Freedom and the Modern Traveler

Places des Artes, Montreal's Nuit Blanche 2010This past Saturday was Montreal’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night long festival which included, among its many attractions, light installations, musical performances, nude figure drawing classes, fireworks, movies, ice slides, fashion shows.

Museums and art galleries were open all night or near to it, as was the Metro, and there were hundreds of thousands of people out and about that night, or at least that how it seemed to me when I set out into it at about 10 p.m.

The underground tunnels that are Montreal’s underground city were transformed into art galleries, but there were so many people pressed into the subterranean space that I started to feel somewhat panicked. (I was bundled up in my North Face extra-warm coat which I’ve dubbed the “pet coat” because I feel like I’m zipping myself into an animal suit when I wear it —  this didn’t help my feelings of claustrophobia.)

I emerged through the Contemporary Art Museum, and once outside, into the blessedly chilly air at the Place des Artes. It was lit with cone-like fabric sculptures glowing red, and a giant illuminated dome, an “ambiosphere” branded by L’Oreal. There was a free light show inside, evidently, but the line was long and I was still feeling antsy around crowds. I decided to head for Old Montreal to visit the DHC Gallery.


As I walked, the crowd thinned out, first to small groups, then a few couples, and then I realized I was all alone.

I was not far from the gallery, but I stopped beneath Ye Olde Streetlight to consult the map.  I could hear the sounds of Nuit Blanche continuing all around me – there was the sound of music from several places and the barest hint of the crowds that I knew were not far away, but there was not a soul within eye shot. Within the few moments it took to get my bearings,  a taxi drove by and soon a few people walked past.

But I realized that my fundamental solitude hadn’t changed. I was traveling alone,  I knew my husband had already fallen asleep back home, and wasn’t expecting a phone call, in fact, no one was expecting me anywhere at all until the next day. I could go anywhere, and do anything, anything at all that night.

Freedom versus Fatigue

So what did I do? First, I took my time enjoying the DHC – the first North American exhibit by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahitla. Then, standing on the street outside the gallery, I hesitated for just a moment before deciding to call it a night.  In the battle between fatigue and freedom, fatigue emerged victorious.

As I walked back to the Hotel le St. James, I passed by a small group of revelers, in about their mid-twenties  — or I should say, they passed me, they were practically dancing as they raced to wherever they were going next. I smiled at their excitement. And with a somewhat quieter happiness, looked forward to my comfy four-poster bed.

Your Custom Constraints

I thought about my Nuit Blanche this morning when I read Uncornered Market’s excellent post on whether blogging about travel influences the way you travel.  Do bloggers structure their  itineraries around destinations or activities that they think their readers will respond to, rather than making plans solely on their own proclivities and inclinations? It’s a familiar question for travel writers, and indeed, all writers who must try to match their interests with that of their audiences.

But it’s also an increasingly relevant question for all travelers: with Facebook, Twitter et. al., we all seem to have our little audience that we’re performing for, the group we’ve gathered to watch the reality show starring us, as we watch the reality show starring them.  How much of your travel agenda happens simply because you’re anticipating sharing it on social media? How much does that influence you, how does it shape your plans? Does it push you to stay out later, to squeeze in another experience that night? These questions carry some heavy freight, since they touch on issues of integrity: how much do you follow your own path; how much do you allow others to influence you? They also light on issues of ego, and resilience: do you consider of the needs of your audience at the expense of your own?

I believe that these are really questions about a traveler’s freedom. We have an enduring ideal of the completely unattached and unbound traveler, whose path is forged by whim and fancy. But travel is never completely free – we are all bound by a custom assortment of holds, straps and fetters. It could be a budget, or a travel companion. Or it could be the people back home with whom you want or need to communicate.  Or it could be the host of conflicting internal imperatives we all grapple with, like the urge to the gym, or take a nap, or the overwhelming desire to sit and stare at a blank wall for a while. For writers, whether professional, quasi-professional or amateur, our audience and its desires (both real and imagined) are simply another constraint to take into account. Even for the most dedicated  of travel writers, I’m not at all sure it’s the most important one.

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