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Travelling in search of happiness


A new book by one of Switzerland's best selling authors explores our search to find self-fulfilment and happiness through travel.

The Art of Travel, the latest book by the Swiss-born writer, Alain de Botton, takes the reader on a journey through the highs and lows of travelling and on an exploration of what fuels our craving to leave the home shores.

Along the way, de Botton, who lives in London, takes us on the great journeys made by writers, artists and thinkers - we follow Gustave Flaubert's exotic experiences in nineteenth century Egypt and Van Gogh's love affair with Provence.

"We fall in love with countries in a similar way to how we fall in love with people," de Botton told swissinfo. "You seek in other countries things that you like and admire but that you don't necessarily have enough of in yourself or in your own culture. I think it's a part of finding a lost part of yourself."

Taking flight

The book opens on a dreary autumn day in London, the writer's spontaneous decision to jet off to Jamaica and his shattered expectations upon arrival:

"Nothing was as I had imagined (...). In the preceding weeks, the thought of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable (...) a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun (...) a hotel bungalow (...) with wooden floors and white bedlinen (...) and an azure sky."

De Botton's vision of paradise is destroyed by throngs of tourists clamouring for taxis at the airport, brash advertising billboards lining the island's streets and stormy arguments with his partner in the midday heat. But then, de Botton asks in The Art of Travel, are not all endeavours to find happiness by escaping from home doomed to failure?

"We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (...) that the state of the skies and appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery:"

The book also explores the themes of culture guilt, man's search for the "exotic" and the difficulty of finding totally new adventures when even the world's remotest regions have established tourist trails.

"There's not enough adventure left in the world - everything has been mapped - even in Timbuktu there's CNN and pleasant hotels," de Botton complains. "There's nowhere that's nowhere anymore, so we can no longer have the thrill of adventure, of a completely new discovery. We need to find new ways of exploring, of making our travelling particular to us."

Culture trap

A pitfall that many travellers fall into - and which the book tries to pull them out of - is "culture guilt", the feeling that one should see everything our destination has on offer.

"People traipse around these sights that maybe they don't really want to see but feel they have to when they're on holiday," de Botton says. "There's a bizarre sense of culture becoming a burden, and we have to break free of that. We have to become individual in your travelling habits, just as in our reading habits."

For all de Botton's advice to leave guidebooks and culture guilt behind in quest of our own adventures, conversations with the writer reveal that he is himself a reluctant traveller.

"I wouldn't say that I enjoy travelling unreservedly. It's always interesting but it weakens your defences," de Botton explains.

The Swiss-born writer is more likely to reach out for books and films to indulge his wanderlust.

"I think reading books and seeing paintings about places can enhance receptivity to these places. For instance, Turner's paintings of Swiss Alps can attune you to their beauty. But these are just concentrations of the finest moments - so much of travel is waiting in an airport rather than savouring delicious views," says de Botton.

Alain de Botton is the author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction works, including Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust can change your Life and Essays in Love. The Art of Travel is available in English from the end of May.

by Vanessa Mock

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