be a rite of passage for English students to travel to Australia for a year and do some fair dinkum partying. And vise-versa. The Australian visa is open to Americans as well, although we get a scant 4 months of work. Generally, visa holders travel around the country and work short-term manual labor like fruit picking. However, for me the visa wasn’t an opportuinity to see the Outback, it was the easiest way to get to Sydney and be with my girlfriend.

Unfortunately, the job opportuinities for a visa holder in Sydney are a lot more limited than in the Gold Coast. In fact, not counting a brief bakery stint I’d rather not discuss, I found the only real openings were in telemarketing. Desperate for money, I ended up in a group interview for a Surry Hills-based telesales company. The campaign for which they were hiring was a contract from a big name hotel company. I was to sell cheap holidays in “four and a half to five star” hotels (the brief we recieved later listed each hotel at four and a half). All the cutomer had to do was attend a 90 minute “meeting” (“we try to avoid the word ‘seminar'”) for the company’s holiday club. After the invterviewer informed us that he “liked to stay in five-star hotels from time to time” and gave a quick lecture on what the job would require, I was in.

At first it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t mind dialling and I felt that, in some way, by hawking holidays to Australians from Geelong to Cunnamulla, I was seeing the country. What really bothered me, though, was the discomfort my bosses instilled in me; one slip up and I’d get canned. Also, because of my accent, people I called always thought my name was “Carl”. I didn’t like that the people telling me off were adressing me by the wrong name.

I burned out very quickly. About three weeks after I started, I took a Friday off to go to Melbourne for the weekend and I never returned. I spent two weeks searching in vain for a different line of work. The classifieds were dire–apart from telemarketing, the only opening for travellers was a “Stripper Gram” deliverer.

I buckled down again and went for a trial at another direct marketing company. Instead of phoning people, we went to malls and signed people up with American Express. After an akward train ride to Chatswood (between uncomfortable silences, the trainer, upon learning I was American, asked my feelings on September 11th) and a miserable two hours at the mall, I learned the pay was strtictly comission and decided to opt out.

After a few unsuccesful interviews, I landed my current position. Although it’s still telemarketing, I feel like it’s the best job I can find with my visa. The company is also an ad agency, so the office is well designed–at least in comparison to the blank walls and makeshift cubicles of the average telesales office. Scheduling appoints to discuss home loan refinacing is hardly glamorous, but it’s a little more dignified than shilling Amway holidays. No matter how nice the bosses are and how pretty the office, phoning people and hearing “I SAID we’ll give it a miss, Carl” for eight hours a day is still mind numbing. But such is the life of a working traveller.

Despite the fact that I’m travelling less than the average visa holder, working a shitty 9 to 5 is probably a far more acurate way to discover a city.

Sep 04

It’s funny

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It’s funny that Tom’s travel writing malaise inspired this month’s Blog 7 theme, because my love of travel writing is precisely what piqued my interest in the blog. That’s not to say that I disagree that the “travel writing” shelves at most book stores are pretty dire– for every Bruce Chatwin, there are ten Sarah Turnbulls. But the best travel writers are able to combine narrative with history, sociology and politics better than any other genre I can think of. Patrick Marnham’s “In Search of Amin” from Granta, for example, is scary and hillarious while offering more insight into Idi Amin’s Uganda than a dry history ever could alone.

But dry travel writing is a lot of fun as well! Jan Morris is hardly the world’s most exciting transsexual, but she still paints a hell of a picture of the world in Among The Cities using straight description (no pun intended) and history. Her detailed book on Sydney is fascinating, especially when read next to her less than flattering pieces on the city from 1954 and 1982.

V.S Naipaul used the genre for his hateful screeds Among The Believers and An Area of Darkness. Paul Theroux often shared his old friend’s disdain for the places he travelled, most satisfyingly in Kingdom By The Sea. Theroux’s curmudgeonliness works best in this take on the English seaside.

Tony Horwitz usually finds a middle ground between the “travel teaches me about the world” and “travel teaches me about me” schools of thought. In that way, I guess, he’s like Bill Bryson without the cornball schtick. One For The Road, in which Horwitz hitchhikes around the Australian outback, is his best pure travel novel. But Confederates in the Attic is his most complete work. Horwitz uses travel, both through Southern capitals and with a band of Civil War reenactors, to articulate the last effects of the War on America’s south. The travel narrative fleshes out what would otherwise be a fairly mundane theme.

A quick glance at the authors I’ve mentioned pretty clearly illustrates the genre’s biggest shortcoming–travel writing is largely written and read by a pretty limited group of people; those who can afford to travel (and more often than not, contribute to Granta). Paul Theroux will never be able to tell me as much about Nigeria as Amos Tutoula. But the fact that the genre is limited hardly means it’s useless. Travel writing works best within the context of more knowledgeable sources. Half the fun in reading about a neophyte’s travels is revelling in the mistakes and predjudices.