The Unbearable Lightness of Travel

“Up in the Air” came out at a funny time for me. I had just taken a job with Myspace that required me to fly to LA every week. This didn’t really bother me at the time. I have always had a bizarre affection for hotel rooms, and an easy relationship with flying. It seemed to fit my new lifestyle (or at least, was no more weird.) I already had to drop my daughter off at school every Wednesday knowing I wouldn’t see her again until Sunday morning. Why mope around my Palo Alto house, sleeping with Felina and Little Fifi when I could be living the highlife on a travel stipend in Los Angeles?

So every Wednesday I wake up amidst love and squalor, enjoy a long snuggle on the couch, pack a lunchbox and suitcase, and drive to the school and the airport, in that order.  And somehow, as I take off my shoes and coat and remove my laptop, I also shed myself.

They say travel is dehumanizing. We are nesting creatures. Walk around the office. Do you see a cube that hasn’t been marked in some way? A few books, a diet coke can pyramid, a picture in crayon pinned to the low wall: all marking territory and making home.  But travel refuses you the ability to make home happen. Sure you can pack candles or a photo to put by the bedstead, but knowing a few days later you’ll have to put them back in the suitcase makes it almost worse.  Gestures of home are futile and uncomforting in the face of the housekeeper’s ability to wipe away every trace of you. I find human connections a better comfort.  I’ve squandered a lot of opportunity to explore in exchange for the pleasure of a waiter who knows I like my steak rare, or the chance to teach the parakeet in the lobby to whistle a sequence of notes. The desk clerk worries over my cough, the night watchman offers me tea.

But the real secret of travel is the one George Clooney knows, and most folks who see the movie won’t believe. It’s to stop fighting the impermanence of travel, and to revel in it. I love sliding through security like a hot knife through butter because I know the tricks. I love being the only fuzzy white coat in a sea of blue suits in the A section of Southwest, and love striding past the limo drivers and kissing lovers to the taxi stand without double checking any signs. But better, I love my small duffel I can carry because I learned to pack only two panties, bras and shirts, only pack the book I am actually reading and never ever unpack deoderant, toothbrush or ibuprofen.  I love to travel light.

Lightness is always literal and metaphoric with travel. Lightness is the only important lesson of travel. It’s the difference between catching your boat or missing it because you can’t run to the dock fast enough. Travel favors the prepared, but it also favors the minimalist. George Clooney’s character in  Up in the Air takes this to its logical extreme. He refuses both physical and emotional baggage, gliding thorugh life like Fred Astaire with rolling luggage.  I was amazed the movie didn’t judge him for his choice to be frictionless and unburdened, as most Hollywood movies would . In fact, one could argue the only time the story “punished” him was when he tried to add weight to his life. The movie asked us to  take a steely eye to our lives and ask how much of the romance, family, and stuff we haul around is really worth it? When you get home from a long trip, how many clean clothes do you have in your luggage, how many unopened medicines, how many unused gadgets? How many of those relatives you can’t stand are worth standing? What do you need?

When I got home to my overfull and messy house tonight, it’s almost too much. The toys strewn across the living room, the collections of old cameras and teapots, the wall of books. And yes, little fifi waiting for me on my pillow.

What will I get rid tomorrow? Probably nothing. Travel is freedom and lightness. Home is love and squalor.