Travelling Between Cultures

    The Art of Travelling

    © Photo: Santiago Sierra A conversation with the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton about the pressure of expectation, the north-south divide, and being disappointed in the Grand Canyon.

    Mr de Botton, why do people travel?

    People travel to remind themselves that they don’t know everything, and that the world is bigger, more mysterious and more exciting than it may appear when you’re sitting around at home all day. Travel is a constant reminder of all the things there are to marvel at in this world.

    Have we forgotten, in going about our daily lives, that life is something marvellous?

    Yes. This is the constant danger inherent in what we call everyday life. Through force of habit we become used to the most unusual things. For example, when you drive a car yourself for the first time you’re impressed, and you think how astonishing it is, but after ten years you no longer give it any thought at all. Someone who becomes a parent for the first time thinks: my God, this is fantastic, having children. But in time you get used to it. In everyday life, all extraordinary events become ordinary. In this situation, travelling offers us the opportunity to remind ourselves relatively easily how extraordinary many things are.

    Most of us associate travel with happiness. Why is that?

    This is a relatively modern association. Nowadays, in the developed economies, people have the money they need to be able to afford to travel for pleasure. They travel in order to have a nicer life than they would at home. This is what tourism is all about: enjoyable travel. Travel is often associated with discovering more exciting, better, more beautiful places. People from northern countries will often associate travel with sunshine; people from a very hot country are more likely to associate it with a temperate climate. In travelling we look for things we don’t have enough of in everyday life, and that’s why we find it agreeable.

    Do these agreeable experiences change us?

    They’re not a guarantee of change. Sometimes it’s astonishing to meet people who have travelled throughout the world. You ask them what it was like, and very often it seems that these experiences have made no impression on them whatsoever. I remember reading a book by an astronaut who gave a very boring description of what it was like to travel into space. Travel doesn’t guarantee inner change, and I think that is one of the paradoxes of travel. Occasionally one also meets people who have not travelled a great deal, but what they saw on their travels had a profound effect on them. By contrast, there are also people who have travelled a lot whose observations about foreign places and people are completely banal.

    Are there things that guarantee inner change when travelling?

    I think that one of the biggest challenges of travel is to learn what it is you really want to see. Many people swallow a kind of undigested vision of where they should go and what they should see, even if that isn’t really their thing. They’re in Rome and think they ought to visit this or that tourist attraction; or if they’re in New York they think they must go to a particular museum, even if these things don’t really interest them all that much. Perhaps this can be described by the term ‘cultural guilt’ – the feeling of having to travel, having to regard something particular in order to be well-regarded. This ‘cultural guilt’ often gets in the way of a more natural, spontaneous, and thus more life-changing approach to travel.

    What does a person’s choice of travel destination reveal about them?

    It tells us something about what a person lacks, what they inwardly are most urgently in need of. One of the great journeys in Western culture was Goethe’s trip through Italy. Here we see a man whose temperament lacked certain things, who travelled to Italy and discovered the missing sides of himself. To put it schematically, he had a fleeting, more sensory glimpse into his own soul. He came from a northern, Christian country, and suddenly he discovered the south, the world of heathens and of sensuality. Goethe’s travels demonstrate in a very dramatic way what can happen to us when we travel – the discovery of things we lack in our normal lives.

    Goethe’s Italian journey was also a great educational journey. Does travel still educate today?

    For many people that’s no longer the case. But this is precisely what travel should, and could, do. Education is a rather dry word that suggests something strenuous, but education could also be more a kind of discovery, which has less painful connotations. I think that the best way to regard travel is the idea that we return enriched from wherever we have been.

    Don’t we nowadays know everything about the world already from the media?

    We know a bit about the rest of the world from the media. If we want to criticise the media in this context, then in the sense that it often conveys only superficial knowledge. So we think we know what America is like, or Pakistan. But we don’t really know. One of the fantastic aspects of travel for me is that one’s own clichéd ideas are called into question, are complemented, or at least become more nuanced. Often, and perhaps especially when one knows very little about a place or a person, one has the most vivid fantasies about them. Take for example people who travel very little. Perhaps they imagine that the Pacific Islands are a kind of paradise. Then when they actually travel to these islands they realise that these places have problems too, like everywhere else. There is this particular tendency to envision perfection, or indeed atrocity, in places we haven’t seen with our own eyes.

    Why is there such a big difference between what we envision about our destination before we embark on the journey, and what we actually encounter?

    The great dream is to think we will come back from a journey completely altered. We’ll go somewhere or other for one week, come back, and everything will be different. This is the fallacy. This also gives rise to another aspect of what we can learn from travelling: simply, that the human personality demonstrates great continuity. We do not change so easily; we develop slowly, not through sudden moments of insight. Of course there are such moments, but on the whole it is more an evolution than a revolution.

    Is it also about reminding oneself of what a wonderful life we have at home, the things we like, who we are?

    Yes, I think it is. Because travel is sometimes also alarming, the thought of coming home is reassuring to us. One can also get something positive out of a bad holiday in that one looks forward to coming back.

    What are the most disappointing aspects of travel?

    One of the biggest challenges of travelling is how to preserve an experience long-term. Sometimes we experience something somewhere else that seems to us important and valuable, and we would like to hold on to that. We take lots of photos, buy a souvenir. We want something to remain after we return home, and that is often very difficult. For me, the best way of holding on to a memory is to digest it properly, that is: really to look at things, more closely than perhaps just by taking a photograph.

    What were your most disappointing experiences while travelling?

    I’m often afraid of finding something supposedly wonderful not all that wonderful. I think a lot of people know this feeling: you’re standing at the Grand Canyon or in front of the Colosseum in Rome, and you’re supposed to feel something wonderful, and nothing happens.

    So you’re looking forward to experiencing some special atmosphere, but it doesn’t appear.

    Yes. Maybe you even notice three weeks later that it actually was something special. But the pressure of expectation is so great that it crushes spontaneous reaction and prevents us from having one at all.

    Do we make too much use of travel guides when travelling? Do we prepare too much?

    Travelling calls for a certain tension between ‘not knowing everything’ and ‘not knowing nothing’. If for example someone hasn’t got a clue about history, he can’t really know where he’s travelling to and all the things he could see there. If on the other hand he’s too well-informed and has too precise an idea of all the things he should see and feel, that can also be inhibiting. One problem of modern travel is that the notion of spontaneous discovery is severely jeopardised, because you can see everything on a webcam or in a brochure before you even go there.

    How did mass tourism become part of our society?

    People have always travelled. Mass tourism of a sort first made an appearance in the eighteenth century. In those days there was a form of mass tourism among the English aristocracy: it was a tradition for them all to do the Grand Tour to Italy. They didn’t go in huge numbers, but the numbers within this particular social group were significant. Then mass tourism began in England in the early nineteenth century, when it became fashionable to go to seaside resorts. Other countries such as Germany, Holland and France followed suit. So the nineteenth century was the time when people began to travel in significant numbers. The beginning of what we think of today as mass tourism was only in the mid-twentieth century, after the Second World War.

    To what extent do phenomena of the modern age such as city life or industrialisation determine our desire to travel?

    One of the ordering principles of the modern age is routine, and travel is a break in this routine. So it is also normal that in societies that set a high value on routine and punctuality there is also a corresponding desire to escape this habit. The desire to travel can definitely be seen as a kind of flip side of a very regulated and predictable world. Our societies are relatively secure. It is unlikely that we’ll be killed, or that food supplies will become scarce. Our lives are predictable. So we develop a desire for new impressions that doesn’t really exist among people in more dangerous societies like some that are still found today in most parts of the world.

    Don’t we travel too fast and too efficiently really to escape routine? Don’t we also develop a routine when travelling?

    Here too there is a contradiction: people want excitement, but not too much excitement. This is deeply rooted in the human psyche: when our lives become too comfortable we want something rougher, and when they are too hard we want something more comfortable. It’s a similar thing with travelling. When things get too predictable, people want a so-called adventure holiday. Anyone who went travelling in the eighteenth century embarked on an adventurous journey. They exposed themselves to the danger of death or robbery; perhaps their horse would fall off a cliff – this was pretty close to an adventure. But nowadays things are astonishingly trouble-free, which is why there is an increasing nostalgia for more rustic elements. Some people sleep in a tent when they go on holiday, which they wouldn’t have done before; in doing so they are experiencing a new connection with the earth.

    How is travel changing today? How do environmental problems, for example, influence our travelling?

    People are realising that travel has had a false price put on it, one which does not reflect the true cost, the effects of travel on Nature. I think there will be a kind of readjustment of the cost. Flying, for example, might become more expensive again through the imposition of environmental taxes. In historical terms we are living at a favourable time for travel, because in future it’s going to get more expensive. People won’t travel as much; perhaps as a result they will go back to travelling to places closer to home. I don’t believe that people will ever stop travelling. But perhaps it will become less socially acceptable to fly to New York for the weekend.

    Some people visit places like Ground Zero or the regions that were hit by the tsunami. What’s the reason for this kind of travel?

    I think it’s a reminder that we all have to die. This used to be a function that was fulfilled by organised religions. Where these have lost significance – at least in the European consciousness – we need reminders of our mortality and the triviality of the majority of our interests. What could be better for this than visiting a cemetery, a mass grave, or a disaster zone; which, especially in combination with a bit of shopping or a nice hotel, perfectly remind us of the pleasures of life and the constant proximity of death and the destruction of all that is dear and important to us.

    So disaster tourism is just another way of bringing to mind the beautiful sides of life?

    Yes, perhaps. It’s another form of appreciation. After you’ve visited the site of a disaster, you leave it again, and as a result you’re all the more ready to perceive and appreciate all the things in life that are not so dreadful as this.

    The French anthropologist Franck Michel says that sex tourism is a form of re-colonisation. He believes that when people travel to distant countries and purchase sex there they are seeking power.

    This connection can certainly be made for some people. However, I don’t think that sex tourism is a mass phenomenon. A much more widespread phenomenon certainly exists, namely the longing to find a relationship on holiday, either just a holiday romance or something more long-term. I think this is a very deep-seated travel fantasy, and it’s connected to what we’ve already discussed: the search for something that is missing – in one’s own country, one’s own life. We are often drawn to countries where the people seem somehow attractive to us, and I don’t think that that must necessarily be seen as a kind of colonialism. The fact that Goethe was attracted to Italian women wasn’t necessarily a form of colonialism. You’d probably have to be an academic to interpret it that way. It has much more to do with the attraction of opposites.

    Why do so many people have the same ideal destinations?

    It seems that ideal destinations differ from country to country. It often has to do with the yearning for balance; in this sense it’s to do with the differences between north and south. British and German travellers love Italy, whereas Italians are particularly fond of going to Sweden. All over the world people try in a psychological sense to compensate for something by travelling.

    Isn’t that true primarily of people in the Western world? Why do people in other parts of the world go travelling?

    I wouldn’t make the distinction so much between West and East, but rather between developed and undeveloped. As soon as a country achieves a certain level of economic development, the motives for travel are very similar. There are the same thoughts and impulses with regard to travel in Japan or South Korea as there are with us. In very underdeveloped countries there is a completely different view of travel. There’s no tourism there; people travel to visit members of their family, or they go on a pilgrimage. But you don’t find what we would call tourism there.

    Many countries are more hospitable than, for example, Germany or Britain. Do we also travel in order to have the sense of being welcome in another place?

    Yes. Of course it’s always nice to be welcomed. The most ostensibly hospitable people live in the desert. When these people actually meet someone, it’s an occasion for celebration and elicits the desire to share. By contrast, city-dwellers are the people who seem at first glance to be the least hospitable. Hospitality therefore seems to me to be a consequence of where one lives. When people travel they are looking for friendship and emotional bonds, as they do in their ordinary lives. Nowadays, though, it would be foolish to travel somewhere in order to find friends, because this is highly unlikely to happen.

    Do you have a dream travel destination?

    Yes, but I don’t want to go there. For many people their dream destination is a place they would really like to travel to, but they lack either the money or the time. I have several dream destinations that I don’t really want to travel to; I just want to dream about them.

    All the same: will you reveal to us where they are?

    I like to dream about what it would be like to travel to the far north of Canada in winter. That barrenness and desolation and vastness seem wonderful to me, but I don’t believe that I’ll ever go there.

    What in particular makes you happy when travelling?

    Arriving in a new town, for example. When I think how astonishing it is that all this has always been going on in this place and I never knew that this particular side of the street, this bazaar or that café existed. That all these people exist and I never knew about them, and suddenly here they are. That’s an experience that really opens your eyes.

    The interviewers were Jenny Friedrich-Freksa and Falk Hartig

    Alain de Botton was born in Switzerland in 1969 and studied History and Philosophy at Cambridge University. He lives in London. His book The Art of Travel was published in Germany by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in 2002 as Kunst des Reisens.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann, September 2008

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