The art of travel & the difficulty of being ‘in the moment’

Words by Elaine Mead

“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”  – Alain de Botton

There are many experiences in life where society tells us we are supposed to feel certain things or react in certain ways. There can be very specific pathways for dealing with different emotional pinch points and the process by which we are supposed to handle them. Often, if we don’t follow these pre-built emotional constructs, our peers are all too swift in applying the corresponding label. We are deemed ‘mad’.

When we don’t feel the way we suspect we are supposed to at different moments in our life, we tend to harbour these emotions away and respond with the more readily acceptable sentiments society expects of us. One of the more comprehensive examples of this phenomenon can be uncovered when we reflect on travel.

Travel is wonderful. It is everything it says it is on the tin.

Except when it isn’t.

I’ve often felt there is intense pressure placed on us – by ourselves and the expectations of others – for what travel should be. Sometimes it’s simply the case that travel can’t meet these expectations. During my most recent stint of travel, I decided to indulge myself and read Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel to see what the modern day philosopher had to say on the matter. In his quirky and enjoyable fashion, De Botton draws strong parallels between anticipations, expectations, and actualities of travel, using his own experiences and those of recorded writers and philosophers of 16th or 17th-century fame. In his book De Botton supposes:

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaemonia, or ‘human flourishing’.”

The book was published in 2002, a couple of years before the first incarnation of Facebook, long before the insurmountable travel photographers – #blessed – of Instagram, and travel blogging ‘influencers’ were a thing.

Nowadays we are told exactly why and how we should travel, alongside exactly where we should go. ‘Curated’ content and sponsored posts are all the rage, and it’s difficult not to get sucked into applying the desirability filters of social media to your actual travels, allowing them to influence where you eat, where you stay, and what you do. Anyone who is anyone will happily write about what they did and where they did it, and the places you have to visit. You’re probably thinking that doesn’t sound too bad, and you’re right, it can be helpful advice.

Except when you arrive at the cafe you’ve seen promoted heavily on social media, to find a queue around the block, and everyone who has managed to get a seat too busy ‘gramming the moment to really be interested in the food and coffee in front of them. Even more disheartening is surveying the 20+ perfectly respectable, completely authentic, local cafes lining the same strip, with a range of empty seating options and no queues.

This was the very real travel experience we had in Lisbon on our recent trip.

Taking and sharing photos as a tourist is not a new practice, it’s been commonplace for many years. A way of establishing ‘I was here’, and creating our ‘in the moment’ moments for later viewing. In the pre-digital age, you would have been lucky to capture a handful of decently lit, non-blurry shots. These would have been developed and lovingly placed in vast albums, stacked on shelves and readily taken out to show guests. Our suggestions of where to eat would have been genuine, and limited to be heard by those who might remember, pre their own trip, that we had also travelled to the same city.

In the realm of social media, the immediate gratification of our capitalist society means ‘influencers’ can take multiple high-quality shots, filter and edit them down to the advertisement perfection needed for their feeds (and to justify that pay-check from the brand/agency/organisation they’re attempting to promote).

The internet has done wonderful things for our society, including opening up new channels for sourcing information and diversifying the people and worldviews we have access to. But we’re still struggling to see this across all platforms, social media in particular, where white privilege still lays claim to the top of the food chain. You would hope that Instagram would be adding to the diversification of the images and viewpoints we get access to. Unfortunately, the most popular accounts (who also dominate the algorithms) all fall short of offering a more inclusive and diverse portrait, of travel in particular.

Instead of diversity, we are fed the same stock-perfect images of the same places, hotels, and cafes by the same pattern of white users.

I digress. The point I’m trying to make in an awfully long-winded way is that, when it comes to travel, it seems that within the current currency of social media being ‘in the moment’ is only as valuable as who’s paying you to promote it.

It’s intensified ideas of what we think we are supposed to feel, both when we travel and when we return from our experiences. It’s creating a strong divide of what is apparently the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to travel. I’ve written about one nuance of this briefly in a previous article around how female solo travel is celebrated. The idea of travel as being spiritually transformative or specifically for the purpose of personal enlightenment is almost an entirely privileged white female concept.

I’ve said it before and I’ll echo the sentiment once more. Travel is incredibly rewarding and nourishing. But it is often in the reflection of travel when we are looking back some months later at what we experienced and our memory has been able to wash away some of the less desirable aspects, that we can fully appreciate the experience as a whole.

It doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t emotionally or spiritually impactful. Although if it was, that’s a nice little bonus.

De Botton ascertains that “journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains” and I can’t agree with this statement more. Many an idea has come to me on the motion of travel, usually half-formed, scribbled on a scrap of paper, to be dug up a month or two later and promptly binned as I have no clue what that moment of inspiration really alluded to thanks to my crappy note taking.

But on finding the barely legible scrap, it will transport me back to the moment of travel and bring a smile to my face. I’ll remember the train journey from the airport and first catching sight of the London city skyline that my brain knows all too well, but is always overwhelmed to see once more. The warm spread of a feeling in my chest that indicates ‘I am home‘.

I’ll forget about the exasperating back and forth decision to visit Lisbon. But I’ll remember people watching at a tiny side street restaurant, my partner holding my hands, drinking local green wine and planning our future. The joy of finding a piece of ourselves we didn’t know was missing.

I’ll forget about the mad dashes to airports as we’ve run late (again) and the time I donned my teacher hat and reprimanded a moody airport staff member for patronising me. But I will remember my partner barely resisting a cheeky grin at me as I do so, my love for his acceptance of my occasional flare-like temper, and the way that only he can coax me back to normalcy from the panic that being airports often drags out of me.

I’ll dismiss the memory of the exhaustion and tantrums (mine and theirs) of looking after two boisterous toddlers. But I’ll remember with pure love my nieces’ giggles and big blue eyes as they raise their arms for cuddles, kisses on chubby cheeks, and the to-die-for cuteness of the two-year-old’s version of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. I’ll remember why I miss them everyday when I am on the far side of the world, and the importance of putting in the work to maintain my transatlantic relationships.

I believe De Botton sums it all up rather well:

“We should have greater respect for the way we’re built. Not being able to be in the moment isn’t a sign that we are strange or defective, but that we have started to be rightly faithful to ourselves.”

It is intensely unrealistic for us to expect to be ‘in the moment’ during our entire travel escapades. We are human. Of course, there will be lighter moments, mere seconds perhaps, when we are able to do so during the actuality of travel. But the real ‘in the moment’ feelings usually find us long after the experience.

These are the moments that can’t be summed up in a filter perfect post for social media. Which, for me, make them all the sweeter.


Art by Abastasia Youkki Mamoshina

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