The Authenticity Bind


Lately, while reading about other people’s travels, I’ve noticed a recurring phrase. It’s expressed in different ways, but with the same ominous sense of urgency, the gist of which is: “Get there before it’s too late.”

Or: “I give Bucharest another three years, max.” (Then what?) “Go to Olinda now, before it’s gone.” (To where?) “In five years, Apulia will be Tuscany.” (Heaven forfend!)

From the beaches of Vietnam to the ruins of the Incas — but mostly in the fast-homogenizing Old World (that would be Europe) — there’s a disquieting sense that what makes any place uniquely appealing is as endangered as the $2 slice.

This feeling goes hand in hand with one of my pet peeves, the myth of cultural authenticity. Authenticity sounds like a good thing: who wants to go somewhere fake? But too often it’s synonymous with a time-warped, historically congealed version of reality.

“Cuba es AUTÉNTICA,” blares an ad from the side of buses all over Europe. It’s the classic example. What’s authentic about Cuba versus the implicitly less-genuine Caribbean islands? More bluntly, does a place have to visually look like it’s preserved in the 1950s, pink Cadillacs and all, to be authentic?

But that’s exactly what Cuban tourism promoters are trading on. They know nothing sells like nostalgia — in this case, the nostalgia of picturesque Cold War poverty. As Cuba begins to modernize, a substantial travel subculture has grown up around the idea that you’ve got to get there “while it’s still authentic.”

And to many thoughtful travelers, intent on mining the cultural particularity of a given place, what’s authentic is what’s old, traditional and culturally distinct. It’s a restaurant in Genoa that makes its pasta by hand; a “Black Orpheus”-style guitarist strumming in a Rio favela; a neighborhood full of 1800s buildings and no H&M in sight.

For all my criticism, I’m not immune to the temptation of this sentiment. For years, in fact, I’ve promoted the Eastern Balkans — my husband’s home region, one I know well — to friends precisely because it still offers the kind of throwback cultural distinctiveness, largely undiluted by American or Anglo influence, that they fruitlessly search for in Tuscany.

And it’s just as true that as globalization mercilessly proceeds, that distinctiveness is waning. When I first went to Sofia, Bulgaria, every home had its own wooden furniture and homemade wine. Fast-forward six years, and the wines are likely to be from Carrefour; we sit on the same plastic Ikea chairs seen in kitchens throughout Europe.

Do I think Bulgaria is less “authentic” than it was in poorer, more isolated times? On an etymological level, that’s absurd. It is authentically a gentrifying country on the fringes of Europe, rapidly integrating into the Union. Nothing says “2012” more authentically than Wal-Mart and the multinational conglomerates reshaping global commerce.

But is something lost in this transition — in the modern disappearance of age-old fruit stands and mom-and-pop stores peddling hand-woven linens? Of course. The past itself is being lost, and (with apologies to Faulkner) that’s what makes it past, nostalgic as we may be for more culturally distinct times.

As I’ve said often, you can’t conserve the past, only the signs of the past; you can pass laws preserving the traditional booksellers along the Seine, but you can’t go back and stop the clock in a pre-iPad era when avid book buyers browsed the latest from Hemingway. And we ought to consider what’s positive, indeed fascinating, about the way globalization is reshaping our experience of the world. Cultures may change, but human societies remain compelling.

Nostalgia aside, there’s another — and to my mind more legitimate — reason for fretting over “endangered” destinations: the crowds that result from mass tourism. When they say Belgrade has five years left, what they mean is that right now, Belgrade is off most Americans’ tourism radar. So unlike Prague, whose antique center can feel like a theme-park version of itself, Belgrade is still a capital where you can lose yourself among the locals.

That’s what makes going somewhere foreign so thrilling, after all. And finding that thrill is getting harder in the era of Trip Advisor and blogs, when every offbeat spot is getting its 15 minutes. There are some places I do consider more or less ruined by overtourism — starting with Italy’s Cinque Terre.

When I first wandered these Ligurian seaside villages in the late 1990s, only connoisseurs knew about them. But Rick Steves was talking them up, and Riomaggiore, where I got off the train, was already thick with backpackers and hawking hostellers. The towns were lively but still had that languid resort feel. With only the sea in sight, I wandered the cliff-side paths in blissful solitude.

In 2009, I returned out of curiosity to see what time and the Internet had wrought. Steves’ “traffic-free Riviera” was so clogged with guidebook-clutching tourists that I had to fight to make my way through the narrow streets. The cliff-side trails were now a national park with a line and an entrance fee — blessed with sound environmental and crowd-control policy, of course, but rustic no longer.

In Apulia last summer, I could see incipient gentrification — the luxury hotels, the English-language menus. I’m guilty of wanting to explore the Montenegran and Albanian coasts before they, too, become high-priced and international like Croatia. But I resist the idea that such change is inherently negative. We live in an era defined by cultural syncretism, and these are exciting times indeed: Who in our grandparents’ era thought of vacationing on the Albanian coast?

You may notice a country conspicuously absent from this whole conversation. That would be our very own U.S. of A., a paradise of novelty more or less exempt from the plague of freeze-dried nostalgia.

We invented globalization, after all. We look forward, not back. I’d argue, and many would agree, that places like San Francisco and Brooklyn are more fun to visit than they were 40 years ago.

But then I look at the prices, and nostalgia takes over.