From David's desk: travel books that inspired his recent experiment, including A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre. Photograph by David Celdran
Travel Destinations

Travels around my home

For years, traveling was both work and passion for the Executive Class host—until the world came recently to a halt. Shifting into flâneuring mode but only within the confines of home, he discovers the familiar can unravel memories of locales far away. By DAVID CELDRAN
| Mar 29 2020

Immobilized. Stranded. Quarantined. These are the most dreaded words in a flâneur’s vocabulary. If by flâneur, I mean those among us accustomed to aimless wandering and spontaneous traveling. It was the French Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire who is said to have invented the term, flâneur, a figure inspired by his own restlessness in his native city of Paris. He describes the flâneur as a man with “no occupation in life but to chase along the highway of happiness.” Today, that definition could just as well apply to the passionate travelers and global souls among us.

Writing a century before the Jet Age, Baudelaire did not foresee the speed and ease of travel across continents, let alone around one’s own national boundaries. But he was confident that flânerie was an intrinsic part of the human condition—as do so many modern day flâneurs anxiously sitting out the mandatory lockdown in their homes during the unfolding global health emergency. There’s a term for the malaise you and I currently feel: cabin fever, an affliction felt most acutely by free spirits and ardent travelers.

For some, it’s difficult enough to endure the suspension of overseas travel, what more the suspension of the simple act of stepping outside your home? For consolation we can turn to one Xavier de Maistre, the 18th century Frenchman who penned A Journey around my Room, a unique account of his adventures around his bedroom while under house arrest during Napoleon’s regime. 

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De Maistre was himself a flâneur. He was one of the first men to fly in a hot–air balloon, and his travels took him as far as the Caucuses in Russia. Finding himself trapped within the four walls of his modest quarters, rather than sulk in the claustrophobic atmosphere, the intrepid traveler chose to journey around his room with the observant eyes of a flâneur. “Millions of people who, before me, have never dared to travel…will follow my example,” wrote the author before embarking on his domestic adventure.

Taking a page from De Maistre’s book, I make plans of my own for a journey around my home to see if indeed there’s anything new to discover within familiar surroundings. After all, we travel, in part, to escape boredom, and, in a way, to escape ourselves — meaning, that ‘self’ who somehow always seems less interested – and interesting - when tethered to domestic routines. Who knows? Maybe this experiment could also change your notion of the familiar, because a few minutes into my first morning and I’m already starting to see the compact world around me as vastly different from how I’ve always remembered it.

 

6am. The bedroom. 

The serenity of a morning under quarantine brought back images of a Kyoto ryokan.

The sun is rising above the roofline of the house across the street and the amber glow fractures through the screen of bamboo trees we planted three years ago to shield the bedroom from the summer heat. The wind from the east rustles the leaves and the swaying trees create shifting shadows on the hardwood floorboards. The scene is familiar, but its not from this home. Rather, it’s of a similar morning amidst a bamboo grove in a ryokan in Kyoto. Even the serenity is identical. The quarantine in our village has been strictly enforced, and the absence of cars on the streets and the ban on construction work have cloaked our mornings in tranquil silence ever since.

The morning sun filters through the window and dapples on the arrangement of Japanese ceramics on the side table; a play of light and shadows which evoke the wabi-sabi nature of their imperfect beauty. It’s a scene that helps me slip into a reverie. The view of bamboo trees, a stone path, and the moss-covered wall from my window remind me of strolls through Kyoto’s rock gardens at dawn. And though no cherry trees grow in our garden, the sight of frangipani only now starting to bloom feels just as uplifting as the cherry blossoms on the banks of the Kamo River at this time of year.  

“The pleasure we derive from travel is dependent more on our mindset than on the destination itself,” the modern philosopher, Alain de Botton, wisely suggested in his book, The Art of Travel. I couldn’t agree more, at least for now, in this first, and so far, successful, leg of my travels. (De Botton himself retraces the steps of famous travelers like De Maistre in his book; an idea that inspired my own project at home).

 

8am. The kitchen counter. 

An unhurried morning coffee session reminded the author of being in old coffee houses in Vienna. 

With the village on self-imposed lockdown there’s no rush to beat the traffic. And no need to hurry through my morning coffee habit. So I set aside the automatic espresso machine and patiently grind a handful of beans for the old-fashioned stove-top Moka pot which I keep for those rare days of idleness. 

The slowness of the ritual allows me to focus on the stillness in the room and on the unique shape of the bentwood chairs arranged around the kitchen table. Once more my thoughts take flight and whisk me to the old coffee houses of Vienna where hushed conversations fill the salon and pensive customers contemplate the morning newspapers over copious cups of coffee. The flavor of the coffee is familiar as well – from a tin I purchased at a café in Vienna the last time I was there.

In the past two hours I’ve travelled to Japan and Austria without once leaving the house. Xavier de Maistre would be proud.

 

930am. The garden. 

A snap of a lush courtyard in a Marrakech riad.

Another reason for traveling is to rejuvenate amidst nature, for which we spend huge amounts on beach holidays and glamping outdoors. I figure I could do the same for free with just a few steps out the door.

The front lawn is not a beautifully manicured garden by any measure, but with the morning sun illuminating the flowers on the trees, the view is charming. The informal arrangement of shrubs, hedges and shade trees resemble an English landscape garden’s, like those I’ve walked past in the villages of the Cotswolds in England.

The gardeners we employ are likewise under community quarantine so I’ve had to tend the garden myself. The early morning gardening chores are an opportunity to meditate and calm my nerves after the previous evening’s update on the global pandemic. Every now and then I interrupt my work to listen to the alternating chirps, warbles, and trills of the last wave of migratory birds on their way back north for spring, and the eastern wind whistling through the leaves. 

Again, my mind drifts back to the English countryside and to picturesque villages like Bibury with its pretty cottage gardens. However, the warm summer breeze and the scent of tropical flowers shatter the reverie and shift my daydreams to the steep footpaths that wind through the bougainvillea gardens of Positano, and to the lush courtyards of the riads of Marrakech.

I cross this garden many times each day to get to our driveway, but never have I seen it as vivid as it is this morning. Perhaps my experiment is starting to work as I’m beginning to look at familiar scenes and tired routines with the sensitive mind of a traveler.

 

12:30pm. The dining room. 

The scent of roasting lamb from his Manila kitchen conjured up meals in St. Emilion.

The family is up and about by now and my wife is preparing a lamb roast for lunch to lift our spirits. She too is slowly rediscovering domestic living, though far less enthusiastically as me. Most meals at home are hardly as memorable as our shared moments around the table of a bistro or trattoria in a foreign country. For an increasing number of families, mine included, dining-in often means eating separately, and even when spent around the same table, the act is reduced to its basic nutritional function by the constant glancing at mobile phones or the TV.

I imagine this lunch, however, as if on vacation in Bordeaux where the smell of the roast in the oven brings back memories of a side trip we made some years ago to the medieval town of St. Émilion where lamb is a local specialty. The image of that particular lunch overlooking the vineyards quickly reappears and takes me back to a week before the quarantine when we had our neighbors over for dinner. 

It makes me wonder why so many fall for the fantasy peddled by tour agencies to “dine with the locals” when so many fail to make the simple effort of sharing a table with people who live next door to us. The strict quarantine bars us from visiting each other’s homes, but nothing stops us from yelling over the fence to exchange jokes and stories. If the thrill of befriending strangers motivates some people to travel, why not rediscover the company of those who live across the street first?

 

2pm. At the library. 

The Livraria Llelo in Porto.

After lunch I retreat to our library where I usually catch the latest news updates. Instead of watching TV, I sift through the shelves of books accumulated since my days at university — many of them half-read — and many more half-forgotten. The scent of the parchment conjures up memories of hours spent in favorite book shops around the world; in bibliophilic shrines like the Livraria Lello in the historic heart of Porto, City Lights in downtown San Francisco, and the Librarie Galignani in Paris’ Rue Rivoli, although the musty odor on my shelves and the shabby couch beneath the stacks remind me more of the reading room on the second level of Shakespeare & Company. Once the gathering place for then-aspiring writers like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, the legendary Parisian bookshop has become something of a tourist trap, but their selection of titles mirrors my personal taste, and Agatha, the bookstore’s friendly resident cat, makes me remember our own pet Munchkin, Dewey.

I browse through travel books I’ve only read half-heartedly and stumble on the journeys of Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer across parts of the world previously unspoiled by mass tourism. How quaint to revisit Iyer’s accounts of Bhutan, Cuba and Iceland, three of the places he described in his 1994 bestseller Falling off the Map as among the loneliest places on the planet (the same countries now listed among the hottest travel destinations of the 21st century).

Outdated too are the dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebooks from the early 90s —many of them marked at pages to reveal hotel listings with fax numbers underlined with my pen. (Who faxes hotels today when you can book online in a few minutes?) I decide to keep the obsolete guidebooks for now — if only as a keepsake and reminder of my backpacking days in Southeast Asia and Europe (another outdated phenomenon, sadly).  

 

5pm. On the street. 

Amsterdam's canal houses and their generous picture windows.

After setting aside some books for my quarantine reading list, I channel Baudelaire’s classic description of flânerie and walk through the street where I live (by the way, the village rules have become much stricter since writing this). The setting sun takes after the shape and color of a Seville orange — which I’ve often picked and pressed to my nose while sauntering down the tree-lined streets of the Andalusian capital (after which the bitter citrus was named). The wrought iron balconies, terracotta tile roofs, and bougainvillea hedges of the houses on our street recall similar strolls through the narrow lanes of the Jewish quarter of Seville’s Barrio Sta. Cruz.  

Because many houses in our village were designed without gates, it’s possible to see into the homes of neighbors. Most modern Filipino homes are unlike those in Europe, however (here, glass panels and windows are covered with shutters and heavy drapery). In contrast, I have a fondness for the canal houses of Amsterdam with their large picture windows that open to views of the lives and possessions of residents within: homely spaces lined with bookshelves, oriental carpets, vintage furniture, and glass and ceramic sculptures on the window sill — a mise en scéne arranged like a Dutch genre painting three centuries after Vermeer.

It makes me wonder why so many fall for the fantasy peddled by tour agencies to “dine with the locals” when so many fail to make the simple effort of sharing a table with people who live next door to us.

I return home before dark to realize I’m starting to see my surroundings as if the 17th century Dutch Master painted his. There is nothing heroic or extraordinary in Vermeer's preferred choice of subject matter (domestic living), and while he staged his scenes with painstaking precision, he never painted anything that was not already familiar to him. Instead, his small collection of works celebrates the daily routines and details of domestic life, transforming the most mundane activities and corners in a home into sublime works of artistry.

“To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live,” Hans Christian Anderson proclaimed in his autobiography. It’s an inspiring passage, though the famous author of children’s fairy tales leaves out the dangers, difficulties, and high cost of such expeditions. Global travel has become far more accessible and convenient compared to Anderson’s day, but the uncertainty and anxiety brought about by the pandemic has no doubt dampened our enthusiasm for globetrotting anytime soon. In times like these we can turn instead to the mystical poet William Blake to learn how to “see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower.” The British poet was not an avowed flâneur like his French contemporaries, but his introspective approach to viewing everyday things is a useful skill for marooned travelers.

It will take a bit more time for the outbreak to completely subside, and even when it does, I doubt many will return to the modern habit of traveling for leisure as often and as spontaneously. But, by then, we would have learned how to practice the art of flânerie within the confines of our homes — and inside our minds — as magnificently as de Maistre once journeyed around his bedroom.

 

Photographs by David Celdran