There is a slim book by Alain de Bottom that expounds at length, much more eloquently that I ever could, about the Art of Travel. I tried to put into coherent thoughts my lifelong passion for foreign lands, for putting up with occasional discomfort, sometimes endless trips scattered over various means of transportation and the heartache of most returns. What is it that I get out of it that I value more than material possessions or staying at home with loved ones?
In my particular case, I started travelling early on, my parents undaunted by the needs of a little girl who could be hauled in the back of the car and transported all over Europe. That is where I learnt to shut up and never ask “When are we getting there?”, to hold my pee in until a toilet was offered and to eat when I was told to eat and eat whatever was available. I have memories of hour-long treks up the mountains on my little legs, of eating sickening amounts of potatoes when in Germany and Austria (my palate not used yet to experimentation) and discovering chocolate bars in Holland at the age of 12 (forever more banned at my house). All in all, it is not surprising that I would want to keep the tradition of seeing the world and learn new languages well into my teenage years. In my 20’s my boundaries expanded outside Europe and I haven’t hit the wall yet.
The absence of points of reference, of routines, of known people to rely on is intriguing to me. The moment I step into a foreign land I am a stranger, sometimes even to myself. I become more courageous and less prone to controlling. When telling my story to other strangers, I have to build frames of references because anything I say cannot be verified. And the same goes for those I encounter – the trusting skills and instincts have to be sharpened and honed.
Travelling to a culture I am not familiar with forces me to take a step out of myself, out of my convictions in anything from politics to food – nothing can be scrutinized under the same microscope I would use at home and insisting on doing so, like many people do, would be a disservice to myself and others. How else could I ever put myself under the microscope and dissect all that needs to be fixed or just observed if I use the same unit of measure all the time?
None of the people who know me can believe how little I take when I leave home for any length of time – that I could live with a couple of pairs of jeans and a few t-shirts for weeks (plus an emergency dress for a special occasion that always fails to materialize..). It’s because I really want to leave everything behind. Some of my natural instincts can never be suppressed, such as making a home out of a cave I will spend one night in – furniture might be rearranged, everything gets unpacked, books are lined to make whatever space my own. But I do leave my life and most of my preconceived notions about self and others behind. The patience I am not renown for miraculously resurfaces and I let go of fixed plans which is why travelling in packs could never work for me. The only way to take a peek into a culture, a different way of life is to just sit around and be part of the life for a few days or weeks: sitting at a cafe for hours watching the day unfold, shopping at local supermarkets and observing what people eat and then buying the same, accepting invitations from fellow travellers or short acquaintances, scanning the local papers for unusual things. All the best memories were never created by Fodor’s.
And when everything that could sink in has and it is time to return, it’s invariably a different self who makes the trek home. Sometimes the change is imperceptible, sometimes momentous. Maybe lightning struck or maybe the space to let the unconscious surface was left open for longer than usual. I am fortunate but I always worked hard to be able to afford the plane fare somewhere – cheaper than therapy and much better fodder for dinner conversations. The millions of miles I no doubt clocked all contributed to changing me, one mile at a time. And, faithless that I am, the only selfish prayer I allow myself is to stay healthy in my old age to keep on hopping on planes, maybe trading my jeans for a terry cloth track suit and a pink straw hat.