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The Art of Travel

November 8, 2002

“The art of travel” by Alain de Botton might just as well be called “The art of beauty.”

Or “The art of seeing.” From the very first chapter, “On anticipation,” the book is really about seeing — about close observation, which inevitably leads to seeing beauty.

The book itself is the perfect object for these musings. It is small, like a travel guidebook. It is bound in a simulated brown leather and embossed with gold filigree hinting at the exotic. The title is embedded in a design reminiscent of the style during the Columbian Exposition (1893 World’s Fair): sunbeams, clouds, globe of the Earth …

It’s something you might pull out of your safari vest as you cross Africa.

De Botton is idiosyncratic, but thoughtful, and rewarding for the reader. The book is illustrated in a curious way analogous to the writing. I savored it.

Seeing is a challenge whether one is traveling or staying home. De Botton discusses both circumstances.

Beauty can be found anywhere: I noticed one day at the library that the blue and white in my shirt matched the blue of the urinal screen against the white porcelain. This color scheme was also reflected in the gleaming, curved surfaces of the chrome fixtures in front of me.

It was rather nice, really, and made me smile. I also hoped that nobody would walk in just then. If you’ve ever been a teenager in a classroom, you know how hard it can be to wipe even a small smile off your face.

As much as one can find beauty at home, so is one inclined to take “home” along on one’s travels. De Botton discusses how he was sitting on a beach in Barbados that looked exactly like the one on the brochure that had enticed him, but within minutes he was thinking of work, a looming project, trouble with his girlfriend, and so on.

I find that my habits change little when I travel. When I visited Prague for two weeks, I started almost every day at Bohemian Bagel in Mala Strana below the castle. Not much different than starting my day at Cornucopia downtown near the F Street bridge. I kept a different schedule in London, but needless to say I did not miss tea.

Of course, in both places, I did many other things I couldn’t do Salida, but my requirements were really no different.

I feel rather fortunate that my daily life is like vacation, that I live beside a little city that has most of what big cities have, but more pleasantly, and that I can make a trip to a big city an enriching one.

Last week I went to a meeting in Arvada and drove up the day before. I thought I might go to the Denver Art Museum, but it is not as accommodating as your local library. The museum closed at five. I couldn’t find a movie I wanted to see, so I went to a yoga class.

It was Halloween night, bitter cold and snowing, and I was the only one who showed up. So I had a private lesson: me, the instructor, and her African gray parrot, who talked and made delightful noises the entire time. It was a bit like having Robin Williams in the room. Or a couple of toddlers.

It made the trip to that suburban Purgatory worthwhile and the trip home to Salida all the more delightful. I might even go back.

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