Why did we go abroad?


With October half-term coming up, it is looking like even a quiet ‘staycation’ might be a bit too adventurous for today’s climate. Curfews, limits on party members and general uncertainty are not inducive to having a jolly old holiday. 

It is under this bleak backdrop that I can’t help but look back at time spent abroad and appreciate how good things were. (The alternative is to not think about travel at all, which is frankly dull, especially when stuck in Autumnal England). 

Some benefits of travelling are obvious. We go to certain destinations to seek specific experiences that we desire and long for at home and in our daily lives. The experiences are often unique and distinctly memorable. 

Relaxation is a common need, be it at a sandy beach with warm Mediterranean air or perhaps a spa hotel to literally have stress pressed, ironed and squeezed out of you. Usually these kinds of holiday end with a despondent feeling, bitter that we cannot incorporate the calm and tranquillity more into our everyday lives. 

Adventure – without sounding like a storybook explorer or someone selling tickets to Disneyland – is sought after by the brave. This may come in the form of launching yourself off precipices, sometimes with and sometimes without any specialist equipment. Being active through climbing, hiking or swimming, there is a physical element which often offers a connection with the natural world that most of us forget. 

Seeking culture can fulfil our inquisitive nature. Learning histories of peoples and places, ancient to modern, far and near. Although at risk of being intellectually stuffy and even dull, these kinds of holiday need not be. Simply sit in awe of a colossal feat of architecture, gawp at a painting or stuff your face with a local delicacy. That said, if you want to go full-out textbook historian then by all means purchase the complete anthology of Roman literature at the museum gift shop and let it gather dust on your bookshelf. 

Of course, there are a multitude of reasons why we go abroad, each reason specific to us and whatever we decide worthy of pursuing. However, often unnoticed and always underappreciated is a deeper value of travelling abroad – the wilful exchange of peoples. 

It is very easy for people to live within a bubble. A familiar sphere that might consist of the shops, hospitalities and individuals that they have known for years. To step out of our illusory cages into the world beyond is just as revolutionary and important to us now as it ever has been in history. 

An ambassador once described relations between nations as something that rested on a milk stool – three legs each of vital importance. One leg to represent the governments’ relations – ideologies and systems. Another for the businesses and commerce between the nations. The third represented, quite simply, the relations between the nations’ people. 

Relations between people from different nations can only be built constructively and meaningfully through travel. Sometimes it might seem that travelling amounts to no more than forming opinions such as the Germans will take all the good sun beds by the pool by 6:00 AM or that the Russians will eat all the food at a buffet. 

Unhealthy generalised assumptions aside, the true value of travel is nebulous to say the least. Yet there is a reason why people’s livelihoods depend on travel, why entire sectors and economies depend on travel. And it goes beyond making money. 

As Alain De Botton describes in his thought-provoking book, travel is an “art” during which we must ask ‘why’ we travel. If that is to be believed true, then surely travel deserves just as much respect as any other art form. If travel dies, then out with it goes a lot more.  

The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton is published by Penguin.

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