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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, January 03, 2005
    The Art of Travel
    I enjoyed Alain de Botton's documentary on The Art of Travel so much that today I have watched it twice. I've seen the book in the shops but till now passed over it; but his style and synopsis are so engaging I'll be searching it out pronto.

    De Botton's programme asked questions which no travel shows ever touch. Why do we go on holiday? Do our travels measure up to the longings that inspired them?

    His investigation was a delight. The mundanities of home well behind him, enfolded in the deepest luxury on a QE2 cruise he admitted the shock of "realis[ing] that I'd inadvertantly brought myself on holiday." Thumbing through a QE2 brochure with its pictures of tanned, beautiful people enjoying the wonderful onboard world he noted the reality that it's not them in those pictures, when you are on the cruise - it's you. If the underlying wish of travelling is to "get away from me," then it cannot ever be granted.

    Gazing from his cabin porthole de Botton muses, "We're all here sitting in our little cabins - little cells for pleasure. It's like we're doing time. We're not quite sure what crime we've committed, but we're doing time... holiday time." Brilliant.

    In opposition to the assumption that simply by moving from point A to point B we will automatically become happier, de Botton quotes Pascal who stunningly said, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he doesn't know how to stay quietly in his room."

    De Botton enjoys travel, though, and his concern is to promote the idea that the places we travel to are less important than the state of mind we travel in. On every flight coming into a major city half the people will be miserable because they're coming home, the other half excited in anticipation, because they are visiting somewhere which to them is new and 'exotic'. But it is the same place they all travel to, and "what makes a good traveller, a fulfilled traveller, is less to do with destination, and more to do with their attitude towards it."

    De Botton champions those holidaymakers who tear up the guidebooks and break the mould, like the couple touring Holland's industrial estates and backlands in search of World War Two bunkers, whose vibrant curiosity has taught them "how to look around", and who teach us that "We should learn to nourish the shoots of our own wayward curiosity." And the couple from Sittingbourne whose caravan enables them to take seventeen holidays a year, none more than twenty miles away from home, their interest and satisfaction in their locale never exhausted.

    Using Edward Hopper and other artists of the 'mundane' to help explain his theory, de Botton encourages us to see all places as a traveller might. What some call non-places - hotels, airports - de Botton regards as oddly liberating places, places of "redemptive loneliness" where everyone shares their aloneness, with longings frustrated but at least, there, acknowledged.

    And inspired by the work of a German road-artist to see beauty and grace in the autobahn, de Botton offers another gem, which will do for now to conclude this little appreciation of his work:

    "Perhaps we don't stop to find many things beautiful on our journeys because no one has yet drawn our attention to what to look out for."