Column: Old World

by Nigel Zeff


Column: Old World

The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sightseeing”.


The distorted sense of place—when I’m sitting backwards in a cab in Cannes, trying to reconcile the desperation to take in the clean air of the beachside city while simultaneously feeling my stomach in my throat—it feels like I’m being driven away from things rather than driving to the Hôtel Majestic Barriére, my destination. Overwhelmingly carsick and homesick at the same time, realizing how the light and the atmosphere of this place looks and feels like Malibu. Having just arrived from Paris, this marks the beginning of my trip through the French Riviera—it’s really one of those moments where I feel I don’t know what I’m about to experience, but I know it’ll stay with me forever.

Looking for exits at the Musée de Louvre on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, one of the most dense places I’ve ever been—lines at every entryway, every staircase, every POS. So I resort to walking quickly in circles trying to find my way out of the Denon wing—up and down the same staircases multiple times, realizing there’s something about the staircases in sprawling art museums—some of them make me want to run down rapidly, others I just want to stroll down while allowing Sight to overcome Direction.

Smell The mixture of heavy gray air, wet grass, and modern art early in the morning at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence. The lack of golden light on this overcast day sets up a moody entrance to the museum, and Alexander Calder’s tall black sculptural works seem to be in a different mood when trapped in
a heavy curtain of fog.

Remembrance The battery of an iPhone seems to have a completely different lifespan when traveling. In actuality, it mostly functions as a cushion against my intense fear of forgetting anything. Instead of taking one sufficient photo, my instinct is to take somewhere between 4 and 8 photos of the same thing from relatively similar angles every time my Sight gets stimulated. Still, the blue-green waters surrounding the Île Saint-Honorat still refuse to be accurately captured.

Touch The Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate, located in Nice, is one of the biggest loads of visual stimulation I’ve experienced in that it’s the most ornate small space I’ve been inside. It is characteristically French Baroque, with every inch decorated in a marble or gilded shiny texture, if not painted or adorned with sculpted figures and layered with embellished frames on top of more embellished frames centered around a deeply emotional sculpture.

Sound When I encounter the giant-size wrestlers sculpted by Philippe Magnier in the Musée de Louvre in Paris, I’m almost sure there’s no way it could have been carved out of a hard stone. Though weathered, the young men’s whitish-grayish bodies appear as soft as human flesh, their bodies in perfect form, contorted around each other with such precision that I can practically hear the grunts.

I get a thrill out of admiring these beautiful old objects. For a native Angeleno, seeking out old world art is somewhat of a specific intention. It’s a different connection with my own humanity to be in a place where the preservation of art objects from centuries past is everywhere around me.

Sight On my walk through the Italian Renaissance painting rooms, I’m confronted with yet another pair of erotic male wrestlers. This time it’s Hercules and Achelous painted in a mythological Renaissance composition by Guido Reni. And rather than being bathed in the natural light of a sculpture garden, the artist’s use of brightness is restrained, adding effect to the men’s already despondent facial expressions.

Taste My use of cologne dramatically increases when I travel. There’s something about the circumstances that make it feel obligatory, as if being removed from my Los Angeles-based routine forces me to care more about putting my most polished self forward. I can’t think of another set of consecutive nights that I’ve worry so much about my presentation.

Time The perception of time is something altogether different when office hours don’t exist. While traveling, I catch myself too often wondering what’s happening at the office, how the daily routine looks with my absence, how the sunset looks right this moment from my office window.

We enjoy a late lunch that lasts upwards of three hours at the Restaurant Lu Fran Calin in Nice. How is it that people even live without the strict boundaries of contemporary American work culture? Throughout several servings and about eight glasses of wine, I pee somewhere between 8 and 10 times, feeling like I’ve made best friends with the enormous statue of Ares (the Greek God of War) that’s standing in the restroom beside the automatic hand dryer.

Public space Los Angeles is a peculiar place in that one may often feel isolated while simultaneously always being surrounded by people who travel in their own little bubbles from one place to another. During my traffic-filled commute home from work along the 101 in Hollywood, I welcome an amount of ever-changing neighbors who I won’t ever know or make eye contact with. The sense of social codes will altogether disappear when in new surroundings, so it’s often I feel alone as
a traveler while being immersed within the culture, yet also attempting to pick up on the language of social norms in a given public place, which undoubtedly differs upon its level of attraction.

Walking through the Italian Renaissance rooms at the Musée de Louvre in Paris feel somehow familiar when comparing the experience to traveling through the nearly empty streets of Antíbes at dusk, making eye contact with an old woman as she washes a basket of strawberries in her kitchen sink through a small window of her narrow home.

Special Thanks: Rail Europe at