Have Open Mind, Will Travel

November 18, 2011

The comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made fun of Kazakhstan. In his novel The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen made Lithuania out to be a chaotic place run by gangsters who didn’t put horse’s heads in beds–they ate the horses. And Dave Barry used to make jokes about North Dakota. And all three were invited to visit the places they’d misrepresented. In Dave Barry’s case they even named a sewage processing plant after him, which, for a writer, is actually pretty appropriate. I think all sewage processing plants should be named after writers since writers take in a lot of crap and try to process it into something worthwhile. I’m sure there are other cases of well-known people misrepresenting places and being invited to visit, but those three are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. The fact that they were invited to visit these places and, I suspect, were shown a pretty good time if they chose to take up the offer–has always intrigued me. Basically it seems like a great way to get a free plane ticket and a good meal, although it only seems to work if you’re famous enough that you could probably afford both your own plane ticket and the dinner tab. And while I have no illusions about my own lack of fame I’ve wondered if I could gain enough notoriety by making up a bunch of outrageous stories about a small place most people don’t consider a tourist destination anyway–Tuvalu, for instance–that I could get myself invited there. Except there are a couple of problems. For one thing there are only about ten thousand people living in Tuvalu, mostly chervil farmers, and I don’t think anything I said could make them really want to fly me out there. And since misrepresenting a place isn’t really that funny to start with there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t get that I was joking, and even most of the ones who did wouldn’t find it funny, and, once you got down to it, the one person who did find it funny would probably admit that the only part of it he really found funny was how much it annoyed his mother-in-law. Chances are that if I ever do visit Tuvalu–or any other place, for that matter–I’ll do it as just another tourist.

But if by some bizarre chance I did become well-known enough there that some people would actually consider my visit an event I’d still rather it be a visit where people are happy to see me. You may have heard of a pop singer named Madonna. She was my generation’s Lady Gaga. Anyway, she was in the movie A League Of Their Own which was partly filmed in Evansville, Indiana. I wasn’t there at the time but I heard that Madonna, before she’d even gotten there, called Evansville the most boring place on Earth. Since I went to college in Evansville it didn’t seem all that boring to me, but boredom is in the brain of the beholder. And although I was never able to independently verify this I heard that on the day Madonna arrived a banner was hung over main street that said, "Evansville hates Madonna." If it was true it did nothing to change Madonna’s opinion and just made Evansville look bad, especially if they couldn’t come up with something zingier than that "No, the most boring place on Earth is any movie theater showing Dick Tracy", but that’s another story. I

‘d rather go somewhere and be welcomed, or at least try to enjoy myself as much as I can, which is why I usually travel with an open mind. Several years ago my wife and I went to Cleveland. She was going for a dog show. I was going because, hey, Cleveland! Before we left people who heard where we were going almost always asked me the same question: "Why would you want to go to Cleveland?" Sometimes for emphasis there was a "the hell" thrown in there. And I always had the same response: "Why wouldn’t I want to go to Cleveland?" I had a great time there. When I came back I told one guy–who at one point in his life had lived in Cleveland, and who asked me why the hell I wanted to go there–how much fun I’d had going to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and he scratched his head and said, "Wow, I never thought about doing stuff like that." My father told me he never wanted to go to Cleveland because he once got stuck there in an airport during a snowstorm. Of course you’re going to be bored in an airport, but there was a snowstorm outside, which is why I still don’t understand why he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to put up signs in front of the entrance gates that said "Welcome to Seattle" or go make snowmen out on the runways. And this was the Seventies, so he could have passed off the snowmen as an art installation, calling it something subtle and profound, like WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!

Anyway, the year before that my wife and I went to the French Lick Resort for a dog show. When we got back and I told a friend what a blast I’d had in French Lick–it really was a fun trip, by the way–he said, "You must have a high tolerance for boredom." No, I’d just had a lot of fun staying in a place that had also hosted Franklin Roosevelt, Al Capone, was the home of Larry Bird, and had a train museum. I admit that if you’d asked me before those trips to make a list of the places I’d most like to visit I probably wouldn’t have thought of either Cleveland or French Lick, but then if you asked me to make a list of the places I’d most like to visit it would probably just be easier if I took a map of the Earth and said, "Somewhere here." In fact I think I’m going to start doing research for a book called The Most Boring Place On Earth, which will both be an effort to knock Evansville off the top of the list and also to see if I can find a place that is genuinely and truly boring. Maybe I could make up a list of potential candidates and have people fly me out there and try and show me the most boring time possible. Although, you know, that actually might turn out to be pretty interesting. Especially if they pay for dinner.

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