Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflecting on The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton is one of my favourite authors. I love his writings on philosophy and his belief that the point of philosophy is to help people live their lives.

I was given 'The Art of Travel' for Christmas which was perfect reading while convalescing after a bout of 'état grippal' (flu-like state) which has had me gripped for two weeks.

I have a very ambivalent attitude to travelling on the whole. I'm not one of those with itchy feet. If I can't travel, I'm not that bothered, but if I can, I tend to enjoy it. Of course, it depends how I'm travelling, and with whom, and why. My DB asked me recently to list my favourite ways to travel. I thought about it and came up with:

  1. motorbike
  2. car
  3. train
  4. plane

Since air travel became a cattle market, with dodgy air conditioning systems that share a plane-full of bugs amongst the passengers, I've avoided it, preferring the train for long-distance travel from A to B (France-UK). You can take more baggage on a train too, important for those essential supplies like boxes of wine for Christmas and summer holiday consumption with one's mother.

On a bike, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination if you choose the right roads, and with a car, it's similar but with more space and less contact with the weather.

Much of what Alain de Botton wrote resonated with me. He has a capacity to identify situations, problems, issues, and put words to them. Since reading about his holiday to Barbados which he expected to be fantastic, but found that he had 'inadvertently brought myself to the island' with accompanying psychological baggage, I read a similar sentiment in a novel later in the week: 'Not Quite Nice' by Celia Imrie, and of course, have often been distressed at how many unresolved issues encroach on the enjoyment of a holiday. The reality of travel is different to how we fantasise about it. We anticipate it to be somewhere we can be happy and carefree, but the reality is different.

How many of us have argued with a partner on holiday? My DB and I have had a number of humdingers. The aftermath of an argument leaves you unable to appreciate the many splendours of the place you've come to visit. I remember stomping along a superb cliff path on the Costa Brava, with the Mediterranean Sea glinting blue, and a lighthouse perched attractively on a rocky promontory. I barely noticed the views while there. So, "in order to draw the anticipated happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods, we first have to satisfy other emotional or psychological needs, like the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect".

Looking back on that walk, the memory of my bad temper has faded, but I remember the beauty of the walk. de Botton identifies this too: "We are best able to inhabit a place (in memory, anticipation) when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there". One of the advantages of art galleries full of pictures of other places is that you can see the "essence of a country" without having to deal with the problems. Travelling dilutes the experience.

I always take photos of the places I visit, but I also try to absorb the atmosphere and actually see a place, by not taking photos. Ruskin, the artist, believed that people should learn to draw because drawing could teach them to see. "By recreating what we see, we move from a position of observing beauty, to one of understanding its constituent parts, and hence more secure memories of it." He was scathing of photographers who used it to pay "less attention to the world than they had previously from a faith that photographs automatically assured them possession of it".

Ruskin taught people to draw, not caring if they were any good at it. What was important was learning how to see. He also believed in describing a place in words, to "word paint", because it involves asking questions, being precise in analysing what we see and feel.

de Botton also writes about "spots of time" which are certain scenes we've witnessed that stay with us throughout our life "and when they enter consciousness, can offer a contrast to, and a relief from, present difficulties". One of my spots of time goes back a couple of decades. My ex-h and I joined some friends to walk up the gorges de la Carança and stay at the refuge du Ras de la Carança. We followed the narrow gorge from the car park and at some point came to a clearing with a waterfall. The light was shining in such a way that it looked like a fairy grotto. Hanging branches, long grasses and damp moss were all bathed in visible rays of ethereal sunshine and mist. We were the only people there, so it was like coming across a silent, beautiful other world.

Travel enables us to escape from the everyday, passing through transient places such as stations, airports and hotel rooms. I always feel a thrill of possibilities when I'm in a station or airport, and I love staying in nice hotel rooms.  Baudelaire loved being away from home and especially visiting transient places of travel, and he invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia, "the poésie des départs, the poésie des salles d'attente". Hopper sympathised with Baudelaire's attitude to travel, and painted the places of travel because there he found poetry, the poésie des motels, etc.

There is much to enjoy in 'The Art of Travel'. I have but touched on a tiny fraction, but I strongly recommend it for all armchair and actual lovers of travel.


  1. helen devries29/01/2017, 16:14

    I don't take many photographs...what I've seen I can remember - and I agree about the spots of time.
    I have to take a long haul to go to see my mother...not a pleasure, but st least for ten hours on the 'plane no one can get at me with their problems!

  2. Air travel is often unavoidable over great distances, and it does have certain advantages, as you note. I'm happy that I can get to the UK by train and air if necessary. It's good to have options.

  3. Sounds interesting, must have a look for a copy. Hope all is well Diane

    1. It's worth the read, especially as you love travelling. :)


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