Travel is Inspring: While I am tolerably certain that Vadislav Nijinski and Leon Bakst did not absolutely need to go to Greece to respectively choreograph and design the Ancient Greek themed 1911 ballet Afternoon of a Faun, I’m sure it helped. What is more, I expect that they enjoyed it too. And while the IRS probably (in it’s wisdom) would have frowned upon them trying to deduct it as a business expense (had they been modern Americans), it is true that travel is one of the best methods for any type of artist to get inspiration.
Travel Needn’T Be Nice To Work: Travel need not be glamorous or expensive or comfortable to be inspiring. It is a recorded fact that Bertolt Brecht wrote most of the rough scripts for his greatest works Mother Courage,The Good Woman of Schezuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle) while staying in refugee camps during W.W.II, fleeing the Nazis by walking/hitching rides from Germany to Manchuria, going through Stalin’s USSR. True he wrote the smooth finished drafts of these in the comfort of Southern California, but the inspiration, the ideas, they came from a grueling trek across hostile territory in the midst of a war. Travel is good for an artist if it doesn’t kill her.
What About Money?: After carefully explaining that as a costumer you will never make any money to speak of, it sounds I know, perverse of me to suggest you do something as expensive-sounding as travel. However, as Brecht’s experience shows, you need not travel to expensive places in style. You may also travel to wretched places in appalling conditions, the mode of travel, and destination itself, is almost irrelevant. In fact, now that I’ve had a chance to travel in a wide variety of conditions, I have to say that traveling in style (good hotels, clean restaurants, air-conditioned buses, tour-leaders, etc.) while the most desirable mode for a relaxing vacation, is the worst possible mode for the artist. You see, all that air-conditioning and imported toilet paper and bottled water that comes with fancy hotels insulates you from the real world you are trying to see. As Temple Fielding, the travel writer put it, “As a member of an escorted tour, you don’t even have to know the Matterhorn isn’t a tuba.” Fact is, a Holiday Inn in Helsinki is pretty much the same as one in Honolulu or in Houston. Ah, but a cheap dorm room in London is as different from an Art Nouveau roach-ridden pension in Paris as is a rented flat in St. Petersburg or a motor-court in Tucson. All of them are more inspiring (if less restful) than a Holiday Inn. Not only do you meet far more interesting people (and their clothes), but each place has an atmosphere that is like an extractable essence of place.
Where do I go?: “Where” is not the point. The point is to go and see someplace that is different from where you are. City dwellers are inspired by visits to the country, country folks get charged up from a trip to town. People from New England are blown away at the reds and golds of the canyons of New Mexico, New Mexicans feel the same awe at the same reds and golds in the maple forests of Maine in Fall. G.K. Chesterton wrote “What effects men sharply about a foreign nation is not so much finding or not finding familiar things; it is rather not finding them in the familiar place.” When you go to a new place, you see things, even familiar things, anew. What’s more, you see new, unfamiliar things in a direct proportion to how far you travel out of your usual venue. This need not mean traveling to Tibet (though I’m sure going to Tibet would be cool too), but can simply be a case of going to an unfamiliar place in or near your town. No person should dream of traveling abroad before thoroughly exploring their home base.
Travel Guides Not Tour Guides: It is real useful, even if you were born in a town, to get a travel guide to your home base. Careful reading will inevitably introduce you to a raft of places that you never heard of. As much as artists color schemes or natural textures are good for design inspiration, so too are the color schemes and textures to be found in urban landscapes. Museums, interesting old buildings and strange and unusual experiences can also be found in travel books. In San Francisco, where I was born, for example there is a museum of the history of Levi’s, the oldest Buddhist Temple in the USA, and a place hidden in an obscure corner of Golden Gate Park where you can feed French bread to a herd of Buffalo. I’d never heard of any of them till I found them in travel books. Using travel books you can mine your home turf for information and inspiration and get practice at the art of traveling before you go further.
Do Try This at Home: To travel further you either need natural self-confidence, or practice in travel skills, preferably both. You need to be able to read a map, your travel books, phone books, and (ultimately) people. The last is most important once you step away from home, because “tourists” are obvious prey for an amazing assortment of undesirables anyplace you go. Practicing reading these four things on your home turf is easiest and least likely to end in a disaster where you inadvertently board the train for Outer Mongolia, or are slipped a mickey in a Mafia nightclub in Moscow. If you screw up at home you are at worst going to be late for dinner or get your wallet stolen. Basically, you need to practice your travel skills at home till you have the sense of confidence to venture out further, where the difficulties are greater.
Learning Without Language: While it is certainly desirable to know the language of any foreign country you plan to visit, it is, by no means necessary. Language ability will help you to make contact with the people of the places you are visiting more easily, and will smooth your travel as you go. On the other hand to say, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, -so helpless and so ridiculous,” is to miss the point. One of the enlightening things about travel is that you can survive being made to be ridiculous; not only that, -it is good for the soul. Further, from my own experience I’ve noted that language ability often induces a sense of false confidence that blinds one to learning the far more important languages of customs, body-language, and conventions. I have, at the time of this writing (1995), been living alone in St. Petersburg for nine months now. I can still barely spit out a mangled sentence in Russian. However I do know (a.) How to safely get anywhere in the city at night by public transport, (b.) why you must always bring an odd, not even, number of flowers to your host when invited to dinner, (c.) where to find toilet paper, art supplies, and correction fluid in a single department of department stores, (d.) how to differentiate between almost identically dressed Mormon missionaries and Russian Mafia guys, (e.) why Russian salesclerks seem to ignore foreigners, and what you need to do to get their attention. Daily I watch Americans with good language skills clumsily trip over the above items. The key to understanding in foreign places is not language, but observation. And, since it is your observation skills that you are trying to hone by travel, language is merely gravy.