Although many who travel (including the author himself) begin with high hopes for an exclusively positive or life-changing experience, de Botton laments that the actual act of travel often fails to meet these expectations. While a prospective traveler may admire the images of pristine beaches they see online or an article about intriguing cultural differences in a travel magazine, in reality such experiences form only a miniscule portion of a traveler’s experience abroad. Often this leads travelers to disappointment, preventing them from enjoying travel’s benefits because they become disillusioned to realize that they also have to bring themselves (and all their problems) with them abroad. Yet the expectation of travel is itself a valuable experience for de Botton, and he thinks that travelers can overcome disillusionment by perceiving the continuity between their travels and their everyday lives, as well as expecting the unexpected (rather than the perfect fulfillment of their expectations).
People often set high expectations for travel, in part because they see it as an escape from their everyday lives. At the beginning of the book, de Botton discusses a trip to Barbados and recalls that he was motivated to go “by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.” He traveled to fulfill a single mental image that promised an escape from his often-dreary life in London. Like his imagination, de Botton suggests that travel writing also often ignores the boredom of traveling itself: sitting on trains, checking into hotels, and finding oneself with nothing to do in paradise. Confronted with the dreariness and monotony of transit, rooms, and crowds, travelers can quickly become demoralized and forget the reason they went abroad in the first place.
Ultimately, unrealistically high expectations can lead travelers to disappointment because they forget that conspicuous moments of travel necessarily take place only within the broader context of their lives. De Botton uses 19th-century French novelist J.K. Huysman’s fictional character, the Duc des Esseintes, to illustrate travelers’ tendency toward disappointment. The wealthy and reclusive Duc des Esseintes seldom leaves his estate in France. When he reads a Charles Dickens novel and decides to travel to London, he sets out on a grand journey, but ultimately turns around as soon as he reaches the train station and realizes that sitting all day on the train would be too much of a bother. In his second essay, de Botton recalls how French poet Charles Baudelaire once canceled his trip to India halfway through, upon finding that he “could not shake off a feeling of lethargy and sadness” that he brought with him from France. Similarly, de Botton is himself disappointed when he actually goes to Barbados, where he gets into a fight with his girlfriend M. and complains about unanticipated encounters with a customs officer, an ashtray, and a stray dog. When he finally reaches the pristine beach he had envisioned, he realizes that he had not anticipated having to stare at that same beautiful image for days straight; instead, he begins to mull over his personal problems. He concludes that “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island,” for while anticipating his trip he had not expected that these everyday anxieties would travel with him. In all these cases, characters prone to frustration and boredom find themselves surprised when they get frustrated and bored in the destinations they always dreamed about.
Despite the seemingly-inevitable mismatch between expectations and reality, de Botton argues that it can still be valuable to merely anticipate travel, even if one never undertakes the voyage in question: there can be a thrill in the desire to travel and the process of transit itself. Des Esseintes, who gives up on traveling after visiting Holland and nearly boarding his train to London, nevertheless continues to daydream about traveling because he finds his armchair adventures so entertaining. Similarly, de Botton writes that Baudelaire dreamed of traveling to various exotic places he never ultimately reached—he simply wanted to go “anywhere! anywhere!” Even though he seldom did it, traveling was an important part of Baudelaire’s mental life. De Botton, too, cites his “psychological pleasure” in watching the ground recede as he takes off in a plane; he sees modes of transportation (especially trains) as “the midwives of thought” because the “flow of the landscape” offers a series of images that can spur thought. The process of transit, no matter where one is going, can be an intellectually valuable experience for de Botton because it can free people from their normal contexts, enabling an introspection that brings them “back into contact with emotions and ideas” that deeply influence their lives, but they might ordinarily forget during the daily grind.
To avoid the dangers of unmet expectations in travel, de Botton does not want travelers to expect disappointment, but rather to take a realistic view. They should recognize that travel does not dissolve their problems, and should open themselves to the possibility of unexpected experiences. De Botton’s first solution is to anticipate travel more realistically: people should not imagine their coming travels as instant sources of happiness or absolute remedies to their problems. Rather, de Botton cites the “ancient philosophers who walked away from prosperity and sophistication” because they realized that “happiness could not be material or aesthetic but must always be stubbornly psychological.” This is part of why he opens his book with a chapter on anticipation and disappointment: he likely suspects that readers are looking for advice on how to travel in a way that meets their highest expectations, so instead he confronts the implausibility of those expectations head-on. He does not want travelers to think that unmet expectations make a trip a failure. His second solution is to approach travel with a mindset of receptivity: the ability to appreciate and respond to the unexpected. He sees the true joy of travel as experiencing “an interval in which we achieve receptivity to the world around us, in which positive thoughts of past and future coagulate and anxieties are allayed.” Rather than simply meeting people’s expectations, successful travel exceeds and transforms those expectations by putting people in touch with things they could not have expected in the first place.
Ultimately, although de Botton recognizes that many people travel in the hopes of escaping their problems and everyday lives, he realizes that indulging these expectations might lead people to disappointment. Instead, he offers a more realistic view of the joy that travel can bring: this joy comes in moments of communion with the world and the perspective that unanticipated experiences can offer.
Expectations vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Expectations vs. Reality Quotes in The Art of Travel
Readers who would have been capable of scepticism and prudence in other areas of their lives reverted, in contact with these elements, to a primordial innocence and optimism. The longing provoked by the brochure was an example, at once touching and bathetic, of how projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness; of how a lengthy and ruinously expensive journey might be set into motion by nothing more than the sight of a photograph of a palm tree gently inclining in a tropical breeze.
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 ardour and paradoxes—than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and 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.’
I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.
Des Esseintes conclude, in Huysmans’s words, that “the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.” Actual experience where what we have come to see is always diluted in what we could see anywhere, where we are drawn away from the present by an anxious future and where our appreciation of aesthetic elements lies at the mercy of perplexing physical and psychological demands.
“Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds: this one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”
The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world—those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific poets.
What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
Yet none of this meant that Flaubert’s original attraction to Egypt had been misconceived. He simply replaced an absurdly idealized image with a more realistic but nevertheless still profoundly admiring one, he exchanged a youthful crush for a knowledgeable love.
A few years after van Gogh’s stay in Provence, Oscar Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it. Surely, too, there were fewer cypresses in Provence before van Gogh painted them.