A smaller journey

My work diary has a note on next Friday, April 3rd, “Fly to Mumbai”. It’s a sad reminder to me of travel plans cancelled because of the virus. And yes I’m sad, but I accept that this is how it is now. This is “the new normal”.

At a time when no-one can travel and a lot of people are confined to their homes, people may feel a little trapped, a little bit like the world has closed in on them. But what if we take this as an opportunity to redefine what “the world” is, and to re-examine the world that is immediately around you.

On the back of the stay at home orders, I read again the chapter of The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton called “Return – On Habit”. In this chapter, de Botton recounts the philosophy of Xavier de Maistre, who, in 1790, wrote a travel book entitled Journey around My Bedroom. He “pioneered a mode of travel that was to make his name: room-travel.” His book was not meant to mock those people who made long and difficult world voyages (Magellan, Drake and Cook are mentioned) but to outline “a way of travelling that might be infinitely more practical for those neither as brave nor as wealthy as they.”

In these times of Covid, it’s not bravery or wealth that limits our movement but good sense and a desire to maintain good health. And so in these times, it could be that room-travel could come into its own.

To give you an example, in normal times, for five days a week, my home is somewhere I inhabit. There is always some kind of time pressure to be somewhere, to do something, to get something done. Not a lot of time remains for just being, except on weekends. But on weekdays, I will admit that I pass through the house and only notice certain things that are part of the routine that gets me get through the working week: food, clothes, grooming tools, TV. But now, when there is no real line between work and home, and I am at home all the time, I notice more things.

Firstly I notice the house needs cleaning. Being at home all day means I see the sunlight illuminate the spider webs and dust that I might only see on weekends. But I also have time to see things I don’t usually have time for on a regular five-day-at-the-office working week, like my garden.

i have said several times recently that I’m bored with my garden, that I want to change it, that it’s not interesting to me any more. But having been at home in the past two weeks just as the full burst of spring has come into play, I have become re-enamoured with my garden.

In the past week, we’ve had fabulous spring sunshine and I’ve been out in the garden every day: in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening. Because of this constant contact I am able to monitor very small changes in things in the garden. I can go out every day and check the pear trees to see how their blossom is doing. And I notice over the space of a few days the Beurre Hardy pear tree has gone from having tight closed bud-fists to being bedecked in white blossom. The other pear trees are a little behind but I go out every day and monitor the little changes, and I will be on hand to see on the days when the blossoms on the Red Williams and Doyenne du Comice pear trees burst open.

It’s also the time of year for tulips. Every day there is something new going on with the tulips. New flower buds are opening up every day and new splashes of colour are appearing. Every day I can look at the pots and wonder, “what’s next?”

This brings me back to De Botton and de Maistre, At a time when the size of the world is reduced to your home, your street, the nearest shop, maybe it’s time to reappraise and look again at the things that are around you, to travel in your own neighbourhood. When it comes to travelling around your home, de Maistre says, “The most indolent beings won’t have any more reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort.”

As an example, when was the last time you brought something new into your home? A lamp, a rug, a knife, even a new brand of shower gel. You were probably super excited about it for the first few days, every time you saw it or used it. But after that, you may have gradually stopped noticing the new thing, and the new thing you were excited about becomes just another part of the background ‘noise’.

Where are you reading this? If you’re at home, look around the room you’re in. See if you can spot three things that you can recall pleasant memories of – either buying it or using it. Maybe you need to go pick something up to look at it, to hold it in your hand, to admire how it feels or how it smells. Think about what you liked about it, maybe think about where you bought it. Take a small trip in your mind around this object.

De Botton goes on to talk about the things we find exotic and interesting when we travel – the details of every day life that are different from what we see at home. Not just food and language but weather, buildings, behaviours. “We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s unusally fascinating.”

We assume nothing at home could be this interesting, because in our regular lives, we filter out so much detail. We don’t pay attention to the trees and the buildings and the people around us. So maybe at this time when we are all confined and our freedom of movement is reduced, maybe now is the time to look again at the area where you live. To notice the small details that you don’t normally take time to look at as you make your way to the bus or the shop or the car or the park.

Maybe you, like me, are finding yourself shopping in different places, seeing different products. I have been more often into more of the small corner stores in my neighbourhood in the past two weeks than I ever have in the 18 years I’ve lived here. I’ve bought packets of Lebanese falafel mix, Turkish biscuits, and jars of Polish gherkins. I’ve marvelled that one shop is well stocked with hand-wash and toilet paper, while another has empty boxes where shoppers bought up their entire stock of lentils. I know which corner shop has the best range of vegetables, and where I can get those peanut biscuits I like so much.

The world is smaller, but my small world is coming into finer focus, and I’m seeing it in more detail without the usual clutter of life around me.

A final word from de Botton, for anyone who feels that being stuck at home is boring:

“They had fallen into the habit of considering their universe to be boring – and it had duly fallen into line with their expectations.”

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