Ralph Gardner Jr: Traveling Beyond The Headlines

Sep 2, 2017

A memorial to victims of August's terrorist attack in Barcelona
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.

There are many benefits to taking a vacation abroad – the charming, if unquantifiable stimulus on the brain when you visit new places; good food; and the opportunity to relax; whether in my case that means taking long walks through terrain more dramatic than our woods or going swimming in bodies of water significantly larger and less murky than our pond.

But this year add another perk to getting your passport stamped. That’s escaping America’s 24-hour news cycle.

You can’t flee it completely. Hotel rooms and Airbnbs typically come equipped with TV sets, many of them broadcasting CNN, MSNBC, the BBC and Bloomberg. And there’s always your phone. It’s hard to resist sneaking a peek at your news apps for the latest challenges to logic, decency and decorum. But what you’re largely able to escape is the hype – the breathless promotion of everything as “breaking news.” The addictive sense that unless you remain tethered to some device at all times you might be missing something.

And I say this as someone whose vacation included several days in Barcelona, starting 48 hours after the terrorist attack there.

There were moving, makeshift memorials – carpets of candles, stuffed animals and flowers -- set up along Las Ramblas, the pedestrian avenue where a terrorist driving a van had mowed down dozens of people.

Yet the city seemed pretty much returned to normal by the time we arrived, Las Ramblas worth avoiding not because of its disturbing connection to current events but because it was crowded with tourists once again.

I read one account of Barcelonans walking around with “downcast” eyes. Perhaps they were. The city was too new to me to know what normal is. But it was impossible to tell that anything was out of the ordinary from the citizens we came into contact with.

When I was lucky enough to visit Europe as a child with my family our main source of news was the International Herald Tribune.

My father controlled access, or rather hogged the paper, but eventually the rest of us wised up and got our own copies.

Back then the publication was a joint venture between the New York Times and the Washington Post, editors picking and choosing the best stories and most popular columnists from both publications – Russell Baker, David Broder and Art Buchwald among them.

I felt it lost its edge when the Times took exclusive control in the early 2000’s. But it still served as a link to home.

I’m not much of a baseball fan and don’t typically check the standings when I’m in the United States. But I always do abroad, taking special pleasure in learning which player is leading the homerun derby or has the most RBI’s. It almost felt one’s patriotic duty.

So it was with no small disappointment this summer when I discovered that the International New York Times, as it’s now called, no longer carries them. Nor its quaint gossip column. Attempts at gossip never worked in the U.S. edition of the “newspaper of record.” The paper took itself too seriously for that.

But reading the latest about Mick Jagger or Sophia Loren – these days I suppose it would be Beyoncé or the Kardashians – seemed the perfect frivolous vacation entertainment.

Another source of news and sports – I might be dating myself but so what – was the Armed Forces Network. I’d listen late at night on my transistor radio to the sweet static of Major League baseball broadcasts, the signal fading in and out as if it were beamed from a distant galaxy.

All that’s different now, of course. With just a couple of swipes on your cellphone you can get the news from and about anywhere. Which I suppose is the reason the Times discontinued including the baseball standings and gossip.

These days to avoid the news while abroad requires dedication and self-discipline. I was aided by my family who steadfastly refused to turn on the TV. In fact, for them part of the allure of leaving the United States this summer was leaving behind the latest headlines.

Ironically, it seems that August, the month when most of us check out, is the one that packs some of the biggest news punches. Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The 2003 blackout along the Northeast. And this year Hurricane Harvey.

But what one discovers is that it will all be there when you return – the tragedy, the sadness, the outrage, the talking heads. And you’ll merge so effortlessly back into the latest news that your brief information blackout becomes nothing but a pleasant memory, a source of modest perspective, and an incentive to invest in another foreign vacation as soon as possible.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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