This is the book, written by Alain de Botton, that completely revolutionised our approach to travel, opening our eyes to our surroundings, putting us in touch with our environment …… this book is mindfulness personified.
Structurally the book is divided into four main sections ……… Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, with each one being the focus of ones mindfulness in a particular place. So, in the Art section we visit Provence for a while and enjoy it through the eyes of Van Gogh. This is the really clever thing about de Botton’s writing here, each section also has a guide with Van Gogh visiting Provence as mentioned and seeing the environment quite differently from his contemporaries, especially in terms of bright primary colours and swirls rather than pastels and straight lines. In the second half of the Art section our guide is John Ruskin who coined the expression “Word-Painting” and de Botton demonstrates Ruskin’s ability to write about buildings, nature, and of course his surroundings in The Lake District.
In Departure our guides are Huysmens, Baudelaire and Hopper; in Motives it’s Flaubert and von Humboldt; and in Landscape it’s Wordsworth, Burke and Job.
I loved every section of this book, though the subsection, Curiosity which is inside the main section Motives was my favourite; set in modern day Madrid with Alexander von Humboldt, a young 18th century explorer as my “guide” this young man set off on a 5 year expedition to South America 10 years BEFORE Charles Darwin was even born!
The chapter alternates between de Botton experiencing the architecture of Madrid during his first ever visit and Von Humboldt’s observation and classifying of sea temperatures, plant life, animals, insects, mapping, water sources. It is here that the author distinguishes between different types of curiosity when travelling, and which are typified in this extract:
“For Humboldt, the question had been, ‘Why are there regional variations in nature?’ For the person standing before the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, a question might be, ‘Why have people felt the need to build churches?’ or even, ‘Why do we worship God?’ From such a naïve starting point, a chain of curiosity would have the chance to grow, involving questions like, ‘Why are churches different in different places?’, ‘What have been the main styles of churches?’ and ‘Who were the main architects and why did they achieve success?’ Only through such a slow evolution of curiosity could a traveller stand a chance of greeting the news that the church’s vast neo-classical façade was by Sabatini with anything other than boredom or despair. A danger of travel is that we see things at the wrong time, before we have had a chance to build up the necessary receptivity and when new information is therefore as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.”
This last sentence from de Botton highlights what has often happened to me in many a city when walking around unmindfully or without prior research to channel my curiosity. For example, try standing at The Cross in Chester’s Roman, Medieval … city. Face down towards Eastgate street and admire the Roman Eastgate adorned with a Victorian Jubilee clock in the distance, back up a bit and take in the Tudor black and white architecture sheltering the Medieval Rows, and come into the foreground to the Saxon Cross.
And that’s before you’ve chosen to turn right down Bridge Street with a few Georgian buildings on your right, or gone left up Northgate Street to view the sandstone Gothic Revival town hall! I’m not sure if I’m getting this across well, but clearly walking around a city like this dodging between the Roman, the Tudor, the Georgian and the Victorian is NOT Mindful Curiosity! Instead, still in Chester, visit the museum first and explore the Roman exhibits, then walk out to explore the Amphitheatre, followed by The Roman Gardens along the Roman Wall. Ask yourself this question … Was Chester intended as the capital of Britain before the Roman era dissipated? Now THAT is travel curiosity that goes beyond the factual!
And so finally, a confession, the book has a 5th section called “Return” which focuses on returning home after travel, and as usual we have a guide … Xavier de Maistre. Xavier wrote a book called Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), (Journey around my room), a parody set in the tradition of the grand travel narrative, which is an autobiographical account of how a young official, imprisoned in his room for six weeks, looks at the furniture, engravings, etc., as if they were scenes from a voyage in a strange land. He praises this “voyage” because it does not cost anything, and for this reason it is strongly recommended to the poor, the infirm, and the lazy.
Now, I am neither poor, nor infirmed, nor lazy, but this section of de Botton’s book was the ultimate eye opener. For those regular readers of our blog, this was THE influence that got us exploring our local environment, especially English churches within a 10 miles radius, that hide so much English history. We have discovered English Civil War tales, abandoned villages because of The Black Death, Wall Paintings and their significance to illiterate peasants during the Dark Ages, links to Oxford University Colleges, Saxon fonts, the most complete set of stained glass windows in England, a second Robin Hood ….. quite a good book really!