Alain De Botton on Why We Travel

We live in an unprecedented era.  In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the invention of alain de bottonspace exploration, cloning, the internet, TV, telephones.  Ours is a globalized, technologically advanced age.  The idea that one could wake up in Barcelona and later that evening fall asleep in San Francisco was unthinkable a mere hundred years ago.  Today, however, around-the-world travel in twenty four hours is a real possibility for an unparalleled number of people.  The ordinary 21st century person can voyage across distances once reserved for only the most daring explorers.  And like those adventurous souls, we find ourselves seduced by wanderlust’s seductive siren call: we study abroad, we devour Conde Nast Traveler, worshipping sparkling turquoise seas and striking cliffs like devout Catholics at the altar.  

But what, exactly, compels us to travel?  Some of us travel for mere aesthetic reasons- the quaint old-fashioned charm of a cobblestone street, the beauty of pastel-colored houses along the Italian Riviera; others for the sheer intoxication of being entirely free of our ordinary lives, our ordinary names.  Still others travel to reawaken our long dead and dormant senses, blunted as they are by the familiarity of routine.  Some travel to experience a sense of expansion and partake in the bountiful banquet of being (“We travel,” Anais Nin observed, “to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”) while some trek the globe to remind ourselves of our own smallness in the grand scheme of things (As Gustav Flaubert wrote, “Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”)

Why we travel is what Alain De Botton ponders in his delightful The Art of Travel, which begins with a dreary depiction of a charcoal gray London day.  As the days disguise themselves in more melancholic costumes and a mass of somber white clouds engulfs the winter sky, De Botton- that rare philosopher who possesses both shrewd intellect and exceptional writing ability- finds himself nostalgic for the blissful sultriness of summer.  Depressed by his doleful surroundings and overwhelmed by wanderlust, he begins daydreaming about sunnier climes:

“It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived.  The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established relentless reality.  First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of clocks- though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright.  But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has passed its sentence.  By December, the new season was entrenched and the city was covered almost every day by an ominous steely-grey sky, like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes.  The neighborhood park became a desolate spread of mud and water, lit up at night by rain-streaked lamps.  Passing it one evening in a downpour, I recalled how, in the intense heat of the previous summer, I had stretched out on the ground and let my bare feet slip from my shoes to caress the grass and how this direct contact with the earth had brought with it a sense of freedom and expansiveness, summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out, allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.” 

rainy-london - Version 2

Hoping to escape the despondency of London, De Botton decides to travel to Barbados, a gorgeous Caribbean island.  For months, his vision of the island revolves around images he collects from postcards and brochures: palm trees, French doors opening onto white sand beaches and clear skies.  But when he finally arrives at his-much romanticized destination, the reality doesn’t quite correspond to the picture he had constructed in his mind: 

“We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate.  The pessimistic school…therefore argues that reality must always be disappointing.  It may be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.  

After two months of anticipation, on a cloudless February mid-afternoon, I touched down, along with my traveling companion, M, at Barbados’s Grantley Adams Airport.

[…]

Nothing was as I imagined- surprising only if one considers what I imagined.  In the preceding weeks, the thought of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable.  The first was of a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun.  The second was of a hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen.  And the third was of an azure sky.”

vintage beach

When we fantasize about gallivanting to a faraway land- Timbuktu, Taiwan, Tibet– our imagination operates in much the same way as a story, magnifying certain plot lines while entirely excluding others.  As we anticipate our exotic getaway, we envision striking landscapes, colorful prayer flags and Buddhist monks, imagining such far-flung places and foreign customs will liberate us from the humdrum realities of the day-to-day.

I recently had this experience when I visited Italy.  Had you observed me in my office for the days and weeks leading up to the trip, you would have seen a girl lost in ecstatic reverie, daydreaming about pink-orange sunsets and Mediterranean skies.  How could strolling through Rome’s charming cobblestone streets, gazing upon the awe-inspiring beauty of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael- I wondered- be anything but bliss?  But like many an idealistic traveler who too zealously romanticizes their destination, with arrival came a disenchanting epiphany: Rome was just like anywhere else.  It may have ancient ruins and croissants and cappuccinos but it also has impossibly long lines, cancelled flights, lost luggage, and rude people.  Reading a travel guide will give you the impression that Rome is only magnificent sight-seeing but in actuality there’s always the tedium and at times unbearable misery of traveling itself.  In much the same way a novelist functions by means of omission, choosing only those incidents that are rich in drama and excitement while neglecting the uninteresting or irrelevant, our imagination tends to bring the most significant events into focus.  The result is the reality of our travels- filled as they are with trivial annoyances like jet lag and stuffy airplanes- very rarely live up to our fantasies of the trip:

“If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.  Artistic accounts include severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us.  A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn.  But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’.  We sit in a train.  Lunch digests awkwardly within us.  The seat cloth is grey.  We look out the window at a field.  We look back inside.  A drum of anxieties resolves in our consciousness.  We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite.  We tap a finger on the window ledge.  A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread.  It starts to rain.  A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window.  We wonder where our ticket might be.  We look back at the field.  It continues to rain.  At last, the train starts to move.  It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops.  A fly lands on the window.  And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon’.  

A storyteller who provided us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening.  Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines.  It insists on showing us Bardak Electronics, the safety handle in the car, a stray dog, a Christmas card and a fly that lands first on the rim and then in the centre of the ashtray.

Which explains how the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality.  The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.  

As I lay awake in bed on my first Caribbean night looking back on my journey…already the confusion of the present moment began to recede and certain events to assume prominence, for memory was in this respect similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection.”  

When De Botton recalls that first day in Barbados, he is able to recreate the sensory experience in evocative detail: the tranquil quiet of the morning, the magnanimity of mother nature bountifully bestowing the gift of warm weather, the languid way the coconut trees lean towards the sun.  Though his recollection gives the impression of coherence, such orderliness- he confesses- is an illusion, the slight of hand of a sorcerer’s wand.  Just as storytellers make the disorder of experience comprehensible by imposing a narrative structure, De Botton renders that enchanted morning in paradise intelligible by highlighting certain things while downplaying others.  The soothing quiet, the turquoise seathe languid trees– these are only but a few of many features Mr. De Botton could have focused on.  So why bring these particular elements into the foreground?  Like any artist, he chooses to emphasize certain things for effect: the sea and trees paint a picture that coincides with his fantasy of the island, an island where he imagined “I” was a confine he could circumvent.  But, like many an escapist who learns a change in scenery can never magically solve his problems, De Botton realizes he can never break free from the penitentiary of who he is:

“Awakening early on that first morning, I slipped on a dressing gown provided by the hotel and went out on the veranda.  In the dawn light the sky was a pale grey-blue and, after the rustlings of the night before, all the creatures and even the wind seemed in a deep sleep.  It was as quiet as a library.  Beyond the hotel room stretched a wide beach which was covered at first with coconut trees and then sloped unhindered towards the sea.  I climbed over the veranda’s low railing and walked across the sand.  Nature was at her most benevolent.  It was as if, in creating this small horseshoe bay, she had chosen to atone for her ill-temper in other regions and decided for once to display only her munificence.  The trees provided shade and milk, the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the colour of sun-ripened wheat, and the air- even in the shade- had an enveloping, profound warmth to it so unlike the fragility of northern European heat, always prone to cede, even in midsummer, to a more assertive, proprietary chill.

I found a deck chair at the edge of the sea.  I could hear small lapping sounds besides me, as if a kindly monster was taking discreet sips of water from a very large goblet.  A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement.  Behind me, the raffia roofs of the hotel bungalows were visible through the gaps in the trees.  Before me was a view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretched away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, behind it were jungle-covered hills, and the first row of coconut trees inclined irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.  

Yet this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me that morning, for my attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest.  I may have noticed a few birds careening through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness  of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among these, a sore throat that I had developed during the flight, a worry at not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom.  A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In a disillusioning moment recalling the Eastern idea that “wherever you go there you are,” De Botton discovers that “I” is a constant that remains continuous regardless of place:

“I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.”

At the heart of De Botton’s at once erudite and affable The Art of Travel persists the question of why we travel at all.  Most of us voyage to far-flung places because we believe breathtaking views and unforgettable food will remedy the dissatisfaction that ails us back home.  We imagine that our restless minds will miraculously find peace drifting asleep to the sea’s consoling lullaby, that our marriage’s ten years of embittered resentments and petty squabbles will magically resolve themselves because we’re no longer tormented by bad weather and desolate gray skies.  But this is a fallacy.  When we romanticize a raffia bungalow in Tahiti or an idyllic cottage in the French countryside, we forget one inescapable rule of the human condition: happiness cannot be assured by the external circumstances of our lives.  Anyone who’s had a romantic dinner ruined by a trivial disagreement knows the aesthetics of an evening-champagne, fancy silverware, fresh flowers- matter little when a conversation with your significant other devolves into infantile bickering and words hurled in spite.  In the end, De Button learns one thing- it’s possible to be amongst the most spectacular surroundings and still be miserable:

“When the cremes arrived, M received a large, but messy portion which looked as if it had fallen over in the kitchen and I a tiny, but perfectly formed one.  As soon as the waiter had stepped out of earshot, M reached over and swapped my plate for hers.  ‘Don’t steal my dessert,’ I said, incensed.  ‘I thought you wanted the bigger one,’ she replied, no less affronted.  ‘You’re just trying to get the better one.’  ‘I’m not, I’m trying to be nice to you.  Stop being suspicious.’  ‘I will if you give me back my portion.’  

In only a few moments, we had plunged into a shameful interlude where beneath infantile rounds of bickering there stirred mutual terrors of incompatibility and infidelity.

M handed back my plate grimly, took a few spoons from hers and pushed the dessert to one side.  We said nothing.  We paid and drove back to the hotel, the sound of the engine disguising the intensity of our sulks.  The room had been cleaned in our absence.  The bed had fresh linen.  There were flowers on the chest of drawers and new beach towels in the bathroom.  I tore one from the pile and went to sit on the veranda, closing the French doors violently behind me.  The coconut trees were throwing a gentle shade, the criss-cross patterns of their palms occasionally rearranging themselves in the afternoon breeze.  But there was no pleasure for me in such beauty.  I had enjoyed nothing aesthetic or material since the struggle over the cremes caramel several hours before.  It had become irrelevant that there were soft towels, flowers, and attractive views.  My mood refused to be lifted by any external prop; it even felt insulted by the perfection of the weather and the prospect of the beach-side barbecue scheduled for that evening.  

Our misery that afternoon, in which the smell of tears mixed with the scents of suncream and air-conditioning, was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods appear subject, a logic that we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence.  Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.  We will not enjoy- we are not able to enjoy- sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.

If we are surprised by the power of one sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods.  We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.”

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