Taking a Break from Electronics: Travel Sketching
In our electronics-obsessed world, I've become more and more alarmed about how our devices are changing our experiences. Let me start by saying that I'm no better than anyone else. I'm writing you on my iPhone right now, and I plan to write more about how to use technology while you travel. Electronics have huge benefits for communication and sharing ideas, entertainment, and above all for me, making a complicated world of far-flung friends and family feel much more manageable.The impact of technology in travel is a great gain in being able to record experiences. On the other hand, it seems to me that the need to record things often distracts from enjoying the moment or making any real observations at all. Recently, Italy changed a regulation that made photography allowed in places it never had been before- state museums. I'd been sneaking pics of David for years, but now that it's legit I'm sort of alarmed by it. Rather than a gallery full of people admiring incredible art, it's a gallery full of selfie sticks, a mad rush and jostle for the perfect shot, like someone is giving away free chicken wings or something. I don't see nearly as many people simply soaking in the experience. Tourism seems to be all about rushing these days, as if it's the Great Race against oblivion and you must check all of the boxes on the mystical Bucket List before you expire. I really hate that phrase, Bucket List, because it adds such a strange competitiveness to something that used to be about experiences and changing perspective. I'd argue for something more old fashioned. More civilized, sort of like the Grand Tour. Slow and easy, with lots of witty reparté and wine. So let's take it back a few years, back to when sitting and looking at something without all of the beeps and buzzes of our phones distracted us.I've been playing with notebooks and sketchbooks lately. Carrying actual pens and paper like I did in my student travel days. Travel sketching has been really gratifying. Turning off my phone and spending just a tiny bit of time actually observing my surroundings. Writing things I hear people say on paper. Sketching a building. Painting a watercolor while sitting in a cafe. I could have recorded all of those things more accurately and efficiently with my phone, but when you add the muscle movement of writing or drawing, something magical happens. Those moments are recorded far better in my memory. The pleasure of the moment also increases.I had about and hour and a half before a train ride the other day. I decided to spend it by exploring a church near my hotel in Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore. I wandered around inside for a bit. I know the general history of the building, and idly looked at paintings and read their descriptions. But after being on tour for 6 weeks, I was sort of maxed-out as far as information goes. I just couldn't look at another painting or read another historical description. So I went to sit down for a cappuccino.I found myself a nice spot to sit and observe the piazza and church facade, doing some people watching. I keep a small sketchbook and paint set with me, which I don't use often enough, so I broke it out and started drawing. It felt so good to draw. It isn't an intellectual experience. It's like being a baby again and feeling someone's face to understand them better. Almost like a meditation, I sat for 40 minutes and just slowly drew. Listened to the people next to me chat about the news. Enjoyed the funny looks people gave me as they walked by and noticed I was drawing.Drawing or painting elicits a hilarious response from passers by, they are fascinated, I felt like I was a magician conjuring a snake out of a hat. It doesn't even need to be a particularly good drawing. The reality is that anyone can draw. Yes. You too. I don't care if you stink. That's not the point. Recording your surroundings with a pen and paper will enhance your visit and not nearly enough people do it. I don't draw exactly what I see, I draw what interests me about a scene. If you try this experiment you will find something interesting. The time you spend doing it isn't wasted. It will probably be the time you remember best. What I saw....What I drew.Ok, so yeah, I am an architect and you may think it's unfair to tell others that they can do this. But I say it is more about the process. I've been leading family tours these past few years and have experimented with having kids take the time to sit and draw. In the art galleries, I noticed a huge improvement in the level of engagement from the kids when they were asked to choose something to draw. It was inviting them not just to look, but to participate in the art. And you can too. So that's my challenge for you on your next trip, don't just record, participate however you can. Bring a sketchbook or scrapbook along for the ride. You'll be glad you did.