Why do writers for newspaper travel sections rave about every view they see, every hotel they stay in, and every experience they have, whereas theater critics would be hooted off the stage for being so uncritical? Daniel Okrent, former New York Times public editor, asked this question but never got a chance to answer it.
So I decided to address it: It’s too painful to admit that we didn’t enjoy an experience that cost thousands of dollars, whereas we can’t wait to bash Hollywood and complain about the $12 bucks we forked over to the movie industry.
Would you come home from a trip to an island off the coast of Italy and talk about everything you disliked? Probably not. You would, however, tell a friend what you hated about the last movie you saw.
Why do most travel writers describe “perfect days” of beachfront restaurants offering “killer views” and “a taste of the sea,” while movie critics consistently grind new releases and find the “things that went wrong”?
Roger (not his real name), a 20-year old Brit studying geology this year at UCSB, was one of the first people I met who is as honest about his study abroad experience as movie critics are about Anne Hathaway.
Sure, he thinks Santa Barbara is gorgeous. He smiled for pictures in front of Storke Tower, at Hendry’s Beach, and in his joker costume during Halloween weekend. I’m sure his Facebook friends think he’s having a blast.
But Roger is “waiting it out” until June when he returns to England. Although he doesn’t hate living here, he is indifferent. “Not a great way to live life,” he said.
Roger seems like a sad case. He thinks his house is made of cardboard. His housemate is often “mental.” The weather is weird; freezing in the morning, roasting by midafternoon, and freezing again at night. The skunks and raccoons freak him out. He doesn’t drive. There is nothing to do. He is terrible at surfing. He does not understand the Isla Vista bubble or why everyone’s excited to take shots of “plastic handle” vodka. He studies too much and parties too little; at least compared to his peers.
“My roommates call having a beer in the middle of the afternoon ‘day drinking,’” said Roger. “I think they like the phrase more than they like doing it.” He’s quite blunt. It could be a British thing.
After 20 minutes of our conversation, I worried he had nothing left to say. I almost felt apathetic, just like his attitude toward Santa Barbara.
Unlike many tourists, he won’t give Santa Barbara a glowing review when he returns to England. He won’t mention the infinite horizon he saw driving down the 217 or the California cuisine or the restaurants with a view. He will fail to bring up the Earth Day festivities in Alameda Park. He won’t hesitate to rate his S.B. experience like it’s a movie; in fact, he gives Santa Barbara two-and-a-half stars.
To be fair, Roger is basing most of his subpar review on experiences he’s had in Isla Vista, not in the entire city. The reality is that most underage people in Santa Barbara spend a fair amount of time in the I.V. bubble.
I finally asked Roger if he had anything positive to share. He sat up a bit and got a big grin on his face.
He’s been on quite a few adventures. He wanted to leave Santa Barbara enough that he sat on a Greyhound bus for four days with a bunch of meth heads. He eventually made it to Philadelphia and later to New York City where he and eight friends piled into a tiny studio apartment for a few weeks. There was just enough space for a Christmas turkey dinner on the floor.
During spring break, he flew to Mexico City where he ran around the Teotihuacan Pyramids during the day and drank tequila at night. He gashed his toe open and got bitten by a German shepherd. But his injuries barely fazed him; he had too much adrenaline. He wasn’t bored. He loved it. He still has to get tested for rabies, though.
He also made his way through Los Angeles, Berkeley, Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon. For Roger, Santa Barbara is a dull home base, but living here allows him to travel every direction except westward.
Eventually, my apathetic feeling faded, and I appreciated Roger’s rare perspective. His honesty and bluntness are refreshing. He is the opposite of boring. He is incredibly driven. He loves meeting people. He is not afraid of the awkward newness that comes with traveling. He lets his guard down. He would have couch surfed. He is just not excited by the tranquil beach days many of us crave. In fact, he wants to move to Norway.
Roger’s experience proves that you should always live like you’re in a foreign country. California is packed with incredible places to experience. Roger is only here for nine months so he doesn’t hesitate to plan weekend trips and try things he may not at home. He knows how to put a grin on his face — escaping his “mental” housemate, for starters.
We must realize sight is only one of the five senses. The world is filled with pretty places. But even beauty gets old. Daniel Okrent was right: it’s too easy to describe every travel destination as delightful and exceptional. In fact, it creates unevenness in our critical thought.
“People told me that Santa Barbara is the American Riviera,” Roger told me. “That’s a lie.”
Well, I thought, neither is Norway.