I travel a lot, and I mean a lot not only for a PhD student. Yes, I do travel to conferences, workshops, seminars and summer schools, but apart from that I visit family in Poland and friends in The Netherlands, which means I’m on an international flight at least once a month. It made me reflect on how I travel, how I feel about traveling and how many of my traveling habits changed.
First of all, I don’t like traveling by plane. As most people, I hate security checks, the hassle it takes to get to/from many airports (taking trains, buses, taxis…), baggage allowances that most people abuse (it’s been a while since I was able to actually put any of my stuff in the overhead compartment), crowded gate entries, etc. I take high-speed trains whenever possible, but I always have to take a plane in order to get out of Bergen, since taking a train through Oslo and Sweden is expensive and very inefficient.1
Then there’s the problem of language. As exciting as it is to be in a foreign country, after a number of trips the fact that you don’t know the local language and that not everyone speaks (fluent) English becomes annoying. Believe it or not, but I went to UK for the first time last weekend, and one of the best things I liked about it was that when I got off the train at Paddington, I approached a cab, told the driver “109 Camden Road!”, and we went. I didn’t need to repeat what I just said, didn’t need to have it written down somewhere, she simply understood. Brilliant.2
And finally, these days I seldom take pleasure in sight-seeing. Traveling became a standard part of my life, and travel quite often means work. Many people think that visiting cool places for conferences, workshops or seminars is nothing but partying, but they couldn’t be more wrong. To me, such trips are always an opportunity to do more work, because I can meet my coauthors, discuss things that were unclear in emails, sketch plans for new projects, meet new people, comment on their papers and discuss them… All of this means that at the end of the day the last thing you want to do is to take the camera and a Lonely Planet guide, and be a tourist. The fact that your friends and family expect you to actually do that only makes things worse.3
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not such a malcontent as it may seem after reading the first paragraphs. I would never want to change my job, and frequent travel is one of the reasons for that.
There are of course positive aspects of frequent traveling. For example, I pack quickly and efficiently. Whenever I can I don’t take more than a backpack, and if I need a (small) suitcase, it takes me little time to pack it and I seldom forget to take anything important. Frequent flying means frequent flyer status, so I can skip queues and take more baggage for free if I need to, as long as I fly with SkyTeam.4
Frequent traveling also means it’s very hard to get lost. Or actually, you do get lost every now and then, but you don’t panic, and you’ll find your way rather sooner than later. I recently realized that I became very relaxed about this, and I find myself often without a map in the middle of the night somewhere in a city I’ve never been to before. However weird it may sound, I kind of like these situations, but they would never happen a couple of years ago.
Also, when I said I’m not doing any sight-seeing, it wasn’t exactly true. I very often skip touristy sights/places, at the same time trying to blend into the place I’m visiting as much as I can. This means I very often use AirBnB instead of hotels, to see how the locals live, and that I quite often pick places not very close to conference venues, to travel by metro/tram/bus with commuters in the morning, to see how their lives look like. I may not see all the old churches, monuments and museums, but I remember a lot of experiences from those trips.
And finally, one thing that I consistently do ever since my earliest travels: I send postcards. I send around 10 on average, and I hope it’s as much fun receiving as it is buying, writing and sending them.
Summing it all up, traveling per se is no longer exciting to me, or at least it isn’t as exciting as it used to be. A couple of years ago, every aspect of travel excited me a lot, from slightly different road signs, through different products available in grocery stores, different currency, different language, to different architecture, customs and culture. Now a lot of it is gone. There are still many aspects of traveling that I consider fun, but the sole process of traveling I no longer do. And that’s somewhat surprising.
- It can be very fun, though. A friend of mine came to DEON conference we organized here from Italy by train. Took him somewhere around 40 hours one way, but he said it was a great adventure.
- Actually, there’s one more funny thing about foreign languages, as my girlfriend Karolina pointed out today. When you travel a lot, you no longer care that you don’t know the local language. You know you can always get by with just English, and most of the time you’re right in thinking that way. Sure, there are places where English isn’t widely spoken, and it’s always nice to learn at least some basic phrases in a local language, but fluency in English will really get you far. Even in those places when it’s not widely spoken.
- Point of inquiry: is it my duty to learn something about the place I’m visiting, take pictures, visit museums and churches and all that? Many people would really love to travel as much as I do, but they don’t have either time or money, and perhaps it’s just my laziness that I should fight? Food for thought.
- Actually, even though this may come out as a free advertisement, I very much recommend SkyTeam airlines, especially KLM.