Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
The Italian author Cesare Pavese famously stated that “travel is a brutality”. He said it decades ago before security lines in London Stansted or passport control in Miami or the flight delays and missed connections that leave me writing this at 3am in Ataturk Airport, Istanbul. As they happen to you these may appear to be brutalities but, in the overall scheme of things, they’re no more than minor inconveniences and, really, they leave no mark. Mere first world problems.
Pavese’s brutality is an altogether different thing. It involves the radical change and transformation that travel brings about, if and when you allow yourself to be exposed to the full impact of the experience. Pavese is talking about being transported out of your comfort zone and discovering something about the world, other people, yourself that would simply not have happened without travelling. Travel is a brutality in the same way that the Holy Spirit is “destructive”, it forces change at the heart of your being in ways that are anything but subtle.
It’s worth looking at Pavese’s full statement:
Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.
Now I wonder whether I’ve ever really tasted travel as brutality? Have I ever encountered something far deeper than the customary but often fatuous enjoyment of a visit to a town, city or country not my own? Have I been carved out and shaped in any regard by over 40 years of travel?
When I think about it the answer is definitely yes but more on an aggregate or cumulative basis. My 4 decades as a traveller haven’t really involved stand-out individual moments of heightened “brutality” but I am who I am because of the travel opportunities that I’ve had and the people that I met along the way. Of that I’m certain.
Summers in Italy, Denmark and the US in my late teens were decisively formative for different reasons. In Italy in 1977, the year I left school, I participated in a “campo di lavoro” near Turin, discovered what peaches directly off a tree tasted like, took my first steps in Italian language and culture and made lifelong friends.
A year later I spent half the summer in Denmark and the other half in the United States. In Copenhagen I came face to face with a society where everything worked efficiently, buses came on time and sexual mores were liberal in the extreme. In Philadelphia, I met extended family that I now list amongst my best friends, saw Jackson Browne live for the first time and bought second-hand LPs in a tiny shop in Greenwich Village, New York. All immensely educative and formative, all experiences that moulded the person that I have become, shaped the values I espouse, formed the heart that beats inside me.
When I was 27 Rita and I spent a couple of weeks travelling from Ireland to Italy, our Toyota Starlet packed to capacity with everything we owned including Colm (aged 3) and Cliodhna (aged 3 months). We spent 1987 – 1988 living in Rome sometimes at odds with a culture and society we thought we knew but discovered to be different when up close and personal. By the time our Italian adventure came to an end we’d certainly been through the brutality of travel. But we matured, acquired more of a world vision, learned there were more ways to be a human being than being Irish!
Travel is a brutality because relationships are a brutality and travel, ultimately, is all about relationships, all about negotiating with and forging connections with different people and places. For relationships to prosper and deepen, there’s a lot of risk involved. You have to reveal who you really are to the other, show your vulnerability, your weaknesses, disclose your insecurities. In ways, you take yourself apart in order to find and accommodate the connection. But when you do this something magical happens. There’s a healing dynamic in the relationship that puts you back together again in a new and better way. You become a better version of yourself.
That’s what happens with travel too. As Pavese says, travel puts you out of your element, out of your comfort zone and often forces you to trust strangers (or strangers to trust you). We become people who need people: you’re lost in a neighbourhood in Brooklyn and need to reach out to another person to get back on the right road. You’re grounded in Frankfurt due to weather and encounter a crying woman who needs to get a message to her daughter waiting in vain in Dublin for the grounded flight. You’re cycling in the South of Ireland and stop to help a fellow cyclist with a flat tyre.
I’m deeply privileged that travel is at the heart of my professional life too and my work takes me all over the world, connecting me with new places and people all the time. Over the past 20 years, working with other Business Events professionals, I’ve had the immense satisfaction of being able to create travel experiences that fostered personal formation, maybe even transformation.
Working with my great friend Paul Eder, late of Protective Life Insurance, we created travel experiences in Dublin, Lausanne, Florence and Vienna that provided incentive qualifiers with way more than a luxury stay at an upscale property and some nice VIP tours. As enthusiastic, intrepid wanderers in our own right we felt the responsibility to make the travel experience truly meaningful in that “brutality” way that Pavese talks about.
Amongst other things, we offered highly curated Gala Dinner experiences that drew on the cultural depth of the destination in question, challenging the qualifiers with truly authentic artistic moments when it might have been easier simply to fly in a big name act from the US. Result: qualifiers upon whom the true imprint of the destination was left in their hearts and souls; qualifiers who returned at their own expense to the destinations first visited as all-expenses-paid qualifiers in the hopes of finding, once again, the brutality of travel.