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The incidental Tourist

The ordinary, and sometimes the downright awful, can be a splendid thing when experienced through the eyes of others

Author Chris Wright Illustration Lou Beach


There are few things in life more dispiriting than a shoddy circus. I say this from a position of authority, having recently witnessed the most unsuccessful circus since Leonardo and His Lovable Lions ended their disastrous run at the Roman Colosseum. While nobody was put to death as a result of the show I went to, it wasn’t pretty—an abject procession of fumbling jugglers, dime-store magicians and lethargic clowns. Even the ringmaster seemed reluctant to be there, announcing the acts with the exuberance of a speaking clock.

It was a show that, had reason prevailed, should have had people stampeding for the exit. But the audience here was made up largely of kids, most of whom responded as if Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse and Mahatma Gandhi had returned from the grave to form a human pyramid and sing “We Are the World” on the back of a flaming motorcycle. The weird thing, though, is that I was every bit as enthusiastic as the sugar-tweaking preschoolers around me.

“Hooray!” I cheered as the cowboy tripped over his lasso.

“Bravo!” I howled when the levitating lady failed to leave the ground.

The only way to explain this behavior is to say that I wasn’t myself. It was as if I’d been possessed by an alien from a distant, entertainment-starved planet. And, in some way, this wasn’t far from the truth. I was watching the show with my daughter, Molly, who had never been to a circus and who clearly believed that this one represented the pinnacle of human achievement. Her little hands must have been raw from all the clapping.

 As we trudged across a muddy field after the dismal performance, I tried to figure out what had happened to me inside that tent. I knew I wasn’t pretending to enjoy myself for Molly’s benefit, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t simply enjoying her enjoyment. Rather, it was as if her enthusiasm had somehow passed between us, like a spark of static electricity. I was briefly endowed with the critical facilities of a five-year-old, and it was great.

 A similar thing happens when I have out-of-town guests. They’ll show up with their maps and itineraries, eager to get out and see the sights, and I’ll grudgingly tag along, paying outrageous sums for day-old sandwiches and finding out what it’s like to have a Russian and an Italian step on the same toe at the same time. But then, invariably, my fake enjoyment will take a turn, and I’ll find myself jostling Svetlana and Giorgio in order to take a selfie against the backdrop of some dome or spire I’d paid no mind a thousand times before.

And it’s not only major landmarks that are subjected to our vicarious appreciation. With an out-of-towner in tow, you’ll find yourself suddenly enchanted by a neighbor’s ornate lintel. You’ll start gazing at trees, sniffing the air outside bakeries and offering jaunty little hellos to people on the street, which confuses them. By the time you enter your local supermarket and respond to the miniature cans of baked beans with “Cute!” you’ll have become a tourist in everything but name.

But then, inevitably, things return to normal. Your guests go home. Your neighbor’s doorway goes back to being invisible. Within a few days, having returned to the furrows of routine, you’ll be picking up store-brand beans without comment, or sitting on a bus, frowning into the pages of your newspaper as the spires and statues flash by. Life goes on.
But then I’m lucky. I have Molly. Kids, it turns out, are permanent holidaymakers, indiscriminate sightseers. “Dog!” they’ll holler. “Leaf!” And what a thing it is to be able to share this with them, this endlessly interesting world, filled with bus shelters and umbrellas, bridges and motorbikes. What a thing to live in a world where there is no such thing as a bad juggler.

 About a week after our trip to the world’s worst circus, I took Molly to another one. Like the last time, we sat in the front row. We ate too much cotton candy and waved flickering light wands. We clapped and cheered a series of acts that were infinitely better than the ones we’d been subjected to the first time around. Every single thing about this experience was better. Except it wasn’t.

This wasn’t due to a lack of effort on my part. Throughout the show, I gauged Molly’s mood like a demented market researcher. Weren’t the clowns funny? Wasn’t the magician clever? And look at the trapeze artist, Molly, spinning like that, way up at the top of the big tent! My daughter looked at the guy twirling up there and agreed. The circus was great.

My mistake had been in trying to recreate a moment, which almost never works, and especially not at times like this. Of course Molly’s second circus wouldn’t have been as exciting as the first. Nothing ever is.

After the show, as we trudged across another muddy field, it started to drizzle. Molly is a little older now; she’s seen enough umbrellas that she no longer gasps every time one of them unfolds, and the emergence of a nylon mushroom patch around us failed to elicit a response. This fact, I think, points to one of life’s ongoing transactions: the mutual exchange of experience and wonder.

Maybe this is why we have the urge to travel. It’s our way of fiddling the books. Being in a strange city, surrounded by unfathomable symbols and gestures, never knowing what’s around the next corner—isn’t that a kind of regression? And when we absorb all this, when the painted horse head above the Boucherie Chevaline no longer makes us smile, we move on to somewhere new, a place where, for us at least, bad jugglers are not possible.

Hemispheres executive editor CHRIS WRIGHT finds the opening of an umbrella to be a wondrous sight.

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