by Jeff Oaks

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest–in all its ardor and paradoxes–than our travels.they express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems–that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.”

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, page 9, “On Anticipation”

I leave for Scotland in less than a week. Everything is more or less prepared except packing. I picked up my pounds at the bank today; I deposited some money in my husband’s account for emergencies. I’ll sit down at my office computer and rearrange the last few readings, most of which I’ve turned into pdf’s the students can read online or print for their own personal use. I have four weeks to suggest the range and depth and complexity of contemporary writing so the students will have some interesting and exciting choices to make when they sit down to write about their own experiences as travelers.

I’m pitching them the idea that travelers are different from tourists, in the sense that travelers want to be, even hope to be, changed by their travels, which involve wandering, being invisible, learning to listen. Tourists pay to have an experience made for them, whereas travelers invent their own itineraries, their own meaningful engagements, their own articulations. Of course because we are connected to a large, historic city, there will be plenty of tours. How do we take what we’re told in our tours out into the street? How might we link information about Edinburgh, about Scottish history, with what we’ll see on the streets, read in the newspapers, laughed about in cafes? And how do we fit into it? Where are we confused, at a distance? How can we bridge distances? Where must we acknowledge we’re lost?

The first assignments are going to be about practicing the arts of description and self-reflection. The first class I’m going to ask the students to talk about what they know about Scotland, what they expect, have heard, what is the Scotland they’re bringing into Scotland. For myself, there’s the complicated mix of Sean Connery (whose James Bond movies were a major contributor to how I imagined the wider world when I was a child); those troubling, Catholic, French-aligned Scots who gave the English kings and queens (the English side the only history I was taught) so much trouble; and Trainspotting’s crazy young drug addicts. Will I be looking out for signs of those things? Under the surface, I’m thinking there’s the Loch Ness Monster, the poems of Edwin Muir, and my disinterest in both golf and whiskey, largely because I was so afraid of men I grew up with. All of which is to say, I suppose, that it’s a paradoxical place–where dinosaurs might still be seen, wild men wear kilts, where sleek modernity and more primitive worlds of volcanic upheaval coexist, cohabitate, argue.

I’m reminded here of Basho’s famous haiku, translated here by Robert Hass:

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.

Any place is haunted by the expectations the traveler brings to it, which can be triggered by small things, a bird. Sometimes, as de Botton writes in “On Anticipation”, those expectations are so intense that we might well not even be able to engage with the real place when we land there. Our first work will be to see that.