Travel broadens the mind?

They say that travel broadens the mind. As I’ve just got off a 24 hour flight I should be the ideal person to test this out on. So punk are you feeling broad?

I was very nervous about the 24 hour flight. Spending that long in my own company is a terrifying thought. However, I discovered the US version of House of Cards on the flight and hungrily consumed the entire season. Watching the amoral political antics of Kevin Spacey and co. may well have broadened my mind, but I’m not sure that this is what is usually meant when people talk about such things.

I’m pretty new to the whole idea of travel. When I was younger it felt like the rest of my generation were travelling around the world in endless gap years consisting (it seemed to me from a bedsit in Leicester) largely of raves on various beaches, having a succession of doomed romances and returning to pontificate on how proximity to the world’s poor had given them an entirely new perspective on Western materialism. While they experienced enlightenment with a backpack in Thailand, I gloomily wrote a PhD on Second World War literature muttering that I wouldn’t want to travel anyway.

Given my failure to travel any further than the University of Leicester library throughout my 20s it has come as a surprise to me that I’ve ended up as the director of an international centre. Over the last four years I’ve been to Scotland, Northern and Southern Ireland, Wales, Italy, Estonia, India, Canada and Australia. I’ve also made a lot of friends online and at conferences and meetings in other places around the world which may mean that I’ll get invited to other countries in the future.

So what do you get out of visiting somewhere that you can’t get from books, TV, phone calls and your imagination? It is actually difficult to pin it down. One thing that I do feel is that without some preparatory work travel can just assault you with a bizarre mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I spend my time focusing on little details and simply marvelling at them: “They have McDonalds here, but Burger King has a different name”; “the newspapers all seem to have sport on the front pages”; and “look at that building over there, I wonder what it is”. Amongst all of this you can probably pull out a few iconic landmarks that you recognise from whatever national mythology has penetrated through. So, look, there is the Sydney Opera House and here is an Ug boot or a jar of vegemite.

This version of travel is hugely enjoyable, but rather unsatisfying. Ideally you would have read a history book or a novel about the country to provide you with a frame of reference. But unencumbered by knowledge all you can do is endlessly goggle at pretty or pretty weird things, and either conclude that they do things differently here or energetically translate everything into the familiar. OK, so Elizabeth Street is their version of Oxford Street or Pieface is their version of Greggs or whatever. Sometimes, when you are in ex-colonies, they help you with this by naming things after the same thing in the UK so London, Ontario is on the River Thames and has a Covent Garden Market.  In Sydney they’ve got a Hyde Park which I had a very enjoyable walk around on the day I arrived.

Even if you do try and do a bit of research before you arrive somewhere, there is still a temptation to translate everything to make it easier to understand. This process of translation has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand it provides you with an analytical framework against which you can judge what you see, on the other it can diminish the distinctive factors and leave you blind to the systemic issues. For example, universities the world over have an amazing amount in common. This is partly because they operate within a global labour market and partly because if you put a bunch of highly specialised clever people together in any culture they will behave in fairly similar ways (both petty and inspirational). However, universities are funded and organised in a myriad of different ways and this places them in a wide range of very different positions in the social structures and consequently shifts the way in which they relate to the rest of the education system and to wider structures (like employment). Translating (oh, this is like their Oxbridge) can sometimes blind you to these kinds of systemic factors.

I have never successfully learnt a language. But, those who have tell me that there is a moment that happens when you stop translating and start thinking in the new language. Because languages carve up the world in different ways (we wrote something about this a while ago) this shift away from translation opens up the possibility of thinking in new ways. Similarly, when you are visiting a country there comes a point when you stop trying to translate everything into what it would be in your country and start to understand it on its own terms. I think that I’ve started to get to that point in Canada, but I’ve now worked there a lot of times. This attempt to stop translating, but to remain comparative, is what I’m trying to do when I visit countries and write about career and their education and employment systems. It isn’t easy, but when it does happen there is a real sense that your mind is not only broadened but also stretched into new shapes.


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