What can travel teach us and what it can’t?

This is a copy of “Up for Debate”, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he gathers conversations in time and solicits responses from readers to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he posts some thoughtful responses. Sign up for our newsletter here.

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

Perhaps my favorite was a James Michener realist classic IberiaWhere the author describes a trip in the country for a walk with some friends before dropping this clip:

I have never bothered so much as to whether or not people will remember me when I die; But I’m sure that as long as my generation is alive, in different parts of the world, someone will stop every now and then to think, “Wasn’t that wonderful picnic we had that day with Michener?”

I have drawn my friends to some unusual outings, because with the French I consider eating out in proper surroundings reasonable. In Afghanistan, we ate high on a hill outside Kabul and watched the tribesmen move to attack the city; In Edfu along the Nile, we spread our blankets inside the most serene Egyptian temple; In Bali, stroll on the terraces and in Tahiti by the waterfalls; And if tomorrow someone suggests that I take a picnic in the midst of a snowstorm, I will go with him, because in this world one never sees enough, and eating in harmony with nature is one of the sweetest and most beautiful things we can do.

Picnics are the pinnacle of a reasonable life and a traveler who does not explore the land he travels through should stay at home.

Inspired by this passage, I had my fair share of strolls while living in Seville, Spain, and later wrote that I found that city, and Andalusia as a whole, “a place where thoughtful visitors learn to cultivate daily pleasures whose pleasures have much to do with living properly.”

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

I have previously only spent my vacation in the charming capital of Tuscany. But a full immersion in Italy for a longer period provided insight into “La Dolce Vita”. I gained respect for living life at a slower pace. Leave dinner longer. Allowing conversations to flow in its tracks without ending up artificially in candy. Respect the splendor of my morning coffee from the same shop, same man, for over a year. Find out the rules for “not drinking milk with afternoon coffee” and why. small celebrations of routine; Stopping in the market almost every day in search of something new. Partly out of necessity, small refrigerators; But also because the market is a 2 minute walk away. I went to Italy exhausted from corporate American pressures and promised better work/life boundaries and an intentionally slower pace of doing things.

Glenn writes against the tendency to otherize the distant poor:

I work with many humanitarian NGOs in Central America, visiting villages and small towns that aren’t on any of our maps, as well as a few amazing big cities whose names most North Americans don’t know. All these places are far from coastal cities and tourist resorts. What is most interesting about these societies is the extent of their nature. They aren’t weird, they aren’t romantic, they just are. If you allow and excuse the use of old obscenity, the inhabitants will not be “noble”, “savages”, nor “noble savages”. They are ushered in all the intricacies of nobility and savagery that both our North American communities and families exhibit. They are just like us, with one important exception – poverty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, co-founder of Atlantic Oceanbooks:

The soul does not travel. A wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on whatever occasion call him from his home, or to foreign lands, he is still at home, and he will make men reason by the expression of his face, that he goes the herald of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like his Sovereignty, not as an intruder or servant.

I have no filthy objection to circumnavigating the globe, for purposes of art, study, and charity, that man should be domesticated first, or not travel abroad in the hope of finding something greater than he knows. He who travels to Leslie, or to have something which he does not carry, travels far from himself, and grows old even in smallness among old things. At Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and his mind are aging and ruined. carries rubble to wreckage. Travel is a fool’s paradise.

Our first excursions discover an indifference to places. At home, I dream that in Naples, in Rome, I can be drunk with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack up my trunk, embrace my friends, and set sail for the sea, and at last I wake up in Naples, and there by my side the stern truth, the sad, relentless, identical soul, from which I escaped. Ask the Vatican and the palaces. I am drawn to being intoxicated by the sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. But the travel rage is a symptom of a deeper unhealthiness that affects the entire intellectual work. The mind is a vagrant, and our educational system feeds anxiety. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

Perhaps it is my favorite piece Atlantic Ocean Ever Published is a 1906 account of returning to New York City and seeing it again after experiencing living in Paris. I give you “New York after Paris.”

see you on Wednesday.

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