“It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived” in London, the book begins. Temperatures start to fall and rain gradually overtakes the city until “an ominous steel-grey sky” hangs over every day, like something out of a Renaissance painting of the crucifixion. Alain de Botton remembers spending the previous summer in the neighborhood park that is now “a desolate spread of mud and water,” feeling his bare feet in the grass and “as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.” But in the winter, “the park was foreign once more,” and the “sodden dark-red brick buildings and low skies” only fed de Botton’s sadness.
From the start, de Botton establishes his dissatisfaction with the place he lives, which has gone from comfortable and familiar to threatening and foreign—somehow, the winter has made London no longer home. By interpreting the dreary weather through the lens of Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion and suggesting that the buildings and sky reflect his own mood, he shows how (even at home) his physical surroundings both determine and respond to his emotional states.
The weather made de Botton “intensely susceptible” to a travel brochure that he received in the mail, which depicted palm trees on an immaculate beach before clear waters. It reminds him of paintings of Tahiti brought back with Captain James Cook in the late 1700s, and he notes that these early depictions “continued to provide a model for subsequent depictions of tropical idylls.”
Already, de Botton wonders about the brochure’s aesthetic choices and their particular history, which is rooted in the idea of travel to exotic locales during the European colonial era. Clearly, his interest in the brochure mostly stems from his dissatisfaction with London’s weather.
De Botton suggests that the brochure’s authors “insulted the intelligence and contravened any notions of free will” by pushing “a primordial innocence and optimism” on those who received it. “The simplest and most unexamined images of happiness” can determine people’s major decisions and entire lives—including de Botton’s own, for he decides to visit Barbados anyway.
Although de Botton sees that the brochure manipulates its readers by selectively foregrounding images that promise relief and relaxation to people caught in the unforgiving London winter, this understanding does not prevent him from also falling victim to this enticing promise.
De Botton argues that “our lives are dominated by a search for happiness,” and travels reveal much about this search because they show what people decide to pursue once they can focus on goals beside “the struggle for survival.” But people seldom think about why and how to travel, despite travel’s philosophical implications.
The author lays out the stakes of his book: he sees travel as a crucial component of the human experience and happiness, but also a distinctively individual endeavor, one that reflects and reveals the traveler’s personal taste and purposes. Whereas the brochure stands for the way that most people seek happiness through travel by blindly pursuing the promise of a beautiful escape, de Botton suggests that people should travel with a reflective awareness of their own expectations, goals, and personal preferences.
“The relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality” is an important philosophical question that J.K. Huysmans addresses in his novel À Rebours, de Botton says. Huysmans’s protagonist, the “effete and misanthropic” Duc des Esseintes, lives alone on his estate, reading books constantly because he hates most of the people he has met. One day, a Dickens novel inspires des Esseintes to travel to London, so he immediately goes to Paris for his train. While he waits, he buys a guidebook about London, visits an English wine bar, and then eats a stereotypically English dinner at a tavern.
Literature and the imagination inspire des Esseintes to travel; he only pursues a real-life voyage to fulfill the exciting promises he holds in his mind. Huysmans’ novel shows how literature and art, in part by selectively foregrounding and hiding certain elements of other cultures, can lead people to a kind of curiosity about exotic places that can lead them to impulsively set out for elsewhere.
But, as he prepares to board the train towards London, des Esseintes thinks of “how wearing it would be actually to make the journey” and laments, “what was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair?” He changes his mind, takes the first train back home, and never leaves again.
Des Esseintes’ old self quickly catches up with him: he had forgotten that he had to actually go to London; it seems as though he expected London to simply come to him. He gives up on actual travel because the allure of imagining foreign lands is enough to sustain him.
Whereas a traveler like des Esseintes might find the reality of travel disappointing, de Botton finds it “truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.” When he lands in Barbados with M., his travel partner, he immediately notices “a revolution in the climate” and realizes that actually “nothing was as I had imagined it, which is surprising only if one considers what I had imagined”: beach and sun, a pristine hotel room, and a blue sky.
The “revolution” de Botton was hoping for—a warm and sunny climate—is much less satisfying than he would have hoped, and he begins to realize how limited his initial mental image of the place truly was. Whereas the Duc des Esseintes settles for imaginary travel, de Botton sees how unfaithful the imagination can be to an actual place.
De Botton recognizes that, while imagining his travels, he had selectively ignored everything about the island except the three images on which he remained fixated. But, when he arrives, all the signs of normal life—from the British Petroleum storage facility to the customs officers to the taxi drivers—“made it strangely harder for [him] to see the Barbados [he] had come to find.” He had imagined nothing between the plane and his promised hotel room.
Like the Duc des Esseintes, de Botton realizes that real travel can never live up to the imagination’s instantaneous movement from one scene of pure beauty to another. Although the sun, hotel room, and sky he wanted in Barbados did exist there, he saw the normal human contexts that accompanied these images as a source of irritation rather than possible enjoyment.
De Botton argues that art and the imagination both operate basically through the “simplification or selection” of certain images and principles at the expense of others. While a travel book might say that “the narrator journeyed through the afternoon,” this language never reflects the way people actually travel: rather, that phrase hides hours of tiny details pertaining to travelers’ (in)attention, thoughts, comfort, hunger, emotions, or gaze out the window. Of course, this kind of endless and comprehensive description would be tedious in literature, even though it is the way people live their real lives.
Because art and the imagination both provide partial, optimistic views of travel, they can lead people to unrealistic expectations and eventual disappointment. Clearly, de Botton’s book foregrounds the often boring, neglected minutiae of travel. He does this not just because he wants to remind the reader of travel writing’s limits, but also because he believes that these unanticipated details often hold more of travel’s value than the bold scenes travelers anticipate encountering.
De Botton credits this fact—that books and art erase the dull parts of life—with the consequence that anticipating travel through art or the imagination can make the “valuable elements” of travel more vivid and straightforward. Memory works the same way, as de Botton discovers lying in bed his first night in Barbados, when he begins to forget the day’s drudgery. Whereas the present is like “a long-winded film,” de Botton suggests, memory and anticipation are like snapshots that compress narratives and their meanings.
De Botton’s lifelong interest in Marcel Proust’s novels probably influences his attention to time and memory here. The difference between the anticipation or memory of travel and the experience of it in the present hinges on the relationship between thought and experience, which is grounded in the flow of time. Whereas viewers can choose how (and how long) to gaze at a photograph or read a story, they have little control over the flow of time in a movie or everyday experience.
De Botton recalls that the Duc des Esseintes always wanted to visit one other place: Holland. After viewing Dutch paintings of “patriarchal simplicity and riotous joviality, quiet small brick courtyards and pale-faced maids pouring milk,” he visits Holland and is sorely let down. All those images are really present there, but des Esseintes is frustrated that “the promised gems were blended in a stew of ordinary images” that “diluted” his experience. He concludes that he is closer to the essence of Dutch culture in a museum than in the actual Netherlands.
Paradoxically, the Duc des Esseintes sees a museum as more quintessentially “Dutch” than Holland itself, because he bases his concept of what is “Dutch” more on the distinctive traits he imagines than the actual country he experiences. For des Esseintes, art not only helps determine and represent travel, but also supersedes it as the source of “true” culture. In contrast to the classical notion that art should faithfully represent the world, des Esseintes sees the world as an imperfect reflection of art.
In the morning in Barbados, de Botton walks out onto his hotel room’s veranda and climbs across the railing onto the beach. He remarks that “nature was at her most benevolent” here, as though the beauty she created in this spot was a way “to atone for her ill temper in other regions.” Noting the air’s “enveloping, profound warmth,” he sits by the water, hears the sounds of the birds and sea, and gazes out upon the view he remembers from the brochure.
Although de Botton was initially disappointed with Barbados, in this passage he seems to find the serene beach scene and close connection to nature that he originally sought when planning his trip in London. It seems that his trip has met some of his expectations, after all.
But “this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me,” de Botton admits as he remembers his state of distraction and worry throughout that morning. He declares, “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.” At home in London, he had forgotten that the eyes with which he saw the brochure “were intimately tied to a body and mind that would travel with me,” despite the eyes’ wish to simply enjoy the scenery. And neither his sickly body nor his anxious, bored mind is a good travel companion.
De Botton admits that Barbados only seems to have met his unrealistic expectations when he forgets the mundane experiences that filled the time separating all of his moments on the beach that morning. Paradoxically, because people experience the present so differently from the future and the past, the embodied experience of travel can fail to meet one’s previous expectations, even while the memory of travel later succeeds in doing so.
Happiness during travel, de Botton argues, is brief and “apparently haphazard” rather than continuous and predictable. It comes when a traveler can “achieve receptivity to the world,” and it seldom takes more than ten minutes before they return to their usual self and problems, as the environment’s beauty recedes into the background. While home and foreign lands may be radically different, travelers unfortunately remain the same people no matter where they are.
Although travel seldom matches up with the traveler’s usually unrealistic expectations, this does not render it a failure; one should be satisfied with moments of serenity or inspiration rather than expect complete fulfillment due to a mere change of scenery. While the environment influences an individual’s mindset and feelings, it seldom completely determines it. But travel is still most valuable during the moments when a traveler can truly become absorbed in the world (de Botton’s “receptivity”).
As M. and de Botton sit outside their beach hut later that morning, M. begins to read and de Botton worries about whether lunch is included with the cost of their room. Later, he “left [his] body” again to think about an upcoming work project. He wonders whether there is “a vital evolutionary advantage” in worrying about the future rather than savoring the present, and laments that “the first thing to disappear from memory” is precisely how much of the past we spend caught up in anticipation.
De Botton depicts daydreaming about the future as a disembodying practice because it involves losing a sense of the embodied present; he tries to comfort himself by suggesting that this makes him a more prudent decision-maker. The same reminiscence and anticipation that he said can lead people to misrepresent the experience of travel before and after the fact are also an important part of that experience.
On the bright side, “the place itself is allowed to stand out” in memory—travelers can sustain a greater “fidelity to a place” where they are not currently standing. De Botton suggests that part of the problem is that he had never tried to “stare at a picture of Barbados for any length of time” before going there.
Travel, de Botton again notes, may be more rewarding in anticipation and hindsight than in the present because expectation and memory focus on exciting snapshots rather than following the course of time.
Near the end of their trip, de Botton and M. drive around Barbados and stop in an enormous colonial mansion that has been converted to a restaurant. They eat, chat about colonialism and sunblock, and order two crèmes caramel for dessert. When the desserts arrive, M.’s is “large but messy” and de Botton’s is “tiny but perfectly-formed.” She tries to take his plate, which leads to “infantile rounds of bickering” underlain by “mutual terrors of incompatibility and infidelity.” For the rest of the day, neither can enjoy the beautiful landscape because of the animosity between them.
Barbados’s history of slavery under British colonial rule lurks in the background of de Botton’s description of the plantation restaurant, and while he could have easily told the reader about what he learned and saw during his long drive around the island, he instead focuses on his argument with his girlfriend M. to demonstrate how a traveler’s emotional state can lead all the wonders of and questions raised by their trip to fade into the background.
De Botton notes that, before people can enjoy the beauty of the places to which they travel, they need to meet a “more important range of emotional or psychological needs.” People tend to misunderstand the basis of their moods and conveniently blame things like dreary weather or ugly buildings. This confirms the wisdom in “those ancient philosophers” who rejected material wealth and status to make the point that human happiness is fundamentally psychological at its base.
Travel’s value does not come from its separateness from everyday life, but rather relies on people’s satisfaction with their everyday lives. De Botton self-deprecatingly references his own original motivations for travel: he blamed London’s rain and ugly buildings for his sadness, but travel has led him to realize that the causes were deeper, and probably also related to his relationship with M.
After his trips to Holland and the Paris train station, Huysman’s protagonist the Duc des Esseintes never tries to travel again. Instead, he surrounds himself with images, objects, and documents that symbolize travel, like ship itineraries and an aquarium. He wholeheartedly commits to imagination above actual experience, which “is always diluted in what we could see anywhere” and caught up with personal anxieties. While de Botton sympathizes with des Esseintes’ concern, he nevertheless continues traveling.
Des Esseintes solves his disappointment with travel in the most disappointing way possible: by giving up. While de Botton recognizes that real-life experience will never live up to decontextualized mental snapshots, he wants the reader to see that this inevitability does not necessarily make travel a failure.