Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Materialist

Confession time.

Rather than plugging away at my own blog, I've been trolling on the internet. One of my finds: the Materialist on the Conde Nast website at

I actually came across this blog some time ago, but never looked at it. After all (despite what Romani believes), I really don't consider myself much of a material girl and definitely not the shopping type. Street vendors and markets are great for taking pictures, but buy anything other than a few cheap gifts? No thank you. And those huge emporiums in Thailand where I had my own personal assistant? Ugh.

And then there is the fact that I equate "shopping" and "Conde Nast" with pretentious overpriced status goods -- $400 sunglasses or $4,000 purses anyone? I assumed the Materialist would be more of the same.

I was so wrong.

The Materialist is ME in oh so many ways.

She writes:
There's a very funny line in Alan Bennett's terrific play, The History Boys, that goes something like this: "Archeology is the only kind of history people really like, because it's the one that most resembles shopping."

. . . . This made the Materialist think about the two types of travelers in the world: the ones who travel for the "experience," and the ones who travel to consume. Traditionally, the former group has always looked down on the latter, who they find shallow, acquisitive, and possessed of a vulgar zeal. Here at Condé Nast Traveler, for example, the Materialist is surrounded by many colleagues--excellent people all--in the former category. These are folks who are happiest climbing something, wading through something, slogging up something, sluicing down something, or riding atop something that should probably not be ridden at all, preferably in hellish climactic conditions that often involve high levels of humidity (the Materialist does not like heat). When the Materialist was acquainting herself with her intrepid co-workers, she would always ask them what they brought back with them from their travels, assuming they'd be eager to show her the limited-edition print they'd bought in Hanoi, or the poster to a one-man gallery show they'd encountered in Apkujeong (The Materialist's office--see above--is covered with exactly this kind of stuff). But instead, she would generally receive only a blank stare followed by some unsatisfying answer along the lines of, "I don't really shop when I'm traveling. There's so much else to do."

The Materialist admires these sorts of travelers, the sort who spend their vacation astride billy goats in 100 degree weather and go for days without bathing, but must also disagree with them. For what is travel, really, but consumption? It is, in the most fundamental way, the traveler's mission, her responsibility: to consume not just goods, but food, language, culture, art, and, yes, experience. To be a global shopper--as much as The Materialist hates that term, with its suggestions of singleminded, Tori Spelling-ish acquisitiveness--is no longer what it once was, a trophy hunt to ferret out, say, another culture's great treasures and spirit them back to the States. In a world where anything can be found anywhere, is there a greater thrill than going someplace--be it Japan or Mali--and discovering something unique to that place, something that so captures the essential national character, its preoccupations and obsessions, that not buying it almost feels like disavowing the purpose of your trip there in the first place?
At last, someone besides Karen understands!

It isn't just shallow consumerism that makes me (us!) want to track down the local Cambodian silk used in the dressy outfits the hotel staff wears, intricate filigree that survived the shelling of Dubrovnik buried in the earth, bold minimalist paintings that say "Sweden" even as they shock the Carl Larsen crowd, southwestern silver inlaid by the seller's aunt, or hand beaten nickel silver that at least captures the spirit of the Bedouin if not their modern reality. It's part of understanding and supporting what makes a place unique.

The Materialist explains that her blog is "about shopping, and style, and art, and design, and wacky material goods, and the cultural events that have helped give birth to a world in which we all have more access to, and are hungry for knowledge of, beautiful examples of human ingenuity."

You go girl!

Next time I'm traveling I am absolutely NOT going to let anyone make me feel guilty about wanting to ferret out local goods (and good meals) as part of my travel experience.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Call to Prayer in Cairo

I've said that Cairo is the loudest city I've ever been in, but that may not be true in the future.

A report on public radio discusses plans to replace the myriad calls to prayer that wash over the city five times a day with a single recording. That seems like a loss. There is something compelling about the way the call to prayer rolls over the city in a wave of sound that rises above everything.

Please don't do it.