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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Everybody is fond of Freo, as they call it. So am I normally, though my enthusiasm
was wilting swiftly this day. The afternoon was uncomfortably warm, with no sign of the ameliorating ocean breeze they call the Fremantle Doctor (because it makes you feel better, of course). I had already walked far enough to make my feet smoke when I realized that I still had a good four miles to go, nearly all of it along the busy, charmless, mercilessly shadeless Stirling Highway.

By the time I flopped into central Fremande, it was late afternoon and I was comprehensively bushed. I went into a pub and downed a beer for medicinal purposes.

“You all right?” said the barmaid.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Why?”

“Seen your face?”

I knew at once. “Am I sunburned?” I asked bleakly.

She gave a frank, sympathetic, but essentially deeply amused nod.

I peered past her into the mirror behind the bar. Looking back at me, mockingly attired in clothes to match my own, was a cartoon character called Mr. Tomato Head. I allowed myself a small sigh. For the next four days I would be a source of concern to every elderly Western Australian and of amusement to all else. Then for three days more, as my skin flaked and peeled and I took on the look of someone just escaped from a leprosarium, the mood would change to universal horror and revulsion. Waitresses would drop trays; gawkers would walk into lampposts; ambulance drivers would slow as they passed and look me over carefully. It would, as always, be a quiet ordeal. In another three or four hours I would be in tender pain. Meanwhile, I was already a small wreck. My feet and legs hurt so much that I wasn’t sure that they would ever be of service to me again. I was as dirty as a street urchin and rank enough to be buried. And all of this so that I could see a house I had no actual interest in seeing and then walk on to a place that I was now too tired to explore.

But I hardly minded at all. And do you know why? I had seen a monotreme. Life could throw nothing at me that would diminish the thrill of that.

— Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

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To pass a half hour, I went to the residents’ lounge to see if I couldn’t scare up a pot of coffee. The room was casually strewn with aging colonels and their wives, sitting amid carelessly folded Daily Telegraphs. The colonels were all shortish, round men with tweedy jackets, well-slicked silvery hair, an outwardly gruff manner that concealed within a heart of flint, and, when they walked, a rakish limp. Their wives, lavishly rouged and powdered, looked as if they had just come from a coffin fitting. I felt seriously out of my element, and was surprised to find one of them—a white-haired lady who appeared to have applied her lipstick during an earth tremor—addressing me in a friendly, conversational manner. It always takes me a moment to remember in these circumstances that I am now a reasonably respectable-looking middle-aged man and not a gangly young rube straight off the banana boat.

— Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island 

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So do tumors

The one unbearable thing in Istanbul is the Turkish pop music. It is inescapable. It assaults you at full volume from every restaurant doorway, from every lemonade stand, from every passing cab. To say that it is reminiscent of the sounds made by a man who has his head trapped in, oh, say, some industrial machinery is merely to hint at its singular and frantic tunelessness. They say it grows on you. So do tumors.

— Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe 

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Museum fatigue

The only problem with the Kunstmuseum is that it is so enormous. Its lofty halls just run on and on, and before a third of the way through it, I was suffering museum fatigue. In these circumstances, especially when I have paid a fortune to get in and feel that there are still a couple of hours standing between me and my money’s worth, I find myself involuntarily supplying captions to the pictures: Salome, on being presented the head of John the Baptist on a salver saying: “No, I ordered a double cheeseburger,” or an exasperated Saint Sebastian whining, “I’m warning you guys, the next person who shoots an arrow is going to be reported.”

— Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe 

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There were eight or ten walkers as well, all with fleece-lined jackets, rucksacks, and sturdy boots. One fellow was even wearing shorts—always a sign of advanced dementia in a British walker. Walking—walking, that is, in the British sense—was something that I had come to only relatively recently. I was not yet at the point where I would wear shorts with many pockets, but I had taken to tucking my pants into my socks (though I have yet to find anyone who can explain to me what benefits this actually confers, other than making one look serious and committed).

— Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island 

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There is this curiously durable myth that European trains are wonderfully swift and smooth and a dream to travel on. The trains in Europe are in fact often tediously slow, and for the most part the railways persist in the antiquated system of dividing the carriages into compartments. I used to think this was rather jolly and friendly, but you soon discover that it is like spending seven hours in a waiting room waiting for a doctor who never arrives. You are forced into an awkward intimacy with strangers, which I always find unsettling. If you do anything at all—take something from your pocket, stifle a yawn, rummage in your rucksack—everyone looks over to see what you’re up to. There is no scope for privacy and of course there is nothing like being trapped in a train compartment on a long journey to bring all those unassuagable little frailties of the human body crowding to the front of your mind—the withheld fart, the three and a half square yards of boxer shorts that have somehow become concertinaed between your buttocks, the Kellogg’s corn flake that is unaccountably lodged deep in your left nostril. It was the corn flake that I ached to get at. The itch was all-consuming. I longed to thrust a finger so far up my nose that it would look as if I were scratching the top of my head from the inside, but of course I was as powerless to deal with it as a man with no arms.

You even have to watch your thoughts. For no reason I can explain, except perhaps that I was inordinately preoccupied with bodily matters, I began to think of a copy editor I used to work with on the business section of The Times. I shall call him Edward, since that was his name. Edward was crazy, which in those palmy pre–Rupert Murdoch days was no impediment to employment, or even promotion to high office, on the paper, and he had a number of striking peculiarities, but the one I particularly remember was that late at night, after the New York markets had shut and there was nothing much to do, he would straighten out half a dozen paper clips and probe his ears with them. And I don’t mean delicate little scratchings. He would jam those paper clips home and then twirl them between two fingers, as if tuning in a radio station. It looked excruciating, but Edward seemed to derive immense satisfaction from it. Sometimes his eyes would roll up into his head and he would make ecstatic gurgling noises. I suppose he thought no one was watching, but we all sat there fascinated. Once, during a particularly intensive session, when the paper clip went deeper and deeper and looked as if it might be stuck, John Price, the slot man, called out: “Would it help, Edward, if one of us pulled from the other side?”

I thought of Edward as we went tracketa-tracketa across the endless Austrian countryside, and I laughed out loud—a sudden, lunatic guffaw that startled me as much as my three companions. I covered my mouth with my hand, but more laughter—embarrassed, helpless—came leaking out. The other passengers looked at me as if I had just been sick down my shirt. It was only by staring out the window and concentrating very hard for twenty minutes that I was able to compose myself and return once again to the more serious torments of the corn flake in my nostril.

— Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe

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