Going Everywhere by Going Nowhere

Many years ago, I had a radical idea for my next vacation from work. I was then in my late twenties. After a childhood in which my most exotic trip was a drive from our home in New England to an uncle and aunt’s house in Virginia Beach, I made up for lost time in my first post-college decade by traveling as often as time and resources permitted. I saw La bohème from a private box at the Vienna Opera House. I visited Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg. I drove through the Swiss Alps, ate street-vendor crêpes and hung out at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and stopped in every bookshop—there were many more bookshops back then—on Charing Cross Road. I saw Guernica at the Prado and the Sagrada Família in Barcelona and the Rothko paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. And the Cubs at Wrigley Field. I got around.

Great vacations all, but when the time came to decide what to do for my next vacation—not at all a bad prospect to have to contemplate—I came up with a hitherto unprecedented plan: I decided to stay home.

One of my closest friends, a fellow with whom I had traveled on a couple of occasions, was incredulous. Home to this fellow was where you slept, cooked when restaurants were closed, or recovered from illness. It was not a holiday destination. The gist of his reaction was: You’re staying home? To do what?

Here’s what I did: I stayed within a ten-mile radius of my greater Boston apartment and saw the world. All six books I read in those eleven days took me to other countries and introduced me to new experiences and perspectives. The one book by an American, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, took me to Dresden and chronicled Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in a POW camp. Heinrich Böll’s The Casualty, a collection of the author’s earliest stories, was also set in Germany, during and immediately after World War II. I went to Japan to read about an aging master’s final game in Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go. I went to Nigeria (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), entered modernist paintings (A.S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories), and lived in an 18th century Italian arbor (Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees).

The journey was, in its quiet way, as thrilling and illuminating as my visits to the Victoria & Albert or the Musée d’Orsay. By the end of the week, I felt as if I knew more about the world than I did at the start. I was able to appreciate better my own surroundings. And I had a lot of fun.

There’s nothing extraordinary about sitting down and losing myself in a book for an hour or two. I do it every day. That week was nothing more, really, than my normal routine magnified. And the other highlights of that week—five-mile runs, dinner with friends, a couple of afternoons watching old films at the Brattle in Harvard Square—were highlights of just about every other week of my life at that time. But that vacation reminded me that you don’t need to leave your apartment to have a new adventure. It’s important to experience life first-hand, but it’s just as important to take time to be contemplative, to slow down and settle in with a good book and focus your attention on the insights of others. There’s more than one way to travel.

 

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