Sunday, September 01, 2013

Kugel in the Midwest

Seth Kugel, the "Frugal Traveler," toured much of the Midwest and wrote about it. Quel chutzpah!, she exclaims, translating from the insufficiently provincially-cosmopolitan (but plenty angsty) comments.

New Yorkers - Kugel evidently grew up in the Boston area, but has long lived in NYC or abroad - are not supposed to comment on how they've found the Midwest. Anything negative comes across as snooty - what, is it somehow not civilization if an unmarked ramen and bespoke-cocktail lounge isn't on every corner? And anything positive comes across either as condescending ('oh look, how adorable, they still wear bootcut jeans!') or ignorant ('well what do you know, they do have espresso-based beverages outside of Greater Williamsburg!' or, if you really want to rile people up, 'so Chicago is a city!').

The third option - the one Kugel flirts with here - is to list the ways the Midwest is superior to New York. This is essentially the most generous, open-minded approach to any travel-writing, no matter where one is going or from. Be enthusiastic and excited about all the new things you're seeing and grateful for the chance! But because he's from New York, he pretty much can't win. He erred in not already knowing the Midwest well, because it seems as if he thinks he 'discovered' it, even if he simply discovered it for himself, and yes, for a readership that may not get out much. He erred in making it sound too appealing and uh oh what if coastal tourists follow suit.

Or maybe the error was in the framing - if sites in the Midwest were simply integrated into the Travel section, that might be less rage-provoking than a full-on 'look, we've checked that box' series. Although this was a series, not just the one piece, so, who knows.

Below, the official WWPD guide to being from but sometimes getting out of New York.

-It's not weird for New Yorkers to find small towns in the Midwest - or small towns, or much of the Midwest (Chicago, for a New Yorker, isn't all that strange) - strange, any more than the reverse is strange. Provincialism coming from urbanites isn't somehow the greater crime.

-If we define all interest in the Midwest on the part of New Yorkers as inherently patronizing and offensive, what then? Is it a better state of affairs if everyone stays ignorant? If NYC-based publications only cover the Marais and Williamsburg?

-Never ever once should it come up in one of these discussions that New York - or major cities, or major coastal cities - isn't really America. And yet, it inevitably does.

-Yes, gawking seems silly when one considers just how rustic life can be even within the Northeast. It can be tough to suss out what's special about the Midwest if the author finds anywhere with livestock or country roads to fit the bill. (Hey, I live in the Midwest - who knew? And commuted daily for one semester to Manhattan!) Kugel, to his credit, admits this failing, but the commenters still have at it.

-One way not to react to the Midwest is to fetishize it in racial terms. The bit at the end about the "blondes"* - as if blond hair, but only on the ladies, is some kind of amenity akin to "free and plentiful" parking spots - was a bit on the nauseating side, even if it's kinda-sorta redeemed by Kugel transgressively referring to all this blondness as "exotic.* I'd more often seen this approach to travel writing from those headed to Europe, like when a different author went to the Netherlands and advised a small town over Amsterdam, because it has fewer immigrants and more of the tall people one evidently goes to that country to get a look at.

*This sort of thing always makes me think of how, when I was headed to Chicago for college - to a school I'd picked in part because I did want to see more of the country and meet people from other regions - I had this twinge of concern, from having read Portnoy's Complaint at a formative age, that 'the Midwest' was a place where all the women looked like Claudia Schiffer. Needless to say...


WPB said...

On the coastal-cities-are-America-too thing, I agree with you. But I was amused last month when at dinner with an Ivy League professor, he started denouncing the time he'd spent teaching at an excellent Midwestern university on the grounds that it was "too much America." So it does go both ways.

Phoebe said...

It goes both ways, and can even go each of the ways coming from someone in/from a coastal city or not. As in, the New Yorker who, for whichever romantic reason, doesn't believe NYC is really America, or someone in a small town who finds the surroundings there too American.

But the less pro-American version of this isn't always about elitism. It can be, but sometimes it's a not-unjustified sense that a very 'American' place is one where the person making this complaint had been excluded for seeming different and thus not sufficiently American.

And it's not always easy to tell (although context helps) who's snootily opposed to corn-dogs and sincerity, and who's compensating after having had whichever experiences.

CW said...

I can be prickly about the ways in which the Midwest is portrayed. It is too often either a cultural wasteland or the wholesome home of the real americans. My favorite bit from the latter category is a description in Sarah Palin's book of a quaint town square in Cedar Rapids that doesn't actually match any part of the real city.

However, I didn't see anything wrong with this article. Obviously, any sort of quick visit to a large area will only yield superficial insights (I'm glad I didn't write an article after my first three-day visit to NYC), but the author tried to keep an open mind, visited a variety of places, and seemed to make an effort to have real conversations with people and experience local culture. For this sort of journalism that's about as good as can be expected.