What Travel Can, and Cannot, Teach Us

Is travel “a fool’s paradise,” per Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the only way to understand “La Dolce Vita”?

picture of suitcases on beige background
Atlantic; Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers what they’ve learned while traveling away from home. I was surprised so few of you responded, because there’s such a rich history of answers to this question.

Perhaps my favorite is from James Michener’s nonfiction classic Iberia, where the author describes a journey into the countryside to picnic with some friends before dropping this passage:

I have never bothered much about whether or not people will remember me when I am dead; but I am sure that as long as my generation lives, in various parts of the world someone will pause now and then to reflect, “Wasn’t that a great picnic we had that day with Michener?”

I have lured my friends into some extraordinary picnics, for I hold with the French that to eat out of doors in congenial surroundings is sensible. In Afghanistan we ate high on a hill outside Kabul and watched as tribesmen moved in to attack the city; at Edfu along the Nile we spread our blankets inside that most serene of Egypt's temples; in Bali we picnicked on the terraces and in Tahiti by the waterfalls; and if tomorrow someone were to suggest that we picnic in a snowstorm, I’d go along, for of this world one never sees enough and to dine in harmony with nature is one of the gentlest and loveliest things we can do.

Picnics are the apex of sensible living and the traveler who does not so explore the land through which he travels ought better to stay at home.

Inspired by that passage, I did my fair share of picnicking when I lived in Seville, Spain, and later wrote that I found that city, and Andalusia as a whole, to be “a place where thoughtful visitors are taught that cultivating enjoyment for everyday pleasures has a lot to do with living life right.”

I was reminded of that conclusion when I opened an email from a reader about Florence, Italy. Matt writes:

I had previously only vacationed in the charming capital of Tuscany. But full immersion in Italy for a longer period of time afforded fuller insight into “La Dolce Vita.” I gained a respect for living life at a slower pace. Letting dinners linger longer. Letting conversations flow their course without a manufactured ending at dessert. Respect for the goodness of a morning coffee from the same shop and same guy, for more than a year. Knowing the rules of “not having milk with coffee after noon” and why. Small ceremonies of routine; stopping into the market nearly every day for something fresh. Partially out of necessity, small refrigerators; but also because the market is a 2 minute walk around the corner. I went to Italy burned out from American corporate pressures and returned with better boundaries for work/life and an intentionally slower pace of doing things.

Glenn writes against the tendency to otherize the faraway poor:

I work with several humanitarian NGOs in Central America, visiting small villages and towns that don’t exist on any of our maps, and also a few surprisingly large cities whose names are unfamiliar to most North Americans. All of these places exist far from the coastal cities and tourist resorts. What is most interesting about these communities is how normal they are. They are not exotic, they are not romantic, they just are. If you will permit and excuse the use of an old obscenity, the inhabitants are neither “noble,” nor “savage,” nor “noble savages.” They are human beings with all of the complexity of nobilities and savageries that each of our North American communities and families display. They are exactly like us, with one important exception—poverty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a co-founder of The Atlantic, wrote:

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool's paradise.

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

And perhaps my favorite piece that The Atlantic ever published is a 1906 account of returning to New York City and seeing it anew after the experience of living in Paris. I give you “New York After Paris.”

See you Wednesday.