During my travels I have often asked myself a question: “Where is the Journey?” This arose from two ideas: The fact that it’s possible to go to a foreign country yet remain cocooned in hotels or tours that replicate your home country, and, on the other hand, Thoreau’s famous comment that he had “travelled much in Concord.” Moving from place to place isn’t itself particularly important; you can see sights on TV. The important thing about travel is that it creates the opportunity to have new experiences and challenge yourself, to explore the rich possibilities of your own life through novel perceptions and interactions. Moving from place to place doesn’t guarantee that this will happen. I ask the question to remind myself to go on a journey rather than just taking a trip.

My petits séjours in Paris have almost always qualified as journeys, even though my increasing familiarity with life here has greatly reduced the elements of surprise and challenge that were important features of my early stays. The unique aspect of this year’s stay, however, revealed an important facet of the concept that I have been groping towards but hadn’t previously articulated. My Paris visits have usually started alone, then included friends after a week or so, but this year my first ten days were en famille, with three generations of cousins. I knew this would be very different, but I’m extremely fond of my adult cousins and was fascinated (and, tbh, a bit terrified) by the prospect of living with a four-year-old. While my engagement with Paris itself was muted and buffered to some extent, the profound interactions with my cousins more than compensated.

With Family, Life is Beautiful!

I had previously been aware of the tremendous difference between time alone in Paris and time with friends. When you’re with someone much or most of your attention is on them, conversing, coordinating, and seeing the surroundings through their eyes. The place itself can recede into context, or even background, to the interpersonal aspect. For a lone flâneur, however, there’s nothing except one’s own perceptions and thoughts. In the best of times, when you’re “in the flow,” your thoughts themselves recede and you become a pure observer.

What I hadn’t realized is this: a person is very like a foreign country: vast, incompletely explored, unpredictable, potentially rewarding … and sometimes frustrating. Time spent engaging with other people can be every bit as much of a “journey” as time spent in a foreign land. The first ten days this year were distinctly in Paris, but interacting with my cousins and their friends was at least as important as experiencing the city.

The way you relate to your travel companion(s) is also key. If you don’t give them your attention, or if they don’t open up to you, there can be no interpersonal “journey” at all. You can end up with little compensation for the overhead of coordinating and compromising. But if there is trust and mutual interest there can be a journey of adventure and discovery in the personal sphere that rivals that in space and time.

Thoreau reminds us of yet another facet of this concept: the ultimate journey is the discovery of one’s own self. A traveler who doesn’t learn more about who he is and what he wants might as well stay home.

Perhaps we should ask some version of “Where is the Journey?” whether we’re traveling or not. Are our interactions with people, places and our own selves rich and creative, or are we staying in safe and familiar patterns? Are we awake and aware, or are we sleep walking through our own lives?