By David Pillow
I’ll soon be heading off to Germany and Switzerland, with plans to see castles, clocks and churches. We’ll start with the famous Marienplatz Glockenspiel in Munich, where nearby I’ll enjoy a Bavarian Doppelbock at the Hofbräuhaus ; then we’re off to stay in Lauterbruennen—Switzerland’s Valley of The Waterfalls; a giant cuckoo clock might make the itinerary when passing through the Black Forest to Freiburg; we’ll tread the philospher’s walk of Hegal in Heidelberg; and we’ll close off with the castles on the Rhine River at St. Goar.
The clock is ticking down, and I find myself busy with preparations, purchases upon purchases, German lessons, and exhaustive planning. My travel companions are quick to resist: “Let’s not plan too much.” They’re planning for relaxing spontaneity; a melding of self with new lands of enchantment. My half-sister, Jozeffa, anticipates “soaking” in the cultural surrounds; I’m thinking that “soaking” sounds slow.
I love to travel, but I’ve always been, as my buying habits might suggest, an anxious traveler and obsessive over-planner. I pack heavy with purchases designed to take care of every problem; in contrast, Rick Steves advocates traveling light and buying yourself out of problems after they occur. It’s an approach that I’m working on, but doesn’t come naturally. The obsessiveness is a double edged sword, of course. It aids in being adequately prepared, but it is also takes its toll. I’m already looking forward to taking a vacation from vacation planning, and getting back to more focused work.
So how do you plan your vacations? Do you make hour by hour itineraries? Or do you prefer a relaxed, serendipitous, let-the-vacation-come-to-you approach? As you consider that question, I invite you to consider an interesting distinction between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self” made by Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. Simply put, the experiencing self is who we are in the present moment: reacting, feeling, seeing, hearing, and thinking. The remembering self is the person in the past, seen through the lens of filtered memories.
At first, it sounds like a trivial distinction. But let’s look at an experiment conducted some years ago where Kahneman teamed up with physicians conducting colonoscopies. With patients awake for the procedure, the researchers made numerous assessments of pain during the colonoscopies, and then again one week after. At the risk of oversimplifying the study, imagine two patients: Aaron and Brandon. During the colonoscopy, Aaron reports pain on a 1 to 10 point scale. Aaron reports a 5, then a 7, an 8, then a 4, a 6, and near the end an 8 (very high pain). Aaron’s procedure lasts 5 minutes. Brandon’s procedure runs 5 minutes longer for a total of 10 minutes. In the first 5 minutes he also reports a 5, then a 7, an 8, then a 4, a 6 and then an 8—the same pain levels reported by Aaron. But after the first 5 minutes, the procedure turns out to be less painful in Brandon’s case. In the last 5 minutes he reports a 3, a 5, a 4, a 2, and a 3.
Now clearly, Brandon got the worst of the deal. He had all the same pain as Aaron in the first 5 minutes, but he also had 5 more minutes of pain—even though the pain near the end was reduced. Brandon’s experiencing self was worse than Aaron’s experiencing self. But things become quite interesting a week later. When asked to look back on the experience, Brandon reports that the procedure, as a whole, was less painful than what Aaron reports. Brandon’s remembering self is better (i.e., less painful) than Aaron’s remembering self. What we learn is that those last (i.e., recent) memories of the experience loom large, and become a lens through which the entire experience is stored in memory. The experiencing self can definitely differ from the remembering self.
Kahneman (in one of his talks) asks the following: Do you plan your vacations in service of your experiencing self or your remembering self? I find this an intriguing question. Contemplating it, I find myself wistfully conceiving of this experiencing self as mindful, absorbed, serene, slow, serendipitous, and connected. I recall my one previous European vacation running around London with my son and daughter—trying in vain to get our money’s worth from our pre-purchased London passes. In the midst of trying to check off my list of sites to see, we happened upon an open market full of marvelous cheeses, breads, pastries, and olives from various parts of Europe. It was a wonderful moment of serendipitous discovery where time seemed to slow, leaving me feeling better in touch with the foreign culture I had journeyed to see, the land, and my family.
In contrast, my first inclination when construing examples of the remembering self is to think of those moments of frantically rushing around London and Paris from venue to venue, snapping pictures of statues, and marking them off them off the list as on a scavenger hunt.
Of course, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would easily recognize that I’ve constructed faulty, confounded examples based more on sentiment than reason: both of my previous accounts are products of my remembering self; the memories of food in a market and of taking pictures of statues are cognitively synthesized representations of the past. One of those representations simply feels much warmer than the other.
I find it tempting to conclude that my travel companions are correct: that slower is better; that less is more. But I can’t give up that easily, and have one more European vacation story to tell.
After a long morning at the Louvre in Paris, my family decided to return to the apartment to relax. I instead, set out on my own for more site-seeing. Up to that point, we had spent the last week and a half in large museums and castles where it was too easy to get separated. I continuously found my wife wandering ahead of me somewhere, and either Jon or Amanda behind me. I would frequently get caught up in enjoying the art and the architecture, and then turn around to find myself alone. So I would hunt one or more them down, then I’d lose myself in the art, and the search process would start all over again. Differing interests, tastes, and travel philosophies (reisen philosophien) create differences in pace, thereby creating distance between travel partners.
Off on my own, I took off for Les Invalides. I moved slowly through displays of medieval swords and armored knights. Then I quickly bypassed the World War I and II era equipment to make my way over to Napoleon’s tomb. Across the street at the Rodin museum, I took a brief moment to contemplate a small version of The Thinker. And then I was off to the Pantheon, loving the ability to take each moment at my own stride without concern for coordinating schedules or finding others; I just saw what I wanted and then moved on. I remember those 2 to 3 hours fondly and warmly as well.
With each adventure I take, I increasingly appreciate that a “less-is-more” approach to travel facilitates the feeling of being absorbed in the experience. But I think differences in interests and pace require appreciation as well. My fast passed adventure to the Pantheon gets replayed in my head slowly and warmly as well. It was like going to see a great action flick and being totally absorbed in the movie.
So….if you were traveling and—like Drew Barrymore’s character in 50 First Dates—you knew that you would not recall any part of the experience the next day, how would you spend the day? Personally, I would start the day in the same way that I do now. I like to get up early and get out the door with a clear plan in mind. My travel pet peeve is starting the day with group machinations about formulating a plan. But once off, I think I’m slowly learning to let the day takes its own course, allowing for a little serendipitous discovery here and there. That only happens, of course, when the day is not overscheduled, and there’s no need to overschedule a day not remembered.
Interestingly, my wife takes a very practical perspective. She simply tries to keep herself from being exhausted at the end of the day, leaving her with pleasant memories of whatever she did as opposed to memories of being worn out. Pragmatically, I think that’s a pretty good of a philosophy—one that attends to the needs of the experiencing self, and thus simultaneously maximizes returns for the remembering self.
Prost! (Cheers!) Let me know your travel philosophy. And may you travel far, and bring home the best of memories!