For a long time, on and off, I have thought about the benefits and the overall purpose of travelling. Is travelling an inherent desire of every human being? Or is it an often not very well-conceived plan of escaping one´s life for a brief span of time? For the last few months, I was clinging to the latter opinion; it was not until I went on holiday in Great Britain and simultaneously read Alain de Botton`s fabulous essay collection The Art of Travel that my viewpoint began to change slightly.
One of the things that can give me pleasure when travelling is the fact that, for a certain period of time, one usually is inhabiting a narrow space which is entirely unrelated to oneself and about whose maintenance one does not have to care about – and yet, in the case of English rooms at least – is lavishly decorated in a style that immediately makes you feel at home. As soon as I take the first peak into our room at the country B&B, I am overwhelmed by the little details that our host points out in rather languid terms: antique dressers, white mullioned windows that look out onto a big pond and mellow green hills spotted with cows. Alain de Botton states:
The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture may come as a relief from what are often the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a living room with wallpaper and framed photos, the decor of a refuge that has let us down.
Even without “bright lights” and “anonymous furniture” – the opposite is usually the case in English B&Bs – a certain degree of distance to the furnishings may let us float gently on a wave of liberated thoughts and feelings. It is not only easier to give way to sadness, but also to dreaming, especially when you´re lying in a kingsize bed with flowered pillows. In a certain way, you give up responsibility for your surroundings. You trust others – the housekeepers – that they will decide what furniture best fits the mindset and mood of the traveler (and they might even succeed more at it than you would).
Getting from Point A to Point B
Slow travel is as trending and new as slow food or slow TV, and because my husband and me are borderline Hipsters, we had decided to try that too. Or, to be more honest: we were forced to by the unbelievably unreliable British trains. While we were sitting in near-empty waiting rooms, listening to a female robot voice constantly informing us over loudspeakers that she was terribly sorry for our long wait, I tried to gain some Edward Hopper-like aesthetic pleasure from our mundane surroundings.
That turned out to be not that captivating as I imagined; however, what did turn out as a positive side-effect was that I actually got really much reading done. Again, having no responsibilities for my surroundings, often no internet and nothing that could distract me, I finally had some headspace to let stories and images unfold freely. I could dig into my guide on Glastonbury, reliving and deepening/intensifying the last two days we had spent there, or listening to my Nick Drake albums which created a perfect backset for the English landscape the train sauntered through. Towards the end of the holiday, I actually valued the slow train trips more than the quick, effective taxi drives.
Admiring the Landscape
Actually, it was John Ruskin who seemed to have invented slow travelling; Alain de Botton states that Ruskin never travelled more than fifty miles a day, stopping the carriage every few miles to enjoy the scenery. Ruskin himself writes:
No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast.
Seems like an advice most of us modern human beings would be wise to take. I almost feel ashamed to admit that this holiday was maybe the first time I really stopped to look at single trees. It is difficult to imagine they have no souls when you start to discover the peculiarity of their roots, or sometimes even a face on their stem. No wonder studies have shown that the subconscious and immune system react to the presence of trees.
I will not go into great detail about the English countryside here, as I already did so in my last blog entry (link). To be noted only: The British – especially the country people – seem to care a lot about greenery. No electricity pylons spoil the landscape. People are immensely worried when there`s been no rain even for a few days; they seem to think that the end of the world might be near. And sometimes, you can see a peasant leaning against his tractor, contemplating the landscape in an almost affectionate manner.
Travelling can help us to develop new thoughts and viewpoints; quite literally so, even at the beginning of our journey:
There is psychological pleasure in [a] take-off too, for the swiftness of the plane`s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives; to imagine that we too might one day surge above much that now looms over us.
Journeys are “the midwives of thoughts” – it seems that only far removed from our daily context can we really indulge in thoughts that kind of take our whole life into perspective – or let go of those thoughts that occur on a daily basis, triggered by objects we are all too familiar with. In my experience, it is in those (all too rare) moments when we sit on a train, tired of a long day of walking in nature, yet still interested in the relatively unfamiliar surroundings outside the train window when the most original thoughts arise: “Thinking improves when parts of the mind [the nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind] are given other tasks, are charged with listening to music or following a line of trees.”
At least when it comes to creative, intuitive thoughts, I have always felt that they come to you more easily when you are not quite “yourself” – tired, tipsy or overstimulated – states of mind that can frequently occur while travelling. And travelling is all about “not being your everyday/usual self”, as Alain de Botton states:
[At home,] the furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.
I would not go as far as to say we might encounter our “true self” on a journey, but at least, we might encounter other versions of ourselves which are as true and valid as our “ordinary” self (if there is even such a thing) – just as I (re)discovered my English self which wants to be among trees the whole day long, likes bourgeois front porches and gets easily into the habit of apologizing to everyone.
In England, as well as in other places, I sometimes felt a certain ennui in relation to taking photos, the kind of which has been nesting inside of me for years. Hasn`t everything been documented yet? Did not the internet contain hundreds and thousands of photos portraying the country house in front of me, often taken at better angles and with better equipment? What could I add to that?
At one point, I`m standing in a room in Lacock Abbey, looking outside of a broad window through which the first photograph was taken by Henry Fox Talbot in 1835, and get almost jealous at the fact that he had had the whole history of photography in front of, rather than behind him. Behind me comes a group of Japanese tourists, scurrying through the room and taking the occasional selfie. How could their photos ever convey the atmosphere of the place?
Maybe we all just have to slow down and notice the little details more – just like John Ruskin did on his “slow travels”. Maybe capturing a whole building on a photo would really amount to not that much; why not just focus the camera on an endearing little alcove or a window pane with a beautiful reflection of the surrounding trees? Alain de Botton asks the same question: “Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?”, just before answering the question himself: “To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details might be.” In the little alcove or the abundant trees may reside something that conveys the essence of “Englishness” for me: romanticism, playfulness, serenity.
And, as I might add to de Botton`s analysis, it is often the little details that do not quite seem to fit in that many people overlook and which can add a new angle to our observations, even open up a new creative space.