This week’s question comes from senior writer Jason Heller and is inspired by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Zubrowka: What fictional country would you most like to visit?
One of the things I find so tantalizing about Wes Anderson’s upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel—besides the fact that it’s a new Wes Anderson film—is its setting: a fictional European nation called Zubrowka, which now has its own website. I’ve always loved the idea of made-up countries that pretend to exist somewhere on Earth today (or at least in the recent past). Sure, it’s cool when nonexistent cities like Metropolis are shoehorned into the world as we know it. But an entire nation that’s not hidden like Atlantis, but crammed right into the existing geopolitical landscape? It’s a captivating concept. I probably fell in love with this idea as a kid, when I became addicted to The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. The series’ villains, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale—as well as their dictatorial overlord, Fearless Leader—hail from the fictional Eastern European country of Pottsylvania, an obvious surrogate for the USSR. The Cold War was still on when I was young, so the horrific undertones of Pottsylvanian missiles flying toward the U.S. weren’t lost on me. Still, as propaganda goes, it’s relatively harmless—to the point where I weirdly thought that Pottsylvania, with all its scheming and spying, would be a cool place to visit. This was before I was old enough to know the extent of the atrocities committed by the real-life Soviet regime—or, you know, before I lived under today’s NSA.
This is going to mark me as a total girl, but I’m going with Genovia, the kingdom from The Princess Diaries. It’s decidedly less war-torn than The West Wing’s Qumar and not filled with asshole generals like Die Hard 2’s Val Verde. Rather, it’s a tiny, peaceful European kingdom located somewhere between the Netherlands and Belgium that’s known for its pears and its apparent willingness to let a nerdy foreign teenager ascend to its throne. While 65,000 people live there, only about 10 of them appear to be pure evil, and compared to other fictional countries, that’s a pretty good ratio.
Surely I can’t be the only person who would want to travel to the Garden Of Eden? I know we all fell from grace and stuff, and I’m certainly guilty of all kinds of original sins, but it would be a lovely vacation from the travails of human existence—provided I didn’t engage any talking snakes in conversation. I hear the apples are good.
You might scoff that this is not precisely on Earth, and, therefore, not a place that travel could be booked to. But I insist that Oz is a part of this plane, and one need only cross the Deadly Desert somehow (certainly not on foot!) to visit it. The thing that made Oz sort of boring as a fictional setting in some books—there was absolutely no conflict of any kind—also would make it pretty great as a place to chill out and relax for a couple of weeks. Plus, everybody there is immortal, and while I wouldn’t expect that kind of immortality from a quick vacation, I wouldn’t mind getting a small taste of it. And talking animals? Lunch-box trees? A country of people made out of precious china? That sure beats the hell out of France.
Why are made-up countries usually such terrible places? They almost always seem to exist in fiction in order to be hideous dystopias (The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, The Hunger Games’ Panem) or little crackpot fiefdoms ruled over by tiny tyrants (Doctor Doom’s Latveria, Ünderbheit’s Ünderland). The little European nation of Cagliostro in Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature film, The Castle Of Cagliostro, is no exception—it’s ruled by a despotic, usurping Count and his many slavish minions and soldiers—but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place to live. For one thing, it’s a country animated by Miyazaki, so naturally it’s charming and quaint, with beautiful rolling hillsides, the bluest skies imaginable, and surprisingly modern medieval towns. For another, it’s a prosperous country, buoyed by counterfeit cash. And by the end of the film, the treacherous Count is gone and a much kinder ruler is installed, so it’s certainly going to be a pleasant place to live. But above all, Cagliostro is by default in a Europe where wild and fantastic things happen on a pretty regular basis, where even the thieves are generous and dashing, and where nothing truly terrible ever seems to happen to anyone except the villains. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
I’d like to take a trip to the original fictional country: Atlantis. First described by Socrates in a couple of Platonic dialogues, the mythical island was supposedly somewhere off the coast of Gibraltar. With a landmass larger than Asia Minor, the country was actually pretty substantial, and had a supposedly beautiful city-state at its center. Fascinating as it would be to go back in time to an ancient society, I’d actually like to visit it a little bit closer to the present day, hopefully with a certain Dr. Jones to accompany me. Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis was probably my favorite game growing up, and the chance to pick through a lost civilization with a slightly less grumpy than normal version of everyone’s favorite archaeologist sounds like a perfect summer vacation.
I sometimes think it might be nice to visit Latveria, the Eastern European country ruled by its favorite son, Doctor Victor Von Doom. You could spent the night drinking and dancing with the gypsies, then spend the morning sobering up in the beautiful Cynthia Von Doom Memorial Park, watching the robot secret police beat up members of the local Occupy movement. And all around you, you could take in the living legacy of a man who, using nothing but his will and genius-level intellect—and, in one memorable issue of the ’70s title Super-Villain Team-Up, a handshake deal with Henry Kissinger—overcame unimaginable levels of personal hardship to become a one-man world power, in the process becoming the best example of the truism that the real difference between a hero and a villain finally comes down to whose name is on the cover of the comic book. I only worry that, with my luck, I’d arrive just before Tony Stark persuades NATO to bomb the place again.
My pick is along the same lines as Phil’s, except that I’m hoping it’ll be at least a little less hazardous to visit the African nation of Wakanda. Not that there haven’t occasionally been some skirmishes within its borders—that’s what happens when one of your biggest claims to fame in the Marvel universe is a big ol’ Vibranium mound, and, sure, you’re potentially risking being affected adversely by its mutagenic radiation, but it’s got such a long and fascinating history, and just think of the technology you’d get to see! Plus, c’mon, it’s the home of Black Panther. If you think I’m going to miss out on a chance to meet T’Challa, you’re very much mistaken.
As exciting as my everyday life is, sitting behind a computer and typing things, then going home to sit behind a computer and type things, it would be nice to occasionally add a little derring-do to my routine. And where better to do that than Florin, the picaresque, seaside nation whose fascinating history includes the events of The Princess Bride. Horseback riding, sword fighting, giant-wrestling, fire swamps, and the occasional miracle—that trip to Hawaii seems downright dull by comparison.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to visit Dinotopia on purpose. I believe you have to shipwreck nearby and hope the dolphins ferry your unconscious body to the island. But assuming I could make it that far, there’s no fictional country I’d rather visit. For an undiscovered island, Dinotopia covers an impossible number of biomes. It has mountains that resemble the Himalayas, canyons like the American southwest, and an Amazonian rainforest, each of which contains its own dinosaur-human culture. The point being, I wouldn’t get bored. What I’d give to spend a night in the tree-house village and try out for the pterodactyl version of the Pony Express. When I’m finally done exploring and ready to settle somewhere, there’s a city built on a waterfall. It’s like Venice combined with George R.R. Martin’s Eyrie and populated with friendly dinosaurs. The Victorian society could be a drag, but I could endure a lot for the chance to see a stegosaurus.
I’m sure if it actually happened I’d go crazy after about a week, but every time I read The Fellowship Of The Rings, I can’t help wishing I could kick back and hang out in the Shire for a few years. Tolkien’s novel is often criticized for taking too long to get going, and it’s hard to argue the point; there’s a very clear sense in the first couple hundred pages of an author wandering around, knowing he has to get to the business at hand but not really wanting to. But the Shire itself, with its great food and sunny afternoons and comfortable underground housing, as well as plenty of time to read and sleep and walk and eat and anything that pleases you (provided it doesn’t require an Internet connection or electricity in general), always sounds so inviting to me that I can never blame Tolkien for not wanting to leave it.