The Art of Travel


Author: Alain de BottonThe Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Publisher: Vintage (2004)
Number of Pages: 255
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks, 1 day
Where I bought this book: Local Borders
ISBN: 978-0375725340

Like a Moth to a Flame

This book is a gift I gave to myself while perusing the travel memoir section of a neighborhood bookstore. I bought it on the same day I picked up Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde. I think it was the cloud of limitlessness approaching the word ‘travel’ that attracted me most.

Favorite Five

Whittling 18 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “In Amsterdam, I…went for a walk in the western parts of the city. …In one street lined with uniform apartment buildings, I stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of my life there.” (pp.74-5)

Note to reader: My door is green, although to disclose its location would mean that I admit to knowing the place where I long to spend the rest of my life. Since I haven’t admitted that to myself yet, you will simply have to wait. Secretly though, we both know, me and myself, where that green door sits.

4. “New patterns of anxiety inevitably form on the horizon of consciousness, like the weather fronts that mass themselves every few days off the western coasts of Ireland.” (p.21)

3. “If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in our love of someone from another country, one ambition may be to weld ourselves more closely to values missing from our own culture.” (p.90)

2. “We are all of us, without ever having any say in the matter, scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries, but like Flaubert, we are in adulthood granted the freedom imaginatively to re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances.” (p.98)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “…it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place where we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.” (p.23)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

Out of the 9 I had to look up, here are a few new words that came to me through this book:

New Word: ape (verb)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) imitate uncritically and in every aspect; 2) represent in or produce a caricature of
Synonyms: copy, mirror, reflect, reproduce, repeat, do like, echo, match, parallel, take after, mimic, parrot, simulate, impersonate, represent, counterfeit, paraphrase, follow in the footsteps of, follow in the wake of, take a page out of another’s book, follow suit, model after, emulate
Origins: 1632; Old English; perhaps borrowed in Proto-Germanic from Celtic or Slavic
As in: “Whereas front doorways in London are prone to ape the look of classical temples, in Amsterdam they accept their status, avoiding pillars and plaster in favor of neat, undecorated brick.” (p.75)

Note to reader: I find it fascinating how many synonyms, only a selection of which I’ve included here, exist for a concept that essentially represents the process of avoiding to create something original…unless, of course, you see an imitation as an original reproduction. I find myself wondering, on this blisteringly mild autumn morning, how many reruns and scenes from reality we will have to watch before  our repulsion propels us back to a culture of creativity.

New Word: imprecation (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) the act of calling down a curse that invokes evil (and usually serves as an insult); 2) a slanderous accusation
Synonyms: malediction, curse, denunciation, execration, anathema, proscription, excommunication, vilification
Origins: 1448; from Latin ‘imprecationem’
As in: “There is something touching in the suggestion – made in bold pink on the cover of one magazine – that we paint our nails purple this summer, and in the imprecation above the coffee machine to sample the aroma of freshly roasted beans.” (pp.52-4)

New Word: multifarious (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): having many aspects
Synonyms: many-sided, multifaceted, miscellaneous
Origins: 1593; from Latin ‘multifarius’ manifold
As in: “In their different ways, [guidebooks] conspired to suggest that an exciting and multifarious phenomenon called Madrid was waiting to be discovered outside…” (p.101)

New Word: consonant (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) involving or characterized by harmony; 2) in keeping
Synonyms: 1) harmonic, harmonical, harmonized; 2) accordant, agreeable, conformable, concordant
Origins: the noun’s origin dates back to circa 1308; perhaps the adoption of the adjective followed shortly thereafter; Latin
As in: “…Wordsworth came close to specifying the values that he felt nature embodied: ‘A great Poet…ought to…render [men’s] feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in short, more consonant to Nature.’ ” (p.145)

New Word: assuage (verb)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) cause to be more favorably inclined; gain the good will of; 2) satisfy (thirst); 3) provide physical relief, as from pain
Synonyms: 1) pacify, lenify, conciliate, appease, mollify, placate, gentle, gruntle; 2) quench, slake, allay; 3) relieve, alleviate, palliate
Origins: circa 1300; from Old French ‘asouagier’
As in: “Taking photographs can assuage the itch for possession sparked by the beauty of a place…” (p.214)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I find it quite fitting that I’m starting my relationship with this book on a day of travel. As I journey by modern train from Italy’s Lake District to Milan, where I’ll probably miss my connecting train to Rome on account of rain or dust or perhaps in an effort to respect the life of the gecko making his morning commute across the tracks somewhere between Geneva and Stresa, I’m mentally and emotionally preparing to read the first words of a book that I hope won’t turn out to be the historical text I fear it might.

“You may be wondering why I chose to buy a book I wasn’t confident would be to my liking. Mental exercise, brain bootcamp, and engaging in the exploration of new perspectives are but a few reasons. I’m looking forward to it. I’m starting to recognize the presence of a very special moment that occurs right before I begin a new book. It’s just like that moment right before the tips of the sun’s lips caress the horizon’s cheek. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a flash of green light bursting with the announcement that night has officially begun.

“I’m sitting in the haze of my bright green glow, savoring the approach of a new conversation with a fellow author. Who knows what voice will emerge from the pages, what melodic tone the arrangement of the words will reverberate off the pages. …so much excitement for what awaits…so many words to explore!”

“I occasionally browse through my thesaurus. I admit it. I do it and I like it. It is through my great appreciation for the powerful potential stored within the dictionary’s cousin that I’ve come across my new favorite word: grandiloquence!

New Word: grandiloquence (noun)
Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): high-flown style; excessive use of verbal ornamentation
Synonyms: grandiosity
Origins: 1589; from the Latin grandiloquentia ‘using lofty speech’

“’Verbal ornamentation’ – brilliant!”

“I’m not quite convinced that being swayed by a train’s gentle rocking while sleep-deprived and suffering from the malnourishment one inevitably experiences while visiting pasta-centric countries is the best environment in which to continue my conversation with de Botton. Nonetheless, I have this time during the journey from Gare du Nord to St. Pancras to bathe in the eloquence of Baudelaire’s glistening reflections on travel, and lather myself with de Botton’s decadent descriptions of clammy beige putty cocking the frames of the glass encasing fellow travelers at a service station somewhere between London and Manchester. I suppose that if he were describing the soft cloudiness of Jaffa Cakes or the bold aroma of a cup of Costa coffee, it would better prepare me for what is soon to (finally!) come. Between you and me, I’m just not convinced that traveler’s exhaustion mixes well with philosophical banter about all things existential in the world of geographic circuitry. On the other hand, talk of vast white candy-floss islands in the sky does make it easier to appreciate the cloudy umbrella that seems to have reserved a perpetual place in England’s overhead skyscape.”

“I wonder where the best place to go is when one wishes to be somewhere else. Perhaps it is simply best to sit still in these moments, for it is the inner landscape that we most desire to flee when home feels so far away.”

“I bow down with gratitude and reverence to all the blessed people around the world who made my grande Americano possible, for the only companions I’ll have on this next 8-hour flight are the introspective musings of a fellow traveler. Though I’m afraid he has a greater appreciation than I do for the reflection of the life of today’s mobile citizens in history’s cracked mirrors.”

“When I read, “It seems that this is her part of town, for she walks confidently and without curiosity” (p.87), I question what makes me stand out as a tourist, what provokes the locals to peer at me through their magnifying glass, as though I were an unidentified strain of bacteria threatening to overpopulate and destroy their environment. It must be the curiosity. It’s certainly not the shoes, for I know enough to wear dainty ballerinas when in the UK, bright white sneakers when returning to my Canadian roots, and twinkling foot goblets propped up on slim sticks of divine design when assimilating life in Hollywood.

“So I know it’s not the shoes, and it most certainly has nothing to do with maps for I steer clear of those with every step. I confess that sometimes I refrain from hiding my digital camera in my over-sized purse to capture the occasional visual time capsule, but those brief moments can’t be the reasons for the continuous strange looks I receive when traveling.

“The only thing I can come up with is that my curiosity must be giving me away. But in that case, why would anyone choose to act like a local if it means falling into a catatonic trance of boredom and incessant ingratitude?”

“When I read de Botton admit to having guiltily scoffed down three pain au chocolat while making sure no one saw, I catch a reflection of myself in the author. You see, it just so happens that I too recently ate numerous pains au chocolat in guilty rapid succession while visiting France. In my defense, they were miniature packets of pleasure and with handfuls of tedious travel hours ahead of me, with no sense of when or from where my next meal would come, I simply had no other choice. It was an act of survival. I must admit though, that it is truly remarkable how the French, in all their pompous piety, have somehow managed to create a food so intoxicating to the senses that it can transform even a cold, metal table into a nurturing womb of gastronomic shelter.”

“Back in familiar surroundings, it feels strange returning to a book with which I’ve spent so many hours folded into foreign compartments.  It’s strange not to feel the need to seek it out as an escape from the discomfort of being packed into spaces smaller than those allocated to my luggage. It feels strange that all that remains of my travels is a book about them.”

Note to reader: The following is my version of paragraph 1 on page 239 of the book:
“I returned to London from Versailles to find that the city had stubbornly refused to change – how thrilling! I had flown over the North Pole and peaked between the sheets of Marie Antoinette’s bed just to check if she’d left any cake crumbs behind, I had slept on the side of the street in a desperate attempt to deny my failure to adjust to the local time (for it doesn’t count as sleep unless it’s in your bed), I had shared cobble-stoned streets with Roman Gladiators and drooled on myself on connecting flights. But my favorite town was unimpressed. It was still living its life, unaffected by my absence. The townhouses were still hiding behind tangled manes of curly vines; the skies proudly insisted on remaining cloudless the whole time…I felt despair at knowing that soon I would have to leave home. I felt there could be few more marvelous places on Earth than the one I had been fated to leave in a few short diems.”

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3 Comments

  1. I am impressed with your great work.

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