Photograph by Philip and Karen Smith, Getty Images
Photograph by Philip and Karen Smith, Getty Images

Making Obligation Travel Meaningful

Here's how to get the most from a trip out of town, even when it's not a vacation.

One of my all-time favorite travel experiences lasted just half an hour. I was with my former college roommate, Keith, and we’d just spent the weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, for a friend’s wedding. The weekend was tremendously meaningful and great fun, of course, but now all that lay before us was the long drive back to Memphis, flights, emails, work, and Monday morning.

We made it back to Memphis with an hour to spare, and after some cajoling I convinced Keith—he was always the responsible one—to make a quick stop for a snack before we resigned ourselves to the real world. I opened the map on my smartphone and searched for the term “BBQ” nearby. As if placed there for us by the travel gods themselves, just a short detour off the interstate, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, was A&R Bar-B-Que. Down the road was a corner store, and a little beyond that was a cemetery. My plan fell instantly into place.

We picked up two heaping plates of ribs dripping wet with sauce, plus baked beans and potato salad to go, grabbed a couple tallboy beers at the store, and parked our rental car at the end of a road near the back of the cemetery. With plates on the hood of the car, Keith and I feasted, sauce dripping down to our elbows. We slugged back the beer and recounted the weekend’s shenanigans, laughing at inside jokes so old they barely needed to be said at all. A dreary afternoon was transformed into a tiny adventure of illicit beers and Memphis barbecue with a friend at a cemetery on a boulevard named for Elvis.

What alchemy had turned a boring drive to the airport into travel gold?

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For answers, I sought out Chantal Jauvin, a French-Canadian international trade lawyer, author of the book The Boy With a Bamboo Heart, and expat who has built a career by traveling and a life by finding meaning in moments on the road.

Jauvin has lived in Japan, Mexico, Cambodia, Russia, Austria, and Vietnam. She’s cooked shashlik with Russians in a dacha and sang Beatles tunes with traveling Uzbeks in a Ural Mountains yurt. She has lived and traveled richly, all while, as she puts it, “working 18, 20 hours a day and sleep deprived. But somehow these moments would slip into my work experience and it would just enrich everything.”

I asked Jauvin how she manages to incorporate meaningful experiences into her life while frequently on the move for work with little time to spare. “Being an attorney, people don’t perceive contract negotiations as very creative type of work. But I once heard that someone who is creative is a person who can connect the dots in a way they’ve never been connected before. When I travel, that’s what I do,” she told me. “I try to weave in experiences and do things I haven’t done. Typically, it revolves around people. I find that arts, culture, and food bring me to people who are eager to share.”

I asked Jauvin to get a little more specific. For instance, when I’m in a new city, I like to wake at dawn and take a long walk across town until sunset. Does she have a particular tactic for finding nuggets of meaning when in a new place for only a short time?

“I love food, so I always try to get recommendations for places that are not just out of the way but have local music,” she told me. “Local music attracts locals, and inevitably it ends up being an evening when you meet people.”

There it was again: culture (in this case music), food, and people. Parallels to my own little experience with Keith in Memphis were unmistakable. Even an inkling of music was there—or of American culture, at least—in the location of our feast on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Best of all for travelers without the time to tour the vineyards of Champagne or travel the Blues Trail of the Mississippi Delta, the lesson is clear: It doesn’t take much to have a meaningful experience. In travel, as in many things, sometimes less is more.

Strip away the exoticism of shashlik with Russians in a dacha, and Jauvin was just grilling out with friends at a cabin. In Memphis, for all the sense of adventure I felt, I was really just lunching with a friend at a park (a park filled with corpses, sure, but still). Pondering Jauvin’s simple advice to find meaning through people, food, and art, I was reminded of Epicurus, perhaps the most misunderstood of the great Greek philosophers.

For all its associations with the sensual and the gourmet, the word “epicurean” is actually a misnomer. While it’s true that Epicurus himself declared that “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life,” he didn’t advocate indulgence, but the opposite. For Epicurus, less really was more.

The school the philosopher created would be recognizable to us moderns as a kind of hippie commune. Residents lived communally to enjoy each other’s company, had little personal wealth, and worked a garden to supply their simple vegetarian diet. It wasn’t that Epicurus advocated austerity and self-denial either, but that he believed real pleasure comes from something other than indulging in lavish things.

Epicurus understood that we humans have only a few simple needs: food and shelter; what he called thought, or the freedom to enjoy conversation, art, and culture; and friends. He saw, like Jauvin, that happiness comes from truly meaningful experiences shared with others. “Before you eat or drink anything,” Epicurus advised, “consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf.”

Epicurus’s message to travelers looking to find meaning without a lot of time on their hands would be to forget about all extravagance and focus on small-scale shared experiences. And if you’re looking for a shortcut, as Jauvin explained, good food often leads to good music, and good music leads to good people.