The Rewards of Travel

Why do we travel? What do we hope to find in foreign lands?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, like many young aristocrats of his generation, set out to travel, and as other Northern Europeans, he headed south. The carriage took him across forests and the Alps, and after a stop at the foot of the mountains at Innsbruck, he reached Italy. In his Italian Journey, Goethe witnesses to the impact the trip had on him, even 30 years later: he breathes Mediterranean airs, inspect the country’s geology and botany, tastes its cuisine, marvels at its classical architecture and works of art.

The phenomenon of the Grand Tour – from which we gain the term tourist – had started some years before, when aspiring gentlemen from England, Germany and Northern Europe travelled to refine their manners and be enriched by the splendours of ancient times, the Roman heritage, and the works of the Renaissance. Both rite of passage and means of cultural transmission, the Grand Tour captured the imagination of young people like Adam Smith and Thomas Cook from the seventeenth to nineteenth-centuries, who longed to grasp a fragment of the past and therefore to project themselves to the future.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s  depiction of an imaginary gallery illustrates the longings of these early tourists. A group of men, dressed in an impeccable manner and wearing wigs, look around the gallery filled with paintings and sculptures of Rome: the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum. The ceiling is high and the perspective is long; it is almost like another world to marvel at, with decorated skies and enough a dose of refined air. The visitors gaze around and try to absorb as much as they can; even dignitaries like Napoleon, who longed for Rome and projected onto it his imperial dreams, had not had the fortune of laying his eyes on the actual city.[1]

To our contemporary ears, accustomed with accessibility of information, egalitarian tastes and ease of travel, the Grand Tour may sound elitist, stand-offish almost, rich in art but poor in wisdom. These young aristocrats might have traveled to places of need and poverty, we may think, and have enlarged their horizons in a more significant way. Indeed, this criticism may be fair when levelled not only at the aristocratic Grand Tour, but also to much of our traveling today, which shelters us from a full-picture view of the places we visit for a few selective snippets: the pretty, the historic, the comfortable, the manageable.

Still, to travel is to be changed. The intense moments, sights and reflections of a week away from home may bring us inner growth that an year at home may not do. For when we travel we see reality with a different set of eyes; we not only taste new food, smell exotic aromas and hear foreign voices, but we also come to look at ourselves differently. We enter into a state of wonder, of looking at things afresh, of suspension of our previous understandings to make way for new insights, which helps explain why we feel so alive and why the days are so long and rich when we travel. We employ emotional muscles we usually do not use, like a climb of the Kilimanjaro will demand different bodily disciplines, and we come in contact with parts of ourselves we may usually leave unexplored – childlike fascination, the thrill of risk, the joy of a meal with the people we love – and these new glimpses of self-awareness both surprise and engage us: “Wow, I never thought of myself in this way.”

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves;” wrote Pico Yyer in a brilliant essay called Why We Travel, “and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” We forget our problems, worries and daily boredom in the exciting discoveries of a place and its people; we fancy novelty, thrills and encounters; we try on new clothes, food and poses. But then we travel to rediscover who we are, what is the world, and what is our place in it. We travel to a specific locality but then to universalize our experience; we transport our bodies across space but feel our souls move also across time; and in this particular mode of experiencing time and space, we get unusual glimpses of eternity, we get in contact with our deepest longings and with the vast and lavish benevolence of God.

But the powers of abstraction and the appetizers of eternity arrive only when we let ourselves touch the concrete textures of a new place. And this is the advice Goethe gives at the introduction to his Italian Journey, as a key to the value of his journey. He tells an aspiring author to pay attention not only to his subjectivity but also to immensities and details around him. “Like all young men, nowadays, he rather fights shy of reality, although everything imaginative must be based on reality, just as every ideal must come back to it.” Goethe himself made extensive drawings during his time in Italy, not because he hoped to become a painter and not an author, but to “train his mind to pay attention to the external world.”[2]

Be it in a cultured Grand Tour, be it in a summer get-away close to home, Goethe’s advice remains precious. We learn to see through things after we learn to look at them; we find ourselves after we let ourselves get lost on new terrain; we enlarge our vision of the world when we come out of self-absorption and let the little details, even of a simple sketch, fascinate us.

René Breuel


[1] Catherine Brice, Storia di Roma e dei Romani, da Napoleone ai nostri giorni (Roma: Viella, 2009), 57

[2] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (London: Penguin, 1962),  8, 15.

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2 responses to “The Rewards of Travel

  1. Very cool post. I see how the Grand Tour could be construed as elitist, but I think travel is always money well spent. My parents could never afford long European vacations, but I always worked at my after school job, and they helped me financially so I could usually take a summer class abroad. Looking back, I would not trade those experiences for anything. I was usually penniless because of them, but I never minded much.

  2. Great to hear from you, James! I agree with you, travelling is invaluable, It was a post inspired by a trip we’re taking in two weeks, after all!
    Cheers,

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