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The empty bucket list

Matias Callone
/
Flickr

Now that summer is officially here, with the Fourth of July just ahead, we can make our seasonal preparations. It’s a time to relax, and enjoy the leisure we’ve worked for all year, but it’s not easy. There is a long summer shopping list: BBQ coals, sunscreen, half a dozen different kinds of insect repellant, beachwear and summer reading. But above all, there are the travel plans, the bucket list.

We must have travel plans, real or imaginary, to answer the inevitable question: where are you going this summer? Where indeed? Travel is a mixed blessing, and it gets more mixed all the time. There is a clue in the word “travel” which comes from the French “travail,” meaning pain, suffering or hard work. Travel can be all three, especially in a hot summer with overstretched airlines. The main problem, as we all know, is that too many people want to go to the same places at the same time. The result is crowds: crowds at the airport, crowds on the beaches, crowds in restaurants and museums — too many people squeezing into too little space.

Tourism, almost everyone agrees, has become a kind of plague. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the desire to explore new worlds and new civilizations. It’s just that the travel industry, for obvious logistical reasons, wants to send us all to the same few places. These approved “sights” may not be the most interesting places to see, but they are always the most crowded. We are all travelers now, but only in the sense that UPS truck drivers are travelers — we cover a lot of miles and make a lot of stops. But the miles become increasingly repetitive and the stops increasingly predictable until the awful realization dawns that we are in danger of getting bored. The tour companies invent a few extreme and exotic destinations every season, but it’s a small planet. We may be running out of things to add to the bucket list.

My own bucket list has been shrinking. It seems to shrink naturally as one grows older, and perhaps an empty bucket list is one of the gifts that comes with age — no more nightmarish airports, no more excruciating tours in the blazing sun, no more penitential hotel beds, no more picturesque ethnic restaurants that send you straight to the hospital. Now I’m inclined to let young people do it. That’s what young people are for: to go to war, or to go to Florence — experiences that are not totally dissimilar.

I am no longer intimidated by guide books with titles like A Thousand Places to See Before You Die. At the most generous estimate, I have seen no more than two hundred and eight of the essential thousand, and I have been to dozens of places not on the “must see” list and have therefore wasted my limited time. If I were to take these guides seriously, I would have seven hundred and ninety-two indispensable places still to visit. The Great Colonnade at Palmyra in Syria was conveniently destroyed by ISIS, but that still leaves the Borobudur monument in Java, and the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and seven hundred and eighty-nine more. This would mean, by my calculation, about eighty trips a year, or almost two a week and, I’m sorry, I’m just not going to do it. My bucket list is empty.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.