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Touring

Story and photo by  MIV SCHAAF

You have been to the museums and the city hall and the gardens, and you have seen all the things that the guide book has told you to see (except that museum of early farming tools that you especially wanted to see but which is closed on Tuesdays). You've used up three rolls of film, and yet you feel that you are missing something. You don't really feel the city itself.

And so you have lunch in a restaurant that looks charming but has really awful food or, more happily, in a restaurant that looks awful but has marvelous food and decide that you'll forget the guide book and just walk around.

That is when adventure starts. Look! Through this iron gate you can catch glimpses of an amazing garden all roses. And farther along, a narrow blue door and a Burmese cat glaring at you from the top step. Is it a house or a business? The cat will never tell.

A woman walks by with a cane, carrying a book. There's that peculiar stab of envy you feel toward people who live in the city you visit; they can enjoy the hills, the trees, the stores at leisure while you have to go back to a far less interesting place. (If you didn't live there, of course, it would be interesting.) The woman knows where this street goes, where the grocery is, about the quiet of the place on a Sunday. You will never know this city as she does.

That's the trouble with touring: You come, you go, never sure whether you have caught the real flavor of the place. The shops don't tell you anything, but if you are lucky enough to stumble across a bakery or a hardware store, you'll begin to feel the real essence of the place.

If only there were an invisible camera. When you're a tourist, you run into other tourists, all with cameras. The camera brands you as one of them and brings up a question of etiquette: Do you offer to take pictures of that whole family group so that no one is left out, or do you wait to be asked? And how do you summon up the nerve to ask some stranger to take a picture of you? After all, you will never be here again.

Is touring more fun when you are grown up or when you were a child? Reluctantly leaving behind in memory those miniature birchbark canoes, the sweetgrass baskets, the leather purses with an Indian head and the words Petosky, Michigan burnt onto them, I settle for grown-up touring. Not only because you can venture outside of Michigan but because there is a wilder sense of freedom, of unknowing. You are going somewhere Father hasn't been.

Here's a monument not in the guide book: a small bronze lady gazing into the lily pond at her feet no identification, no way of knowing why she is here, what she represents. And yet, for a moment, standing in this small park (also not mentioned in the guide book) you find yourself curiously relaxed staring, as she does, down at the lily pond, your thoughts seeming to seep into the wet brown leaves and pine needles of this foreign place, to become one with them. You feel, finally, at home in this strange city.


Miv Schaaf, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years and the Journal since 1993, died Aug. 6.

 

 

 


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