Oftentimes, one feels guilty for framing their experiences of their world travels in the contexts of themselves and their own small world that they know best. It seems this is especially the case for Americans: observing a panel on contemporary German politics, I noticed that most of the questions that students asked were framed in some comparative context. Of course, this is a natural strategy for learning about new things, but still there is a reluctance on my part to vocally engage with this thinking. I try my best in new places to blend in as much as possible and stay silent to learn as much as I can.
But upon reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain, I have come to appreciate this comparative perceptional mindset which I had been trying to avoid for weeks now. Twain writes with such fluidity and so naturally that we truly do get a glimpse inside his mindset, down to minor things he notices and the tangents that emerge in his head. This book, more than any travel literature I’ve read before, puts the reader inside the head of the traveler. Of course, pushing this goal to the limits means that the writings will not be the most “objective” record of Twain’s experiences. Twain is a writer, and his mind interprets the world through a fictionalizing lens, so it seems even more appropriate that Twain’s experience of his travels.
One highlight of Twain’s observations is when he starts talking about all the dogs he sees in Heidelberg, and how at some times they seem to outnumber the humans and how they all seem to possess a “prodigious” quality. The reason this stuck out to me was because I have shared almost identical thoughts with my friends both here and at home. So yet again, we see this comparative aspect of learning and absorbing at play. Maybe this example shouts out to me because this simple detail entails two ideas: first, that we have both experienced the same sensation in Germany, hundreds of years apart, and second, that this detail has stayed in Germany for so long. This bipartite realization led to me to see that it’s okay to think in this way, provided that one is always criticizing and questioning this connection.
The other highlight of the book was Twain’s experience getting lost in the woods and encountering the birds. Besides the fantastical atmosphere of this tale, I love how Twain lets this story lead to a tangent about Jim Baker, the only man Twain knew who could talk to animals. I love how naturally this whole section unfolds, and how it seems like Twain is recording his thought-processes live.
Thus, there was a lot to learn from Mark Twain grappling with the problem of recounting his travels, and will definitely impact my future blog posts.