Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Art of Travel

The first decision to be made before traveling is where to journey. Widespread travel for the middle class exploded after World War II. Today, we are overwhelmed with the options available for exploring all parts of the United States and the world and the destination decision can be daunting. Yet, Alain de Botton, in his wonderful book, The Art of Travel, writes we should be more concerned with "how " and "why" we travel rather than "where".

De Botton’s first analyzes the anticipation of a trip, often the happiest part of a venture. I had a friend who could only relax when he had plane tickets safely hung under a magnet on his refrigerator. The departure date may have been six months hence but it made him smile to know a trip was planned. One reason anticipation can be so satisfying is that it focuses on the best possible, expected experience rather than the distractions of the real experience. As De Botton points out, the anticipation doesn’t factor in the "periods of boredom" or the "heat, flies and difficulties of hotel food" or the "financial alarm" as money flows out so quickly. Even the safely scripted tours to Cancun or the cruises of the Caribbeans must deal with hurricanes or plane delays, something our anticipation can more easily ignore.

De Botton also speaks to the "how" of traveling. For a pleasurable traveling experience, one should have a proper "traveling mind-set" and "receptivity is its chief characteristic". This means we should be "alive to the layers of history beneath us", find a supermarket fascinating, take notes and photographs, and risk getting run over as we stand on a traffic island admiring a building’s roof. He describes it as approaching a place with humility and no preconceived ideas of what is interesting. This is a different method then the usual "best" or "top ten" suggestions in guidebooks. And it’s certainly better than complaining when the destination is not like home.

The "why" of traveling will vary among us. Getting away from the pressures of home and work is a common reason. The need to relax and be refreshed also draws us away, especially to beautiful settings in the mountains or at the beach. In The Art of Travel, De Botton refers to William Wordsworth’s ode on the restorative power of nature even after we return:

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet...
With tranquil restoration.


De Botton also identifies curiosity as a raison de voyager, with Alexander von Humboldt being one of history’s most curious. While he is known for scientific discoveries on his journeys, Humboldt’s incredible curiosity led him to know more of the earth and its inhabitants. And Nietzche is quoted as suggesting that travel is to gain strength through reflecting on past greatness or even learn how our societies have been formed by the past and so acquire a sense of continuity and belonging. "By gazing at old buildings, one can feel happy knowing he has grown out of this past as its heir and that his existence is justified." Acquiring "life-enhancing thoughts" can be our souvenirs from a trip.

Upon return, our mind quickly sorts through the events of the journey, an instrument of "simplification and selection." If our mind set has been receptive, as suggested by De Botton, the new experiences with food, mode of travel, architecture, and even getting lost will be the stories remembered. And if we remain receptive at home, our old neighborhood will be seen with fresh eyes, no longer blind to the wonders of this part of the world, "to notice what we have already seen". On a recent trip to France, a Parisian acquaintance joined us for much of our touring. She later thanked us for allowing her to rediscover her own beautiful city, a gift travelers can provide their hosts.

Alain de Botton is a thoughtful writer with a wry sense of humor and a fresh approach to the art of travel. Anyone wanting to enjoy their trips on a deeper level will be delighted at this book.

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