Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Alain de Botton on The Benefits of Being Away From Home

Though we tend to love our homes and think of them as anchors of identity, there are also disturbing ways in which they can fix us unhelpfully to a version of ourselves we no longer wish to side with. The familiar curtains and pictures subtly insist that we should not change because they do not, our well-known rooms can anaesthetise us from a more urgent, necessary relationship with particular questions.

It may not be until we have moved across an ocean, until we are in a hotel room with peculiar new furniture and a view onto a motorway and a supermarket full of products we don't recognise that we start to have the strength to probe at certain assumptions. We gain freedom from watching the take-offs and landings of planes in a departure lounge or from following a line of distant electricity pylons from a train making its way across barren steppes. In the middle of a foreign landscape, thoughts come to us that would have been reluctant to emerge in our own beds. We are able to take implausible but important leaps, encouraged by the changes around us, from the new lightswitches to the cyrillic letters blinking in illuminated signs all around us.

Being cut loose from the habitual is the essential gift of travel, as uncomfortable as it may be psychogically fruitful. Christianity once took our feelings of dislocation and placed them at the heart of a thesis as to the spiritual benefit of pilgrimages. Without accepting the church's analysis, we may nevertheless be inspired by its approach to the value of feeling like a lonely outsider. As much as any destination, it is isolated periods in untried hotel rooms, in paleozoic canyons, in disintegrating palaces and empty service station restaurants that facilitate an underlying psychological or spiritual point of our journeys. (The Observer, Sunday, June 6th, 2010)

Alain de Botton is the author of many books including 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' , 'The Art of Travel' and 'Essays in Love'.  His most recent work 'A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary' is published by Profile Books.

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