Many TV producers joke that their work is all about “warping reality.” I’m working really hard to show the truth. But it occurs to me that I, too, am warping reality. I have an image of Europe that I want to share. When I learn that my wishful thinking is not the truth, it is a challenge for me to accept the new reality.
I often have a script-driven agenda: I wanted to show “typically Welsh” people in Cardiff, but could only find immigrants on the street. I wanted to show traffic that “stayed in its lanes like rocks in an avalanche” in Rome, but found only polite and law-abiding traffic. I wanted to show tough alpine peasant stock in Liechtenstein, and found only kids that looked like Americans, Swiss people on holidays, and Croatians serving them in the restaurants.
In producing our show, we don’t shoot ugly things. We want to make Europe “easy on the eyes.” (I’ve talked my producer, Simon, into showing only two toilets in 70 episodes.) Whether as a tourist, guidebook writer, or TV producer — and whether in Paris or Bergen or Prague — I acknowledge only the historic core of a city…about 5 percent of it. We just made Zürich, Luzern, and Bern look great, showing only the historic core. In doing so, we ignored 95 percent…and contributed to the tunnel-vision of prospective visitors to these cities.
Europeans cities have forests of cranes, lots of scaffolding, and plenty of graffiti. But the images we bring home — whether for our TV episodes or for your photo scrapbooks — crop that out. Cameras roll when good-looking people walk by, when slick cars roll past, and when sunshine makes colors “pop.” Someone with a huge mole or a terrible skin problem is too distracting to have talk to the camera — even if they have something important to say.
Europe is full of punks, beggars, Bolivian music troupes, and immigrants violating preconceived ideas of who will draw your beer. You won’t see them on the show. We found the perfect spot on a bridge to film an “on camera” (when I talk to the camera), but had to disguise the “F**k Bush” slogan spray-painted on the wall behind me.
I want to show a Europe untainted by corporate logos. It’s just reflex to shoot around the now omnipresent Starbucks, McDonalds, and café umbrellas advertising Coke. My camera strap has a bold yellow “Nikon” on it — which is felt-penned out and flipped upside down when filming. I don’t even show my own guidebooks in our TV shows. (I get my little “ad” at the end, but just try to find any “product placement.”)
The tourist board guides who help us have an agenda, too. In Liechtenstein, they assumed we’d shoot the casino and a falconry exhibition and not talk about the Prince, who threatened to abandon his country if he didn’t get more political power. (We compromised and did none of these.) In Bern, they could get us into their parliament building, but not the needle-distribution desk at the heroin maintenance center. (We did both.)
My earlier producers had an agenda, too: film “people of color” traveling whenever possible to imply more diversity among European travelers, and avoid showing people smoking. Those two concerns aren’t even on my radar.
But I jump at the chance to illustrate a society that is committed to public transit and pedestrian zones. I enjoy showing people biking without wearing helmets (as Europeans do) as a kind of “take that” to a society that is so diligent about that issue while so enamored with guns. I also like to show the responsible consumption of beer and wine in the presence of children — because I think a social scene that is not segregated by generation is a good thing.
Any media warps reality. Travel media generally conditions you to find the Europe of your dreams. My shows — if I’m honest — show you the Europe of my dreams. I know how easy it is to warp reality in travel media. Consequently, I know that other media, as well, can also cause me to loose track of just what’s a window and what’s a funhouse mirror.