A Traveler’s Fine Whine
Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture
07.29.09 | 10:28 AM ET
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.