High WASPs like to travel. My mother, one afternoon, put down the New York Times’ travel section, sighed, shook her head, and said, “I don’t need to read this. I’ll never see Finland again.” My father is prone to private safari-type expeditions, to Africa, to Vietnam, and the British Virgin Islands. Well, maybe not safaris in the Caribbean, but cruises involving boats, crews, and few other people.
In our generation, given the state of the once-great family fortune, travel is a little less glamorous. No less compelling. Between us the siblings have worked in London, France, and Shanghai. Studied in St. Petersburg. We’ve been to most continents, on holiday, on pilgrimage of one sort or another. I’d list the countries but your imagination can probably do a better job.
Why? I don’t think it’s just the fact that we can afford to. After all, many people with financial resources are happy to stay put. I believe the construct of the Grand Tour is still with us. That, and the desire to poke holes in the comfort of wealth.
The Grand Tour was a custom, originating in the 17th century, primarily English, in which young men graduating from Oxbridge would travel through Europe for several years. Upon their return, expanded cultural knowledge allowed them, we assume, to take their place in society. Needless to say, these Tours involved the usual activities of youth, trysts, gambling, intoxication. The reality diverges from voiced lofty goals. But the Grand Tour became a cultural keystone, embodying the idea that to lead one must know more than one’s backyard. Which, despite the colonial overtones, isn’t such a bad thought. Even though we, the High WASPs, are no longer the leaders of the Western world.
The 21st century, of course, has added the personal to the social imperative. The thing about growing up with money is that you don’t quite know what to trust. You are never sure what life would taste like if you really bit down hard. Blood on your teeth.
So we travel.
I admit, the travel isn’t without accoutrements. It’s not pure voyaging into a dark night. We think about the right wallet, the right suitcase, what to wear on an airplane. I have come to believe in Purell. My mother has a special travel bathrobe. I like black Pumas with Velcro fasteners.
It would be possible to imagine that portable comforts of home defeat the powers of new places. Having grown up in privilege, it’s very easy, as I said, not to know what to trust. To mock oneself for not having really had to fight. To decide that only the most difficult is worthwhile. But that’s not a way to make much progress. There are times when you have to relent. To say to yourself, “Fine. If I like belting leather on my rollaway suitcase, fine.” As I remember, a durable duffle doesn’t get in the way of India. You still have to brush the dust out of your hair at night alone in a hotel room.
Brought up in privilege, and full of nerve-endings, you are apt to feel guilt. You will feel the desire to know what you do not know. You will wish for courage. You will have some. Probably never quite enough. So you get on the train.
This is more difficult than I make it sound. But not unique. I believe everyone in privilege must face the same problem, how to test, and still forgive oneself.