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The "Before Sunrise" Generation
The solution to over-tourism is to embrace not knowing once again
In 1997 I went to Rome with a group of classmates I barely knew. The girls in the group took charge of the Let’s Go guidebook and found a very cheap hotel where we dropped off our backpacks before descending into the metro to start sightseeing at the Colosseum. We stepped onto the arriving train just as I realized it was the wrong one. I yelled at everyone to get out, and they all did, except Matt, who had his CD walkman on and wasn’t paying attention. The doors closed just as Matt looked up and saw us standing on the tracks, his face ashen and eyes wide as the train slid away into the dark tunnel. The rest of us fell silent for a moment, then burst out laughing because, at that moment, we didn’t know if we’d ever see him again. Of course, this story makes no sense to anyone born after 1990 and never knew life without iPhones, GPS, text messages, or social media, but kids…it was glorious.
I consider myself a member of the “Before Sunrise” generation. The 1995 film by Richard Linklater starred Ethan Hawke as a slouchy aspiring writer and Julie Delpy, a student whose dreamy nature is at odds with her Frenchness. They spontaneously get off the train together and spend the night roaming Vienna. The movie is just them talking about their hopes, fears, and dreams until they finally fall silent and make love in the park. They don’t exchange phone numbers or addresses in the morning but vow to meet again in exactly one year. Would it happen? Their hopeful embrace of not-knowing was the film’s essence.
I think I called home twice that month, only for my mother to ask if I had wiped down the payphone before calling. There was no Facebook for people to comment on my whereabouts, no pressure to dress anything more than appropriately for whatever I was doing that day. I had a few rolls of film with me, but taking pictures back then was a drag, something your dad did on birthdays and drove everyone crazy. Then within a couple of years, the Internet changed absolutely everything.
The “Before Sunrise” generation has been busy with jobs and families, but as their kids leave the nest, a window opens for them to travel again. The world is so much different now, and those old places we saw like Barcelona or Prague are very crowded. Instead of an impromptu walk across the Roman Forum, you will need to purchase tickets months ahead with skip-the-line access and pricey upgrades to see things like the underground areas of the Colosseum. While the Internet has allowed us to better plan our travel, it has also annihilated spontaneity in the most popular destinations.
In the book If Venice Dies, the author argues that “hit-and-run” tourism is destroying Europe’s cities, and the consequence of turning Venice into a shopping mall for tourists is destroying its soul. The Let’s Go guidebook may have funneled young travelers to many of the same places, but that was before cruise ships in the Grand Canal. Before Instagram and the Aperol Spritz. Before, discount airlines and Airbnb made it cheaper to get to a place but far more expensive to enjoy it.
The solution to the problem of over-tourism is to embrace not-knowing. Stop going to Cinque Terre in the high season, I beg you; the villages are so crowded with tourists, it has become a theme park. Instead, go hiking in Abruzzo, where you have both mountains and sea and arguably the best food in all of Italy. Or the center of Sicily, where the WI-FI is terrible, and you can pretend it’s 1995 and be gloriously out of touch for a few days in the center of the Mediterranean.
Be curious. Mine your obsessions. Reject FOMO. Like another icon of the 1990s, David Foster Wallace said, it “wants your money and does not love you.” Don’t take TikTok travel advice too seriously because it prioritizes the most photogenic places that look good but often feel terrible. Look back at authors you once read and find out where else Hemingway drank. (He drank a lot in Acciaroli, a traditional fishing village on the Cilento Coast. I bet you haven’t been there.) Find new writers, like Chris Arnade, who walks across cities and reports on what he sees to give his readers a compassionate view of how the world is changing for those who live outside the power bubbles.
Embrace not-knowing because spontaneity is a great luxury. Sometimes the most relaxing thing we can do is liberate ourselves from the tyranny of choosing the “best thing.” The reward for not-knowing is an unforgettable feeling, like when we spotted Matt sitting in front of the Colosseum’s ticket booth, not knowing how but hopeful we’d find each other again.