On the Road Again

Booking travel


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A girl (or boy) travels to Europe to find herself. We know what happens next.


  • In Motion: The Experience of Travel by Tony Hiss. 352 pages. Knopf. $27.95.
  • On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk. 272 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $23.

This is a storyline woven tightly into our culture. It is in our novels, our movies, our memoir. From Henry James to Elizabeth Gilbert, this is a story we tell ourselves and each other: The act of travel, of forward motion, will somehow distill your inner essence, and deliver yourself to yourself, so that you step off of that train or out of airport baggage claim a more you version of you.

A girl travels to Europe to find herself. Except she doesn’t. She finds instead that people in Paris or in London or in Barcelona respond to a young, pretty girl in pretty much the same way that people in the United States respond to a young, pretty girl. No one takes her seriously enough to tell her the meaning of life, and she doesn’t find it herself. She comes home, she writes an essay for a site called Thought Catalog claiming people who talk about travel changing their lives are just lying to themselves. The people who talk about traveling changing their lives did not appreciate her viewpoint. I came across the essay at the travel site World Hum, a site that “explore[s] how travel changes us, how it changes the way we see the world and how travel itself changes the world.” And then it showed up on Vagabondish. And then other travel blogs, where people congregate to talk about their journeys and their wanderlust. “This person is obviously jaded to the point where she is not impressed with anything,” wrote one World Hum commenter, and that was followed by the comment versions of nods and um-hmms. At Thought Catalog itself, the comments section filled with people calling her self-involved, naive, stupid, which is also how people respond to a young, pretty girl who is trying to say something.

I am not sure I agree with her or not, and I say this as someone who travels compulsively. Obviously just leaving and coming back will not reveal what Caitlin Rolls wonderfully called “the selfless and gracious phoenix goddess within me.” Travel writers spend an awful lot of time trying to translate into words the special, transcendent alchemy travel (allegedly) provides, so it’s understandable that Rolls would think this is what was supposed to happen to her. There is a great deal of this in Tony Hiss’s In Motion: The Experience of Travel. Here, travel is the “catapult for lifting the wings of the human spirit.” Such sentiments generally mark the point at which I close a book, never to reopen it. But I was interested in the disconnect between Hiss’s soaring spirit, Rolls’s untapped divinity, and my own need to see as much of the world as I can.

According to Tony Hiss, there is a state of being called Deep Travel. It is is provoked by the strangeness of the world around us. A lifetime of routine and seeing the same buildings populated by the same people makes us a little mindless. We can be awakened from our slumber by the unexpected. This is an interesting idea. I’m interested in it. But Hiss is a little vague on the transformation process itself. He goes from specific science to words such as “refinement” and “rebirth” and so on awfully fast. It’s like a scientific equation with a step in very small print saying “and then magic…” But it’s something to do with taking in more information, altering the way we think, being able to trust our own resourcefulness. Travel isn’t about pleasure as much as it is hard work.

I am almost on his side. I strongly believe in the human need for adventure, and I believe in the deadening qualities of routine. It’s the pseudo-spiritual angle I refuse to go in for, as well as the argument that took over a few years ago — travelers versus tourists. Now we can add a new category. “Well, OK, you may be a traveler, but are you a Deep Traveler? Are you open to the experience?” “Open to experience” is another phrase that almost made me leave the book on the train.

I am in Paris. My parents, who have never had passports, asked me to send them pictures of Paris, but I’m having a hard time pulling my camera out of my bag. Everything looks too much like Paris. I’ve seen too many French films, seen the romantic photographs of lovers holding hands the sidewalk, in front of beautiful buildings with open windows, music, I think Ravel, softly drifting down from an apartment. I might as well send my parents a postcard, I think, or a YouTube clip from a film.

Likewise, I’m acting out a very Paris storyline. I was here two years ago, too, and each time I’m here I’ve managed to be walking around alone, a little heartbroken, a little adrift. I wander the streets in black dresses and sunglasses, tipsy at 11 a.m. and thinking only of the man I am not with. Older men pull me aside and fill my glass with wine and order me things in French I can’t understand but end up being perfect. They tell me their own stories of love gone wrong as a consolation and an act of camaraderie, and as I wipe away tears I wonder if there is a film crew nearby, or if my life is suddenly being narrated by Marguerite Duras. I wonder if the spirit of the city has infected my love life and this is the inevitable result. If there’s any other possible way to be in Paris.

I am boring even myself with this Paris storyline. I’m beginning to wonder why I came here instead of, say, Bratislava. This, I tell myself, has been done.

“‘What am I doing here anyway?’ — the fundamental mantra if not prayer of every traveler. For it is precisely on a trip, in the morning, in a strange city, before the second cup of coffee has begun to work, that you experience most palpably the oddness of your banal existence. Travel is no more than a relatively healthy form of narcotic, after all.” Andrzej Stasiuk is a Polish writer who also knows the compulsion to travel, and he writes about it well in On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe. He is more realistic, less romantic about the end effects than Tony Hiss. That narcotic quality to travel seems more accurate than Hiss’s spiritual revelation. You can see the interconnectedness of all living things on LSD. You can also see bugs crawling under your skin.

Hiss wants to figure out what motion does to the human brain. Why people hate flying and airports and taking off their shoes at security, but love and romanticize trains. (I’m interested in this, too, but Hiss doesn’t get around to finding an answer.) He wants to know what being surrounded only by the Polish language does to a person, what getting lost in a foreign city results in (other than that vague “transformation” thing). He quotes Rumi, Pico Iyer, and Albert Camus. Camus wrote, “Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves,” whatever that might mean. As I read Hiss, I begin to wonder if he’s taken out the trademark on the term Deep Travel. He repeats those words over and over like a mantra.

I think what he means by Deep Travel is the intense weirdness that can overtake one on a trip, the way you have to refigure your routine and coping mechanisms from scratch, because the old ones do not suit. But the best description of Deep Travel comes not from Hiss, but from Stasiuk:

It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. In a country you know nothing about, there is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects and events may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact. They begin only when you experience them, vanish when others follow.

He’s right, though, to add “a country you know practically nothing about.” It’s so easy to discard your daily routine in a country you know from art and film and literature and just pick up one of their storylines. They practically sell them vacuum-packed at duty free, next to the VAT-less booze. The most traveled-to, the most postcard-ready of the European capitals suffer under the weight of so many photographs, so many young people waiting for their transformation. “Observation irons out objects and landscapes,” Stasiuk writes. “Destruction and decline follow. The world gets used up, like an old abraded map, from being seen too much.” 

One of these men in Paris began to talk about how so much writing has lost its way. It doesn’t know what its own purpose is. I heard this through the filter of travel. Writing, this man tells me, used to be about information. You got your news and your history from novels. Travel writing was about bringing back worlds no one would ever see. I think of Mary Wollstonecraft, who strapped her baby to her body and went off to write about the high Nordic reaches. Or Rebecca West, sifting through the war-ravaged Balkans. But now there’s so little we haven’t seen. There are clubs you can join that provide checklists to every sovereign state in the world. Visiting each one simply to be able to check it off, to upload a few pictures of you standing by the first post office in the new South Sudan, is its own goal. One of these men vying for the title of the World’s Most Traveled Man is probably working on his book right now, about life lessons learned from his version of travel.

Honestly, I think that writing is always losing its way, and that is what makes it interesting. But I understood what was meant. There are definitive stories about nearly every place on Earth now. And with so many other ways to get information — if you want to know about Albania, for example, you can now much more easily ask the Albanians — the point of travel writing has fallen out. There’s an increased pressure on travel writers to create a personal arc of, yes, transformation. Sure, you went to Iceland, but did you go there because of a personal crisis and then resolve said issue with a Icelandic lover? No? Well, no six-figure book advance for you then.

I used to read a great deal of travel writing, so I know these stories well. I would take these books home without even needing to know the author or if anyone thinks the book is good. I just wanted a little armchair adventure. This stopped around the time I decided to go online while drunk and look up international airfare. (This was, I found, the best way to overcome my Chicago-based inertia and get out of the country.) It wasn’t simply that I realized I could see these countries for myself. My journeys out of the country were not what you would call transformative. Scary, yes. Sometimes hellishly depressing, humiliating, and then joyful, exhilarating, lonely. Neither did they follow the ready-made travel narratives provided by so many Single Women in Foreign Country travel books. In Ireland, I was not transformed by finding my family’s roots and a new sense of home. (If anything, I found out my family had been loyal to Cromwell and I kept feeling like I should apologize to everyone on the street.) In Buenos Aires, my life was not transformed through red meat, tango, and sex with Latin men. OK, maybe the red meat, a little bit.

Reading about the power of travel, about how it’s supposed to make me such a better person, a fuller person, a more authentic me, made me lonely. I called a friend from Dublin one time, crying. Between jet lag and insomnia I had been sleeping maybe two or three hours a night and I was miserable. “I”m afraid I’m failing at travel,” I told him. When I came home, people were going to want stories, and not stories of the day I was so sad and exhausted that I never got any farther than the cafe on the end of the street and no one talked to me there. This was years before I began traveling so much that my sense of “home” and “away” began to blur, and I was afraid this might be the last trip I ever took.

“This is your trip,” my friend told me. “It’s impossible to ruin it. It is what it is.”

“A related Deep Travel tradition raises the possibility of meeting up with selves that are still incomplete when they first emerge and that travel itself can then shape and sculpt. This idea, of travel as refinement, is an ancient one.” I’ve had about all of the extra special woo-woo writing of Tony Hiss I can take. I think he could have substituted “yoga” in there for travel, or Christianity, or hallucinogenic drug use, or veganism.

With all of this talk of refinement, no one ever says who travelers are supposed to be turned into. The following comment is pretty representative of those that appeared underneath Caitlin Rolls’s essay: “It sounds like WE failed as a society to develop in our young people the skill of being self reflective and reverent! Shame on us.” So maybe all that mind-expanding travel transforms us into being the types who write passive-aggressively shitty things in anonymous comment sections.

People love to talk about how certain things rewire the brain, now that we can track these sorts of things with neuroimaging. Inevitably we must qualify which of these things are good and which are bad. (Violent pornography rewires the brain: bad. Travel rewires the brain: good.) But our brains are rewiring themselves all the time. Our brains rewire when we eat a peanut butter sandwich.

There are things that extensive travel teaches you, such as how not to be afraid, or at least how to tell the difference between times you should have fear and times there’s no need for it. It teaches you how to discard things you don’t need, whether that be a couple of shirts so you can bring back all the books you bought, or your need for security and certainty. Using that information in everyday life is the tricky part. I’m not saying it should not be done, that it’s a worthless exercise. Travel is a choice. You go or you don’t. Staying at home offers as many opportunities for growth and transformation and brain rewiring and whatever other trademarked terms you’d like to use here. If you’re the type of person who is more scared of staying home than wandering back out there, it perhaps holds more.

A girl goes out into the world to find herself. Only she finds she’s the same person in Argentina as she is back home, with all the same flaws, the same obnoxious behaviors, the same judgmental nature. Now she just happens to have some pictures of herself standing next to Eva Perón’s tomb. That’s not as good of a story. It probably won’t sell any books, or plane tickets. But it’s more honest. • 1 August 2011