Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the most influential philosopher of the 20th century wrote “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” By this Wittgenstein argues that that not only does our language provide a vehicle for exchanging information and ideas about our world but instead it also provides the boundaries for how we can possibly think about the world.
I would argue that maps, schedules and guidebooks can arguably have the same effect on a vagabonding travel experience. While these tools enable us to travel efficiently, guide us, they also serve to limit the experience we might possibly have. The beloved Rick Steves often states that he travels extensively to find the ‘mistakes’ so that you don’t encounter them with your limited travel schedule, and waste your time. While I appreciate this point of view I would still like to think that the mistaken adventures can be very rewarding as well.
Still, when I visit a new location I tend to do lots of research. What are the best places to eat, which museum should I visit, what should I avoid, what should I absolutely not miss? These are all perfectly valid reasons for researching before travelling but for this efficiency a steep price is paid. That price is Serendipity. Spontaneity. Chance. In essence, I would prefer travel to be a combination of the spontaneous and the well planned. Each taking their rightful place.
When my Sister and I landed in London, England a few years back we had 5 weeks to make our way from the United Kingdom to Rome. That is it. No other requirements. We did have some things we wanted to see, a kind of extremely loose checklist with no solid plan. We paid a lot more to travel this way but if we felt wanted to stay an additional day (or possibly 4) in a particular location then that is what we did. (As it turns out time can really vanish when your hanging around Amsterdam. Who would have thought?) Often, when I’m riding a long distance over a number of days my final destination is not really a destination at all, rather, it is just a space I may or may not end up after my peddling is done.
All this is to say that guidebooks, maps and schedules can be important but they can also be overbearing as well. I have been thinking a lot about these these things lately as I anticipate returning to Venice. Do not depend on another’s opinion to shape your experience. Perhaps getting lost is a strange city, or even another continent, is the best way to really embrace this idea, and Venice is just about the best place to do this. In fact, in Venice you don’t really have a choice. You will get lost.
You see, guidebooks and maps provide a comprehensive way to visualize a city. They prepare you for what might be around the next corner, what areas to visit, and what areas to avoid. They prepare you for what restaurants are worth stopping at and which ones you should skip. Hard schedules then tie these altogether in a neat little package. If you are going to be overly dependent on such devices make sure that your interests are well suited with the authours, otherwise, be prepared to be underwhelmed. These tools will shape your experience profoundly but if I may refer back to Wittgenstein for a moment. They will absolutely limit the experience you will have as well. All but eliminating chance. By tossing aside these tools, even for a short time, everything becomes possible.
Cathy and I stumbled around Venice for a couple of days. Well, I literally stumbled because my sandals consistently got caught up while I was walking sending me flying from time to time. After some time we actually got quite good at figuring our way to the Rialto Bridge, Saint Marks Square and back to our temporary home on the Grand Canal. We also spent much of this time utterly lost. It is experiencing Venice unguided that provided the most rewarding experience.
One night while heading back to our hotel from a late evening dinner we encountered a number of folks, locals and tourists complete with folding chairs and blankets, hanging out in an alley near a large nondescript building. As it turns out they were here for the opera. With no intentions to pay the ticket price and go inside, we stayed also. I am not a huge fan of the opera though listening from the streets of Venice on a warm summers evening provide a remarkably memorable experience. Serendipity. Spontaneity. Chance.
I enjoy travelling off the cuff. The thrill of arriving at a destination with no plans can be exhilarating and perhaps a tad scary but it will provide you with unique experiences. Your own experiences and not the ones the guidebook tells you to have. From time to time consider tossing your schedule, guide book and map. This is how we came to have coffee in a boarding house with a North African refuge in Vianden, Luxembourg (now that is a story). It is how I ended up listening to the evening opera in the backstreets of Venice. How I to came to running aground on a Dhow in the Indian Ocean, at midnight on New Years eve. It is also how I ended up spending 199 British pounds on a train ticket from London to Paris when booking in advance could have saved me about 150 pounds. Tradeoffs you see.
I would like to leave you with one final anecdote from Ludwig before ending this post. During a chance meeting he asked a colleague “Why do people always say that it was natural for men to assume that the sun went around the earth rather than the earth was rotating?”. His colleague answered, and I think we can all relate to this, “obviously because that it just looks like the sun is going around the earth”. To which Wittgenstein replied “Well, what would it look like if it had looked as if the earth were rotating?”.
I have to go take out the garbage. It is full of old maps and guidebooks.