Back from a holiday? Great! Before you tell us all about it, Grant Spencer has some advice on the danger of travel stories.
Experiences are like a drug: intoxicating, but fleeting. Our memories are flawed in a way that sees us haemorrhaging the scent of fly-blown fruit in a Thai street market so quickly that nostalgia turns that memory into the exotic. A fantasy. In short, nostalgia is the henchman of addiction.
We go back to those places, chasing that feeling, pursuing that fantasy. Some travellers are realistic about the importance or relevance of what they discover. In conversation, these people will drop in a story that dovetails nicely into what everyone was discussing, leaving you all marvelling at the complexity of the world and getting a little hot for this humble, charismatic traveller.
Others fall well short, but desperately need to convince themselves that their addiction to the experience is anything more than the need for novelty or challenge or something else that is lacking in their life at home. You know this person. Someone who waxes vaguely lyrical about the heightened state of travelling that somehow has value in and of itself, as if it should be directly exchangeable for respect.
I remember an acquaintance in her early twenties telling of the home stay in Romania that she clearly disliked. Her tone and combative nature was challenging everyone present to undermine the authenticity or value of her experience. I clearly remember walking off to get another drink.
Everyone needs to refresh their life, everyone should experience more than their narrow perspective and no one should feel trapped or out of place in one where they have found themselves. Most importantly, no one should think that falling for the shiny stability capitalism flashes around is the only game in town. With that caveat out of the way, I can address the intoxication of the exotic and how nostalgia can deceive you into the urge that pushes you to fly away, again and again.
One of the issues is that travelling can give you a false concept of becoming something larger than yourself, rather than the reality of the situation. You are simply passing through. While this can be a fun pursuit for your life, please be aware of what you’re doing to the people around you and what you might just be doing to yourself. Their eyes roll while yours sparkle with reminiscence, as you drop anecdotes like the names of B-grade celebrities you did coke with that one time. Unfortunately, unless there is a good deal of context that encouraged the story, you may end up looking like a junkie who is making their experience real by having the people around them relive the hit.
Memory is an unfortunate and unreliable beast. The reason why you get together with family at Christmas is so you can tell the same stories you did last year with the same people (often in the same place you created them). This is to both sustain bonds within the family and to ensure those memories become encoded sustainably in your long term memory. This is the joy of shared experience and shared nostalgia.
The operative term here is shared.
Try to avoid using your friends and family to bask in your travelling anecdotes. You do not have a cigar, you’re not in your vast library and you’re not surrounded by mounted boar heads. The chaps are not gathering around to regale in your adventures. Encourage questions, break down your experiences into basic units of emotion, allow other people to reminisce themselves in such a way that your experience becomes shared. If it isn’t able to be shared, then you better work on becoming a damn good story teller. The talent lies in drawing the listener into the experience as if they were there.
Let’s also keep in mind the plural of anecdote is not data. Your experience does not give you the insight you might assume. I get that when you have gathered a wide array of experiences you will certainly have a more rich internal life. This can bring not only a hysterical moment to a drunken conversation, but can give you real insight into other cultures. You might even gain the humility that can only come from standing in the shadow of a towering mountain or an intricate piece of art. That said, it can also be achieved by looking into a clear night sky and really choosing to appreciate the minutiae that surrounds. There is certainly a lot to be said for being able to take glory from the simplest and most local of experiences.
So it will do everyone a favour if you spend a bit of time appreciating the privilege of being able to travel overseas at all. Privilege is something that should enrich everyone. Unfortunately, we all come pre-loaded with a pack of assumptions about the world that more often than not distort and twist all these travel experiences so they fit our existing beliefs and personalities. If you are an arsehole, it’s rare that going on a long hike through Yosemite National Park will change that fact.
Perhaps this rant is a challenge. How much of yourself can you permanently leave behind? What can you wash off next time you’re floating in the ocean at Nusa Dua and a poor fisherman motors past? How do your experiences give you a deeper appreciation for the people who don’t get to travel? Particularly those within your circle who aren’t afforded the opportunity to see it for themselves.
I am not throwing around blame here. I have certainly committed this sin. It’s a behaviour, not a character flaw. Maybe it’s an airborne condition that flying in a pressurised cabin expands in the blood. I suspect that this really comes down to the art of conversation. Where we make a competition of our stories that merely cycle back and forth, instead of having a meaningful interchange where our anecdotes interlock and even validate each other’s experience of the world to bring a little more colour.
Maybe more humility, or a reminder as to that for which we’re really searching. How have you deliberately brought someone into your story and more importantly, how have you interwoven their story into your own?