Alain de Botton on How Traveling to New Places Can Inspire New Thoughts

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 will illuminate why we travel to certain places and give useful tips for preserving the fleeting beauty we encounter long after we’ve returned home.

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 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 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 abilityfinds 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 airplanesvery 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 orderlinesshe 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 eveningchampagne, fancy silverware, fresh flowersmatter 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.”

In Other Words: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Linguistic Love Affair

in other wordsIt’s hard to fathom spending your life honing your craft only to mid-career opt for an entirely new medium.  What if Monet had given up oil paints so he could experiment with sculpture?  Or Andy Warhol exchanged Marilyn and soup cans for a bowl of fruit?  But that’s exactly what Ms. Lahiri does when she takes on the bold project of moving to Rome and abandoning her native tongue, an undertaking she christens a “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism.”  After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies at the ripe age of 33, Lahiri arrived at superstardom.  Universally acclaimed for her uncommon insight into the immigrant experience and the beauty of her spare, uncluttered prose, she embodied what it meant to be a successful writer.  Lahiri’s startling mastery of her own language- not to mention the extent of her literary renown- make it difficult to understand why she’d relinquish all that’s familiar to read- and write- solely in a foreign tongue.  

As she herself admits, there’s no practical reason for her to learn Italian: when she first embarks on her project, she doesn’t live in Italy, she doesn’t have Italian friends.  All she has is an inexhaustible desire, “an indiscreet absurd longing” to learn.  In Other Words, Lahiri’s exquisite autobiographical debut, written in Italian and translated into English by esteemed New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, is a linguistic love letter written with the ear of a poet, the sensibility of a minimalist, the heart of an inamorata.  Italian is the chosen beloved, but Lahiri’s true subject is creative renewal.  A chronicle of one writer’s quest for a new voice, In Other Words traces the near impossible metamorphosis from tongue-tied inarticulateness to full-fledged fluency, from dabbling dilettante to consummate master.  One has to commend Lahiri for her tirelessness: despite barely having a 6th grader’s vocabulary and only a rudimentary understanding of basic grammar, she resolves to write an entire book in her adopted language, struggling-just as she did when she first learned English- to find the words to express herself.  

In an illuminating metaphor recalling Andre Gide’s emboldening assertion that “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time,” Lahiri realizes she’s been learning Italian in the same way she’s been swimming- cowardly hugging the outside perimeter, never wandering too far from shore.  Though her 20 years of diligent study have enriched her mind and heart, she covets the mastery that has so far eluded her.  In much the same way she yearns to cast off the security of the shallows and swim dauntlessly in deep waters, she longs to toss her vocabulary flashcards and immerse herself in the language like never before.  This overwhelming desire acts as the impetus for her cross-continent move to Rome:

I want to cross a small lake.  It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities.  I’m aware the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.

The lake I’m talking about is in a secluded, isolated place.  To get there, you have to walk a short distance, through a silent wood.  On the other side you can see a cottage, the only house on the shore.  The lake was formed just after the last ice age, millennia ago.  The water is clear but dark, heavier than salt water, with no current.  Once you’re in, a few yards from shore, you can no longer see the bottom.  

In the morning I observe people coming to the lake, as I do.  I watch them cross in a confident, relaxed manner, stop for some minutes in front of the cottage, then return.  I count their arm strokes.  I envy them.  

For a month I swim around the lake, never going too far out.  This is a more significant distance- the circumference compared to the diameter.  It takes more than a half an hour to make this circle.  Yet I’m always close to the shore.  I can stop, I can stand up if I’m tired.  It’s good exercise but it’s not very exciting.  

Then one morning near the end of summer, I meet two friends at the lake.  I’ve decided to make the crossing with them, to finally get to the cottage on the other side.  I’m tired of just going along the edge.  

I count the strokes.  I know my companions are in the water with me, but I know that each of us is alone.  After about a hundred and fifty strokes I’m in the middle, the deepest part.  I keep going.  After a hundred more I see the bottom again.  

I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble.  I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me.  I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children.  They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not.  After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there.  Charged with energy, I cross the lake again.  I’m elated.  

For twenty years I’ve studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake.  Always next to my dominant language, English.  Always hugging that shore.  It was good exercise.  Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting.  If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown.  The other language is always there to support you, to save you.  But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking.  To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.  Without a life vest.  Without depending on solid ground.”  

lahiri

As she recalls her first trip to Italy in 1994, Lahiri equates her earliest encounters with the language with falling in love.  Indeed, Lahiri’s relationship with Italian is nothing short of a love affair: hearing the language- in cafes, on cobblestone streets-she’s seduced by more than its beauty; rather she feels an instant, inexplicable connection, as if learning the language were her destiny, Italian, her heavenly-ordained soul mate.  But despite her best efforts, for years, Lahiri’s love goes unrequited.  Though she savors the sensuous romance of a’s and o’s and studies doggedly, she understands next to nothing.  With the same poignancy that she describes being an immigrant in a foreign country, Lahiri details the heartbreaking irony of being a writer without words:

“I hear the excitement of the children wishing each other buon Natale– merry Christmas- on the street.  I hear the tenderness with which, one morning at the hotel, the woman who cleans the room asks me: Avete dormito bene?  Did you sleep well?  When a man besides me on the sidewalk wants to pass, I hear the slight impatience with which he asks, Permeesso?  May I?  

I can’t answer.  I’m not able to have a dialogue.  I listen.  What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction.  It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the time, completely external.  It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is.  It seems strangely familiar.  I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.  

What do I recognize?  It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it.  It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship.  It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.  As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover.  I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it.  I realize there is space inside me to welcome it.  

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment.  A closeness and at the same time a distance.  What I feel is something physical, inexplicable.  It stirs an absurd, indiscreet longing.  An exquisite tension.  Love at first sight.”

rome

After her first trip, Lahiri begins studying Italian with a zeal that verges on fanaticism.  When she finally relocates to the eternal city, she’s overcome by a mysterious impulse: to write in the native tongue.  Overwhelmed and disoriented by the foreignness of this strange city, Lahiri- a writer known for her eloquence with words- finds solace in the private pages of her diary, where she can transcribe the trials and tribulations of adjusting to her new home.  Much like the diarists who came before her-from Virginia Woolf, titan of modernism, to Anais Nin, poetic charter of the human soul- Lahiri finds a certain kind of freedom in writing for no one’s eyes but her own.  A refuge from the ceaseless self-censorship of “formal” writing, the diary- particularly because its composed in a distant tongue- liberates her from the inhibiting prison of perfectionism.  Beginning again in a whole other medium, Lahiri rediscovers the simple satisfaction of finding the exact words to express herself:

“A week after arriving…I do something strange, unexpected.  I write my diary in Italian.  I do it almost automatically, spontaneously.  I do it because when I put my pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.  During this period when everything confuses me, everything unsettles me, I change the language I write in.  I begin to relate, in the most exacting way, everything that is testing me.  

I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.  Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone.  I grope my way, like a child, like a semi-literate.  I am ashamed of writing like this.  I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere.  I can’t stop.  

It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with.    It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.  

During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Italian diary is the only thing that consoles me, the gives me stability.  Often, awake and restless in the middle of the night, I go to the desk to compose some paragraphs in Italian.  It’s an absolutely secret project.  No one suspects, no one knows.  

I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language.  But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.  

Before I moved to Rome I seldom wrote in Italian.  I tried to compose some letters to an Italian friend of mine who lives in Madrid, some emails to my teacher.  They were like formal, artificial exercises.  The voice didn’t seem to be mine.  In America it wasn’t.  

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here- maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy.  The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly.  It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.  

In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing.  I wanted a new approach.  I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for years in America would, finally, give me the direction.

I use up one notebook, I start another.  A second metaphor comes to mind: it’s as if, poorly equipped, I were climbing a mountain.  It’s a sort of literary act of survival.  I don’t have many words to express myself- rather, the opposite.  I’m aware of a state of deprivation.  And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light.  I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need.  I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read.  

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way.  I’m always uncertain.  My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”

geography of rome

Soon Lahiri is not only writing privately in Italian- she’s writing publicly as well.  Recounting the unexpected visit from the muses that leads to her first short story in her adopted language, she recaptures the bliss of being a beginner.  A writer of remarkable restraint and refinement, Lahiri is a virtuoso of her native English, but it’s this very expertise that keeps her constantly doubting herself.  Should she say “elated” or “ecstatic”?  write in short, declarative sentences or be more elaborate?  use a semi-colon or a comma?  “Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in…and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”  To write- to create anything for that matter- is to perpetually second-guess yourself.  This doubt is compounded the more possibilities you have to choose from.  Coined the “paradox of choice,” this natural law states the more abundant your options, the more difficult it is to decide- in other words, there is liberation in limiting yourself.  This is certainly true for Lahiri, who discovers the most exhilarating freedom while bound in chains: in Italian, she doesn’t possess the vocabulary to endlessly debate between synonyms, she doesn’t have the critical capacity to judge whether what she writes is “good.”  But it’s her very lack of ability, her very lack of choices that rekindles her love for the written word:

“One day I find myself in a library where I never feel very comfortable, and where I don’t usually work well.  There, at an anonymous desk, an entire story in Italian comes to my mind.  It comes in a flash.  I hear the sentences in my brain.  I don’t know where they originate, I don’t know how I’m able to hear them.  I write rapidly in the notebook; I’m afraid it will all disappear before I can get it down.  Everything unfolds calmly.  I don’t use the dictionary.  It takes about two hours to write the first half of the story.  The next day I return to the same library for another couple of hours to finish it.  I am aware of a break, along with a birth.  I’m stunned by it.  

I’ve never written a story in this fashion.  In English I can consider what I write, I can stop after every sentence to look for the right words, to reorder them, to change my mind a thousand times.  My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hinderance.  I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a solider in the desert, I have to simply keep going.”

“The moment when a book is best comes before you have written a word,” novelist Mark Childress once wittily observed.  Zadie Smith put it more bleakly: to be an artist, she declared, is to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”  No matter how much we edit, no matter how much we obsessively prettify and polish, what we write inevitably disappoints: writing is an everlasting exercise in disenchantment.  So why- when it’s already so heart-rending to compose in her own language- would Lahiri willingly endeavor to write exclusively in another, an aim that will almost certainly elude her?  The preposterousness of her project doesn’t escape the Pulitzer-Prize winner: “Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me?” she wonders, “Why does poverty satisfy me?  What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile?”  Much like James Joyce, who asserted that “mistakes are portals of discovery,” Lahiri comes to realize that- despite our culture’s worshipful reverence of perfection- flaws are the birthplace of all novelty:

“Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection?  What does it offer me?  I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness.  Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity.  It stimulates.  The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

A remarkable writer and woman, Lahiri inspires her readers with her courage, her determination and, above all, her passion.  An amorous love letter that will seduce your soul, In Other Words is not just for self-proclaimed Italophiles or those already familiar with Lahiri’s work- it’s for anyone who delights being in the presence of a true aficionado.