The Advantages of Staying at Home
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.
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…
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.