Saturday, August 25, 2007

Innocents Abroad

When I lived in Madrid years ago I used to buy pistachios from an Iranian refugee in Retiro Park. I don't recall his name, but I decided to call him Stan. It drove him crazy, but I called him Stan anyway. Why did I call him Stan? One word: Ferguson.

Ferguson is every tour guide that graces the pages of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad. The author and his cohort call their guides Ferguson, whether in Paris or in Athens. The name drives each Ferguson crazy, but they do it anyway. They know that their Fergusons aim to impress, so their goal is to remain unimpressed, no matter what the site or the feat. Standing in a charnal house before the withered remains of some long-gone saint, they adopt a pose of wide-eyed idiocy and ask the same question: "Is . . . is he dead?" All to drive the Fergusons crazy.

Is this admirable? No, but it epitomizes the experience of Americans abroad. It is brash, showing at once disdain for and secret envy of the old world, its people, and its institutions.

This is the book that instilled in me a wanderlust that still afflicts me, even though I have rarely been able to satisfy it. When I read it for the first time, I wanted to travel the world and call my guides Ferguson. I still do.

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