I recently read Goethe’s Italian Journey, an account of the famous German writer’s trip to Italy in the 1780s. At the end of my review, I promised I’d share a few pieces of wisdom that I picked up from reading Goethe’s account. It’s amazing how recognisable some of his experiences are. Close your eyes, and you can almost imagine nothing has changed. This got me thinking, and I ended up going through the text looking for a few lessons Goethe might have been trying to impart on his readers. So, without further ado, I’d like to present…
The Top Five Things Goethe Can Teach Us About Travel
#1: Enjoy the Ride
I don’t know about you, but when I’m really excited about going somewhere (Rome, London, the new frozen yoghurt place down the road) I tend to get so excited about where I’m going, I forget to sit back and appreciate the trip. The same thing happened to Goethe.
I am on my way to Innsbruck. How much I fail to notice to right and left because of the goal by which I have been so long obsessed that it has almost gone stale in my mind!
Italian Journey, Part One – Munich, 6 September
#2: Always Check With the Relevant Authorities Before Photographing Public Buildings
It’s advice found in all the travel guides; some places just don’t let tourists take pictures of their bridges/parliament buildings/state prisons. But people never listen (just visit the Sistine Chapel on any working day if you don’t believe me). But perhaps they’ll listen and learn from Goethe’s experience.
As I had planned, early in the morning I walked to the old castle … I had found an ideal spot for drawing … Quite a crowd gathered. I realized that my drawing had caused a sensation … At last a somewhat unprepossessing-looking man pushed himself forward … and asked what I was doing there … This was not allowed, he said … I retorted that I didn’t know what he was saying. At this … he tore the page up, though he left it on the pad.
Italian Journey, Part One – 14 September
Take a leaf out of Goethe’s book, kids (though not quite so violently as that man did). Always consult a nearby policeman/soldier/Swiss guard.
#3: No Matter How Dirty the City Is, Remember You’re Still a Visitor There (and Therefore Workshopping an Intricate System of Public Drains Will Probably Not Be Appreciated by the Local Government)
Part of the fun of travel is seeing new places. Of course, sometimes new places might not have the same standards of cleanliness as we do. The important thing to remember is, of course, to always be respectful.
Today was Sunday, and as I walked about I was struck by the uncleanliness of the streets … there is no logic or discipline in [the] arrangements. The dirt is all the more inexcusable because the city is as designed for cleanliness as any Dutch town … As I walked, I found myself devising sanitary regulations and drawing up a preliminary plan for an imaginary police inspector who was seriously interested in the problem.
Italian Journey, Part One – 1 October
#4: It’s OK to Buy a Souvenir or Two (Just Make Sure it Can Fit in Your Suitcase Beforehand)
Yesterday, for my eye’s delight, I set up in the hall outside my room a new cast, a colossal head of Juno ….
Italian Journey, Part One – 6 January
The statue Goethe is referring to is this enormous head of Juno:
Lovely, I’m sure, but a little difficult to pack, especially when you consider the weight restrictions on most European airlines.
#5: Travel is a Learning Experience
Go to the Colosseum today and you’ll probably see something like this: tourists texting on their iPhones; people valiantly trying to document the entire building by snapping pictures of every detail, including the modern drainage system; elderly visitors struggling to work the audioguides; schoolchildren putting gum in each other’s hair in-between posting status updates on Facebook. It seems our friend Goethe experienced this issue too; but despite the distractions of the modern world, he tried to experience everything in a deeply artistic, profound, and inspiring way.
… in our statistically minded times, all this has probably already been printed in books which one can consult if need arise. At present I am preoccupied with sense-impressions to which no book or picture can do justice … Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? … Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?
Part One – Trento, 11 September. Early morning