‘The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery.’
Conrad, from Typhoon (1902)
I have travelled to many of the world’s great cities. Like many Australians, some of whom leave the country more frequently than others, I have left for different shores on a number of occasions. Australians love travel overseas, which is why, over the course of the past ten years, overseas trips have grown from two to five million instances per year – and that is just for personal tourism. Travel for relatives or for business has climbed to almost four million, and from much the same starting point.
That such a gigantic proportion of such a small nation should travel overseas each year must be telling of something, like a peculiar bug that is common to all who live here. There are those who wish to believe that the nation is uniquely imbued with an explorer spirit, and that the Australian experience is somehow different. It may be true, we are a product of the Empire, after all. But we are also uniquely wealthy; and wealth has always been the defining factor of travel. From the intrepid of Magna Graecia to the envoys of the Medieval world, or the steamship luxury of the 19th century scions, travel overseas always followed a dream of amusement or riches.
Gone are the days of obnoxious Americans crowding the Palazzo. When the economies of Europe were depressed, the humble American was master of the wider world, and a half a century of derision was born at their expense. Now, Chinese tourism is set for a colossal explosion. You are much more likely to see huge numbers of Chinese travellers, all vying to see the great monuments of world civilization, than you are almost anyone else. Much like their economy, the growth of Chinese overseas travel has been meteoric, and the annual figure for external trips is closer to one hundred and fifty million people – almost half the American population. Of course, numbers like these would have been unthinkable only a few decades prior, when the grip of the party held sway and no such benefits were considered.
Thinking about the vast mass of tourism, I was reminded of the example of Venice, that greatest jewel of human ingenuity, and the existential crisis that the city faces. Twenty million people visit the city every year. Fifty thousand actually live there. Local Venetians and mainland Italians want the cruise ships that constantly pass through the city to be banned from the lagoon, and one can hardly blame them. They create noise, pollute the water, and bring people who will only stay for an extremely short time. Not to mention the sight of them; they are hardly the most attractive ships. It is like looking out from the top of a very tall building. Perhaps you can see everything, but everything can also see you – and the architecture of a Renaissance Adriatic empire is not a blended backdrop to the scurrilous cheap of the world’s cruise liners.
Venice, which has gradually been moulded into a brief attraction for the great and temporary exodus, is not just losing its identity as a city, it is also staring down the Adriatic, and wondering when it will finally be swallowed up. There is no constant stream of trade, and the galleys are not being armed to fight the Ottomans anymore. What it is to go to Venice is surely not what it was to go to Venice. By the mere virtue of its attraction, it has become a place which accommodates hotels and souvenirs at the expense of the people who actually live in the city. By the time the ocean finally claims it, hardly anyone will live there at all. If it is a place that barely exists beyond its function, then what are people actually seeing when they go there? How can one really say that they have seen Venice?
It is not hard to say why people are obsessed with travel overseas. It is a point of social pride to say you have been somewhere. Money can buy a plane ticket, but a photo in front of the Eiffel tower is a priceless gift. Thanks to social media, it is easier than ever to remind people where you have been. People build performances of their grand tours; expressing, through careful selection, a personal aptitude for curation, a keen eye, and a person of worth and worldliness. It is the ultimate sort of status construction – a wealthier, more difficult version of going to the best restaurant in a city.
But the vast majority of people are not like the world’s oligarchs; even those who are wealthy enough to leave the shores of a country are not going to be the sons and daughters of estates. Most people who travel are able to because the margins of their wages allows them to do so, and a burgeoning middle class will have very different objectives to the very wealthy, who have never had a barrier to travel, and do not really need to prioritize anything. For them, it is not really special. Of course they belong to the world; that is the point of being very wealthy.
The question still remains, however, whether you are very wealthy or merely partially wealthy, what one really intends by travel. To see a place is not the same as to experience it. Parisians do not go about their daily lives waiting in line at the Louvre. Nor do they tend to arrive on a private jet, or eat at their finest restaurant with great constancy. Paris is a city of living, breathing people, for whom the lights and the sidewalks are home, and not just a weekend fancy.
It is also a moment to the human spirit, and a place of astonishing beauty, steeped in history. You can feel it in the walls, in the cobbles and the monuments. Every now and then a street will be not quite straight, and suddenly it is Medieval, or Revolutionary, or Vichy. You will pass countless buildings which once had, once did, once were. But it is no mere attraction, no page from a book. The city still exists, it is not a relic – Paris remains a place to behold as an important part of the world. I just wonder what the people who wait in line at the Louvre think of it.
When I visited Sicily for the first time, I was mostly confined to two locations – Taormina, a mountain enclave on the east coast, and Syracuse, or Siracusa, as it is now known, a few hours south. Both of these places featured heavily in the narratives of the classical world. Syracuse, the famous home of Archimedes, was the subject of countless battles for control of the island. And the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was wounded in battle at the foot of Taormina, which is perhaps why he did not spare the citizens when he finally captured it. The history of the island is so long and storied that it was difficult to really tell who its history belonged to. Control by the nation of Italy was only really enshrined by Garibaldi’s campaign in 1860, and the post World War Two recovery, which instituted several long phases of development, altered the fabric of the island once more.
In a place that does not really know itself, the problem of understanding is not only compounded, it is made virtually impossible. Writers have talked about the difficulty of Sicily before, about the sadness and the enigmatic lustre of the place. It is halfway between North Africa and Mediterranean Europe, after all – two cultures at perpetual odds with each other. The island seems to glow in the summer heat, and the hot wind burnishes the skin in a different way to any place I have really been. It is like an island with its own climate, and the smell and the heat feel like a special concoction – a secret of the place. One that I think can be felt, but never really understood.
I was lucky enough to stay with a local of Taormina, Nino, who had lived there all his life. Travelling alone, I was thankful. The streets are very narrow, and during the summer, are constantly busy with tourists. To anyone passing through the whole island, the enclave is something of a brief distraction. You might go for a concert in the amphitheatre, or a visit at night to see the streets lit up and crowded, like a scene from an opera, previously only really part of your dreams. You can drive quite quickly from Catania or Messina, so it is not hard to visit for a short time.
Each day I was happy to walk up and down the length of the main street, after sitting in a cafe for a long time, and notice the way its alleys split off from one another and coalesced. I spent time in the magnificent gardens, built by a wealthy Englishwoman of the Victorian period. And I started to notice that the people who thronged the streets were mostly Italians from the mainland, who were summering in Sicily. It was easy to tell. I don’t speak the language, but an audible gulf exists between Sicilian and Italian. It is supposedly mutually indecipherable. And there were Greek monuments and Roman monuments, a fortress on the hill built by the Saracens – truly, it was a place that felt like it belonged to a great reach of time, and not any one people.
I loved drinking in the climate, or eating arancini like apples, looking out over whatever scenery was served up, and at whichever temperature. It might have been an old nook, right near the exposed remains of the Roman cistern. Or in Siracusa one night, eating by the water and seeing a fire break out in the hills in the far distance. No one seemed particularly worried. I thought I might have been missing something, or was it just that the Sicilians were used to fires appearing quite randomly? I still haven’t got the espresso I ordered that night, so perhaps they were distracted by it after all. Whoever was lighting fires in the hills beyond Siracusa, I cannot say. I also cannot really say that I know Sicily all too well, beyond a feeling, and a dream.
On the other hand, a place like London is not at all exotic, at least not compared to an enclave in the Mediterranean. For an Australian from Melbourne, it is scarcely removed. The places are older and the theatres more numerous, and look over there – there’s a unit of horse guards – but the veneer of civilization is knowable, even attainable, for an Anglo-Saxon Australian. To find a good coffee, one has to hunt down an Australian cafe, and to find good food, a restaurant of any other culture. The amusements around Piccadilly circus are just as garish as anywhere else on earth, and the aquarium building by the river is suspiciously reminiscent of Melbourne’s aquarium by the river. What it is to be a traveller in the anglophone west of the people who colonized you is very different to the effect of a truly foreign country.
So I don’t ever really feel out of place in London. I speak in a particularly formal way, so I’m sometimes even confused for an Englishman; not a charge that could ever really be leveled at me in the Mediterranean. For Australians, London is a beacon. It acts like a place where it is possible to be introduced to a grander version of culture, without any dissonance whatsoever; or at least none of the dissonance of an Asiatic country. The number of Australian artists who have made their home there over the years is staggering, and a conservative estimate would put that number at close to one hundred per cent.
I certainly feel at home, in a more or less indescribable way, when I visit London. It is like the other place my soul belongs to. The sense that you are walking through the heartland of the Empire is a staggering and humbling experience. There are those parks where the writers of the canon walked. There are the rooms where the business of the Imperium, murky and vicious, was discussed over cigars. Over every brick and past every tree there might be a storied past, visited by someone whose name became that of some town or street halfway around the world.
But the English speaking west is a particularly bad example of the struggle of ‘knowing’. All our cities are essentially the same, all our customs similar. The gulf is not particularly wide, and we are not so far removed from our colonial neighbors – only by distance, or perhaps climate. Being able to speak English is like a passport in and of itself, and amongst the world’s wealthiest destinations, the gap between cultures might as well not exist. They will give you their international faces, and you will give them yours. It seems only customary. But it will all melt away after a drink.
So what, if anything, are we doing when we travel? Surely it is not the continuation of our day to day, transported elsewhere. Even for a business traveller it is not the case. And it cannot be that it is either total familiarity, or desperate otherness. Something must exist in between. Fine books have been written on the subject, no doubt. But I cannot imagine many people travel with a particular depth of philosophy in mind. If we were to bypass everything that travel should be, and also ignore what travel tends to devolve into, what are we then left with?
One goes from one place to another. That is about the only thing that is really consistent with reality. Beyond that, going from one place to another is literally what you make of it. But it is becoming harder and harder to make grand imaginative gestures. They were once possible, when travel was truly expensive, and the romance of place was conveyed brilliantly on the old cruise line posters. Granted, the world also understood a great deal less about itself, and exoticism was a key force in the mystery of travel. The veneer is not quite a strong, anymore. Once, a months-long voyage to London would have been an enormous task. Now, we can spend little more than a day in the air, and find that we are on the other side of the world. All of a sudden a city that is far removed doesn’t seem at all removed. And whereas the traveller of old might have had more to make of the sheer wonder of it all, today, it is so easy to get there that we can forget what we went looking for in the first place. The hotel, usually.
Not even plane travel is special anymore. I must admit that, although I tried to keep the dream alive, and although I still enjoy the sensation of taking off, my attempt at keeping the act of flying meaningful wore thin a few years ago. After a time, even magnificent things become as easy as breathing. I wonder if the human mind will fail to find orbital travel meaningful, once we have achieved it; it seems likely, given how quickly flight devolved into another boring facet of modernity. It might be glamorous for a decade or two, but technology will catch up, and every coveted thing belongs to all of us, in the end.
I was once asked for directions in Berlin. I remember that it was summer, and the sun sat high in the mid afternoon. The light was still a little cold, in that central European way; and though the day was clean and crisp, it was tinted with a little smog, or some heavy air. I was near the Technical University, which sits at the end of the Kaiser Wilhelm boulevard, and he asked me how to get to the Brandenburg Gate, in German. I replied, poorly, I imagine, that I did not speak it. It was the only phrase I’d learned. I think he was surprised – like when someone recoils their head quite quickly, not quite offended, but certainly it was unexpected, and surely that cannot be the case? But I still managed to point him in the right direction, I think. I knew the city quite well by that point.
Not that you could really miss the Gate – nor could you really miss any European monument. I was asked for directions a great deal after, and I think it was because I only wore a leather satchel, or no bag at all. I had not coded myself like a tourist, and I walked alone. Even at the start of my travels, I did not particularly care to be a tourist. I still don’t. It’s not interesting to be so removed; so far gone from the world of normalcy that people would actually turn their heads, and notice you differently. It was only when I went to Japan that I became a tourist, and it was the case no matter how I collected myself. It isn’t possible to be anything else – Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on earth.
So I have travelled both extremes – a person almost unrecognizable, and blending into the walls, or being almost totally alien, and sticking out for the infraction I am. Beyond the borders of my own country, it seems like there’s little room for what lies between. But I do wonder if knowing a place like Japan would be possible, even despite my ethnicity. One figures that if you could understand it, even as you faced the obvious barriers to entry, that one could really understand just about any place on earth.
It’s not just a point of curiosity that people ask these questions. There are some very serious, practical reasons why a working, self-actualizing philosophy of ‘knowing’ would be of great benefit. I think in particular of the waves of refugees from the various crises that have gripped the Mediterranean, or the exodus from so many countries in South America. Even the Australian boat arrivals, whilst politicized to unrecognizability, are indicative of a depth and breadth of desperation that would be difficult to convey in words. Immigration departments try, with varying degrees of success, to ingratiate those who come to a place. It is usually quite easy, and certainly very possible, when a controlled program is able to select and effect results.
But what about a mass exodus, flooding through the borders of another country? How does controlled immigration stand up to the weight of so many people, like a nation in exile? Although this is a problem that governments around the world would hope never to face, it is one that is edging closer to reality. Australia in particular is only a short distance from all the islands in the Pacific. When they start disappearing, the people are not just going to let themselves be washed away by the sea. If we are to ensure that those people aren’t ghettoized and segregated, ‘knowing’ will be key.
It is not just a question of those coming in, however. It is a responsibility that belongs to all people, especially those who must receive the exodus. The population of a country is the most important factor in ensuring that any immigration program is successful. But various and vacuous political crises are confected in the Australian landscape constantly. And they are not easy things to shake, as their enduring legacy attests. For all the Australians who are so eager to leave our shores, it seems not all of those who return are willing to reciprocate their experience into a great wellspring of compassion. It’s not like Terra Australis is the homeland of the Anlgo-Saxon English, after all.
Perhaps we could learn a great deal from the indigenous model of custodianship – that place is not a right, it is a gift – and that to live on the earth is a responsibility as much as a pleasure. It would certainly alter the way that the political complex operates in this country. It might alter the way that it works in any country – especially those where immigration policy turns citizens into secondhand people, afterthoughts, drifting and half-stateless. The cultures of the various peoples of the earth are strong because the conditions in which they developed were relatively isolated, and the pace of technology was not great enough to shift any barrier quickly. But the world is moving, inevitably and at speed towards a different version of itself. Who can say what sort of catastrophe the new nationalism might yet generate – and what the new empathy of the global world could do, if only it were given the power to stop it?
Perhaps we must accept that ‘knowing’, in the manner which we understand our own lives, is probably not possible, or at least not in the way that would act (if we were to imagine a perfect version of it) like a synonym. Perhaps it is one of the great joys of life; not knowing, I mean, not really knowing, and that the eternal distance between two places is a thing that keeps our lives meaningful, our imaginations plastic. Perhaps, instead of the automatic expansion of our facility, and the ultimate prize of understanding, travel gives us something else – it tells us what we know to be different. Far from being a facet of morbidity, I think it is a gift. What is different is brilliant; and it is, I should think, what we go looking for in the first place.
One can never be born elsewhere, or grow up in a different place. We are only given the opportunity once, and it shapes our whole lives from that point on. Those who grow up in many places might find that life is very strange, at least compared to one who is settled. It would be interesting to read their version of this article. As it stands, I am someone who very much begins any inquiry from the middle point of an indelibly fixed compass.
We shall almost certainly be returning to the question of ‘knowing’. This publication is concerned with empathy: where our humanity limits us in our capacity for it, where it has us succeed – all of its compartments and inferences. The future of history will only continue to be a good and fine thing if the various peoples of the world are able to muster it in great and increasingly complex quantities.
Those distant shores might never belong to us, no matter how quickly we can storm them, and no matter the depth of our effort. There is some canyon between the culture of all life, and we must accept that. Very little separates one human body from the next; but for all the bodies in the world, the mind will never be similar. We have built civilization on the back of an implicit bargain – that life is more than to simply procreate, to rage, to eat. And when we decided that it was true, we also rendered the places of our heart so complex that to transmit the one to the other became impossible. Perhaps it is even true of all people, the one to the other, in each and every little life. Perhaps there is always a secret corner, no matter the grass, or the trees, or the taste of the water.
I BUILT A HOUSE IN A FIELD OF BURNT GRASS
A house in the middle of nowhere, and the dark pain at the heart of a nation.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 – LIFE, DESPITE ITSELF
A vision of the future, bleak as anything committed to screen. An essential masterpiece.