The Art of Travel : how to enjoy it despite ourselves and including the boring bits

personal growth

The Departure

This summer I am not running away.

I have wished to run away many times in my life though. Running away was the perfect solution to evading trouble and embarrassment as a kid. Not only could I show that I meant business, but I’d also get some sympathy and dodge the consequences of whatever the drama was. I did not approach life with McGyver’s steely resilience and imaginative practicality, but leant more on side of the Fugitive – at least in my mind.

As an adult, I’ve had running away fantasies too, now called ‘going away’.

Going away is a great way to avoid the boredom and responsibilities of life. Relationship problems? I hear Tokyo’s nice this time of year…

But this summer I am not running away. No, I’m having an adventure – a five week trip in France. What for? Well, why not? It’s just next door. Who doesn’t want to go to France? Everyone loves France.

Due to laziness and the volume of what I want to say, I’m not going to differentiate holiday from travel. And besides, as I get older, travelling is no longer about holding down vomit on encountering wads of anonymous hair in the communal shower drain, and so I do think the two can comfortably go hand-in-hand. Travel is about exploring, holidays are about relaxing – the perfect way to spend a summer or a few weeks – don’t you think?

The Destination 

All this holidaying has got me thinking about travel and this marvellous book I once read by Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel. Travel seems to be something that everyone wants to do these days. And why not? At its best it’s exhilarating, life-changing and super fun.

Being able to navigate a city-centre and talk to strangers, I think I’m pretty good at travel. The problem with travel though, says Botton, is that no matter how far we go, we can’t escape ourselves!

Although a flight can feel like a journey to a higher state of being (drinking gin and tonic and feeling like Audrey Hepburn if Audrey Hepburn travelled in economy and watched documentaries on Second Life), we will not be able to find peace and new possibilities when we touch down unless we bring it ourselves.

The Art of Travel begins with Alain’s trip to Barbados , where he finds that despite  ‘its bare blond beaches and coconut palms’, he is ‘worrying about petty things – a sore throat, a colleague he has failed to contact before he left. Then he has an argument in a restaurant with his girlfriend about puddings and his whole day is spoilt. Why? Why in such exotic surrounding should we be assailed by the same old woes?’

‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island,’ he says.

Can you relate? I sure can. I found myself thinking these same thoughts at the start of last week. No matter how much I might want to, I’m not always singing tra-la-la and skipping like a smurf.

I was underwhelmed when I arrived back in Montpellier (a place I lived in eight years ago and had last visited six years ago). It’s not like I don’t remember the bad times here, but I assumed I’d be charmed again. I just wanted to come back and enjoy the best of it.

Instead it was was almost too hot to go out and I found myself hanging round the apartment worshipping the air-con. A couple of good friends had moved on and those I still knew were away or laying low for Ramadan, replaced by hippie punk beggars and graffiti-pocked streets.  But that wasn’t the main problem – the main problem was me.

I was feeling a range of lukewarm emotions like lethargy and distraction and indifference and time slipped away like the pages of an easy summer read. And this is supposed to be a holiday – hello? There was a windy afternoon at the beach where I forced M to walk a few Ks across the sand to get a particular donut from a particular seller, there were a few bad meals, indecision, fussiness and arguments, what with all that time to notice the little things. I wanted to change. He didn’t even have to tell me. I wanted to step out of this old skin and put on something slinky.

Obviously none of this is reflected in the photos I post. These moments are not saved preciously like the good times. And it all gets a bit glossed over, made nice and shiny, not because I want to mislead but just because that’s how it goes.  Edited for your viewing pleasure.

Holiday photos have more to do with art and much less to do with life. De Botton writes,  ‘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.’

Holidays themselves though, well, that’s still falling closer towards life.

But in a holiday we want life without the boring bits. Freedom from the responsibility of vacuuming and the weekly shop for a while – but more than that – conversations with strangers, a new way of life, no fixed schedule, exotic cuisine, bakeries, swim up bars and cocktails in the pool, fun excursions or just allowing yourself to lie around all day reading a book or just staring up at the clouds with the sand between your toes.  Even the boring bits are more interesting because they’re foreign. We might feel a sense of achievement figuring out the underground in Moscow (can you read Russian?) or we might get stressed out and decide we hate the whole city. We still have to get along while trying to work out the booking system on a rent-a-car and we still may feel uncertain of what we are meant to be feeling when faced with the great monuments of the world – these are the bits we tend to forget.

The Journey

So then, how can we make our trip a bit more like art?

How can we appreciate it more? How can we learn to live it more deeply?

(Because we all want to be the Owen Wilson character in Midnight in Paris and not the Rachel McAdams – don’t we?)

De Botton uses his vast knowledge of art and artists past to learn how we can travel better.

Painters, he says, can help us to see when we travel. He looks to Edward Hopper to see ‘the poetry of train journeys and gas stations and half-empty cafés’ and to Van Gogh to find out what exactly is so damn special about Provence. I’ve also been driving through Provence the last few weeks and while there were sunflower fields, I couldn’t help thinking that it does look pretty similar to the bushy territory around Perth – mostly the area near the airport (not a compliment). Anyway, de Botton, after a first sleepless night in Arles, turns to a book on Van Gogh’s period in the asylum there (his most productive) and his eyes are opened ‘to the beauty of the landscape’, seeing it then as the artist had.

Our time in Van Gogh’s Arles…

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Obviously books and films inspire us to want to visit a place and in the same way we can use them purposely to get us in the right frame of mind to be open to the absorption and of another culture and setting. Some of my best experiences travelling have come just after I read books set in the destination. Reading Absolute Happiness and Holy Cow totally opened my eyes to all that was available in India (even though I’d been there before) and got me in the mindset to appreciate the place. The right book (or film) will make us feel more, see more and be more there.  Don’t you think?

Now the next factor – we may find ourselves ‘overcome with lethargy when faced with ancient ruins’. Unless you have some deep interest in history or happened to study this at school or uni and are now struck by the incredible realisation that this knowledge is finally of some use to your life, you are probably wondering what you are supposed to be thinking or maybe calculating how long you will have to remain interested before you can leave the place. Perhaps you are waiting for the big bang when suddenly something will be of interest or telling yourself that’s it’s good for you and it’s important.

The tyranny of guidebooks, the dullness of great sights, our acquisitive reaction to exotic splendours, all these are part of the traveller’s affliction.

Now you don’t have to try to go see do everything that’s been prescribed. You could just walk around and hang out at the train station. But if you are in a place and wondering why why why…

There are two solutions to this whispered itch of boredom  :

a)    High-tail it out of there and get yourself to the closest gelatti store or café for some much needed refreshment. After all that pain, you totally deserve it.

OR

b)   Try to find a way to interact with the old rocks as much as possible.

De Botton looks to Ruskin this time (I don’t know who that is either don’t worry) and learns to sit himself down, take out his notebook and draw. You can draw, we all can, even if we can’t.

You can also paint it, poem it, write about it, photograph it, yourself and everyone else, discuss it, laugh about it, learn about it or take notes like you’re studying it -because maybe by writing it down it will mean something to you. I have often done this in the big art galleries of the world, where the volume of the art can be intimidating. Firstly, I don’t force myself to see everything, but I have also learnt that I quite like learning about the lives of the painters, about their “periods”, their mistresses and muses, their friendships with each other, their trials and tribulations, from that aristocratic voice inside the headset of a guided tour. It’s way better than daytime TV!

I browse like an art history scholar, writing down information because it is a habit of mine, a pleasure to collect words, and it may become useful somewhere down the track – like in a blog post – but usually I hardly ever read it again. It still feels more fun though,  collecting scraps of  information, as if I am an archaeologist on a dig, excavating and sorting the dinosaur bones from the bricks. Sometimes I have even drawn pictures in my notebook and come out feeling totally invigorated and enriched.

We can usually find a way to interact and make it relevant ….

My new favourite…It was like swimming at the Colosseum!

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Stomach pumped, jumping off, water so silky clean, floating downstream, swimming right out in the middle of the river, underneath the arch, holding hands underwater, looking up at the great beast, pure as light inky water, stain me forever.

I can’t say it enough – moving our bodies in nature totally gets us in the flow!! Nae-cha! Nae-cha! Nae-cha! (nature, I chant) I was so high on Sunday night and I tossed and turned in bed too excited to sleep. Then M took me back to the river in my mind, floating downstream, I floated to sleep.

The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

If there’s something I’ve learnt along my travels, it’s that travel is something you do with your mind. And we can always change our mindset  (p.s. this is what this whole blog is about). It’s never too late.

Travel is a collection of experiences, of pushing through your comfort zone, little by little and sometimes with one great shove, of appreciating the small moments, taking the time to notice, to record, to be grateful. And to find the meaning that matters to you. Like life.

I’d like to know – what book, film or artwork would you prescribe for a favourite destination?

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