There’s a paragraph in We Need To Talk About Kevin where the main character, Eva Khatchadourian, talks about traveling to other countries. She talks about the tired, empty routines of airport travel, checking in to hotels, and going out and finding somewhere to eat, and the implication is that traveling abroad is more or less a big nothing: even in the most exotic of locations, we are never truly abroad. Sitting in a hotel room with the Beijing skyline or the Sahara desert outside, we’re still at home. We carry our world with us.
We have this thing in Western culture that says that travel is innately a Good Thing, and this is a convention that has been around for a good few centuries. In the Regency era (and right up until the dawn of modernity) rich fathers would send their boys off on the Grand Tour, taking in the cultural sites of Spain, Italy and France, in order to return home improved and intellectually stimulated. The history of Britain is more or less the history of the middle class appropriating blue-blooded conventions, and before too long anybody who could afford it was taking off in the direction of the continent for a year or two. By the turn of the century relatively impoverished young people were, like Caroline Abbott in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread, being swept off their feet by the rural delights of Italy, falling in love with folksy young Italians and talking about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. This sort of “improving voyage” went into abeyance with the advent of packaged holidays, but now it’s back. These days we routinely send our young people away to teach English or be similarly awoken to the delights of the world. We call this the “gap year” (pronounced [gäb yä]).
There are maybe three problems with this convention of ours. One is straightforward: as the comedian Andy Parsons has it, nobody should go abroad to find themselves without looking up their own backside first. The other two are a little more convoluted, and I will now spend the next seven thousand words outlining the homoiosis of Heideggerian thought in relation to the budget trip abroad.
Just kidding (I will actually do it in a hundred). The world that we perceive is different from the world that is: our awareness of it is subjective, and our appreciation of the world is tinged with the baggage we carry around inside our heads. Heidegger called this Da-Sein’s homoiosis, but he was really just riffing off Schopenhauer’s theory of our weltanschauunng.
Basically it’s Eva’s problem. A lot of the point of traveling is to escape: to escape the world, our situation, our choices, the daily grind. These are reasons why we travel. The problem is that we take all of these things with us. We carry an immensity of baggage with us whenever we travel – no matter how lightly we pack, we are still there on the other side of world. The shoes and socks we take off smell like home, and still carry dust from continents away. In the neon strip-light of a hotel bathroom, our familiar toiletries – well-worn toothbrush, Colgate toothpaste, small bottle of vodka aftershave – take on a noble poignancy they didn’t have twelve hours before. They are at once alien and familiar. They remind us that no matter how far we travel, we are still going to be the same person. More so than that, the eyes that today look up at the Empire State Building or down at the Great Barrier Reef are the same eyes that, only a few days before, were listlessly checking the sodium content on a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. The shod feet that are today walking millennia-old cobbled streets lined with exotic prostitutes were only recently stumbling around the St James Shopping Centre while I looked for an egg cosy.
This is my main contention with the idea that travel improves the mind: I know that, no matter how far I travel, I will still be the same ass I’ve always been, only now I’ll be a well-travelled ass. I’ve seen it many times before: people think that travel broadens the mind. The problem is that those same people think that that broadening happens by itself and so, since they’ve travelled, they must have improved somehow. They would, in fact, be wrong.
That’s one problem. The other problem is more abstract, and it more or less riffs off an old question: what makes Shakespeare so important? The answer, to be brief, is something called the universality of human experience. Shakespeare is important and relevant five hundred years later because he wrote about the human element: his plays contain fear, loss, rejection, lust, greed, love, heroism and off-colour jokes. These are universal things that are true of every human being. Shakespeare’s still important because he’s still relevant: he wrote plays about people doing things that we can recognise half a millennia later. More significantly, Shakespeare’s stories translate pretty well. You can explain Macbeth to an Inuit or a Berber, a Yanomami or a Mongol and they’ll get it. Human beings across the world get Shakespeare because there’s no real difference between us, continent to continent. We’re just people living our lives; eating, sleeping, and having sex, and otherwise propelling this insane juggernaut forward.
And that’s the crux of the second problem of travel. I think we have this vague notion that we will one day pitch up in a country where everyone is nine foot tall, like in Gulliver’s Travels, or like the Ning Nang Nong of Spike Milligan’s poem. We expect that there is some corner of this world that is exotic to the point of being bizarre and, if we keep looking, we might find it.
The reality is somewhat more disappointing. I’ll give you an example: I’m staying for a moment in a far-off city. I’ve seen a fair few cities, and I like them – I grew up in the countryside, so there’s something quite thrilling about being able to buy a dozen doughnuts and a lightbulb at three in the morning – but cities are starting to blur together for me because, once you stop noticing the minor differences, the major similarities hit you pretty hard. The main difference between where I am now and where I came from boils down to three things:
1) There are more things painted yellow here.
2) At the moment, the weather is two degrees warmer.
3) You can’t buy cigarettes on a Sunday.
Hemingway or Forster could take those three things and knock them up into a tale that would knock you for six, I’m sure, but for me that makes foreign travel kind of a bust. I’ve always been attracted to the hell-for-leather kind of traveling. To me, the excitement has always been about the very real and present danger and how it insists on you every step of the way. I love that moment during take-off when you’re sure that the plane is reaching the end of the runway and maybe, maybe this time something will fail, a tire will explode and three hundred screaming people will be flattened like packets of crisps. You realize that you and everybody else are squashed into an aluminium cigar-tube full of exploding fuel and are, therefore, literally a hair’s-breadth from instant death. I find that sort of shit enjoyable. I like it when you’re walking through a dangerous area of an unknown city and you know that you don’t speak enough of the language to talk your way out of a situation. I like it when, in short, the reality of the situation pushes through the layers of weltanschauung and wakes you up. My trip out was fraught with these little insistent worries I enjoy (how will I navigate the airport? How does the subway work? What if I forget how to ask for an English-speaking lawyer? How am I going to cope without Earl Grey tea?) and, to be frank, I was relishing these little challenges. The result: the airport could have been anywhere. The subway was like every other subway in the world. All of the policemen spoke English. And literally the first supermarket I walked into had every kind of tea I enjoy, including Twinings fucking Earl Grey.
Both of these issues lead me to conclude that, if we’re honest, there is no somewhere else. We’re stuck in a philosophical superposition: either we never escape because we always take ourselves with us, or when we arrive we discover that the place we’re in is too familiar. Either way, we might have to abandon the idea that there’s anything particularly foreign about foreign travel.
The future is a different country: they do things exactly the same there.