We go. We simply choose a location that seems appealing for one reason or another, spend time researching and planning, and we go there. Yet, in all of it, do we ever ask ourselves, why have we chosen the destination? Or, more importantly, why do we travel at all?
“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why…”.Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (Vintage Books, New York, 2002)
Even if we take a second to consider it, our initial answers may seem simple.
These focus on a specific destination, and highlight why we’ve chosen it. Yet, if we look deeper, question ourselves a bit further, we might be surprised.
In a recent debate with my brother, we shared our reasons for not wanting to spend our time and money in particular destinations. His were rooted in his own personal morals, beliefs, and experiences, and so were mine. In the end, I was reminded: Travel is subjective.
Pit our own convictions and histories against those of countries, governments, and religions around the world, and we can find reason to avoid any of them. Perhaps our “reasons” are really just “excuses.” Maybe it all depends on why we travel.
So, why do we travel?
“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.”Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (Vintage Books, New York, 2002).
When reflecting on our family travels, I realized that I don’t necessarily travel to see the popular sights. Rather, my pleasure is derived from observing, experiencing and learning about different people, places, and cultures. I enjoy walking the streets, riding public transport, sitting at cafes, shopping in markets and generally observing how local life is lived. Often, I wonder how life was lived hundreds or thousands of years before.
Every time I see an old building or landmark, I think of all it has seen and experienced in the hundreds or even thousands of years it’s been around. How many people have stood in the Marienplatz in Munich to stare up at the Rathaus Glockenspiel since its construction in the early 1900s? What sights has the Colosseum seen? And, who else’s feet have strode the streets of the Roman Forum?
In Venice, I imagine the lively trading center that it used to be. Instead of Vaparettos, I think of small boats and people in period clothing. I imagine the verve of trading and commerce rather than the buzz and meandering of tourists. In the alleys and piazzas, I watch the elderly locals quietly walking their small dogs. The sight is comforting, and I wish could ask them about a thousand questions.
Languages are important to me as well, and I find it meaningful to learn a few basic phrases and local customs. After all, when we travel, we’re entering their home. I mean, can you imagine a foreign tourist in the U.S. getting upset and yelling in his native tongue at an American shop owner who can’t or won’t speak his language?
We Get Uncomfortable…
A lack of language fluency or an ignorance of customs can be extremely uncomfortable. Yet, it’s these discomforts that also I truly enjoy. After all, mistakes are how we learn if we allow ourselves the pleasure.
Ridiculousness inevitably ensues when we’re initially trying to “expertly” navigate local public transport. Figuring out how and where to buy tickets, and whether the children even need them, is an adventure in itself. Sometimes, I think I hear the faint sound of circus music accompanying us as we try to find our hotel. In Rome, our smartphone app directed us in a circle on at least one occasion.
In Germany, a kind train employee went to hand my daughter a toy. When I reached to take and transfer it to my daughter’s hands, she quickly snatched it back. Again she offered it to my daughter. Initially, I was flustered and a bit embarrassed. Then, I realized what had happened thanks to an anecdote from the book, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, by Sara Zaske. This is the German way. They hand items directly to a child rather than giving them to parents first.
While folks will tell you that most people in Europe speak English, this is not always true. If you’re apt to wander away from tourist spots, you will likely encounter language barriers. Every single time it happens to me, I have the same reaction. It’s a combination of embarrassment, sorrow and sheer panic.
I speak an acceptable amount of Spanish, a few words and phrases in French and Japanese, and can count in Romanian. In Germany, all of this is useless. At a little shop somewhere off the beaten path, we stop for a pastry and coffee. Soon, I find that old familiar feeling welling up in my chest. Panic. Embarrassment. Tears gently pooling in my eyes. Thankfully, a bystander is there to assist, but it’s not always the case. As a result of such encounters, I’m now learning German.
…And We Learn
We always figure things out, of course, but never without those awkward and uncomfortable moments. I cherish them. It’s because of them that we know how to go from that underground station in Rome to the hotel. We confidently take trains (and accept toys) in Germany and semi-expertly travel around Venice.
My happiness in travel is derived from the experiences, learning from them, and sharing them with my family. Yet, they do not find quite the same pleasure in travel as I do. They enjoy these trips and cities, but often for different reasons, and that’s perfectly ok.
In one of my first posts, “Planning — Part 1: Compromising,” I discuss how different Mr. V and I are. He finds the most happiness in trips that are warm and quiet and include water. My children would likely prefer places that offer sweets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and are comprised of nothing but playgrounds. As a family, we compromise for one another.
…Or Not to Go…
Just as intriguing as considering why we do travel, is why we don’t travel?
Why do some of us choose to spend thousands of dollars at a Disney park rather than on a culture trip around Europe or South America? Is there a reason some people choose hotels rather than hostels or motels? For what purpose do we tend to focus on big cities rather than small towns? And, why do some people never desire to travel at all?
In considering these things, we find what makes us comfortable as well as uncomfortable. We discover any prejudices and judgments we may have about ourselves and the world. Definitely, we highlight our unique and personal values and preferences.
How We Decide
When we’re planning on how, when and where to spend our time and money, we tend to prioritize. We ask ourselves what is most important to us at the time. Sometimes, we want or need to visit family. Other times, warmth and sun take precedence. For me, learning and experiencing new things are top priorities. (If we can do it all in one trip, even better!)
No matter what, safety is our first consideration; so, many places and countries we move to the bottom of our list. It may be due to political or religious unrest in the country, medical reasons, or something else, but if it isn’t safe for my family, we can wait to visit.
Then, the ages of our children are a factor as well. Cities like Berlin, for example, we delay visiting until the kids are a bit older. When they begin learning more about world history, the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate will likely hold more meaning.
In truth, there are also countries that I’m just not super excited to visit right at the moment. Some don’t make the top of my list simply because we’ve prioritized other places. Others aren’t primary choices because of picky, personal reasons, like “they’re too trendy at the mo.”
My personal sense of wanderlust is unceasing, but some never desire to leave. Alain de Botton presents an anecdote in his book, The Art of Travel, about a 19th century French book character who disliked others so much that he never left his home. Then, after reading some Charles Dickens, decides to visit London. As he sets out to begin his journey, he stops in an English bookshop near the Parisian train station and then dines in a English tavern. In the end, he found these brief experiences enough and the actual pains of travel not worth the effort. So, he returned home.
I think desires to stay close to home come, once again, from personal preferences and priorities. (Of course, needs to stay home are often rooted in financial, family, or other situations.) Perhaps for some, like the French character, the discomforts of travel are reason enough to stay home. For others, maybe the images and words in books are enough. After all, the books are always better than the movies; so, maybe they’re better than the reality as well.
In the end…
The choices we make about whether or not to travel or even when and where to travel are deeply personal. Just as with literature, music, fashion or food, we all have different views, opinions and preferences regarding the world. In the end, our travels reflect our lives, and both rely on what you make of them.