When you’re looking out your hotel balcony in Hawaii, which is where I was a few days ago, what do you write about? The construction site twelve floors below you, the yellow backhoes and bulldozers, the stacks of silver pipes, the green dumpsters, the orange construction fence that bisects the manicured green lawn, and the weird, half-finished lagoon with the palm tree island surrounded by two inches of murky water and a lot of fake, raked sand? Or do you look over that stuff, at the marina, full of Gilligan’s island-like boats and palm trees, just beyond the flock of pink flamingos (I kid you not), and the great blue ocean and whitecaps beyond that?
I would like to say, by the way, that it really defies my sense of reality that I have just returned from Honolulu, having done nothing to deserve my good fortune except having a friend, my college roommate, who had a conference in Hawaii to attend and, apparently, no one better than me to go with her and use up her frequent flier miles.
To bring things around to Italy, that is why I was in Genoa this summer — my friend C had a conference and asked me to come along. I will only add that I think I have run out of such friends, or I would send one of them YOUR way. On second thought, if I do have any more such friends and they happen to be reading this, feel free to email me about your schedule. The chances are sort of good that I’ll be available to attend conferences on professional matters I basically know nothing about. The only conference I am attending this year is in the City of Industry, which is, according to the map, somewhere in Los Angeles, and I will understand if you don’t want to go with me to a place with a name like that. I wouldn’t.
But back to travel writing. So, there I was in Hawaii, with a list of interesting things to do and see, provided by my friend Stella who used to live in Honolulu. I was at a huge Hilton resort, where you don’t actually have to leave your room if you don’t want to, except maybe to stagger downstairs to one of the five hundred restaurants and bars and shops and maybe have some fish, and a drink with an umbrella in it. Or one could stir out of one’s Hiltonic stupor, rent a car, and go see something.
Were I Dickens, I would so be out there in the lobby renting a car, and driving off to see six things on the Wednesday, and another six on Thursday. Except if I had a lover, as he did, then I’d probably be sneaking off to see that person on one of those days I was going to look at two beaches, the Bishop Museum, climbing up the volcano at dawn, and watching a hula show at dusk, then getting up at midnight to watch some unusual local custom, maybe involving throwing brides into the surf to see if they float. (They can. I saw so many young women in huge frilly wedding gowns while I was basically lying around drinking umbrella drinks that I had a lot of time and opportunity to turn this question over in my mind.)
How do I know that Dickens was such a busy traveler? Well, earlier in the summer, after hiking in the Cinque Terre with C, we took the train to Genoa, where she checked into an academic conference organized entirely around a single, not particularly well-known choice from the Dickens ouvre, Pictures From Italy. I didn’t even know such a book existed.
It turns out that Pictures from Italy is a fun, short book, and it really does get you thinking about what we do when we travel. My feeling about travel writing and travel is that you keep quiet, sit in cafes and check people out, go places where real people go and do your best to eat the stuff everyone else is eating. You travel to lose yourself in a world that is not your own and, if you have the energy or inclination, you write about what that’s like.
This, I would like to say, is not what people do when they go to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Nor is it this what Dickens did in Italy. The Hawaii thing is common knowledge. As I said earlier, you go to a place like the Hilton because you don’t ever have to leave it. This isn’t a new idea, and even though I think it’s a bad thing, I’m fairly certain a case could be made for the vacation as cocoon, or else a case could be made that my fantasy of finding the soul of a place is every bit as ridiculous as the British tourist Dickens describes in Pictures from Italy, the one who stood in front of the Last Supper and kept asking, in a booming voice, if anyone saw any mustard on the table.
Although Dickens got out more than the Hilton people, he really wasn’t interesting in finding out who the Italians were. He mostly just enjoyed finding types of Italians, and describing them beautifully as oddities and exotics. His fiction is full of this kind of stuff — characters with eccentric habits and weird names, people who aren’t really human, even though they are amusing. Some of the novels do this more than others, and there’s more to say about this urge to categorize than I have time for right now, but it’s the single hardest thing about reading Dickens, in my view. I like my characters with fewer quirks and more life.
But it’s also true that Dickens is funny — and he’s particularly funny in talking about why the Italians are lunatics — from the arts, to politics, to their burial customs. He was certainly no friend of Catholicism. And where ever art and religion intersected, which is to say in every painting he looked at, he was pretty dismissive. To answer that question I asked earlier about whether you describe the Hawaii of travel brochures or the Hawaii of construction sites, had Dickens been in Hawaii, he would have given us the construction site, the vast ocean, and he’d have thrown in some brides, the surf instructors, and more things than I can tell you about because I was too lazy to do much.
Dickens lived in two different places in Genoa, both grand and both full of the sort of art that must have made him want to lie down with a wet washcloth on his forehead. (Except he was DICKENS, for heaven’s sake, with formidable energy and drive, so he just wrote about it instead.) We went out to see these two places.
One of them, a private home owned by the chicest woman on the planet — a woman in her sixties, so sleek and well mannered, with such beautiful shoes, that I decided then and there to do something about my hair and start wearing better shoes — was notable not only for the awful stuff painted on the walls, but for the lovely drinks cart next to the window with a view out toward the sea. The other, which had become the headquarters for a shipping company — all chandeliers and the orgy of wild art still intact — made me wonder how people in Europe who work in such restored places ever get any work done.
I leave you with my two favorite pictures from the villas in Genoa we visited:
Yes, I know — the cows are upside down. Someone is in big trouble in hell, is all I can say. The shipping company executive seated just below these falling cows must have had icy concentration. I’d have spent my entire tenure in that office under my desk.
This next one was C’s favorite. She referred to it as the sausage exchange. You know, if they took all the weapons and traded them for sausages (even with all the well-known issues with sausages), the world would be a way, way better place. Beat your swords into sausages, I mean.
You know what? I’m no Dickens. I didn’t hike the volcano, or visit the Bishop Museum, or attend a single charming local ceremony. I looked out at the ocean, read Pictures From Italy, and thought about the short stories I am writing. How Dickens managed to visit everything, and see everything, and write about it all astonishes me. But if he’d sat around in a cafe drinking coffee and watching people instead, we’d have no portrait of Italy in the 19th century quite like this one. And instead of going to Italy, I’d be hanging out in London in the middle of December, visiting poorhouses and jails in the fog and trying to get through the very, very long Bleak House. So, I’m glad he had his Italian time, and glad he figured out how to write about it. I don’t want to be him, I think, but I’m so glad he is who he is.