I Don’t Really Love To Travel

But not because of the usual reasons

I’m in France right now. Not Paris, but rather a few hours due west, where land meets water; where the ocean licks salt along the mossy rocks and the gray air smells like the sea.

We landed on Saturday, and it’s been lovely. We’ve had a few crêpes, some frites and fruits, and more than our fair share of pain au chocolat, though for the most part it’s been bière de Bretagne, baguettes, brown-bagged blocks of cheese, and the best butter I’ve ever had in my life — Jean Yves Bordier lives up to his acclaim, and we indulged in his life’s work by shamelessly hacking little pats with the tiny metal coffee spoons in our hotel room, as this was all we had when the moment of need came upon us. We had oysters along the ocean, chucking the shells into piles on the beach as we watched the jade green tide pull itself in, and we walked hand in hand until darkness, which we were surprised to find out isn’t until nearly midnight this time of year.

Again, as I said, it’s been lovely. And yet even as I’m here I’m also not here, because the whole thing feels sort of silly — sort of over-indulgent; an escape to nowhere, with nothing, where all of this exists for real for the people who are here, but exists only in experience for us, a sort of fantasy moment where we both are and yet are not, half of us taking from it what we want because the other half of us knows we don’t actually belong. This is not our real life. This is fabrication — perhaps not for those living here, but certainly for us.

When it comes to travel, there are a few types of people

  • Those who hate to travel
  • Those who like (or love) to travel
  • Those who have to travel
  • And then there are those who simply don’t get much out of travel; who don’t feel compelled to do it and, once they do, don’t “do it well”

My particular affliction is in the last category — and we’ll get to that. But first, let’s cover our bases:

People who hate traveling

We already know most of the reasons, but most commonly, they are people who simply prefer what’s familiar (“normal”) or comfortable. They just want customs and culture and language and food that doesn’t differ from their own. (That, or maybe they hate the logistics part of travel — the planes, the currency exchange, finding someone to water their gardenias, whatever.)

If you were looking for any of these reasons, I’m sorry to report, but this post is not that post. And these reasons are not my reasons.

I don’t hate to travel. I’ll hack my way through a language barrier, learning some basic phrases and hobbling them together, hoping not to butcher them so much that they aren’t still passable. I don’t mind when things don’t go according to “the plan” — I don’t even mind not having a plan at all. I do fine with jet lag and can make great use of a layover. I’ll happily eat the local specialty — I’ll even drink the water and — knock on wood — haven’t gotten sick so far.

My reason for “not traveling well” is something else entirely — and I’m sure there are others out there who experience my particular affliction. We’ll get to that.

People who love traveling

Most commonly, people in this group are well-adjusted individuals who are fully functional members of society, working and living in more or less “normal” ways. They enjoy taking a few vacations a year (sometimes international if it can be afforded), equal parts relaxing or fun or in the interest of seeing or doing “something new” or, in the very least, the sort of “something” we’re supposed to see.

As Jenna Woginrich wrote,

“Good, self-actualized people travel. If they don’t, they want to.”

They like new experiences — on occasion. They like to mix it up with travel a few times a year, see something outside their normal routine. Meaning: they build their lives to support their travel, not the other way around…

People who MUST travel

Those who live and breathe for “new experiences.” Not just “travel” but “everything” and “everyone” “everywhere,” who wither or rage or come altogether undone if “tethered” in any way. People for whom travel and movement and change and experience is a lifeblood — the sort of thing that’s as non-negotiable as breathing or thinking. They’re the people who would live on the road or out of a backpack if they could, who would hop from spot to spot periodically. (And, often, the people who really do.)

The first group of people travels fine. The second group, ironically enough, does not. Not deep down.

Because, as Annika Ziehen wrote, the other side of wanting “everything” and to go “everywhere” also means “always wanting more:”

“You would think that I couldn’t dislike something that makes me so unbelievably happy, gives me butterflies like no guy ever has, and turns me into a better version of myself with each step I take out into the world. But I do.
Oh, how I wish I could have been content with what I had when I was little, alas I wasn’t… Now I have the daily dilemma of wanting more. More to see, to explore, more new, more same same but different, less ordinary and more ordinary away from home. I hate it, but I can’t help it.
My mind doesn’t stand still and quite frankly it is exhausting. I dream of Bangkok when I’m in Cape Town and wish I was in Marrakech, oh no, rather Essaouira when in Florence. I get a plate of Pad Thai and I want Japanese, I find a great Mexican restaurant at home and wish I was back in New York for Venezuelan arepas. It’s not about the grass always being greener elsewhere, I don’t care for the grass, but it is about the sky being bluer, the horizon wider, and the smells more exotic.”

It is, effectively, a broader and deeper “fear of missing out” — a yearning for endless times and places when we can only have one at once, and the heartbreak at this shorthanded reconciliation that never leaves us with enough. They hunger in their own way.

People who just don’t get much out of traveling

This one. This is me.

I’m not really sure how to describe it, other than: it feels… empty.

And I say this not as a cynic or elitist, but rather softly and a little sad, like the slow lapping of a calm tide against a weathered wall.

And the whole reason I included the previous type of traveler — the person who lives and breathes new experiences to the point of wanting “everything” and finding themselves heartbroken at never quite having it — is to point out: this is simply the opposite. Equally sad, just in the other direction.

Where one heart aches over wanting “everything,” another aches over wanting “nothing.”

Tout. Rien.

La même chose, mais différente.

Travel often feels a bit empty

Far from an achievement or enlightenment, it’s often more indulgent and fun — and, sure, perhaps you learn a thing or two and become a little less narrow-minded. But money aside, it is truly one of the easiest things in the world to do — you simply make it a priority, book the tickets, and go. And then, you’re just kind of… there.

We sweep into these places as though they’re check-boxes, as though the answer to our lives will be found in the bottom of un café au lait in France, the fish markets of Thailand, or anywhere in between. As though spending 2 nights and 3 days anywhere will mean anything to us other than coming back to report: it was lovely.

And it is.

But also: what difference does it all make?

Every time I travel, I can’t help but think “but what is the point of this?”

I like cultures — and I like new experience. As I said. I’ll “play the game” when I travel, eating the local foods and drinking the local drinks and speaking, best I can, in the local language. And I enjoy this, but I don’t really get it — not in the way that it’s sold. I know that travel is supposed to be life-changing and perspective-broadening but, over the course of just a few days, frankly, I don’t think it really can be. (Unless, of course, our “perspective” is regarding “the best cheese we’ve ever had;” our “broadening” of it dependent on — and always locked away in — our mental categorization after the fact.)

But other than that, I’m not sure I get it. And if what you’re looking for is “something new” or even open-mindedness, it can be done much more cheaply and closer to home.

And I like relaxation, too — sure — but, similarly, you can do so without using a passport.

And so it leaves me with these questions of “why though?” Is it truly to check boxes? I have a hard time believing it isn’t. Is it the satisfaction of just knowing we can? Sure — there’s no shame in that. Or maybe most people don’t look to travel for any of this. I have a hard time believing that, but even if it is true, I have an even harder time doing it myself.

At the end of the day, I often find myself traveling only to wonder, “why am I here? What am I doing?” I usually think to myself that “I’d rather be working,” but I often slip so far away that it’s not the literal “work” so much as it is the theoretical idea of work, because “work” — and at least producing something of value for others — has therefore more value and meaning for me then… whatever it is I’m doing here, while traveling.

As Jenna Woginrich, a woman who runs a homestead on a hillside and goes hunting by horseback with her hawks, wrote regarding travel,

“I see these pictures and feel no sense of envy or desire. I always saw travel as something anyone can do with enough money, time, and the wits to book a flight. By its nature travel is flirting. There is no commitment to the destination, only pleasure.
I don’t want to work a job I tolerate just to afford two weeks of entertained distraction from the previous fifty… I chose commitment over flirtation.”

I feel ya on that, sister.

I know that I struggle with this. I know that, as a person, I am wont to reject a good many real and tangible things as “meaningless;” I’m working on appreciation. But I also think you can “gain appreciation” without traveling halfway around the world.

If not travel, then what?

This is my question — the big one that weighs on me. I want meaning in the way other people want “new experiences” or “self expression” or anything else that drives us and makes us human.

What has meaning? And how to balance “meaningful” with… well, everything else.

If travel has no meaning and “meaning” is what I want, then what does? The answer, of course, is exceedingly simple: good relationships, good work, and a good attitude (all of which (and especially the last) are incredibly nebulous, but okay.)

And as Jenna Woginrich wrote,

“The truth is you can’t buy enlightenment from a travel agent or harvest it from vegetables in your own backyard. We grow slowly over time. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an Ashram or Akron ― becoming a better person is putting in the work of getting older. For some it’s raising babies. For others it’s taking up politics, art, athletic endeavor or public service. Finding what you want out of life and working to keep it is the trick, without being sold any fantasy as salvation. You can’t speed up life lessons by changing your coordinates or refusing to chart them in the first place. But you can feel happiness if you learn how to eventually read your own damn compass.”

And, until then, there are always the simple life pleasures to enjoy —a little more bière and butter, s’il vous plaît.