I had a lot of interests in college and one of them was French; I was actually a French minor. One of the many courses I took in the language I love was a class in 19th century French literature. Wait! Don’t fall asleep, I swear this post isn’t about the French romantics, well not really. In that course I learned about something the writers called ‘la petite mort’ or little death. It refers to the moment one’s heart supposedly stops during an orgasm and the spiritual release that follows. It came to mean much more though and as I recently realized, has a direct correlation to the travel experience.
More than great food or sightseeing, travel is essentially a collection of special moments. Maybe it’s my aging brain, but when I think back to a trip I don’t remember every detail. Instead my muddled brain conjures up the most impactful moments, be they positive or negative. I remember bungee jumping from the top of a soccer stadium in South Africa, but I have no clue what I ate for breakfast at the hotel that morning. For me the jump was a defining moment, something I now refer to as a little death.
La petite mort isn’t meant to have negative connotations, not really. At its core it is the brief moment of either melancholy or enlightenment following the expenditure of one’s energy. Originally it related to the sexual experience (only the French would feel melancholy after sex) but it quickly came to mean so much more than that. It came to represent a very specific set of emotions that spring up after any momentous occasion; something that took a lot of our physical or more likely emotional energy. Not only do these moments happen for everyone when they travel, but it’s ultimately what we’re all seeking.
Why do we travel? This is a necessarily complicated question, but there are a few major reasons. Relaxation, escapism and curiosity are amongst the top and they usually commingle in the process of anyone’s vacation. As I mentioned before, trips are a series of moments and we all try, whether consciously or not, to make these moments special, unique and unusual. We want to find these moments where great emotional energy is spent, where we become so overwhelmed by the history, beauty or majesty of a place that we experience these travel orgasms and the ensuing little deaths. They don’t all have to be life-changing encounters though, at least not by definition.
Before I first saw the Eiffel Tower, I was excited. I had dreamed about that moment and put a lot of emotional stock in the experience. When I first stood beneath the massive iron structure I was impressed and awed that I was finally there, at that spot and at the moment. Did I break down weeping? No. Did I wax romantically for weeks afterwards about the experience? No. But it was a little death because of the anticipation I had created and once I first saw it, there was a release, whether I realized it or not. For that particular experience, it was probably a mixture of melancholy and happiness. I was happy to be in Paris, but melancholy that a lifelong dream can be so quickly and unceremoniously realized. And that’s the double-edged sword of travel anticipation, many times we so romanticize and mythologize the experience that it can never, ever live up to our expectations. Like the French after sex, we feel sad, melancholy and probably guilty. It’s somehow our fault that the experience didn’t live up to our entirely unrealistic expectations.
That’s the mixture of love and sadness that travel can be at times, but it’s nothing to lament. It’s a part of the overall experience, whether it’s sadness at the end of a trip or about something that didn’t match expectations. Travel is a yin and yang process, and that’s the inherent beauty of the experience.
I’ve probably waxed philosophically too long, hopefully at least a couple of you are still reading this but I think it’s an important concept to keep in mind on your next trip, no matter where you go. Travel is a series of moments and we need to embrace them all, good and bad, learn from them and find ways to incorporate those lessons into our daily lives.
14 thoughts on “La Petite Mort – Finding Travel’s Little Death (It’s a Good Thing)”
Beautiful, eloquent piece, Matt. It would be lost on non-travelers, but it speaks volume to those of us who share your obsession. I did a lot of thinking about my own travels and where I want them to head in the future- I guess being around all of those travelers does that to people.
And I love the self-deprivating humor at the end about no one reading it- I think people who read blogs will read longer posts (not that the numbers on my blog back that up), but they do have to be well-written all the way through to keep people plowing forward. I’d love to read more of these longer pieces from you where you wax poetically in the future.
Great meeting you this weekend.
p.s. I’m man enough to admit that a few sights have brought me to tears the first time I saw them- Probably the most visceral reaction I’ve ever had was my first glimpse of Yosemite Valley from a place called Glacier Point back in 2011. Also, cried at the Western Wall, Milford Sound, etc…
Thank you so much Erik for your warm comments, they mean a lot. Glad I’m not alone in these feelings!
Nice analogy. It’s definitely wise to be aware and accepting of both the good and bad, light and dark of every situation. That is certainly true of travel but also of any other life experiences.
Thank you jenna!
I was actually surprised that I had this inexplicable elation going up the road, turning a corner, and seeing Machu Picchu. It was just a bunch of rocks stacked on top of each other. Would it really impress a jaded traveler? Yet somehow it did. But this sort of experience is rare, which is why it seems like most long-term travelers eventually move toward experiences rather than sightseeing.
Not just long-term travelers, it’s everyone. I’m not a long-term traveler, I have a house, family, etc. and yet I have these moments as do we all.
Thank you for this piece. It really did ‘speak’ to me?..and now I have a name, albeit a bit risqué, to put to my own incredible, special travel experiences.
Thanks Susan, so glad you liked it and can relate!
Great post and oh so educational. I loved the photo of the the Eiffel Tower. It made me die a petite mort (hahahahaha I’m hilarious). I’m learning not to go into travel experiences with expectations. Everything is so much better that way. It may sound odd but I thought I’d be bored by the Pyramids because they’re so Egyptian cliché. No. THAT was a petite mort. I could have stood there for hours. I was however, disappointed by Jerusalem and I had been looking forward to visiting that city for years! Strange how that works.
It is strange, but it’s that personal aspect of travel that makes it so very wonderful.
Language is one of the most interesting things about travel, I think. I love how other cultures have articulated things we have no words for in our language. Each place offers its own beautiful expression of life.
Travel is my passion. It brings deep feelings, like the person above who wept over certain sights. It’s great to travel with an open heart like that, being so fully alive in that moment. Nice post to read on a Sunday Matt, thanks!
Thanks so much Leah! I’m happy it resonated with you.
I love your eloquent words, because you capture much of what travel means to me. I “happened upon” this blog posting when searching for information about the origins of the words “la petite mort” (or “la petite morte”). My reading on this particular morning is happy coincidence. I have a deep love have traveled a lot, and I look forward to more. I am, at the moment,in Quebec, Canada, with the unknowns of my first full day in a new city awaiting me. That is one kind of travel experience, and another is the experience you describe saying, “I was happy to be in Paris, but melancholy that a lifelong dream can be so quickly and unceremoniously realized.” I was particularly moved by those words Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your posts, Matt.
I accidentally hit send before I meant to do so. My unclear sentence above should say, “I have travelled a lot and loved it, and I look forward to more.”
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