Last month, while visiting Copenhagen, I got a text from a friend: “Did you see the goddamned mermaid statue?”
I had. The goddamned mermaid statue, a tribute to the famous fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, is, along with the gorgeous Tivoli Gardens and the fascinating anarchist micro-nation of Christiania, one of Copenhagen’s top tourist attractions. Unfortunately, it’s also completely underwhelming. The most visited sight in the city, the bronze figure sits perched atop a rock in the harbor, perpetually surrounded by photo-snapping travelers who are unloaded by the busful alongside the promenade. Removed from its literary context, it’s hard to imagine the statue stopping anyone in their tracks, as there’s little to distinguish it besides a plaque explaining its connection to a beloved story. A number of vandals apparently share my contempt: the statue has, at various times, been decapitated, doused with paint, and even crowned with a dildo.
Before we even went to see the mermaid, my fellow travelers and I knew it would amount to nothing much—it’s clear from the many photos of the statue online—and yet we felt compelled to go, as did hundreds of other visitors that day.
Any list of popular tourist destinations will yield plenty of duds and disappointments amid the legitimately exciting sights. What’s interesting is that overrated attractions are often predictably so—but still people pucker up for the germ-smeared Blarney Stone, or pose at Pisa for the requisite holding-up-the-Leaning-Tower photo. We schlep to Stonehenge, pay the steep admission fee, and then peer from afar at the rocks, rendered tiny and uninspiring from behind the barriers that keep visitors at a distance. We crowd into the Louvre to catch an in-person glimpse of the Mona Lisa’s smile, which we could’ve seen much more clearly via a Google Images search, sparing ourselves the frustration of trying to spot the painting through a forest of glowing smartphones held aloft.
Even Times Square—to be sure, a singularly energetic locale—has tourists to thank for its bustle, not New Yorkers, who give the neighborhood as wide a berth they would a subway rat colony. But most natives acknowledge that their out-of-town friends should at least poke their heads in long enough to see Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty throw down.
But why, really, do travelers feel obliged to drive several hours to a Loch Ness they know is devoid of cryptids? Why did we visit the mermaid, rather than, say, spend an extra hour smoking hash in Christiania’s green light district?
Generally, there seem to be two schools of traveler: the quasi-frantic sightseer, awake before dawn and armed with a list of destinations, perhaps culled from thorough guidebook research conducted beforehand, rarely veering from the well-trod tourist circuit. And then there’s the wanderer who meanders through neighborhoods at random, ducking in and out of cafes and bars, seeking a sense of how the locals live.
The former type undoubtedly seems less adventurous, cycling through a series of landmarks that might as well exist in isolation from the cities they’re in. But it’s understandable if fewer folks are comfortable with the freewheeling approach: Americans get the least paid vacation time among citizens of developed countries, and many workers receive none at all. With a mere week or so out of the entire year to explore the wider world—if they can even afford that, which many Americans feel they can’t—it’s not surprising that there’s pressure to pack in as much as possible. If you know you’ll have to wait 365 days for your next chance to get out of town, neglecting to visit top attractions can feel wasteful. My friends and I knew we wouldn’t be in Denmark again any time soon, we figured, so yes, we might as well see the goddamned mermaid.
In addition to this sense of obligation, safety concerns are also a factor when it comes to the freewheeling approach. I’ve long been a fan of the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column—the current writer, Seth Kugel, is solidly in the “mosey through neighborhoods” camp, and shows true ingenuity in sticking to a tight budget. But I’d argue that as a white man, Kugel has far more options when it comes to where he can mosey. How many women and people of color, I wonder, would feel comfortable embarking on a solo bike tour of Kentucky’s back roads, striking up conversations with groups of men in parking lots, and accepting an invitation to sleep in a stranger’s hunting cabin, as Kugel recently did?
On a trip to Hong Kong years ago, my then-boyfriend and I hiked to Shek O, a beautiful, sleepy beach town that felt like a relic from a pre-urbanized era. On our walk back to the bus stop, a group of middle-aged British men drinking at a bar called out to us, “Hey, where are you going?” We ended up joining these ex-pats for an hour or so, and were granted a glimpse at what life in Hong Kong was like before and after the handover from the UK to China, from people who lived it—something we’d never have heard about firsthand otherwise. But hanging out with those men was also something I’d never have done had I been alone.
The majority of people offering hospitality to wanderers are doing just that, with no nefarious agenda. But that’s a gamble women, who when they travel are advised to take photos of their cabs’ license plates and avoid sleeping on trains, may be unwilling to take. A gondola ride in Venice might be overpriced, clichéd, perhaps ultimately underwhelming, but it’s also part of a well-regulated industry. In heavily touristed sites, there is often stronger security, and the potential for danger (aside from being pickpocketed, perhaps) is relatively low.
I taught English for three years in a town just outside Fukuoka, Japan, a city famous for its tonkotsu ramen, super-fresh sushi, and pan-fried gyoza dumplings, but while I was there, I ate more burgers than I have at any other time in my life. I partook in plenty of the local specialties, too, but there was something that drew me on a weekly basis to a restaurant called Son House—named after the guitar legend—run by Tanaka-san, a huge fan of American culture. He played classic blues, jazz, and rock records, served cheeseburgers and Tex-Mex, and made periodic research trips to the U.S. to study the ins and outs of our comfort food.
I lived in subsidized teachers’ housing with several other foreigners, and every night a Son House delivery bike would pull up in our parking lot; every time I visited the restaurant, I bumped into one of my neighbors. In fact, a welcome party was held there shortly after my arrival. I initially turned my nose up at the idea: why kick off my Japan experience at an American restaurant? You’ll find out soon enough, I was told by a friend who’d been living in town for years.
And it didn’t take long until I felt overwhelmed by my host culture in a way that was almost physical. I’d been rocketed back to childhood helplessness, rendered illiterate in a region where almost no one spoke my language. I was baffled by street signs, supermarket items, and my school’s daily rituals; I was drained from straining to communicate via my paltry Japanese or my co-workers’ tentative English. I found myself sleeping a startling amount, as though I was re-charging for another day of contending with my own ineptitude and what I’m sure was friendly curiosity on the part of locals, but sometimes made me feel like a zoo animal. It was thrilling to be so constantly challenged, humbled, and surprised, but also really tiring. I needed an oasis, and there was Son House: not exactly home, but close enough.
Travel is disorienting, destabilizing. A departure from the quotidian is presumably why we go, but as it turns out, it’s remarkably easy to get overwhelmed by what feels alien. By the time my parents visited Fukuoka, I’d become accustomed enough to the area to show them some sights, but my father struggled a little: Eminently capable, he’s the one who always navigated on family trips, seemingly an expert in how to get around within moments of arriving in a new place, but in Japan he couldn’t take the lead.
He was a good sport, but such experiences can stir up something verging on existential dread. Travel shows us that what we thought we were—independent, competent—was an illusion all along. No wonder it sometimes makes us crave the familiar. We’ve read The Little Mermaid, we’ve seen photos of the statue, we’ve heard it draws a million people a year, and when we show up, everything we were led to believe turns out to be true. And when you’re on the road and out of your element, that can be quite a relief.
Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. She has written for the Atlantic, Jacobin, Dame, Al Jazeera, Refinery29, the Village Voice, and more. Follow her at @AlannaSchu.
Image via Alex Berger/Flickr.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.