“People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life.… I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
For me, the true purpose of travel is to feel “the rapture of being alive” that Joseph Campbell talked about. In the chaos and haste of our everyday lives, we survive by falling back on habitual ways of thinking and doing. Leaving all that behind and venturing into the unknown on a physical level, we open our hearts and minds to the world in fresh and vigorous ways. That’s when our inner and outer perspectives begin to align, and we feel the first stirrings of joy. And this is where things get interesting.
“The point of travel is to help us in our inner evolution,” says The Point of Travel video. “Every location in the world contains qualities that could support some kind of beneficial change inside a person.” Often that change is a simple one, such as feeling more rested or getting away from the office while we still cling to a few shreds of sanity and are able to refrain from throwing the stapler at the wall — or a colleague. In these uncertain times, we may need to refresh our souls by looking at objects of surpassing beauty that have endured for centuries so we can reconnect with our own resilience and sense of wonder
On my journeys, the most powerful transcendent moments happen when I connect with people. And that happens far more easily when I am traveling with a purpose. What kind of purpose? That’s different for everyone, of course, and it certainly doesn't need to be anything too grand or complicated. You might want to learn a little conversational Spanish, do volunteer work, or visit some of the dive bars you frequented in your misspent youth. Whatever your goal, you’ll find having one opens doors and creates conversations you’d never expect. During last summer’s Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, everyone I met wanted to tell me about the traditional dishes of their childhood. Cooks invited me into their kitchens, introduced me to their families, and shared stories, recipes, and dreams.
One of the best ways to plunge into a culture is through work, whether paid or unpaid. Twenty-three years ago, Rich and I started volunteering with a couple of organizations that sent us to the Republic of Georgia, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, and Bosnia. Our goal was to provide basic business advice to struggling microenterprises. We’d spend weeks or months working with post-Soviet medical groups trying to navigate the transition to a capitalist system or assisting sewing collectives struggling to survive as cheap Chinese imports flooded into town. In the off hours, we’d get to know our hosts, their families, and their communities, enjoying many convivial evenings swapping stories and learning local drinking customs.
The organizations that we worked for no longer have active volunteer programs, but there are plenty of others on the lookout for an extra pair of hands. For instance, Habitat for Humanity, which helps people in disadvantaged neighborhoods build new homes for their families, now operates in 70 countries. Last summer, Rich and I spent a day working at a soup kitchen in Athens operated by the worldwide Catholic relief organization Caritas. If you Google volunteer programs, you’ll find countless listings, many of which provide excellent opportunities. But of course, you’ll want to use your consumer skepticism to investigate them thoroughly. Some charge a participation fee, and you certainly don’t want to pay big bucks to spend your time on a project of dubious utility.
Not all purposes have to be serious or even sensible. Rich has (and I say this lovingly) a peculiar and deep-seated obsession with luggage-free travel. He adores the feeling of freedom that comes from moving through the world unencumbered. And although it took him twenty years to convince me to try it, I find I like it, too, for shorter journeys. So far we’ve made luggage-free trips to France, Kosovo, Albania, and a haunted hotel in Santa Rosa, California, and I don’t have to be a psychic to predict there are more coming up in my future.
And speaking of the future, just this morning I stumbled across an alarming article that said, “Purpose is the latest business buzzword and it appears to be driving genuine change in the tourism industry.” Oh dear God, I thought. What fresh hell is this? Even our spiritual goals are being prepackaged and turned into marketable commodities by the tourism industry? Yep, apparently so. “This prompted travel brands to reposition themselves as organizations working to contribute to create a better world, rather than exploit it. Their focus is now about Purpose, with a capital ‘P.’” So there you have it, my friends. Super savvy industry marketers, knowing the number of international tourists is projected to hit 2 billion this year, are poised to compete for your purpose-driven travel dollars. Read the fine print and reviews Carefully, with a capital “C.”
No one knows what the future will bring, and in these days of alarming headlines and the commercialization of everything, it’s more important than ever to find honest, meaningful ways to embrace the world and love the human race, looney as it is. As a traveler, you shape the quality of your inner and outer journeys. “The big question,” said Joseph Campbell, “is whether you’re going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
After I published this, a reader named Debbi wrote to ask if I'd share Carlotta's video. Here it is! It's one of my faves. You can almost smell that sausage risotto cooking...
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I don’t know about you, but my earliest impressions of Italian culture were based on the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. You know, the one where Tramp’s friend Tony sets up a table in the alley, the two dogs eat pasta under the stars, and Tramp pushes the last meatball over to Lady with his nose. When I was five, this seemed the height of romance to me. A few nights ago, I found myself sitting at a table in an alley in Genova, Italy, eating pasta under the stars with Rich, and for a delightful moment, I felt that real life and this favorite movie memory were merging in perfect harmony. I was only sorry I hadn’t ordered meatballs, so I could push the last one over to Rich with my nose. (Rich has expressed tremendous gratitude that I didn’t attempt this, especially in public.)
Sophia Loren is a big fan of spaghetti
It’s no secret that we all carry around movie memories that deeply affect how we view the world. As we sat in that alley in Genova, drinking cheap wine on a sultry, moonlit night, Rich and I started talking about all the celluloid scenes that make up our images of Italian culture: The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet, Under the Tuscan Sun, La Dolce Vita, A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini, The Italian Job, The Bourne Identity, Moonstruck, the Agony and the Ecstasy, Sophia Loren love triangles, Fellini’s surrealist fantasies, the lives of the saints the nuns showed us at school, and countless others. And out of a lifetime of movie memories, we choose the ones that strike a particular chord in us. For some, Italy is all about the high life in the Riviera; for others it might be art, or religion, or political power, or the warmth of being part of a family (even if it’s the kind of Family that makes you offers you can’t refuse).
And if we’re lucky, when we travel, we have moments that strike that chord in a deeply agreeable way.
"Juliet's balcony," added in 1936
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. “I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
As I write this, I am in Verona, which (as the town is very quick to remind you at every turn) was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Today, we’ll probably see the famous “Juliet’s balcony.” Of course, this is no more Juliet’s real balcony than 221B Baker Street in London is the real home of Sherlock Homes because – and I think you can follow my logic here – they are both fictional characters. But thousands of people visit these places every year to have an experience that lets them connect their inner and outer lives in a way that sparks the rapture Joseph Campbell is talking about.
Francesca in le Gramole, Genoa
Part of the way I connect with Italy is, of course, the food. (Think of Clemenza, teaching young Michael Corleone how to make spaghetti sauce when the men “go to the mattresses.” Think of the pasta scene in Eat, Pray, Love. Need I go on?) The day after our Lady-and-the-Tramp dinner, Rich and I went to an olive oil tasting at a tiny, back street olioteca. Having lived nearly ten years in Seville, we were able to hold our own in a lively discussion of the rival merits of regional varieties, and pretty soon our hostess, Francesca, was fetching stools so we could sit for a more leisurely sampling, bringing out more kinds of olive oil she wanted us to try, and finally, with the air of one bestowing a magnificent treat, running to get her special, 25-year-old vinegar so she could drizzle it over slivers of Parmesan cheese. The flavors were wonderful, but the real pleasure was sharing them with someone who took such obvious delight in savoring life’s essentials.
Over the years and many miles we’ve traveled together, Rich and I have learned that the moments that really resonate with us are far more likely to come in little, back-street food shops and shabby trattorias than in five-star restaurants. These are the moments that make us who we are. As Sophia Loren once put it, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Or in the words of Federico Fellini, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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