The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Travel for excitement, not enlightenment


As I write this I am in a well-known brand of coffee shop. When I stop and think about it, it is all busy, a regular footpath of traffic. Office workers stream in and out for a shot of caffeine to get them through their Monday morning. In between customers the two baristas discuss the smaller one’s mother-in-law (she looks so young that I am surprised to discover that she’s already married); the two open top buttons on the shirt of the man at the table next to mine reveals an interesting chest tattoo of an eagle; a policeman walks in — he carries two guns. All this takes place over a minute or two to the unlikely soundtrack of Tony Bennett’s recording of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which the well-known brand of coffee shop is piping into its store.

The reason that I mention all of this is that I need to actively stop and think to notice the interesting things around me, those moments of local color. As an expat if this had happened a year or two previously I would have been fascinated by this scene. I would have been alarmed, even repulsed by my close proximity to two firearms.  Now it has all become quotidian. I have lived in cities on three continents and it is remarkable how quickly the exotic turns into the mundane.

For most of us we sleepwalk through life, it is one of quiet monotony — and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For many of us we have a life of traffic jams, of unpleasant bosses, of evenings in the grocery store and weekends in the mall. You may be in a city of six million or a town of two hundred thousand, live alone or with your wife and 2.4 children but for many points it may feel as if one existence of mundane solitude.

Last week on this blog ML Awanohara posted her top 10 expat and travel posts on spiritual escapes, about the need many people feel to search for some “me” time. One of the articles that she linked to was “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer that was from the New York Times.

ML had previously mentioned this article to me and thought that I might enjoy it, or at least find something of interest to it. And, in fairness to her, I did.

Admittedly on reading the opening sentence, which drips with name-dropping, knowingness and smugness  —

About a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marco Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmesiter in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow”…

— I was ready to throw the article across my living room. In fact, I almost did throw it across the room at full force until I remembered that this wasn’t the dead tree edition of the NYT that I was reading, but a digital subscription read via my iPad.

(As someone who has always taken to heart Dorothy Parker‘s adage that this is a book that “should be thrown with great force,” I’m still not entirely happy with reading in the digital age as throwing a kindle or an iPad with great force will only serve to void you of your warranty.)

So not wishing to break my iPad, I kept reading. Iyer is concerned that technology is bombarding us and with that comes an increasing need for us to seek quiet, to try and mediate, to seek some form of solace from the “noise” of the modern world.

There’s nothing particularly original, per se, about this idea nor does Iyer claim so. Perhaps the greatest work in American literature (though other opinions are available) is Thoreau’s Walden. There has always been a desire to escape. We can go way further back than Walden– Christ and the Buddha both headed out to the wilderness. When we couple this desire as Iyer does with the tech writer Nicholas Carr‘s hypothesis that the Internet is shortening our attention spans, altering the very way in which we think, there is a desire to be a modern Canute and try to stop the advancing waves of technology.

That brings us to this month’s theme which concerns itself with the search for solitude or for a transforming experience, which some may class as being spiritual. Often this, as seen with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert, means taking a rather patronizing view of the country that you are visiting that I find entirely unpalatable.

To me it seems that Iyer is in the Gilbert new-agey BS camp. Returning to the “Joy of Quiet” he writes:

For more than 20 years, therefore, I’ve been going several times a year — often for no longer than three days — to a Benedictine hermitage, 40 minutes down the road, as it happens, from the Post Ranch Inn. I don’t attend services when I’m there, and I’ve never meditated, there or anywhere; I just take walks and read and lose myself in the stillness, recalling that it’s only by stepping briefly away from my wife and bosses and friends that I’ll have anything useful to bring to them. The last time I was in the hermitage, three months ago, I happened to pass, on the monastery road, a youngish-looking man with a 3-year-old around his shoulders. . . .

Now most of us can’t be as amazing as Pico Iyer — that’s just the burden we have to carry through our lives. We can’t just move to rural Japan and fetishize solitude. We will still spend our evenings in the grocery store, our weekends in the mall, they will still be those 2.4 children and those bloody traffic jams — as David Byrne sang,“same as it ever was.”

What I am going to do try and do in 2012 (and yes even though it’s mid-January I still feel it is early enough to mention resolutions in a post) is to take advantage of technology to find some solitude. I’m not going to posture by lighting an incense stick as if the path to personal enlightenment lies in sniffing in something called Egyptian Musk. What I am going to do is take advantage of the quiet moments that my everyday life provides by sitting and concentrating at a task and deriving satisfaction from that. It may be by learning programming, a foreign language, or taking advantage of the sheer, vast number of books that are now available for free on Google books. In this well-known brand of coffee shop while Tony Bennett plays to me and the tattooed man and the policeman and the baristas return to talking about the smaller one’s mother-in-law, I have on my iPad access to a library of books greater than the Bodleian — reason enough not to throw the iPad across the room when I’m annoyed by Iyer.

So, I’ll be making a greater effort to sit and read. Return to my first love. I do read a lot, but my attention span has suffered in the Internet age to what it was before. But when I listen to David Foster Wallace in the embedded video (2 minute 14 seconds in is the pertinent part in my opinion), I am inspired to make a greater effort. That will be my act of meditation. My escape from the mall and the grocery shopping.

Travel will not be an escape from the noise, from the barrage of imagery. It will remain a escape from the quotidian, a retreat from the banal. It will be where I go to barraged by sound, sight, people, history, culture — thank God for that.

Hmm… Readers, do you agree that travel writer Pico Iyer belongs in the Gilbert new-agey BS camp? And do you travel for excitement or escape from excitement? Where are you on the continuum?

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a Displaced Q on healthy food by new TDN writer Tony James Slater.

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7 responses to “Travel for excitement, not enlightenment

  1. Janet Brown January 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I like your style. More curmudgeonly invocations of Dorothy Parker, more reminders that the best way to transformation of any kind is to be here now.

  2. M.K. Hajdin January 17, 2012 at 12:28 am

    I had it with Pico Iyer when I read some article of his in a magazine a few years back and he was talking about sitting in his hotel room in Iceland writing poetry. Who the hell DOES that? Nobody! That’s the kind of **** guys say to attract women.

  3. M.K. Hajdin January 17, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Oops, I should actually answer your question, shouldn’t I?

    I moved to a place in the middle of an utterly foreign nowhere to enjoy the silence. Don’t hate me. I left my own country for economic reasons; it’s just too expensive to live there. I managed to find a little bit of earthly paradise in Eastern Europe, but the everyday grind exists here too. I’ve never been so cold in the winter in my life, and I can’t talk to most people because of the language barrier. Had to go without internet for three years until it came here. It’s an escape from my former life, but not without its drawbacks, definitely. Sometimes – often – I envy city folk for being able to order takeout. Here I have to walk 5km to get to the nearest town with a restaurant.

    I travel for fun. Of course my idea of fun is walking around strange cities alone at night. Popular travel writers are under pressure to be all different and special, and that makes them come up with some rather silly forms of self-mythologizing in order to sell books.

  4. robingraham January 19, 2012 at 3:47 am

    DFW as insightful as ever – a real favourite of mine and such a pity we won’t be hearing from him again. I wholeheartedly agree that posturing, whether it be in the form of some adopted esoteric doctrine or the use of props which have been appropriated from their native context, is entirely unnecessary. If you want quiet just switch everything off. Something we so rarely do these days.

  5. awindram January 19, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Yes, he DFW is a real favorite of mine too – particularly his essays. The whole of that interview is worth tracking down on YouTube.

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