Why travel? The actual act of traveling— hailing a cab, boarding a bus, riding a train— is exhausting. The airport is my personal conception of hell, even more so than the DMV. The harsh, florescent lights, the disgusting food, the interminable lines, the endless waiting. Why endure the hell of Heathrow to visit the beautiful white sand beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the sun-soaked hills of Tuscany? What is it, exactly, that compels us to voyage to far-flung places? Do we travel merely for rest and relaxation or can travel have a deeper philosophical meaning? Can sipping a cappuccino in Rome or wind-surfing in Fiji teach us something?
In his charming, incomparably insightful The Art of Travel, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests traveling to new places enlarges our perspective and inspires us to think differently. Though it might seem indulgent to reserve two weeks of every year for a holiday, nothing is more vital to our mental and emotional well-being. At home, we often feel stuck: in our monotonous jobs, in our passionless marriages. Travel makes us realize we can change our lives. Just as our plane can begin on the ground but soar through the skies only a few seconds later, we can always start over. On a plane, we’re reminded anything is possible: one morning, we can wake up in gloomy grey London only to arrive eight hours later in clear, cloudless Barbados. As de Botton writes, the plane can “inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives.”
Most of the time we’re occupied with the trivial: did our neighbor across the street see when we tripped and fell? how were we going to pay this month’s credit card bill? what should we make for tonight’s dinner? why hasn’t our package arrived yet? did it get lost in the mail?
We rarely, if ever, draw things to scale. A fight about dirty dishes isn’t just another ordinary lover’s quarrel— it’s a Shakespearean tragedy filled with tragic flaws and tragic heroes. “How can my husband not wash his dish right away? He never appreciates me!” we declare melodramatically, “Maybe I should leave him. He’s a selfish pig!” If we get a flat tire on the way to work, it isn’t merely inconvenient, an unfortunate way to start the day— it’s indisputable proof that the whole universe is against us and life isn’t worth living.
But when we takeoff from San Francisco International Airport, we gain invaluable perspective. In a few minutes, the spectacular lights of the city shimmer and recede into the sea, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge disappears behind a mysterious mist. As we climb into the sky— 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet— our lower Haight apartment gets smaller and smaller until it’s as insignificant as a period.
Among the clouds, we recover our sense of proportion. In a few days, it won’t matter that our husband was inconsiderate and forgot to wash his dish or that a flat tire made us late to an important meeting. We are one of Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, our planet is but an inconsequential speck. Who cares if we tripped in front of our neighbor? If we ordered take out one Wednesday night instead of cooked a proper dinner? A Shakespearean tragedy is a girl gone missing or a baby dying or a genocide or a world war or a gruesome murder— not a delayed package or an overdue credit card bill. At 42,000 feet, our problems seem more surmountable.
In ancient Greece, philosophers believed there was a direct relationship between the macrocosm, the cosmos or world as a whole, and the microcosm, the individual. Similarly, de Botton asserts the outer world corresponds to our inner one. “There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places,” he writes with his trademark wit. Just as we have more “a ha” moments when we leave the customary setting of our desks, we have more novel, interesting thoughts in novel, interesting places. Wandering through an open air market in Egypt among the exotic smell of spices and incense, we can come up with more imaginative ideas than if we were simply strolling through heads of lettuce at our local supermarket.
“What ails us?” is the first question we should ask whenever we book a plane ticket. The destination we select should remedy our affliction. If we’re feeling overwhelmed by the commotion of the city, for example, we might seek out quiet places: a charming cabin nestled among California redwoods, a quaint fairy tale cottage in an English hamlet. On the other hand, if we’re feeling cramped in our tiny New York City apartment, we might journey to large landscapes: Yosemite, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon. Under a broad blue sky, we can have broader thoughts. How can we not feel expansive in the presence of the breathtaking beauty of El Capitan, 200 foot tall sequoias, and majestic million year old red rock?
In our normal lives, we are confined to our normal identity but on a plane to Dubai or a train through the French countryside, we can get reacquainted with our authentic selves. In many ways, home limits us; as de Botton observes, “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”
Unlike in real life, where we’re often hurrying from one thing to the next, travel offers plenty of idle time to reflect, be it at a grand chandelier-adorned subway station in Moscow or a bus stop twenty minutes outside of Stockholm. With nothing to do but gaze outside our window, we can daydream and wonder, ponder and puzzle. Where would we most want to live if we could live anywhere in the world? What do we imagine is our purpose in life? What have we always wanted to do? Learn Italian or do the tango? Usually the din of daily life is too deafening to hear the answers but on a serene train ride through the Swiss Alps, we can finally make out the soft whispers of the true self.
With his rare ability to find meaning in the mundane, de Botton claims an unfamiliar hotel room can also free us from familiar ways of thinking. Have you ever wondered why sex in a hotel is always more satisfying? Unlike in our everyday bedroom where we’re constantly distracted by the nagging demands of domesticity— whining children, dirty dishes, dirty laundry— in a hotel room among out-of-the-ordinary objects like mini shampoo bottles, individually wrapped soaps, room service menus and paper view TV, we can rediscover our forgotten sexuality. In a new setting, we can see our husband in new ways: no longer is he a partner in the joint business of running a household or, worse, a roommate, he is our lover, our other half, our soul mate. Though we’re usually too tired to give each other a peck on the cheek, in a hotel far from home, we have the irrepressible urge to rip off each other’s clothes and kiss amorously beneath the sheets. A hotel room is an aphrodisiac that rekindles our desire, our longing. So if you want to reignite the spark in your relationship, de Botton would say, exchange handcuffs and kink for a mini bar and fresh towels in a foreign city.
Most travel guides are compendiums of top ten lists that instruct us where to go. Such books are undoubtedly helpful (after all, how else would we find the most idyllic view in Santorini or the best dim sum in San Francisco?) but they don’t teach us how to make the most of our travels. The Art of Travel is a must-have in every tourist’s backpack for the very reason that it doesn’t include definitive lists of “must see” monuments in Rome: while practical guides like Lonely Planet offer invaluable advice on what hotel to book and when to visit, de Botton’s one-of-a-kind volume illuminates why we travel, how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, and how to preserve the fleeting beauty we encounter once we return home.