Travel matters. It is not a pointless activity.
The arches are large, and light luminates through the rose window. Crowds of tourists gather inside on this Sunday. They walk on the old stones, gazing at the various artistic and historical artefacts. It’s early 2019, and I’m at the Notre-Dame de Paris with my mother. The Gothic cathedral is a treasure of beauty, itself evidence of man’s accomplishment. I imagine where the tourists are from: South Africa, perhaps. My mother and I are Australian. Others have American accents; some are from China.
I do not hear just English or French: German, Polish and Spanish are spoken. I’m not making a point about ‘globalising’ the Notre-Dame de Paris, or making a hopeful (yet naïve) statement about everyone living happily together. No. What’s remarkable about the tourists, and why I’m drawing attention to them, is due to the long distances they’ve travelled.
Right now, there are no direct flights from Sydney to continental Europe. Qantas has flights from Perth to London, yes – if you can afford the price tag. But most Sydneysiders fly to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore or Doha, before catching another flight to Europe. The average Australian arrives in their European destination, having spent no less than 20 hours in air. We’re usually tired, easily agitated and bored by the end of it. Those who can afford business class enjoy the luxuries that come with it. But for myself and other Australians, we are stuck in economy – and with each other.
The flights are long and time slugs by. Planes are usually packed, and the busy flight attendants do their job (while appearing tired). There is no hope for a spare seat on a plane from Sydney or Melbourne to Asia or the Middle-East.
I’m not writing this to complain about flying, which I loathe. The reason why is because despite the problems with flying, it’s worth it. In France, the Notre-Dame de Paris awaits. Go south and you’ll see the Alps, and reach Italy. The splendours of baroque beauty await. Divine cities such as Venice and Florence are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There’s history, adventure, great food, art, culture: things that matter to our humanity. Go elsewhere in Europe, or in the world, and the Australian will discover both natural and man-made beauty.
Of course, beauty exists in Australia. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Gold Coast and Tasmania, as well as other Australian destinations. But the charms of down under are only a small portion of the world’s magnificence.
Travel is important – not just to myself, but to many others. Due to COVID-19, Australian citizens are unable to leave their country unless they have an exemption. The Australian government introduced this measure quite early in the pandemic – March, 2020 – and looking back, it was understandable, even though there should be a time limit on the ban, and more generous exemptions.
What I couldn’t understand were the dismissive attitude from many Australians regarding travel. I’ve heard it all: travel is a rich white girl thing, travel is just partying in Bali, travel is a privilege, etc. All of these are false, some bordering on offensive. Travel was something to look forward to. I love history and art. Classrooms can only teach us so much about the past. Sometimes, you have to visit it.
I remember visiting Lucerne in Switzerland. There the lion’s monument stood, sad and poor. I was moved by it, finding the rock poetic and stunning. Australia is an extremely safe country, with an exceptional quality of life. This can make many Australians naïve and sheltered about how life actually works. You can’t have the Australian mindset in Poland, a country ravaged by foreign powers and totalitarianism. Travel reminds us to appreciate what we have. Experiencing humility is not an assault on my character.
Travel made me realise there is more to the world than what I experience. When you witness the Notre-Dame de Paris’ beauty, you are motivated to build, to preserve, to create. Tourism is a highly commercial activity, and this can distract from a finer point. Beyond the booze, the Instagram selfies, lies a humbling experience. It’s a shame travel is now associated with environmental degradation and tacky souvenirs. That is the experience of some- but not for everyone.
I miss meeting people on my travels. I miss listening to German, French, etc. I miss the beautiful old towns, peppered through Europe. I miss learning and engaging with the past. These experiences may seem shallow and insignificant, but they matter. Yes, I can meet people in Sydney. I can listen to an Italian podcast. Australia has some pretty buildings (I like the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney!)
But these are temporary substitutes to a life-long yearning to discover more about the world. In my lifetime, I’d like to visit Japan, Iceland, Kenya, India, Argentina, Ukraine and other countries. There’s an appeal to visiting Antarctica as well. We are meant to appreciate the earth we have, and we have an obligation to not ignore those in the past and living today. Travel changed my life. I know, it’s a cliché. But it’s true.
To clarify, I’m not a fan of judging those not interested in travel. Nor am I asking for reckless border security during COVID-19. But I am arguing for a more nuanced, more grateful perspective on travel.