Stefano Giliberti

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Your travels say nothing about you

Why are there people on social media who list all the countries they’ve traveled to?

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Why are there people on social media who list all the countries they’ve traveled to?

In their profile, right next to their face and name, typically using a series of emoji flags. Sometimes there are so many they look like those military badges — just as goofy, and their supposed meaning is even more perplexing.

Other people instead seem to think that countries are like Pokémon, so they specify the amount they’ve collected using numbers, like, “43 countries visited out of 200” — they keep you updated on their progress.

But in almost all cases there’s no other information about them other than a corny quote or a vague title such as Traveler, Wanderer, or even better… Wanderlust.

They introduce themselves saying, “Hi, nice to meet you, do you know I’ve been to Japan, India and Peru? Now you do. I bet you can’t wait to get to know me now that you have this information about me. I have the same thought too, sometimes, when I look at my profile. If I could follow myself I would.”

It’s as if they think that letting people know which countries they’ve traveled to is useful, because it sets them apart in some significant way, or at least communicates something unmistakable about them — a rare quality perhaps?

In reality, it betrays insecurity. The clearest thing it reveals about their personality is that they desperately need to feel special. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not a good way to do it, because having traveled is not an identity. Collecting airline tickets — or anything else that can be bought with a credit card — is not a skill to be proud of. It’s more like an expensive pastime.

It would be much more useful, for example, to write how they earn their money to make people understand something about who they are and what life they lead. But no, they prefer letting the flags of Mongolia and Morocco speak for them.

They use their passport as the shiny object in a bait-and-switch fraud scheme. To appear interesting they try to hint at the idea that behind the many destinations they’ve reached there are stories worth listening to — but they certainly don’t hurry to tell them in detail. It’s all implied, but in the end very little is revealed. This is a way of being typical of social media, which are ideal habitats for people without substance.

But they do it because they know that wearing the traveler costume has some type of positive effect on some, especially those who unfortunately have not traveled much, and therefore still have a somewhat naive view of it: they think that setting foot in a foreign country they’ll automatically have experiences out of the ordinary, they’ll see things that without having been there one can only imagine, and so they’ll come back different from those who have not done the same, perhaps a little wiser.

This story, however, is not very realistic. Maybe it could’ve been 100 years ago. Today the world is close at hand, interconnected, traveling is not the only way to learn about other cultures. In fact, countries are now so intertwined you almost can’t avoid being influenced by what happened yesterday on the other side of the globe.

More than ever, what enriches you as an individual is not where you’ve been, but what you’ve done where you’ve been, and with whom.

Here’s a much more credible story: Sometimes you travel but you don’t end up doing anything particularly memorable.

Not all trips, in fact, are destined to be filled with exciting events. The more of them you do, the more evident it becomes. People who travel a lot, even around the world, often get so bored that they can’t wait to stop, get an apartment, and go to IKEA.

There are trips that change the way you see the universe, and trips that make you regret not staying at home. That over-saturated ad of that beach got you because when you arrived there was a storm. Or you were on your period and you found out that your boyfriend was the most boring person in the world. Or you had diarrhea the entire week and for months you couldn’t help but think of Belgium every time you flushed.

But no one puts those trips at the beginning in their Traveler’s Curriculum. Or at least, people usually avoid mentioning the less appealing parts. Like that embarrassing thing you luckily did in that country where no one knew you in front of people you still hope to see never again.

When someone asks you what Belgium was like, in the end you decided to simply answer with, “Interesting.”

But even the trips where everything went smoothly aren’t always long adventures to proudly share with the world.

This is one of the reasons why those who are close to getting a world map tattooed on their foreheads are particularly suspicious.

Where others write the city they live in, sports team they follow, name of the person they love or children they had with, they write the countries they’ve been to, as if to signal that they’ve developed a certain familiarity and knowledge of them — surely enough to add them, at some point, to their public list of accomplished trips — but what kind of credibility would they have if those trips lasted a few days, and consequently took place within the range of some kilometers, without having significant interactions with the local people?

It may seem like an extreme example, but that’s how the vast majority of trips go, so there’s no good reason to assume more. Indeed, the more someone seems to have traveled — especially if young and can’t keep it to himself — the more it makes sense to think they did this kind of hit-and-run traveling, hopping from destination to destination without soaking up much.

But the biggest differences to discover are in the details. And grasping those of something as complex and fluid as the culture of a country, or even just a city, takes a long time. There are no shortcuts. Some believe that not even a lifetime is enough.

Alright, you set foot in that country, but can you say that you know anything of substance about it, without being dishonest with yourself and therefore with others? You’ve been to Turkey, but what did you explore apart from a couple of neighborhoods of the capital, in just one week, including the hours you spent at the airport? What did you see besides what that app recommended? Did you eat where the locals eat, or in the type of restaurant that deforms the local cuisine to make it palatable to tourists? Or even worse, at McDonald’s? Yes, it was Turkish McDonald’s… but it’s McDonald’s.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having that kind of experiences, since they’re much better than sitting in a room looking at a screen. It would be foolish, however, if they had gone that way, to think you know little more than zero of the place you came back from, or to believe that the memories of that short stay represent the daily experience of those who live there. You don’t know what it’s like to be a citizen of that country because you spent a week among them on vacation. You had a privileged, detached point of view on it— ultimately, that was the reason why you went there: to take advantage of the good sides, be subjected to none of the bad, and leave a bit fatter.

So even if that hotel sucked, thinking that all the others did too would make no sense. And the same can be said in the opposite case, a positive experience. Those two gave you a little smile even if in your country you’re invisible to them, but trust me, go home, you’re not the prototype of the ideal man in Spain. They were just polite, because one was a cashier and the other a waitress.

This all sounds banal, yet it’s surprisingly common to hear the latest traveler — even a sensible one — talk about that country and those people with confidence, feeling more justified in using stereotypes than those who have not been there.

But there’s a reason why we instinctively think of trips and travelers in a generous, romantic way, even if it almost never matches with reality. It’s a profound one because it has to do with our past, and with what distinguishes us from all other living creatures.

No, it’s not the opposable thumb. Even frogs have that one.

It’s our appreciation for stories.

Stories are as important as food to us. We use stories to give order to the events of our lives, and we need stories to learn new ways of being.

The most important stories we have inherited are about travel. The plot usually goes like this: The protagonist, driven by an unexpected event, travels to a distant, unknown place. On the way there he learns new things, is subjected to tests, and eventually returns transformed, evolved.

It seems like an obvious formula but it continues to be used, even if the world changes radically, because in it we can’t help but recognize ourselves all in some way. We seek to live lives that are as rich as that of a character in an odyssey, even if actually doing it isn’t possible, since life is not as simple as a story. And it’s for the same reason that those people try so hard to portray their lives in the same way on social media, posting every photo in a different country. But no matter how synthetic they may seem, for a moment we can’t help but be allured by them, because a series of photos is more than enough to convey a narrative that reminds us of the stories we heard. Most people must have had the same impression watching the shows of Anthony Bourdain—likely the first travel influencer—who seemed to live the ideal life being famous while getting paid to travel the world.

One of the more pragmatic ways to explain the frequency of this theme in old stories is to reflect on the fact that until recently traveling was a big deal. Every trip really was a long adventure to proudly recount once returned. It couldn’t be otherwise. Airplanes have been around for less than 120 years — cars, trains, and even bicycles for a little more. And what are 100 years compared to the average age of politicians?

The most used means of transport for thousands of years, therefore, were: legs, four-legged animals, boats. Nothing to be nostalgic about, in short. Tourism could not exist in those conditions, also because hardly anyone could’ve afforded the luxury of wandering. The only way to get to know different cultures was listening to the stories of those who had encountered them—the alternative was going there in person, but reaching a foreign country meant going through a slow, tiring, dangerous process. Today we also take the existence of electric light and public street lighting for granted, but walking down any unknown path at night without a flashlight would still make the best horror movie seem like one from Disney.

The travelers of the past were not ordinary people, they were resilient and above all brave, since there was a good chance of never returning home, and those who succeeded often showed the signs of what they had been through. Because even once arrived in one piece, they wouldn’t necessarily receive a warm welcome from the local people, who weren’t used to seeing foreigners. Traveling to a truly unexplored place you could literally risk dying pierced by the spear of a native, or more likely of some disease that was incurable at the time. If you were among the lucky ones, you had to see at least one of your companions die in an ugly way.

Today, it’s not quite the same.

In fact, traveling is now so pain-free that it can be of the most uneventful activities one can do.

The most common difficulties that modern travelers face are: getting bored at the airport, finding the seats slightly uncomfortable once they get on the plane, panicking after finding out that they’ll have to exist without having an internet connection for a few hours. The risks they run, instead, are: not being able to make a reservation in their favorite resort, losing their phone but whatever it was old and the screen was broken, returning not having enough good photos where they’re surrounded by poor children to post as proof that they’re very good people.

For better or worse, many of those classic stories would turn out much less interesting set in the current era. If Little Red Riding Hood had taken the subway instead of walking through a forest, the worst thing she would’ve found in her grandmother’s bed would’ve been a door-to-door salesman. If Frodo had landed at Mordor’s airport and had reached the volcano by taking an orc’s taxi, the movie would’ve been much shorter.

Unfortunately, there’s little that’s epic in queuing for check-in.

But the technological progress has not changed just the physical and mental requirements needed to travel. The reasons why people travel are equally different now: more superficial, especially in the case of those who don’t do it out of necessity, namely tourists.

Because while in the past the few existing travelers aimed at vague destinations, guided by compasses and hand-drawn maps, with the idea of ​​returning bringing material and non-material riches, today many of them do nothing but follow the same itineraries en masse, and with in mind the exact program of attractions they’ll see day after day, sometimes without even having decided it for themselves.

Their motivation does not seem to be a sincere desire for discovery, but only to cross an item off the list of the hundred clichés to take part in, and be the center of attention for an instant. Traveling to Paris to take a photo of the Tower, to China for the Wall, to Egypt for the Pyramid. But what usually ends being the subject? It’s not the view, it’s the Wanderer and he obstructs it while looking into the camera all satisfied as if he had unearthed the thing himself.

Some trips, however, can still be so important that they change your life. This can’t be denied, and maybe that’s what those people try allude at, when they force you to know where they’ve been, prostituting their passports.

A trip can have on a person the same transformative effect as the passage of a vast amount of time. There are people who travel for a month but come back different, as if more had passed where they had been. It’s strange.

But when it happens, when having traveled has truly become an essential part of the traveler’s identity, what kind of influence did the place have?

The destination seems to be the most important thing. If you tell someone you went on a trip, they’ll likely respond by asking you where you’ve been — not what you’ve done. If you say Australia, they’ll assume you saw at least two kangaroos and a koala.

We tend to see destinations as the reasons to travel, and as sort of packages of activities one must do once arrived. Things to see, foods to eat, photos to take, tiny objects to bring back. Even worse, whether a trip ends up being good or not we assume must depend on where it took place, while the reasons are most likely unrelated.

Because the reality is that the destination is no more important than the traveler himself, with his personality and state of mind, from the moment he decided to go. If he’s elsewhere, busy wondering why she’s read the message and still hasn’t responded, not even being in Wonderland could help him go on an adventure. And if she then answered saying she’s done with him plus a sad emoji, he’s simply not going to like his vacation in Italy, he’ll see her face in every painting and pizza.

Going to a place, however magical it may seem, does not guarantee any experience worthy of being included in that semi-autobiographical novel that will sooner or later be written. Satisfaction will not be automatically delivered on arrival or departure. To appreciate it you’ll need to have a least a bit of desire to, and to get the most out of it you’ll have to do your part.

Viewing countries as a type of amusement park is the sign of a passive, materialistic view of traveling, and of life in general. While often, the precious memories you accumulate doing it are not about the unusual things you’ve seen, but about the people you were lucky enough to share them with.

Even though it seems absurd, there’s no reason to think that even a trip to the next city can’t have as potential to be revelatory as one to the other side of the planet. But yes, sharing it on your Tinder profile won’t help your chances much, probably.

This is almost a blasphemy to many. Few, in fact, want to believe that a trip to a nearby place — meaning accessible to almost everyone they know— can be as significant as one to a distant, exotic country, where people eat weird things.

It’s difficult to free yourself from the idea that the value of a thing is related to its exclusivity, and so in the case of a trip, to how far the destination is from the starting point, or to how expensive the ticket is compared to the average salary. In a way, we need to trust this logic, because we can derive a great amount of motivation and meaning from it. It’s almost a matter of survival. To do anything we need to believe that it’ll be worth it — if it’s particularly difficult to achieve, we assume that an important reward will await us, at the end of the rainbow. The problem, however, is that we too often rediscover that what we wanted was much better in our imagination.

But when it comes to traveling this way of thinking is perhaps more justified, because our desire to leave is almost always provoked by our need to break away from our routines, and maybe there’s no better way to do it than to physically move as far as possible from the places we’re used to seeing everyday.

Is it necessary, though?

The universe also exists in our minds, so we are first and foremost where we believe we are, and the place where we are is as good as we think it is. But the thing about thoughts and opinions is that they’re very mutable. You just need to fall in love to see your surroundings in a completely new way.

What makes us feel bored or trapped is the repetition of our actions, not where they take place. Nothing makes this clearer than when a truly unexpected event shatters our prediction of how the week will go, and we come to feel as disorientated as we would be if someone had teleported us in a different city. This is something that billions of people have been forced to learn during the lockdown.

Perhaps what we can truly do without is relying on others to choose our destination, one way or another. Like consulting those “Top 10” lists.

Because some places are more appreciated than others by people, but for reasons that are not very objective, surely not universal. Sometimes it seems to depend more on what happens outside of them, on how the rest of the world perceives them at that time. One can become trendy overnight even just because someone famous went there on vacation, or because it appeared as backdrop in an overly-advertised movie.

Others instead are avoided a priori because the media have made a caricature of them obsessively focusing on their negative aspects, which are present everywhere, after all. Indeed, in the most renowned places they’re much more than you would expect, if you were to believe the reality they present to you. Think about all the trendy cities — they’re not nearly as good as you probably assume they are. In some respects, they’re horrible compared to many cities unknown to tourists.

And today there are destinations that exist purely for the collectors. They’re completely artificial, without history, created to be yet another product to buy out of boredom. All they had to do was place some type of gigantic monument designed to be visible in every selfie within a radius of 100 kilometers, and the army of Wanderlust people showed up in no time.

The only destination to reach is the one that attracts you. The one that you would reach even if no one cared. And it’s even better if you don’t know the precise reason, if it’s something akin to an instinct that pushes you in that direction, because the first exploration to do and share is that of your inner world.

You don’t need to go to Mars to discover new things. If you deceive yourself believing you’ve seen everything that’s around you in full, you’ll never know anything in depth.

And if you don’t know where to go, or are afraid to leave, try staying first, reminding yourself to be as awake as you would be in a foreign country, and maybe, in the end, you won’t even remember why you wanted to leave.

Stefano Giliberti was born in the southern side of Italy at the start of the nineties

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