The Art of Travel

Spring 2015

1: Arrivals

Post by January 27

Read Pico Iyer’s “Why We Travel” and the first two chapters of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel: “On Anticipation” and “On Travelling Places.”  For the first post, try to do two things — introduce yourself to the rest of the class and respond to the readings, directly or indirectly.  You might say something about where you’re from, where you’re studying, why you chose your abroad site, what your concentration is about, or what you hope to accomplish while abroad.  In responding to the readings, you could discuss a theme or tell a little travel story, perhaps about what happened when you arrived at your abroad site.

For your first image, you could post a picture of yourself or the place you’re be studying, or something else related to what you discuss in the post.  Take some time to read everyone’s first posts so you get to know who’s in the class.  Don’t forget to write a comment on someone else’s post.


2. Wayfinding

Post by February 3

“To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city,” writes urban planner Kevin Lynch in his landmark book The Image of the City.  “We are supported by the presence of others and by special way-finding devices: maps, street numbers, route signs, bus placards. But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word ‘lost’ in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster.”

Lynch examines the elements of the city that we use to get oriented so we’re not constantly lost — the paths, edges, nodes, and landmarks of the landscape.  But scientists have discovered that we have other ways to learn our way — the brain has its own “inner GPS.”

Wayfinding refers to the way people orient themselves in space and navigate from place to place. It’s one of the main challenges and pleasures when you arrive in a new place.

For this post, write about the experience of learning your way around, getting lost, asking directions, how maps have played a role, the landmarks and routes that are helping you form an image of the city in your mind. To get some ideas, take a look at the excerpts from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost on Google Books and the first chapter of  Lynch’s The Image of the City.


3. Communicating

Post by February 10

“To alight in a country without knowing a word of the language is a worthwhile lesson,” writes Alastair Reid. “One is reduced, whatever identity or distinction one has achieved elsewhere, to the level of a near-idiot, trying to conjure up a bed in a sign language. Instead of eavesdropping drowsily, one is forced to look at the eyes, the gestures, the intent behind the words. One is forced back to a watchful silence.”

For this post, write about your experiences with language: learning the language, knowing or not knowing the language, misunderstandings, communicating without words, dirty words, the importance of gesture, the “watchful silence,” etc.  To get started, read chapter 3 of de Botton’s Art of Travel,  On the Exotic.


4. Walking

 Post by February 17

“Flâneur” comes from the French word for “stroller” or “loafer.”  The scholar Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as one who goes “botanizing the asphalt” — roaming leisurely, strolling the streets, observing the marketplace, gazing into the faces of stranger, taking in the spectacle of the city. The flaneur walks slowly, writes Benjamin, and it became fashionable for the flâneurs of nineteenth-century Paris to take a turtle for a walk to set the pace.

In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Charles Baudelaire describes the blasé dandy in terms often used in connection with the flâneur:

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very center of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.”

For this post, go for a stroll and write about your walk. Include interesting details about what you see, hear, and smell, and what thoughts you have while you’re walking.


 5. Quotidian life

Post by February 24

“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear.  Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” — Freya Stark, Riding to the Tigris

Travel is often seen as a way to escape the boredom of quotidian life, but to a traveler, the details of everyday life can be extremely interesting.  Some of the best travel books aren’t about exotic adventures — they just describe the basic facts of ordinary mundane life.   For this post, write about the everyday, nitty-gritty details of your life abroad: your daily routine, your apartment, commuting to school, how much things cost, doing the laundry, taking out the garbage, dealing with doors and locks, shopping for food, and so on.

Also, take note that the next assignment involves reading a book, so you may want to get started on that this week.


6. Books (1)

Post by March 3

Write about a book related to the place you’re studying.  There’s a page of suggested readings for each site on the main menu on the course home page.  If you want to read a book not on the list, please get approval in advance.

For the post, write about what the book has to say about the experience of travel in the place you’re living, or how it represents the place, or how it may contribute to one’s understanding of the place. Be specific by referring to details in the book and perhaps quoting a couple of passages.

It’s impossible to do justice to a whole book in a few hundred words, so stay focused on what the book has to say that’s relevant to our travel themes.  The post should not be a summary of the book or an Amazon-like recommendation, and it should be mostly about the book, not your own experiences.

Remember to write a comment on someone else’s blog post.


7. Authenticity

Post by March 10

Read Dean MacCannell’s “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.” (That link requires an NYU Bobcat login; if that link doesn’t work, try this one:MacCannel Staged Authenticity.)

Write a post about something related to MacCannell’s thesis that travel and tourism are related to spiritual pilgrimages, and that what the traveler seeks is a secularized version of the sacred — “authenticity.” Think about an experience you’ve had that relates to the traveler’s desire to get into a “back region” or in which you encountered “staged authenticity.” You might also think about issues of national identity — being “American,” what’s “Italian,” etc. (By the way, the first few pages of the article are slow going, but it gets better–and the article was later developed into one of the most famous sociology books about tourism–The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure ClassThis link will take you to Google Books, where you can read more passages from the book.)


8. Art

Post by March 17

For this post, write about art — paintings, drawings, photographs, artifacts, etc. — associated with the place you’re studying — work by an artist who lived there or lives there now, or a work that depicts the place (as in a landscape painting).  Hopefully you’ve already been to a museum where you are; if not, it’s about time. You could write about a trip to a museum: the experience of going there, what you saw, what you’re learning about the art of the place you’ve living, etc. Or you could write about a particular work: How is the place you’re living represented in the painting? How does art works like this affect your perception of the place?

To get your thoughts going on this assignment, please read de Botton, The Art of Travel, chapter 7: “On Eye-Opening Art” (available in the ebrary here or the pdf: Alaine Botton, Art of Travel, chapter 7, Eye Opening Art.pdf). You might also check out this New York Times piece about “drawing yourself into the scene,” and this website about art and travel (watch the videos). As always, remember comment on someone else’s post.


9. Genius loci

Post by March 24

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, “is to smell it.” In the ancient world, the genius loci was the deity who protected a place, its guardian spirit. The term now refers to the “spirit of place” — its characteristic atmosphere or feeling, as embodied in its architecture, environment, cuisine, social manners, clothing fashions, and so on.

To get you thinking about the topic, take a look at some of the videos in the New York Times’ Intersection series, in which people from all over the world are stopped on the street and asked to describe the clothes they’re wearing as a way to capture their neighborhood’s unique sense of place.

For this post, write about the genius loci of the place you’re living or a place you’ve visited this semester. What embodies the genius loci for you? How does the spirit of the place manifest itself? Use lots of concrete details.


10. Books (2)

Post by March 31

Write about the second of the books you’re reading for the tutorial. The Suggested Reading list is here. If you want to read a book not on the list, please get approval in advance. The post shouldn’t be a summary or recommendation. Instead, focus on what the book has to say about the experience of travel in the place you’re living, or how it represents the place, or how it may contribute to your understanding of the place. Be specific by referring to details in the book or quoting a couple of passages.


11. Strangers

Post by April 7

In his essay “The Stranger,” sociologist Georg Simmel describes the stranger as occupying a unique social role that combines the seemingly contradictory qualities of nearness and remoteness. Due to this paradoxical position, strangers are often valued for their objectivity and distanced view of events and relationships. That’s one reason travel writers can describe a place more effectively than the natives.

But this is just one of the ways “the stranger” figures in travel. As a traveler, you are constantly meeting strangers. Sometimes they become traveling companions, friends, or confidants (they tend to make good listeners and don’t judge us too harshly). They sometimes come out of nowhere to help you find your way or provide some other comfort (a “travel angel”). As Cesare Pavese writes, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance.”

Travel is also about the existential encounter with the Other. It’s about how one comes to know oneself by seeing oneself through the eyes of another and about how strangers tend to objectify or essentialize each other and reduce complex personalities into stereotypes based on race, class, and gender.

For this post, write about the theme of strangers in your experiences as a traveler. You might tell a story about being a stranger or meeting a stranger. It might illustrate Simmel’s theme of nearness and remoteness. It might be about a misunderstanding between strangers, a time when a stranger helped you find your way or became a traveling companion, or a time when you experienced the essentializing of the Other.


12. Travail

Post by April 14

The word “travel” is thought come from the word “travail,” probably from a Middle English word meaning torment, labor, strive, or work strenuously. According to Simon Winchester in his book The Best Travelers’ Tales (2004), the words “travel” and “travail” both share an even more ancient root: a Roman instrument of torture used to impale.

Travel often involves painful experiences, misadventures, and ordeals. Write about a particular travel ordeal or misadventure you’ve had over the past few weeks — getting lost, getting robbed, getting homesick, becoming ill, losing your passport, a time when things just went wrong.


13. Bliss

Post by April 21

While the usual theme of a travel book is dealing with hardship, writes Paul Theroux, “now and then the traveler arrives at the Great Good Place, gives thanks for his luck, and shows that the ‘travail’ which gave the word ‘travel’ its form can result in an epiphany.”

For this post, write about a moment of travel bliss.  It might be the time you spend in a “great good place” — the perfect cafe, bar, corner store, park, bookstore, or other place where you hang out and have a good time.  It might be a moment of unusual happiness associated with an important realization.  (In the Bible, an epiphany refers to the appearance of a god; in literary terms, it is a moment of enlightenment, discovery, self-realization.)

Take a look at The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg — you can read an excerpt on Google Books, here — and Theroux’s short essay, “Five Travel Epiphanies.”


14. Tips

Post by April 28

Write a post giving advice to other students planning to study where you are. Would you recommend this study-abroad site? What would it help if they knew in advance? What do you wish someone had told you? If there are choices about where to live, what would you recommend? What tips do you have about preparing in the weeks and months before the abroad semester begins? What places have you discovered that you want to tell people about? As always, remember to [ost a comment on someone else’s blog.


15. Farewells

Post by May 5

Write something for a little closure: saying goodbye, some final reflections about your study abroad experience, a few words about doing the Art of Travel course. Some possible questions to consider: What was the most rewarding aspect of the experience? What were the biggest problems you faced? What do you think you’ll do differently when you get back home? What will you take note of at home that you weren’t noticing before? What do you think you’ll remember years from now? What might NYU do to make study abroad a better program?

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