Going home is, usually, the very sad bit. Does it have to be? Seated together on most planes are people with very different expectations of where they are going: for some this will be the start of a journey to a new land, whilst others are those returning home. The first group is filled with excitement; they have guidebooks, cameras and knots of anticipation. The second may be too sad to touch their in-flight trays. On the final descent, they gaze at the landscape with melancholy faces. They have only home to contemplate, with its banal associations. And yet the two groups are travelling to the very same place. Once they have crossed customs, they will have before them the same monuments, museums, landscapes and foods.
Why do we accord such privileges to foreign places, and such ready disdain to our own lands? Would it not be one of the greatest skills, the most helpful kind of practical wisdom, to know how to sample a little of the excitement about our own countries that travelers are able to locate there?
Receptivity or openness might be the chief characteristic of the traveler’s mindset. As travelers, we approach new places with curiosity. We don’t assume we know everything. We stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets, gawping at and admiring what the locals take to be strange, 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 hairdresser 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 a country’s history beneath the present.
At home, on the other hand, we assume we’ve discovered most of what is interesting about the neighbourhood, simply by virtue of having lived there a long time. It seems so hard to imagine that there could be something novel to unearth in a place where we’ve spent our daily lives over many decades. But consider how much you might notice if you walked out of the front door, and imagined you had never seen any of it before, if you pictured yourself as a foreigner from a far-off land newly disembarked from a long-haul flight.
Given the limits on how much we are able to travel (and its costs and side-effects), we should endeavour to try, before taking off for distant hemispheres, to notice what we have already so often seen close at hand but have learnt to neglect, because it is familiar. And when we despair at coming back, we should be goaded on by the thought that ‘boring home’ is always someone else’s deeply exciting ‘abroad’.
An extract from How to Travel by The School of Life, available January 2019. Theschooloflife.com