De Botton said:
“What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall…We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.”
On Transit & Transportation
The bookends of a trip:
To get somewhere and back, there is the actual action of travel, covering the miles or steps to your destination and then re-covering those miles or steps back home or your original starting point, or somewhere entirely new.
When I was little:
Transportation: cars, bikes, subway rides accompanied by parents and my own two feet.
Motion of Subways:
I sit, I wait, I tap my feet, I lean over platform, I wait, I sigh, I see light, I see train, train passes by and slowly rolls to a stop. Doors open, I step aside, let people off, step inside, doors close, beeline to empty corner seat (best in train car), I sit, I put bag on my lap, I lean back, train moves and I am on my way. This is my everyday travel.
Bus trips to D.C.:
I take buses to D.C. because northwestern travel is cheaper that way (I’ll save airplanes for more grandeur adventures.)
Highways are always the same, but my eyes widen and my mind jumps at breaks in the scenery—bridges, waters, horses, cows, especially gorgeous sunsets and sunrays hitting that boring, boring highway.
That Friday morning, it rains terribly, but by noon, the sun is out and the air is crisply warm. During the drive to D.C., in New Jersey, I notice a river with white, foam scuds on its surface. It looks so grimy, but I figure it is because of the rains. In Baltimore, we pass by giant cargo ships being loaded with coal for other states and countries. In between forests of trees, I catch sights of expansive farms with tractors and horses.
De Botton said:
“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving plans, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places.”
Action of Transit:
Traveling entails waiting.
You are waiting to get from point A to point B. You will wait to get from point B to point A, or from point B to point C and then head on over to point A. Or any of those combinations work (there are, as you know, many, many places to go and come from).
Waiting equals anxiety, for me at least. I worry about point C when I am in point A, or thinking back on point B and what I could have done better while I’m on my way to point C.
Though, waiting allows you to be with yourself.
A pause: could be a short five minute pause passing under the East River or a twelve hour pause spanning time zones and continents. A pregnant pause—filled with anticipation, anxiety, desire, boredom. I need to do something. Magazines and books, while filled with interesting topics, fail to capture my attention. Preset words are too still for me. I fidget, with papers, pens, chapstick, water bottles…my mind fidgets as well. I think: “I’m so happy I’m in a plane again, how do I look from down below? Is someone looking at me right this very second? I should have written that paper before I left, am I even going to write it now? I know I won’t—I can’t concentrate, my hair is too frizzy and I hate it, but I don’t know what to do about it, sometimes I’m really not a girly girl, I kinda miss him, I’m glad I’m going to D.C. next weekend, look at those mountains! They look so small, but really, they aren’t. I want to climb a mountain. Damnit, I can’t believe I’m graduating, I really don’t want to. I need a job. I am going to eat real gelato and pasta tonight, I hope it’s delicious. I hope I get there soon. I wonder what we’re doing tonight.”
Sound of Flying:
Eyes closed. Not humming, but whirring. Constant whirring. Engines. Pushing plane through air. No one is talking—it is midnight, New York time—everyone is trying to sleep. Occasional snore. Open eyes and it is dark.
De Botton said:
“The eye attempts to match what it can see with what the mind knows should be there, like a reader trying to decipher a familiar phrase in a new language.”
He also said: “And to think that all along, hidden from our sight, our lives were that small: the world we live in but almost never see, the way we must appear to the hawk and the gods.”
I don’t hear a lot about actually looking through airplane windows, except for musings on clouds (this is because clouds are up there and we’re usually down here so clouds are majestic and when we fly, we are up there with those wondrous, permeable clouds and we somehow become majestic as well).
Bird’s eye view: boxy patches of nondescript land that are various shades of greens and browns; winding, swirling highways and thinner roads where it is impossible to see any cars; mountains that look so tiny, but you know once you are down there, they are huger than anything you could ever imagine.
I take many pictures.
(Don’t get me wrong—I love clouds. I love their shape and how they look when the sun hits them at just the right angle and the sky becomes that perfectly-desirable-but-nearly-impossible-to-recreate shade of sunset-orange and the clouds’ shadows darken the green, green ground.)
When the landscape down below settles into flat, flat plains and roads, I pretend I am on a road trip in my car and my eye traces my path. I can pretend this because I don’t know how to drive.
Anything outside of the familiar, home setting.
De Botton said:
“Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.
“This is the lesson written into the stones of the desert and the ice fields of the poles. So grandly is it written there that we may come away from such places not crushed but inspired by what lies beyond us, privileged to be subject to such majestic necessities. The sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship.”
How to not be a tourist:
As much as we try to fight it, there are the usual images that arise when we think of certain places, i.e. the Empire State Building to New York, the Eiffel Tower to Paris, the Great Wall to China. When you visit that place, you feel almost required to visit that building or structure or wall, because it represents that city. What will make you different from a regular tourist is your underlying goal—instead of skimming the foreign locale superficially, you must want to learn and absorb your surroundings. You must want to leave a changed person, internally.
That Red, Red Bridge:
For me, I linked the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco. I went to northern California by myself last summer, in search of something different. In the hostel where I was staying, there was a flier promoting bike rentals. It seemed like a very Californian thing to do, so I decided to go for it. Then, remembering the bridge, I decided to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Why the Golden Gate Bridge: 1. It is beautiful—the red color compliments the bright blue sky and the one-shade-darker-and-constantly-in-motion blue water. The lines are sleek in a worn sense. 2. I am fascinated by anything near water. And lastly, 3. The Golden Gate Bridge came to represent what I wanted to be capable of doing.
I started in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf (a mix of New York’s Seaport and Times Square). The bridge was off to the distance to my left. There was no famous San Francisco fog—the skies were blue and clear and I saw the Golden Gate perfectly. It was hard to miss that gorgeous shade of deep, bold red.
Biking to the bridge proved to be more difficult that I imagined. I forgot that San Francisco is hilly. I struggled to bike uphill and sometimes, I wanted to give up, but I knew I couldn’t—I had to reach the Golden Gate Bridge. Who knew when I’d be back again? So I trekked on and I was rewarded by coasting downhill. The wind felt so good.
As I got closer to the Golden Gate, my heart raced faster. That might have been because of the exercise, but I’d like to think it was because I was almost there.
Once I reached the bridge, I paused. I made it. I actually made it. Thought about the effort and thought that went into designing this bridge. Thought about how many men worked on construction this bridge, just to connect San Francisco and Marin County.
Slowly, I biked across the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in every inch of red steel and cable, feeling the pavement that hovered above the San Francisco bay beneath my tires, breathing in the Pacific-misted air, looking at everyone else who decided to walk on this amazing bridge.
When I finished, I looked back on the bridge with a sense of accomplishment. I did it.
On Being Away
De Botton said:
“What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”
Chicago versus New York:
My fascination with Chicago started because of a Spoon song, “Chicago at Night.” Britt Daniel sang “She’s never been to Chicago at night before the fall/and it don’t stop, not at all/It falls all around/In the city/Hits the ground.” After listening to that, I needed to go to Chicago. At night.
When I got there, though, I was kind of disappointed.
Chicago is basically the Midwestern New York—the streets seemed cleaner (at least, the streets that I walked on), the Chicago River was this brilliant shade of blue that I knew the Hudson or the East River could never achieve. Even the shiny buildings seemed newer, their edges sharply cut into the sky while their curves fluidly embraced the sky. I appreciated this because it maintained urban aspects while being refreshing at the same time, but it did not fascinate me.
Other cities tend to have correlating neighborhoods: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury is basically New York’s Lower East Side, where trendy bohemia thrives or the gay-friendly neighborhoods in San Francisco (Castro), Chicago (Lakeview) and New York (Chelsea). (Almost) every city has a Financial District, with their main building—San Francisco’s Transamerica building, Chicago’s Sears Tower.
It is easy to find the familiar wherever you go.
Streets of Rome:
Rome is in another country and continent and is drastically different from New York City.
Sidewalks were narrow and slanted and streets were made of uneven cobblestone. Many areas didn’t have sidewalks—pedestrians (myself included) mingled with scooters, bikes and Smart Cars in the streets. Where I walked, there were barely any pedestrian lights, so I got to run and dart through traffic. I did this anyway in New York. While there were tourists, they weren’t annoying. People are friendly in a not-creepy sense. Even the men who hit on me were sweeter with their “Ciao bellas” subtle winks and broken English.
That was what I was looking for my entire life.
It was my spring break, but Rome was cold and chilly—the days were misty and the nights rainy, and it even hailed. I wore a sweatshirt and blazer (because it was “spring break,” I refused to wear my winter coat).
On The Return
De Botton said:
“We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it…The reason people were not looking was that they had never done so before. They had fallen into the habit of considering their universe to be boring—and their universe had duly fallen into line with their expectations.”
Because of the trees that I noticed in California, Florida and Italy, I have a new-found appreciation of trees. There is a tree at the end of my street, right where 85th Road intersects with 141st Street, in front of the black house right by my old elementary school. Its branches are distinct and shapely—they twist and turn in every which way, but they do not bunch together into one wooden mass, they are spaced perfectly so blue contrasts the brown just right
The tree is regal.
I would have never noticed it if I didn’t notice Roman trees and their dark, dark green branches that hover over the ground and Floridian palm trees mingling with regular oaks.
Whenever I come back from a trip, I spend one entire day at home, just relaxing and talking to my family.
The next day, I’m itching for another adventure.