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Why authenticity is fake

by Laura Gelder | 07 December 2016

My most hated word at the moment is ‘authentic’. Unless, of course, you are using it to show me that a designer bag is genuinely made by that designer and not knocked off in some Taiwanese factory, or you want to emphasise that the Parmesan cheese you are grating onto my pasta is from the designated area of Italy that the name requires it to be from. But not, please, if you are talking about a destination.

How can a place NOT be authentic? Unless you are talking about a movie set or a fictional land like Hobbiton or Hogwarts, then it is real.

I hate this word in the context of travel because of what it implies: that we should seek places un-touched, or un-tainted, by westernisation in order to really ‘travel’. It’s a ridiculous concept because unless you are deep in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea rainforest with an un-contacted tribe then you wont find anywhere that’s not been influenced by other cultures. And even then you’ll probably get asked if you support Man U.

The sort of people who wax lyrical about authenticity are one of two types: naïve or smug. The naïve are the well-meaning couple you bump into at a carpet shop in a Turkish souk. They’re supposed to be touring the Sultan’s palace but their guide has gleefully de-toured to his cousin’s shop with the promise of showing them ‘real Turkey’ and ‘cheap cheap prices’. They spend two hours there; sipping enough apple tea to sink a battle ship and probably leaving with an overpriced carpet and some fake Ray-Bans because they’re too nice to say no and too eager to be ‘immersed’.

Smug travellers are the worst. Beware the man/woman, possibly dressed in loose ethnic garb, who looks down their nose at you for wanting to visit the Taj Mahal and tells you they prefer to “go where the locals go.”

Don’t let them get you down. The Taj Mahal is touristy for a reason – it’s mind-blowingly beautiful. They might think they’re getting off the beaten-track and onto a lofty path of mindfulness. In fact, they’re probably going to end up at a dodgy yoga retreat owned by an unqualified Swedish man who went to too many raves in Goa and now lives in a mountain shack with a year’s supply of his favourite granola, because he can’t really cope anymore.

The smug traveller who prides themself on eating lentils for breakfast might not like it, but McDonalds is real too, and its McAloo Tikki burger meal is probably less likely to have them running for the toilet than that authentic dahl they just ate.

Don't get me wrong, I can be just as smug as the next person if I find a cheap little pizza place in a Venetian backstreet. If you suggest we eat in McDonalds in Barcelona I will give you a withering look and just walk away. And I am most definitely the annoying person who asks the bar man to recommend a local beer in every single pub. But let's not get carried away in our pursuit of 'the real deal'. Authentic is whatever is in front of your eyes. You can't and shouldn't want to preserve every rural village you come across - they would probably quite like to have access to cable TV and wifi, despite the fact that you find its absence charming and a great excuse for a digital detox.

It's also worth pointing out to the next smug traveller that you meet, that if they truly crave authentic experiences then when they get home they should probably go to their local boozer for a pint and some chicken in a basket instead of that new vegan juice bar that popped up next door. Authentic isn't quite so cool in your home town now, is it?

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