British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw. In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels. In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty. In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities. The result? We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.
If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing. Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic. “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”
Why is Ruskin so passionate about art? What is the point of learning to sketch? Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition? Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.
For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention. By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation. If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined. They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.
When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings. Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening. In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture. On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.
Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary. As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.” By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.
When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible. As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.” Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture. Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details. What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome? Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer? Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window? Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold? Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience. To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:
“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings. A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations? What is a better word for it than big?’ The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.”
Why do we feel attracted to some places and not others? Why— for example— do we find Las Vegas repulsive but adore San Francisco? British philosopher Alain de Botton would assert San Francisco has more allure because it has been romanticized in everything from Beat poetry to hard-boiled detective novels. The scorching desert sun and whir of slot machines on the strip don’t possess the same charm because Las Vegas hasn’t been glamorized in as many art forms. A place is only appealing— de Botton would say— if it has been rendered in paintings and celebrated in novels.
In many ways, artists help us see more clearly. Different artists are guides to different things. Chardin, for example, teaches us to see the extraordinary beauty in the ordinary— a leg of lamb, a man reading, a glass of Cabernet and loaf of bread, a blue and white vase— while Cezanne instructs us in the loveliness of baskets of apples and Monet in the exquisite color and light of water lilies. Before Chardin, we never thought so much aesthetic pleasure could be derived from something as simple as a commonplace kitchen. But after seeing “The Kitchen Maid,” we realize that even a maid can possess dignity.
In his endlessly interesting The Art of Travel, which illuminated how new places can inspire new thoughts and how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing, Botton demonstrates how art can make us appreciate our travels more deeply. At the beginning of Chapter VII “On Eye-Opening Art,” Botton visits a few friends in Provence, a destination which conjures romantic images of lavender fields and olive trees. Despite its reputation as a place of unbelievable beauty, Botton finds Provence less than picturesque: the olive trees look “stunted, more like bushes than trees,” while the wheat fields evoke the “flat, dull expanses of south-eastern England where [he] had attended a school and been unhappy.”
It is only after reading a book on Van Gogh that he begins to become more attentive to his surroundings. Van Gogh, who moved to the south of France in 1888, told his brother he left Paris for Arles for two reasons: “because he had wanted to paint the south” and because he had wanted, through his work, to help other people to “see” it.
Through his careful attention, Van Gogh does— indeed— succeed in helping Botton see Provence. One clear morning as he sits on the terrace with a pain au chocolat, Botton sees two towering cypresses. Why had he never noticed them? And why had these unremarkable, rather strange trees, which were once relegated to the background, entered the foreground of his consciousness and become the central object of contemplation?
Botton credits Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” with his newfound appreciation. Though Botton has obviously seen cypresses before, it is only after studying Van Gogh that he recognizes their unique movement, their surreal shape, their dark green color against the golden wheat landscape. In 1888 and 1889, the artist had been obsessed with the trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote his brother, “it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a quality of distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.”
Because Van Gogh cherished these trees, he devoted himself to expressing his vision and produced what are perhaps the most innovative paintings of the 19th century. His affection for his subject inspires Botton to look more closely. With Van Gogh as his guide, the cypress is no longer a straggly mass of green— it’s a wonder of color and harmony. Oscar Wilde once said there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. With equal wit, Botton remarks, “There had surely been fewer cypresses in Provence before Van Gogh painted them.”
Van Gogh also awakens Botton’s unappreciative eyes to the glorious colors of Provence’s Mediterranean landscape. In a passage of rich description, the philosopher paints an idyllic picture of the French countryside:
“The mistral, blowing along the Rhine valley from the Alps, regularly clears the skies of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat…The combination of cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colors.”
In the 19th century, most artists depicted Provence in soft complementary colors like blues and earthy browns. Van Gogh, to borrow the words of Botton, was “incensed by this neglect of the landscape’s natural color scheme.” “The majority of [painters] because they are not colorists…do not see yellow, orange or sulfur in the South,” the artist once complained, “and they call a painter mad if he sees with eyes other than theirs.” Van Gogh revolted against popular conceptions of Provence and soaked his canvases in bright primary colors, juxtaposing them in striking ways: red poppies next to a yellow farmhouse, hunter’s green olive trees against clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
Van Gogh’s consideration for color teaches Botton to see with more sensitivity. Before being exposed to the post-impressionist painter, Botton’s capacity to see was barely better than a blind man’s. He couldn’t understand why people called Provence’s hills “picturesque”— to him, they were an ugly, dry, dirty brown, no different from the hills in California or England. But after seeing Van Gogh’s “Orange Roof” and “Meadow with Poppies,” his bland surroundings become more brilliant. “Everywhere I looked, I could see primary colors in contrast,” he writes, “Besides the house was a violet-colored field of lavender next to a yellow field of wheat. The roofs of the buildings were orange against a pure blue sky. Green meadows were dotted with red poppies.”
All in all, Botton’s The Art of Travel reminds us of the irreplaceable role of art and the artist. More than just momentarily entertain or ravish our senses, a poem or painting encourages us to cherish what usually escapes our notice. In our normal, hurried lives, we move at such a velocity that the magnificence of the world barely registers. But when we gaze upon “Starry Night,” we can sit and savor the surreal Saint Remy sky and therefore become more conscious.
Travel is always to some degree disappointing because we romanticize our destination without having experienced it in reality. Before we depart for Venice, for example, our conception of the floating city comes from picture-perfect postcards and things we’ve seen in movies. We imagine our trip will consist of quaint cobblestone streets and hand-crafted cappuccinos at Cafe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe. As we indulge in the Caffè Anniversario 300, a decadent, distinctly Italian blend of espresso, amaretto, hazelnut, and chocolate, we imagine we’ll gaze upon the gothic beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica and nibble on salmon and spinach quiche. With a bubbly glass of Prosecco in hand later that evening, we’ll feel like Venetian royalty.
Sadly, our image of Venice differs drastically from its reality. Though the floating city does shimmer on the magical blue green waters of the Adriatic Sea, our glamorized conception of Venice neglected the tacky tourist traps, the suffocating sun and the notoriously crowded streets of Italy. In postcards, cobblestone streets were a charming artifact of the old world— in reality, they make it maddeningly difficult to maneuver our luggage and walk in heels. And though Cafe Florian does, indeed, take our breath away with its splendid baroque art and adorable pastries, it also costs 80 euros for a single coffee and a few tea cakes.
Sight-seeing especially underscores the difference between reality and fantasy. In real life, the Colosseum and the Louvre aren’t nearly as impressive or interesting. Indeed, the world’s great landmarks are often dreadfully boring. Though the Colosseum once hosted epic gladiatorial battles for thousands of spectators, today it’s a mecca for overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts and flip flop slippers. And though the Mona Lisa is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, in real life, it’s a rather unremarkable woman sitting simply— nothing more.
No one examines the disappointments of travel with more charming British cynicism than philosopher Alain de Botton. In his indispensable volumeThe Art of Travel, which explained why we traveland how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts, de Botton shares his own disenchanting experiences abroad. After being invited to Madrid for a conference, he decides to extend his trip a few days to go sightseeing. But on Saturday morning, he wakes up in his hotel and doesn’t want to get out of bed despite Madrid’s grand cathedrals and breathtaking monuments. His guidebooks glare at him from his bedside table as if to chastise him for his laziness. How— they seem to gasp— can he pass up Plaza Mayor for a king size mattress?
Eventually, de Botton wills himself of bed to explore the city. As he sits under the Spanish sun in Plaza Provincia, his guidebook instructs him in the bland facts of his surroundings: “The Neo-classical facade of the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande is by Sabatini but the building itself, a circular edifice with six radial chapels and a large dome 33m/108 ft wide, is by Francisco Cabezas.” Much like a history teacher who recites the important figures and monumental dates of WWII without weaving those facts into a compelling story, most guidebooks fail to fan the flames of our curiosity. De Botton’s travel guide offers an abundance of information but is as intriguing as a dictionary. After all, who cares about Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande’s precise mathematical measurements? As de Botton confesses candidly, “Unfortunately for the traveler, most objects don’t come affixed with the question that will generate the excitement they deserve. There is usually nothing affixed to them at all, or if there is it tends to be the wrong thing. There was a lot fixed to the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, which stood at the end of the long traffic-choked Carrera de San Francisco— but it hardly helped me be curious about it.”
Ironically, travel is often one thing: boring. Despite the novelty of medieval architecture and cobblestone streets, a foreign land can be just as uninteresting as our own city. Travel guides and museum placards are partially to blame. Rather than capture the horror and chaos of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a placard at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art will merely mention its history (painted in response to the bombing of Guernica by Nazi Germany), its date of creation (1937), and its technique (oil on canvas). Such dry facts are about as relevant to our real lives as the slope-intercept formula y= mx +b.
De Botton soon realizes that if he wants his trip to be more than a yawns-worthy visit to a museum, he has to find a way to make sight-seeing— to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s term— “life enhancing.” No matter how passionately a travel guide might argue for the significance of a Picasso painting, it will mean little to us unless we give it meaning. Instead of simply accept expert opinion and agree that “Guernica” is one of the most moving anti-war paintings, we should ask ourselves how it can be meaningful to us personally. What can it teach us about how to live? How can it illuminate some aspect of the human experience? We must ask thoughtful questions and be active rather than passive. As de Botton writes, “For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?'” From there, a tourist might wonder why there are different churches in different places or why humans invented religion at all.
Lesson? For the small seed of curiosity to sprout, we must nurture it. Or as de Botton would say, the Neo-classical facade of a Spanish church or a mid-century Cubist painting can only be interesting if we’re interested.
No matter how exciting our destination, we usually look forward to the airport with dread. To make our impossibly early boarding time, we have to wake up at 5 in the morning; once we arrive, we have to find parking and navigate impossibly long security lines. If we’re departing from the airport of a major city— Beijing or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow— finding our gate can feel like a journey in itself. Like a Homeric hero, we have to overcome many obstacles on the route to our goal: rude TSA agents, labyrinthine corridors, incomprehensible airport directories, confusing shuttle schedules. As we rush to find our terminal, we hear the sounds of shrieking children and luggage rolling along linoleum floors. Over the intercom, a kindly voice reminds a Mr. Anderson to please come to gate 4B as his 8:45 plane is about to depart. Though we’re trying to hurry (after all, we don’t want to be Mr. Anderson and keep our flight waiting), a gray-haired couple in their late 70s is walking unimaginably slow directly in front of us. When we finally maneuver around them and get to our terminal, we realize we’re in the wrong one: we should be on the other side of the airport. “God damn it,” we mutter to ourselves. Frantic, we race past tourists in fanny packs and towering carts of luggage as if we were Olympians trying to make it through an obstacle course.
We eventually arrive. Despite our worries that we’d miss our flight, we still have over an hour to kill before our departure time. If stress is the dominant emotion while finding your gate, boredom is the dominant emotion while waiting to board. With nothing else to occupy us, the hands of time grind to a halt: seconds feel like minutes, minutes feel like hours. To pass the time, we people watch and mindlessly scroll through our phones. When that no longer entertains us, we flip through magazines at Hudson News and grab a Starbucks. Most of us imagine the airport is a hell of torturous boredom and anxiety; however, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, the same sharp intellect who has written so compellingly on love, status anxiety, and emotional health, it is also a stirring symbol of possibility and hope. In his elegant travel guide The Art of Travel, the same volume that suggested we should travel to new places to have new thoughts and carefully observe to better appreciate our travels abroad, de Botton asserts the airport is as life-affirming as Molly Bloom’s ecstatic cries of “yes” at the end of Ulysses.
Ultimately, the airport reminds us that if our life feels stagnant— if we’re dissatisfied with our jobs, if we’re bored of our husbands— things don’t have to remain as they are. Too often, we imagine we’re “stuck” in our lives, that today will be exactly like tomorrow. But for a few hundred dollars, we can buy a plane ticket and move to an entirely different country and become entirely different people. The airport’s endless list of departures to romantic, far-flung places— London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Budapest, Rome— isn’t just a catalog of cities: it’s a portal into other possible lives, other possible worlds. In the same way that we can board a flight to Santorini and completely change our surroundings, we can alter what seems unalterable. If we’re unhappy as a San Francisco computer engineer, the list of departures seems to suggest, we can be an Oxford PhD or a Viennese pastry chef. Nothing is beyond our capacity to change: we can get a divorce if we’re tired of being belittled by our abusive husband, we can quit our jobs and start our own business. Our lives are a novel that can always be rewritten. Or as de Botton writes with equal parts wisdom and wit:
“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul. Warsaw, Seattle, Rio. The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich, Paris.’ The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off somewhere.”
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 Bottonsuggests 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 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, 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 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, 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, 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, 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.
We live in an unprecedented era. In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the invention of space 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 themselves of their 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 delightfulThe 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, 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.”
Hoping to escape the despondency of London, 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.”
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 Mediterranean skies and pink-orange sunsets. 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 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, Botton renders that enchanted morning in paradise intelligible by highlighting certain things while downplaying others. The soothing quiet, the turquoise sea, the languid trees— these are only but a few of many features Mr. 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, Botton realizes hecan 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,” 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 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, 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.”