The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton

From the mat to the world–a break from yoga to plan a trip to NYC and get some de Botton civility.

I was thinking of going into some yoga-spiritual related books after the four yoga books I’ve just finished, such as Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, which was one of the first second-hand books I ever bought when I moved to San Francisco after college. Or Joseph Campbell, or Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Still Life with Woodpecker, all of which influenced me so much in the late 1980s. But since I have a travel bug and am planning two or three trips (NYC next month, Jacksonville,  Florida and for Thanksgiving, Kauai with high school girlfriends in February), I thought I’d better reread The Art of Travel.

De Botton reminds that “wherever you go, there you are,” and it is true that half the time I “wanna get away” because I’m in a funk. The anticipation of travel is a huge part of the pleasure, he says, but I disagree. I think because of my eye problems, I have had trouble reading online about destinations and reading even print guidebooks and maps, so planning is not as fun as it could be. I like doing a bare outline—finding a yoga studio or gym and one or two cultural activities—and then winging it much of the way.

The author’s writing is gorgeous and seemingly effortless and inspires a lot of envy in this reader. I start riffing on what he’s written, second-hand ideas of how to look at things, for example, cars on the highway at dusk all beginning to look the same and it reminds me of the saying (the aphorism?) “All cats look alike in the dark.” I always marveled at those people who could identify a car’s make or model by the shape and placement of the headlights or tail lights at night. I think every car with both headlights operating behind me is a cop car.

liminal: relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; occupying a position at or on both sides of a boundary or threshold

liveries: special uniforms worn by servants or officials

In the second part of the book, On Traveling Places, de Botton writes about 19th century French poet Baudelaire and British ex-pat in Paris, novelist James Joyce. Baudelaire was fascinated by places of departure, such as train stations or shipyards. He marveled over the mass and unity of ships that should be ungainly but on the seas are watertight and graceful. Botton compares this to the way we marvel over jumbo jets today, and in a way this section reminds me of the scenes on airplanes in one of my all-time favorite movies, Fight Club.

One of the few times I have flown first class, I was delighted to receive with my meal salt and pepper shakers in the form of tiny planes. Single serving (or at most, a few meals’ worth) salt and pepper shakers. Botton’s writing is so good I want to retype many, many sentences to use as examples of how en pointe his vocabulary is and how silkily his sentences flow. He talks about how on a plane, even the most banal food becomes a little exciting. That’s the part that reminds me of Fight Club. On a plane we have our little domaine—seat, under seat, seat pocket, tray table, overhead bin space. Everyone has their rituals. We get single serving everything. Our seat mates are either single serving friends or studiously ignored.

Edward Hopper, painter of Nighthawks, the uber-famous diiner seen from the outside scene, is brought into the mix. He read Baudelaire when, at the age of 24, he went to Paris—in 1906! I never realized Hopper was that ancient, I sort of thought he was a 1950s painter. In the mid-1920s, Hopper bought a car and traversed the US, back and forth from motel to neon-signed motel. I never pictured that either, I always imagined—very briefly and infrequently and based solely on Nighthawks and maybe one or two other Art 101 paintings—he was a New Yorker, walking around with his canvas and palette in the dark.

What’s fun about rereading this book is how much more I know since the last time I read it. I now know who seafaring, mountain climbing, basically tireless traveler and botanist Alexander von Humbolt is and have read two books about or inspired by him. One is the fantastic The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and one is a biography of Humbolt by Andrea Wulf called The Invention of Nature. I loved these books and felt so inspired and so eensy weensy next to Humbolt’s mega accomplishments.

The rest of the book is set in exotic places like Spain and Provence and I love that de Botton admits that he is not always the most engaged, excited traveler. Sometimes he doesn’t appreciate the appeal of a landscape, such as Provence, until he sees it through art, such as Van Gogh’s paintings.

de Botton ends with comments on seeing your own home environment with the eyes of a traveler. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, and I think it’s thanks to meditation and yoga that I’ve been able to slow myself down and actually visit a local museum, notice the bark on trees, visit with a praying mantis in the yard. When you start noticing and appreciating your home and town, you almost never want to leave…almost.

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