The Grand Tour – Not Just For the 1%

In a world where most travel is vicarious, just a few clicks away, the concept of the Grand Tour may seem wasteful or even immoral.  Something for the 1%, or, much worse, the people who want to be like them, the wannabees, nobles plotting to become royalty (or whatever the 21st century equivalent is).  I believe that it isn’t – but that it has also changed shape, to become almost unrecognizable.

English Gentleman on Grand Tour in Rome

So what, exactly is this Grand Tour thingy? Well, there’s a long, complete article on Wikipedia, of course (which is where the image above of an English gentleman posing in Rome came from), but for our purposes, suffice to say that it was a custom among upper-class gentlemen to take a long trip to continental Europe after finishing their university studies.  It is mainly associated with British gentlemen, but was practiced in most of northern Europe as well as North and South America.

Ah, it’s just like when modern college kids finish college, then, and it’s nothing special.

No, it’s not.

While the purported objectives of both kinds of trips are similar (get to know other cultures), that is where the similarities end.  While a typical modern student trip might involve coming into continued contact with the local populace and seeing the local culture, a Grand Tour would would put one in contact with the creators of that local culture, as well as an understanding of why that culture exists, from the horse’s mouth.

The differences don’t end there…  A grand tour would last months, even years even had youth hostels existed during its heyday, no one on the tour would ever have gone near one.  No, if you’d been visiting the continent, you would have been lodged at the homes of notables in the countries you visited.  You would have been exposed to the top of society, as opposed to the bottom and sides.  There’s a much clearer view from up there, of course, which meant that the Grand Tour would create a much deeper understanding and, in so doing, remove a layer of ignorance and arrogance.  It was a good thing.

It was not universally loved, of course.  Isaac Asimov wrote a story called “Good Taste“, set in a future in which mankind has colonized parts of the solar system.  Essentially, the main character goes on a “Grand Tour” of other celestial bodies, where he gains knowledge and loses some of his prejudices – which eventually leads to serious problems (I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you’d like to read it, the story is available here).  

Fittingly, the conflict centers not on the knowledge gained but on the prejudices lost, and that has always been the Grand Tour’s greatest value.  It takes more than a couple of weeks in Paris to accept the French attitude towards sex (hell, even I was surprised that they show hardcore porn on normal cable channels, completely uncensored) or, on the other side of the spectrum, Arab marriage customs.  You need to understand the people’s quirks, get more than just a passing feel for their beliefs, and see their culture as more than just a tourist.  But in doing so, you will lose part of what makes you similar to the people back home.  It’s the fear of the different, the “contamination” that it brings, that leads to the fear, and this is what Asimov was pointing at in his story.

Of course, there is ample reason to fear, at least in the eyes of the narrow-minded.  On returning home, the attitudes of your acquaintances will seem primitive, provincial and narrow.  Their attempts to right the world’s wrongs will seem basic and one-sided.  Finally, you will not be able to resist speaking out initially out of a desire to help them expand their views, then out of frustration and, finally (if you are too dense to shut up in time), out of self-defense.

I know that among some super-rich families, this is still a custom, but other than that, there are many ways to go on the tour.  Probably the most popular is to get transferred to a job abroad.  This has the advantage that you will be living in relative luxury on company accounts, hobnobbing with the upper crust and other expats, and – though you may not enjoy it – being exposed to other default conditions.  It also lasts long enough to make a lasting impression (three years is typical).

The downside is that people with the experience to deserve a transfer are usually a bit old and set in their ways to be truly moldable.  Maybe the ideal would be to be the child of one of those expats (which has the added upside that you will possibly end up at one of these schools), but that isn’t something you can choose if it didn’t happen naturally.

As a counterpoint, being a world citizen on the internet is just about the worst way to do it.  It gives a lot of information around which to form an opinion, but none of the context that is, by definition, unwritten.  A lot of people believe they have had contact with other cultures or ideas, based on their online adventures.  That is about the same as saying that you’ve climbed Everest because you’ve seen pictures taken from the top.

Anyhow, I think that, if at all possible, everyone should be exposed to an immersion in a different culture at an early age – or at an advanced age.  And never stop teaching what you’ve learned, even if most people won’t want to hear it.