Thoughts on Travel
Mon 15th Oct 2018
Before travelling to Iceland this summer, I started thinking about my relationship with departing, being away and returning home.
Some people long to be away from home and give themselves completely to the pleasure of being away, to the joyous feeling of no commitments and no normal routine. They start dreaming of their next holiday almost before they have returned from the current one. Others, like me, fret. We have a duplicitous relationship with travel and holidays. Particularly those of us who are self-employed. We feel guilty at taking time off and find it difficult to tear ourselves away from unfinished projects and work in progress, feeling that somehow it can’t be left like this. And for me, and for others, there is a love of being at home.
Once away I like being away, but first I have to struggle with the decision to leave, and then with transitioning between the two states. I worry about home, pets, garden, allotment and projects underway. All, in fact, that I am leaving behind.
When I’m away I take pleasure in new sights, new experiences and a different rhythm and rhyme to a day. And I always read more. I return invigorated and refreshed, and holidays seem like a good idea.
Before departure there is always trepidation, being at the juncture of transit, between stationary and mobile. Thoughts whirl; do I really want to go away? Is the journey worth making? Home momentarily becomes the cocoon I fear to leave. The act of leaving, the travel itself and ultimately return are all interlinked emotionally
The week before departure my productivity greatly improves. The time limitation is a catalyst to doing rather than putting off. I wish I could create this drive to be a completer-finisher at other times but it only occurs with a deadline, and then the focus is on the deadline material not the other stuff of life.
I like to read books related to the country I am traveling to. (Which is not to say I only read British books when at home, though that would be a logical conclusion.) I am a slow reader. At home I only read in bed, a few pages a night, so books can take a long time to get through. When traveling I consume books, taking any opportunity to read, trains and aeroplanes are perfect as there is nothing else to do but lose oneself in prose.
On my trip to Iceland I read:
Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland.
Lavinia Greenlaw. Notting Hill Editions Ltd. 2011
The book is William Morris’s Icelandic Diaries from July to August 1871 with Lavinia Greenlaw poetic interventions. In Greenlaw’s introduction she talks about Morris’s mixed feeling about travel, his innate nervousness of natural perils and the complex domestic reasons that drove him to Iceland from his newly acquired home of Kelmscott Manor.
Greenlaw quotes Morris’ biographer Fiona MacCarthy observing that ‘Morris was not one of the great Victorian travellers. But in the course of his life made two journeys that had an effect on him out of all proportion to their actual duration.’
Greenlaw continues, ‘Morris is continuously fixing the place in his mind while getting caught up in questions of travel, noting his reactions to the idea of leaving or arriving, hurry and delay, what it means to dread somewhere you’ve never been to or to encounter the actuality of a long-held vision, and the ways in which travel feels good for you even as you can’t wait to get home.’
All this concurred with my feeling of setting out on a journey, and the why and where it will lead us. Travel’s effect is often more about a personal philosophical journey rather than the physical.
Immediately he sets of on the first leg of his journey Morris fears that he has forgotten something, maybe even himself. This discombobulated feeling of not quite being right is the very embodiment of traveling. There is much one must have, and stuff one will want or hope to need and stuff that will be a comfort as you wander, adrift from one’s home and possessions.
Travel requires one to live in the present. In and of the moment, unfettered by cares of family commitments, homely comforts and the everyday. The objective is now, and the immediate future. Where next, what to eat, where to sleep and what am I seeing and experiencing?
One has to set oneself up as a tourist, not knowing where anything is, the language, the customs, the time even. Everything is altered by the act of travel, including oneself. Travelling with others or even alone requires one to establish roles and relationships. The classic tale of a mother taking a grown partner’s passport when traveling with children, suggesting that they are suddenly incapable of looking after their own documentation is a manifestation of need to be in control of something when all else is at sea.
Traveling with others alters the experience. Alone you set the pace and only you can make every decision. You flap solo and solve solo. With others the burden of constant decision-making is shared, but group dynamics even for two brings complications. Tardiness, disorderliness, indecisiveness when the other is at the end of their own decision making capacity all put a strain on co-travellers. As does their sudden and inexplicable disappearance from sight.
There is also no escape. No front door to leave by or to slam behind you, no work to go to, no chores to attend to. You are together in the confinements of travel.
There is the joy of the adventure and the love of the little details that turn out just fine, and better than fine. But there can be misery. Weather, the most important and imposing of elements, can make or un-make any trip. Cold and unpreparedness is the worst, rapidly bringing about wretchedness, sulking, and bad temper.
Travel journals can be a borderless. They can move from plans for tomorrow, to what was eaten for dinner, to art. Full of freewheeling thoughts they can be as meandering as one’s feet or as sedentary as a limpet. They can romp off on wide exuberant description, ramble along in a contemplative, introspective bent or become notes on things to do on one’s return from this idyll of idleness.
In a small notebook I write snippets of thoughts with little drawing of things I have seen and ideas that have sprung to mind. Seeing something fresh, outside of one’s daily routine means one can see more clearly. Un-encumbered by the noise that occupies my head at home. I see connections and become inspired, invigorated with new things to make and do.
Never keeping a travel journal is a great regret. Travel enhances and bombards one’s senses, and though memories are strong, details such as place names always elude me. A journal would not only mean one had something to consult and remind one but writing helps to plot the travels in your head. At the moment of jotting in the journal you are simultaneously current and in reflective mood.
In the introduction to Questions of Travel Lavinia Greenlaw describes William Morris’s writing. ‘His sentences are upholstered with colons and semi-colons and take a very long time to approach a full stop. His adjectives are also bright and clear.’ She also talks about his movement between lyrical description and factual, and changes of mind that occur. Morris is open-minded and mobile in his description. Greenlaw describes his use of simile as going against the “correct” nature of them. Morris will describe water by water. I like all this, I identify with this semi-attempted correctness that is abandoned in the desire to write and get the thoughts down.
Travel writing seems also to bring out the whimsical, reminisces and be revelatory. Small Air Icelandic, which flies short haul in and out of Reykjavik, has no fancy in-flight entertainment, so came up with an alternative occupation that has proved most gripping for passengers. Placed in each seat pocket is a hardback notebook with a note asking for passengers to share their stories of travel. The results have been revealing. Sketches and description of where people have been or are on their way too abound, but so too are the more personal notes. Hopes for the future, relationship disintegration and personal loss. Possibly the fact that these in transit scribblings are not being shared widely via social media encourages their confessional nature.
It is almost as if travel is liberating, that being in transit makes the voyager introspective, more reflective. And writing is thinking at a slower pace; indulge in time and stuff flows out. Taken out of one’s usual habitat one starts looking at oneself; current situation, dreams, desired changes, fears. Contemplating the real reason for traveling away, and the reason for returning home. Or not.
Travel is a wonderful mix of anxiety and delight. Joy in the new and fear of the unknown. All decisions need to be made, all information gleaned. Where to go, how to get there, can I get there this way, where do I get off, how will I know I’ve arrived and will everything be alright?
All travel is simultaneously fascinating and dull. One almost wants to be enamoured and becalmed at the same moment by that awesome view, church, meal, artefact. And simply let one’s mind wonder unimpeded by musts of home life, and guilelessly look at this new visual location, and just be.
Once away and arrival has occurred, a routine can be set-in place. A bed, your things, unpack, the new place settled into, made homeby your occupation. It always amazes me the brain’s capacity to re-locate and assimilate quickly to a new temporary abode.
Briefly where one is staying becomes home. Temporary yet reassuring, returning back to this nest at the end of a day’s sightseeing to regroup before the evening assault on where to eat is comforting.
One misses home, whilst at the same time it is delightful to have gone missing from it. Homesickness has a value in that it makes one more aware of what is right about your life and what needs changing. And these transformative thoughts are not dependent of duration or endurance of anything, the simplest of travels can be richly rewarding over any amount of home staying.
I go away to see thing; lots of things, in all sorts of museums and galleries, cityscapes and landscapes. And I dream up new projects, make connections, get inspired and have an epiphany as to why I make art. Seeing other artworks and the archaeology of human making/fabrication endeavour motivates me to make more.
Somehow the act of being away makes me braver. I get enthused, I find myself boosted; I gain a sense of courage and conviction that my ideas have worth and there is value in my art making. Somehow seeing new things and getting distance from current projects enhances my capability. Sadly, a lot of these feeling are diminished and wither away on my return. Some resolve is lost by stepping over the home threshold.
Maybe I waste it. I don’t immediately utilise the notes and references I have made but instead get re-engulfed by the everyday and settle back to ‘normal’. On my travels I cast my net wide but on return fail to look in it and utilise my catch. Somehow I need to change this pattern to remain invigorated by the act of travel.
However I do know processing thoughts takes time. One does not always know immediately what to do with that nugget of information or visual stimulus. It needs to filter down through your mind. These new things form sediment at the bottom of one’s brain, which will be sifted through at a moment unbeknownst and become useful when needed.
So in traveling not only does one’s body physically travel, but one’s unconscious is also on tour. You discover and use elements of one’s character and mind that are often dormant or underused at home. We discover ourselves, and who we are not, on a voyage.
One can’t discover something twice and, as painful as the unknown is on a first visit, it will never have the thrill of the primary expedition. You can learn to love and return to somewhere again and again, particularly a foreign city, but never quite with the pleasure of the initial encounter.
Ultimately travel is savouring the elation of achievement, the going, the being and the getting back.