There is little in life that we so regularly regard with a sense of romance as travel. This is even more so for foreign travel, which for our purposes here can be taken to mean travel to any new or rare corner where life looks, feels, tastes, or resonates differently than one’s point of origin. But why do people choose to assign such romance to that particular circumstance of leaving — of seeking; of going; of finding; of that internal voyage which is seemingly not accessible in the act of remaining? Do we even make this choice consciously, or does the romantic somehow find its own way into our expectations of travel simply by being a sort of unspoken feature of the expansion of one’s horizons? And what is the effect of this intrinsic romanticization on the voyage, or on the would-be voyager?
Having spent much of the past decade as either a resident or a visitor in foreign places, I have passed countless hours reflecting on these questions. They’ve been sparked in my mind by reflections in train windows and rips in worn-out suitcases and pungent smells and necessarily awkward attempts at salutations. They’ve been silently and unknowingly posed by strangers living their normal lives on crowded streets. They’ve led me to unwavering certainty and to abject wonder, and have often carried me in circles between the two. I don’t profess to have conjured any definitive answers to these questions from the miles and kilometers I have tread, but if there is any one thing with which I have certainly fallen in love as I’ve experienced these countless communities across dozens of distinct cultures, it is a new way of understanding these questions themselves. Addressing them calls for intellectual consideration, yes, but also for introspective exploration. It is not unlike the process of trying to grasp the psyche of a character in an epic script, in that every actor or director who has ever ventured to understand how or why a character experiences any sensation at all has necessarily grounded their work in some degree of personal experience or perspective. In very much the same way, if we want to understand how or why the foreign so often strikes us as romantic, we must start by looking inward and considering the elements of our own selves that are made more whole by the experience.
But before we take a look at this association of romance with foreign travel, maybe it would be best to first clarify what we even mean by ‘foreign’ in this context. We’ll be talking about the phenomenon of traveling away from the known into the unknown, from the familiar into the “other,” with all of the associated new encounters and apprehension and confusion and discovery and excitement. Thus we’ll have to understand “foreign” to mean anything different from what we’re used to — essentially, we’ll understand it to mean “new’ and culturally distinct and unexplored. Using our definition, the West Coast is certainly foreign to the Northeast, the urban Nairobi apartment complex is certainly foreign to the sprawling Rwandan farm, and the Appalachian mining town is certainly foreign to the affluent Pennsylvania suburb. The housing project would be unquestionably foreign to the penthouse at the top of the skyscraper on the other side of the tracks. That’s not to say that these communities have nothing in common with each other — to the contrary, they are more alike than they are different — but for any who calls one such environment home, a visit to another is certainly an encounter with the foreign. The transition and the anticipation of said transition to the foreign that we’re discussing could be even be understood as sacred — in the philosophical traditions of Eliade or Durkheim — but to examine that sanctity would be a digression from the topic at hand. Let’s move on and consider why we seem to so often assign romance, of all sentiments, to this idea of foreign travel.
[Why] do people choose to assign such romance to that particular circumstance of leaving — of seeking; of going; of finding; of that internal voyage which is seemingly not accessible in the act of remaining?
The 1915 cover of National Geographic, one of the world’s premier magazines for travel photography & stories | Source: Wikimedia Commons
It starts with pictures and stories. Pictures and stories of the foreign places to which we might imagine traveling. Pictures and stories are — if you think about it — the first way we ever experience the foreign before we go out and encounter it on our own. Plays; movies; Uncle Bob’s slideshows. And they’re nearly always beautiful. They show us the parts of the story that the returned traveler or the creative dreamer deems worthy of recounting, and so they spark in us a conception of the best or at least the most-easily comprehensible versions of their subjects. They quietly incite us to react emotionally in ways we didn’t expect, because they expose us to exotic ways of living with which we may not have been familiar until that moment. Think about the first time you read a Hemingway book set in Spain or saw Times Square come to life on the screen. I’ll bet you were moved. Even stories of hard places, like the favelas of Brazil or the overcrowded cities of South Asia, tend to evoke romanticized optimism or hopeful sympathy when told by a traveler returning to a relatively more comfortable home. Those sensations are of course real and legitimate, but they’re also the effect of a simplified portrayal of an impossibly-realistic place. Pictures and stories cannot capture every aspect of a foreign locale, and so they often convey only the elements that have the most powerful sensory impact on either the teller or the listener. And so the picture or the story so often recounts a dream of a place — an intelligible mirage of what the place really is.
An illustration — “The Valley of Diamonds” by Maxfield Parrish — depicting the story of Sinbad’s second voyage, from the 1907 edition of The Arabian Nights | Source: Wikimedia Commons
I’ll give you an example of this inherent romanticization at work: I’ll try to tell you a story about a place I’ve been that I’m fairly sure will be somewhat foreign to most of you. And the key here is that I’ll try to tell you this story without losing your attention, because as you’ll see, the story would lose its narrative power if I were to become too obsessed with portraying every important element of the place. The fact that I have to choose which details to include and which to cast aside will automatically add a degree of fantasy to the story, and will thus inherently induce you to receive it through an unrealistic lens, one way or another.
Here it goes.
One of the most foreign places I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time is the Sahara desert. I lived on its edge for several years and would often venture down into its pink sun-painted dunes and meet the people who spent their lives traversing its expanse. Driving from a populated area into the Sahara is always a singular experience because you can almost feel yourself transitioning from the modern to the ancient, from the controlled to the uncontrollable. You can see permanent land features recede over the horizon in the rear-view mirror as they become replaced by a landscape of ever-shifting dunes on a colossal scale. You become more and more surprised by any sign of human activity at all, whether a gas station or even just a road marker, and if you decide to stop somewhere along the semi-paved road, you experience what might be your first-ever opportunity to hear real silence. You are the anomaly in the sandscape as you continue on. You can no longer smell the smells of wherever you’ve come from and you watch the finest grains of sand you’ve ever seen whizz past your windshield. Your radio signal weakens until it’s gone, and you roll on forward into the quiet. You’re alone with your thoughts and your supplies and whomever you’ve chosen to travel with. Night falls and it’s unfathomably dark; you can count more stars than you have ever seen before. Even the tiny village where you’ve chosen to shelter for the night bears the signs of the desert; all of the buildings are sand-blasted and all of the drinking water is carried to town on the back of a truck or an animal. This is what normal life looks like here; yours is the life that’s weird.
I could imbue that story with infinitely greater detail and still fail to capture the true essence of the place I’m describing. So you see, just by the very nature of the fact that I am limited to only a certain amount of time or space in telling my story, I must inevitably give you an imprecise look at this foreign place. The lens through which you view it will be tinted with the words or images I’ve chosen to use. In fact, since I myself have not even spent the imprecise-but-knowable number of seasons of my life in that particular place to be considered a local (which could be an essay topic in itself), I could never really describe what life in this place is like at all. I can only describe my experience of it, which was inevitably tinged with my own silent or deliberate perspectives. But I bet it made you wonder about what the place is really like. And since I focused more on my first and most powerful sensory experiences there, instead of the daily realities of eating goat meat and stale couscous and being hours away from a roll of toilet paper unless you brought your own, I bet your initial appraisal was indeed more romantic than realistic.
[So] the picture or the story so often recounts a dream of a place — an intelligible mirage of what the place really is.
And my example is by no means special just because it’s about a place so few people go. No place coincides entirely with its story-twin. New York is magnificent and stimulating, but it is also crowded and harshly impersonal. Paris is rich with culture and appreciates art, but the metro has a particular odor and the motor-scooterists don’t care who had the right-of-way in the crosswalk. We never picture any given idyllic foreign locale as being in the same realm of temporal reality as home, but in enough time it reveals itself as exactly that. That isn’t to say that the foreign places about which we dream will let us down — in fact, mine seldom have — but they will inevitably come more into focus as real, human places with each passing moment we spend experiencing them. New York is every bit as much Guys and Dolls as it is Rent.
It’s also important to understand that there are really only two types of places in the world: those that we can call home and those that we cannot. It’s binary. And while it is indeed possible to go to a new place and stay there long enough to know it as a ‘home,’ it will always be some degree of foreign until then. We will always be travelers in the places that are not (yet) home.
Even stories of hard places […] tend to evoke romanticized optimism or hopeful sympathy when told by a traveler returning to a relatively more comfortable home.
Sure enough, we sometimes seek out travel for that exact purpose: to escape home for a little while. Travel can be a tempting means of escaping the familiar or the dissatisfying. “Surely if I get away [from this physical place],” the thinking goes, “then I will be away [in my mind and emotions too].” And this can be true if the travel has a limited duration from the start. But while this escapism may be freeing in the beginning phases of a trip away — more on that in a second — any experienced traveler knows that no amount of physical distance can, in the end, create any lasting mental distance from one’s challenges or struggles. Because you’re still you, and you’ve still got the same memories and doubts and personality as you did before you left. Getting ‘away’ can absolutely provide some clarity by giving the traveler the requisite time and perspective to reflect on how to proceed in a tricky situation, and traveling can certainly lay bare what elements of one’s life are truly important by limiting the amount of time and attention one can pay to one’s far-off reality and thus forcing the traveler to triage, but at the end of the day, any cure to life’s shortcomings will come from the reflection accommodated by the distance, not from the distance itself.
The fact that I have to choose which details to include and which to cast aside will automatically add a degree of fantasy to the story.
Escapism is an important point to touch on while we’re talking about travel. Short-duration travel — the practice of getting ‘away’ from home for a little while — seldom causes people to lose touch with the people or the cultures of their homes no matter where you go. Conversely, permanent resettlement often has that effect after enough time has passed. A permanent move will force the traveler to come into contact with a very different set of experiences than a temporary move will: driver’s license bureaus versus tour buses; new and strange hygiene practices versus new and exciting art forms; the prospect of being something weird and unusual as you pursue your new daily life versus that of seeing new and unusual practices in action as you pass through. Both permanent and temporary encounters with the foreign can disconnect you from your old life, but to understandably different degrees. They will have similarly disparate impacts on your worldview. Surely the experience of seeing new sights and stimulating the senses and indulging the imagination can divert your attention from what you’ve left behind, but there is even greater and more enduring distracting power in the unromantic experience of encountering whole new systems of living.
We don’t often think of that latter unromantic element of travel before we go, but it’s often the most pleasantly and terrifyingly disorienting aspect of venturing into the foreign for any length of time. How do I make my way from where I am to where I want to be? How do I communicate my needs to a stranger? What is funny and what is offensive? Why? Stumbling over questions like these is an integral part of any foreign experience, whether short-term or newly-permanent, and it may be the least anticipated but most gratifying step in the process of feeling somewhere new. This awkward process — raw and unguarded as it must necessarily be — constitutes much of the threshold between the traveler’s known and unknown. It makes for a feeling of vulnerability, but also one of embarkation. The sensation is ephemeral, but while it lasts is truly and thrillingly foreign. It is, perhaps surprisingly, an unromantic means to the romantic end of feeling somewhere wholly and ontologically new. It is that which is at the core of what draws us away to begin with.