Hot news! Orlando, Florida has now replaced Paris as “the world’s most disappointing city.” Congratulations, Orlando! It’s not easy to beat Paris at anything.
For years I’ve been reading about “Paris syndrome,” a form of extreme culture shock experienced by visitors who expect the movie version of the city — quaint, charming, and full of great art, marvelous food, intelligent conversation, and sexy side glances from attractive strangers — and encounter a somewhat less adorable reality. “A small percentage of those who venture to The City of Light experience ‘Paris syndrome," reports LiveScience, “a psychological condition with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, hallucinations and increased heart rate.”
Now a brash American city has toppled Paris from this particular perch, according to a 2022 study of 826,000 TripAdvisor reviews. The goal was “to find out which city is most guilty of not meeting tourists’ expectations.” Wait, what? Cities are now supposed to feel obliged to meet the Hollywood stereotypes of out-of-town guests? And for crying out loud, what exactly were Orlando’s visitors anticipating, if not a tourist trap? Paris?
As Rich said, when I told him all this, “Let’s face it, you don’t go to Orlando for reality.”
And here we get to the seriously worrying part of the story: the casual assumption that travel destinations should be predictable, with everything organized for our amusement in what some call “curated reality.” Ten years ago, when we were still adapting to living online, Cyborgology wrote, “Social media allows us to essentially ‘curate reality,’ cultivating an environment in which we generally see what we want to see.” By now that expectation has spread so deeply into all facets of our lives that some travelers are demanding the same predictability from cities they visit.
Where’s the fun in that?
For me, the whole point of travel is to experience the glorious rush of surprise that comes with stumbling upon something completely unexpected, such as Albania’s warm hospitality, the zingy coffee culture of Greece, and Sarajevo’s 500-year-old public restroom (which is nicer than you’d think!).
Luckily, most of the world hasn't undergone a makeover to satisfy the tourist industry. I’ve been to sections of Paris — yep, Paris, France! — that are delightfully quirky, and I have no doubt there are plenty in Orlando, too. They’re just not conveniently located right next to Disney World or Epcot.
So how do we find these great experiences? I’m glad you asked.
When selecting destinations, get skeptical. When you read “fairy-tale atmosphere,” “feels lost in a time warp,” and “the quaint, small-town Europe you’ve always dreamed of” your Spidey-Sense should start tingling. In 2013, having read those words, I visited the medieval town Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. At first glance, it was enchanting. Meticulously restored ancient buildings lining winding, cobblestone streets leading up to a 13th century castle — what’s not to like?
Then I noticed the garish signs protruding from every possible surface, shouting at me, "Try the mead!" and "Enjoy two-for-one drinks at a real medieval alehouse!" The only townspeople I saw wore cotton-polyester folk costumes to promote ye olde souvenirs. The town was no longer a living community but frozen in time, a propped-up relic as scary as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis played a former child star who couldn't let go of the past in this spine-chilling 1962 thriller that launched the subgenre of horror films known as "psycho-biddy."
Of course, tourism brings in useful revenue, so it’s only practical for cities to welcome paying guests and adapt to their (reasonable) needs and wishes. Spain, for instance, has devoted millions to improving the quality of its roads and restrooms. And I, for one, am deeply grateful.
When I first moved to Seville, lots of older bars only had men’s comfort stations, because during Franco’s dictatorship women didn’t get out much. (Don’t get me started.) If I had to answer the call of nature at one of my early hangouts, Los Claveles, I had to discreetly express my request to one of the owner/bartenders, who would summon his grandmother from the kitchen, and she would escort me to the tiny cubicle reserved for female needs in the far back. When a proper ladies’ room was finally installed, I was cheering.
Fortunately, like many ancient cities, Seville knows how to adapt to changing times without losing its character. It remains vibrant and is unlikely ever to degenerate into a Český Krumlov -style backdrop designed for what the tourist industry now calls “instagrammable leisure.”
I've learned the secret to enjoying anyplace is simply to pay attention, so you don’t miss the small, interesting moments happening all around. For instance, last Saturday Rich and I were strolling through Seville during an unusually dense and chilly fog. “Hypothermia is setting in,” I muttered through chattering teeth. “Let’s duck into the next café.”
This turned out to be the Bar Algabeño, one of the most delightfully unremarkable spots in Seville. No tourists. No hipsters. No angst-ridden youths with eye-popping tattoos. No trendy makeover or amusing napkins. Just a simple, old-school café-bar where a few neighbors were sitting quietly having a coffee or glass of anis liqueur to “reanimate themselves” (as the Spanish like to say) on a quiet Saturday.
As I sat down, I noticed an elderly Spaniard in a green jacket standing hesitantly, staring about as if unsure what to do next. One of the two camareros came around from behind the bar and gently escorted him to a table, while the other followed with a glass of beer and some chips. The old man settled into his corner with the contented air of one who is prepared to linger indefinitely in cozy, familiar surroundings. A sandwich soon appeared on the table in front of him as if by magic.
And I thought, this is what I love about Seville: the kindness, compassion, the sense of community, and the complete lack of judgement about a guy in his eighties having a beer with lunch.
“This is what I’m talking about,” I said to Rich. “This is the opposite of curated reality.”
Nobody’s ever going to be disappointed by the Bar Algabeño, because we have no pre-conceived notions of what it should offer, beyond a place to sit and sip something and watch the world go by. It will never trend on Instagram. No one will accuse it of “staged authenticity” — another pet peeve of dissatisfied travelers who apparently want their predictability so perfectly seamless they don’t notice it's being managed. No one will ever criticize the Bar Algabeño for being guilty of not meeting expectations.
And let’s face it, if Paris doesn't measure up, there’s a pretty good chance our expectations are at fault, not the City of Lights. Not the city of which Oscar Wilde wrote, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
So although I never make formal New Year’s resolutions, I've renewed my determination not to settle for curated reality, staged authenticity, or instagrammable leisure. Especially on our upcoming Nutters Tour. The world is full of wonderfully unpredictable, hair-brained, off-the-wall places, and every one of them is on my list.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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