The Value of Travel — One Household’s Mild Manifesto
Occasionally I am asked one classic question every author must encounter: “Where do you get your ideas?”–and sometimes this variant: “Do you wait for inspiration, or do you just start working and see what comes out?”
There’s one very good answer which I’ve never really managed to articulate in person. It goes somewhat like this: Inspiration waxes and wanes, and producing a book is most often a matter of sitting down and serving time at the desk. But I also believe that inspiration can be galvanized in certain ways, and one of these is to consciously put yourself into the realm of the unexpected. The most reliable method of doing this is to travel.
My wife and I have always been avid travelers. The story of our relationship is, in a way, a travelogue. Major moments in the narrative take international settings: London, Paris, Switzerland, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Indonesia. Though we’ve never earned much money, throughout our married life we’ve made a point of using a sizable part of our earnings to fund lengthy trips abroad (three weeks or several months).
Recently, having learned that our first child is on the way, we made a pledge to ourselves. Parenthood will not mean our days of overseas adventuring have come to an end. Quite the contrary. As we see it, becoming parents mandates that we renew our commitment to travel, and strive to foster in our child the consciousness of a world citizen.
We want our child to grow up well-seasoned in the boundary-breaking, humanizing act of witness, discovery, and interaction that international travel can be. I daresay the absence of such experiences in the lives of most Americans is a root cause of our nation’s floundering international relations.
The United States is vast and diverse, but its very immensity makes it a chore to transgress its boundaries for any significant period of time–and I’m speaking here of boundaries both geographical and mental. Strictly American values and ideas pervade the thoughts and lifestyles of the majority of U.S. citizens to the exclusion of any other ethos. This is not surprising when you consider our geography. We don’t rub shoulders with other nations, other ways of life. As for our nearest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, we do our best to ignore or fence out the former (except, perhaps, when planning an all-inclusive beach getaway), and the latter is so self-sufficient and peaceable that we forget about it for all but a few moments each year.
To a large extent, our country is like an island nation, culturally speaking. I was shocked to read recently that some 80% of Americans do not own a passport. The world outside is the other, and in our worst moments we tend to forget that these other nations exist, let alone possess social models, cultures, practices, and perspectives which we would often do well to borrow from–or histories we would do well to study. (See travel guru Rick Steves on the subject of why travel can mend a broken world.)
Being constantly aware of this parochial American mindset, my wife and I have made a particular parents-to-be pledge: We will take a big trip abroad sometime within the first two years of our baby’s life.
This may sound naïve, but our impetus is actually entirely practical. If we don’t travel reasonably soon after becoming a family of three–and thus fail to set the custom in place early on–we may risk never traveling again. And that, from the standpoint of two creative souls landlocked in the United States, is unacceptable. Unacceptable for us personally–and for the future of our child.
The thing is, we regard travel as something far more meaningful and edifying than the diversionary experience that comes to most minds at the thought of ‘getting away’ or ‘vacationing.’ Travel, as we see it, means engaging a larger world, not merely retreating from the one we know. It entails more than a flight from the boredom of an urban grind, or the doldrums of suburbia, in pursuit of touristy entertainments; it’s about seeking to become a part of (for a while at least) an experience that transcends one’s native outlook, habits, cultural predispositions. In other words, travel means joining in the human experience.
The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.--G.K. Chesteron
To tell the truth, I and my wife are a bit haunted by the familiar refrains we’ve heard from well-meaning stay-at-home sorts who’ve long since subscribed to a peculiarly American misconception–that lengthy travel is an extraneous indulgence of youth. “Enjoy it while you’re young,” they’ve told us. “Go while you’re still free. That freedom won’t last forever.”
We’re well aware that they speak to a frightful reality. We know how it goes: life becomes more and more complicated as one’s children grow. Commitments, appointments, routines multiply exponentially–and family finances get apportioned and stretched till the notion of designating any amount toward something as fundamentally non-essential as travel seems absurd.
And travel–particularly extended international travel–is expensive. That fact alone relegates it to the realm of excess, right? Well, we’re not so certain. The way we see it, there are vast and innumerable benefits–and some clearly numerable ones–that come of distant sojourning, and these make travel, however expensive, a monetary non-issue for us. We see the act of going abroad as an investment, plain and simple.
Here is a sampling of some major benefits (not to be underrated) that come of one’s investment in international travel:
- • Stuttering in a foreign tongue
- • Being subjected to the good graces (and yes, sometimes the rudeness) of others
- • Being forced to ask questions of strangers
- • Finding oneself confronted by things wondrous, disgusting, or simply difficult to understand
- • Begging explanations for seemingly uninterpretable experiences
- • Plumbing the histories and arts for some sense of what one has beheld and why it matters
- • Putting oneself into the realm of the unexpected, where serendipity can unveil new horizons
- • Generally feeling like an outsider
These experiences engender one’s empathy for fellow human beings, better understanding of the challenges faced by new immigrants in our own land, and overall discovery of things large, small, enriching or infuriating, whether they be works of art, episodes of world history, or political conditions.
One example of a very small personal discovery: I’ll never forget, on my first day in London at age nineteen, finding the face of Charles Dickens on the ten-pound note and vocalizing my astonishment that a nation would grant so high an honor to an author. I thought it was perfectly wonderful, but I could not imagine such a thing occurring in my own country. Robert Frost on the twenty? Emily Dickinson on the five? Somehow it seemed impossible. Even England–with whom we share a language, sort of–could not differ more from America on certain values. As a young writer wannabe, I was astounded to find myself in a culture with so strong and valued a literary tradition, and disturbed to compare this with the paltry official regard accorded the arts in America. As author John Gardner once drolly remarked: “In America, though federal, state, and local governments make feeble gestures of support (the whole National Endowments for the Arts comes to, I think, the cost of one frigate), it seems clear that nobody quite knows what to do with artists.”
Such small realizations and comparisons as this are the daily fodder of the international traveler–and though more usually small than not, they accumulate powerfully, and their personal resonance becomes positively seismic. The little things change and widen a person. Adam Gopnik puts it another way in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon: “This can shake you up, this business of things almost but not quite being the same. A pharmacy is not quite a drugstore; a brasserie is not quite a coffee shop; a lunch is not quite a lunch.”
In short, the experience of traveling abroad invigorates the imagination. And it is imagination that makes us into human beings, enabling us to recognize the humanity in the world around us and to reach out to others as fellow humans.
For the profit of travel: in the first place, you get rid of a few prejudices…. The prejudiced against color finds several hundred millions of people of all shades of color, and all degrees of intellect, rank, and social worth, generals, judges, priests, and kings, and learns to give up his foolish prejudice.–Herman Melville
To be human is to be curious. And to be curious is to travel, if not literally, then in the mind through books, arts, cultural treasures. But too many Americans, bombarded with the rampant scare-mongering that characterizes our nation’s current political moment, have retreated into fear and loathing, while imagination and outreach could help to heal a great many ills. Perhaps travel is more a necessity now than ever.
The uses of travel are occasional, and short; but the best fruit it finds, when it finds it, is conversation; and this is a main function of life.--Ralph Waldo Emerson
But travel at its best is a spiritual investment, that is, it provides a value utterly unquantifiable by the standards of the dollar or any other currency–though no less tangible. And as long as travel remains an imperative in one’s life, an essential endeavor, and I daresay a moral responsibility, a means can be found to make it possible.
My wife and I keep a modest household and our incomes are not large. But we hope to break a cultural mold and start our family life under the consciousness that travel is integral to a rich and fulfilled life. Call us idealists, but if we can cultivate sensitivity, tolerance, openness, and insatiable curiosity in our child, we will have reason to put our faith in the next generation.
Travel at its best is a refresher course in human life on earth, with its millions of dizzying customs, civilizations, and creations. Sign us up, please!
With what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off for somewhere.--Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Jan Morris, multiple titles
Paul Theroux, multiple titles
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