I had seen photos of Buenos Aires’ El Ateneo Grand Splendid online: friezes lining balconies with dozens of opera lights sparkling onto the books below. Friends who’d seen it commented that it was something to check off your list, an experience made underwhelming by glittering Instagram posts. I decided to go to the theater-turned-bookstore anyway. After snaking my way through its tables and stacks, I sat and watched the people inside.
El Ateneo seemed like a thing to do, rather than a place to be. Tourists rung the mezzanine and upper floors, peering over the brass guardrails at the shelves below. Google said that “people typically spend up to one hour here”, but I suspected the truth was much less. Those lining the two balconies gazed down, then posed for pictures or took photos to post directly online.
On the ground floor, men and women picked up books, thumbing through pages like a flipbook, then set them down to move on. Occasionally, someone read the back cover or turned to a random page. Mostly, people circled the store, then exited, pausing here and there to look up at the ceiling’s fading fresco.
Sitting on the theater’s stage/café, sipping overpriced iced coffee and mulling the scene before me, I couldn’t help wondering, “how many of our travels are like that?”. I’ve often heard friends and frequent travelers say, “have you done the Eiffel Tower?” Last time I checked, you can’t do the Eiffel Tower (god forbid). You can see it, touch it, and – perhaps, listen, smell, or taste it. The word vacation originally meant “to be unoccupied” in Latin. How often are we unoccupied when we escape our daily routines?
It is time we take back travel. While strolling the parks of Europe, stop and smell several roses. Savor the sugar and bitterness of a sweetened coffee. Listen even to sounds of traffic and feet shuffling. Touch the ocean’s edge with your toes. And look around you with eyes open wider than before. It’s hard to simply be in this world. But if we take back travel, we just might give ourselves the space to live more beautifully.