Northern Advocate Column

The art of travel in these Covid times

17 April 2021

Not being able to do something can give us the chance to reflect on that thing, weigh it in our minds, examine again its value to our lives. That’s the case with overseas travel, no longer possible for most of us thanks to Covid. 

Even if you’ve never been out of the country, an overseas holiday is likely to be something you’ve dreamt of. All of us have probably got travel to a special city, country or region of the world on our bucket list. Mine is Greece. It’s quite possible, though, I’ll never go to Greece. That won’t stop the idea of going to Greece looming large in my imagination. This is a point made by best-selling English writer Alain de Botton in his 2002 book The Art of Travel.

A big part of the joy of travel, argues de Botton, is the anticipation. We can daydream about visiting far off places while stuck in traffic after work. The thought of drinking ouzo at a white-washed Greek Taverna on the island of Hydra (where Leonard Cohen once lived with Marianne Ihlen) is a nice palliative to the everyday routine. Enjoy the idyll because the reality, de Botton stresses, may fail to live up to the idea in our heads. We build up a picture that leaves out the smog and congested traffic in Athens. Or the desperate street hawkers pestering you to buy cheap souvenirs.

The reality of travel may disappoint in other ways. De Botton humorously recounts how while in Barbados, he got into a major sulk-fest with his girlfriend over who got to eat the perfect crème caramel rather than the ugly one that had toppled over on the plate. Petty, obviously, but not unfamiliar to anyone who’s had a fight with their partner over something innocuous. Even in a beautiful place, trying as hard as possible to have a good time, you can end up grumpy and irritable. De Botton’s realisation was that you can’t escape yourself, and all your faults and foibles, by travelling to another location.

On the flipside, de Botton eulogises the experience of transit places, like hotel lobbies, airport lounges, ferry terminals and roadside cafés. When experienced as a solitary traveller, these places can generate feelings of tranquillity. Alone in a transit place, we are freed from the masks we wear in various everyday settings. We have to be a certain person at work or with different family members, with our spouse. Everyday life has many expectations. Sitting in an airport lounge, those expectations are removed. We can take a break from worrying about what people think of us. Here de Botton nails why travel is often enjoyable. Because it affords us the chance to escape, if only for a short time, the roles in life we normally have to play. This suggests we don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far away to access this “me time.” Sitting at the bus stop on a beautiful autumn morning might do the trick. 

De Botton writes chapters in entertaining prose on landscape, the sublime, on curiosity, on the exotic—all part of the complex motivations for travel. One particularly interesting chapter is about how artists can essentially create a place. This is what Vincent van Gogh achieved for Provence in the south of France with his expressive paintings of wheat fields, orchards, peasant farmers and cypress trees. For de Botton, Provence was inseparable from his love of van Gogh’s paintings of the region. It was the reason he wanted to go there. On arriving in Provence, however, he was underwhelmed. The landscape he observed was kind of boring compared to van Gogh’s paintings. Which raises the question: is viewing a beautiful painting of a place, reading a book about it, in some way more satisfying than actually going there? Experiencing great art, de Botton concludes, can be a substitute for physical travel.

In the last chapter on habit, de Botton urges us to break out of our routines and adopt each day a “travelling mindset”. To consciously observe with wonder the world around us, as we often do when we’re on holiday in a place we’ve never been before. In these times of Covid, perhaps we can work harder on the art of travel, seeing more while moving less. 

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