Travel by dictat

By Andreas Laudert, October 2017

Travel is something that can be skipped. It is not an obligation but an inner attitude, a mode which I can cultivate in everyday life as much as on holiday.

Photo: © riskiers / photocase.de

For the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin the wish, indeed the capacity of human beings to “set out / to where they want” – as he puts in his poem “Lebenslauf” (Course of Life) – is part of our freedom which it is necessary to understand. Setting out for somewhere is part of how we see ourselves, our autonomy – and also our hope, when we seek to escape for example. Thus this capacity is outer ability and inner wealth.

When we set out to go away and see new things we first of all have to become poorer – long for something, be homesick for the world. Travelling as a matter of principle, courteously dictated by the appointments diary, is in contrast like a programme we rattle off because that is what is due to happen now, because going on holiday is what you do in the holidays. “Travel by dictat”, as it were.

Against this background it is interesting that the English word travel is etymologically related to the French word for work, travailler. What does it tell us that “toiling” – as the etymological dictionary has it – can apply just as much to the holidays as to work, and that holidays can mean stress and being productive can mean recovery?

The big wide world

If we really want to set out, we have to leave something behind. We must not take anything with us – no backpack heavy with expectations, not too many buttons and cables encompassing our senses, and presumably neither should we calculate what we will experience and “take home with us” from distant places. Only the poverty of openness leads to the blessing of abundance, the perfect holiday tends to be a contradiction in terms.

The questions is: do I liberate myself from the pressure and social expectation of contributing spectacular descriptions from foreign continents at the dinner table? It might be more important, as Hölderlin writes, to learn to “express gratitude for everything” and also to appreciate those things to which the daily grind of the week otherwise makes us blind.

It would mean being grateful for the continent of the familiar: for the excitedly shining eyes of the child for whom exploring the block of houses down the road is a ride through the Wild West; for the morning sun as it shines through the window and the smell of espresso on the staircase; for the mix of shampoos of our fellow citizens which wafts around us on public transport, the aftershave of the person sitting next to us in the train stowing his bag on the luggage rack, the perfume of the passerby in the trouser suite who rushes past us on the way to the baker. Peach and Dior, wild rose and Hugo Boss – that is the scent of the big wide world in the morning at eight on the subway. But where is the big wide world really?

Do you want to go out with me?

This used to be the crucial question, or at least the question which made the heart of a fourteen-year-old beat faster. Do you want to go out with me, that meant: do you want to be together with me, do we want to impress and be a couple? If, in contrast Goethe’s Gretchen in his Faust asks Faust what he thinks about religion, the subtext is not so much: do you go to church, but do you want to be close to me or do you go too far? Are you interested in me or are you just out to get something? Faust is somehow irritated by the question and in the end Gretchen perishes.

Even if we aren’t fourteen any longer – every new person indirectly still asks us this question: do you want to go out with me? Do you want to travel alongside me, become acquainted with yourself in a new way, with me and us? Whether we go to “your place or mine” is incidental. The crucial thing is whether we experience something that goes beyond us.

Be it that we are self-contained as a couple – impossible! – and only ever contemplate ourselves in Rio – or be it that we take note of the world around us; be it that we love the earth – and one another – just as much at home in Pirmasens as in Dubai: encounter is a journey.

Every marriage is an adventure holiday and for the last minute panic there are last minute offers. The first time we hold hands, the first embrace, they are like the new tang in the air when we disembark from the aeroplane. The first long smile: passport check. Getting to know your friends, those are the foreign scraps of conversation that I hear in the street, the unfamiliar currency.

Sleeping with one another: the first trip into the interior. Will you, then, enquires my life’s companion on the road, explore my Jane Bloggs world with me (although I’m not called Jane Bloggs), will you respect it, you, my very own Joe Bloggs, and enter my humble abode without any ID? Will you make me feel that what I love, my circle of friends and things are worth seeing?

Although I am neither a woman of the world and you aren’t a man of the world either – we are nevertheless of this world and live on earth like everyone else.

Homesickness of the spirit

Perhaps we have to learn to travel with our I and not just with our body. What would that be, a concept of travel against the background of modern, contemporary consciousness? We would have to take seriously not just our itchy feet as a stimulus to book flights, plan routes and google hotels, but also the longing for home of our spirit.

It is a happiness which should not be underestimated to affirm the place in which we have been placed by our biography, and it is mentally exhausting always to want to be somewhere else, prefer to live in another place and always wanting to move away in our thoughts: “This place will be the end of me!”

With such a desire we fundamentally ruin the surroundings in which we live and also through the disgruntled polemic against ourselves. We spoil our future memory of the place in which we have spent time. Yet every phase of our lives can, in looking back, have been “good in some way”. If I take the homesickness of my spirit seriously, that it wants to be present in the here and now, then I can – no, I have to be as mentally present round the corner as I am in Barcelona.

Settled between the chairs

Every week I travel several times past the rapeseed fields of northern Germany to the capital and back again to the Baltic. My professional life takes me from one world to the other, teaching and writing, and in doing so I experience the luxury of self-determination. I go away little, but travel a lot – for the sake of two activities which flow together in my heart and which I could never call a job or hobby. Travel starts with the language we use: do we really have living concepts of our dreams or do we cultivate a kind of one-size-fits-all language – phrases and abbreviations, swimming pool and catchwords included?

We don’t have to travel compulsively to develop. In developing we travel. We don’t have to educate ourselves “further” in order to be here. The new element lies in how we look, in the way we see, and not just in what we see. Being able to sit between the chairs is not so simple but holds benefits on the journey to Jerusalem: the Holy Land today is where we make it. I always learn to see in this way when I am out and about with my six-year-old daughter. Even if we are only strolling through Berlin, our jetlag consists of devouring a bag of chips and our slideshow is cancelled.

“Let human beings examine everything,” Hölderlin writes in his poem. Is it important for our curriculum vitae to show many stays abroad? In the end, the only thing that counts is whether we are truly connected with the world and have a tale to tell: whether travel was a refined routine or a deep pleasure in something new, whether at the end of our life’s journey we return transformed to our spiritual home – or as tourists.

About the author: Andreas Laudert studied scenic writing at Berlin University of the Arts as well as theology at the Free College of the Christian Community. Today he works as a freelance author and lecturer and teaches ethics at the Prenzlauer Berg Free Waldorf School.

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