On those occasions when I’ve taught, I’ve been struck by something: my students don’t seem to lie about what they’ve read. If you mention a book, and they haven’t read it—or even heard of it—they’ll admit to it without embarrassment, or even self-consciousness. “Can you repeat the title?” they might ask, or, even, “That sounds really interesting!” Refreshing and laudable though this may be, I initially found it disorienting: I seem to remember that my teen and college years involved a lot of phantom reading.
Of course, it’s very possible that my sample is simply less pretentious and more self-confident than I was; those odds are good. But the total absence of fronting, of nodding knowingly, of glancing around furtively to gauge others’ reactions—this seems like an important micro-generational sea change. I had considered pretension an endearing, and enduring, trait of youth—certainly I knew plenty of other kids who went in for this sort of lying. Are people now just more open about who they are? Or does having read a lot not even signify much—is it not even worth lying about?
One may observe a similar lack of self-consciousness during peak tourist season in any city. Yesterday, for instance, I was seated on a downtown train next to a middle-aged couple, clearly unfamiliar with New York. “I might bump into you when we come to a stop!” the woman said with jolly camaraderie to a stony young man beside her. She was undeterred by his silence: “How do we know what side to get out on?” she asked. The guy continued to stonewall her. “I don’t think he can understand me!” she said loudly to her husband; she did, indeed, have something of a southern twang.
“It’ll only open on one side,” I said. “It’ll be clear.”
“Thank you!” she said. “We’re going to the Staten Island Ferry. We just got to New York about two minutes ago! We don’t know what we’re doing!” This was unnecessary; even if their open manners and colorful garb had not marked them as visitors, their maps and guidebook would have.
I like chatting with out-of-towners. We are all ambassadors for the city, after all, and it’s interesting to see your hometown through their eyes—particularly as it’s such a different city from the one we know. I get indignant every week when I see the jokey “Lies to Tell Tourists” feature in Time Out New York.
“It’s a beautiful day for the ferry,” I said. “And a nice way to see a lot at once. You’re right to take the subway; some visitors are a little scared of it, and it can be confusing, but it’s really efficient, and much cheaper.”
“I think New York gets a bad rap,” she said. I was about to bask in some compliment about how friendly and helpful I was. Instead, she said, “It’s not that filthy, and we haven’t been mugged yet. Of course, we just got here.”
I don’t know why visitors think this sort of talk is appropriate, frankly. And they do it all the time. These stereotypes are twenty years old, and accuracy aside, it’s extraordinarily rude to invoke them. (Besides which, the subway is indeed filthy; that they had not yet spied a rat was all the proof I needed that they’d been in town for less than a day.)
But a part of me admires the candor. I’ve been led to understand that, when traveling, one does not generally wish to look like a tourist—for safety reasons, of course, but also out of some desire to seem like a cosmopolitan citoyen du monde. One should express curiosity, but never ignorance. And in France, well, should someone spy an artfully knotted scarf about your neck and ask you for directions, you won’t decline to give them.
Perhaps the city slicker’s contempt for “obvious” tourists springs from indignation at their failure to recognize our evident superiority. It’s not just that people do not attempt to fit in—whatever that means—it’s that they don’t know they’re supposed to want to. And because we fear what we don’t understand, and maybe it makes a tiny, secret part of ourselves question our lives, we express our fear in scorn and maybe the occasional deliberate misdirection. That’s sophistication, you see.
So I hated them and I admired this couple. “Don’t let anyone try to charge you for the ferry,” I said after a while. “Some people run a scam where they’ll try to sell you a ticket—but it’s free.”
“We know that,” said the guy, like it was obvious, and I was patronizing them.
“Very good,” I said, and opened a book. It was a Martin Amis I’d picked up in my lobby the day before. I’ve already read that, had been my first thought. But then when I started to look through the book, I realized that I’d only claimed to have read it, at some point—and then come to believe it.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.