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Travel Philosophy

In defence of the trodden path

Why we shouldn’t feel guilty about following the crowd

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In the hotel in Paris…

One morning while having breakfast in a Parisian hotel I got talking to a couple who’d recently arrived in the city. They were planning their itinerary for the day, and as it was their first visit to Paris they were asking me if I had any suggestions on what to do. ‘Certainly, the Louvre should be high on the agenda,’ I said, ‘Famous for many works of art, including the Mona Lisa.’

The couple looked at each other, laughed in a manner that disrupted other diners, and simultaneously replied, ‘No.’

‘Why not?’ I asked. Was it because they disliked art? 

‘We don’t want to follow the crowd and do what tourists do,’ came their response. ‘We want to do what the locals do.’ 

Well, I love uncovering the hidden gems of a destination as much as the next traveller, but if it was my first time as a tourist to a city such as Paris, I’d want to see at least something of its main attractions. It got me thinking nonetheless, about why some people look upon the uncovered joys of the trodden tourist path with disdain and why we don’t have to join them in that disparagement. 

Local vs tourist

Whether we like it or not, when we visit somewhere for pleasure we become tourists. We’re not locals. To want to do what locals do is often a statement said without a clear idea of what that involves. In central Paris for instance, like in most cities, locals spend most of their time working long hours in an office. Free time at weekends will often be devoted to family activities, shopping and perhaps a visit to the countryside. For those Parisians that stay in the city a visit to a museum may well be in order. The Mona Lisa is not just for tourists.  

But the Louvre is nonetheless a tourist attraction, it’s one of the many experiences that lures visitors to the city. To ignore the main attractions because other tourists will be there somehow feels needlessly supercilious, especially when you are in fact a tourist. But there are many who wish not to be thought of as such and have no desire to follow the crowd.      

One of the crowd

And this crowd-avoidance is fair enough. But what exactly is it that we dislike about crowds?

In a physical sense, is it that we abhor the inconvenience of being surrounded by many people, leading to longer line ups for entry and the restroom? Or perhaps it’s having to deal with the spot hogs? (The spot hog is the person who commandeers a sought after ‘spot’, say in front of a painting or viewpoint, for more than an acceptable amount of time). Yes, this may be a nuisance, but should this nuisance deflect from the pleasure of witnessing the Mona Lisa for example?

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here for some reframing. No pun intended. There are many occasions in life where we actually love being in a mass gathering; a sports game, a religious ceremony, a music concert, even the cinema. We revel in the shared moment, that feeling of belonging to each other for the duration of the experience. Why can’t we all revel in experiencing the Mona Lisa together, and witness in unison the genius of Da Vinci? Just as long as the spot hog gets out the way.

Mona Lisa, Tourist Crowds, The Trodden Path
‘Too crowded’ said Moaner Lisa
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

In a metaphorical sense, a desire for uniqueness and to express individuality may overwhelm the person with anti-crowd sensibilities however. They may accuse those who follow the throng as being homogenous: ‘Oh everyone goes to Paris sees the Mona Lisa.’ But so what? Besides being an experience worth having, each person in that crowd will nonetheless be having their own unique experience while looking at the painting, despite their physical proximity to many others. It might be on the trodden path, but it’s the first time that individual is personally treading on it. 

Against the grain

There is however, a degree of pressure nowadays to go against the popular grain, to get away from the crowds and to do or see something different, because to experience what everyone else experiences also make us look or feel somehow less travel-savvy (particularly in our future social posts). 

Aside from damaging the path (for environmental reasons or otherwise), there shouldn’t be any guilt in wanting to experience what others have done before us, however popular that experience is. If of course, we are doing it because everyone else is – a visit for a visit’s sake with no real interest in the experience – that does seem rather pointless. It’s then that a new path should certainly be forged.

We’re bombarded however, with off the beaten path suggestions from guidebooks, Tripadvisor and social media (most dramatically, in the recent platform offering called NewNew which allows other users to decide for you). Yet there’s a paradox here. If something has been reported, that path has already been stepped on. If we were to emulate what these travel ‘pioneers’ have discovered, we are not pushing in a completely original direction anyway. 

A plethora of paths

What this inevitably all comes down to is personal choice. Take the path you want to take, but don’t ignore the main one if there are things on it that interest you. And the great thing about this is that at certain junctures along the way it could nevertheless lead down paths less discovered with some wonderful surprises: the chance finding of a small family run restaurant, an obscure monument, an independent book store, a hidden viewpoint, a beautiful encounter with a local. The trodden path is full of tributaries. 

The experience should, ultimately, be something that sparks desire. Locals do it, tourists do it, whatever, as long as you want to do it. And sometimes only by being on that path, trodden or otherwise, can this desire be realised. As Anatole France once said, ‘If the path be beautiful let us not ask where it leads.’

Eiffel Tower Line, Tourists in Paris
Eiffel in line
“Queue” by gadl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Later that evening I ran into the tourist-averse couple. I asked them if they took up any of my (partially non-touristy) suggestions; a visit to Montparnasse for lunch (with office workers), a walk along the canals, a visit to the outer arrondissements. 

‘Well, we were passing the Eiffel Tower and although we didn’t intend to, we felt we had to go up. And it was well worth waiting three hours in line for the elevators, laughing with other visitors from around the world.’

Extreme Ironing, Extreme Snowboarding
Extreme ironer: ‘I’m creating my own path’
Snowboarders: ‘You’re in the bloody middle of our path!’
“Extreme Ironing in an Antarctic context…” by divedivajade is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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