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Delight in Getting Lost: The way to Travel by Walter Benjamin


Contrary to the norms of our own time, perhaps the best way to travel is to be willing to get lost.

In Berlin Childhood around 1900, the philosopher Walter Benjamin posited that to really know a city, it’s necessary to get lost in it. To the letter, he wrote in one fragment:

Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.

Benjamin belonged to a time when there was no GPS and perhaps not even tourist maps. Still less were the contemporary obsessions with knowing everything and always being prepared: the best times to visit this or that museum, whether or not it will rain in the summer, or if there’s Uber in a given city, and so on.

Instead, Benjamin believed in vagrancy and spontaneity. He trusted in surprise (though that sounds paradoxical) and he knew that frequently, knowledge and experience arise with the unexpected.

We remember Benjamin, but we could speak of a tradition of travel offset by the arrival of tourism. The traveler was someone heroic and adventurous, a risk taker, and that’s why the contrast is so sharp with the tourists who plan carefully, who know where to go, what to see, and where to eat.

Cuban poet, Jose Lezama Lima, said in an interview that “the journey is to recognize, and to recognize oneself.” And it’s possible that in these two thoughts there is a kind of spiritual brotherhood. The trip is a spatial movement, it’s real, but it’s also symbolic. We move from one place to another but also from one emotional state to another, and from one way of thinking to another. We discover things, our horizons widen, we realize that something that we had believed was true is, perhaps, not so.

Why not travel then with a bit of that spirit? Why not exchange a bit of immediacy for the tourist’s desire to control, to get the traveler’s amazement and the unexpected?

The question is perhaps even more elemental. Are you willing to travel this way, based on the premise that you need to lose yourself in order to find yourself?

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