Against my own personal rules for how best to take advantage of a life that is far too short to absorb everything the world has to offer, I have traveled to an international destination twice. Two weeks ago, I went to Spain. Fourteen years ago I lived there, working in a summer camp in Andalusia with kids who by now are somewhere around the age I was during those brief moments when we knew each other, young adults out in the real world.
I didn’t feel like much of an adult at that age, but I certainly do now, which is why I didn’t mind retracing my steps a bit. That summer camp job was a lifetime ago and I was another person. I have only a few handwritten notes and photos printed from film to remind me of my previous adventures in the land of valiant conquered and intrepid conquerors. This time, I’m transferring what I jotted down into this blog post, structured according to the chapters in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. De Botton is a modern day philosopher whom I greatly admire. The Art of Travel was the first book I read with Ironman, who accompanied me on this trip, for our long-distance book club, one of the many ways we have of staying close while we are geographically distant.
A line from this book reads “A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that the new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connection chain.” In my early to mid 20s, I spent six years living overseas and visiting almost 20 countries. But again, I wasn’t an adult then and I wasn’t the person I am now. My perspective and experience were small, though rapidly expanding. Therefore, it seems fitting to present my notes on this return to Spain in format that pays homage to this book. This is a long post, but I hope you enjoy it…and maybe feel inspired to pick up a de Botton book.
“In my anticipation, there had simply been a vacuum between the airport and my hotel. Nothing had existed in my mind between the last line on the itinerary and the hotel room.” My favorite part about planning a trip is booking accommodation. This is a new obsession, instigated by AirBnB, which I actually didn’t use at all for this trip. I’m amazed that I used to show up to places in remote, foreign towns without knowing in advance where I was going to stay. To the adult me, sleeping somewhere special is an essential part of a vacation, especially when traveling with a lover, and I enjoy the hunt of finding somewhere unique, beautiful, and under $100/night. The places we stayed in Spain included an old monastery, a boutique adults-only hotel with the nicest proprietors ever and an incredible breakfast spread, and a two-floor apartment in the center of town with a huge skylight in the bedroom.
“Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best to aid thought. The views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or a plane, moving quickly enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects. …At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel that we have been returned to ourselves, that is, brought back into contact with motions and ideas of importance to us.” Although train is always my preferred mode of travel, it is generally the least feasible, and so I find myself in airplanes and cars. One of the great things about travel as a real adult is being able to rent a car. The hustle of finding the right bus and being at the mercy of a set travel schedule to specific locations was fine when I was in my early twenties, but not anymore, especially when the trip is only six days. In every one of my international vacations over the last five years, I rented a vehicle, taking on the challenges of driving on the left side through narrow streets flanks by unforgiving stone walls and navigating Caribbean islands that don’t believe in signage, even on one-way roads. Besides the insane roundabouts in Madrid and the lack of left turn lanes in the entire country, driving in Spain wasn’t that difficult. Our rented Skoda took us faithfully from city to beach to to abandoned village to snowy mountain road, and let us see much more than we would have otherwise.
About falling in love with Amsterdam, De Botton writes “...I stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of my life there…I wanted the life this space implied. I wanted a bicycle; I wanted to put my key in that red front door every evening. I wanted to stand by the curtainless window at dusk, looking out at the identical apartment opposite, and then snack my way through an erwentsoep met roggebrood en spek before retiring to read in bed in a white room with white sheets.” I often fall in love with places and the life I might have when I travel. What did it for me this trip was Santander, the place we spent the least time in and that I expected to like the least. We spent less than 24 hours in this city, doing little more than indulging in the tasting menu at Mason Gele and running along the Sardinero up to the Palacio de la Magdalena, yet I felt a certainty I could move here and be very happy for quite some time. Interestingly, Ironman also instantly envisioned himself living there and expressed this opinion to me before I had told him how I felt. Maybe we’ll be back there someday.
“The real challenge, [Nietzsche] suggested, was to use facts to enhance life. He quoted a sentence from Goethe: ‘I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.'” I love learning. If I won the lottery, I would spend the rest of my life getting degree after degree after degree. There’s so much I want to know but not nearly enough time. So when I travel, I always try to get a little history in. And yes, I’m the person who reads all the signage about the history of a place. Visiting this castle in Turégano was a special treat because there was no one else there. We freely explored the castle, cathedral, parapets, and fortifications without anyone getting in our way. It’s much easier to let your imagination run wild about the people who once occupied these ancient buildings when you aren’t listening to someone else’s banal conversations or babbling children.
The Country and the City
“The poet [Wordsworth] proposed that nature—which he took to comprise, among other elements, birds, streams, daffodils, and sheep—was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.” Just as I try to get in a little history when I travel, I try to experience different regions, country and city. While driving through the mountain roads of Cantabria and Asturias, we passed through village after village that, while seemingly well kept, were devoid of life. One old man sitting on a stoop here, one dog lying in the middle of the road there, but that was about it. Empty playgrounds, shutters closed on all the windows, not a single place anywhere to grab a bite to eat, much less fuel up. Many of them are all but abandoned, and you can even purchase an entire village if you want or rent a house for as little as $100/month. The problem is that you’d be driving hours and hours one way to a grocery store, but at least the roads are well maintained and the drive is lovely.
De Botton’s sublime is something is about recognizing that we are part of something much bigger than us. He says “…not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us. What defies our will can…arouse awe and respect. If the world seems unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest that it is not surprising things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiseled the mountains. …it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us.” Ironman and I spend a good deal of time talking about the cosmos and existence and nature and the origin and meaning of life, and we are currently reading Sapiens. So how magical it was to travel to northern Spain, home to the oldest known cave paintings. We spent a morning at the Altamira museum, imagining the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence before us, most of the details of those lives lost forever, swallowed up by time, yet nonetheless a vital component of who we all are today and how we got to be this way.
Eye Opening Art
“Art cannot single-handedly create enthusiasm, nor does it arise from sentiments of which nonartists are devoid; it merely contributes to enthusiasm and guides us to be more conscious of feelings we might previously have experienced only tentatively or hurriedly.” On my previous visit to Madrid, I visited the world-famous Prado, so this time we decided to explore the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. If you haven’t spent any time in a museum since you were forced to as a child on a school field trip, you’re missing out. As an adult, you are free to experience the museum your way. No one forces you to study a particular painting; no one tells you what you should appreciate. There are hundreds of paintings and artifacts, and you should wander freely until you find the one that captures your imagination. You don’t have to be able to articulate what you like about it. Just feel it. And if you visit with someone else, split up, go where your eye leads you, but stay within ear shot. Tell each other which pieces speak to you, because you just might gain a different perspective on a piece you glossed over the first time. Some of the art that captured my eye at this museum included the following:
Marc Chagall, The House in Gray
Rene Magritte, La Clef des Champs
Lucian Freud, too many to list
Richard Estes, Telephone Booths
Aert van der Neer, Wooded River Landscape
Of this last artist, there were several of his that I really liked, but I think the time when I saw this one made it special to me because the landscape looked so much like a landscape we had passed a few days earlier where a shepherd and his dogs were tending to their flock. Watching both man and canine at work was a unique sight.
More from de Botton, “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this, and it mattered to me.'” Maybe this is why people leave graffiti on priceless artifacts or why they pick rare flowers. Or maybe those people are just assholes. But when you live in a place that is made of beauty, such as living among the Roman ruins of Segovia or in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, you get to hold on to it every day without ruining it for everyone else. How lucky.
We travel because we are “spurred on by an uncertain longing to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvelous world” (Alexander von Humboldt) and yes, we are already discussing a trip to Japan in December and a trip to Chile next summer. Yet there really is no place like home. The cheese, the cured meats, the wine, the cider, the beach, the sea, the mountains, the villages, the people, the language, the ruins – it was all wonderful. But there’s a lot to be said for knowing where to purchase the things you need, pumping your own gas rather than queuing for someone else to do it, understanding the protocol when you walk into a restaurant, having your daily exercise routine, being with your dog, not being in an airport. We had a happy homecoming indeed.