“Journeys are the midwives of thought.”
— Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel —
Alain de Botton calls the final section of his book, simply, Return. And it was to that section that I turned, despite having only read half the book so far, as I descended into Dulles Airport on Thursday, coming back from Europe, back from Paris, London, and Berlin, back from six weeks of not being at home.
And so I found myself yesterday morning – home, sitting at my desk in Washington, a dreary, rainy morning, large drops of water dripping mechanically onto the idle air conditioning unit hanging in my window, drinking coffee – amidst all the old familiar things: slow drain, whistling faucet, litter box, cat food and medication, the piles I left behind, my cell phone next to me turned on. I sat in the silence and thought I could hear church bells ringing – maybe at the National Cathedral? But no. Those were damaged by earth quake and don’t ring anymore. Where then? More likely it was a combination of fatigue, disbelief, and longing that was ringing in my ears, more so than any actual church bells – the product of being still for the first time in six weeks. Still. Nowhere, really, to go. A haircut appointment in the afternoon, a quick trip to the vet, but still. Nothing pressing. I haven’t felt such stillness in weeks and weeks. Even calm moments while I was away were infused with the electricity of Europe – it pulsed just outside my door. The energies of Paris and London and Berlin were different, of course, but each city was filled with a cadence, a tingle, a rhythmic gesture that ran through me. It changed my pace, the pace of things, the way I walked down the sidewalk. Not with greater purpose, no, but with different eyes, maybe a keener perception? Certainly more open – to what was around me, to buildings and the people in them, to parks and the people in them, to fashion and style, traffic patterns, architecture, garden gates, public notices on sign boards, what people eat and drink – all perfectly ordinary things brought to life by not being at home.
“What, then, is a travelling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.”
Back when I lived in France I was captivated by Roberta Bondi, who writes about the importance of paying close attention to the presence of God, especially when one is in foreign, and here she means unfamiliar, places or circumstances. My interpretation of what she means by both foreign and God has changed over time, but what is important here is this notion of paying attention and what I wonder, having been gone for six weeks and having now returned, is whether we have to go away in order to learn to pay attention? It’s easier – ironically by seeming more difficult – to pay closer attention when one is away, far from the familiarities and comforts of home, but the same sense of curiosity, of observation, of receptivity, should apply even when we are at home, walking down the street to get a haircut or buy flowers or put a letter in the mailbox on the street corner at the end of the block. De Botton writes about this at the end of his book, when he goes for a walk around his London neighborhood and observes it like a traveler, as if he were on vacation, seeing the place – his own street – anew. Having just gotten home from six weeks in Europe, it’s obvious why such a notion would appeal to me. Why I would desire to have fresh eyes of my own when I go down to U Street for that haircut appointment, so that I might perceive something new, something lovely and exciting, along the way – something, perhaps, more than the underside of my umbrella because I have come home to thunderstorms, something more than the sweat stains forming on the front of my shirt because I have given up summer scarves in exchange for ninety two percent humidity.
There is a certain post-return melancholy that I would not trade, because hopefully in its depths perception is wrought – I want to pay the same attention here, now, at home, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to cultivate the same sense of wonder about the world with which I awoke each day for the past six weeks. To be receptive. De Botton writes, “There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their way through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed. Dressed in pink-and-blue pyjamas, satisfied within the confines of his own bedroom, Xavier de Maistre was gently nudging us to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already seen.” I like the sentiment, but I’d flip it around. In order for us – for me – to notice what we have already seen, we need to leave, to go far away, not just around the corner or down the street or the next state over, but somewhere old, somewhere they speak another language, somewhere with a longer history than our own, to go beyond what we know, beyond what is comfortable, beyond established attitudes and opinions, if only then to return with attention renewed, with a different focus, with fresh perspective – gained from traveling – that we can apply to wherever we call home. We don’t have to travel constantly but, periodically, we do have to leave.