It’s taken me over a decade, but I finally got round to reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. It’s a wonderful book, seamlessly combining the author’s own experiences with those of philosophers through the ages. I was genuinely delighted to learn, for example, that Baudelaire suffered perpetual ‘itchy feet’ but never felt at home anywhere. Likewise, de Botton notes that, as he has to bring himself along on every journey, the perfection promised by photographs and descriptions are never matched by the traveller’s own reality.
All of this reminds me of the opening verse to a song by one of my favourite bands, Kings of Convience entitled Singing Softly To Me:
Things seem so much better when
They’re not part of your close surroundings
Like words in a letter sent
Amplified by the distance
Possibilities and sweeter dreams
Sights and sounds
Calling from far away
Calling from far away
The above is merely away to introduce a quotation that keeps popping into my head from de Botton’s book. The passage we’re interested here can be found on page 57:
Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape… [T]he view distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings, introspective or original ideas and prefers instead the administrative and the impersonal.
It’s no wonder people enjoy living at the tops of hills, looking down out of an aeroplane, or gazing out to sea. There’s something about a immense vista that inspires big ideas. This is the the ‘quaint correlation’ that de Botton identifies.
I’ve felt this often while travelling. It’s not so much new experiences that provoke thought (although they helps, too), but rather liminal spaces coupled with expansive views. Just as we literally zoom out of our everyday life while travelling, so we can conceptually remove ourselves from everyday worries and concerns, and focus on the bigger picture.
We should do this for ourselves, but we should also seek to do it for others. Perhaps we need to physically remove that recalcitrant child and put them somewhere with an inspiring view. Or maybe we should encourage our significant others to fly with us on an next business trip. Even changing your desktop background to one showing the magnificence and power of nature may help. Who knows?
Right now, had plans hatched last year come to fruition, our family would be about to return from a six-month spell living in Gozo, a little island just off Malta. That didn’t work out in the end, but did influence this year’s holiday planning. We usually go away in Autumn half-term, but this year we decided to do something a bit different.
Given plans for the Gozo move meant trading down our lovely blue Volvo S40 R-Design Sport for a 10 year-old VW Golf Estate, we decided to use this to our advantage. Borrowing a roof box from a friend, we packed our tent and other things we thought we’d need and headed for the Newcastle to Amsterdam ferry. We’d sketched out the broad details of a route we wanted to take, and decided to tweak it on the fly.
In the end, we drove around 2,300 miles in two weeks through the following countries, making it down to the Mediterranean! We camped in the places indicated with asterisks:
What I learned about my family
My wife is an organisational superstar, immensely practical, and fun to be with. We’ve kind of grown up as adults together, as we’ve been a couple since we were 19 years old. And it shows: we take decisions together. The first trip we took together was backpacking around Italy after the second year at university. Then, she wanted to plan everything in advance to the minutest detail, and was fairly risk-averse. Now, 13 years later, she’s more adaptable, flexible and at ease with changing her approach according to the context. I’m proud of her.
I have to say that I was slightly apprehensive about the amount of sleep we’d get having a seven year-old and a three year-old in tow. But they we’re great. Really great. There were times I had to tell them off, of course, but that’s just part of parenting. They slept well, played nicely, and bonded even more closely together than they had before the trip.
While I have the privilege of walking my children to school every morning, this holiday gave me the opportunity to observe them in more detail than before. I noticed little things, such as they way my daughter reacts emotionally to some things, but logically to others. And I noticed that my son was squinting a lot; he’s now wearing his glasses all of the time, on my recommendation.
We all react to one another in set patterns. Changing the context in which we do this allows us all to shake up and re-form these patterns. This can have a re-invigorating effect; it certainly has done for us.
What I learned about myself
I don’t see myself as an uptight person, but I was a coiled spring on Day 1 compared to the second week of our adventure. I’d expected to do a lot more reading than I actually did, but really enjoyed the couple of books I dived into: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) and The Concise Mastery by Robert Greene. I really must write a separate post about the latter, as reading it has come at just the right time in my career. It’s both cheap and short, too, so there’s no excuse not to read it!
I took some time to reflect on my career as a result of reading The Concise Mastery. I’m at the point now with my current role where, ordinarily, I’d be looking around for my next job. I’ve never stayed at the same place for more than about two and a half years – and I’ve been with Mozilla now for just over two. What tends to happen is that I get so frustrated with the limitations placed upon me that I look to escape elsewhere. There are three big differences this time around: my role is almost continually in flux (and changes more formally with the approximately six-monthly reorganisations we go through); there’s a lot less organisational bureaucracy and politicking; and I’m much more in control of my working environment in my home office.
As with my annual #BelshawBlackOps, spending time away from social networks helped with putting things into perspective. It’s difficult to maintain critical distance when you’re immersed in the usual routine. Interestingly, one week wasn’t enough; had I gone back to work then I wouldn’t have had time to get into, and explore, a different mindset. Developing this mindset was helped by camping, an activity that forces you to focus on the essentials – sleep, hygiene, the weather conditions, food, etc.
I can’t remember where or when I read it, but I can remember clearly the philosopher Iris Murdoch saying that she’d never really had “a strong sense of self”. This introspective insight keeps coming back to me as a kind of refrain throughout my life. I believe that one’s sense of self is diminished as one plays an active role in a community. This is usually a good thing as it builds solidarity and breeds understanding and tolerance. However, it can be problematic in terms of knowing enough about yourself to keep on an even keel. These last couple of weeks, even though I’ve been with people almost 24/7, I’ve had the headspace to develop a stronger sense of self. It’s made me ready to dive back into those social networks ready to hold fast to what I believe.
What I learned about Europe
On the recommendation of one of the many websites we visited in reading up for this holiday, we downloaded and used the ACSI iPad app to locate campsites. As the ACSI was originally a Dutch organisation, we camped alongside families from the Netherlands everywhere we went. With the exception of one rude family at the last campsite, we found the Dutch not only expert campers, but friendly and pleasant to be around. The fact that they all spoke excellent English helped, too!
Having only previously been to European cities, I found it refreshing to go off the beaten path to places only accessible with cars instead of planes and trains. France has beautiful towns and villages, the Swiss mountains are just breathtaking, and the Italian lakes are peaceful. That last sentence reads as a cliché, but it’s true: experiencing something is different to reading about it. The difference between people living so close together in Europe is amazing, if you think about it.
As a 16 year-old I gained a grade ‘B’ in GCSE French. At that point I had virtually zero experience of the world beyond my own country, meaning that my motivation for learning other languages was slight. Despite this, it’s amazing how much of prior learning comes back to you when you need it. I’m not saying I was anything like fluent, but I at least was able to make myself understood in brief interactions. This experience has spurred me on to learn more for next year. I’m delighted that it seems to have had the same effect on my children.
This holiday went even better than I’d hoped it would. In fact, we’re already thinking about next year and what we’d do the same and what we’d do differently. I’ll be updating and expanding the Camping page on my wiki into a fully-fledged section over the coming weeks and months in preparation for that.
If you’ve thought about just getting out on the road with your family and a tent, my recommendation would be to just do it! We were massively helped by our ability to use our Three data plan in most of the countries we visited, but even without it we would have got by just fine. Sometimes you can over-think things: just get out there and take the first step!
I flew to Cardiff for a JISC Advance internal comms meeting on Tuesday and then went to London and back (Wednesday-Friday) on the train. The thing that seemed to take longest was walking and getting the tube around London. I remain baffled as to why anyone would want to live or work there; I feel like I need to take a shower after travelling one stop on the Underground.
Being inspired Google Teacher Academy UK more than met my expectations. I’m going to save my reflections for a series of blog posts over the next couple of weeks. Suffice to say, however, that from the first lesson on ‘Search’ I was challenged, inspired and enthused in equal measure. The team that organised #GTAUK were legendary: both friendly and awesome!
Watching Toy Story 3
My thoughts? Great film – probably my favourite action/jailbreak film actually. Still, not as good as Toy Story 2 and I found the attempt to make the audience cry at the end a bit cynical. It was Ben’s first trip to the cinema – he was tired by the end but enjoyed it!
Being reminded of the importance of sleep
I know how much I need to get a good night’s sleep to be productive. That has never been brought home to me more forcibly than this week. Man cannot live on caffeine, sugar and adrenaline alone…