Summer in the Cities

As enlightened intelligent self-aware globe-trotters, the forthcoming autumn will be full of dinner parties where we shall discuss our holidays in post-Tourist terms. On these occasions, we will share our ironic awareness that in having spent a fortnight in South-East Asia we were partaking in a mass event that has lost all sense of singularity (I have chosen South-East Asia as an example from personal experience, but it can be replaced by South America, North Africa, and any other continental sub-division). As the evening draws on and a few bottles of New World wine have been quaffed, perhaps the discussion will move into neo-Tourist territory. Not to be out-done by too much mutual middle-class irony, future neo-Tourist plans could include anything from a previously unthought of combination such as an igloo-touring poker holiday in Greenland through to the financially quasi-impossible experience of orbiting the Earth.

But whilst knocking up a few sophisticated post-dinner cocktails, I suggest injecting a soupçon of controversy into the mix by advocating in favour of what I shall call ‘Real Touristik’. This type of tourism is defined by a return to the fundamental notion of modern tourism, tourism as practical as tourism can be, tourism as experienced by our parents, or even our parents’ parents. Such ‘Real Touristik’ practices might include: boarding and eating in a hotel that belongs to an international chain thus guaranteeing air-conditioning and a minimum amount of kitchen hygiene; signing up for as many organised tours as possible before leaving for your destination insuring a tourist guide you’ll fully understand; staying in a holiday resort and enjoying it at face value because there’s an eat-all-you-can buffet at breakfast.

As enlightened intelligent self-aware globe-trotters, however, Real Touristik seems to go against the idea that we’re meant to avoid tourist traps. We’re supposed to be cleverer than that. At autumn dinner parties we should express how our anthropological nous allowed us to access the indigenous hinterland whilst fully understanding that we would never really comprehend the reality of the natives’ daily lives because we have been tainted by our Western post-religious consumer-driven educations. And yet recognising this in some way makes us an authority on the plight of West African pygmy tribes which we saw from afar whilst speeding by in a jeep on a photo shoot safari.

Now I know what some of you are thinking, some of you are thinking that I’m just bitter because I probably can’t afford to partake in such a holiday experience and that I probably have a fear of flying. On both accounts you’d probably be right. Nevertheless, it is time to face a fundamental vacation truth: no matter how post-touristic we like to think we are, no matter how much money we throw at travelling halfway around the world in order to escape our mundane routine lives, there are only two types of holiday-goer and both are of the Real Touristik variety. On the one hand, you have those who like to lounge about on the beach, and on the other, those who enjoy the pre-digested culture of museums, galleries, theatres, etc.

* * *

Paris may traditionally appeal to the latter category, the cultural tourist, but it would appear that Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, has spent the past five years trying to cater for the beach-head. Initially it was an attempt to offer a hint of the Riviera to the capital’s poor that for the first time in 2002 a stretch of main road running through the centre of Paris and along the river Seine was turned into an urban beach for a month. Each subsequent year has seen the period from 20th July to 20th August become synonymous with Paris Plage, literally ‘Paris Beach’. In its humble beginnings 2,000 tonnes of sand along with parasols and alien-looking palm trees were dumped on the right bank of the river along the two miles that span from the Hôtel de Ville eastwards. But to accommodate its 4 million or so visitors that now come from the world over, this year the intellectual left bank has also witnessed the overnight invasion of these Triffid-like plants wheeled onto the scene as if readying to take over civilisation as we know it. Indeed, how would the Paris intelligentsia fight off the raising of diving platforms with black roll-neck jumpers, the spreading of tanning lotion with Gauloises cigarettes, topless sunbathers with the works of Sartre?

Perhaps it was because of this that there was a reminder late in July that Paris Plage is the Canada Dry of French beaches: from the amount of picnic-related rubbish strewn about the place it looks like a beach, from the amount of sand blowing into your eyes it feels like a beach, but you’re in the middle of a city where standard laws of public decency apply, unlike a real beach, thus outlawing the sporting of monokinis and the like. Paris Plage is, after all, but the simulacrum of a beach. Yes, you can sunbathe. Yes, you can take a dip in the water albeit in swimming pools floating on the river. But please, no thongs.

According to a press release the Town Hall was worried that the vision of scantily clad bodies under open air showers or gleaming from oily massages might render people unable to control themselves. The question is: Who are these people? Somehow it would be nice to think that this directive was reissued due to left-bank intellectuals being deterred from formulating the meaning of life, the universe and everything by the sight of sunshine frolickers. The reality of the situation, however, is probably not so Nouvelle Vague.

With July’s canicule, or heat wave, and temperatures regularly hitting above the 40°C mark it has been suggested that many Parisians postponed their traditional holidays in the south of France till the advent of cooler times. This, then, only leaves one possibility for enjoying some beach-bound sharking. Add to this the huge flood of summer tourists who in the heat tend to avoid the enclosed spaces of art galleries and you have yourself a recipe for a festival of the body cult. If being in Paris is very much about being seen, then Paris Plage becomes a market place where thousands of people can watch you lower your sunglasses in a show of near naked existential quizzicality or indeed partake in a sexy game of beach pétanque. In these circumstances are you really amazed that the Town Hall was worried?

What all of this suggests, of course, is that Paris Plage‘s initial mission of bringing a coastal feel to impoverished Parisians has been somewhat hijacked. But not simply hijacked by the more affluent city-dwellers, et al., but by people’s secret desire for the Real Touristik. How else to explain the success of a transient, man-made, sea-less beach in the middle of a metropolis? And then on top of that you can factor in a Real Touristik stroke of genius: the Paris Plage theme. This year the theme is ‘French Polynesia’ and the Paris municipality website sees this as another way to discover the islands of the South Pacific “all in a delicious tropical setting” (my emphasis). Fear not, if you are unable to fly out to the archipelago, an alter-authentic voyage of discovery is provided through photos of the islands and ‘Tahitian ballet lessons’.

* * *

The summer of 2003 saw deaths related to excessive temperatures in France reach almost 5,000 in Paris and 15,000 nationally. For about a week, Paris was the hottest place in the world and since then la canicule has become a pervasive notion in French society. The original sense of the term, however, designates a period of time which roughly corresponds to the duration of Paris Plage. Between 22nd July and 23rd August, the hottest period of the year in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises and sets at the same time as the Sirius Star or Dog Star. This cycle is known as la canicule, a word taken from the Italian canicula or little dog.

Of course, these are what the British call the dog days of summer. Or perhaps as a news fiend you may know this period better as the silly season, the time of year when newspaper sales slump because the ‘real news-makers’ have all gone off on holiday. After all, this is the time of the year when the British Parliament is in recess. And let’s face it, every year when holiday plans chez Berlusconi are distantly echoing down the corridors of the mother of all parliaments, the rest of the world has, in both tradition and respect, followed suit and put its policy-making on hold. That is, needless to say, if you discount the Austro-Hungarian Empire declaring war on Serbia leading to World War I, the end of World War II with the surrender of Emperor Hirohito, most of Ireland’s ancient battles which always seemed to occur in August (perhaps when the bogs are at their driest), countries such as Pakistan and Korea declaring their independence, and the habitual post-Tour de France drugs scandal.

But if you’re the culture vulture type of tourist, then you probably see the dog days as corresponding to the Edinburgh Festival. If the idea of sitting on a beach all day sheltering from the blistering sun under palm trees is closer to Dante’s sixth ring of hell (the one with the flaming tombs – a reference you could casually drop in during one of those afore-mentioned dinner parties), then you should head to Paris Plage‘s cooler rival in the Athens of the North.

The multiple event that is the Edinburgh Festival, now in its 60th year, includes the Edinburgh International Festival (13th August to 3rd September) and the biggest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe (6th August to 28th August), as well as a multitude of spin off festivals celebrating films to books to multiculturalism. This year, and at relatively little cost, you will be able to enjoy Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies as well as the most contentious Shakespeare production to date that is Bouncy Castle Hamlet (the most talked about staging since A Midsummer Night’s Dream was produced in a tree).

The nature of the Edinburgh Festival is as Real Touristik as Paris Plage. It offers a digest of the world’s current cultural productions, without having to travel all over the world. At first instance it may not appear to be an obvious Real Touristik choice, but that’s because over the years the City of Edinburgh and its festival collective has simply managed to market itself differently than, say, Butlins holiday camps (perhaps the über-Real Touristik experience). In 1936 Billy Butlin opened his first new-concept self-sufficient holiday resort in Skegness on the east coast of England. You may think that the North Sea would have trouble competing with the Mediterranean, but the resort at Skegness was successful enough for Butlins to expand and today there are resorts at Bognor Regis and Minehead. Though the dulcet tones of these names may conjure up romantic resonances, I have an inkling that Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 cult television series The Prisoner was not a countercultural critique of communism, the Vietnam War or McLuhan’s Global Village, but of the pre-structured holiday society of Butlins. Think about: the Village in The Prisoner is an apparent self-contained seaside resort but with plants among the population that help police the people. Butlins has Redcoats. Though they are immediately recognisable thanks to their coloured uniforms, Redcoats are hybrid entertainer-monitor people that mingle among the holiday-makers ensuring that ‘a good time is had by all’. This would make McGoohan a critic of Real Touristik and therefore, no matter how imaginative, a bore at dinner parties.

Though this comparison between Butlins and the Edinburgh Festival is somewhat ludicrous, once upon a time it was through using Butlins as an entertainment boot camp that some of Britain’s ‘top’ comedians and singers tried and tested their material before breaking into the big time — Dave Allen, Des O’Connor, Michael Barrymore, Cliff Richard (come on, you must have heard of Cliff Richard). This is not unlike the way many contemporary comedy acts use the Fringe. In fact, Butlins still manages to attract such established (but admittedly has-been) acts as The Animals and Boney M (albeit featuring Maizie Williams!?). Needless to say, however, that, unlike Butlins, Edinburgh is a living breathing urban environment outwith the Festival. But just like the Butlins resorts, one of the fundamental attractions of the cultural experience offered by the Scottish capital during the month of August is its relatively small size and therefore village-feel. The Festival audience has long realised that the Festival is a pinhead upon which the world’s biggest array of cultural productions can dance. Or if you prefer, imagine it like a sales fair where you can wonder from stand to stand, tent to tent, venue to venue looking for the next best product. Real Touristik or what?