Why I Leave Home
Why I Leave Home
I went to a talk by Robert Dessaix at the Sydney Writers Festival last week titled ‘On why I leave home’. He talked about travel and how he uses it as a non-religious ritual to reannoint his rationalist soul.
It got me thinking – what is travel to me? Why do I leave home?
Of course there are many reasons – it’s fun; it’s exciting to explore something new; it makes the mundane life of work, eat, sleep more bearable; it means I can scratch more countries off my scratch map…
But what it all boils down to for me is this: the reason I leave home is for the stories. I don’t mean this in the purely ostentatious sense – it’s not that I leave just so that I can post photos of my travels on my Facebook page (though that is a welcome by-product) and tell everyone I meet about the amazing things I have seen and done in that obnoxious tone that many travellers adopt, as if begging you to try to top their story. I understand that the majority of the time no one could care less about what anyone else did on their holiday, and struggle to even cough up the standard questions ‘was it fun?’ and ‘what was your favourite place?’.
No – the stories are not for show and tell, and many of them may never be told at all. The stories are for me to remember forever, a little novella inside my head that I can read any time I like.
Before the trip, I imagine what stories the place might hold. This helps me choose the right place – I’ll only pick somewhere that my imagination runs wild with; somewhere where I can picture myself inside world of possible stories just waiting to begin. This is the excitement phase – the part that everyone who’s ever said ‘I just don’t feel comfortable unless my next trip is visible on the horizon’ will understand. Organising, picking accommodation, the elation of clicking ‘Book’ on the airline’s page, they are all part of this. For me, looking forward to a trip really means looking forward to the unwritten stories waiting for me there.
The real stories of the places I go are never exactly what I imagined they would be and almost always different from any understanding I could get from a photograph. The stunning Niagara Falls, always pictured close up, is actually surrounded by the bright lights of casinos on the Canadian side. Driving right up to the falls at night shattered my perception that they would be surrounded by a pristine natural rainforest and only accessible by a short and rewarding hike.
I travel to get inside the very story of a place. The history of how it began and how it is ever-evolving. Is it breaking conventions and full of new ideas or does it cling to it’s charming days of old? These stories put a face to a name, a feeling to a city. A mere colour can conjure up that feeling of a place – Sorrento will always feel yellow to me, not only because of the abundance of lemons and everything that can possibly be made from them, but because of the sunshine, the warmth, the happiness.
I mentally take note of everything I pass – ‘How funny, a motorbike with seven people on it’. ‘Wow, there really are a lot of people carrying baguettes in France’ – and all of this adds to the story I am creating to escape to later.
Learning stories on the ground helps me to remember things about places that I never would if I only read about them, because I have experienced them for myself. ‘In the time of Jack the Ripper, prostitutes used to hang around churches because they couldn’t be arrested if they were outside a church’. ‘In France there are laws about how you can and can’t make wine’.
As well as this, there are the stories of the people who live there – what is life like for them, living in this place, and how it is different from mine? How it is the same? Where do they get their morning coffee, what do they do with their spare time, do they think it socially acceptable to kiss in public?
No less interesting are the stories of the travellers I meet along the way. Not the typical hostel bar FAQs like ‘how long have you been travelling for?’, ‘where are you going after this?’ and ‘have you done Sail Croatia yet?’, but the real stories of travellers. Sometimes these do come out at the bar over drinks, like the British guy in Vienna who told me all about the minute details of his bipolar which illuminated something I had never understood before. Or the 64 year old Danish man we met in Nice, who told us a story that sounded like it belonged in a romantic movie. (He’d been bike riding in a park and stopped for a coffee in a cafe at the same time as another woman, but there was only one table left. They decided to sit together, got talking and exchanged numbers, but he accidentally gave the wrong number. They didn’t speak until two weeks later when they happened to bump into each other at the same park. Now they are married and live in Marseille together.)
The stories that I create through my time in the place are possibly the most exciting to read later. The time we went horse riding at a dude ranch in Texas. When a Spanish guy we’d never met dropped us home from running of the bulls just because we tapped on his window and asked him to. When a guy in Jordan told us to eat the flat bread we were offered if we didn’t want to be killed.
As every good traveller knows, the worst part about travelling is coming home. But with these stories tucked away neatly in your head, you have your own private proof that it actually did happen, contrary to what you feel as you head back to the very same local shops and bump in to the very same people you bumped into before you left home, all of whom have of course not even noticed that you have left the country.
And how do I know when I’m ready for my next bout of stories to begin? I’ll borrow from Robert Dessaix here and say, ‘I have Internet banking’.