An alive philosopher named Alain de Botton wrote a book called, The Art of Travel, and it has fascinated me this last month with its exploration of the reasons people long to leave. Why do we want to travel?
- We long for novelty and change.
Arguably, this longing has never been more obvious and more universally desired than now, recovering from the worldwide pandemic that quarantined us into our own mundane four walls for months on end. Our first travel stop in Florida is all about novelty and change. We will change mountains for beaches; cool, dry nights for warm, humid ocean breezes; yarrow and sagebrush for palm trees and frangipane.
And we look forward to discovering new things. Botton begins his travel book with a chapter about anticipation–which is not only the first piece of any sort of travel, but also the first stage of happiness (as defined by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project). Looking forward to something is a part of happiness.
2. We look for ourselves.
Botton uncovers the longings we all feel to find the pieces of ourselves that don’t quite fit into our own surroundings and must be ferreted out from other, more exotic cultures. Not that we’re exotic, just out of place in some ways, wherever we are. For example, my sense of order and fairness fits better in an orderly bus queue in England, than in the mob of chaos retrieving bags from small grey donkeys in the newly reopened airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, circa 2004. Our sense of family, our favorite flavors, our likes and dislikes on small and large scales may be found more abundantly in one place over another.
3. We also seek to lose ourselves.
However, Botton reminds travelers that wherever we go we will be bringing ourselves. That’s easy to forget. But if we search for happiness in travel, we will soon notice even against a different backdrop, that whatever happiness we have or don’t have packs up with us and drags a pool lounge chair across the concrete to sit next to us, perhaps a little too close, and with an annoying smell of lotion and a constant chatter.
Still, the longing to go elsewhere persists.
4. We look for an escape from our troubles.
Botton quotes Baudelaire, a French poet and traveler with whom I am not overly familiar, but love for these words:
“Take me far, far away. Here the mud is made of our tears!”
I have taken those trips. I have felt those longings to ascend out of deep mires of problems. But travel isn’t always about escape, especially for us now. Now it feels more like launching a rocket than ejecting the escape pod.
5. We want to belong.
Botton turns to Nietzsche, who raises the import of travel to a source for finding belonging in the human culture. This traveler can have “the happiness of knowing that he is not wholly accidental and arbitrary but grown out of a past.”
Though we are traveling to places considered “old Florida” I’m not banking on finding much hint of time before the end of World War II. More likely the bright lights of a Kwik Trip and yellow-lined blacktop will remind us, like most places in the United States, that life moves fast and shakes history off like annoying dandruff– and also that spelling is weird.
6. We need answers.
Having some query for the world we travel is essential. Teachers will recognize this as a classic piece of pedagogy: the essential question. Without it we are not unlike apathetic high school students forced to sit through an hour of English class, though they have no interest in poetry and can’t understand how it will impact their real life.
So, what is the question we shall ask of Florida? Likely it isn’t much more than an amalgamation of all the traveling yearnings. Can we see something new, while also recognizing ourselves in a new place? Can we escape our troubles? Can we find the past, and in it a way to understand how we belong to constantly moving humanity? That’s a doozy of a question for Florida. More likely we will find answers to questions we never dreamed of. And that’s okay, too.
Ron and I are naturally curious. Already we’ve discovered the answer to our question of what to do if we encounter an alligator. Research shows the best course of action is to back away slowly.