happy camper

February 3rd, 2006

As a kid, I used to go on a lot of car holidays, driving to France, driving to Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, England. Starting from Norway, no destination was closer than 2 days away. A beat up old '77 Saab 99 pulling a Kip caravan, that defined vacation to me. And I loved it, it was a great thrill to go to a new country, lots of expectation with it. In fact, that's the essence of it, expectation.

Driving to Italy implies going through the Czech Rep and Austria. Well I've seen those before, it's always fun to go abroad but my mind is on Italy. Because it takes so long, you think about it a lot. There isn't much to do in a car, especially when you're not driving, so it's just looking forward to getting there, wondering what it's like. And that counts for more than you may think, it's built up expectation. So finally you do get to the border, across the border. In the Alps now, it's all mountains on either side of the highway. But this is Italy now, *the* place I've been longing to see, this is so cool, the sheer feeling of being here, in this country, 4km across the border. So what is there to see here? A gas station. Oh look, the signs are in Italian. The prices are in euros. The papers are Italian, people talking Italian at the gas station. That was such a thrill. And that's just the beginning, there is so much more to go. So we keep going, this is the region of Trieste, not densely populated, lots of fields, some housing. Moving along down south, Mestre then Venice. Venice is a big deal, spent the whole day there. There is something very romantic about the car and caravan holiday, it's a rich experience, a gradual one. I think it's more enjoyable on the whole, it feels more real in a way. I didn't stop doing it because it wasn't good, it just wasn't practical. There's no way to speed up a car holiday, it takes 2 days to go Poland-Italy, and what you want to see is Italy, not everything before it. So it's a question of time.

Enter air travel. Well, air travel is quick, no doubt. But it's very different. You not only speed up the travel through the "mundane" areas, you land right at the final destination. When you're on a plane, you don't think "we're now in Spanish air space". For one thing, it wouldn't feel natural, because you don't really know when that happens. But it's more than that, air travel doesn't offer anything while travelling. It's just a time machine in a way, you go in, wait for a while, then you go out and more time has passed in real time than the time you spent in there. One thing is very different from driving - you start the journey the same day you end the journey. In fact, it's much less than a day, it's a matter of hours. (Ok, so if you go transatlantic that's different, but we're not discussing driving to Lima.) What's also true is that travelling by air does not really *feel* like travelling, it feels like displacement. Pure physical movement, there is no other side to it. Landmass doesn't look very different from an airplane whether it's Norway or Spain, it's largely the same, there isn't much to see from up there. And you don't feel like you're travelling, you get on the plane in Oslo, your mind in Norway mode, in home-mode, you're still at home. You get on the plane, people still talk Norwegian around you, pilot talks broken English, that's like being in Norway. And basically nothing happens on the plane, aside from killing a few hours. Then you land in Barcelona a few hours later and you're there. Just like that. Suddenly, you're in Spain. Just a moment ago you felt like you were still in Norway. Expecting to go abroad, but not really having departed yet. In your mind it was still like sitting in Norway with a camera on Barcelona. The first glimpse of the city, of the airport wakes you up. Oh, we're here. You step off the plane, into the terminal, out of it. Now you're outside. I can't believe we're here. That was fast. Ok then, let's get going. And you spend your week in Barcelona and that's it, all done.

What's missing from air travel is the gradual transition from one state of mind into another. From "home" to "vacation spot". In a sense, I think car vacations are more fun, because you get a fuller sense of experience. Starting at home, crossing the border, getting to your destination and you savour every step of the way (since the border at least), it's all new and exciting. By the time you get to Rome and see the city, you've already seen a lot of normal, trivial things that excite you, the fun started a long time ago, it's not merely Rome that's fun. So you get to Rome and it's amazing and it makes an impression. But if you go by air, you get there and you've missed everything leading up to this. So if Rome isn't quite your cup of tea, you walk around the city and you're kinda disappointed. "How was Rome?" "It was alright." There is less to salvage from a disappointing experience when there is less substance to it.

Of course, there is a case to be made for a car vacation in the sense that you can see all the interesting places along the way. I choose not to dwell on that here, because that's a direct tradeoff in car vs plane, but it's obviously a big benefit. Travelling to Cote d'Azur is a lot richer when seeing Strasbourg, Lyon, Besancon, Pont du Gard along the way (I was 8 back then, I may have missed some places we saw).

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8 Responses to "happy camper"

  1. Diana says:

    W Italia! :) It reminds me my youth, when we had to travel two days by car to get to Sorrento, Italy... Most of the time it rained all the way from the Netherlands, through Germany and Austria and when passing the Brenner pass... The sun shined :) But we still had to travel a thousand km, and we mostly got stuck by traffic when nearing Rome... Kind of frustrating, you're almost there, approximately only 200 km left to Napels, but you can't move on, and it takes hours. I don't mind traveling by car though, I even prefer it over airplane, but I guess I am just too impatient; I want to arrive at the place of destination as soon as possible, probably because I can't wait to see my family and friends again, and the places I love so much...

  2. numerodix says:

    [1] What you describe is not tourism as I define it. Tourism is going somewhere "alone", not as a goal to meet people on the scene, far less people you already know, like family, that's just travelling for the purpose of getting there, not for tourism. So air travel is much better if that's your goal. I'm talking about going to a place you've never seen before.

  3. erik says:

    I loved car holidays when I was a kid, still do although I never go with my parents anymore so there's no caravan (I'd hate to drive with a caravan!)

    My transition moment in air travel comes after the landing. I consider the airplane and the people in it part of the country I just came from. When the plane has landed, the moment comes that people get their bags and everyone goes their own way. The moment when that group of people from on the plane splits up; that is my moment when I realise: "I have arrived"

  4. ash says:

    I've never really had a car holiday that started at home, unless you count a short trip around Ireland. I've had a couple that started off in the US, since driving around is pretty much the best way to see places. We'd be on the road for about a week or two at a time, staying in little motels, sleepy little towns that didn't have anything for tourists....it was kind of fun. But then your mind tends to arise all the boring hours spent doing nothing on the way.

  5. Diana says:

    [2] Yes, you're right, I also remember that we did go on car holidays to other countries and it was indeed different.

  6. ash says:

    [4] "arise"? That should be erase

  7. numerodix says:

    You proof read your comments two days after you make them? That's some real dedication there, Ash! :D

  8. ash says:

    Actually it's the exact opposite - it's extreme procrastination! :)