Counting Coup in Europe

Metaphorical fishing has its difficulties.  One of them is not being sure of what, metaphorically, you’ve caught.

My wife and I just took three weeks to do a bus tour of Western Europe, taking five or six days at the end to stay in London and Oxford.

Vatican1downDuring the tour, someone asked me if I did a lot of travelling and I automatically said, “No,”  because I don’t think of myself as well-travelled or much of a jetsetter.  On reflection, though, in my mid-fifties now, I have seen a great deal of the United States and Canada, glimpsed Mt. Fuji, walked the Great Wall, visited the huge island Buddha at Hong Kong, gone to Shanghai and Paris a number of times, since my wife has family in both places, and now have leaned on the Leaning Tower of Pisa and experienced most of the major traffic jams that Europe has to offer. 

The question for me though is what has this travelling meant, beyond the fishing (for ideas, experience, whatever) metaphor?  What is travelling for?

RomeWindow The glib answer is that travelling automatically enriches us, but I don’t think so.  It’s more complex. 

Travelling as a tourist on a tour has its advantages and disadvantages.  The obvious advantage is all the organization you’re paying for:  hotels, meals, cities, and sights all pre-arranged, with a tour guide.  In our case, we visited about 15 cities in ten countries, counting the Vatican and Monaco.  You could never do that on your own, or only with the most militant kind of focus…

But as a tourist in this situation visiting the tourist places, huge tour buses jockeying for space, with hordes of other tourists clogging the streets around the famous sites even in late September, and 45 minutes there, an hour and a half over here, 30 minutes on your own to buy a souvenir or two… well, it makes me wonder about what I take away from this, beyond the many photographs.

AustrianHill For some reason it makes me think of a concept I enjoyed reading about as a kid: counting coup.  The Indians of the Great Plains had this great non-violent aspect to their warfare, along with the bloodier bits: a warrior could accomplish the greatest honour by just touching his enemy and escaping without being harmed.  Well, maybe he might hit him with a stick.  (A concept, by the way, I really wish would take traction in such places as Iraq.  Wouldn’t that be different?)

OktoberfestDownTales of these exploits could also be called counting coup.  I felt a little like our Europe trip was a kind of counting coup, tallying up the famous places visited, whether the casino at Monte Carlo or Amsterdam’s red light district or Stonehenge on a bright fall day, all the places we hit with a stick, adding another feather to our headdresses or almost filling another memory card on the camera.  Tapping the foreign places, leaving unharmed, and unchanged.

GargoyleAmong the tourists in our group, the photos were a little like the stripes on leather leggings that we displayed proudly to each other.  And now I’m showing a few to you here…

One is not really challenged or allowed to encounter much at the celebrated places.  Often I ached to go down some interesting back street I glimpsed as the bus struggled to get to the next preordained world famous spot.  I wanted to experience, to see, to photograph the less widely known and not often did I get the chance.

But at the end in England, after the formal tour, the pace slackened, and although we took a day tour or two, we could do more exploring on our own, although admittedly it took more effort.

Stonehenge Oxford, where my wife’s nephew is working on a Ph.D., was the best, where we spent a few days in the guest house at Magdalen College.  The small English university town, the traditions running back hundreds of years, the architecture complete with gargoyles, the Italian coffee shops to sip coffee (none of that tea stuff for us!), the formal college dinner with the quaint black robes of the students…  now there was a pace slow enough to savour.

It all comes down to moments, I guess, and even the more hurried part of the trip will have a few to recall in years to come.

[The photos from top to bottom:

Inside the Vatican

A Window in Rome

Austrian Hilltop Church and Fort

Ready for Oktoberfest

Oxford Gargoyle

Stonehenge Sky]

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5 Comments on “Counting Coup in Europe”

  1. sputnki Says:

    I love the comparison to counting coup for travelling in a tour group. Very much like my own experiences.

    I spent 2 weeks in Vienna for a conference once and I started the weekend out with day tours to get the lay of the land. Then I was able to go back and revisit the spots I liked most in a more unguided, indepth manner. The thing I noticed the most about European cities was how easy it was for someone used to streets laid out in grids to get lost! All the roads would be circles radiating out from a cathedral and cutting through at odd angles more or less towards the center, with a mishmash of combinations thrown in. Made for interesting architecture at times!

    Anyhow, glad to see you found much honour in Europe!

    Doug

  2. forestrat Says:

    Good to see you’re back safe and sound. Sounds like a great trip overall. Never been to Europe myself – I’d kill to visit some of museums there.

    I especially like the roman window photo. It’s not the typical tourist shot, but I think it conveys the “feel” of the place all the better for it.

    MDW

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    That’s the thing to do if you have the time and money… go back to some of these places and stay a little while.

    And I know those wind-y streets: 10 minutes to get back to the tour bus after a little on-our-own time, and I thought I knew how to get there, but I was wrong…

    Regards
    —————

    Hi Mark,

    It was a good trip… We did get a chance to go to a few museums, but my wife has little patience for them, so for instance after a little taste of the British Museum in London, we didn’t go back.

    The window shot I grabbed from inside the bus, just a quick whoa! and snap. Looking at it now it reminds me a lot of your photos on your blog, just in architectural form… you must have inspired me!

    Regards

  4. Takeshi Says:

    A very enjoyable read. Glad you had a nice trip. I’m chuckling at your comment above about the wife not enjoying the museums. Has a familiar ring!

    Thank you for sharing. Photos are very nice!

    Later…

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Takeshi,

    Thanks for dropping by!

    It was a good trip, but organizing the photos after… well, everything takes time.

    Regards


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