Growing up, I was always told to see the world. It was described as beautiful, open, and virtually endless. Seeing it would somehow imbue me with a quality of intelligence, an air of worldliness that would separate me from Those Less Traveled. The problem was that I never had the opportunity to as a child, nor as an adolescent. Unsurprisingly, that was the first thing I did as an adult.
To celebrate my undergraduate degree, I booked a week in Rome. I stopped over in Germany, too. Later that summer, I spent a few days in Seattle. I traveled all along the east coast over the course of the next year. I booked a week on a houseboat in Paris the spring following. I took a road trip to Michigan and saw the Midwest. I traveled to Canada, to California, to Portland––all seemingly on some quest for spiritual enlightenment inexplicably communicated through spending limited time in a bunch of new places.
I had traveled around the traditional west, seeing what it had to offer and, honestly, I found the experiences to be pretty mundane. That is to say, I had some wonderful experiences, but I didn’t find the awakening that is so often advertised with a neophiliac vision of going abroad. I still mention that I stayed on a houseboat in Paris mostly for the aesthetic of it all, but it didn’t bring on a revelation about reality in any shape. I didn’t discover a secret about myself while traveling, nor did I encounter a totalistic universal truth that changed my entirety. I still felt pretty normal, and beyond that, I felt a pretty sincere desire to be back in my regular bed.
All of this is to say that I didn’t think I had wasted my money or time or effort. I’m happy that I saw the Vatican, that I got to speak at a mass at Montmarte, that I watched The International live in Seattle, and that I’ve driven and flown across the country with a bunch of audiobooks to finish. They’re all great stories, but they still never triggered this profound realization I had been told to expect by traveling. I was craving this feeling of transformation, like I would wake up in a new city and feel somehow different––that I’d, through the ritual of plane or car or train travel, transcend into some new selfhood. That transcendence never arrived, though.
In reflecting on all of my travel experiences, particularly after one notably harrowing trip, I began to see a clear pattern: novelty traveling isn’t as transformative as we’re lead to believe. Rather, it is another experience to pocket, another story to tell. We are so often advertised to death, told to travel for the sake of traveling and only for the social capital it helps us to accrue. We all know or knew someone who won’t or wouldn’t stop talking about their study abroad experience in Scotland/South Africa/Australia/China/etc. I’m still that person at times, so I get it. It’s all a show. Traveling, increasingly, is traveling to accrue enough experiences to convince people you’re worldly. That’s how I did it. It was totally vapid. Empty. Non-transformative.
As I began to think more about travel, I began to realize that the truly transcendent part of travel is the mundanity of it all––the moments to yourself where your real nature is revealed to yourself in a boulangerie in Paris where you’re terrified of making a mistake with the language, or when you’re trying to figure out the public transit system in Germany only to be helped by a loving older couple who adopt you for the day. Getting onto a plane, checking into a hotel, enjoying a meal, sitting on the Seine––these are daily mundanities in a different context, but they ultimately feel no different. I was still, admittedly, kind of bored by it all. I still got hungry in Seattle. I still felt anxious and flustered when I was asked questions in Italian at the gelato stand. I still rushed through the Louvre because I couldn’t appreciate much of what was in there.
Travel doesn’t transform us––it makes us more of ourselves, though. I spent so much time thinking I’d be fundamentally changed, perhaps taking on some parisien aspect, or being more relaxed, or finally––finally!––understanding how fine wine works. Yet, none of those things ever happened. I speak French a little bit better, I’m still pretty anxious, and I really don’t understand wine. Those things are inescapably and fundamentally me, and while I can learn how to change, I couldn’t expect travel to enact those changes for me. There’s no quick fix for what you perceive to be your own problems or struggles or anxieties––rather, and perhaps, travel helps you recognize them more saliently. It’s a different environment, yes, but you’re probably most likely still and inescapably yourself.
Essentially, travel is all about seeing the mundanity of life, the mundanity of yourself and all your accompanying self-perceptions, in a different context. In seeing them in a new place, you’ll begin to recognize, much more saliently, how they function. The travel itself is not the transcendent activity; the recognition of yourself in this new place, same as you always have been, is the beginning of a transcendent process.