The heart of all disappointment is expectation. The same is true of travel. It is particularly acute with travel, however, because we are all the time harried into building expectations of a destination. Guide-books and travel articles in newspapers urge us to make itineraries of places to go, places to see, things to do, things to eat, all of which add up to make ‘the experience.’ Very often we already know what these things look like from photographs or videos; very rarely will we be surprised and delighted by some reality of the object that was hidden in the description in the guide-book or the photograph in the magazine. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the Pyramids of Giza when I first visited them. I remember thinking that they were like the photographs, but less beautiful, more uncomfortable and a lot of effort under the blazing sun.
But we cannot avoid expectations. That would be ridiculous. No one would bother travelling at all if it weren’t for the expectation of something. So how to travel with expectation, but without disappointment? I suppose one way would be to have low expectations, but it is very hard for us humans to manage our expectations, especially excitable optimists like myself. So what can I do?
1) Avoid itineraries.
Remember that whatever is on an itinerary will usually be the default tourist option and thus the most boring thing you can do at that particular destination. You will share the space with hundred or thousands of other tourists and, unless your particular interest is the ethnography of tourists, then that is pretty boring. Don’t just tick off a selection of sights that represent, say, ‘London’ to a collection of guidebooks. What is ‘London’? I’d say that it is an amorphous, phatasmorgorical amalgamation of random events. It certainly isn’t an itinerary.
2) Travel more realistically.
What do I mean by ‘realistically’? I mean that travel in the olden days used to be for a clearly defined purpose. People would travel to market or on a pilgrimage or in a gold rush. Nowadays people seem to travel just to see ‘London’, which as we have seen, doesn’t exist. A more realistic example of travel would be, not to try to see a ‘London’, but to go to see a real and concrete object. For example, the paintings of Rothko in the Tate Modern or The Phantom of the Opera at the theatre or the Rosetta stone in the British Museum. These purpose-driven excursions may well disappoint, but the disappointment will be real and directed at the object, rather than the destination of the imagination. Also don’t try to travel in time. You cannot go to London to try to see Dickens’ London or London in the time of Boudicea. It doesn’t exist. Which leads me on to:
3) Treat the destination with respect, as a living, breathing place.
Do not treat it as a museum or a gallery, but as a town or a country; a place of the world that will continue to be a place of the world until such a time as the world disintegrates. It has a past and a future. Do not expect the past and the future to be as you see it today. Do not expect to see Oliver Cromwell at the Tower or Oliver Twist running down the back streets round London Bridge. The people you do meet have nothing in common with the past and are all working towards their own future, different again. As a frequent traveller to Egypt, I have seen this mistake happen again and again with travellers (and with myself over the years). The past is not a country.
4) Travel to learn.
Don’t travel to see ‘London’ and don’t expect anything of ‘London’. That would be to travel with a closed mind. Travel instead with an open mind, with a mind willing to learn. Travel instead for what London can teach you. Be less selfish with your travel: you sure as hell won’t leave any impact on London, but what impact will London leave on you? Listen, look and let it work.