The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

Over There

Tourism and the Imperial Self

Jonathan Clarke

Spring in Paris (detail), 2006, by Cristina Rodriguez (b. 1964); private collection, © Cristina Rodriguez; all rights reserved 2024; Bridgeman Images.

In the seventy-sixth episode of the celebrated HBO series The Sopranos (1999–2007), two New Jersey mob wives go on an expensive Paris boondoggle. Rosalie Aprile, the widow of the former boss of the DiMeo crime family, is a connoisseur of the near at hand. She wants to eat well, do some shopping, meet a younger man for recreational sex. Carmela Soprano, the wife of the current boss, is looking for spiritual renewal. She marches through the streets of the city in search of some wisdom or depth of feeling. “Think of all the people who have been here,” she tells Rosalie when they stumble upon a medieval ruin. “All those lives. It’s so sad.”

There is something admirable and touching in Carmela’s fumbling for transcendence. She is briefly lifted out of herself by the thought of her small place in the human story. The Paris trip is one instance among many in the series in which she tries to be or to seem a little better than the atavistic society of her husband and his associates. On the other hand, she lives in the ugly mansion their crimes built. And the experience she seeks in Paris cannot be had on a brief tour, no matter how much money she spends. In the final scene of the trip, as Carmela and Rosalie are leaving their overpriced hotel, Rosalie runs back up to the room they have just vacated to retrieve the “Toulouse-Lautrec placemats” she bought as a souvenir. All the women leave with in the end is kitsch.

When I graduated from college in the early 1990s, in the middle of a recession, several of my friends went on two-year Peace Corps missions. They worked on water desalinization projects and taught English in local schools. I moved to California to go to law school. I have always thought that people who go abroad to find themselves must expect to be pleased by what they will discover. At twenty-two, I had no such expectation. I believed I was moderately clever, without special talents, and in need of a vocation. Hence, law school.

I’ve always wondered whether I missed out on a definitive experience. Cosmopolitan Americans are given to saying that the two years they lived in Cairo or Kyoto changed them forever. I am skeptical of this claim, partly because we are always skeptical of romantic narratives, but also because their narrators rarely put convincing language to their purported transformation—and language is what I trust. At the same time, I think some of them must be telling the truth. I readily accept that a young person who leaves small-town Indiana or Pennsylvania for New York City will be changed by the experience. Perhaps travels abroad are simply manifestations of the same phenomenon.

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