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Grand Hotel Europa

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The last book I read this year was Grand Hotel Europa from Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a lengthy critique on mass tourism and Europe’s obsession with its past disguised as an innocent looking novel. It’s masterfully written. Ilja himself plays the lead, reliving memories of his past flame in Venice while staying at a deprecating hotel that once was grand and now is being converted into a Chinese tourist trap.

The agony of a crumbling Europe that wanes under the pressure of global capitalism, where apparently consumerism and mass tourism are the only options to keep the economic balance at a status quo, was heartbreaking to read. Venice is clearly struggling to deal with the millions of tourists that huge cruises vomit into the city. And Ilja’s Venice is just an example. Never before have cheap flight tickets caused that much damage—damage we all too willingly ignore in favor of a relaxing holiday, preferably including a quick shopping spree at a very “instagrammable” location. Perhaps Schopenhauer was right: living on this earth can be quite the penance.

I’m slowly but surely starting to lose faith in our society. Opening up the odd newspaper in 2022 is a recipe for a bad mood. Trying to make it to work using the car in Belgium is another recipe for a bad temper. Grand Hotel Europa made me realize the capitalist state we live in is even worse than I ignorantly think now and then.

The problem isn’t limited to mass tourism. Remember the complete lockdown during the spring of 2020? Nobody was allowed to go to work, everything had to be done remotely, and after a few weeks, in India, people didn’t believe their own eyes: they could suddenly see the Himalayas that were otherwise clouded by the pack of smog! Many spots in India are one of the worst polluted areas in the world.

Himalaya mountains visible from Jalandhar, Punjab, for the first time. Photo courtesy of TjSingh, Twitter.

Everyone rejoiced, everyone was baffled. We did this to mother nature! Look, it’s so beautiful, let’s never do this again! I remember walking the dog in our neighborhood, not hearing a single car at the usual peak times on eight o’clock in the morning. It calmed my mind. At that moment, I felt peaceful and couldn’t help smiling, even though the COVID-19 virus was busy killing thousands of people.

Fast forward to December 2022. At eight o’clock in the morning, it’s still dark, and I wear a fluorescent vest, but still get almost run off the road. The constant noise of cars whizzing by irritates me. Most drivers are locals I know, hurrying their kids to the nearby school that’s less than a kilometer away, but they still somehow think it’s necessary to burn fuel and add contribute to the ever increasing traffic on the road.

The beautiful sight of The Himalayas is of course gone.

Cheap flights have been cranked up to an all-time high: people obviously have to catch up on their missed city trips. In 2022, traffic jams have been higher than before the global pandemic in Belgium, according to the Flemish Traffic Center. Academic conferences are still organized in a hybrid fashion but in-person presence is again considered the norm. Employers are calling remote workers back into the office; the need to invest in a never-before seen “economic growth”—and the need to control people—is back.

In other words: we have learned nothing. Ilja’s critique falls on deaf ears. We still love a good brag on social media, and to do that, we’ll need that selfie on Cinque Terre. We still can’t endure colleagues and friends who go on holidays three times a year while we can only afford to do it twice. We still don’t give a shit about the climatic, economic, and cultural consequences of our portrayal of the innocent tourist that surely invests in the future of the locals.

I don’t think that increasing museum tickets to €400 and a compulsory entrance exam, as suggested by Clio in Grand Europa Hotel to hold off millions of arguably culturally uninterested visitors and their corroding bad breath that gradually but surely destroys the frescoes in Rome’s Sistine Chapel, will solve much. At this point, I don’t think anything will turn the capitalist ship around.

For the self-proclaimed self-conscious European, Grand Hotel Europa is a must-read that will inevitably trigger waves of cynicism.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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