The hues and shades of culture
In many ways there are probably no two destinations more different or further apart than Estonia and Arkansas. And yet, during the recent FIJET Board of Directors meeting in Tallinn, and elsewhere in that exhilarating Baltic nation, I was reminded once again of the essential dynamic of the borderless, complex, and collective human behavior that we call culture.
I expect that you will agree with me that defining the nature of human culture is like being asked to define beauty, justice, or truth. To attempt to do so, is indeed a worthwhile (and lifelong) goal, but it is always a process, and never an event. And yet, understanding, appreciating, and expressing the nature of human culture is what we travel journalists do. Furthermore, when we are successful in this regard, we also communicate a universal truth — without people there is no culture.
A Lesson in Little Rock
When I arrived in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas and home of William Jefferson Clinton (also known as Bill, or as I discovered in his hometown of Hope, Billy), I was not sure what to expect even though I had recently done other stories on the American South. As a Canadian, I am always prone to thinking I know what Americans are all about; but they always surprise me – often in very delightful and enlightening ways. When I am doing my homework for an upcoming media trip, I try to get an overall perspective on the destination I am about to experience. This of course involves, first and foremost, finding out where it is. And I will readily admit to having to use Google Earth to zero in on Estonia before going there. I also had to do the same thing with Arkansas. Hmmm … now is that east or west of the Mississippi? In retrospect however, I now realize that as important as fundamental pre-trip fact-gathering is, I will never really know where a destination is in a conceptual-cultural sense until I am in medias res. And even then, although I am on the spot, I will not “get it” until I have some significant interaction with the people in the place. And in terms of Arkansas, that’s where Michael McCallie came into the picture.
Michael was not a local dignitary, nor a celebrity, nor a representative of the local, regional, or state tourism authority. He was our bus driver. You know, the guy (or the gal) we spend a lot of time with on a media trip. The one who makes sure that we get from A to B on time and in good shape. The one who helps us on and off the bus, hefts our too-heavy suitcases, and makes sure we don’t leave anything on the bus that half an hour later will cause us to have a panic attack.
As I point out in my story Michael McCallie: Arkansas Ambassador and Good Ol’ Boy, Michael was not just our bus driver; he was also “the embodiment of the culture of Arkansas, and the good life. A retired rice farmer, he is one of those people who has many ‘transferrable skills’; through direct experience he has become an agronomist; agritourism specialist, ethnographer, sociologist, diplomat and mediator (especially when he is the sole driver-guide for a group of idiosyncratic travel writers), political commentator, linguist, social anthropologist, humourist, sage, community leader — and good ol’ boy. During my time in Arkansas, he became for me the epitome of this state’s version of southern hospitality.”
Michael was practical, hard-working, and a fun guy to be with, especially given the nature of this particular media trip, or I should say given the nature of the media members of the trip. It was a small group: four women, Michael, and me. I knew each of the other four journalists on the bus fairly well and enjoyed having the kind of dialogue with each of them that always helps me see a new destination through other pairs of eyes.
Although for me meeting and interacting with individuals in the destination is crucial to my coming to an awareness of its inherent culture, I also find it very useful to be able to share, validate, or modify my perceptions with those of my fellow journalists. It’s always good to have another pair of eyes — or several pairs of eyes — through which to observe the destination. However, for whatever reason, my four colleagues did not seem to hit it off all that well and I became by default a kind of communicator-mediator on what was not really a bus, but a rather, shall I say intimate, van. In such close conditions, it was not possible to go quietly into yourself and just let the destination roll by. I found myself in subtle ways having to orchestrate certain aspects of the media trip. And of course I was the one who had to go in search of the journalist who seemed to have lost herself in the commercial culture of a mega Walmart store — a story unto itself. It did add to the workload, but without Michael and his Southern diplomatic ways, I might not be here to tell the story.
As I watched him work his magic on the group, I began to realize that the real story I wanted to tell was in the van. As a matter of fact, he was driving it. And that got me thinking about archetypes. Michael may well have been just a good example of what is known as “Southern Hospitality,” — itself an interesting cultural, historical, and sociological phenomenon — but there was something more generic, more universal in his personal qualities and skills. As I watched him do what he does well, I started to see distinct little behaviour patterns that I was also seeing in other people in Arkansas. So, although for me Michael was a very real person, he was also a cultural archetype; larger than life in a way but also representative of something intrinsic in the destination.
Back to Estonia
I’m not sure how deliberate or how planned it was, but once again this destination was as much about the people in it as about the rich cultural fabric in which they were embedded. I suppose it’s really about the interconnectedness and interdependence of people and the places they inhabit. I’m quite sure it is also about time. And the Board of Directors meeting in Estonia was also notable because it was a FIJET event. As a member of three such associations, I have also come to an awareness of how important our professional organizations are, especially the intercultural meeting of minds that is in many ways their prime objective.
It is well past midnight on the day following the closing of the FIJET Board of Directors meeting in Estonia. Marta, Fayçal and I have had dinner in a typical Estonian family restaurant just down the street from the hotel, and now we are having a quiet “nightcap” in the lounge on the 24th floor. Below us, Tallinn sleeps. Throughout dinner we have been engaged in the kind of content-rich discussion that I suspect only travel journalists on the road can appreciate. Mexico, Morocco, and Canada seem far away, but in another sense they have converged and blended here in this cocktail lounge in Tallinn — a direct result of the generosity of spirit of Estonia.
To visit the official Arkansas Tourism website, go to: www.arkansas.com
To visit the official Estonia Tourism website, go to: www.visitestonia.com
To read and listen to “Michael McCallie: Arkansas Ambassador and Good Ol’ Boy,” click here.
To read and watch “Videomemories of Estonia,” click here.
This article was first published in the Newsletter of the World Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers (FIJET).