“A momentuous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.” (19)
musings on the appeal of new places related to our state of mind
De Botton’s first few chapters of the Art of Travel
generally revolve around the vaguely existential, and thoroughly human theme of the self—and of wanting to get away from oneself. He explored loneliness, and one’s mindset in relation to different physical environments—and how places familiar and unfamiliar affect the mind or how we view ourselves, or our thoughts, and our moods. In reading these chapters, I identified with just about everything he discussed (so this response reflects only a fraction of what I’d like to say on this subject), and when he was giving personal examples of his trips and moments and memories abroad and at home, I was imagining similar parallels of experiences I’ve had here in Paris and at “home” in New York. His discussion of how places and instances seem more pure “in the remembered and … anticipated versions of them” really rung true with me. (22) I’m often conflicted and stuck on memories of past events, and have over-contemplated such memories—while reprimanding myself for doing so. I’m so often trying to “live in the present,” but can’t help shake the feeling that, often, my memories of past events seem more real, more “pure,” than when such events were occurring themselves. I find that a lot of my cherished memories begin growing their own realities. It’s partially these false realities that I find myself running away from when I voyage to a new place—I too subconsciously hope that I will not bring myself with me when I voyage to a new place. I want to wipe the slate clean in order to live in the present, and illogically fool myself into believing that a new place will do just that, will erase my memory so I can live in the eternal present in a wonderful, new, idealized place. What kind of hope is that, though? A hope that can never be fulfilled, and so I find myself continuously disappointed when I scrape against the boundaries and limits and realities of new situations, new places, new people.
“We learn that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.” (25) So then, why, why, why are we all
so stuck on this notion that a change of scenery will change our state of mind? De Botton admits that “the key ingredients of happiness could not be material or aesthetic but must always be stubbornly psychological.” (25) He explores the question of why we so often naively hope and believe that a new place will bring about a new self, when we truly know—or have experienced in the past—that a change in setting does not guarantee anything, that the most beautiful view in the world can look ugly if we are stuck in an ugly mood. What is our obsession trying to fool ourselves into thinking a new season will bring about a new start? So—sure, our mind determines our happiness, rather than our environment—we all know the story of Sisyphus
. Then, why does spring in New York bring about an exodus of picnicking people in the parks, what is this effect that new places and seasons have on us? It’s our allowing ourselves to be happy—it’s our fooling ourselves into thinking a new place will
bring about a new life—a new place is a catalyst for change if we allow it to be. It has nothing to do with the place itself, it just has to do with the our mind allowing the place to be it’s excuse for happiness, it’s excuse for letting go of those old, festering memories.
Paris, of course, was a catalyst for such a change in mindset for all who came here to study abroad. The first few weeks here consisted of my NYU friends and I going out to lunch and dinner in Paris together, throwing parties at our new Parisian apartments, going to new museums, to new bars—all with each other, all American outings, all spending more money than we’d ever spend in New York. After a week or so of this, it began to feel as if our indulgences in such things were to serve the purpose of distracting ourselves from the reality that although all the food and places were different and, in some ways, better than New York—it was still kind of the same. We’d go to each other’s apartments and lodge ourselves onto any available balcony in order to keep our eyes glued to the Parisian skyline while smoking too many cigarettes—it was as if we were looking for some sort of hidden rupture in the sky that would suck us back to New York City. Did our past follow us here?
It sure feels like it, but there are no decaying, towering metal buildings here. Just faded ghost buildings, sprouted from our future memories, made of creamy stone and juxtaposed against that raw star filled sky. Why does everything look different, if we still feel the same as we did a month ago?
we’d subconsciously wonder, while at the same time feigning conversations about how perfect and lovely Paris is.
Forgetting memories and our old selves and attitudes and habits always turns out to be a more difficult task than expected—a new place on its own only allows for a temporary forgetting. Eventually the veil falls away; one by one those habits and memories seep back, and we again find ourselves in that “fallen world,” in that self we’re fated to spend our lives in. “It was the fate of poets… to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative, less compromised realm.” (32) That “fallen world”—seems to just be any world that is not our imagined world. We keep searching for ways to catapult ourselves into that alternative realm—and occasionally we feel as if we are living in it for brief moments—moments that we continue to revisit in our mind until we stumble upon the next temporary gateway to that realm. New places are gateways to such imagined realms—if we allow them to be—but once we’ve stepped through such a gateway, we fall back into another version of our old world without warning. Occasionally, we keep ourselves transfixed on our exotic balconies in order to distract ourselves from noticing that fall.
Today, I realized the weather is already too cold to do what I came to Paris to do: to just sit outside a café at a small table while drinking espresso, and allowing my mind to wander, and to write, to philosophize, to think. To watch Parisians sweep past me with their mysterious air, surreal language, and sense of purpose. I just want to sit outside and watch them, and fantasize about what wonderful lives they could be leading—I just want “inspiring glimpses into private domains” in order to continue focusing on the present, to keep from stagnation, to stay in some sort of transient world that allows for me to escape “the everyday” of my life through the marvelous “everyday” lives of others. (56) But today it was cold and raining and I was shivering, so I sat inside the café and attempted to stare at them through a tinted window smeared with fingerprints. I gazed at each passing stranger, and tried to let my mind wander—hoping “the tumultuous sea of human heads [would] fill me… with a delicious novelty of emotion”—but instead I slowly realized that almost every passing pedestrian was dressed in work attire because they were all headed to the metro across the street. (Poe
) They all looked as if they were rushing to typical bourgeois- type jobs that Flaubert would find so terribly “monotonous, sensible, [and] stupid.” (73) Oh how mundane! So I paid for my double express
, stumbled awkwardly out of the café, and joined the sea of heads. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll drift into a more strategically located café-- ah yes, I can already imagine it.
(photo by me of a cafe in the marais)