The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton about luck in traveling, expectations, dreams and disappointments. A conversation.
Mr. de Botton, why do people travel?
People travel to remember that they do not know everything and that the world is bigger, more mysterious and more exciting than it seems when you're sitting at home all day. Traveling is a constant reminder of all the things in the world that we marvel at.
Have we forgotten in everyday life that life is amazing?
Yes. This is the constant danger of what we call everyday life. By the power of habit, we get used to the most extraordinary things. For example, when driving a car for the first time, you are impressed and think how amazing that is. But after ten years you do not even think about it anymore. Whoever has a child for the first time thinks: My God, having children is fantastic. But over time you get used to it. All extraordinary events become commonplace in everyday life. In this situation, traveling gives us the opportunity to easily remember how extraordinary many things are.
Most of us associate travel with happiness. Why is that?
This is a relatively modern association. In developed economies, people today have the money to afford pleasant journeys. They travel to make a better life than they would at home. That's what tourism is about: fun travel. Traveling is often associated with the discovery of exciting, better and more beautiful places. When you come from a country in the north, you often associate travel with sun; If you come from a very hot country, you associate it with a more temperate climate. We are looking for things that we do not have enough in everyday life, and that's why we like it.
Are these beautiful experiences changing us?
They guarantee no change. Sometimes it is amazing to meet people who have traveled all over the world. You ask them what it was like, and very often it seems like the experience has bounced off them. I remember reading the book of an astronaut who quite boringly described what it was like to travel into space. Travel does not guarantee inner transformation, and I think that is one of the paradoxes of traveling. Sometimes you meet people who have not traveled much. But what they have seen has changed them a lot. In contrast, there are also well-traveled people who are completely banal in their observations of foreign places and people.
Are there things that guarantee an inner transformation while traveling?
I think one of the biggest challenges when traveling is learning what you really want to see. Many people swallow undigested a kind of vision of where to go and what to see, even if that does not really suit them. They are in Rome and think they have to visit this or that sight; or in New York they mean having to go to a certain museum. But they do not really care that much. Perhaps this can be described by the term "cultural guilt" - a feeling of having to travel, seeing something in order to be viewed, and this "cultural guilt" often prevents a more natural and spontaneous, life-changing approach to travel.
What does the chosen destination reveal about a person?
It tells us something about what a person lacks, what a person needs most inwardly. One of the great journeys of occidental culture was Goethe's trip to Italy. There is a man who lacks certain things in his temperament, who travels to Italy and discovers the missing pages. Schematically speaking, he gets a rather sensory insight into his soul. He comes from a Christian country from the north, and he suddenly discovers the South, the world of pagans, and sensuality. Goethe's journey shows in a very dramatic way what can happen to us while traveling - to discover things that we lack in our normal life.
Why is there such a big difference between what we imagine before the journey regarding the destination and what we find in reality?
The big dream is that we think we will come back completely changed from a journey. You go somewhere for a week, come back and everything would be different. That's the fallacy. This also gives rise to an aspect that can be learned from traveling: the human personality simply has great continuity. We do not change so easily, we evolve slowly, not through sudden cognitive moments. Of course they exist, but on the whole it's more of an evolution than a revolution.
What are the most disappointing aspects of traveling?
One of the biggest challenges of traveling is how to sustain an experience permanently. Sometimes we experience something else that seems important and valuable to us, and we want to capture it. We take a lot of photos, buy a souvenir. We want something to remain after our return, and that is often very difficult. The best way for me to keep a memory is to digest it properly. So to look right, more accurate, than maybe just to take a picture.
What was your most disappointing experience traveling?
I am often afraid of not finding something wonderfully wonderful. I think many people know this feeling: you're standing in front of the Grand Canyon or in front of the Coliseum in Rome and you're supposed to feel something wonderful, and nothing happens.
Are we traveling too much with travel guides? Are we preparing too much?
Travel requires some tension between not-all-knowing and non-knowing. For example, anyone who has no idea of history can not really know where he is going and what he might see there. But if you are too well informed, knowing exactly what you need to see and feel, it can also be a hindrance. A problem of modern travel is that the idea of a spontaneous discovery is in great danger because you can see everything on a webcam or in a booklet before you even drive there.
To what extent do phenomena of modernity, such as city life or industrialization, determine the desire to travel?
One of the principles of modernity is routine, and traveling is an interruption to this routine. So it is also normal that in societies that appreciate routine and punctuality, there is also a corresponding desire to escape from this habit. You can definitely see the desire for travel as a downside to a very regulated and predictable world. Our societies are relatively safe. It is unlikely that you will perish or that food will be scarce. Our life is predictable. The result is a craving for new impressions that are not found in the more dangerous communities that still exist today in most parts of the world.
Are we traveling too fast and too efficiently to really escape the routine? Do not you develop a routine while traveling?
Again, there is a contrast: people want excitement, but not too much excitement. This is probably deeply rooted in the human psyche: if we are too comfortable, we want something rougher, if it is too hard, we want it more comfortable. It is similar when traveling. If it becomes too predictable, people want a so-called adventure holiday. Those who traveled in the 18th century went on an adventure trip. One risked death or theft, perhaps the horse crashed off the cliffs - that was pretty close to an adventure. But these days things are amazingly smooth, so nostalgia for more rustic elements is increasing. Some sleep on vacation in the tent, which they would not have done before, they are experiencing a new connection with the earth.
Why do so many people have the same goals they are dreaming of?
It seems that there are different favorite destinations from country to country. Often, this has to do with the desire to balance something, with differences between North and South. Brits and Germans love Italy, while Italians love traveling to Sweden. Throughout the world, people try to compensate psychologically by traveling.
Does not that affect mostly people in the western world? Why do people go traveling in other parts of the world?
I would divide the world not so much in West and East, but rather in developed and undeveloped. Once a country reaches a certain economic development, the motives to travel are very similar. In Japan or South Korea, there are many of the same thoughts and impulses in terms of travel as ours. In very underdeveloped countries gives a completely different view of travel. There is no tourism there, people travel to visit family members, or they make a pilgrimage. But you will not find what we would call tourism.
What is the joy of traveling for you?
For example, in the arrival in a new city. Considering how amazing it is that all this has always happened in this place and I never knew there was this particular street side, bazaar or cafe. That all these people live and I never knew about them, and there they are suddenly. This is an experience that opens your eyes.
The excerpts of this interview were published in September 2008 by Goethe-Institut e. V. published in the cultural magazine Fikrun wa Fann. Topics and statements that are still valid today.
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