Review : The Art of Travel

ArtofTravel
    “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle of survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems – that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear litle of the why and how we should go.”

-Alain De Botton, The Art of Travel

Do you ever dream of a life of travel and adventure? To just pack a suitcase, leave work and rent obligations behind and live in multiple countries across the globe? This was my life for a year – out of a mix of necessity and choice in order to be with my Canadian husband. We lived in Germany – on the edge of the Black Forest, various places in Italy, California, Canada. Beautiful, magical parts of the world. Better than the London basement I’d been in before.

[infobox]“Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.” -Art of Travel[/infobox] There are certainly many amazing aspects to a life of travel – but a lot of times it was really hard. Sharing photos on facebook of smiling adventures is one thing, but the reality of days spent depressed and hiding in a strange bedroom, or the anxiety of not having roots or routine – I felt that I couldn’t share this to my mortgage-bound friends, stuck living in one place – I’d just seem petty. I should be having the Time Of My Life! I even denied to myself the challenges of an itinerant lifestyle – wondering why I was finding things so hard and blaming myself as weak or ungrateful (Maslow and your Hierachy of Needs – how much I thought about you during this time. You are right, sir!)

My battered copy of the Art of Travel
My battered copy of the Art of Travel

So one day whilst staying a week in Bath Spa, I saw a book by Alain De Botton – The Art of Travel. Good reviews, nice picture, and best of all small enough to pack in my bag without adding much in the way of extra weight. Since then it has been in said bag the last few months as I’ve moved about, getting creased and worn. Finally, back in Sacramento California, I take it out and start reading.

Already I am impressed, and a few times I have laughed out loud in recognition. According to the Sunday Times, the Art of Travel is :

    “Lucid, fluid and uplifting…it can enrich and improve your life”

I agree – not only is this an enjoyable read with well written prose, but Alain cuts straight into the reality of the traveling experience. It turns out that no matter where you go, you still have to be with yourself! He mixes accounts of his own story with references to artists, philosophers and other writers. The book is split into different episodes and themes, which makes it perfect for carrying in your hand luggage and taking it out for brief reads on the train or waiting at aiports. For myself, having a companion with me as I grapple with learning the “art of travel” is both soothing and inspiring. However I consider this book equally relevant for anyone who has ever traveled or simply yearns to do so.

[infobox]“My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination. The body found it hard to sleep, it complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.”-Art of Travel[/infobox]

It is so easy to think that it is the external surroundings that give us our happiness and explain our moods. That our problems stem from the basement flat, rainy country, painful shoulder, bad relationship, lack of money and time, diet (or lack of diet!). It’s easy to delay our happiness and excuse our misery.

“I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.” -Art of Travel
“I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.” -Art of Travel

My own traveling life has certainly given me a lot of evidence that no matter the climate, location, activity – it is the inner world, the relationship with yourself, that creates our experience of being. Small changes in our sense of self, the habits of our minds, the awareness of our bodies – these can have dramatic effects on our capacity to take in, savour, and find satisfaction in the world around us. (Such changes are also cheaper than package holidays – and accessible to everyone!). We don’t need to go far away or change everything in order to feel better in ourselves.

    The “Art of Travel” is as much about how we approach our daily life as it is having grand adventures. I recommend it for it’s rich insight mixed with amusing and very honest exploration of being human no matter where we are.
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