Romantic Travel Narratives

excerptFor various reasons, travel became a fashionable experience at the beginning of the 19th century all over the Europe. Even Spain, originally a destination country for foreign travelers, mainly from Britain, is invaded by the "mania de viajar"; the Spanish playwright Breton de los Herreros observes in the '30s that "el espanol que no viaja se denigra," is out of mode; the same model was working in the Romanian Principalities, and an anonymous note in the Propăşirea journal, in 1844, states that "Romanians began to be cosmopolitan; for a few years now, the taste for traveling has spread so much among our people that there is no spring when you don't find lots of young ladies and gentlemen going abroad to visit and to have fun in Vienna, Paris or Italy."At the very beginning, the traveler from eastern Europe adds study to the many other justifications for travel. After the Russian Nikolai Karamzin, who visits the great men in Germany in order to enrich his wisdom and travels to Switzerland with La Nouvelle Heloise in hand, following in the footsteps of Rousseau's heroes in order to experience for himself their state of mind in the same place described in the book, probably the most striking example is the Romanian boyar Dinicu Golescu, who in his Însemnare a călătoriei mele (Notes on My Travel, 1826) describes his sojourns in Austria, Germany, northern Italy and Switzerland, and dwells particularly on the practical and organizational aspects of these countries. He also often writes about the museums in Vienna, Dresden, and Milan in order to discuss the moral aspect of paintings, which he praises, and compares all that to the situation back home. Dinicu Golescu is, according to his own statement, an ignorant, uneducated boyar from eastern Europe, who in accordance with old barbarian custom, abused the peasants on his estate in order to extract an ever greater income, and who lived in the darkness of the wilderness. But when he saw the wealth and order of the western countries, state institutions working for the benefit of the public, impartial justice – the emperor of Austria, it was claimed, lost a suit with his gardener because justice was on the latter's side – the well-organized life, the cleanliness, the nightly supplying of provisions to cities in order to not disturb daily activities, cheaper transport using artificial canals, and other technical improvements, he changed and promised the reader that he would henceforward endeavor to implement as he saw. Dinicu Golescu's travels to the West were real, but the interpretation of his travel accounts are not. Indeed, Golescu was not as uninformed as he claims, and documents attest not only his charitable disposition long time before the journey but also his enlightened motivations. Moreover, many of the episodes in the book are obviously fictitious, e.g. the incident with the Englishman who asks him why he is taking notes in Greek and not in his own language. The reason was that Golescu, who was acquainted with Rousseau's work and author of a general program for social, moral and economic reform of his country, is writing not only a travel book, but a genuine philosophical novel like those popular during the previous century – Candide, or The Citizen of the World, or Emile – drawing the contours of an ideal world by means of fragmentary references to what the writer has seen (or wanted to see) in his journey across western Europe.Like many other contemporaneous eastern European works promoting moral and social improvements (as Count Szechenyi's in Hungary for instance), his book is a collection of positive examples regarding the most varied aspects of a civilized state embodying justice, rational structures, and the consideration of the general interest, rather than a sequential recording of impressions. As in the Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grece (The Young Anacharsis' Quest in Greece) by Abbot Barthelemy, a book translated into Greek and Romanian in the eighteenth century and widely disseminated, the reader is challenged by way of a travel story to meditate on the most appropriate forms of state institutions, concerning which Golescu launches an effective reform program precisely congruent with the issues raised and the observations made throughout the narration of his journey.Using the convention of seeking excellence in other countries in order to lend his own impulses the prestige of something directly experienced, Golescu is unknowingly following the road of unreserved admiration of everything foreign – the road of xenophilia – which most romantic playwrights ridiculed in fashion, manners, and language. In both big and small countries of eastern Europe (Fonvizin for the Russians, Alecsandri for the Romanians, Nagy Ferenc for the Hungarians) as well as in the West, the aping of foreign customs became standard vaudeville comedy fare: Franco-mania for the English and Anglo-mania for the French. This tendency represents the beginning of the collapse of a model afforded by the romantic journey in its first stages, a model eroded by its own excesses. The interest and admiration of anything new, unusual, original, which is the basis of this kind of journey (ethnographism, costumbrismo, local touch) began to acquire mannerist contours and was gradually developing into the parody of its earliest manifestations. The idea of originality implying novelty and difference, as opposed to what is old and familiar, cannot be applied to a popular movement or orientation, assimilating large groups of supporters. The romantic quest for original perceptions, characters, habits, or clothes soon degenerated into either a cliché or an aberration.The romantic traveler indeed sought that itinerary offering locales characterized by originality which had been conspicuously absent from the older eighteenth-century journey to a large degree preoccupied with archaeological erudition. The romantic expedition will therefore seek out the village, not the city; it will venture into the suburbs or the slums, not the trim and well-manicured center. It will look for lowly impoverished areas, which are axiomatically traditional and closed to the foreigners, not the prosperous, open and cosmopolitan precincts. It will look for the villager, the highlander, or the sailor, the man who lives secluded or in contempt of the law, not the urban dweller or the cosmopolitan bourgeois: the smuggler, the poacher, the forester, the hermit, the guide, but not the merchant, the intellectual, or the religious devotee. But all these characters upon whom the traveler casts a hurried and superficial glance have as a common denominator minimal relevance: once the first specimen of any particular category is found and described, all the subsequent descriptions are doomed to be redundant. Thus the "characteristic" scenes and characters, which repeat themselves to exhaustion in the descriptions of journeys during the first half of the century, devolve rapidly into clichés. At the time when the Romanian travelers find the road to the Orient, about the middle of the 19th century, they are rather transformed by the large amount of books of travel diaries into a museum window; these travelers are reduced to compiling them, and they barely compare these descriptions to the reality. Viewed through this lens, in spite of our long common experience, the Orient seems frankly as alien to Romanians as it is to a western traveler. 

by Mircea Anghelescu