Friday, October 3, 2008

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

From the favourer: "The thing I loved is that it's the universal guidebook applicable to all travels. It also implores readers to make sure they engage in the travel experience in a way that is personally meaningful and not just ticking items off a list."

Travelling is an art. It's not one I do exceptionally well (I do it so it feels like hell, in fact). I am a bad traveller, and when I say to people "I don't like travelling", they look at me like I've said "I enjoy boiling puppies". There are three main reasons I'm a bad traveller.

1. I hate discomfort, physical and psychological. Not 'discomfort' in a doctorly "you may experience some mild discomfort" sense (which translates as "you will now suffer agonising pain"). Just the ordinary uncomfortableness of plane seats, being too hot, having to say the same thing all over again, not knowing where you're going, etc. If I had somone to carry all my luggage for me all the time when I travelled, I reckon I'd be about 50% better at it.

2. I hate unfamiliarity. I'm best at going back to places I've been to before, and much happier going anywhere for the second time. This is a bit of a problem as generally to go anywhere, you have to go there for the first time sometime.

3. I'm a self-conscious traveller. In the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker: "Everybody hates a tourist". I feel like all the locals hate me all the time. Because of this I always tried to be nice to tourists in Warrnambool when I worked in the bookshop there, even when they asked really stupid questions like: "What time are the whales on?". I didn't say "It's not Sea World, guys." I just politely explained that as they were wild, the whales showed up whenever they felt like it, so you just had to try your luck to see them. Only once, when we were really busy, did I say to one man "They're on at 3pm" (and he seemed quite happy with that anyway).

These may seem like small reasons, but given that most travelling (unless you're stinking rich) is basically about being uncomfortable, in unfamiliar situations, and being a tourist, I find my small reasons get bigger fairly quickly. I think Alain de Botton would understand.

The Art of Travel is a guidebook to the why, rather than the how or what of travelling. Each chapter takes an author/artist/thinker (starting with our old friend Joris-Karl Huysmans) and uses their work as a 'travel guide' to a particular country de Botton is visiting, exploring notions such as anticipation, the sublime, the exotic, beauty and habit.

It's a neat little structure, part personal reflection, part travelogue, and part philosophical/art/literary history. He can be a bit of a romantic (I initially had trouble working out when he was quoting Huysmans and when he was writing as himself), but his reflections often have an appealing honesty that balances this. He notes things like how an argument with a partner over who gets which serving of creme brulee can totally spoil the appreciation you should be having of a Barbados sunset.

Journeying through Madrid (with Alexander von Humbolt as our guide), de Botton reflects that travel works better when there is a driving interest behind why you've gone to the place - a mission, of sorts. The danger is in taking in many unconnected 'sights' in a row "before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain." 'Sight-seeing', it's an ugly compound.

I always made myself keep a diary when I travelled (and no, it wasn't all whingeing. That would bore even me), to 'keep' moments of the journey - small details without which the memory of travelling becomes a bit of a coffee-table-book blur. With John Ruskin as our guide in the chapter On Possessing Beauty, de Botton explores our need to 'possess' the beauty we find on our travels; "to buy something - a bowl, a laquered box or a pair of be reminded of what we have lost, like a lock of hair that we cut from a departing lover's mane." (I know what he means, but someone really ought to have a quiet word to Alain - cutting bits of your ex-partner's hair off is creepy and liable to land you with a restraining order.)

De Botton recommends word-painting or drawing on your travels as a better way to really "eat a place", rather than blindly taking photos. I think there's photo-taking and photo-taking though - some people take real care with the framing and composition of their travel photos. But I guess it's easy to take a thoughtless photo, not so easy to do a thoughtless drawing or written description.

I think my favourite chapter (apart from the first one, but that's because Huysmans' Des Esseintes and I have similar attitudes to travel) is the one on Xavier de Maistre and his notion of "room travel", which de Botton (not being blessed with a spacious bedroom), extends to "neighbourhood travel". He decides to spend his walk to the Underground actually paying attention to the details of his surroundings rather just barging along. This really appealed to me, as I spend my walk to the bus each day basically looking at stuff - for instance, currently there's a bandaid stuck to a tree at the top of the hill, a huge dump of lilly-pillies that are gradually being crushed into the footpath, and a newly printed 'NO ENTRY' across a one-way street that's all raised and clean and nice. I know the sleeping places of the neighbourhood cats and which ones will come over, and I name the trees and birds that I know (in a species kind of way, not a "Hi Bob, hi Sandra" kind of way).

Introspective thoughts, who needs 'em. I much prefer de Botton and de Maistre "gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen."


Colleen said...

My favourite bit was where he stays in his room and eats a packet of crisps for dinner because he's too afraid to go and sit in a local restaurant by himself! I'm so there!

Anna said...

On our first night in Paris I made Paul go and get McDonalds so I didn't have to leave the hotel room.

Anonymous said...

That's so sad. Mum and I went to a restaurant in Paris where no one spoke english (that they admitted to) and ordered a fine meal however the steak was really rare and we didn't know what to do so we ate it! it was good too.

Anna said...

Just you wait.
You'll be eating peanuts in a hostel room one day while the world worlds on outside.

hwc said...

I loved this entry Anna! Although I feel my cynicism with travel is also a bit of a necessity due to financial constraints.

I think there is another of your pet hates that might contribute to your dislike of travel ... organised fun. ie cruise, bus trip through Europe etc. What do you think? are you collecting the lilli pillies for me?

Anna said...

I dislike both organised and disorganised travel, can't win really.

Do you mind if the lilli pillies are pre-mashed? It's quite a solid sheet on the footpath now.