Saturday, June 19, 2010

Things People In My Social Circle Like That I Do Not Understand: The Case Against Travel

So I am not sure if I actually totally buy the argument sketched out below, but at some point, I need to get this contrarian argument off my chest. That is: I don't really get travel. Like... I don't totally abhor it, but I don't understand the fuss that socially normal upper-middle-class people make over planning trips and talking about trips with their friends and showing other people photos. It is possible that none of them really like it, and that all of them are just pretending to like it in the interest of seeming socially normal. Heaven knows I've played those kinds of signaling games myself. But somehow, I doubt that this is the only explanation.

Some possible explanations: one, that travel was just oversold to me at a tender age. I think of the high school guidance counselor who was convinced that it could be a really, really good idea to take time off and travel, maybe do humanitarian work in Brazil or live with a family on a Rotary exchange scholarship in Belgium or something. Because travel was good for Personal Development; I was apparently severely Personally Underdeveloped*; and Personal Development was really more important to Harvard and Yale than SAT scores. Which made me want to yell, no, b.s. (Jerome Karabel hadn't yet published The Chosen, , in which he meticulously documented the anti-Semitic origins of the Ivy League's obsession with said Personal Development b.s.That is good; if he had, I might have been too tempted to throw it at people in those days.) I did not opt for the whole year abroad, as I could not have taken an additional year of asking, as per the title of the Daria movie, "Is it college yet?" I did secure a Rotary Exchange scholarship to live in the Spanish Canaries for a few months before my senior year of high school. It was nice, and I learned a bit about how to make tortilla espanola and secured a lovely pair of delicate heels that I still wear out to cocktail parties on occasion. I also wrote a college essay about it, because writing a college essay about Ayn Rand or anything else that really mattered to me would have been suicidally egg-headed. Still, though, I felt badly that my life was mostly unchanged.

Ditto my experience living in Paris as a Dartmouth student. There was the unfortunate and perhaps statistically unlikely accident that I blundered into a health conscious host family that hated meat, fat, etc. Lesson learned: I do not look or feel good when my weight falls into the 80s. There's a line in Caitlin Macy's The Fundamentals of Play to the effect that it takes a very special kind of person to miss Connecticut while in Paris. Maybe; I passionately missed Hanover the entire three months that I was there. Not because I am a country mouse -- as Pnin and others who know and love me will attest, I am anything but -- but because I'd finally found my educational meritocratic spiritual homeland. I had friends for the first time, dammit, and I was nothing but loath to leave them.

So I guess there are three benefits that travel is supposed to have, according to the people who like it. One, there's the aesthetic and educational experience of getting to see new places. Two, there's the benefit of observing cultural differences. Three, relaxation. I'll talk about each in turn.

I think #1 is the strongest argument for travel, but even that it is oversold. Yes, it's nice to be able to walk around Notre Dame Cathedral and see it in the flesh, as opposed to merely looking at slides and discussing it with a group of twelve other art history students. But I maintain that slides and books about places are underrated. First, because there are no hordes of tourists and crying babies and what have you packed into the art history seminar room. Second, because the typical tourist experience is often necessarily more shallow than reading journal articles about a particular cathedral and then sitting around discussing them while looking at slides. Third, because it is easier (for me at least) to process material by reading it than by hearing a tour guide talk about it.

The argument for #2 is that travel enhances cross cultural understanding or some such thing; this is the point that my guidance counselor was trying to make, I suppose, with her briefs about Personal Development. Maybe the problem is that I am still personally underdeveloped, but at least at some general level, the argument seems trite. Yes, people are different. Cultures are different. Is there really anyone who doesn't know this?

More seriously, my most interesting adventures in understanding the range of human difference and behavior haven't come through travel. They've come through friendships, through the kind of conversations that you can have only with someone you've known for years who sees the world through eyes very different than your own. Probably the best experiences I've had in this vein are via the constant negotiation in romantic relationships, where I've really had to engage with difference up close and constantly. Though I suppose living with roommates does this at some level too.

It's perhaps instructive here was that the reason I missed Hanover so much while in Paris as that I felt like I'd finally found a congenial if foreign culture, and I didn't want to stop trying to get my arms around it. I'd gone from a decidedly average background to near the top of the educational meritocracy. I was strung out on code switching. France was the last thing I wanted or needed.

#3 refers to a very different type of trip. Lying on pretty beaches and so forth. But I'd rather relax at home. Again, it's easier to read there. And I'm more comfortable when I'm surrounded by familiar things. Plus, there's the administrative annoyance of packing and so forth. Which is relevant for the others, I suppose, but the cost of packing there seems low relative to the benefits.

*I think she was referring to my love of Ayn Rand novels, not my height or my cup size, but I can't be sure.


  1. Re: #1: In many cases one cannot truly appreciate something solely through books or slides. Scale, for one thing, is important. And the environs of the object/building/artwork affect how it is interpreted in context. For example, I've been here:

    which looks like nothing special in a photo, but is in fact quite meditative just to stroll down, even for someone not of a spiritual persuasion. I don't find that the experience of walking around in a place is adequately conveyed by photographic reproduction.

    As for #2, I agree, it is overrated. But I don't travel to meet people. I am more interested in accentuating the sense of dislocation, as it allows for greater concentration on the places and experiences you've selected for the trip.

    Although #3 is good too, which is how I have learned to appreciate Caribbean vacations.

  2. I am more interested in accentuating the sense of dislocation...

    Hm... maybe the core of my problem with travel is that I don't want dislocation or displacement. For the reasons I talked about earlier in the post, I'd already gone through a massive experience of dislocation while staying at the college that was supposed to be home. And I've gone through a series of other dislocations since that are basically associated with becoming an adult. Maybe I've an unusually low satiation threshold for dislocation or some such thing.

  3. It's a very good statement of your case. But, as we have discussed, I think you underrate both benefits 1 and 2. I agree that 3 is just as easily accomplished at home, and often more so.

  4. I would add, although possibly it's mostly sort of a mix of the first and the last, the benefit of getting to do things you like to do that you cannot do where you live. For instance, if you live in Florida and you like to alpine ski, you're going to have to travel if you want to do it. Period. :)

    My wife and I were fortunate enough to win a trip to Maui: we spent a week there and were lounging on a beach for a grand total of about three hours. (Mostly because there's not a lot else to do in Hana on a weekday evening.) We rode in a submarine and saw fish and wildlife and black-sand beaches and a volcano and all kinds of things that we both find very interesting but could never have experienced in Illinois. And we both enjoy photography and got to photograph a lot of things that we never would have been able to photograph in our own area. (I got a prize in Hawai'i Magazine's photography contest. :) )