I’ve been doing a lot of traveling recently (over 52,000 air kilometers since the new year!), which means I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking. I spent one of my most recent flights in the company of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, a playful collection of reflections on the ins and outs of travel. “Journeys are the midwives of thought,” he remarks, with “large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places” (57). A considerable part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it’s structured; de Botton uses a selection of famous authors and artists as jumping-off points (“guides,” he labels them at the beginning of each section) from which to examine the total travel experience.
That’s precisely the thing to keep in mind about travel: it’s not all to do with the traveling. It’s arguably as much about the anticipation, the preparation, and the return home as it is about the experience of the trip itself. It’s as much about where you’re starting from as where you’re going, because you’ll necessarily see each of them in relation to the other. We bring something of home with us when we travel, and whether or not we realise it, we always return with something new as well. It could be as inconsequential as a t-shirt and a fridge magnet or as revolutionary as a total cognitive paradigm shift and a new perspective on some of life’s big questions. Travel is a co-constitutive experience. By this, I mean that interaction with a new environment is a two-way street; we act upon our environment just as it acts upon us. Moreover, our own desires and expectations about what we feel we should gain (or lose) help to colour our travel experiences as well.
In the Art section of the book, de Botton uses Victorian art critic John Ruskin as a guide in his discussion of what it means to really see when we travel. This Ruskinian kind of seeing involves more than simply looking; it is characterised instead by an understanding of a place or thing and its constituent parts (222). Familiarity with a place often quells our curiosity completely; “We have become habituated and therefore blind,” as he says (247).
This leads to me reflect on one of my absolute favourite things about travel: the way that immersion into exotic or unfamiliar surroundings keeps you on your toes. There is no room for the autopilot mode to which we so often revert when we’re at home, retreading our usual routes “confidently and without curiosity” (89). The unfamiliarity of a new place forces us to maintain a heightened level of awareness for a longer period of time. We must pay more than the usual attention to the same activities which, in more familiar environs, have become relatively straightforward and undaunting undertakings. But anyone who has spent a significant amount of time somewhere very unlike home knows that it’s often those little things which keep us aware that we’re so very far from it. When I visit Tokyo, for instance, it’s strange to think that I’m surrounded by millions of other people with whom I can’t communicate. I have to pay closer attention to where I’m walking in relation to my hotel because I can’t read the street signs. I can’t differentiate between the shampoo and conditioner bottles in the toiletry aisle of the 7-11. Though small, I find that these are some of the most challenging and beautiful things about experiencing a new place.
While none of its insights are particularly new or groundbreaking, I do think The Art of Travel succeeds in “gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen” (254).