The possibility of elsewhere

A 17th century reflection on the virtues of travel shows us what is being lost during the pandemic.

The countryside in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France.
The countryside in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. Credit: Getty Images.

Confined to our houses, warned not to make any plans for the summer, there is an encroaching sense of something valuable being lost. It is not just the possibility of being in another place physically – by the sea, say, or in the bustle of a different city – but the expansive effect of ‘elsewhere’ upon the psyche. Sir Francis Bacon, in his 1601 essay Of Travel, described it thus: ‘Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education, in the elder, a part of experience.’

Bacon’s essay is not very long, but it gets to the point. Although addressed to the select group of aristocratic young men who had the opportunity for international travel in his time, it retains a universal application. It is, he says, necessary for a young man to have ‘some entrance into the language before he goeth’ and to equip himself with a decent guide book, ‘some card or book, describing the country where he travelleth.’ He should also ‘keep a diary’, avoid ‘the company of his countrymen’ and strive to eat with locals, or ‘diet in such places where there is good company of the nation where he travelleth.’

Upon the traveller’s return, Bacon skewers the necessary etiquette of behaviour among less free-ranging acquaintances. The returnee’s travel should ‘appear in his discourse, rather than his apparel or gesture’ and on the discourse itself ‘let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories’ – in other words, the end-of-gap-year swanking about the local markets in Cambodia and the ascent of Machu Picchu should be firmly reined in.

But oh, for the possibility of any such swanking at all! The temporary loss of travel is perhaps not so painful for older people, since we are already shaped by the effects of previous trips. In the teenage years, however, the first experiences of travelling without family can forge deep impressions that last a lifetime.

Early, independent foreign travel has always been a privilege, of course. It was unthinkable for my grandfather, who left his Belfast school at fourteen to work, and financially difficult for my father (although a student job in Smedley’s canning factory in England was educative in its own way.) School trips or exchanges abroad remain unaffordable for many families with already over-stretched budgets today.

When I think about what a few early trips did for me, however, it lies beyond straightforward exhilaration in the language, mores, cuisine and architecture of another country, what the poet Louis MacNeice memorably called ‘the drunkenness of things being various’. It was also that I felt what you might define as ‘secure discomfort’: social difficulty of various kinds without the prospect of outright disaster.

Shortly after I turned sixteen, for example, I went on a trip organised by my Belfast school to spend the summer weeks with a French family near Lyon. The idea was that I would help out with housework in exchange for meals and accommodation. The first day I arrived, the family took me along to their friends’ house for dinner. As the evening lengthened, and then some, I felt ever more out of place: too young for the adult company, too old for the children, and too slow in speaking and understanding for anyone, really. I hung about awkwardly, eventually resorting to reading my book, sticking on a smile when necessary and feeling exhausted.

The next day it transpired that the parents were leaving for a long weekend to attend a Bentley convention (the father had a gleaming Bentley, which he used to enjoy driving through the French countryside: sometimes elderly farmers stood up and waved in admiration.) I was left alone with the children and their maternal grandmother, who was of older, earthier French stock and, I sensed, largely uninterested in the trappings of middle-class success. At some point during the evening I – so cocky and confident when at large in Belfast – was suddenly overcome by a wave of homesickness, and I started to cry. The granny took me in her arms and comforted me, murmuring ‘ma cocotte’ and other endearments. It cheered me up no end. Thereafter, granny and I were the best of friends.

There is a lot of knowledge that one can absorb at home from books. But learning how to be a foreigner somewhere can only really be experienced: the struggles with halting language and clumsy mimes, the little attempts at jokes, the small strategies of survival, and the yearning to fit in just enough to partially relax.

There is also, I think, a lesson in appreciating the kindness of strangers, and perhaps some day giving it in return. All of this is part of what Bacon surely meant by the fullest ‘education’ of travel in ‘the younger sort’. I hope today’s teenagers get it back before too long.


Jenny McCartney