Why We Travel

I used to teach at university until fairly recently. Part of my role consisted of teaching first-year ESL students how to read fiction and non-fiction. Before diving into the heart of the matter, I would invariably ask them the same question: why do we read? And I would invariably get the same answers. Most students would come up with individual observations, all along the lines of entertainment and edification, which is interesting on two counts. First, their answers showed that they had personal reasons to read (which always reassured me) and second, that they were missing the bigger picture.

Indeed, I didn’t ask them why they read; I asked them why we read. It is all very nice to have (good) individual reasons to open a book, but if millions — nay, billions — of people read, then there must be something a little deeper than a quest for vicarious adventure or bookish education at the root of our practice. In other words, beyond our personal motivations, there must be something that pushes us, collectively, to find enjoyment in reading. In my opinion, travelling is very similar to reading in that our personal rationales to go somewhere may well echo (or resonate with, for that matter) a hypothetical deeper need that we would share as a species.

Bell towers and day-trippers

By all accounts, my grandfather was a difficult man. He had no tolerance for mediocrity in any shape or form, but there was a special type of people that he particularly despised: those who did not travel. A great traveller himself (he was born in Belgium, received his military training in the US and had lived in Africa; all that before he turned thirty), he even used an old French expression to sum up what he disliked in those people. They had, according to him, a mentalité de clocher (or “bell tower mentality”), by which he meant the attitude of defiance towards what is other that you sometimes encounter in people for whom there is quite literally no place like home. I am sorry to report that, to some extent, my grandfather’s arrogant take at non-travellers has been passed onto me through DNA and upbringing.

Still, I do understand how privileged you need to be to have both the leisure and the means that are imponderably necessary to travel. That’s why I think I ought to make a distinction between the people who cannot travel and the people who simply won’t. Not being able to travel, whether it be because of financial reasons, physical impossibility, or status (refugees or asylum seekers are not always allowed to cross borders, for instance) does not mean that the people who fall victim to these circumstances also have that bell tower mentality. I would argue that the only reason that doesn’t have a leg to stand on is the lack of time, which I suspect might be an excuse not to get out of one’s comfort zone.

Other than that, I understand very well that there are certain conditions that may impede travelling. They are, after all, the same reasons that hinder social mobility in general, and they should be fought at all cost, not only on the purpose of making travel accessible to all, but on the purpose of making this world a decent place for everyone instead of it being an unbearable struggle from beginning to end. Yet, the mentalité de clocher, I am afraid, covers a whole different problem.

When I was a child, we had neighbours who were much richer than my parents.  They had inherited all sorts of properties that they had sold and the money slept in various bank accounts in various tax havens. Did they travel to Grand Bahama? Did they take trips to Egypt? Did they visit the Great Wall of China? No, they didn’t. They did, however, spend approximately the same budget on a yearly three-week vacation a hundred kilometres away from home, within the same country, where they would go through the same routines as if they hadn’t left home, and splurge a good two months of salary on slot machines. The vacation always took place in the same apartment block on the coast, and not once in thirty years did they take a walk on the beach. It was their definition of travelling. Part of the reason why they never went abroad was that they were terribly racist. Or maybe it was the other way around. That’s the problem with the bell tower mentality; you never know which comes first:  the racist? Or the enemy of travel?

Why my neighbours even bothered taking the trip to the seaside in the first place always puzzled me. They did not even seem to enjoy it at all and they always came back with a sigh of relief, as if they were happy to discover that nothing had changed during their stay an hour and a half away. What was it that motivated them to undertake the same procession every year if it was all so disagreeable to them? We lived in a close-knit neighbourhood, so I finally asked the question. Their answer left me more confused than when I had none: they did what they had always done and what everyone else did. Of course, at the time I didn’t know what petit bourgeois meant, but I had heard about the bell tower thing and I mistook the expression of conformism that can be found in the middle-class for the profound disregard for otherness that my grandfather had pinpointed. Maybe I wasn’t entirely wrong.

There were three travels in my entire childhood, because the eighties had left the working class bleeding and holidays simply couldn’t be a priority for my parents, like for many other parents at the time and nowadays. I was very lucky in the sense that even though we did not travel much, my parents really made every journey a special occasion, with itineraries, guidebooks and packed sandwiches. When I was seven, we went to the seaside for a week; when I was ten, we went to Vienna for four days, and when I was eleven, we went to Portugal for a fortnight. I cannot really identify a date for the end of my childhood, but I know I wasn’t a child anymore when I travelled next, so I consider those to be the three major adventures of my juvenile years — and they were proper adventures.

But there also were other journeys in my childhood.

It was in the pre-satellite navigation era. My dad generally had a good sense of orientation, but my mum kept the map on her lap. I sat on the backseat, my nose pressed against the window. Both my parents would keep me entertained by telling me about everything we saw on the road; what war that monument commemorated, which famous person had been there, when the castle had been built, what my ancestors had done here and there. That habit of taking the car to drive around for the afternoon lasted for a very long time. One of the last times we did it, I already was a master’s student and my mum already had cancer. That day, we went to Verdun by the side roads. We stopped at a roadside restaurant and the waitress made a mistake on our bill. Back in the car, the three of us giggled like schoolchildren who had gotten away with playing hooky. It was our thing.

Pathos and black olives

I went to Greece at the age of fifteen. I don’t know what sacrifices my parents made to send me on that school trip, they never said and I never asked, but I do remember that they were determined for me to go. It was in April. I remember how hot it was when my friends and I, a bunch of clueless teenagers, were visiting the Parthenon and the Great Theatre of Epidaurus. I remember the smell of laurel in the narrow streets with whitewashed façades in the villages of Peloponnese. I remember chewing on black olives and keeping the pit in my mouth long after I was done eating the fruit. The beauty of the place overwhelmed me a little.

Of course, I didn’t let it show, because you’re supposed to be jaded and unimpressed until at least the end of adolescence, in a bizarre mimicry of what you consider to be adulthood — and yet, Greece left me with the lasting impression that I would never have enough time to see what was to be seen in the world. How ironic, now that I think of it, that I had my first encounter with that particular type of pathos not only in Greece, but at a time when it was all part of a game of make-believe to have it all figured out already.

Perhaps it is precisely that feeling that the originally endless possibilities that we have at birth decline in number as we grow up, and then grow old, that pushes us forward. Still we have to live with the fact that with every day that goes by, the time we have to read all the books, to taste all the dishes and to visit all the places decreases, making the quest to see it all an ever-elusive and maddening desire that is never to be fulfilled. In a sense, that is the beauty of it: we know of our condition of mortals — it is the prerequisite of our existence, after all — and yet, instead of sitting there and waiting for the end of the absurd comedy, we run in all directions, trying to collect as many memories as we can. It is really something we, as a species, deserve credit for: we may be completely delusional, but our resilience is powered by our delusion itself. It is remarkable, really.

What is even more remarkable is that the aforementioned consciousness of our own mortality coupled with the instinct we have acquired along millennia of struggling to survive should theoretically make us a particularly risk-averse species. In all logic, we should do our best to elude dangerous situations as much as we can. After all, we do tend to avoid back-alleys late at night and most of us do not lick batteries. And yet, we travel. What force can possibly drive us with such strength that we overlook every bit of knowledge inherited from our ancestors up to the point of, say, boarding a 10-ton narrow aluminium coffin propelled by highly flammable fuel engines at 900 km/h 12,000 kilometres over the ground knowing perfectly well that if the plane should fail even in the slightest, we have no back-up plan as human beings cannot, in fact, fly?

A Sabena Douglas DC-3 plane

Mirrors and puzzles

Surely the optimism bias has something to do with our persistence in going through airport gates. However, the cognitive fallacy, which causes each of us to believe that we are at lesser risk of experiencing dangerous situations than others (like when smokers keep smoking because they think they are going to defy the lung cancer statistics) merely explains the how, not the why; it is a means through which we pursue a goal. The goal itself is the one mystery that we need to investigate. Alas, very much like my students faced with the question of literature, I have no universal answer; I only have my own opinion, informed by my own experience, and just like my students, I might be failing to see the bigger picture. In all cases, I think that the reason why we keep travelling is a mixture of curiosity and desire to feel alive.

We are curious animals. We want to know what, why, when, and where. We have explored seas and oceans, crossed jungles and deserts, and we’ve even set foot on the moon. We have invented devices to calculate the size of the earth and its distance from the sun. We have created complicated tools to guide our ships day and night. We are naturally attracted to, yet wary of the unknown. We want to know, even when we are scared. We cannot stop pushing the limits just because we want to know how far we can go. But of course, once we know, there is one puzzle left. Like most great apes reacting to the introduction of a mirror into their habitat, we want to take a closer look at ourselves. And one of the most efficient ways to look at oneself as an individual is first to get a clear picture of humanity as a whole.

As far as I am concerned, I want to believe that the thirst that we try to quench when we travel goes well beyond mere curiosity for the world and for ourselves. We’re not just looking for others to be mirrors of ourselves. On the contrary, I think that we are trying to be mirrors for others. When we travel, we may be somewhat disappointed when the ultimate truth reveals itself in the shape of an old man standing on a street corner on a Tuesday afternoon: people are the same everywhere. There is nothing else to discover. We all feel pain, loss, love, anger, and joy. Each human being is capable of a myriad of nuances in their expressions, but all humans feel them. What we’re running after in the pyramids of Peru or in the middle of Trafalgar Square is that revelation that will change our lives, but we often fail to see it because it is hidden in plain sight and it is easily overlooked: we want to be connected to the rest of humanity.

Connectedness to others, and to a certain extent, to our environment, is what makes us feel alive. When you exchange a glance of connivance with a stranger in a crowd, or when you manage to communicate through gestures with someone whose language you don’t speak, you make the choice to connect with people. There is something incredibly reassuring in seeing a familiar facial expression on someone you have never met before, because deep down, it makes you realise that whatever the degree of otherness you may experience 10,000 miles from home, you are part of something bigger than yourself. I think that we all look for clues that we are not alone. Some of us find comfort in religion, some find it in being part of a sports team, others will look for the universality of human experience in literature, but in the end, we just want to belong.

Feelings and gunpowder barrels

In a sense, if we truly want to connect, and if that need to do so is to become the philosophy of our young twenty-first century (which one can only hope for, as, today, more than ever, we are in desperate need for some form of moral guidance), we will be forced to see our own existences not only in recognition of, but also in relation to others. That idea has always reminded me of John Fowles’ commentary on war in The Magus (1977) in which Conchis, the mysterious trickster, says that war is “a psychosis caused by an inability to see relationships.” His philosophy is that when you are aware of the relationships between people, you cannot reduce them to the status of mere objects; the “extra dimension of feeling” makes it possible for us to perceive that people love, need and match each other (side note: read The Magus, it is brilliant). Travelling, when done right, makes that recognition of others possible through the creation of a relation to them.

If we do consider connectedness as the end goal of human experience (and I am not saying it should be a universal principle, though it certainly isn’t the worst one could choose for one’s own life), or maybe more accurately, if we see it as a form of therapy to cure our underlying feeling of loneliness, then why is it a reason to travel? After all, you could easily connect with your neighbours or your family and never leave the shadow of your bell tower. But then would that mean that the unfamiliar is completely dispensable, and that the inner social circle is sufficient in all cases?

There’s a theatre monologue titled Novecento (1994) by Italian author Alessandro Barrico in which we find our protagonist, a pianist whose name is Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900 — or 1900, for short — sitting on a gunpowder barrel on the SS Virginian, a ship that is about to be decommissioned and sunk offshore. Novecento (“Nineteen Hundred” in Italian) has never left the boat in his entire life, but he has seen the world go by. There is a superb tirade in which Novecento explains that he has never felt the need to travel himself because the world has travelled past him while he stayed on board. Novecento’s reasoning made a lot of sense in the diegetic setting of the 1940s, and it still rings true today. It teaches us that there is no need to go far to travel, and that keeping your eyes open can take you much further than you’d think. All in all, travelling is a state of mind.

The bell tower mentality, on the other hand, entails yet another downside: strangers to the parish are necessarily less than. Because there’s no place like your own village, city, or country, the people who come from other realms cannot be equal to the people who grew up to the sound of your own bell. And nothing good can come from a mind set in which one believes that a person who is different is little less of a person. In that, the bell tower is the antithesis of Novecento’s SS Virginian; though both of them are immutable in their stately precedence over individuals’ lives, they reflect opposite attitudes to life. While Novecento soaks up the world, the familiars of the bell tower reject it. The piano player doesn’t need to be travelling to travel; the bell tower people can be travelling all they like, they’ll never travel. Being in motion, as it turns out, is very different from experiencing. Travel must not be driven by a centripetal force; it is rather a centrifugal movement from the self outwards — that is, if my working hypothesis is correct.

Psst! While you’re here…

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All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux, except the photograph of the old man, courtesy of Quintin Gellar (check his work out; it’s awesome) via Pexels.com, and the Parthenon engraving, taken from page 85 of Voyage en Grèce 1889. Notes et impressions. Vingt et une planches en héliogravure, etc., which is one of the million photographs made available for free by the British Library. The cartoons from old Punch issues and the maps come from my private collection, the timetables are from Bradshaw’s guides, and the Sabena DC Douglas DC-3 was photographed by my grandmother in Kinshasa in 1948.

4 thoughts on “Why We Travel

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