"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

The ruinous nature of holidays

It’s not often you find yourself leaving home with the perfect companion. This is especially true when travelling.

The pressure to have a good time can sap you of the joy that you end up wearing as a mask to hide the strain.  So I was pleased to recently find myself on a trip to Cyprus with Geoff Dyer.

As a fellow “professional of distraction”, he did for me what I, at the time, couldn’t bring myself to do, out of lethargy and a sense of existential displacement.  That is to articulate the sense of disaffection and fatigue with both the interior and exterior landscape.

Dyer’s description of hotels could have been taken straight out of my head, were I not so laden with remorse at having no-one to blame but myself for selecting a holiday, a hotel and a destination so antithetical to my way of being.

“A sensation of heart-sinking disappointment on arrival, often accompanied by bitter regret at ever having left home.”

That’s how Dyer defines the place he unhappily finds himself on a dispiriting visit to Libya, one of several trips recalled in ‘Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’.

I read this particular line while sat drinking a 3Euro gin and tonic on the balcony of the hotel bar waiting for the sun to go down.  A cheap experience indeed, endured until my partner and I could desperately and necessarily move on, after photographing the spectacular sunset afforded by the view.

When both moments came, they came with a heightened sense of self-loathing and misanthropy. It would be easy to attribute the Weltszchmerz to the gin.

The harsh truth of the camera lie

It was more to do with the undeniable realisation of being where I was, not as far removed as I’d like in space or demeanour from the people I unhappily found myself amongst – drinking because it’s cheap and you want the moment to pass, gazing in half-wonder at a natural event that happens 365 days a year.

Mercifully, the next day saw the arrival of our hire car, which we used to navigate our way from ruin to monument to ruin again.  Sights that should have inspired awe and wonder, and for a short while they did, prompted a greater sense of despondency and despair at the state of things.

What made it harder to truly appreciate the replica ruins was the pointless signs that accompanied them.

I could have been, as I often am, really quite absorbed in imagining the scene in front of me a series of eras ago, were it not for the half-arsed description that told me what I could already surmise with my own eyesight: “Here is a rectangular room with a mosaic in the middle of it.” And/or other pointless words to no effect that said more about the person/people who couldn’t care less than the value of the artefacts they were not trying hard enough to describe.

Surrounding this particular archaeological site in the centre of Paphos were shops selling tat, bars selling chips and overly sun-baked people drinking watery pints. 

Fittingly then, as commanded by the mood and the environment, we decided to go drink to forget and drown out the noise. 

Reflecting on the ruins we had just failed to be absorbed by, I thought how laughable it is that you go on holiday to look at the ruins of the past, eager to see what things were like before all the ruinous ways of the present stained the landscape, meanwhile being oblivious to the telling discord between then and now, caused by the very actions you’re involved in – tourism.   

The Stoic way

Months earlier, in rationalising the idea of a short break to Cyprus – a destination and type of holiday so distant from our usual preferred expeditions to the Far East – I had told myself that it could be a philosophical opportunity to immerse myself in Stoicism in the place where that very philosophy was born.

I was already, on this second day of a four-day trip, thinking about elsewhere in place and time, such is the restlessness that accompanies holidays in a way that is ridiculously antithetical to the point of them.   

Not the kind of restless wonder that has you eager to take in all the sights, sounds and scenes, but a restlessness to move on and away so as to leave rather than arrive.

Miserable proof of Seneca’s words: 

"Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present.”

I begin to understand what my mother says about holidays – with all the preparation for what’s to come and the endurance of what is delaying enjoyment of it, they’re more hassle than they’re worth.

In the spaces between, so much of your time is spent waiting. Hovering in hotel rooms, waiting at airports, waiting for buses. Waiting for the trip to the tenth museum to be over.  

Monuments to despair

You’re no longer lingering in the moment but killing time. Every bar, every monument becomes just another pause to delay the next point at which you feel compelled to express joy to mask the fatigue.

Now in my more reflective state of mind, I will use that waiting time as an opportunity to “be in the moment”, to contemplate my surroundings at best, or at worst, to go inwards and focus on my breathing so as to quell the urge to frown and judge.

The reality is that simmering underneath this pseudo-half-Zen is an irritability that means I’m so focused on trying that it’s as pointless in value as those signs at the ruins.

If holidays are about relaxing into the moment and enjoying new experiences, why do they come with a dormant sensation of agitation?

On top of the heat and the tiresome repeated application of sun cream - which in itself makes you constantly aware of a forced discomfort that has to be endured so you can enjoy the view without being burnt by it - is the drag of moving your mind along with your weary body.

Maybe it’s because we are never truly content with where we are. Whether that's home or the places we visit. We always want something else, something new, something more. 

Why travel?

Does travel really do us good when all we're really doing is taking the very self that is troubled (by thoughts, routine, life, work) away with its self?

When Socrates was told that man was improved by travel, he is said to have responded: "I am sure he was not, he went with himself."

At best, holidays (of this nature at least) are a period of delay and delusion. At worst, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, it's like exacerbating a wound by movement and force because: 

"you do more harm than good to a patient by moving him about: you shake his illness down into the sack, just as you drive stakes in by pulling and waffling them about. That is why it is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession."

This from On Solitude, in which de Montaigne remorselessly articulates the relative virtues (especially from the perspective of middle age) of a life lived in the peace of self-hood.

Hell is other people

Surrounded by the dirt of the mob, and already one to prefer the desolate wilderness (or at least my garden) to the busy city or streets, I gave into the assessment that this is what holidays are made of.  Other people’s filth.

Dirt on the unwiped table top of the nasty cheap seats.  Footprints and discarded flyers among the historic ruins.  Dust kicked up by centuries of people moving around.

Other people’s mess, other people just being.  Our mess, our being.  Common humanity at its most shamelessly unashamed.

The rare moment of cheer finally came when it was time to go home. To the cold, grey climate, to the carefully constructed routines, to the security and comfort of simple habits.

Travel is an opportunity for discovery, even if it’s just rediscovering your appreciation of the familiar.

On memory & forgetting, via Cave, Kundera & Nietszche

Words to live by when you're struggling to find your own