Friday, November 21, 2008

To take a picture

Everybody hates tourists, I think, but no one hates them more than an expatriate, long-term foreign resident. Stumbling through the city with their nose in a map, getting swindled by every street-seller around (and enjoying it), desperately seeking anyone who speaks their language, finding respite at McDonald's, and ending most nights drunkenly stumbling through the streets back to whatever overly-expensive room they've booked . . .

Alright, I can't say that I haven't been there. I've been that tourist, through multiple countries, and I enjoyed it a great deal. There's something to be said for that stereotypical study-abroad Euro-trip, swapping blandly similar travel stories with other obvious Americans on the train from Brussels to Paris, hoping that your next hostel-mate will be British or Australian- you know, something different - and not just another kid from Ohio on a weekend excursion from his "totally cultural pottery-making course" in Florence. Passport stamps, bottle caps, and Irish pubs in every damn city on the planet . . . I'm happy it happened, and even happier it's over.

And now I am that cranky expatriate (having skipped a step from 'tourist' to 'traveler'), and a significant part of becoming that expatriate is rejecting everything about being a tourist. The biggest problem with this rejection, so far, is photography. When I was a tourist roaming through Greece, I probably took 2,0000 pictures of everything from temple ruins to villagers drinking ouzo. It was expected, I think, andIfelt no shame doing so. I was protected by a dozen other Americans doing the exact same thing. I was there for five weeks, had no idea if I would be back, and wanted to capture absolutely everything.

Living in a place changed my perspective. Macedonia really lacks tourism, especially in the late fall, so anyone snapping photographs stands out. Moreover, people quit becoming just part of the scenery. When I was a tourist, my goal was to find as many "authentic" pictures as possible:

Look, an old man in a cap and sweater drinking a Guinness in a pub! That is sooo Ireland! *click* An old Greek woman in a shawl in front of the church! *click* People sitting at a French cafe! *click*

And so on, and so on, until now. There are a lot of things that I would love to take pictures of here, and I haven't. Old villagers riding side-saddle on a donkey down a mountain trail, shopkeepers in the Old Town selling their wares . . . but I don't. It feels wrong. Maybe I'll move past this, into a more analytical, journalistic, documentary way of thinking that allows me to take pictures of everything once again. For now, though, I can't.

That villager isn't a postcard, he's a person. I could speak to him in his own language (a little), perhaps be invited into his home to share a little rakija. I'm living in this country, not hopping on a tour bus to move along to the next stop. That shopkeeper isn't just a bit of quaintness in his run-down shop. He's someone with a family to support, with a job to do, whom I'll probably pass numerous times as I walk around that part of the city. And I am not trying to say that they would be angry to be the subjects of a photograph; far from it, they would probably appreciate the novelty: "Why on earth is this silly foreigner taking my picture? Odd". Like I said, there aren't many tourists in Macedonia.

I just can't bring myself to it. It's like saying "You are foreign, curious, completely alien from my way of life." And that's probably really more of a comment on me, than anything else - I want to integrate, I want it all to be so normal that I don't feel the need to take a picture of it. It's all very conscious on my part, and probably all a foolish way of thinking that I'll come to regret. I usually have to waffle between two extremes before I settle in that happy middle.

So, to summarize:

I apologize for the lack of villagers riding donkeys. They'll be coming soon, I hope.

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