The most common thing people said to me leading up to this journey was, “Oh, you’re going to have so much fun!” In truth, I never knew how to respond. When I think of travel, “fun” is not usually the first word that comes to mind. Yes, there are certain vacations that emphasize fun — that holiday in New York City when I saw five Broadway shows in one week; the birthday down in Puerto Vallerta where a girlfriend and I spent our time lounging on the beach while cute men brought us snacks and fruity beverages; the two days in Napa where the most difficult decision I had to make was when to book my massage.
Now those trips were fun.
But a lot of travel can be pretty frustrating: getting from the airport to my hostel/hotel/apartment in late December, jet lagged and with a cold; going to the pharmacy and then the doctor (free clinic? hospital? who knows?) when I realize my cold is really an upper-respiratory infection; navigating public transportation in a country where I don’t speak the language; getting stranded in what feels like the Middle-of-Nowhere, China, and having to walk several miles in July to the nearest town, hauling 30 pounds on my back; needing to sleep in a jeep in a parking lot in Costa Rica because my friend and I spent our lodging money on the rental car and then waking up with 1,003 inflamed mosquito bites on my legs (believe me, I counted them).
I almost never book tours, and I do all of my planning/arranging/booking on my own. I tend to avoid taking taxis unless absolutely necessary and much prefer walking or public transportation. Even the most basic activity — buying groceries or doing laundry — can become a challenge.
And that’s how I like it. Some of my most memorable travel days have been finding my way to a particular destination, not the destination itself. Or spending two hours in a grocery story, trying to figure out what exactly I’m buying and how to buy it (and then how to make it).
But ultimately, pushing aside the frustrations of travel, when I travel, especially when I travel for the long haul, I’m not looking for fun. I’m looking for boredom.
What’s that? Boredom?
My most triumphant day so far in Paris was the day I realized it was approaching 2 p.m. and I hadn’t even left the apartment. I did finally leave, but not to go to a museum or a cathedral or to take a photo in front of a national monument. No, I had to go to the market to buy yogurt. A damn productive day.
I do realize it’s a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people, especially in the US, are only able to travel for a week at a stretch (while for me, that week is just a quick stopover in London) and so they want to cram as much fun into that week as possible. Sitting around in one’s pjs in one’s apartment while watching RuPaul re-runs on YouTube would be considered “wasting one’s time.”
But when you’re traveling for the long haul, you couldn’t survive daily excitement — at least I couldn’t survive it. I remember a few years ago, when I had another leave and was traveling for five months. I had just left London for a month-and-a-half in Scotland, and I decided to go to a movie while in Edinburgh. I just didn’t feel like staring at paintings or churches or a castle. I didn’t feel like being a tourist. It was so pleasurable, doing something so ordinary, and the next day I woke up and said, “I want to go to another movie.” And I did. In Edinburgh I went to the same rooftop garden to look at the same view of the city every afternoon. I began to master the art of sitting on benches staring into nothing.
I slide very easily into nothing. I excel at it, in fact. I revel in it.
I hear you say: But you’re in Paris! You’re in London! You’re in New York City! Why would you want to be bored? Stop wasting your time!
In his book, The Conquest of Happiness, philosopher Bertrand Russell (my friends who have taught Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss will be familiar with him) talks about how modern humans “are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.” What seems interesting to me is that Russell describes boredom as our “natural lot.” It is something humans come upon naturally. But our fear of boredom causes us to push it away. Humans are brilliant at developing numerous means to help us avoid being bored. Russell was writing in the early 1900s, so the means have changed a bit, but the concept is the same. Bored? Don’t sit with it. Play video games, shop online, text a friend, text another friend, take a selfie, post that selfie online, wait for likes. Do something. Do anything. Fill your time with something more exciting (or just something else) than whatever it is that’s making you bored in the first place.
Russell doesn’t argue that we should always aim for boredom. We need a balance of excitement and boredom. Even in my quest for boredom I find days where I crave excitement. But boredom, to Russell, is a key ingredient in happiness. In fact, he says, “A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life.” When I teach TGoB, I’m always struck by his use of the word, “essential.” This implies that boredom is necessary for happiness — perhaps as necessary as food, drink, sleep, love, etc.
It’s not easy to embrace boredom in life, let alone to embrace boredom when traveling somewhere so seemingly exciting. When a person travels, she’s supposed to cram as much excitement into every waking moment; even downtime gets scheduled (Tuesday 2:37-5:11 p.m. Free time!) I look at travel itineraries in guidebooks, and I get exhausted just reading them. A person is off and running from the second he steps off the plane until the second he goes back to the airport.
On some level that makes sense. When you’ve spent thousands of dollars getting to a place, why would you fill your time sitting on a bench in a park when you can sit on a bench in a park in your own neighborhood? I suppose boredom and travel seem like they can’t coexist. It sounds almost contradictory. We romanticize the places we travel to, and we create lists of must-see attractions that we must go to when we travel to these places (even if deep down we’re not really interested in these attractions). If we don’t get through that bucket list, we haven’t properly “done” a place. Travel is supposed to be exciting, and we’re supposed to have exciting stories to share when we return. It’s supposed to be fun, fun, fun!
My goal, though, if I have a goal, is to forget that I’m in a place full of attractions. It’s to find boredom in my everyday life. It’s to slip into the shadows of the mundane. I need time to lose myself in a place, to lose myself in my own thoughts, to let go of expectations. That can’t be planned. That can’t be scheduled. That can’t be found in a guide book. And yet as skilled as I am at doing nothing, I don’t know if that’s fully possible in six months. Living in the city center, I’m surrounded by constant reminders that this is PARIS! I’m ten minutes walk from Notre Dame. I’m fifteen minutes walk from the Louvre. I’m surrounded by bars and cafés and souvenir shops. Heck, Les Deux Magots is just steps away from my metro stop. I don’t know if it’s possible to escape the excitement entirely, especially once I step outside my door.
But I’ll keep trying. Because for me, it’s in those moments of stillness, the boring moments, that I stumble upon my greatest discoveries.