When he disembarks in the Amsterdam airport, de Botton is immediately fascinated by the exotic exit sign he sees overhead: the sign’s simplicity and peculiar Dutch vowel combinations give him “genuine pleasure,” acting as “a symbol of being abroad” by reminding him of his own country’s conventions. He sees “another history and mind-set” in the sign, as in the other accoutrements of everyday life in the Netherlands, and thinks of the “openness toward foreign influences” and “Calvinist aesthetic” that play a prominent role in Dutch history.
De Botton is immediately captivated by the Dutch sign’s foreignness, and his fascination is above all aesthetic: he notices how the language is formed and the sign is organized, and his pleasure stems from his momentary lapse into another mindset about what is beautiful and practical in a place with a different history and mindset.
The sign proves “a simple but pleasing idea: countries are diverse, and practices variable across borders.” Moreover, this diversity feels like “an improvement on what my own country is capable of”—the exit sign seems to promise de Botton new possibilities of happiness.
The sign also confirms de Botton’s suspicion that the Netherlands will be radically different from—and perhaps radically better for him than—his home country of England. This demonstrates how travel can reveal new, fruitful ways of life to travelers who can then bring what they learn abroad into their lives at home.
De Botton recognizes that “the word exotic has traditionally been attached to more colourful things than Dutch signs,” and notes that it “became synonymous with the Middle East” in the early 1800s. Writers like Victor Hugo wrote extensively about “the Orient,” and Europeans became so fascinated with the Middle East’s seemingly-exotic customs that they even started to imitate them—for instance, obelisks became an architectural staple of public space in European cities.
The controversial history of white men’s fetishism for the Middle East demonstrates how travelers’ obsession with foreign and exotic peoples can transform their own culture and sense of beauty at home. Art was the key mechanism for translating travelers’ experiences of the Middle East into popular fervor, which illustrates how art and travel work together to effect broader transformations in public aesthetic values.
As a young boy, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert was one such European captivated by the idea of the Orient. He hated his “sterile, banal and laborious” life in the city of Rouen, wrote about the Middle East’s allure in some of his earliest stories as a teenager, and lamented that he was destined to a “monotonous, sensible, stupid” life as a lawyer, like most of his peers in France.
Like de Botton, Baudelaire, and the Duc des Esseintes, Flaubert began searching for another place to go when he found himself profoundly bored with home. He both came to know the Orient and expressed his attachment to it through art, and the images he received through art set his high expectations for travel.
Flaubert’s father died when he was 24, leaving him a great sum of money. Flaubert quickly set out for Egypt with his friend Maxime Du Camp. Flaubert recalled his “first sight of the Orient” as his ship approached the Egyptian shore, and he was thrilled to find himself amidst “Negroes, Negresses, camels, turbans, cudgellings to right and left, and earsplitting guttural cries” when he arrived.
Flaubert is ecstatic at the opportunity to finally immerse himself in the exotic world he dreamed about. The people and cultural differences he immediately notices represent his perception of his liberation from the stifling aristocracy of Rouen.
Back in Amsterdam, de Botton books a hotel room, eats lunch in a café, and then sets out on a walk around the city. He sees “the exotic” in the city’s brickwork, narrow apartment buildings, affinity for bicycles, and grid system, among other things, all of which he contrasts with the London cityscape.
De Botton, too, finds “the exotic” in the small details of everyday life that mark a place’s underlying patterns of thought, ways of feeling, and aesthetic values. His own aesthetic judgment and receptiveness to the environment allow him to notice these details.
In front of one door, de Botton “felt an intense longing to spend the rest of my life there.” He notices an apartment without curtains, and wonders how “something as small as a front door in another country” could so profoundly capture his imagination, before remarking that details can be “rich in meaning” in people’s everyday lives as well as abroad. For de Botton, the building’s “modesty” and “honesty” contrast with the try-hard pretentiousness of London architecture—it is “modern in the best sense, speaking of order, cleanliness and light.”
De Botton realizes that the Dutch aesthetic seems to fit his temperament better than the British one, which explains his sudden desire to give up his life in London for this little apartment in Amsterdam. Again, a minute detail indexes the possibility of an entirely different (and potentially more satisfying) way of life.
In its “fugitive, trivial” sense, “exotic” often simply denotes the pleasure people take in novelty. But de Botton sees a “more profound pleasure” in the exotic: it points to how the norms of a foreign country can better match one’s “identity and commitments” than those of one’s home country. He sees his own attraction to this particular Dutch house as a sign of his desire for the “modernity and aesthetic simplicity” that London lacks.
The exotic’s appeal to one’s “identity and commitments” in turn points to its value for human happiness because it shows the viewer an improved way of life for them. This effect is fundamentally subjective and aesthetic, since it depends on what the traveler finds attractive about particular features in the environment.
Just as de Botton’s own attraction to Amsterdam relates to his dissatisfaction with London, Flaubert’s hatred for the French bourgeoisie was what drove him to obsess over the “Orient.” He found France’s “extreme prudery, snobbery, smugness, racism and pomposity” so obscene that he wrote a satirical Dictionary of Received Ideas cataloguing its absurd attitudes. De Botton quotes from this work at length, and argues that the Middle East was “temperamentally a logical fit” for Flaubert’s personality and values.
Flaubert’s Dictionary illustrates his thorough disdain for France, and (more importantly) for the social values and aesthetic taste that underlie French society. His disaffection for home was primarily aesthetic, just like de Botton’s for London, and the author thinks Flaubert’s travel was meaningful because he sought not a break from his normal life but rather a meaningful, happier alternative to it.
First, Flaubert loved the “chaos, both visual and auditory, of Egyptian life.” He wrote of its soundscape, marked by yells and animal noises from all sides, its tendency to bold colors and architectural ornamentation, and its inhabitants’ flamboyant manner of speech. Chaos, he thought, was the natural flow of life; order was a misplaced attempt to censor the human condition. In this vein, Flaubert complained to his mistress about Europeans’ desire to keep their cemeteries “neat and tidy,” while Egyptians’ cemeteries were “run-down, ravaged, in ruins,” as they should be.
Egypt’s chaos (in Flaubert’s perception) contrasts with the rigid social hierarchy and moral codes of aristocratic France, which Flaubert thought limited the wide range of possible human experiences and paths to happiness rather than embracing them to the fullest extent. Beyond his personal aesthetic, then, Flaubert’s attraction to Egypt was also based on a deeper, more general belief about what kind of lives and environments were natural for humans.
In one of Cairo’s cafes, Flaubert wrote about “a donkey shitting and a gentleman pissing in a corner,” which no one found out of the ordinary. The second reason Flaubert’s personality aligned with Egypt was that he believed that people “were not simply spiritual creatures but also pissing and shitting ones,” and he appreciated that Egyptians acknowledged the lower, impure functions of human life as well as the higher, pure ones. People belched in restaurants and “the most virtuous and respectable women” had no qualms about speaking indecently.
Whereas all interaction was subject to codes of decency and respectability in Flaubert’s France, he is delighted to see that Egyptians embrace the bodily dimensions of human life rather than shunning them. The café excites him because the donkey and man in the corner do not seem to pollute the establishment’s respectability, but rather coexist with (or perhaps even bolster) it.
Thirdly, Flaubert loved camels above all else, writing that “nothing has a more singular grace than this melancholic animal.” In de Botton’s eyes, Flaubert loved the camel’s “stoicism and ungainliness,” its humble and awkward strength that contrasted with Europe’s showy optimism.
For Flaubert, Europeans wrongly focused on outward appearances over actual experiences—he in fact critiques the French emphasis on aesthetic over practical matters. Like the Dutch front door for de Botton, in Flaubert’s mind, the camel stands for all that is superior about Egyptian life.
In Amsterdam, de Botton sees a woman, who seems to belong there, pushing a bicycle whose basket contains her groceries and includes a carton reading “Goodappletje.” While she would find nothing exotic about the image of herself, de Botton claims, he feels a need to understand everything he can about her life. Similarly, on a boat in France, Flaubert spotted a beautiful woman and wrote of his obsessive curiosity about strangers, whose lives (and naked bodies) he so loved imagining.
De Botton immediately connects his voyeuristic obsession with the woman to her foreignness—she seems to embody the Dutch culture to which he is drawn, and he feels that being with her would allow him to merge with it. Just as Edward Hopper’s paintings evoke curiosity about and communion with strangers by offering glimpses into their private lives, travelers often become curious about strangers they momentarily encounter because such snapshots of foreignness inspire them to imagine possible ways of life beyond their own range of experience.
The exoticism of a foreign country adds to attractive people’s appeal, de Botton argues, and perhaps one’s attraction to those from another place is part of one’s attempt to capture that culture’s values. In a town on the banks of the Nile, Flaubert visited a famous courtesan (she was not merely a prostitute, de Botton assures the reader, for her role in society was far more dignified). Flaubert recalls her body, and then the feeling of sharing a bed with her. He hopes that she will think of him “more than of the others who have been there.” And the second time he visits her, he feels an “infinite sadness” that never subsides.
The courtesan’s social status and the inadequacy of the term “prostitute” reflect the vast, untranslatable social differences between Egypt and France. It’s suggested that the kind of relationship Flaubert had with her—which was at once sexual and emotional, yet did not lead to a long-term social bond—was not possible in France, but Flaubert’s hope that she remembers him suggests that he may have still operated within the mindset that romance would lead to commitment, and perhaps hoped that he would seem exotic to her as well.
De Botton wonders whether Flaubert’s interest in Egypt was merely an ideal fantasy he projected onto it. However, he did spend nine months intensively studying its language, culture, and history, and in fact his dark features and adoption of Egyptian dress often led him to pass for native. People even began to call him “Abu Chanab,” or “Father of the Moustache.”
Since de Botton has argued throughout that travelers are often motivated by a distaste for home, he must consider whether this motivation corrupts travel entirely by preventing people from seeing the true character of the places they visit. By learning so much about Egypt, Flaubert demonstrates that it does not.
That said, Flaubert was also ultimately disappointed by Egypt in many ways. As his traveling companion Maxime Du Camp explained long after the fact, Flaubert became “quiet and withdrawn” while traveling down the Nile, just as he had been in France, and he quickly found the landscape too uniform for his taste. Flaubert wrote about his boredom with temples, his inevitable slip back into depression, and his continued frustration with Europeans (like the British man who carved his name into a pillar in Alexandria).
Although he seemingly got to know the true Egypt, Flaubert still had unrealistic expectations about what he would encounter and found those expectations broken—like de Botton, Baudelaire, and des Esseintes, Flaubert found that his previous disposition followed him on his travels and discovered that leaving a place where he was unhappy would not satisfy him, but rather merely leave him unhappy abroad.
Yet de Botton insists that Flaubert “exchanged a youthful crush” on Egypt “for a knowledgeable love” of it. Although it did not precisely meet his expectations, he claimed to have “few illusions” and even wrote to his mother that the Orient “extends far beyond the narrow idea I had of it.”
Leaving Egypt devastated Flaubert, who thought about his trip constantly until the end of his life, and even spoke of it on his deathbed. This lifelong fixation, de Botton argues, “seems like an invitation to deepen and respect our own attraction to certain countries.”
Flaubert’s lifelong interest was decidedly not just an adolescent daydream but rather an enduring sign of the particular affinity between his personality and Egyptian ways of life.
In fact, Flaubert contended that nationality should follow this attraction rather than the contingencies of one’s birth—at times, he identified as “in truth a woman, a camel, and a bear” and thought he was “as much Chinese as I am French.” He felt as loyal to Arabs as to his countrymen and declared himself “a soul brother to everything that lives.” Like Flaubert, de Botton argues, all people are “scattered at birth by the wind onto various countries,” but gain the means in adulthood to “re-create our identity in line with our true allegiances.”
Flaubert’s belief that citizenship should be chosen rather than predetermined reflects his understanding that people can find places and ways of life that suit their own temperaments through travel; he felt just as loyal to the foreign as to the familiar, and arguably broke down the boundary between the two. De Botton argues that travel can offer everyone a similar freedom to selectively cultivate themselves through contact with different worlds.