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.