Andrew Solomon (born 1963), president of the American PEN, professor of psychology at Columbia University and writer on a wide range of subjects is one of my absolute favourite contemporary thinkers. [I have explored his award-winning book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001) on my other blog.]
Solomon’s latest offering Far and Away (2016) comes with two different subtitles. The US Scribner edition is called Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years while the UK Chatto & Windus version is Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World.
Like Solomon’s other writings, this chronicle of his world travels through the years is deeply personal, full of intelligent literary references and incisive observations on politics, culture and the human condition. You fill find here material on the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Taliban, Tahitian islands, even expeditions to Antarctica (that’s why “seven” continents).
As he begins this book, Solomon the consummate adventurer and explorer, discusses the ways in which travel changes us psychologically. He puts it briefly and beautifully:
Travel is an exercise partly in broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distils you to a decontextualised essence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place. In part, that is because people make different assumptions about you: expectations relate to your nationality rather than to the nuances of your manner of speech, the cut of your clothing, or the indicators of your politics. Equally, travel disguises you; one can feel oddly camouflaged and anonymous wrapped in the sketchy preconceptions of others.
He adds a little later:
Travel makes you modest; what is prestigious at home can seem irrelevant or ludicrous abroad. You cannot rely on the veracity of your opinions in a country where standards are different. You often cannot understand why something is funny there; you sometimes cannot understand why something is sombre. You can question your own standards of humour, solemnity, even morality. Familiar landscape cushions you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous. But in a strange place, you become more fully evident: who you truly are is what persists at home and abroad.