Alain de Botton, the writer behind How Proust Can Change Your Life and the brilliant Status Anxiety (with it’s equally brilliant cover) has a new book out, the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and I can’t wait to read it. He’s in the same category as Adam Gopnik only he hasn’t gone round the nearly inaccessible, “need absolute quiet and three hours to myself and even then I’m not sure I’m with you” intellectual bend the way Gopnik has of late.
Officially, de Botton is a philosopher, but he writes about his subjects (architecture, literature, society) in the context of history, sociology, art, anthropology and pretty much every other discipline. He might be a total crackpot – I cannot imagine having the time or energy to fact check all his references and agree or disagree with all his associations – but there’s no doubt he’s an interesting read. Kind of like Malcolm Gladwell: you don’t have to buy everything he’s selling, but there’s no doubt he’s thinking about and connecting ideas, facts and theories in a new way, and that, in itself, is inspiring.
Yesterday, I read an interview with de Botton about his last book which was about architecture, how it affects our lives unconsciously, and what we’re drawn to as “home”. The interviewer asked him about where he, de Botton, feels most at home.
I tend to feel very much at home in transitory spaces — the sort of spaces that Edward Hopper often painted. Put me in a diner or airport lounge, a hotel or railway station, and I’m generally very much on home-ground. I’ve tried to analyze why. I think it has to do with the curious comfort these places offer: they make you feel that you’re not alone in being alone. They are places where everyone is on the way somewhere else, where everyone is an outsider, and so this can be strangely more comforting than feeling alienated in a domestic, supposedly cozy environment.
When I read that, I flashed back to how I used to feel about train stations and airports, back before a year of numbing delays and red eyes flying back and forth between New York and San Francisco for work, before trips to and from Europe became routine, before airlines began their current decline into knee- and spirit-crushing inhospitality.
Back then, I feigned nonchalance to cover my excitement about joining the club of people with purpose. Having spent years not being part of that club – picking my father up and dropping off my mother’s friends, watching other children get on planes, knowing that they were going places while I headed back to the car, to the drive home, to the daily grind of being a kid with a messed up family – I thought the appeal of travel would never fade. Travel had an intentionality that I yearned for down to the toes of my itchy 1970’s cable-weave tights. If I had had a ticket, it would have meant I had somewhere else to be, somewhere else where I was expected. It didn’t matter if those other kids were going to Albuquerque, it might as well have always been Paris as far as I was concerned. I just wanted up and out.
To make it worse, I – we – used to be able to go all the way to the gate to enviously surf the wave of departing passengers’ distracted anticipation and catch a glimpse of arriving passengers’ studied (to my young eye) boredom, with their loosened ties and the top notes of light perspiration, relief and mints.
When I did start to travel, the time in the airport, the time on the trains, my own seat, the sterile, uniform cabin, the waiting area with its artificially expensive magazines and soda and over-preserved food, all combined to form a reassuring cocoon of structure and intention that confirmed my childhood projections. I was there for a reason. I had somewhere to be.
No matter where it was, pleasant or unpleasant, I had a cushion of space until I got there, a stretch when I didn’t need to worry about what was next, if I was pushing forward hard enough, if I was getting “there” fast enough, if I was trying fiercely enough. I knew what was next. I didn’t need to push or worry or try: the pilot, the conductor, had it covered and I was left to myself for a few hours. I would get there when I got there and if I was late, it would not be my fault. Between origin and destination, estimations of sufficiency were meaningless. With my feet very literally off the ground, any effort at forward motion was pointless, foolish even. Nothing was required of me except that I arrive and, once there, those on the other end were required to welcome me, to look for me specifically, to find me and be satisfied for having found me.
Of course, the actual travel was, even from the beginning, something of a disappointment. Until I stopped suppressing it for the sake of the fantasy and started taking medication, I was almost always a little nauseous on planes. Amtrak regularly pushed that breezy, “being late doesn’t matter” envelope a few inches beyond my tolerance for being in a confined space. And, naturally, I felt so much pressure to take advantage of the suspension of expectation that I couldn’t sleep or, more to the point, become an entirely different person in my few hours en route.
I’ve adjusted to travel. I take, as needed, sedatives for the claustrophobia, Bonine for the nausea, and R for the pleasure of leaving and returning with the person I don’t want to leave and always want to return to. Having loved and lost, I carry my valuables and essential clothing with me. Because aerodynamic is better (inside the plane and out), I check as little as possible in as sleek a suitcase as possible. I wear boots and cashmere to keep me warm, upright and ready for chance encounters with someone I admire, Europeans, or anyone who’s ever intimidated me.
Every once in a while, most often on trains, sometimes in business class, there is a moment when, suspended by travel, I feel at home in my life, am surprised that, in the main, I have the actual fact of the image I used to envy at airports and on train platforms. It’s a lovely, lucky feeling when you have somewhere to be, when you know where you want to be, and it’s where you are.
It’s even better without the scratchy tights.