The nagging anxiety I’ve always felt when traveling – that I’m missing something essential, that I’m a dubious fraud and the experience is being wasted on me – has eased with the years. I read in advance about the places I’ll visit, pay attention while there, walk a lot, talk to people and keep a notebook. In Poland last spring I encouraged myself to enjoy my foreignness and the exotic familiarity of new people and landscapes. Also, for the first time, I used a digital camera, which pushed me to be even more attentive to my surroundings because I knew family members awaited my documentation.
“Why should he record excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he never could attain?”
I understand that the anxiety I describe is self-fulfilling. If my head is full of worry, I’m certain to miss much of what I might otherwise enjoy. Think of travel, true travel, as a form of protracted meditation. Focus the mind on the present, empty it on occasion, pay attention and write about it. Experience, for this traveler, is incomplete until articulated.
“He that would travel for the entertainment of others, should remember that the great object of remark is human life.”
We’re thinking about a visit next year, my first, to England. Already I fret about what I might miss. England, for this American, is the imaginative and literary pole star. I navigate by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson and Johnson, Sterne and Lamb. That’s not a glib metaphor. These English writers formed me. The quoted passages above are Dr. Johnson’s, from The Idler #97 (1760). Shall we make a side trip to Lichfield? Sterne writes in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768):
“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests himself in everything, and who, having eyes to see, what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on…I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, ’Tis all barren—and so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”