The Art of Travel: A Discussion
An old Persian curse goes, “may your every wish be granted at once”. A curse indeed, for experience tells us that the excitement of a great reward rarely matches the anticipation beforehand. It is along these lines that Alain de Botton, author of The Art of Travel, presents us with a fundamental problem with travel: that it never quite lives up to our fantasies.
Much like a dream, our anticipation for an upcoming holiday rarely accounts for what occurs minute-by-minute, but rather offers us only snapshots. We imagine ourselves in the shade of a parasol on a golden beach, but while there, we get sand in our shorts. We imagine soaking in the energy of a bustling metropolis, marveling at the grand buildings as we float by, but we forget the tedium and claustrophobia that awaits us on the subway. And we realize, only when immersed in what is new and foreign to us, that we spent so much time anticipating the trip that we haven’t the slightest clue what to think, feel, or do when we actually get there.
Had de Botton written the book after the monumental rise of smartphones, he might have had more to say on how people respond to new and unfamiliar surroundings. The reaction for many people is to find a way out of the real and seek shelter in the digital, that is, to task their phones with organising their experiences into something digestible. A phone camera can be a mixed blessing. It can capture our most precious moments but also ruin them by trying to make eternal what was never intended to be so. For lack of knowing how to appreciate what we see while on holiday, the camera eliminates the need to stand and observe; thus we are spared the awkward sense of cluelessness we might feel when standing before the Mona Lisa, our minds occupied by whether dinner was included in the hotel price and why we can’t connect to the museum’s Wi-Fi network.
By its title, The Art of Travel suggests the work of a master willing to impart his wisdom on us less enlightened folk. But de Botton is nothing if not humble, and it is encouraging to see that even he is not immune from the lingering stresses of daily life that sneak into our suitcases and join us on the other side. We see holidays as an escape from reality – they are simply reality in a different place. We often allow our anticipation of a trip to be clouded by fantastic and unreasonable expectations, but our holiday destinations are not supposed to be perfect, any more so than our hometowns. If you read through the complaints received by popular travel agencies and you will find in a surprisingly high number of cases that the customer was the architect of his or her own misery. The higher our expectations of a place, the more flawed it will appear to us.
Alain de Botton sees travel not simply as an activity, but something that exists in the mind and that can be nurtured, honed, cultivated. The mindset with which we travel affects how we perceive the things that happen to us on our journeys. The right mindset can turn major nuisances into minor inconveniences and, at the other extreme, heighten our greatest pleasures. Of course, like the arts of cooking, arranging flowers, and playing the trombone, travel is something that requires dedication and practice. De Botton urges us to look beyond the what and when and where and address the why that exists beneath the surface of every journey, from voyages across the globe to the miniature journeys we make in our daily lives. All are worthy of our consideration.
By Lorenzo Gaertner