WHEN WE TRAVEL

WHEN WE TRAVEL

A photo/essay by Stuart Thursby

A photo/essay by Stuart Thursby

The desire to travel has captured human imagination for centuries.

But how are we affected by the places we visit? And how do we affect our destinations with our presence?

This photo/essay contains a series of meditations on travel, emigration, conscious living and context, paired with photographs taken over the course of a nine-month stint living and working in Europe.

One of the principle joys of travel is the personal discovery of something new within our world. New sights and sounds, tastes and textures, peoples and animals, geographies and customs; the nature of each trip varies, but this motivation to discover something new is one of the core impulses that drives traveling for pleasure, whether visiting new destinations or revisiting old favourites.

While there is some precedent for this — witness the millennia of humans roaming the earth in search of food, land, and eventually other peoples to conquer — I find it likely that this desire has manifested itself as a reaction to the pressures of daily life, aided through the rise in travel's accessibility over the last few generations. Experiencing the rhythms of a different place provides a welcome respite from everyday stresses, replacing them with the thrill of adventure or the tranquility of relaxation and the entire range in between.

Yet when we travel, we bring with us the mental baggage of our own ideas and perspectives that define the framework of our trip. This baggage is shaped by who we are, where we grew up and who we grew up with, what our gender, race and sexual orientation is, our political and religious perspectives, our knowledge of history, science, the arts or other academic areas, as well as our specific interests and values. Travel is a universal impulse, but it's something that each of us experiences in a different way.

A couple look for directions in Nantes, France.

A couple look for directions in Nantes, France.

Yet within each individual experience, there are a few commonalities that exemplify the reasons why we travel, how our chosen destinations affect us, and how we affect the places we visit. We hold certain preconceptions, which inevitably colours our reactions to the trips we take; we also have our own standards of authenticity, which further affects our judgments of a new place; the change in our physical and geographical context pushes us to notice certain things we may not otherwise see; we are somehow more open to noticing the serendipitous moments that occur in front of us when we travel; and finally, traveling clarifies our notions of home and how we can best balance the desire to travel with the one to nest.

The exploration of these broader themes and their ramifications forms the spine of this piece, accompanied by a series of related photographs that I shot while living and traveling through Europe over the course of nine months in 2013/2014.

A couple read the plaque on a building in Barcelona, Spain.

A couple read the plaque on a building in Barcelona, Spain.

So, what's my story and personal context that defined my experience and prompted me to even create this photo/essay in the first place?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, an only child of divorced, white, non-church-going middle-class parents (Canadian mother with English roots, English father) with two step-parents and two step-siblings. During the second half of 2013 and the first half of 2014, I spent six months living in Berlin and three more traveling through Europe with nothing but a backpack and a camera. I was 26/27 years old and working as a freelance art director, so it wasn't exactly another addition to the get-wasted-and-hostel-hop canon of trips frequented by the early-twentysomething set. In addition, I had been shooting on a semi-serious level for ten years by this point, primarily focused on street photography.

Spending that much time alone with my thoughts as my primary company and source of entertainment, I gradually noticed that I kept asking myself a few questions. It started with idly wondering why we travel, but quickly moved beyond that to wondering how travel affects us, and how we impact the places we visit. When I moved to Europe, I had no thesis or even area of consideration; I was simply moving as part of a broader life change. But as I spent the majority of my time when I wasn't working walking around and shooting, these questions evolved into the several areas of consideration which form this piece, and they subconsciously shaped what I shot. I could sense the evolution of thought, as I was constantly considering — but not forcing an answer about — the reasons why I was drawn to what I was seeing, why it was reverberating with me, and why and how I was deciding to shoot the things I did in the way I shot them.

Waiting for a tram in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Waiting for a tram in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

While the subject matter — street — aligned with my existing interests within photography, I simultaneously and consciously shifted my approach to create a challenge for myself in response to my surroundings.

Europe is a familiar entity to many people for countless different reasons. With this in mind, I attempted to photograph these images in the most relatable way possible in order to ground it in a style that would feel familiar to my assumption of the typical North American reader. I shot in black and white, using a fixed-lens rangefinder, and I was almost exclusively dedicated to using the street as the setting and subject. I wanted this project to act as a considered counterbalance to the highly-filtered, highly-saturated, bubbly veneer of images that live on the social networks of Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, et al.

From this base, I adopted an approach to subject matter, framing and timing that depended entirely on serendipity. Supporting some of the thoughts that were running through my head, this "come what may" methodology factored into my decisions about where I would travel and for how long I would stay in each place as much as it shaped what I shot.

When we travel, we do so many things differently than when we are at home. There is a tension between the objective reality of a place and the subjective reality of our experience of that place. The things we love the most about travel are a product of our own brains, prompted by the excitement and wonder of new surroundings, but we tend to lose this perspective as soon as we return to the familiar rhythms and surroundings of daily life. Yet by opening our eyes to the moments of serendipity, beauty and humanity that surround us at home, we can imbue our daily lives with the same depth that we often associate with travel.

With travel occupying such a prominent role in our personal goals, communal hopes and financial considerations, I was drawn to investigate this tension through simple observation, using photography as a visual support to my written conclusions that's as rooted in my own personal "where" and "when" as it is in the overarching themes.

A woman walks through a square in Venice, Italy.

A woman walks through a square in Venice, Italy.

I

Preconceptions

I

Preconceptions

The impression we have of any new place is shaped by the preconceptions we carry of it before we arrive. These biases are rooted in our own personal context: where we grew up and who we grew up with; what our familial heritage is; our personal interests and tendencies; our exposure to certain films, books, TV shows, plays, music and other cultural artifacts; and what our friends, family, and acquaintances have told us about the place. We have an idea of what a place will be like that's defined by the place itself and our relation to it.

The formation of these preconceptions before we experience anything directly is a coping mechanism for the cacophony of daily life, helping us operate without over-intellectualizing every little detail. As a result, it's impossible for us to completely separate ourselves from our ideas of a place until we're physically there — even with the intent to be as objective as possible. Our unconscious judgments affect where we choose to go, and why we choose to go there.

(This begs a separate line of questioning: why do certain places call to us? Is it something primal, a visceral reaction to a photograph or video of a place that captures something we're lacking in our daily life? Or is it rooted in our ideas of what travel is generally like, based on our personal history? Or something else entirely?)

There is an ongoing conversation between our own subjective truth, somebody else's subjective truth that we've absorbed, and the objective truth itself until we visit a place and form our own firsthand impressions of it, exchanging preconceptions for experiences and expanding our idea of a place to include our own personal interpretations, both independent of and in further response to our preexisting ideas.

A woman walks with her son in Marseille, France.

A woman walks with her son in Marseille, France.

For example, let's look at one of the world's most popular tourist destinations: France. The country is frequented by millions of visitors per year; it's been the home country to countless films, books, TV shows, musicians, literary figures, philosophers, scientists and other individuals and pieces of cultural significance to the wider Western world; it's been a pivotal region in European and global history since the time of the Romans; its football players, race car drivers, bicyclists and many other athletes compete at the highest level, not to mention its role as host of world-class sporting events such as the Tour de France, Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix; it's home to the cliches of its culture as one of romance and the good life mixed with a particularly Gallic brand of cynicism; its culinary prowess and heritage is world renowned; its language has spread through emigration and cultural influence, sure, but it spread as well through its role as a colonizer, subjugating millions of people around the world in a race for land against the British, Spanish, Dutch and other colonial European powers. A country like France is not only well known as a place on a map, but as a culturally, socially, politically and historically relevant country to a significant percentage of the world's population.

For virtually anyone who has been afforded the opportunity to visit, it's impossible for them to not form prejudgements of what makes France French, ranging from the superficial — of the baguettes, berets and striped shirts variety — to the deeply embittered — for example, reactions to their historical role as a colonizing force.

A couple in Venice, Italy.

A couple in Venice, Italy.

Let's go a little deeper, and look at perhaps France's most famous landmark: Paris' Eiffel Tower. Push past any imagery that immediately comes to your mind, and consider the variety of different ways that people from other parts of the world could view the Eiffel Tower.

My initial thoughts are based on my own context; I see the Tower as an engineering marvel, a symbol of French industrial might that has stood as one of the world's most recognizable landmarks since the day it was built. Mulling the impression a little longer, I start thinking about how the Tower was built, how long it must have taken to build, how many people must have been involved in its construction, and a multitude of other practical, construction-focused questions. From there, my mind wanders to consider the other industrial wonders of the time, particularly the Statue of Liberty in New York, built by France as a gesture of friendship to the United States. Pushing my mind a little further, and my internal questions start to shift from how it was built to why it was built: what impression were the French trying to make with this towering, seemingly-out-of-place monolith? What were the Germans, English or Russians up to at this time that might have prompted such a piece to be constructed? This line of thinking inevitably ends with France's role as an industrial and colonial power, wondering how a contemporary citizen of newly-formed Germany or Victorian England may have looked at it, or how someone from a former French colony might view the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of imperial power when their direct or familial experience of France has been one of war, rape, turmoil and colonial greed.

Residents in Granada, Spain.

Residents in Granada, Spain.

I don't presume that these are the actual thoughts held by people from other parts of the world. But it gets me thinking about just how tangled and weighted the symbols of culture are — particularly symbols as prominent as the major ones found in Europe — and just how conflicted the impressions of them might be, depending on history, geography and circumstance.

I use France and the Eiffel Tower as a specific example, but think of any European country and you'll likely experience an onslaught of associated imagery, feelings or memories. There's even an entire category of objects that reflect Europe in a general way: cobblestone streets, ancient sites, varied architecture, endless culinary variations, and a multitude of other little or big differences that we've formed ideas of in advance of what life must be like "over there" compared to how it is "over here."

The significance of our preconceptions isn't that they exist in the first place, but that they exert a level of influence on how open or closed we are to experiencing a new place on its own terms. The degree to which this happens is impossible to say with certainty, as there are countless variables at play, most notably who we are as individuals and what we have done in our lives up to that point. If we have any ideas of what to expect from a new destination that we're about to visit, consciously or unconsciously, then those in turn define the framework that we use to decide if a place is true or not to its billing. The stories we tell after our return detail how a place met, exceeded, or failed to live up to our expectations, and we may be guilty of putting an undue burden on the place itself, when the reasons why we enjoyed or didn't enjoy a trip abroad have much to do with our own internal benchmarks.

A woman walks her dog in Saint-Émilion, France.

A woman walks her dog in Saint-Émilion, France.

To a degree, it's not bad to form some preconceptions. But in order to fully experience a place, we must take it on its own merits and consciously avoid as much internal bias as possible. Before departing, this requires thinking about what we're hoping to get out of a place, and considering why we have these thoughts.

This prompts us to question which of our preconceptions are valid — e.g. "I hope it's safe" (which further makes me wonder if our standards of "safe" are based on the actual, objective safety of a specific place, or if our comfort level is based on how we've defined "safe" based on our own surroundings, a standard that's impossible to apply to the same degree anywhere else on earth) — and which ones we can safely discard — e.g. "I can't wait to sip an early-morning cafe au lait in a roadside Parisian cafe." To me, that early-morning cafe au lait actually sounds quite lovely, but the experience should be based on the enjoyment of coffee, relaxation or the joy of new experiences in new places instead of as a required item to tick off a mental checklist of what should be done in a place. By doing this, we can start to truly take a place on its own merits instead of on our expectations.

This is the danger of preconceptions: not that they exist, but that they can transform a destination from something experienced in its own right into one that contains a laundry list of items that we race to check off before we move on. Preconceived notions contain elements of truth, but it's crucial for us to quarantine the role that our own experiences play in judging a destination in advance; not disregarding the thoughts, but separating them from our main streams of thought. This will in turn allow us to experience a place in a more authentic, true-to-itself way.

Flamenco in Granada, Spain.

Flamenco in Granada, Spain.

II

Authenticity

II

Authenticity

Closely linked with our preconceptions are the judgments we have once we've arrived at our destination, particularly concerning authenticity.

When we hear that word — authenticity — we consciously or subconsciously create a list of mental checkboxes that we require something to meet before we can accept it as authentic. We then compare anything we come across to this mental checklist — most notably the people or things that declare themselves to be authentic. We can generally agree on certain traits more than others, such as whether something is handmade or whether a person is consistently true to themselves. While these specific traits might be common, the threshold that they need to pass for us to judge something as rightfully authentic is unique to our own individual standards.

Now, apply this to travel. Countless magazine articles, books, travel blogs, trip advisors, tourism websites, automotive rental guides, recommendations from friends, roadmaps, apps and more provide a higher-level picture of what there is to see or do virtually anywhere on earth. Accompanying these guides are the insider's knowledge of the hidden, out-of-the-way places or things to do that provide that unique twist of local flavour. A dichotomy between types of travel exists, but publicizing it reinforces this separation into two distinct categories: the things that tourists do, and the things that locals do.

But does the fact of the tourism industry's existence, focused on the key places, people or things that shaped an area's history and importance, nullify the sites and objects themselves? Are there degrees of authenticity, or is it an absolute thing? Which is more "authentic", the trip where you focus on the known entities, or one where you seek out the unknown gems? And does it all even matter, compared to simply enjoying a trip abroad?

A tourist group rests in Florence, Italy.

A tourist group rests in Florence, Italy.

Take Venice. Storied; famous; culturally and historically significant, with a unique geographical situation that separates it from virtually any other city on earth. We've seen it on film; we've read about it in books and magazines; we've heard about it from people we know who've visited; our ideas of what "real" Venice must be like are more or less defined before we visit it ourselves.

So, when we do visit, we expect to see gondolas pushed by men in striped shirts; we expect to get lost in the winding canalsie walkways; we expect to be inundated with Venetian carnival masks, fake Italian leather, and an onslaught of other tacky tourist wares. And this is entirely the case.

Of course, there are areas of Venice which do not feel quite so tourist-trampled. But the economics of the place have been so heavily weighted towards sating the desires of tourism for so long that the current situation has emerged as a result, where the majority of Venetians live off the island of Venice itself, which has almost completely abdicated to the forces of tourism.

The question is consequently raised: is Venice still real? Is it more, or less, authentic than when the traditions that became its sources of international fame first appeared? When a city becomes an exaggeration of itself, what remains true to the spirit of the original, and what is transformed into pastiche?

It's too simplistic to dismiss any area, activity or site based on its popularity alone. The experience-hunter may stop in on some of the must-see sites, but to them, the real appeal lies in the hidden, out-of-the-way restaurants, bars, cafes or shops in the neighbourhoods that locals frequent more than tourists. To some degree they're right: this is undoubtedly a more local take on things, a perspective not always afforded to tourists who are more interested in cramming in the "must see" sites.

Carnivale celebrations in San Sebastian, Spain.

Carnivale celebrations in San Sebastian, Spain.

But my question isn't about whether something counts as being more or less local. Instead I'm asking, is that experience conclusively more authentic than a visit to the well-traveledtourist sites? And can such a judgement call be made with any degree of validity? For example, the Piazza San Marco is Venice's primary public square. It's huge, beautiful, and majestically penned in by St Mark's Basilica and the ring of baroque buildings surrounding it. English is heard everywhere, and the teeming mass of tourists gives the impression that if there are any locals there at all, their only function is to shill overpriced, tacky fridge magnets and Venetian masks to foreigners.

Sure, it might lack the local flavour of a hidden alleyway with an undiscovered restaurant on it — a type of destination that most travellers I've met along the way seem to seek out at least once per trip. But is the Piazza San Marco any less a truthful reflection of the changed role of Venice?

To Venice, tourism isn't an inconsequential business. It's a defining force of the city's fabric, and the expectations of its visitors shape that. This "Tourism Effect" shapes the public face of a city in its own image, elevating the traditions of a place to the level of parody; Las Vegas comes to mind as the perfect example of how extreme this effect can become. But while this rips the heart out of what made the place unique in favour of a simulacrum, the result is still a truthful commentary on what a city or country has become.

These notions of authenticity are inextricably linked to our preconceptions, and the local tourism industry presents us with that idealized reality. By meeting in the middle, all parties stay in this relative "safe zone" of expectations. This is why discovering something new off the beaten path holds such power, but it's important to not lose sight of the fact that those tourist traps are popular for more reasons than solely their popularity: they helped shape that particular culture and country.

An elderly woman sells flowers in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

An elderly woman sells flowers in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Looking at this tension between the popular places and the hidden ones, I start to wonder: Why does a larger crowd tend to signify a lack of authenticity, whereas a smaller crowd tends to make us feel like we're experiencing something more real?

We often feel like something is more authentic if we're physically, emotionally or contextually closer to it, but a large crowd signifies a lack of reality just as much as a small crowd signifies a greater degree of it. Where issues come up is when the hunt for the authentic experience condemns the known tourist sites for being less authentic simply by virtue of their popularity — or, conversely, when the hunt for the authentic is itself dismissed as the pursuit of the arrogant and judgemental type of traveler.

My point is that it takes both extremes to build up a culture, and while they may reflect very different sides of that culture, the forces of tourism are as much a part of the fabric of a country as the forces of history. That we often choose to focus more on one at the expense of the other is a fault with our own individual selves, not with the place we're visiting.

A greater awareness of how we judge the authenticity of an experience, paired with a conscious separation of those thoughts from what we're directly experiencing, can help solve this dilemma. There is more complexity to any place on earth than what gets presented in the brochures, and letting go of our notions of "greater" or "lesser" authenticity lets us further take a destination at its own value.

Costumed opera ticket salesman in Vienna, Austria.

Costumed opera ticket salesman in Vienna, Austria.

III

Geography

III

Geography

Think back on the times you've traveled in your life, and how many differences you noticed on those trips compared to your home. New geographical situations; subtle or distinct changes in the people, the food, the customs, or the position of the sun; any of virtually countless other differences. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that so much is so new to us is a prime reason for travel in the first place, and by changing our physical context, our brains are primed to pick up on these differences from what we consider to be "normal."

For instance, I was happily stunned by the proximity of the Alps to the downtown cores of various small cities in Austria. I was aware of this geographical reality ahead of time, having previously visited southern Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy, but I still could not help having a series of visceral, "wait, is this actually real?" reactions. Meanwhile, the locals simply carried on with their daily lives, likely thinking more about matters like whether they have to pick up the milk or not than considering the geological drama of the area. Given enough time, the initial novelty of any new place wears off, and the appreciation of its individual character tends to fade as well.

Visitors to Ljubljana Castle in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Visitors to Ljubljana Castle in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Think about your typical day at home, and the mundane things that take up the bulk of your mental focus. Contrast this with how excited tourists or newcomers are to see the place you live — an excitement that, to you, has faded, if it was even there in the first place. We respond to differences, and with a greater number of differences surrounding us when we travel compared to what's present in our "normal" life comes a greater awareness of those differences, meshing together the cause with the effect.

Residents rest on the famous bridges of Ronda, Spain.

Residents rest on the famous bridges of Ronda, Spain.

There's also the familiarity of Europe to consider. Our ideas of what defines its "Europeanness" are influenced by our familial histories and our own personal cultures as well as the broader influences of culture, history, and the other contexts I detailed previously when discussing France. In the Americas, our official languages are English, French and Spanish, with the rest of the European languages represented to greater or lesser degrees. Our society is influenced to one degree or another by European tastes or traditions, ranging from our political structures to styles of architecture, film, food and more. It's certainly far from a universal truth, but for hundreds of millions of North, Central and South Americans, Europe is not just a region of the world that's shaped global history; it's some part of their heritage.

And yet, when we travel there our perspective can be nothing else but that of an outsider. No matter how close we might be to family or friends in Europe or how familiar we are with it, it's impossible for us to truly know what it's like to come from any other place besides where we grew up. No matter how often we visit, we will always be at least one small step removed. Immigrants have spoken of this feeling of being split in two, not fully a part of either their former country or their new one. Even moving to Germany for only six months, I started to notice this mental divide start to take hold as the new and novel became the familiar and routine.

A woman looks out from the top of the Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France.

A woman looks out from the top of the Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France.

Our status as outsiders initially leads us to register every humdrum detail. The point isn't that "they" do things differently than "we" do — that much is a given — but that we knowingly and unknowingly notice far more of these little changes. In the same way that we notice more about a new job or a new home, the elation of discovery that accompanies our arrival in a new country heightens our awareness for anything different from what we're used to back home.

As a born-and-raised North American, one of the clearest points of difference to me is the physical geography of the two continents. The absurdity of fitting a four-door sedan through the tiny, winding alleyways of Italy and France is charming; the confusion that accompanies driving on the wrong side of the road in England is frustrating; the proximity of towns, cities and countries to one another is noteworthy compared to the vast scale of North America; the sheer fact that we can travel through streets, fields and rivers that once bore witness to some of history's bloodiest battles and most prominent people, groups and countries; these impressions all leave me with a sense of longevity and human evolution that virtually nowhere in European-influenced North America can hope to match. It's a fairly obvious statement to make, but it's an equally powerful feeling once immersed.

The allure of visiting an unfamiliar place forces us away from what we know, and pushes us to modify our views on the world. Even if we think we know what we'll see in advance, we don't know for sure what it will be like until we get there. Geography provides the backdrop and in many cases the prompt for the series of insights, revelations and new experiences that are such an indelible part of travel.

A boy follows his friends in Marseille, France.

A boy follows his friends in Marseille, France.

IV

Serendipity

IV

Serendipity

In the previous section, I wrote about how we notice more things around us when we are placed in new physical contexts. This phenomena in turns helps us notice the things that are happening around us within these physical contexts: the unique confluences of people and events into moments of serendipity.

An elderly couple looking at a map in a certain way; a street performer putting on makeup just before heading into the main square; a young woman in a striped dress accentuating the shadows and crosslight of the setting sun; a few people waiting for the bus with an equal amount of space around them, visually demonstrating our psychological "comfort zones"; the moments are endless in possibility, and they have just as much a chance of occurring at home as they do when we travel.

Two elderly women chat in Bilbao, Spain.

Two elderly women chat in Bilbao, Spain.

But since we notice more while in new places, the events that occur in front of us can carry an extra level of significance as humble commentaries on the human condition, society, or any other topic. It becomes not just a group of kids playing a game of football on the street, but a symbol of physical activity, play and the power of sport and the high stakes of competition; it's representative of issues of national or individual identity and teamwork; depending on the location or visible characteristics of the kids themselves, it might be a commentary on class, race, immigration or other broader social issues. Meaning is inherent to even mundane events, and at least from my experience, I'm simply not as aware of those layers of meaning within the events that occur in front of me when I'm in a familiar situation as much as I am when I'm somewhere new.

These moments contain a greater level of insight on humanity than most of the things we emphasize seeing when we travel — museums, monuments, etc — and the effort required to notice them is effectively nil in comparison. These little slices of life are constantly occurring around us every day of our lives, but it takes the physical and mental changes that occur within us when we travel to fully appreciate, notice, reflect and expand upon what are symbols of something larger.

Friends play football in Venice, Italy.

Friends play football in Venice, Italy.

This particular argument isn't intended to emphasize that one form of traveling is superior to another, but rather, to note that the things you can take away from certain moments within a trip differ in nature and impact from others. The level of learning that can come from a museum or art galley is deep but relatively finite, as we tend to go into "museum mode" as soon as we enter the front doors. Roam the streets for a few hours and pay attention to what's happening right in front of you, and you may or may not learn more about life, but chances are you'll pick up something in a very different, and potentially more memorable way by virtue of firsthand versus secondhand experience.

This level of laser focus isn't required to reveal meaning in these moments of serendipity. I see it as simply a method to shift our mindset away from the autopilot-engaged mode that often accompanies our vacation selves. It's not even a method that's locked to certain countries, cities, or types of travel; I'm using the example of wandering through cities purely because that was how I spent the bulk of my traveling time in Europe. The same insights can be gained just as effectively from turning a slightly more active eye to fellow beachgoers on an all-inclusive resort as you might to fellow strollers on the streets of Budapest.

A woman waits to cross in Bilbao, Spain.

A woman waits to cross in Bilbao, Spain.

These moments often become some of our most treasured memories from travel. The time we spend between the hustle of itineraries and checklists reveals the truth beneath the platitudes that often accompany traveling: that we are all connected, that we all live on the same earth and want the same basic things, and that in anything there can be moments of beauty. We may go for the monuments, but it's the memories of the moments in between that tend to stay with us the most.

A nun uses her phone in Prague, Czech Republic.

A nun uses her phone in Prague, Czech Republic.

V

Home

V

Home

The afterglow that follows a trip can last a few days or weeks before it recedes into the middle distance of memory. Eventually, a few individual recollections and the broadest impressions of a place are mostly what remains, with gaps in the memory growing enough to compress the length of time you were gone and the series of events you experienced into a sentence or two mentioned in passing.

The insights I've detailed in this piece are inherent to travel. The conscious observation of individual moments; the role of serendipity as a guiding force in defining the day's proceedings; questions related to authenticity or preconceptions, raised as a result of experiencing something that you may or may not have expected. Why does this conscious approach to life disappear when we return home? Why we do we immediately revert back to our regular routines and lose the perspective that comes along with seeking out new destinations, meeting new people, and having new experiences?

A man reads with his cat in Lyon, France.

A man reads with his cat in Lyon, France.

To a certain degree, this process is a side effect of the reasons why we travel in the first place: to shake things up a little bit, and offer a temporary escape from our daily troubles. Once we're back in our regular context, it's only natural for our focus to return to those issues.

But why does the difference have to be as stark as it is?

Why must we work 50 weeks a year to give ourselves 2 weeks off as a reward, when so much of what we take away from travel actually comes from within us, and only surfaces when prompted by a change of scenery? It's not the exotic beach we travel to that grants us insights into the deeper meanings of life; it's the shifts that happen within us as a result from traveling there that grants us that.

Friends play in Bordeaux, France.

Friends play in Bordeaux, France.

What can we do, as individuals, to hang on to some of these bigger-picture, appreciation-of-life realizations that are a crucial part to making the most out of travel when confronted with the forces of groceries, in-laws, parking tickets, an irritable boss, and the hundreds of other concerns of daily life?

I don't have any specific answers that will work for you, because any conclusions I've arrived at are a result of my own past experiences and thought processes. But my goal with this project wasn't to provide answers but to ask questions, and get the same process going within you, the reader.

But what gives me the right, as a middle-class white male Canadian visiting relatively safe and known countries and cultures in Europe to speak about the inherent truths that come with travel, when I've yet to travel to most of the world's countries?

Who am I to speak of insight when others go on much more adventurous or exotic trips, embedding themselves within cultures and people that are completely different from what they know?

What legitimacy does my relatively comfortable, urban-focused trip have as a claim to deeper truth, when so many millions around the world are forced to move from their homelands due to war, genocide or famine, and when millions more are separated from their family for years or decades at a time in pursuit of a better income and a better life for those back home?

Who am I to speak of the philosophy of travel when all I've known is North American comfort?

Friends in Florence, Italy.

Friends in Florence, Italy.

The obsessive, goal-focused culture that's inherent to our Western, capitalism-at-all-costs society has made it, for better and for worse, what it is today. For the hundreds of millions who live in this society, this is what normal is, and we largely can't conceive of what life is like for the billions of others who are less well off than us. The move from Toronto to Berlin in pursuit of work, and the travel that followed, was an undeniably selfish move to make.

But buried within is a certain truth: that travel is often the antidote to what's negative about our culture. When we change our physical context, we change our viewpoint, however slightly, and in a world as complex and torn apart as ours can be, gaining a sense of the actual diversity of lifestyles beyond ours is a good thing. It trades the absolute judgements of "us vs them" for the nuanced judgements of "us and them."

A man and his daughter in Bordeaux, France.

A man and his daughter in Bordeaux, France.

We recognize this on a subconscious level, returning from our travels abroad and speaking of the magical moments, people and experiences that most reflect these deeper human truths that we're mostly shut off to when we're stuck in our own heads. But we can do more.

I'm not calling for everyone to take a year off and dive into a transformational trip abroad. For millions of people, this is unpractical or impossible, and such a drastic step isn't always needed.

What I'm calling is for you, the reader, to take away the simple conclusion that has come to define my year abroad: that the things we most love about travel are a product of ourselves, not of the places we visit. By opening our eyes by even the slightest amount to the moments of serendipity and humanity that surround us at home without our realizing it, we can imbue our daily lives with the same depth that we associate with travel.

Life is beautiful, just as much here at home — wherever that is — as it is on the most beautiful beaches of the South Pacific, the town squares of Europe, the villages of South America or the vast landscapes of North America and Australia. All it takes us a little more observation for us to start to accept the world on its own terms, both when we're at home and when we travel.

A couple embraces at a football match in Bordeaux, France.

A couple embraces at a football match in Bordeaux, France.

This project was conceived and photographed between August 2013 and April 2014, and written and produced between April and July 2014.

With special thanks to Heather Morton, Jim Panou, Eric Karjaluoto, and Tim Bickert.