Why Travel is Always Like a Woody Allen Film

Introducing the 5th Anniversary Issue.

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Owen Wilson

The characters of Woody Allen’s early films hardly ever leave New York. Until the 21st century, the city, for Allen, was sufficient. Then, suddenly, Scarlett Johansson made it to London in his 2005 Match Point. Vicky and Cristina went to Barcelona in 2008, and then—most memorably perhaps—Owen Wilson, hands in pockets, walked down the streets of Paris in 2011. Midnight in Paris, I’d argue, sees Allen at his drollest. I might be biased, though. Wilson plays Gil Pender, a screenwriter struggling to finish his first novel. Like him, I too believed Paris would give me flourish, a climax even. Sadly, I didn’t make it very far.

Paris, for writers especially, is a city that is easy to romanticise. The boyish Gil bumbles his way through life. He is bullied by his fiancée and his ambition is mocked by her parents. Yet, in Paris, he finds abandon. As he begins walking the streets of the city, he comes to be literally transported. At midnight, a carriage whisks him away to bars, to raucous parties where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. He falls in love with Picasso’s muse. More tangible than the cities we see are the cities we first imagine, and the 1920s Paris Gil moves through is the Paris of his fantasy. In the worlds of Allen, travel—time or otherwise—makes his protagonists come of age. The city changes Gil. He leaves his overbearing fiancée. He finishes that manuscript of his and he decides to make Paris home. But the city, in the end, is a bit irrelevant. It’s only a setting for change that’s personal and also enabling.

Although travel writing employs the first person point of view, it is often more interested in “where” we travel, not so much the “why”. Destinations eclipse the traveller. The observer, complex and elaborate, is sometimes hostage to his or her own objectivity. Anniversaries are of course occasions to celebrate and introspect, but they offer our experiments some amnesty. Our magazine is five years old, and we felt now would be a good time to take stock and ask a simple question—what do we (really) think about when we think about travelling? In the pieces we commissioned and compiled, we borrowed Woody Allen’s frames to draw maps that are more psychological than geographical.

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes, “Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.” This is the kind of discovery that Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty and a set of other voyagers first describe. For our second section, professionals talk to us about how their work defines their travel. Writers Amit Chaudhuri, Simon Winchester and Bee Rowlatt then speak about cities they either find strange or sublime. Destinations like Rwanda and the Philippines are seen through the eyes of locals, and finally, our contributors ask how Tinder, family and food now shape our varied itineraries. This time our page of contents is a list of our favourite things and people. We do hope you like them too.

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  • Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

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