Man is a Traveller with No Compass

Jacopo Ottaviani talks to Stefano Liberti

Jacopo Ottaviani: So, tomorrow you’re off to Afghanistan, and in two weeks I’m going to Odessa. Three months ago I was sweating in the forests of Borneo and you were travelling around Xinjiang, in China. Why do we do it?

Stefano Liberti: In my mind there are two reasons, open to different interpretations: the desire to escape our humdrum everyday existence; and then the desire to escape from ourselves. Sometimes we want to expose ourselves to new things, to the excitement of losing ourselves in difference, or perhaps escape from setting down roots. Or turn our backs on them, because we all have them. It’s part of the culture we were born in and we live in. 

Desire, escape, losing yourself, difference. It’s enough just to say these words to make a shiver run down the spines of us travellers, isn’t it? 

That’s just it. Now I’m a bit older – I’m 43 – and I’m starting to do a bit of a reality check, it’s different. But when you’re 20 it’s something else: you do certain types of travel, and later you do others. It depends on your age, to start with. 

You grow, together with your travels.

That’s true for me too now I’m nearing my thirties. Exactly ten years have gone by since my first real journey: interrailing in Scandinavia, the so-called ‘Zone B’, straight after leaving school. One month travelling with my cousin Luca. I still get a lump in my throat when I remember those places. Book by Jack Kerouac in my bag, notebook, camera. Out of thirty nights, we spent just ten in youth hostels: the others we slept on the floor, on the train, on the Viking Line deck that links Stockholm and Helsinki, on benches or at strangers’ houses. 

Interrailing’s got a place I my heart too. I hadn’t even turned 18 when I left to go around Europe by train. Then I went back to Rome and decided to go off again straight away. So I changed the date on the ticket, because back then they used to be written by hand. I ended up in France, in the Loire valley, then in Berlin and finally in Amsterdam to visit a couple of friends. Then the inspector saw my ticket had been changed and shut me in a cell for a few hours, but above all he took the pass off me. All I could do was try to get a lift to Italy. 

I found a lorry driver from Salerno who took me on board and I spent three days with him. He was of a completely different social extraction to me, and I still remember when he asked me: “What d’ya reckon to gettin’ off at Antwerp and stayin’ there for a few days t’ go whorin’?” And I answered, well, in three days I’ve got to go back to school…

You were 17. Now you’re over 40. What’s happened in the middle, between that first interrail experience and the trip you’re off on in a few hours, to a country like Afghanistan?

I’ve travelled a lot. When I was 23 I spent three and a half months in Mexico. Then I went on Erasmus to Paris. I got to know a group of truck drivers there too. I remember when I argued with my girlfriend in Rome I’d give them a ring and come back to Italy with them to carry on the argument. Not something everyone would do. 

Hitchhiking teaches you a lot about life: you end up spending maybe 17 hours with people you wouldn’t usually spend two minutes with, cooped up in a cab. You gradually get to be sincere, natural even. A skill that has been useful to me over the years in my work as a reporter and writer, for example following the migrants on their routes through Africa. And it still is today, in my day-to-day life. 

Getting to know others, losing yourself, you said at the beginning. But don’t you risk really getting lost and not finding yourself again? 

It depends. I wouldn’t say so, at least not completely. It moves you two ways: by travelling you risk getting out of touch with your social environment, especially if you’re surrounded by people who just stay put. But at the same time, if you travel, you find yourself more at ease in the world. I think that mankind is now divided into two major categories: the ones who stay put and, so to speak, the cosmopolitans.   

Let’s talk of escaping. 

We’re driven by a deep-down restlessness, which is then what fuels our travels. We’re always whirling round and round looking for something. 

Travelling paves the way for fascination, imagination, the unexpected. Danger, situations you can’t figure out straight away. Like in China. 

I remember the last time I went there. I wanted to hire a car but they wouldn’t let me. “You can’t read,” the hire company officer told me. And he was right, and that might have been just what I was looking for. Travelling is a state of mind, there’s no escaping it. Where it comes from, I don’t know. 

The eternal dilemma about free will. Nature vs nurture, as they say. Is it that we’ve inherited this restlessness from some obscure forefather? There’s no doubt that our personal upbringings have played their part. But in my opinion, to some extent we’ve got it in our blood.

A book I found when I was rummaging through the things of a grandfather I’d never known made a big mark on me. It was about Libya. Then I found another on sailing and on the Order of Malta. He must have been some type of spy, and he certainly was curious. I’ve found myself with similar obsessions in life – of course from a different angle due to the different eras – to a distant relative that I never knew.

Travel is an existential dimension. Our lives are a journey, if you think about it. It’s not just a question of mobility, of physically moving our bodies. It’s a one-on-one relationship between us and the reality we find ourselves in. It’s empathy. And a privilege.  

There’s an abstract picture at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It’s by Jean Dubuffet and it’s called Le voyageur sans boussule, the traveller without a compass. The first time I saw it – I often went to the library in the Pompidou to study during Erasmus – I was hypnotized for about an hour in front of this absurd painting. I went back as often as I could. Why do we travel? What direction are we going in? We chase after the meaning of life, but we never capture it. I think man really is a traveller without a compass.

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