Travel Archives - The School Of Life

The idea of a garden has always been central to Islam for reasons that are at once hopeful — because nature is so beautiful — and deeply melancholy — because life itself can never be made perfect.

Babur’s Garden, a charbagh styled garden located in Jaipur, India

For Islam, the world we inhabit will always be mired in khaṭīʾa or sin. No human enterprise or institution can ever be without significant degrees of dhanb or wrong-doing: jealousy, stubbornness, rage and lack of forgiveness predominate. Only in the next life can we hope to escape the irritation and the agony; only in jannah, or paradise, will we be assured of true contentment. In paradise, according to the Qur’an, there will be flowing rivers, flowers, incorruptible waters and unchangeable milk, golden goblets, ‘virgin companions of equal age’ and rows of cushions set out in the balmy shade of fruit trees.

Yet because this might all be a long way off, Islam recommends an unusual technique to prevent us from losing our poise and despairing: we should become bustani or gardeners. The enlightened should redirect their frustrations with the state of humanity towards the construction of a hadiqa, or walled garden. Within its limited circumference, with due modesty, it can be endowed with many of the qualities of the eventual garden of paradise. Our garden should have flowing water, some reflecting pools, symmetrical flower beds, fruit trees and places to sit. Everywhere that Muslim civilisation spread, gardens developed along with it, and in the drier regions, where nothing would grow, flowers and trees were represented on carpets, which functioned as miniature mobile gardens that could be carried on the back of a camel. When the Muslims reached southern Spain, the climate allowed them to create pieces of horticulture which astonish and seduce us to this day.

The canal courtyard of the Palacio de Generalife in Granada, Spain

A telling observation about gardening is that almost everyone over the age of sixty-five is concerned with it, and almost no one in their late teens has ever evinced the slightest interest in it. The difference isn’t coincidental. A person’s enthusiasm for gardening is inversely correlated to their degree of hope for life in general. The more we believe that the whole of existence can be rendered perfect, that love and marriage can be idyllic, that our careers can reward us materially and honour us creatively, the less time we will have for beds of laurel or thyme, lavender or rosemary. Why would we let such minor interventions detain us when far greater perfection is within reach? But a few decades on, most of our dreams are liable to have taken a substantial hit, much of what we put our faith in professionally and romantically will have failed, and at that point we might be ready to look with different, and significantly more sympathetic, eyes at the consolations offered by cyprus trees and myrtle hedges, geraniums and lilies of the valley. No longer will gardening be a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, but rather a shelter from gusts and squalls of despair.

Islam is appropriately wise in its ambitions. It doesn’t tell its followers to plough themselves a farm, nor does it advise them to focus on a window box. The scale is carefully calibrated: neither too big to mire us in unmanageable expense and bureaucracy, nor too small to humiliate and sadden us. The garden becomes a perfect home for our remaining pleasures in a troubled world; it’s where we can repair to contemplate islands of beauty once we have come to know and sorrowfully navigated oceans of pain.

For years, we  heard much about a need to fly less; now, we’re imagining a world in which people might not fly at all.

In the future, children may gather at the feet of the old, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses constantly used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea.

The wise elders would explain that inside the aircraft, passengers, who had only paid the price of a few books for the privilege, would impatiently and ungratefully shut their window blinds to the views, would sit in silence next to strangers – and complain that the food in miniature plastic beakers before them was not quite as tasty as the sort they could prepare in their own kitchens.

The elders would add that the skies, now undisturbed except by the meandering progress of bees and sparrows, had once thundered to the sound of airborne leviathans, that entire swathes of the world’s cities had been disturbed by their progress.

They might mention that in an ancient London suburb once known as Fulham, it had been rare for the sensitive to be able to sleep much past five thirty in the morning, due the unremitting progress of inbound aluminium tubes from Canada and the eastern seaboard of the United States.

At JFK, now turned into a museum, one would be able to walk unhurriedly across the two main runways and even give in to the temptation to sit cross-legged on their centrelines, a gesture with some of the same sublime thrill as touching a disconnected high-voltage electricity cable, running one’s fingers along the teeth of an anaesthetised shark or having a wash in a fallen dictator’s marble bathroom.

Everything would, of course, go very slowly. It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbour. And yet there would be benefits tied up in this languor.

Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.

Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel, we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys.

How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth.

We would admire them like small children do, and adults no longer dare, for fear of seeming uncynical and unvigilant towards their crimes against our world.

Despite all the chaos and inconvenience of our disrupted flight schedules, we should feel grateful to a virus – for allowing us briefly to imagine what a flight-less future would envy and pity us for.

We’ve got a steady, unfortunate tendency to focus exclusively on what’s bothering us. We brood; we circle endlessly round our worries. We get drawn deeper into the gloomy recesses of our own minds. We lose touch with the brighter, more cheerful parts of who we are. 

As we wander through the trees we’re struck by how lovely the light is; it’s broken and softened by the branches and leaves. We start to take in details: a squirrel is running up the trunk of a tree, birds are flitting between the branches. We start to see how different the various kinds of leaves are, pointed or rounded, broad, narrow, darker or lighter. We pause for a moment to root around in the undergrowth – pushing aside fallen twigs, acorns, pine cones and last year’s leaves to discover a beetle, a worm, some whitish maggots and a snail.  

Once we start to pay attention, the natural world opens before us: an ant is starting a huge adventure along a twig; a bud on a tree is going through the momentous process of unfolding into a flower; a butterfly is opening its wings for the first time; with infinitesimal slowness the lichen is extending itself across the surface of a rock; a caterpillar is on it’s way to lunch on the far side of a leaf; a spider is engaged in perfecting the delicate architecture of its web. We are taken out of ourselves: we become absorbed in contemplating the separate, independent order of nature. 

There’s a little windy path, threading its way through the trees. We can never see more than a few steps ahead, then there’s an intriguing turn. We don’t quite know what we’ll see: maybe we’ll come to a clearing or we’ll glimpse a rabbit hopping to safety in the undergrowth – but we’re sure it will be something interesting. It’s a tiny prompt that gently reactivates our dormant curiosity. How did a friend’s job interview go? What’s been happening in our sister’s (always elaborate) social life? What was the name of that novel a nice literary minded acquaintance was talking so enthusiastically about? Maybe we could try out that recipe for spaghetti carbonara? It didn’t sound so tricky. 

It’s not that our problems don’t matter. It’s rather that they dominate our minds in an unhelpful way. Our sense of life, and who we are, shrinks to their dimensions. By getting interested in something else – in the life in the woods – we are freeing ourselves from our preoccupations, even if it is only for a little while. 

Here we’re struck by the plenitude of existence and it’s poignant because its what we’ve momentarily stopped noticing elsewhere. Our instincts of observation are renewed. We’ll be heading back to the urban world with an awakened sensitivity to the vitality of a corner shop; to the varied personalities at the tables outside a cafe; to the odd architectural details of the high street; to all the richness and complexity that, recently, we’ve forgotten how to appreciate.

We’re in paradise: a beachfront hotel on a tropical island; a charming cottage in a tranquil valley, a luxurious hotel in a historic city. Our spirits stand to be soothed by beauty and comfort. We’ve argued in the stressed, imperfect circumstances of home but now we are free to be sweet, calm, thoughtful, tender and patient. We have come here quite deliberately to give ourselves a pleasant break and to restore our better feelings towards one another. And yet it can be precisely in idyllic surroundings that we get especially irritated and frustrated with one another and where some of our most explosive and bitter arguments may, ironically, be played out against a backdrop of quiet meadows and turquoise seas rich with brightly-coloured fish.  

It seems especially aberrant and awful that this should happen: our cultural assumptions have no space for the strange shouting matches, brittle stand-offs and brutal confrontations that have followed us here.

But there’s a reasonable logic at work nevertheless: because everything outward is particularly nice, the unhappy parts of our minds become more conspicuous. Our distresses weigh on us more heavily and announce themselves unusually loudly when bliss is demanded. Our high hopes of contentment make our frustrations with our partner (and secretly also with ourselves) even harder to accept. If only it weren’t for them

©Flickr/Sean and Lauren

By contrast, it is sometimes our cultural exposure to grim realities – to bleak stories of war, to tragedies and misfortune or to places where nature is hostile (a barren desert, a cold, craggy, storm-swept island) – that make our own inner distress feel less important or pressing. We’re more inclined to overlook our partner’s annoying details in situations where having anyone at all feels like a privilege and where the human project seems fundamentally precarious and cursed.

Yet we should not compound our misery by declaring it illegitimate. We should mock our naive starting assumption that money and physical displacement should be able to solve the problems that bedevil our scratchy partnerships – and accept that beautiful surroundings are only ever one ingredient, and certainly not the most major, within the complex compound of a contented life. The power of great linen and succulent buffets to lift our mood is negligible as compared with the influence of honest communication and the chance to work through our resentments. Our beautiful hotels teach us quiet lessons in the secondary importance of material goods.

But we should also skewer the fear that paradise must forever be marred by a few bustups. After the fight in the beachside bungalow or the flaming argument in the taverna, we will know that we have gloriously failed the challenge of living up to our surroundings and of being a decent mature person – and will be all the better and more liberated for it. Of course we can’t be happy or grown-up for more than a few hours; this is simply how all humans are built (we just don’t know enough about the lives of strangers to trust that we aren’t the freakish exceptions). We haven’t surrendered our right to be sad and vile just because we’re paying a small fortune for a bed for the night and there’s a beautiful view out on the bay. The privileges of true paradise include the right to be at points just as miserable and fractious as we like.

Lying in bed late at night or waiting at the platform for the commuter train home, we often daydream about where it would be so much nicer to be: perhaps the beaches of Goa on India’s west coast, a little restaurant by a quiet canal in Venice, the highway near Big Sur in California or maybe the Faroe islands, far to the north of Scotland.

The desire to travel is, almost always, sparked by a picture or two: a couple of mental snapshots that encapsulate all that seems most alluring about a destination. A trip lasting many hours and costing what could be a small fortune may be initiated by nothing grander or more examined than one or two mental postcards.

© Nicolas Nova/Flickr

We travel because of a background belief that, of course, the reality of a scene must be nicer than the evanescent mental images that take us there. But there is something about the way our minds work that we would do well to study before we ever pack a suitcase: mental images are momentary. That is, they last, at best, three seconds. When we imagine a scene, we imagine not a film but, that far briefer and in many ways far more forgiving medium, a picture.

And yet, we are never in a destination just for a moment and that brute fact alone may be enough to cause grievous damage to the hopes that transport us far from home. We know the phenomenon well enough at the cinema. Imagine if in the course of a story, the screen were filled with a sublime view of ocean waves crashing against a craggy headland. We might sigh with desire at such splendour. But if the camera started to linger on the scene, we might rapidly grow twitchy. What is fabulous in increments of seconds can become properly maddening after half a minute. Two minutes in, we may be so irritated as to be ready to leave our seats.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful or shallow, rather that we absorb beauty quickly and then want to move on. Beauty is like a brilliant joke: we laugh, but don’t need the comic element to be continuously replayed.

The lovely mental pictures that get us to travel are – in essence – hugely edited versions of what we actually encounter in any destination. We will, eventually, certainly see these pictures, but we will also see so much else, so much that is painful or boring, dispiriting or mundane: hours of footage of the stained airline seat ahead of us, the back of the taxi driver’s head, the wall of the cheap hotel, a framed photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the wall of a little local restaurant…

© Flickr/Evan Blaser

Furthermore, there will always be something else on the lens between us and the destination we’d come for, something so tricky and oppressive as to undermine the whole purpose of having left home in the first place, namely: ourselves.

We will, by an unavoidable error, bring ourselves along to every destination we’d ever wanted to enjoy.

And that will mean bringing along so much of the mental baggage that makes being us so intolerably problematic day to day: all the anxiety, regret, confusion, guilt, irritability and despair. None of this smear of the self is there when we picture a trip from home. In the imagination, we can enjoy unsullied views. But there, at the foot of the golden temple or high up on the pine-covered mountain, we stand to find that there is so much of ‘us’ intruding on our vistas.

We ruin our trips by a fateful habit of taking ourselves along on them.

There’s a tragi-comic irony at work: the vast labour of getting ourselves physically to a place won’t necessarily get us any closer to the essence of what we’d been seeking. As airlines, hotel chains and travel magazines conspire never to tell us, in daydreaming of the ideal location, we may have already enjoyed the very best that any place has to offer us.

We are always being told that nature is good for us – and that we should spend more time in its company for the sake of our health. What is less well flagged up is that nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity. In a set of alpine flowers growing on a hillside, we can read a defence of the value and beauty of the everyday; an evening sky can lend legitimacy and dignity to our melancholy states; there are invitations to calm in the unhurried motions of a Friesian cow; the sight of the distant stars can settle our anxieties by evoking our insignificance in the wider scheme. This set of essays highlights some of the most psychologically nourishing landscapes, flora and fauna of the planet. It functions as a reminder of all the consolation and redemption available to us in the natural world.

Alpine Flowers

Symbol: Modesty

It is extremely rare properly to delight in something like an alpine flower (for example, the tiny Chamois Ragwort that blooms on the border between Switzerland and Italy for a few weeks a year) when one is under twenty-two. There are so many larger, grander things to be concerned about than these small delicately-sculpted fragile and evanescent manifestations of nature, for example, romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.

However, it is rare to be left entirely indifferent by alpine flowers after the age of fifty. By then, almost all one’s earlier, larger aspirations will have taken a hit, perhaps a very large one. One will have encountered some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. One will have suffered the gap between one’s professional hopes and the available realities. One will have had a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One will have been fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly – and to one’s own eccentricity, selfishness and madness.

And so, by then, alpine flowers will have started to seem somewhat different; no longer a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is ready, a few weeks of the year, to be appropriately grateful.

Winter Dusk

Symbol: Melancholy

In the winter months, in the northern latitudes, it can be dark just before four. As the sun disappears, the bottom of the sky lights up an ethereal orange, while above it, the stars astonish with their variety and steady insistence. Such a scene is the natural home for melancholy moods. Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience. It is not a disorder that needs to be cured; it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgement of how much pain we must inevitably all travel through.

Modern society tends to emphasise buoyancy and cheerfulness. It is impatient with melancholy states, and wishes either to medicalise them – and thereby ‘solve them’ – or deny their legitimacy altogether.

Melancholy links pain with wisdom and beauty. It springs from a rightful awareness of the tragic structure of every life. We can, in melancholy states, understand without fury or sentimentality, that no one truly understands anyone else, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. The wisdom of the melancholy attitude lies in the understanding that we have not been singled out, that our suffering belongs to humanity in general. Melancholy is marked by an impersonal take on suffering. It is filled with pity for the human condition.

We come back from our walk frozen yet redeemed, more content in ourselves, generous and sympathetic but with a confident hold on our right not always or too readily to smile.

The Femminello Lemon

Symbol: Hope

The Femminello Lemon, much cultivated in the sunny valleys of central Sicily, has a golden yellow rind, pale flesh and a clear, sharp scent. Its value for us is most poignant not when we meet it in its natural setting, in early August at a table in a small fish restaurant in Naples, but when we encounter it in winter, deep in the cold, rainy north. Then, it possesses an exceptional ability to lift us from present circumstances and can, especially when we press it to our lips and breathe in the messages of its rind, deliver a superlative meditation on warmth, summer, ease and everything that these ultimately symbolise: hope.

Most of us have only a tenuous hold on sources of hope. Despair stalks us. We are only ever a few bits of bad news away from collapse. There seem, on many days, so many reasons to give up and surrender to self-loathing and despondency.

This explains why the Femminello Lemon is not merely nice, it is an ally in our mind’s constant attempts to structure arguments why it might, after all, be worth keeping going. Maybe there can be an end to the anxiety. Perhaps the project will work out eventually. The arguments might stop. Our enemies could get bored and turn elsewhere. Our reputation might recover. A lot of things could, in the end, be more or less OK; even bearable.

Such mental explorations the Sicilian lemon seems to understand and bolster. It may ostensibly be of few words but, when one is generously attuned to it, it has all the profundity of a short, luminous poem. It knows that everything can’t magically be made right, but it is also quietly confident of its power – as it sits on the window ledge illuminated by a pale northern light – to draw out and keep on the surface all our more buoyant and resolute ideas.


Symbol: Challenges of Intimacy

Porcupines, the longest-living of all rodents, frequently reach twenty years of age and are geniuses at fending off predators. They are coated in thick, very sharp spines made out of layers of hardened keratin, which rise all around them at the slightest sign of danger. What porcupines find very difficult is to get close to another of their kind, especially in winter, when they would ideally need to cuddle in a protected space. They have, as so many of us do, problems with intimacy – and through their dilemmas, they allow us to grow more understanding of, and sympathetic towards, our own challenges. The porcupine fascinated the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who took them to be emblematic of our desire for and hesitancy around forming close relationships: ‘A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.’

The porcupine is the symbolic animal for all those among us who crave intimacy but, perhaps on account of certain unsettling childhood experiences, don’t find cosiness easy either. It helps that the porcupine, for all its prickliness, is rather endearing in appearance. ‘I’m a bit of a porcupine’ shouldn’t sound – in love – like a spectacular or worrying confession; rather an invitation to be forgiven for our stumbling, sometimes silent or rather defensive attempts to build a relationship with someone we really do, beneath our prickliness, care for.

Angry Lion

Symbol: Charitable Interpretation

We are primed to hate and fear angry lions – often for good reason. A fable from Ancient Rome tells of a lion who prowled the villages of modern day Algeria, roaring horribly. Everyone was terrified and wanted to kill the apparently evil beast. But one day, in the nearby hills, a shepherd was caught in a sudden storm and sought shelter in a cave – where, to his horror, he discovered the lion had made his home. On seeing the animal, the panicked shepherd imagined that he was about to be ripped to pieces. But then he noticed something odd. Running down the lion’s noble face was a large tear. The lion was in appalling pain and the shepherd boy soon understood why: a large thorn had grown embedded in his paw and was causing him agony. The roars were merely ways of trying to articulate his pain. The shepherd took a great risk: he went up to the lion, stroked his mane and set about removing the thorn. The lion instantly became gentle, licked the shepherd’s hand and became his life-long friend.

The lion is a part of all of us when we are in pain: we roar and frighten, but we don’t quite understand what is the matter with us and so cannot communicate our distress to others in a way they would understand and start to offer help (rather than condemnation). We need others to interpret us charitably, to hold on to the idea that we are not intrinsically evil, but that something must be ailing us severely to account for our difficult and at points monstrous behaviour. We should never too quickly say that anyone is bad or beyond redemption; we just need to look for the thorn.

The Walnut

Symbol: Scepticism

One of the many striking things about walnut kernels, alongside their delicate and noble flavour and the neatness with which they can be extracted from their shells, is their uncanny resemblance to the lobes of the human brain. The comparison is deflationary and, with wry sympathy, slightly mocking. We may think of ourselves as extraordinary creatures capable of mighty feats, but we are in the end reliant on a highly flawed, walnut-like contraption that gets an awful lot wrong. Acknowledging this, far from a defeatist move, is the beginning of wisdom. Socrates remarked:  I am wise not because I know, but because I know I don’t know. The more closely we introspect, the more we start to appreciate the range of tricks our minds play on us – and therefore the more we appreciate the extent to which we will continually misjudge situations and the feelings they provoke. This critical attitude towards our own thought-processes is technically called scepticism, after the Ancient Greek philosophical sceptics (from the Greek word skepsis, meaning questioning or examination), a group who first concentrated on showing us how flawed and unreliable our minds can be, in large and small ways. We desire excessively and inaccurately. Our sexual drives wreak havoc on our sense of priorities. Our whole assessment of the world can be transformed according to how much water we have drunk or sleep we have had. The instrument through which we interpret reality, our 1260 or so cubic centimeters of brain matter, has a treacherous proclivity for throwing out faulty readings. For the sceptics, understanding that we may be repeatedly hoodwinked by our faulty walnuts is the start of the only kind of intelligence of which we are ever capable; just as we are never as foolish as when we fail to suspect we might be so. We should keep a walnut within eyeshot to remind ourselves of our ongoing need for intellectual modesty.

The Mallard Duck

Symbol: Protection from Envy

The Mallard duck is a very common sight on British ponds and lakes. The male has a distinctive green head and white band around its neck. The female is mottled brown. They pass much of their lives paddling over the water and diving for bits of weed or waddling in their slightly ungainly way on the bank. Their form of life hasn’t changed much in many generations. A mallard of today would not be shocked or intrigued by the outlook or habits of its ancestors in the 15th century.

It is hard for us not to envy others: there are so many things we could in theory have or be that are currently missing from our lives – yet possessed by others. It’s a wearing, dispiriting fact. The duck offers us a temporary but instructive exit. A duck is distinctly non-heroic and ordinary. In the realm of creatures, it makes no particular claims and earns no distinctive attention. Furthermore, it is equally unresponsive to us. It has no interest in anything that we do or think – it responds with equal enthusiasm to a crust of bread thrown its way by a high court judge or a newly released felon. It is neither scared nor ingratiating around us. The status, prestige, fashion sense or intellectual attainments of others or our lack of these things have no place at all in the world-view of the mallard. The duck is redemptively indifferent to our status system – and encourages us to follow it in its fortuitous wisdom.

The Friesian Cow

Symbol: Patience

The Friesian is named after the tribe that first bred them two thousand years ago in what is now the Netherlands – though it is also known as the Holstein in the US. Over many generations it was developed for dairy production. It spends more than half its life dozing or asleep; and much of the rest of its existence  is devoted to slowly chewing grass or hay, taking only a very small mouthful at a time.

The 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, saw the cow as a symbol of a human ideal. In a section of Thus Spake Zarathustra, he asserts: ‘Unless we change (or be converted) and become as cows, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ In other words, in Nietzsche’s view, unless we adopt key qualities of the bovine character, among them, patience, a lack of rancour, perspective and a freedom from bitterness, we won’t find the degree of peace and consolation that makes life fulfilling and endurable. A cow does not suffer from envy, it does not think of revenge; it doesn’t regret the past and doesn’t fantasise about, or dread, the future. It looks placidly on at the world. It accepts its fate calmly. It is a proper philosopher, for Nietzsche, allowed to claim the title not on account of the books it has read or the amount it has published, but because of the exemplary life it leads in the course of its ordinary slow-moving days and nights.

The Arabian Desert

Symbol: Forgiveness

The immense Arabian Desert – which covers more than 2 million square kilometres – is a starkly beautiful wilderness of mountains and sand. Marks of human civilization are almost entirely absent. None of the usual things that concern (and bother) us have much relevance here. It has been – in essentials – unchanged for many centuries. It foregrounds the timeless basics of existence: the sky, the earth, the baking heat and the low whistle of wind across the barrenness.

Usually we pick up on, and get maddened by, so many of the minor imperfections of other members of our species: they make too much noise when they eat; they take too long when parking the car; they get muddled when telling an anecdote; they have wrong ideas about the future of the literary novel or an unfortunate taste in footwear. At the time, such failings strike us as hugely important – enough to spoil a friendship or compromise a marriage.

The desert reminds us that these flaws cannot matter so much. In comparison to the elemental loneliness of such a place, our lesser concerns drop away; our commonality feels more important. We can let others off the hook and seek communion over our shared vulnerability and exposure. We can look past all the shortcomings and errors of others – and honour our shared humanity in the midst of awesome desolation.

An ant colony

Symbol: The dignity of bourgeois life

Ant colonies are possibly the most successful organisations on earth – which has allowed the tiny ant to spread across almost the entire landmass of the planet and to outnumber humans by 10 million to one. Ants are symbols of organisation, punctuality, hierarchy and forward-thinking. They are the mascots of that often-derided social class we know as the bourgeoisie.

Ants are fierce, loyal, determined workers. They operate with a marked division of labour: there are designated nurses, foragers, tunnel diggers and soldiers as well as the Queen, whose job it is to lay the eggs of the next generation, and the drones: the males whose sole duty is to mate with future queen ants. Ants are not on their own heroic but their individual labours find a degree of dignity via the precise contribution each ant makes to a dazzlingly complicated and resourceful society.  

Because we see ants from above, as God-like giants, we are in a position to appreciate in them virtues which, when we look at ourselves, we tend not to be so impressed by – as evidenced by our casual disregard for the complexity of our civilisation and for the mockery often directed at unheroic but sensible labour, like accountancy or filing. We can easily end up lamenting the narrow, limited work we have to do. We may get ironic and mocking about how ‘bourgeois’ our lives have turned out to be. We may, correspondingly, harbour a sneaking veneration for rebels and Romantic types who don’t worry about the laundry and haven’t got a pension. An ant, perhaps painfully carrying a dead wasp three times its size across the unfathomable expanse of a parking lot, symbolises a more benign view: for all their faults, our orderly habits have their virtues. Boring things – transporting goods, being on time, working responsibly, going to bed early, following rules – are in some tiny way contributing to the management and future of our own extraordinary nests

Granite Rocks

Symbol: Perspective

The characteristic red granite rocks on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s Atlantic coast, were formed around 430 million years ago during the Silurian period. At that time they were part of the Laurentia continent, along with much of what is now North America and Greenland. They formed when immensely heated lava that welled up from the core of the earth emerged and melded with other ferrous material. Granite rocks are hugely hard – but millions of years of rain, wind and ice, expanding in tiny fissures, have eroded them. The time scales are wildly out of proportion to a human life; a crack in the surface opens a few millimetres in a decade; lichen eats away at the surface with a gentleness that takes centuries to notice. Each winter storm brings a minute change, lost to the human eye.

Everything that preoccupies us will fall away; the issues that bother us will become remote and be forgotten; when we are dead the rocks will still be here, more or less exactly the same. Granite rocks invite us into a mood that lessens our fears. In their company we are, fortunately, negligible. How we mess up, how we fail, our confusions and errors, what we do or don’t do aren’t, from their point of view, terribly important at all – much to our relief.


Symbol: Sexual Maturity

The bonobo is a species of chimpanzee found in the Congo Basin of central Africa. They are one of our nearest relatives – and have fascinated researchers because of certain of their distinctive attitudes towards sex. Often, when a group of humans are up against the complexities of relationships, someone will mention them as examples of how we might beneficially overcome our possessive tendencies and narrow sex lives. Bonobos seem capable of enviable sexual maturity. They get paired up in adolescence, but end up neither fully monogamous nor jealous. They simply enjoy huge amounts of sex with other members of their groups, without signs of competitiveness and with a notably generous and peaceable nature that seems to spring from the constant physical release they have available. Contained in the question ‘Why can’t we be more like bonobos?’ is a longing to reconcile our desire for stability with our hunger for sexual exploration. But ultimately, there are solidly grounded reasons why we can’t enjoy the lives that bonobos lead. We aren’t really like them around sex, just as we aren’t, in our diets, capable of feasting on flying squirrels, bark and earthworms. They are symbols not of the sexual liberation that one day awaits us, but of the very profound reasons why the friction-free and un-neurotic sex lives we might long for cannot easily be ours; these creatures are invitations to a degree of resignation and tolerance for the unavoidable dilemmas of being human.

Bamboo forest

Symbol: Resilience

Bamboo is, surprisingly, classified as a grass rather than a tree, yet it is tall and strong enough to create groves and forests. Unlike a tree trunk, the stems of bamboo are hollow, but its inner emptiness is a source of its vigour. It bends in storms, sometimes almost to the ground, but then springs back resiliently. We should, says the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, ‘become as bamboo is.’ In other words, we should bend in the face of the storms of life, and remain confident of our power to return to an upright stance. The greatest painter of bamboo was the Daoist poet, artist and philosopher Zheng Xie of the Qing Dynasty. Zheng Xie is said to have painted eight hundred pictures of bamboo forests and saw in them a perfect model of how a wise person might behave.  Beside one pen and ink drawing of bamboo, he wrote in elegant script: ‘Hold fast to the mountain, take root in a broken-up bluff, grow stronger after tribulations, and withstand the buffeting wind from all directions’. It was a message addressed to bamboo but meant, of course, for all of us.


Symbol: Appreciation

The pineapple was once, three centuries ago, the most prized of fruits. It was considered deeply exotic; a single example could cost the equivalent of a London townhouse; monuments were raised in homage to its distinctive, spikey form. But today – with cheap transport and easy cultivation in greenhouses – the pineapple is typically overlooked. It lacks cultural prestige. Its taste, however, remains the same and its beautiful shape is not in the least diminished. The historic fate of the pineapple alerts us to an unfortunate move our minds often make without consulting us. We tend to overlook the common, the inexpensive and the everyday – however attractive and valuable they really are. The pineapple hasn’t altered, but our capacity to appreciate it has been fatally undermined by ubiquity and cheapness.

There are a great many natural things which are not publicly celebrated or glamorous and which lie all around us unnoticed but which, in fact, possess huge charm: an earthworm, lichen growing on old stone walls, clouds drifting in the sky, the small whirlpools on a fast-moving brook.  We have been, and continue to be, profoundly unfair to the real attractions of so much that surrounds us.


Symbol: Modesty

Also known as the zebra giraffe, the okapi is mainly to be found in the Ituri rainforest, close to the equator, in the far north east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Okapi are some of the shyest, most reserved of all mammals. They live solitary lives, they don’t form herds and come together only to mate. They have secluded childhoods: the mother gives birth to a single infant, which she hides deep in the forest and visits occasionally to feed. Their hesitant nature seems, in human terms, to stem perhaps from their indeterminate status between their better-known and more glamorous relatives: the always intriguing giraffe and the head-turningly designed zebra.

In humans, reserve arises from a fear that something about us doesn’t quite fit the norm and might bother, bore or prove unacceptable to other people. We go red after we’ve told a joke in company and worry that it might have come across as inappropriate or offensive. We are deeply  concerned not to overstay our welcome and look out for the tiniest signs of exasperation in those we are with. It can be hugely inconvenient to feel so self-aware and reserved, but to be aware of the dangers of being a nuisance is a high ethical achievement. Someone with no capacity for hesitancy is a scary possibility; for they implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They can be so sure and unquestioning only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility of their unenchanting nature.

The shy okapi is the symbolic animal for all those among us who feel nervous at parties, who doubt themselves (fruitfully), who worry about bothering others – and who regularly blush a little more than would, ideally, be convenient.

The claw of the male Atlantic marsh fiddler crab

Symbol: Re-enchantment

Uca pugnax (to give it its formal name) inhabits the shore line along the north-east of the US and Canada. A normal life span is little over two years. In adulthood, the male typically develops one hugely distended, brightly coloured claw. It’s strikingly out of proportion, constituting around a quarter of its body-mass; it would be like us having a hand a meter long. It could be seen as purely absurd, but it serves a crucial purpose: it is waved slowly to allure a mate and deployed in battle to see off rivals.   

It’s easy to come to feel that life is fundamentally boring; that we have more or less seen and done it all, that the world is stale and over-familiar. But that is, invariably, because we are – unbeknownst to us – in a tunnel that we are mistaking for a wide open view. If we step outside of our ordinary vistas, we will of necessity find the world more wondrous, peculiar, enchanting and plain interesting than we remember in the rounds of our ordinary routines.

We were once – as small children – amazed by everything; a light-switch, a button, or a puddle could detain us for hours. With maturity has come habituation and cynicism. But the process does not have to go in one direction only. We are always capable of stepping back to a less weary and blinkered place: we have a capacity for re-enchantment. And when it is engaged, we may notice the male Atlantic marsh fiddler crab, with whom we are sharing existence on this planet right now and whose large claw is there to remind us never to cease to wonder and remain interested.

An Oak leaf in Autumn

Symbol:  Necessity

It has no choice; its life-cycle is clearly defined from the outset, from its earliest beginnings in March, when it was still coiled within the bud and the wind felt harsh and pitiless. There was the first day when it emerged, sometime in mid-April, exquisite fresh and delicate. There were days of rain, hail and sunshine as it gradually grew and thickened. In May, a caterpillar paid a visit and nibbled, non-fatally, one of its lobes. The summer was balmy and generous. Dust coated it over the windless August days. Over a weekend in September, the first tinge of mortal gold appeared; deepening and darkening every day until the whole leaf was brown and brittle. It held onto its familiar twig though a calm, cold week in early October but was finally shaken off on a blustery Tuesday morning on the 15th. It fluttered down to join thousands of its companions on the pavement, it was kicked about joyously by a child and noisily blown into a heap by a municipal worker; it gradually decomposed, consumed by slugs and microbes; it turned to mulch in November and became an undistinguished part of the soil that winter, where it provided nutrients for – a decade later – an acorn that would take a further twenty years to grow into a mature tree, on whose branches would one day hang leaves much like the one it had once been…

We’re seeing – with ideal lucidity – the structure of our own life-cycle and fate, as decreed by nature. Despite our gadgets and bank accounts, we too are little more than fragile leaves waiting for the day we will fall and be reabsorbed into the earth. The timing can vary, but the basic sequence won’t. Our own death, which we feel as the deepest affront, is perfectly inevitable. We too are part of nature, which is as pitiless as it is beautiful – and always awesomely indifferent to our longings and cries.  

The fig

Symbol: Small Pleasures

Every so often, you encounter a fig. It might turn up as a decorative aside to a dessert or catch your eye in a supermarket. But between these sporadic meetings, you don’t think much about figs at all. Yet when a fig does come your way, you are always charmed. The colours inside are extraordinary. It seems so improbable that nature should provide us with a fruit at once so mild, sweet and confident in its delicacy.

The irony of the small natural pleasure that a fig offers us is that it isn’t intense enough to force itself upon our consciousness. We don’t become addicted or obsessed; the pull is much weaker than that of sex or computer games; these are pleasures whose sway in our lives we have to painfully struggle to limit. With figs, it’s the opposite.

We almost need rituals to keep the fruits fresh in our minds. Next time you meet a fig, with a very sharp knife, cut it into quarters (the need for sharpness doesn’t arise from hardness but because blunt pressure spoils their delicate cheek-like skin). Look at the tints and hues of the outer flesh. For 15 seconds, imagine you are a painter, trying to portray the pattern: make your eyes stick with it. Think of the tree it came from. Its ancestors flourished in historic times in Palestine or in Sicily and figured in the parables of tribes. Finally, take a bite. Concentrate first on the texture. The, with a second bite, focus on the taste. Properly honoured, the ritual of the fig should last about seven minutes. Nature is rich in small pleasures, that in aggregate make life worth enduring. In the ideal secular religion, the fig would be a central symbol and object of veneration.

The Stone Pine

Symbol: Resourcefulness

The Stone Pine (also called the Umbrella pine) is found on the southern coast of Portugal. It is graceful, hardy and noble. Its colours are especially pleasing against an azure sky. At night, its pines rustle agreeably in a breeze. Yet the conditions it has to grow in are appalling. The soil is poor: shallow, saline and sandy, easily blown off by the sea breezes. For nearly half the year, from the start of May to the end of September, it rarely rains; hot winds blow across from the arid interior of Spain. Whole days can pass with minimal humidity and a temperature above 35c. But the pine tree is at home in such an unhomely place; it has fully matured over decades: its roots have spread out widely – far further than its longest branches – gradually working they way round or under a rock, tapping hidden pockets of moisture. Its pines are perfectly designed to absorb what is needed from without while not releasing the sappy goodness within.

The pine is a model of resourcefulness. It has to deal with hugely compromised conditions, and yet it has adapted and learnt to make its peace with them. It does not forlornly long for the slushy dark rich soil enjoyed by its more fortunate colleagues in the interior of the country. It knows it will have only a very few days of rain. It understands the length and the bitterness of the summers ahead of it. We are capable of just such resourcefulness. In low moods, we underestimate our capacity to adapt and to find viable ways of managing. Yet we can live in circumstances that are very far from ideal. We live in terror of having less money, fewer friends or reduced status. We fear illness and loneliness. But we can manage far better than we suppose. There is, at the heart of us, waiting to be discovered, and there when we need it, something of the toughness and resilience of the great, hardy, long-lived pines.

The Giant Star, Aldebaran

Symbol: Humility

The giant star Aldebaran – the name derives from the Arabic word for a follower, since it appears to follow a cluster of stars known as the Hyades – can sometimes be seen in the evening sky as a tiny, brightish dot not far above the horizon. In fact Aldebaran, could contain the equivalent of two million of our suns; it is a giant star, late on in its life cycle, emitting a reddish-orange light – which takes 65 years to reach the earth. The Pioneer 10 space probe – launched from Cape Canaveral in 1972 and now more than 10 billion miles from earth  – is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Aldebaran in fifteen thousand centuries time. Despite the distance, Aldebaran is a near neighbour in our local, spiral galaxy – itself one of a hundred billion galaxies that populate the cosmos.

Contemplating the infinitesimal insignificance of our world in the unimaginable vastness of space is a powerfully – and usefully – humbling thought. In this solemn and liberating mood the things that loom large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, the fact that a colleague behaves coldly, the disagreement about patio furniture) appear comically absurd. If only briefly, our minds mingle with the universe and embrace eternity.

It can seem as if everything we do matters so much but, with Aldebaran, we listen to a different, more humbling message: that everything we do and are is in truth meaningless – when considered from a sufficient distance. We can meditate on our utter insignificance when measured against aeons of time and space. One does not really matter; in a quiet, not-unkind way, one’s life, that burdensome package, is an inconsequential blip.

For those of us who feel at the mentally fragile end of things, and are sometimes plain unwell in our minds, the prospect of the holidays poses particular challenges.

For a start, there is a higher than normal pressure to be happy, which can be hugely guilt-inducing and frightening. Not only might we be wrestling with overwhelming sadness, anxiety or persecutory feelings, we’re reminded of how at odds with the rest of society we are at this time in the calendar. Our moods seem utterly contrary to the spirit required of us. We worry, once more, about letting down the side. We have yet another reason to hate ourselves (a feeling which may be at the very heart of our mental unwellness).

We may be with a lot more people than usual, and our spaces and routines are disrupted. Furthermore, those who look after us, the therapists, analysts, psychiatrists and mental health professionals, are taking their own break. The last session before the holidays may be especially traumatic and sad. Two weeks from now can seem a long way away.

To help deal with all these issues, it might help to keep a few thoughts in mind:

We should, in conversations with ourselves and those very close to us, factor in that we’re facing something that might be legitimately very difficult. There is no need, on top of it all, to be unhelpfully brave. We’re about to be buffeted by turbulence. We need to brace ourselves.

We should tell our loved ones, as far as possible, that suggestions about being upbeat and merry are a particular trial – and that what gives us the best chance of being OK is not to have to perform, not to have to be cheerful and to be as loyal as we can be to the moods we are actually having. We may feel like impostors anyway – and don’t need to add to the tension. We’re not mean or misanthropic, we’re just a bit unwell. And that means it might be acceptable to spend portions of the holidays upstairs under a blanket thinking very dark things. We need to create a roomier and kinder sense of what is normal.

We should remember, and remind others, that it’s entirely customary for the human mind to be in a state. These minds are no different from any other organ, they break down and need care. Why shouldn’t we give a broken mind the modicum of attention that we would give to someone who had a sprained thumb or bruised shoulder? We’re allowed to be unwell in our minds.

We’re not alone. It can look at points as if the whole world has given way to merriment but such is the reality of being human, a huge number of us are not smiling. We’re acutely anxious, we’re regularly undergoing fierce attacks of self-blame and self-loathing, we’re visited by suicidal thoughts, we imagine it would be restful to be dead. We feel so inadequate. We reflect that it would have been a lot better if we had never been born.

Even apparently robust people who look like they’ve never had a problem in their lives turn out to have surprising stories and areas of pain once you ask. There’s almost no one who hasn’t been through something terrible, and if you access it, you can connect with them and sometimes create astonishing new bonds. Dare to reveal a bit about what you’re going through, when you feel ready.

Holidays often involve time with the very people who formed our psyches and are at the heart of some of our troubles. We should take a risk to change the nature of the conversations we have with them. So long as people don’t feel blamed, they may be able to take quite a lot on board. They might have made our lives infinitely harder than they needed to be – but might still be in a position to listen.

We should be kind on ourselves and indulgent when the mood requires it. We should ask if we can have some long baths, go on walks in the fields, disappear on our own for a while. So long as you are reasonably kind, people who love you will let you get away with almost anything you need. People don’t mind a patient; try to be a good one, which means nothing more than someone who explains and is a little grateful.

Holidays pass, it’s only a few days really, and things will return to normal. And sometimes stuff comes along, we cope better than we think, we have some new insights and in our way, for a few moments, we’re almost happy or at least we see a new thought we can use in our very faltering progress towards something better than the current state.

A walk is, in a sense, the smallest sort of journey we can ever undertake. It stands in relation to a typical holiday as a bonsai tree does to a forest.

But even if it is only an eight-minute interlude around the block or a few moments in a nearby park, a walk is already a journey in which many of the grander themes of travel are present.

The need to go for a walk begins from the same place as the longing to take off to another country: with a desire to restart our minds. We sometimes cannot work it all out by staying rooted in one place. We have stared at the screen too long, we have been bumping into the same inner obstacles without progress, we have grown claustrophobic with ourselves.

© gato-gato-gato/Flickr

That is why we need the sight of the three oak trees and two robins by the river or the maelstrom of the high street, where we linger outside a grocer’s shop and wonder (inconclusively, yet again) what a yam might taste like. The better part of our minds has a habit of getting exhausted and sterile. It is scared as well. Some of the most profound thoughts we need to grapple with have a potentially disturbing character. An inner censor tends to kick in and blocks the progress we were starting to make towards ideas that – though important and interesting – also presented marked threats to short-term peace.

While we walk, the mind is no longer on guard. We’re not supposed to be doing much inside our heads; we’re mainly occupied with following a path around a pond or checking out a row of shops. The ideas that have been half-forming at the back of our minds, ideas about what the true purpose of our lives might be and what we should do next, keep up their steady inward pressure – but now there is a lot less to stop them reaching full consciousness. We’re not meant to be thinking and so – at last – we can think freely and courageously.

© Abe Kleinfeld/Flickr

The rhythmic motion of an easy stride helps to separate us from the ruts of our current preoccupations and allows us to wander more freely through elected regions of our inner landscape. Themes we’d lost touch with – childhood, an odd dream we had recently, a friend we haven’t seen for years, a big task we had always told ourselves we’d undertake – float into attention. In physical terms, we’re hardly going any distance at all, but we’re crossing acres of mental territory.

A short while later, we’re back at the office or at home once again. No one has missed us, or perhaps even noticed that we’ve been out. Yet we are subtly different: a slightly more complete, more visionary, courageous and imaginative version of the person we knew how to be – before we wisely went out journeying.

Paris is one of the world’s most famous and visited cities. How should one spend a couple of days there? By answering this, we’ll be examining a host of questions about travel more generally.

Often a trip to Paris is organised around a homage to culture. We want to get in touch with great cultural figures: we go to see their works and and the places they lived and worked. We’re trying to get close to them. But there’s a strange irony: one of the things these people would never have done is visit museums. We would be better off focusing on what they loved, not what they made.

For instance, we might want to honour the 18th-century painter Chardin by going to the Louvre and looking at some of his paintings.

But Chardin didn’t spend his time doing that: he had little interest in exhibitions. What he liked doing was going to the market and buying apples and looking at them carefully.

© Mark Goebel/Flickr

We might be inclined to make a trip to the Café de Flore at the intersection of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît in order to see the place where Jean-Paul Sartre did a lot of his philosophical writing.



At the back of our minds, perhaps, we hope that by seeing the place we’ll boost our own creative and intellectual life. That’s a very nice and important goal. But there’s something curious about the way we’re pursuing it. Sartre went to that cafe because it happened to be a pleasant stroll from where he lived and (at the time) it was cheap and convenient. He didn’t himself visit cafes to see where other writers had had lunch. To be closer to him in spirit we should do what he did: go to any modestly priced cafe we quite like that’s near where we’re staying and work on our own ideas.

© mendhak/Flickr


It could seem rather interesting – if one is literary-minded – to pay a visit to a recreation at the Musée Carnavalet of Marcel Proust’s bedroom: the cork-walled room where he wrote much of his great novel, In Search of Lost Time.


However, this isn’t something that would particularly ever have appealed to Proust himself. What he wanted to do – and would have encouraged us to do also – is to stay in one’s own bedroom and think in great detail about one’s childhood. The true place to commune with Proust is probably in one’s little rented apartment.


Most visitors to Paris drop in to Notre Dame.


The people who built it wanted us to come. But they weren’t hoping that we’d be impressed by its pioneering use of flying buttresses or by the gargoyle water spouts high up on the roof. They primarily wanted us to examine our consciences and feel sorry for the wrong we have done to others, they wanted us to be generous to the needy and to wonder about the point of human existence.

And these are experiences we can come by – perhaps more readily – in other places, perhaps by visiting one of the less famous graveyards, such as the Passy Cemetery, where the brevity of life is grimly apparent and where the hurts and preoccupations of our lives are put in true perspective.


© Kimble Young/Flickr

Maybe we’d go to the Musée d’Orsay to see Claude Monet’s painting La Gare Saint-Lazare which he painted in 1877.


The irony is that Monet himself didn’t go to the Musee d’Orsay to paint this work. He spent many hours at the most sophisticated transport hub he could find contemplating the technical grandeur of modern life. If we want to love what Monet loved we might make space in our visit to spend more time at Charles de Gaulle airport.


© Sonti Malonti/Flickr

None of the great Parisian cultural figures – around many trips to Paris revolve – went there on holiday. They were writing, thinking and painting in the place they happened to live. They were interested in things – the beauty of ordinary objects, the meaning of life, memories – that don’t belong to any one particular place. Perhaps the ideal outcome of two days in Paris is the realisation that we may not need to visit Paris at all.

We’re hugely dependent on language to help us express what we really think and feel. But some languages are better than others at crisply naming important sensations.

Germans have been geniuses at inventing long – or what get called ‘compound’ – words that elegantly put a finger on emotions that we all know, but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express.

Here is a small selection of the best of Germany’s extraordinary range of compound words:


1. Erklärungsnot


Literally, a distress at not having an explanation. The perfect way to define what a partner might feel when they’re caught watching porn or are spotted in a restaurant with a hand they shouldn’t be holding. More grandly, Erklärungsnot is something we feel when we realise we don’t have any explanations for the big questions of life. It’s a word that defines existential angst as much as shame.

2. Futterneid


The feeling when you’re eating with other people and realise that they’ve ordered something better off the menu that you’d be dying to eat yourself. Perhaps you were trying to be abstemious; now you’re just in agony. The word recognises that we spend most of our lives feeling we’ve ordered the wrong thing. And not just in restaurants.

 Image result for bratwurst rosti

3. Backpfeifengesicht


A face that’s begging to be slapped. Generosity towards others is key, but German is bracing and frank enough to acknowledge that there are also moments when it is simply more honest to realise we may have come face to face with a dickhead.

4. Fremdschämen


A word full of empathy that captures the agony one can feel at somebody else’s embarrassing misfortune or failure. A capacity to feel Fremdschamen is a high moral achievement – and is at the root of kindness.

5. Luftschloss


Literally, a castle in the air; a dream that’s unattainable – a word suggesting that German culture is deeply indulgent about big dreams but also gently realistic about how hard it can be to bring them off.

6. Ruinenlust


This word shows German at its most delightfully fetishistic and particular: meaning the delight one can feel at seeing ruins. Collapsed palaces and the rubble of temples put anxieties about the present into perspective and induces a pleasing melancholy at the passage of all things.

7. Kummerspeck


A word that frankly recognises how often, when one is deeply sad, there is simply nothing more consoling to do than to head for the kitchen and eat.

8. Weltschmerz


A word that acknowledges that we are sometimes sad not about this or that thing,  but about the whole basis of existence. The presence of the word indicates a culture that isn’t falsely cheerful  but takes tragedy as a given. It is immensely reassuring to be able to tell a friend that one is presently lying under the duvet, suffering from Weltschmertz.

9. Schadenfreude


We’re meant to be sad when others fail, but German more wisely accepts that we often feel happiness (freude) at the Schaden or misfortunes of others. That isn’t because we’re mean; we just feel deeply reassured when we see confirmation that life is as hard for other people as it is for us.

10. Verschlimmbesserung

[Worsening Improvement]

So many of our attempts to improve things bring unforeseen problems in their wake. The word modestly admits how seldom progress moves in a linear manner. 

11. Fernweh


The distress of always being in familiar surroundings – and the longing to go faraway, beyond the Alps, perhaps to the South, where no one knows our name, and the smells are different in the market place and one is woken up by the sounds of strange bells from the temples. An acknowledgement that we’ll always suspect that life is a bit ‘elsewhere’.

12. Lebensmüde


We believe ourselves to be firmly attached to life, but a lot of our behaviour attests to something more interesting and troubling; an occasional longing to give up our hold on existence. It is deeply useful to have this word to hand on gloomy days when it feels like nothing will ever work out.

13. Treppenwitz


Our best lines always come to us, not in the heat of a witty discussion,  but as we descend the stairs on our way home.

14. Sitzfleisch


Describes a character trait of endurance; literally a capacity to sit and put up with what is boring, arduous or painful over long periods.

15. Schnappsidee


An idea you had while drunk. It sounded amazing at the time. It probably wasn’t…

16. Kopfkino


We are inveterate cineastes in our own minds. We shoot little movies in which we say exactly what we mean and seize the advantage when we can. The word knows though that very few of us ever know how to be efficient and skilled directors outside our own heads.

17. Schattenparker


Most of us have our cowardly moments. The shade parker is an inveterate hider in the gloom. German has a word to throw a spotlight on him.

18. Drachenfutter


Dragon food is a gift that one has to offer to one’s spouse to appease their fury for a wrong one has committed. If an affair is discovered, one may have to cook up an enormous meal of Drachenfutter.

19. Frühjahrsmüdigkeit


We’re all meant to rejoice at the onset of spring. But of course, for some of us, there is something dispriting about the return of life and hopes – which we may well not be able to honour. The word gracefully acknowledges how hard an optimistic time of year may prove.

20. Bildungsroman


German literature is full of a distinctive kind of novel in which we follow the maturation of a central character, normally in relation to love and work. This genre and the word that crowns it presents a particular answer to the vexed question of what a novel should be for. For a great German tradition, the point of novels is to teach us how to live.

21. Traumneustartversuch


Desperately trying to continue the dream you were having just before you woke up.

22. Witzbeharrsamkeit


Telling the same joke over and over again until there is no one left in the world who haven’t heard it from you.

23. Erkenntnisspaziergang


Going out, in order to gain deeper insights while walking.

24. Flughafenbegrussungsfreude


The happiness you feel when someone picks you up at the airport.

25. Sontagsleere


The melancholy emptiness of Sundays.

26. Ringrichterscham


The embarrassment you feel, when you are next to a couple having a fight.

27. Abgrundanziehung


The pull of the cliff edge.

We can thank German for having so many of the right words to bring dignity to our troubles and hopes. Learning languages ultimately has little to do with discovering the world per se, it’s about acquiring tools to help us get a clearer grasp on the elusive parts of ourselves.