Tag Archives travel

Other books I finished reading in May

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.



*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

Why I travel but think you shouldn’t

Another square, another equestrian statue. Lyon, France.

The words that feel the least helpful to hear as someone who travels are ‘good luck on finding yourself’, ‘running away from your problems doesn’t help’ or ‘what are you going to do when you get back?’. It kind of assumes you’re going through an identity crisis, got a major emotional problem you can’t face, or you’re having an extended holiday.

If you need to find yourself, your life or the courage to deal with your problems, a foreign country probably isn’t the best place to begin the hunt. If you want to travel for travel’s sake, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

Travelling doesn’t help you to find your place in the ‘real world’

You might be under the unfortunate delusion that travel is somehow a magic path to ‘finding oneself’. Finding oneself is aptly described as discovering who one is and what one wants to do with one’s life.

It doesn’t quite work like that. By travelling you expand who you are, but you do that whenever you face anything new or challenging. Travel is just one source of novelty. It can only stretch who you are in the way you engage with it. It can’t alter the past. As for discovering what you want to do with your life, isn’t it more convenient to discover one of the many options closer to home?

Rather than trying to discover my place in the real world, I’ve given up on it. Giving up is less poetic and doesn’t fit the ‘find yourself’ travel genre, but it comes with less illusion.

Travelling changes people, but so does a new job, a new house or a break-up. Comparatively, travelling seems a rather small agent of change.

Why running away never works

Wall art in Calvi, a small Italian hilltop town.

I’m sitting in row 26, either seat A or F, a window seat. I breathe in the enhanced aeroplane air and tug my beautiful red Indian shawl tight around my body, like a small child. Inside my head, a war is taking place.

I’m supposed to be excited that I’m going home. Home is filled with people who love me, people who are desperately eager for me to return (I hope). Home is full of the familiar – my bed, my clothes, my balding pink teddy bear. It is supposed to be the place I treasure the absolute most.

Once I get back to England, I know I’m going to be fine. Once I feel my mother’s arms around me I’m going to wonder how I could possibly have stayed away from all this love so long. When I see the smiling faces of my friends as we plonk ourselves down in our seats, twisting our bodies towards each other like jigsaw pieces that fit smooth, I’m going to be so grateful to see them.

And yet, high above the clouds, there’s a battle going on in this crumpled body. When you travel to run away, all you do is postpone the inevitable. You’re still you. The enemy is still the enemy. The problem is still a problem. Hurt still hurts.

How to guarantee that you don’t belong where you are

This weed does not belong in the beautifully tended lawn in front of the tower of Pisa.

Travelling can sometimes reduce a painful feeling of alienation by making not-belonging feel expected and normal.

I don’t feel I have to belong wherever I’m travelling. Fitting in doesn’t matter. I can wear summer dresses on a crowded Italian piazza where every other woman under the age of thirty is in skinny jeans. My uniqueness is what entertains people, and as the traveller with hopefully plenty of stories to tell, I can entertain. But even more importantly, you can practice your English with me, you can get your sheep fed by me and your children dragged home from school. I have value.

However, most of the time, when you’re away, you’re alone. There is nobody to disappoint when you’re alone. Nobody who is going to laugh at you. Nobody who is going to ask you awkward questions about your bank balance, your pension or your prospects. There is nobody who knows you. Nobody.

Loneliness. Is it worse to be the valued guest in a foreign tribe, or feel like an alien in your own?

While you’re busy validating your feelings of loneliness by making yourself well and truly alone, the people back home are talking to one another. They’re going to the cinema, going out for birthday meals, they’re hugging and laughing together. They’re giving each other those minute signals that say – I like you being around.

Happiness comes from friendship, not travel

Happiness, according to Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and assuming that you’ve covered your basic survival needs, comes from living in a space of friendship, finding freedom through fulfilling work and giving time to rational analysis and insight so that you understand your anxieties and needs.

Epicurus lived among friends, worked alongside friends, spent time conversing and hypothesising with friends. But Epicurus could do this because his friends wanted to live in a house with him, wanted to work alongside him and wanted to philosophise with him.

If you’ve got friends you can live in close proximity to, meaningful work to do and time to think, lucky you. Don’t waste to much time travelling.

Some of my friends enjoy a somewhat philosophical conversation. Others it makes uncomfortable. Some of my friends don’t mind me staying over a couple of nights on the sofa. Others would prefer that we just have coffee somewhere so they don’t have to worry about the inconvenience of hosting. Some of my friends would be happy to do a small contained project with me, if it didn’t get in the way of their actual jobs and actual lives and all the other things they need to get done.

Home is an unsolvable puzzle; travel is a beautiful illusion

Could be an Italian lake, or it could be in Yorkshire.

I travel because when it comes to getting the volume of interaction I want from friends whilst doing meaningful work I am a failure. As is typical in our modern society, when we left university my friends scattered all over the place to build their own busy lives.

Travel provides an environment where the expectations have changed. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life travelling. Nobody expects you to spend your entire life with them. But for the time you’re there, they’re more than happy to discuss different worries and outlooks with you – your judgement doesn’t scare them. They’re happy to work alongside you and they appreciate your efforts. You’re teaching their children, cleaning their plough, felling their trees, sawing their wood. And for the short time you’re staying there, you’re welcome to a glass of wine, to sprawl out on the sofa, to eat the last slice of cake and join them for a barbeque at their parents.

It’s not ideal, but it is something.