Essays About


I travel not only to see the world, but to see home. Every trip is two trips, because being abroad makes home a foreign land when I return. I choose destinations for their contrast with my origin: tropical instead of temperate vegetation, large instead of small cities, warm beaches in winter and alpine lodges in summer. I stay as long as I can, to weaken my memory of home. Then, at trip's end, as the airplane descends toward my old patch of earth, I get a newcomer's view of where I live. As I open my front door, my house is a hotel, where with a lodger's senses I notice the odor of my wood floors for the first time in months. For a day or two, I am a tourist of my own life.

Before my first visit to Rome, I bought a book surveying the sculptures and paintings of the Vatican Museums. I studied the reproductions, read the commentaries and artist biographies, and learned the history of the museums—readied my mind to enter the holy of holies of Western culture. My actual visit was more productive as a study of crowds than of art. I went in the sweltering heat of mid-July, with Rome under a barbarian invasion of tourists. Unlike my leisurely review of the photographs at home, I had two hours to gulp down the originals amid a standing-room-only crush of twenty thousand visitors. Viewing art in tourist season is like visiting Mount Fuji under low clouds. Thick walls of fellow visitors' heads obscured the bottom halves of statues. Packed tour groups, like colonies of penguins, waddled, not walked, through the halls of tapestries. In the Sistine Chapel, cloaked in a miasma of human body odor, I craned my neck to see on the high ceiling the famous frescoes that at home I had held in my lap. The originals seemed faint copies of their reproductions.

Mobs of humanity consecrate a football game but desecrate an art museum. Besides getting in our way, loud families in matching T-shirts deflate our sense of sophistication as art connoisseurs. As one of the tourists, I had to acknowledge myself a contributor to the annoyed expressions of tour guides and security guards. I noted with displeasure that two of the armpits I smelled were my own. On my pilgrimage to culture, I felt like a philistine.

I travel to taste life in another place, but what I primarily taste, wherever I go, is the life of travel. In the taxonomy of experience, traveling occupies a single genus regardless of destination: a life of looking at things. I walk down streets, tour buildings, photograph statues, stand at scenic overlooks. The sights change, but the flavor of sightseeing stays the same. We over-associate travel with adventure and growth. Traveling can be as repetitive as any activity. Reliving the same vacation in destinations around the world, one discovers the cosmopolitan life to be oddly provincial. Traveling is an experience rather than an avenue to experience.

I never work so hard as on vacation. For weeks before my departure, I cannot relax on weekends because I must research and plan. Hail to the free spirits and gypsies who can find their way as they go. I have learned that any decision I neglect to make in advance, I will have to make in the moment, when time is scarcer, stress higher, and strangers waiting for my answer. My task—from a starting point of zero knowledge, to determine what to do, how long, and in what order—appears conquerable from a distance, but the more I learn, the more complexities emerge. The restaurant and theater I have chosen for Wednesday night are not in walking distance. The museum for Saturday is closed weekends. Research, before it yields solutions, multiplies problems.

On arriving, I tighten into a state of poise and tension: heightened alertness must compensate for heightened ignorance. Hailing a taxi, ordering food, and talking with a hotel receptionist follow rules and conventions I am oblivious of. I am reborn into childhood, my decades of education and social instruction made irrelevant. I revert to feelings of self-consciousness not felt since adolescence.

Finally, my vacation is over, and I can go back to work and rest.

The worst part of travel is the traveling. The destination is my goal, the journey the unfortunate cost. I lose two days of a precious week's vacation to airplanes, car rental counters, and waiting in traffic on freeways. The chore of changing locations compels me, against my wish, to do my traveling all at once: to cram four cities into five days, to rise earlier on vacation than I do at home, to choose exhaustion over the regret of slowing down. I wish I could travel like I eat, in small regular meals, not once-a-year binges. I daydream of a network of machines that would atomize my body at my origin and reassemble it from other atoms at my destination, so I could visit Russia over my lunch hour or take my evening walk in Rio. Absent an atomizer, give me the bullet train of books, which whisk me across continents in an instant without suitcases or jet lag. I want to see too many places to wait for matter to tag along. A traveler packs too heavy if he takes his body with him.

The problem with visiting historic cities is that we can only go in the present. Drawn by a magnificent past, we arrive to the deflating realization that this place that was once a stage is now a backwater. What greatness has issued from Florence in the last four centuries? I do not so much want to visit Florence, but to visit the Renaissance; I do not want to see Michelangelo's paintings, but Michelangelo painting. I would like to pick a century as well as a country when I travel.

Having felt letdown visiting history's has-beens, I prefer places whose moment is now. One travels to Hong Kong or San Francisco not for what they were, but what they are. San Francisco was a sand dune when Brunelleschi was building his dome and the Medici ousted Machiavelli, but now history ships from Silicon Valley while storied Florence is reduced to reminiscence. The best place to look for life is in the present, and in imagination of the past. Thus I read books about Florence, and book flights to California.

Although I often yearn for the wide life of travel, traveling is a poor road to go seeking more wealth of experience. As soon as I reach my new coordinates, I feel the inescapable shallowness of travel. I have no friends in this exotic place, no history, no job, am a member of no gardening club or church committee. I do not go to dinner parties but watch them through windows on solitary walks. I have not entered life but left it. Traveler's anomie points my yearning homeward, back to the place where I am a node in society's network, linked to life by the rich rhythms of my routines, where every street and building remind me of something I did once, where my experience, if narrower, is deeper. The same desire to participate in life that led me from home, leads me back home.

The joy of traveling is to be where you haven't been. The joy of home is to be where you have always been. Thus we destroy the joy of traveling by attaining it, since visiting the unknown makes it known, but we deepen the joy of home by being home, since every year adds fibers to our roots.

We love where we live and lust where we don't. Home is our wife, travel is our mistress. We boomerang on brief adulteries to faraway places, seeking their elegance, fleeing their emptiness.

I never knew how vast the sky was till I drove across the Great Plains. On the East Coast, the sky is an irregular blue shape between rooftops and oak branches; in Kansas it is half the world. Beneath the sky are 360 degrees of ways to go, without so much as a hedge to hinder your progress. Yet instead of feeling free, I felt trapped by such boundless acreage. Surveying the fields, there is nowhere to go, because there is nowhere different to go. Drive a mile, and you find yourself in exactly the same location. Where do locals go to enjoy a picnic? How could they possibly choose? There are no clearings in the woods or pleasant overlooks to make you want to park your wagons here instead of there, only an infinity of equivalent spots. Mountains, coastlines, cities, and forests, which elsewhere create borders that turn land into locales, are missing from America's middle. Equidistant from the Atlantic and Pacific, the Appalachians and Rockies, New York and California, the Plains are the midpoint of everything, yet a thousand miles from anything.

The first time I visited Yosemite Valley, I did not expect to be very impressed, not because I thought the scenery would be shabby, but because I thought the crowds would spoil it. Plus, Yosemite has been so praised by so many people that it seemed to me too clichéd to be impressed by it, and with a certain pride I hoped I would not be.

We want to get to the place where history happened. We feel nearer antiquity when we stand in the Roman Forum, though we have only moved nearer in space, not in time. We are moved by an empty field of grass because a Civil War battle was fought there once. We travel great distances to museums to see original paintings that we have seen as clearly and without the crowds in reproductions, because our eyes must rest on the canvas the master's hand touched.

But does the body of history lie in the shrines where we seek it? Space is as restless as time. After one hundred fifty summers of new growth, the grass in the Civil War field is not the grass the soldiers stood on. The museum's famous paintings glow with oil pigments from the restorer's, not the artist's, brush. In the Roman Forum, we walk upon the dust from prior visitors' shoes and breathe the air that they, not the ancients, exhaled. Caesar's dust has likely disappeared from Rome, but we may find it in our garden when we get home, if the winds of two millennia have blown it there.

Visiting foreign countries, I can never suppress a sense of the inefficiency of humanity speaking multiple languages. Each language repeats with slight variation what every other language already says, like people in group discussions who, to assert themselves, restate in their own words and examples every comment anyone makes. The redundancy of languages suggests the lack of a world supervisor. Earth's societies are like children playing without an adult, each making its own rules which no one else abides by.

Abroad, I experience life like a deaf person, interpreting faces instead of phrases. Watching old Greek women make small talk by a storefront or Italian cab drivers hurl angry sounds at other drivers, like cab drivers at home, I feel falsely divided from my fellow humans. Beneath their opaque words are recognizable actions and emotions. Nature gave them and me the same brain, but culture divided us with different sounds for getting our thoughts out.

I grant that linguistic diversity adds color to the world, and that I will never know Dante truly if I read him in translation, but the bar of cosmopolitanism is too high. I tend to give up learning languages after a few months, for it is odious to regress from a mastery of English to a second-grade knowledge of French or German—from deciphering Melville to deciphering menus.

I sympathize with religions that see language as God's gift and diversity of language as God's curse. Humanity has over-solved the problem of communication. Once, we were isolated from each other by lack of speech. Now, by excess.

Europe's cathedrals sublimely evoke the absence of God. They are temples that have decayed into museums. Tourists, not worshippers, fill their naves, driven by curiosity, not faith. One does not pay alms anymore but admission fees. The altar is roped off, not because it is sacred, but fragile. The silence of emptiness has replaced the silence of holiness.

Wandering past vacant pews and pulpits among guidebook-toting spectators, I become briefly nostalgic for the cathedrals' sacred past, until, opening my guidebook, I study that past and find nothing sacred. The glittering walls and shrines are decorated with ill-gotten gold, stolen relics, and war booty. The soaring domes and spires were raised to heaven not from piety but ambition, to outdo nearby cathedrals and show that Florence was better than Pisa, as modern Malaysian and Shanghai architects compete to build the tallest skyscraper. The niches are filled with the tombs of the rich, not because rich men were holy then but because they wanted to buy the best salvation for themselves, as today's rich use their millions to nuzzle up to power and buy the best laws and policies for themselves. In the cathedrals' history as opposed to their aura, I recognize the same political machinations, class inequality, greed, and immorality that rule the world today—the trademark signs of man curiously grafted onto religion. Life has left Europe's cathedrals, but God was never there.

A secular and a religious society are equally profane, for a secular society banishes the sacred, while a religious society defiles it with the human.

On a ship there is both more room and less room than on land. We can see to the horizon but cannot walk past the ship's rails; we have wider thoughts but stiffer legs. The mind's very spaciousness exacerbates the body's claustrophobia. On land we accepted working all week in a cubicle, because its walls obscured the world beyond, but now that our eyes extend to earth's edge, a ten-story ship feels as cramped as a clam shell. Our souls would surf the hemisphere of waves, but matter shackles us. At sea I see why Plato cursed the body.

Inlanders going to sea are like shoppers looking at catalogs: we were happy before we knew how much we wanted.

Cruising the fjords of Alaska last summer and trying to imagine I was Captain Cook seeking the Northwest Passage, the thought kept intruding into my mind that on this same earth, only a few thousand miles away, were New York City, Tokyo, and Dubai, where at this moment people were talking on cell phones, riding subways, and checking stock quotes. This reflection pruned the wilderness of its power, for instead of the dangerous place our ancestors walled their cities against, it was now the walled enclave amid a wilderness of civilization, no longer threatening, but threatened.

Our contemporary experience of wilderness often seems more simulated than real. We designate wildernesses instead of discover them. We put a fence around the wilderness, not for our sake but for its: a cage to keep it wild. A protected wilderness is an oxymoron.

Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.