A Traveler’s Fine Whine

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

07.29.09 | 10:28 AM ET

unhappy traveleriStockPhoto

I was in Kyrgyzstan recently, hanging out with a group of fellow travelers at a cafe, when the conversation veered towards the negative. This is common among travelers, especially in a country like Kyrgyzstan, where there is much to complain about. The food (heavy and starchy and liable to include sheep’s eyeballs), the weather (scorching hot or freezing cold), the corruption (pervasive) and, perhaps the biggest complaint: the utter and complete lack of smiles upon the otherwise beautiful and varied Kyrgyz faces.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with complaining, and as someone whose name is pronounced WHINE-er, I’m not about to denigrate the joys of a good gripe. Complaining is cathartic. It feels good. And, for centuries, it’s been the glue that has held many a caravan together. The tour group that complains together, stays together.

Besides, not complaining about a god-awful place seems somehow dishonest. In my mind, there’s nothing more annoying than the politically correct travelers—cultural relativists with backpacks—who find every destination equally wonderful, every culture equally admirable. Yes, some places are wonderful, and some cultures are admirable, but not all. To conclude otherwise, to travel in an imaginary flat world, diminishes the experience and does a disservice to the places that are indeed special.

Not all travel complaints, though, are equally valid. How to distinguish productive, healthy griping from the more toxic strain? Healthy complaining leaves you feeling better about yourself, as if you’ve just put your finger on some essential truth about the place you’re visiting. Toxic complaining leaves you feeling dirty. A healthy gripe has a finite beginning and end. You get it out of your system, and, like a good belch or other bodily expulsion, it’s over and done. Toxic complaining, on the other hand, goes on and on, with no end in sight—and, truth be told, no real satisfaction.

I’ve known expatriates who, as far as I can tell, do little else but whine and whinge about the place they have chosen to call home. The locals are greedy and devious; the food is atrocious; and so on. Clearly, these people should have left years ago, but something keeps them there. What? Economics often play a role—it’s cheaper to live in New Delhi than New York—but there’s something else going on, I think. Their whining has taken on a perverse life of its own. A closed loop that feeds on its own negativity. Simply put: These people would rather whine about a place than leave it—or, better yet, improve it.

The comedian Louis CK has a wonderful take on our propensity to complain about everything, especially air travel. To paraphrase: It’s a miracle (a miracle!) we can fly through the air, like a bird, so stop griping about your 45-minute delay or your soggy peanuts and meditate for just a moment on the miracle of flight. He’s right, of course.

So was Ziggy (yes, the comic strip character) when he said: “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Something to think about the next time you’re sitting on the tarmac—or digging into a plate of sheep’s eyeballs.

14 Comments for A Traveler’s Fine Whine

Grizzly Bear Mom 07.29.09 | 11:31 AM ET

Interesting read.  We have a co-worker who complains about everything.  We noted “all she has is her misery.”

Nikhil Sekaran 07.29.09 | 12:03 PM ET

Dear Eric,

Next to Pico Iyer, you are by far World Hum’s most insightful, inspiring, thought-provoking, articulate, and engaging contributor.  As a follower of your previous reportage and commentary, I am indelibly grateful for your ability to express in narrative what I have so often ruminated in my mind during my previous travels throughout the world (but have never had the fortitude to write about), especially in the more unforgiving regions of Central Asia, parts of Africa, and the Middle East.  It is clear that your well-traveled nature is strongly infused with an intellectual vigor and inquisitiveness that other perceptive travelers can only aspire to maintain; this piece is a fine example. Thank you for fostering my wanderlust and my desire to answer questions based on the “intersection of place, politics, and culture”.

Lindsay 07.29.09 | 12:33 PM ET

I love that you used the word “whinge”.

Jenny 07.29.09 | 12:56 PM ET

Gosh - I had to look “whinge” up….

Sharon Hurley Hall 07.29.09 | 3:58 PM ET

I’ve met quite a few of those expats myself. My view is that nowhere is completely good or completely bad and that you should appreciate the differences rather than having a whinge.

Tim L. 07.30.09 | 12:10 AM ET

Nice piece. I’ve not only met many of those expats, I worked with a lot of them while teaching English, especially in Korea. I finally had to just start avoiding them as much as possible to get away from the constant gripes. Again, plenty to gripe about there, but nobody forced them to go or to stay.

AndreyM 07.30.09 | 2:08 AM ET

I know from one my friend, that there are only two countries in the whole world: the country of poor human being and the country of rich human being. So there is no difference, where you can visit a cafe - in every country you can meet such people who always complain about their lifes

Carlo 07.30.09 | 5:42 AM ET

Thanks for this article. It’s always something I struggle about. Is the complaining helping? Or just creating a negative vibe? I’m in the middle of an exercise trying to go 21 straight days without a complaint, to see if I can break the habit. It’s not going so well. I’m documenting it here:


I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that if the complaining serves a nobler purpose, like therapy for myself, or entertainment for others, then it’s OK. But maybe that’s just my justification!

Kealan Casey 07.30.09 | 10:39 AM ET

How do we explain the Germans? Avid travelers, months of vacation time per year, and masters in the art of kvetching. My boyfriend is one, and everywhere we go, there they are, trying to avoid each other. In traveling with him, I’ve learned that he doesn’t hate the restaurant I’ve picked out, or the museum we’re visiting - complaining, as he and his countrymen explain, is just half the fun!

Carlo 07.30.09 | 10:41 AM ET

@Kealan Don’t get me started, I’m married to one! :)

Cate 08.04.09 | 10:42 AM ET

I wonder if the distinction is between having a whinge and a bitch. One is done in an extremely cynical manner and the other like you said, is more about just having a good gripe to make you feel better

I get tired of the PC people who follow the monkey see, monkey hear, monkey speak no evil approach to their travel. It’s false. The reality is we all complain even if it’s about the weather or the lack of smiles going around.

Thoughtful article and I agree with Nikhil’s comments. When I know you have written something I spend time on this site to read your article.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 08.05.09 | 12:08 PM ET

Great article.  Complaining only breeds more complaining.  What’s that saying:  “misery loves company.” Kudos to Carlo for taking the 21-day challenge.  This is becoming very popular—see if you can go without complaining for 21-days.  If people started “gratitude journals” it would show them how much they have to be grateful for such as running clean water, transportation to get you to and fro, national parks like Yosemite, and much more!

jessiev 08.06.09 | 7:54 PM ET

you’ve nailed it. i love this - it is human nature, it seems to complain. yet it is also human nature (at least mine) to see the silver lining and enjoy where you are. i love this article - thank you!

Sarah 08.07.09 | 3:20 AM ET

This is amazing, the fact that I read this article today. Just this morning I started a “thankful for…” journal. I am abroad and struggling, so today, on a good day, I decided to start recording all there is to be thankful for. Today it is “Thankful that the smog is light enough for me to see the buildings a block away.” Perhaps I will take the “no complaining” challenge.

It was good to read about complaining abroad. I know exactly what you mean about the different types of complaining, as I have engaged in both. Important to keep the toxic kind in check and indulge in the cathartic kind from time to time. Thanks for this great piece.

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