Slumping into the cramped confines of my seat, recovering my composure after a frantic, protracted check-in that made me mislay my wallet, almost miss my flight, and become €100 poorer, the result of my experiment in travel seemed obvious: boats and trains beat the pains of planes any day.
But the real problem with air travel is not the carbon footprint, the hassle of security checks, the tedium of the boarding gate, the soulless sprawl of the hire car lot, or Ryanair‘s excessive excess charges and unavoidable fees for allegedly optional extras. The deeper issue is that how we travel reflects and shapes the way we think, and we have become a society of airheads.
I started thinking about this because of a recurring desire to recreate an annual childhood journey by ferry and overnight train to visit our family in northern Italy. Was it just nostalgia pulling me, or is something of real value lost at 30,000ft? I decided to go to Italy the old way and return the new, to see how the experiences really compared.
The passenger terminal at Dover docks did not provide the most promising start, having all the charm of a 1970s coach station. But once on deck, with the white cliffs fading into the distance, I had a real sense of a proper trip starting, something that the palm-sweat-inducing jolt of take-off doesn’t provide. The sedate passage of the ship, the gradual emergence of the French coast, and the disembarkation in the open air, with a real town in clear sight, provided a sense of the continuities between places. In contrast, planes simply transport you from one anonymous, homogenous edgeland to another, between airports virtually identical in their black and yellow signage and multinational franchises. It’s the difference between travel – a movement between places in which the journey is part of the experience – and transit, the utilitarian linking of here and there, in which the destination becomes all that matters and the transfer simply something to put up with.
This was most evident in the gaps between each leg of the journey. Stopping for an early dinner in Paris at one of Café Charlot’s street tables, the attraction of this is obvious. In contrast, the park next door to Gare Calais Ville is not exactly the idyllic location for a tasty picnic gathered from a nearby boulangerie. It appears to be a garden of lost souls, populated by people with vacant stares, not so much filling time as biding it, abiding in it, with no sense of anything to do. However, places like these and the makeshift tents and camps of asylum-seekers viewed from the bus from port to train station – interesting rather than obviously pleasant – often become the most memorable parts of journeys, and you only see them when travelling indirectly, in the interstices of the conventionally appealing.
Consumer culture has made us too accustomed to getting only what we want, no more and no less. Experiences are atomised into their component parts, the extraneous excised in an attempt to maximise the impact of the parts we prefer, with no thought to how their context changes them. But if you only ever get what you know you already want, serendipity is denied and the richness of experience is reduced to the button-pushing delivery of crude hits of fun, excitement, novelty or reassurance, often consumed in the private bubble of home or headphone.
In this respect, train travel on commuter routes has, alas, gone the same way as flying, as I am reminded on the two-hour TGV ride from Calais to Paris. But on longer distances, there is a palpably different attitude among travellers. Accompanying us in our four-berth couchette from Paris to Milan, for example, were Amanda and Ian from New Zealand. They were taking this trip because Amanda has a wonderful and vivid memory of stepping out of an overnight train into a Venetian dawn 20-odd years ago. Say what you like about flying, but North Terminal at Gatwick just doesn’t have the same effect.
In some ways train travel demands more of us. But even at 5.50am, after a night of interrupted sleep in a narrow bunk, the great terminus of Milano Centrale has infinitely more charm than any baggage reclaim area. It is a contemporary malaise to avoid things that require effort but are rewarding in favour of gains in convenience that come at the price of blandness and loss of variety.
How different the flight back was, starting with the frantic and pointless shifting of luggage from one bag to another required by Ryanair’s punitive baggage policy. Worse, as I went to pay the €100 excess, I couldn’t find my wallet, which had slipped unnoticed into the long-gone hold bag in the confusion. After rushing through security dangerously and predictably late, yet not predictably enough for us to have relaxed in the first place, the long queue of passengers is still boarding. The only redeeming feature of the whole flight was the magnificent view of the Alps from above.
It might be objected that “slow travel” is just an indulgence of the time and cash-rich. But you actually gain holiday time when travelling is an integral part of the experience, because you lose none to mere transit. As for expense, the gap was not so wide, and was almost nothing after the excess baggage fee. And yet despite all I’ve written, I admit I have another trip coming up and, guess what, I’m flying. I’m just another airhead, led by apparent ease and convenience away from what is more profoundly rewarding.