Walking in a new city

I used to think of myself as a lousy traveller; I’m lazy, extremely self-conscious, and my curiosity seems more cerebral than useful when I’m not home. For these reasons, I’ve long ascribed my discomfort of travel to a self-evident lack of talent at travelling.

Witnessing our culture promote travel as emancipatory made me intensely skeptical of people who claimed that travel transformed their lives, or provided some private meaning to it; but I nursed the possibility that this was a post-hoc rationalisation of my own failures at being sufficiently engaged. It seemed like I was being continually railed by colour-corrected photos of my friends in distant locations, glossy magazine spreads waxing eloquent on “the 10 greatest destinations for the millennial soul”, and interminable Medium think-pieces advising young people to travel — to trade precious time and money — for a nebulous purpose which in some Hero’s Journey style manner revealed itself to everyone, but never yielded to me.

So it struck me as bullshit.

I’d tried it before, and failed spectacularly. A week in the hills of Himachal left me beyond bored after a day, and I couldn’t help crave the familiar comforts of a city life.

Breaks spend in the wilderness felt remarkably like being frozen in time. My first half-baked theory was that mountains and forests existed on a time scale divorced from human lives. Interesting geological and climate changes occurred over civilisational lifetimes, not individual ones. Once the awe of being dwarfed by the Yosemite mountains seeped away, it was back to the question, “So now what?”

I never had this trouble with cities because cities seemed like the loci of human activity; as we refashioned the world, most of the interesting bits occurred here. So I reformulated my approach to travel to a city-focused approach. I wagered that I’d find the similarities and differences in taste, productivity, ambition, and notions of value infinitely more engaging than the time spent outdoors.

This turned out to be a good idea, but still, a new city remained alienating. From the basics of navigating the city to finding people who could muster a shit about my existence beyond whatever ice-cream topping I was paying for, the unwritten protocols to feel truly involved seemed continually beyond my grasp. The staggering scale of activity juxtaposed itself to highlight my tenuous presence. I imagined most people fared better than me; I was just missing some insight, some skill, some ability to relax.

Recently, I travelled to Berlin, and while the experience was fairly similar, I maybe realised that I could be doing better.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust

This (garbled) quote by Proust has lingered in my mind for years; but I was never able to correctly verbalise why.
This trip hinted at the answer.

Travel is not tourism. We conflate the two states. It’s a truism, but it bears repeating; to travel is to leave home for unfamiliar spaces, mental and physical. If this were the Hero’s Journey, then leaving home is the start of the journey.

Home is not the physical environment of objects we familiarise our lives around; home is the mental model of our lives, the assumption of what holds true, who relates to us, and in what ways.

That our apartment is 2 kms away, takes exactly 12 minutes to walk to, and has a neat arrangement of books, tables, light switches. That we address our friends a certain way, using words that provide common meaning, and supply assumptions that are measurable by all parties.

Go to a new city and you have to relearn so much. The roads, the people, the manners, the weather, the pleasures, and the things to fear.

Technology UX has abstracted away so much of the difficulties of human systems — maps, public infrastructure, internet services — and yet value realms of information and meaning remain within human bounds.

Capitalism means that technology increasingly buries things you don’t want to see, feel, or hear. But what’s remaining still has the potential to cause anxiety.

Travel doesn’t tell you who you are; it tells you who you are not.

If, by mistake, you drift off the trodden path, travel challenges your assumptions about the home you belong to. You could think your life was about your tastes in music, food, social values — who you are. But travel brings that into question; it brings into questions whether your identity is even a valuable thing to preserve.

Berlin is an intense city.

Nearly being robbed is an intense experience. You think you’re not flustered easily, but drunk assholes breaking into your room at 6 am ruins that self-image. So until you’re home, you can’t sleep well.

Meanwhile, tourism is the sanitisation of the mental strains of travel, elevated to fever pitch by the commoditising logic of capitalism.

Tourism is a particular brand of self-involvement that allows you to re-create home against new backdrops. Danger, anxiety, the discomfort of not-knowing are scrubbed away, replaced by well-lit roads with highly legible signposts of where you’re going.

Airport — hotel — city centre — beach — bar — bed

This is why it’s so easy to travel with friends. Ambiguity is reduced. Your identity is preserved. Your jokes will be heard and laughed at. You’re not alone.

This is why Starbucks seems so easy no matter where in the world you are.

All city centers transform into the same sights; populated by shills peddling underwhelming authenticity that can be purchased easily; burgers in New York, currywurst in Berlin, Zara and Adidas.

To live at the Hilton in Europe is to live at the Hilton anywhere in the world. Your behaviors have been commoditized into a list of what it means to be on holiday. The staff knows you want branded alcohol, a room that smells like lavender and doesn’t draw attention to itself, and smiles that disguise that you’re talking to a real person behind the 4 years of hotel management training. This isn’t a bad thing at all.

But this isn’t travel. This is tourism.

Travel is the breakdown that occurs when you can’t figure it out, when default mental models don’t work, and you’re forced to confront ambiguity. It’s when you learn new things. It’s when you remember old things.

And tourism swallows travel whole. In turn, we lose out on a form of discovery and investigation of the world that is immensely useful.

Technology has made the world smaller; and progressively made it harder to travel. The interfaces we’ve created are mapping the world successfully to conform to the realities we find easy to live in, not the ones we could live in, or should. Normative questions are so much harder to answer.

Resistance probably isn’t the correct answer, but building interfaces that incorporate these concerns might be. I’m not sure.

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