During my most recent InterRailing trip through Europe, I read Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel. To say that I’m a huge fan of his would be an understatement. You may have stumbled on his content without realising: he is the creator of and voice behind Youtube channel The School of Life. He believes that philosophy is a practical tool to improve society rather than an abstract idea to be confined to the classroom. His book, The Art of Travel, doesn’t prescribe a list of places to go like other travel literature does. Rather, he talks about why and how we travel, and argues that we should tailor our trips more to our psychological needs. It identified a lot of thoughts that I’d been having about traveling that I hadn’t quite collected until I read the words on the page.
His thoughts on the pressure that traveling can bring particularly struck a chord with me. When you are in a place for a short amount of time, you feel as if you must see and do as much as is humanly possible. Rather than following the natural arc of your curiosity, you may feel as if you really should go to a certain monument, because your guidebook suggests it. Or, if you find yourself disagreeing with what you’ve read about a place, then you suppose that perhaps you have inferior taste. Another point he makes is this:
A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain.
I had arrived in Berlin and felt this was especially accurate. I’d been twice before: once with family, and then when I went InterRailing a few years ago. When I returned for the third time, I was shocked at how many places I had yet to experience, despite my previous visits. Surely my interests couldn’t have changed that much? I found myself in a similar situation when I arrived in Paris (for the third time) later that trip, and finally went to The Louvre. My first visit to Paris was a day trip with my school when I was 11, and it wasn’t on the agenda. Fair enough. The second time, though, was with a friend a few years ago. We decided to give it a miss because we assumed entrance fees would be too expensive. I was 17 and therefore entitled to the free entrance, but as she had just turned 18 she narrowly missed out (we presumed).
A quick scour online would’ve revealed that The Louvre, like the majority of art galleries and museums in France, is free to residents of Europe who are under 25. I didn’t realise this until I attempted to purchase an online admission ticket to the Louvre, rather than queue on arrival. The website mentioned that admission was not only free for under 18s, but also for European Economic Area residents between 18-25. It didn’t click that this literally meant Europe until I googled it. Considering that full price admission tickets are usually €17, this is an amazing deal. It also might not be available post-Brexit as one sassy ticket vendor kindly reminded me. So many concessions are available for young adults and students. Do some research before you travel to plan ahead, it’ll save you valuable time and money.
Giving (arguably) the best art collection in the world a miss is laughable to me now. However, if I’m honest with myself, at that time I probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated it anyway. I wanted to be outside, strolling down the Champs-Élysées, having a picnic beside the Eiffel Tower and reading by the Seine, not devoting an entire day to art. I was intimidated by art then. I didn’t realise that, just like literature, it merely requires a toolkit to analyse and engage with the work. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve developed a deeper knowledge of and consequential appreciation of art.
Back in Berlin, I felt a fair bit of pressure to cram as much in as I could. My original plan was to stay for three nights, which I extended to four, and then five (and I probably would have stayed longer if my itinerary had allowed). I felt guilty that I didn’t make it to any of the accredited museums on Museum Island (Museuminsel). I kept telling myself that I should be doing this or should be seeing that. Then, I decided to stop scrambling around and limit my excursions to two themes that interested me at the time: the Cold War, and modern art.
Of course, I allowed myself flexibility with this, but it helped to narrow down the exhaustive list of tourist attractions in Berlin and relieve myself of pressure if something didn’t fit into my schedule. The Neues Museum, for example, is probably the best museum in Berlin with antiquities from the Egyptian and Trojan periods, among many other collections. I didn’t make it there. If I had more time, then perhaps I would’ve fitted it in, but it just didn’t pique my interest as much as other museums did.
I stuck to my themes and I could see a bigger picture emerge while surveying modern art across collections like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the galleries in Charlottenburg in Berlin. Combining Krakow, Warsaw and Berlin, and digging deeper into the effects of Nazi rule across them was particularly interesting. Visiting Auschwitz; the Jewish museums in Berlin and Krakow; and seeing the ghettos in Warsaw and Krakow was like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. It’s not for everyone, but I found traveling according to specific interests very productive, and would wholeheartedly recommend it.
You can buy The Art of Travel here