Rethinking the way we travel

Over the past few months I’ve been in and out of airports in different cities and countries, and I can tell you that whatever expanse of time existed when people were staying home, when airports were empty, it is officially over. Usually I’m the one running up to the counter, wobbly suitcase in tow, just before check-in closes. But these days I find myself getting to the airport three hours before my international flights because it’s so chaotic — the queues are like ticket sales for a freshly announced Beyoncé concert.

Dealing with all the lines and people, the Covid-related paperwork and testing scheduling, I would find myself finally flopping into my plane seat and questioning whether the trip was worth all the hassle. It got me thinking about why we travel. Most of us, I imagine, are looking to gain something when we put in the time, money and effort to venture somewhere that isn’t our regular stamping ground. We expect to have pleasurable and fun-filled experiences that also offer us something new and interesting about the larger world.

I grew up with a mother who travelled extensively internationally for work. She conveyed to us kids that travel, even when work-related, was also for exploration and adventure. Through that sense of curiosity she suggested there was much to gain by placing ourselves out in the wider world. Maybe because travel has been so hassle-full these past few months, I’ve been rethinking that question, wondering what it would be like to travel by losing some of our comforts and assumptions, rather than by simply seeking pleasure.

On my most recent trip I visited Norway, a country I had never been to before, and though most people were friendly, and I had a wonderful time exploring museums and galleries and bopping about Oslo, I still felt that slight unease of being completely foreign in a new place. Yet there were things I noticed about being in that position that reminded me of more reasons why I do like to travel, even when there’s some cultural discomfort.

The first thing that struck me came from a seemingly uneventful occurrence. I got to the hotel room and noticed there was no complimentary bottle of water. My immediate thought was not that someone had forgotten to leave one, but that the water here must be so good it was just assumed tap water was fine for everyone. I googled “What’s the water like in Norway?” and found it’s supposed to be safe — exceptionally good, in fact.

Behind that somewhat inconsequential thought was the larger one of how so many of the little things we take for granted in moving through our own cities and worlds are things that someone might have questions about if newly arrived as a visitor, a migrant, an expat or a refugee. Is it safe to drink the tap water? How does the metro system work? How do I access a medical clinic? Is it impolite to dress this way in public here?

Sometimes, a small but valuable part of showing hospitality to newcomers in your own familiar spaces is thinking to share the little things that make daily existence seem less foreign. In the best of outcomes, travel that shakes us out of our own sense of comfort and familiarity can in turn stir us to consider our lack of awareness of people newly navigating our own hometowns and cities.

In my visits to some of the country’s museums, I was exposed to the work of many great Norwegian artists whose oeuvre was new to me. I fell in love with one of two pieces that led me down a rabbit hole of research. It was a simple thing, but a powerful reminder that travel can stretch the boundary lines of what we consider valuable, the cultural margins we impose, consciously or not, on certain people or certain places. Travel can teach us to loosen our hold on our established categorisations. Encountering new people, cultures and histories can help us recognise our blind spots, and show us that what we consider “best” or “better” might be a footnote in someone else’s worldview.

While I was in Oslo, an acquaintance asked if he could introduce me to a friend who lived there. Feeling pressed for time, I initially declined. But after more thought, I remembered that many of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in my life have been the unplanned ones, the invitations I didn’t see coming. So I agreed to meet up, and it turned out to be a particularly engaging conversation, one that made me consider afresh what life has to offer if I slow down for it. Having this unexpected meeting made me think how travel can also teach us to lose any sense we might have that our lives are predictable. Which seems a beautiful thing if we hope to continue being open to life’s invitations to expand our minds, spirits and hearts.

Travel not only displaces us physically, but often shifts the centre of our internal navigating system, compelling us to consider how our ideas of what’s normative are contextual and cultural constructs, learnt narratives that we then hold as sacrosanct. When really all corners of the world have particular ways and traditions worth lining up with our own and learning from.

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Summer Books 2022

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Tuesday: Environment by Pilita Clark
Wednesday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Saturday: Critics’ choice

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