The Emperor’s New Clothes of Travel

My friends Seth and Jenny and family are living in Rome for the year and we get to see them this week in Munich.  It is fun to show them a city that we know well, although of course there is the pressure of wanting everything to be perfect, and it never is.  For example we took them to a “wonderful” Greek restaurant little knowing that the owners moved back to Greece two years ago and that the restaurant under the current owners bears no resemblance.  Ah well.  But we really want to hear about their initial experiences in Rome and see again what people look like when they are excited but also rested. 

What Seth and Jenny like about Rome so far, they say, is exactly what I consider the thing that is mostspannend (“thrilling” in German) about traveling and about moving to a new country.  You do not rush to see the Pieta or Simon Peter hanging upside down.  At first, you let the language wash over you and watch people using it, with their hands, with their eyes.  It is so remarkable when it is new.  One could do it for months.  Years!  And then, Seth said, there is the challenge of problem solving:  Where do you buy that food, how do you order it when you find the right market, and what do you do with it at home, exactly?  For a long time, problem-solving is spannend too because it is so empowering to arrive at a solution, which is just enough of the time to feel rewarded, and therefore to keep on solving and solving.
Pleasure from new experiences in new countries can be categorized according to a scheme that is similar to the distinction between top-down and bottom-up sources of emotion that I discussed in my last post.  When it comes to pleasure, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, makes the distinction between the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self.  The Experiencing Self is the person in you who is having the immediate hedonic pleasure.  It feels good to hear the language, to see the foods.  The Remembering Self revels, instead, in the stories to be told later and that provide content to a life narrative. You can hear about this idea on this site: /daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory.html
Here’s a Remebering Self narrative: When I was about 20 years-old, I took at train from Berlin to Kiel, in Northern Germany, in order to meet a friend, Peter, and sail on a (non-competitive, purely decorative) sailboat called the Peter Von Danzig in Kieler Woche, an international sailing regatta.  When I arrived at the station in Kiel, I called Peter to ask him where to find his apartment.  It was 11 p.m. and he did not answer the phone.  Twenty minutes later, still no answer.  What to do now?  I took all of my stuff and left the train station in a random direction looking for hotels.  Because it was Kieler Woche there were no rooms, and those that were available cost, for a single night, all of the Deutschmarks I had to my name. 

I went back to the train station and found a small police station there.  “I can’t find my friend or a hotel,” I told several policemen.  They generated names of various hotels, but I had already tried all they mentioned.  I told them that.  OK, they told me, you can wash up in the police station, and then you can sleep in this restaurant, which is closed and empty for future renovation.  I looked over, and saw the restaurant was entirely enclosed in glass walls, with curtains hanging in front of them.  The only thing is, they said, we have to lock you in.  And then, we have to open the door and get you out at 6 a.m.

I brushed my teeth in the tiny sink in the tiny station while five German policemen discussed me in whispers around a table.  Then, one of them unlocked the door and let me in to the restaurant.  There were two tables and nothing else.  Well, there was something else: there were bugs all over the floor.  Because of this, I opened my suitcase and covered the tables with my clothes for cushioning, and then wrapped myself in the Mexican blanket that was attached to my backpack.  And there I slept, very well, until the boom of deep voices greeting me a Guten Morgan woke me up at 6.  Later that morning, I found Peter, I stayed in his apartment, and we sailed in Kieler Woche.  All was fine.

This is a fun story to tell now.  It is part of my Remembering Self.  And it was actually fun then, too.  It was a pleasure for my Experiencing Self.  The problem solving part was very spannend, and in my mind I knew it would be an interesting story (for me, if not you) to tell sometime.  Like right here.

The other day I was standing on Marienplatz with 500 people.  I was not watching the Glockenspiel (described in the last post).  I do not like going to see sights with masses of people.  Plus, I had forgotten the stories played out in the clock tower, which means that the show would have been empty for me.  Some people milling around in Marienplatz were engrossed in the clock tower goings-on.  But others were merely shifting from one foot to the other and cutting their eyes around at the other people nearby.  They didn’t know the stories either.  I have seen that glassy look in the eyes of lots of people in lots of places.  For instance, I saw this at Stonehenge:  People get off a bus, perhaps kids doing a post-college tour of England.  They run around, cannot get anywhere near the actual stones, and then get back on the bus.  None of them is clutching a guidebook by Rick Steves.   What has just happened?  Is this experience and millions like it at the Ponte Vecchio and the Effel Tower about to become part of the Remembering Self, providing existential pleasure?

I don’t think so.  I think there is another reason to go to Stonehenge and not have fun or learn anything, and what this is is the pleasure of the Socially-Validated Self.  Cliché plays a very, very important role here.  If we all pretend that it must be one of the more significant things in the world to see the Glockenspiel on Marienplatz, or see Stonehenge from a great distance, then forever people can tell each other that they “did it,” even if it provided no pleasure for the Experiencing Self and now plays no role whatsoever in the Remembering Self.  You just say "Stonehenge" or "the Eiffel Tower," and there are social benefits in the minute; gone the next.

When I was 20 years old, I named this the Emperor’s New Clothes of Travel.  If I am right, then some clichés have to be maintained because if not for them, there would not be enough resources left to keep the Socially-Validated Self alive and smiling.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 7:18 AM JUL 28, 2011