A Londoner's Diary; Alain De Botton Indulges in Caligula-Like Excess in Dubai but Fears That Hotels Cannot Make Us Happy

The Evening Standard (London, England), March 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Londoner's Diary; Alain De Botton Indulges in Caligula-Like Excess in Dubai but Fears That Hotels Cannot Make Us Happy


Falling in love and going travelling are the focus of some of the most intense fantasies in modern life. The simple sight of a beautiful, engaging person can be enough to set off daydreams of a contented future - and only a few minutes with a holiday brochure can inspire us to travel thousands of miles in search of a paradise with none of the discomforts and compromises of home. But if there's an analogy to be drawn between love and travel, it's that both experiences teach us that happiness is not as easy in reality as in anticipation - and that much of the reason has to do with how complicated we are.

We get grumpy and have conflicting wishes and are paranoid and anxious and tetchy. It's hard enough for us just to feel comfortable in a chair in the sun - the experience can be spoilt by too much heat or too much shade, the noise of a plane or of the hotel bar, anxieties about work or an unexpected desire for greater excitement.

That said, it doesn't matter how often love and travelling go wrong, how many fights we have and hotels we stay in that didn't turn out as expected, our appetite for love and travel seems insatiable.

What Oscar Wilde said about second marriages holds true for both processes: they embody the triumph of hope over experience.

It's a sign of how exciting travel is that there can be something romantic even about airports and harbours. My eldest son is currently in the grip of a ship phase, so last weekend we went down to Tilbury Docks, where you can see an impressive run of cargo ships sailing in from distant parts.

There's a common conception that London doesn't do ships any more, but the lower Thames is a busy place. Between Gravesend and the Woolwich Ferry, giant ships come to deliver much of London's gravel and its reinforced steel, its soya beans and its coal, its milk and its paper pulp, the sugar cane for its biscuits and the hydrocarbons for its generators.

The area is in its own way as miraculous as any of the museums or churches of the city, but few guidebooks are in the habit of drawing our attention to it.

There are some huge factories situated at the water's edge, close enough to scoop or suck raw materials directly from the holds of ships. They are at work manufacturing some of the less celebrated ingredients behind the orderly running of our civilisation: the polyoils added to toothpaste to help it retain its moisture, the citric acid to stabilise laundry detergent, the isoglucose to sweeten cereal, the glyceryl tristearate to make soap and the xanthan gum to ensure the viscosity of gravy. …

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