Increasingly, contemporary travel writing divides into the kind which provides information about sights and experiences observed along the way and the so-called “journey of self-discovery.” The latter tends to comprise self-indulgent musings on the impact of travel on the psyche and emotional life of the traveler in search of transformative experiences. Travel writing, like so many other products of present-day cultural life, has come to reflect the prevailing preoccupation with the self. At the same time it is indisputable that being removed from one’s habitual physical and social environment is conducive to reflections on a wide variety of subjects unrelated to the direct and specific experiences the trip yields.

My recent six-week trip to five European countries was neither a fact-finding mission nor a sentimental journey of self-discovery, and only in small part a vacation. I went to Portugal, Sweden, France, and...

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