A bit of set-up is in order, this blog entry was inspired by Cheetos, my favorite snack food. There is a lot to say about how much I love this kind of snack, but if you are wondering how this relates to the the title above, then I urge you to read on.
In “The Art of Travel”, Alain de Botton writes that one of the principal motivations for taking a trip is to experience “The Exotic”. But it is the definition of the word Exotic that is at issue. He hints that our minds always turn to a main dictionary meaning, where exotic might be something “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual”. De Botton tries to pry us away from a notion that The Exotic must be radically different than what we are used to. He argues that differences in simple things like the design of a water faucet or a unique sign can be profoundly satisfying. In a pass through Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, de Botton encountered a directional sign:
“It is a bright-yellow sign, one metre high and two metres across, simple in design, a plastic fascia in an illuminated aluminum box suspended on struts from a ceiling webbed with cables and air conditioning ducts. Despite its simplicity, even its mundanity, the sign delights me, a delight for which the adjective exotic, though unusual, seems apt. The exoticism is located in particular areas: in the double a of Aankomst, in the neighbourliness of the u and i in Uitgang, in the use of English subtitles, in the word for desk, bailes, and in the choice of practical, modernist fonts, Frutiger or Univers.
If the sign provokes in me genuine pleasure, it is in part because it offers the first conclusive evidence of having arrived abroad.”
I agree that travel is exciting and satisfying, because things away from home, even if in the next region or state are just different, no matter how minor the detail. Our most recent trip was to Prince Edward Island, Canada. It is not too distant in terms of miles or culture and now it is an annual event for us. But even though we have been here many times, each visit does not fail to delight us in the small exotic ways that de Botton describes.
This is how it was last month, when Marcy and I made our annual visit to Sobey’s Supermarket in Amherst, Nova Scotia, which is on our way from the Halifax Airport to our Prince Edward Island cottage. The first satisfying and exotic encounter came as I rounded the corner into the snacks and drinks aisle and found the “Croquants au Frommage.” The label counseled me that this was a “Grignotine Á Saveur De Fromage” with sans gras trans. To be fair, the label included English descriptions as well, but somehow the idea of Croquants au Fromage was much more exciting than eating ordinary store-brand generic Cheetos, which is what the package was describing. The crunch and flavor of the French Canadian language labeled, store-brand Cheetos were really not up to what I expected, but nevertheless, there was an enjoyment in trying to decipher the foreign nutrition facts on the package as I ate a handful at lunch each day.
PEI is really not that distant culturally from here in Tennessee, but each time we visit we find pleasure in seeing that the sign for the local fishing Harbour is spelled with a ‘u’ and highway signs that caution us with “Lentement”. As de Botton asserts, even though the word exotic has traditionally been attached to more colorful things than what we describe here, the fulfillment of travel is found in these very small experiences.