The Melancholy of the Traveler

When traveling, I often run into a terrible melancholy that Alain de Botton called the melancholy of the traveler–you’re here in this glorious place, and yet, you’re not making the most of it. It’s all there, and you feel like you’re flunking some test, you flounder, you grow melancholy.  It’s like a whole life squeezed into a week, so that the wasted time seems monumental.

I’m not big on scheduling, anyway, or rushing around ticking things off some to-do list, and predictably fall into this funk when traveling. It usually happens early in a trip, when it’s almost overwhelming, and I get off to a slow start.

Today, I’m in New York, a city with more to do than one could exhaust in a lifetime. But what to do? how to live?  My first real day was a Tuesday, stayed up way late the night before.  That day, I didn’t get out of the hotel until 3 pm.  Just no traction, no plans, aimless guilty wandering.

I ended up going to the International Center for Photography, where I saw a show of mottled prints by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy,  which he took in the 1970s with rude cameras made of cardboard tubes and cans and shoeboxes… The wall text talked all about how sophisticated he was and it was a rebellion against technology and Prague Spring, a comment on survelliance and the State. But frankly, they were furtive photos of women and girls, snatched in public, often at the public swimming pool, mostly a lot of asses and crossed legs, blurry and decidedly fetishistic. A lot more pervy than political. And none of the wall text mentioned their essential transgressive quality–the 800 pound gorilla in the gallery.

Fed up, I moved to the next show, Twilight in Paris by street photographers Brassai, Atget, Kertesz (Hungarian), Man Ray, Ilse Bing (wonderful).  But as I looked at these photos, again, subjects caught unawares, surrealist juxtapositions (soldier inspecting shop window full of women’s lingerie), street scenes… I became more and more restless. What was I doing in a museum looking at art about street life when I could go out on Broadway and just see it?

Then I remembered, the one sure cure for ‘traveler’s melancholy’: the surrealist’s game of going in search of the miraculous.

When you are looking for the miraculous, the world becomes a big treasure hunt.  Anything might be the thing.  There. You pass a man looking up, so you look up, and there’s a woman with dark hair in a white slip talking to him from the third story, and then she throws something down to him wrapped in a handkerchief.  There. The imprint of a fallen leaf in concrete.

So I left the ICP and went out onto the streets of New York, that iridescent sea of phenomena.  Looking, watching…  and melancholy disappeared.  A small tree burst into a mist of tiny yellow flowers against a red wall.  There.  Two big gothic doors painted scarlet pierced the façade of a church in warm gray stone. There. In an apartment window, someone had arranged a white plaster head wearing a striped stocking cap alongside a pile of books and a sculpture made of eyeglasses.  There. An old man and a young man on a bench outside a restaurant, each with right leg folded over left, each editing some sort of papers. I could see how New Yorkers are made… in forty years, the young man becomes the old man and there’s a new young man on the bench beside him.

Yesterday, I went to the Whitney Biennial with my cinematographer friend Tom (the show was very good, well exhibited, each room cleansing the eye from the last.) Afterwards, we’re walking the upper east side, dense with people fresh from the  St. Patrick’s Day parade on 5th Avenue wearing the outlandish Mardi Gras-ish costumes and crowding into the Irish bars. And Tom, whose mother lived here for many years, began to point out figures I would have missed otherwise. A very special type of New Yorker.  Elderly Upper Eastsiders, privileged, proprietary–this was their city, and they completely inhabited it.

Once he pointed them out to me, I saw them everywhere, in the diners, in the streets.  It became our game.  “Oh, there’s one!”  There. In a lunchroom on Madison, two nicely dressed women at a table on our left, and two eating alone, on our right. and there, one about my age, on her way to becoming the woman to her left.

The miraculous boy eating red twizzlers on the subway and reading a book with a red cover.  A man with a tiny boy in the gallery at the Whitney, the boy more interested in the view out the low window and sticking his hand in his father’s mouth than in the hot new artists displayed in the room.  Tiles on the wall of the Prince Street station, depicting tiny figures carrying all the range of baggage known to New York. There. There. There.

I feel so intensely alive when I’m traveling, feel my life streaming through my fingers at 100 miles an hour.  it’s what’s so hard about being at home, so much more difficult to feel that urgency to seek out experience.  But we can’t travel all the time.  Paradox.  Thus, the surrealist’s project–to make it strange again.  To make home as strange as Marrakesh, as full of unexpected delights.

12 Responses to “The Melancholy of the Traveler”

  1. kristen Says:

    I always feel that the best way to experience New York on a short visit is to pick a few things you *have* to do, keep the list and the addresses in your pocket, but spend the bulk of the time wandering slowly between appointments, letting things happen. The happy accidents, and the overall impression of fitting 1000 things into a single day, are always more memorable than any one particular cultural event.

  2. Caroline Says:

    This is beautiful. I recognize it so much. Without those moments, I find myself being very restless and lost, even when I’m not traveling. But then I see something like a graffity drawing on a wall of Santa Claus with below it: ‘I do believe in you.’ Or a pair of shoes with the laces tied together, hanging on a telephone wire above the street, twice in one day (at two different places in the city). It’s so amazing how someone’s state of mind can change everything.

  3. Beautifully said. I’ve stopped visiting museums when I travel for the very reasons you describe. What I want to see is in the streets, bars, cafes. You paint a lovely scene (as always).

  4. Someone once gave me a gratitude journal, only instead of writing 5 nightly gratitudes, I recorded strange and wonderful sightings from each day. This reminds me to return. in gratitude and awe.

  5. Jessica T. Says:

    I think you have managed to sum up a very complex emotion that often resides in us when we travel or perhaps even when we are just especially busy. It’s the feeling that we are living a little more than others and it’s a beautiful, freeing, addictive feeling. The trick is to continue to feel that way no matter what we are doing or where we are. To see even the “every-day” as shining and beautiful. We have to learn to never fall out of love with life itself, even after the honeymoon phase is over.

  6. Claudia Errington Says:

    Wonderful. I do take notice how in the beginning you describe the melancholoy of traveling, and by the end you “feel intensely alive when traveling.” The description of all you saw, the emotions felt, grow and change as your feelings about traveling evovled. New York just might do this to a person.

  7. Priscilla Morais Says:

    Lovely the way you’ve captured your own snapshots of the City and positioned yourself in the company of other photographers and cinematographer, even. Also very insightful. Being a traveler does make certain images in the new environment pop, and I do think the traveler returns home with a certain buzz of newfound electricity borne of the strange destination.

  8. Loraine Says:

    You are the Remarkably envoy and crystal witness. Molto gratzie for interpreting this life so beautifully and for finding the meanings and the ways.

  9. chris reynolds Says:

    That’s a brilliant little journey you’ve just taken us on, janet, and i recognize so much of my life/work in it. (Although i only get to sulk in the hotel for about 20 minutes, and i often have to make do with minor-league miracles (because of not sulking enough first?), and then i don’t find right words for them. Anyway, great sketch. have big fun back there…

  10. I always travel without an agenda or itinerary and I try to spend more time in one destination than seems necessary. Sometimes seeing the same place several times brings new insights. I stop looking at the monuments and architecture and start to see the people, the billboards, the small gardens and the graffiti. I begin to make a cognitive map of the area and within that map I place signposts – this is where the lady sells flowers, this is where the kids skateboard, this is where workers eat lunch. I find this much more satisfying than tourism – looking at things someone wants me to see, that someone else thinks is important. I want to let the experience come to me.

  11. Danielle Says:

    Janet, I love this: “I could see how New Yorkers are made… in forty years, the young man becomes the old man and there’s a new young man on the bench beside him.” Beautiful, as always. I hope you are enjoying your time in New York.

  12. I can smell the city in your description, “that iridescent sea of phenomena.” Simply perfect, my darling, you are a queen, the goddess of whatever city you inhabit. You explore the nooks and nuances of one my favorite cities, the most flavorful New York City. Thank you for your writing and for giving me inspiration to write as well.

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