Here's an interesting Economist synopsis of a study showing that creative people are more likely to live abroad:
Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.
[...] To check that they had not merely discovered that creative people are more likely to choose to live abroad, Dr Maddux and Dr Galinsky identified and measured personality traits, such as openness to new experiences, that are known to predict creativity. They then used statistical controls to filter out such factors. Even after that had been done, the statistical relationship between living abroad and creativity remained, indicating that it is something from the experience of living in foreign parts that helps foster creativity.
Merely travelling abroad, however, was not enough. You do have to live there.
It's the last sentence that interests me. I've done a ton of traveling in the last few years, and it's slowly occurred to me that many of the values that we place on travel aren't, in the nitty-gritty, true.
Western culture, especially bourgeois American culture, casts travel as inherently eye-opening, character-building and mind-enriching. You experience another culture, see a new way of life and take lessons from it. Right?
But that's not necessarily, or even typically, the case. Tourism is a different activity than absorbing the culture of a place. Going up the Eiffel Tower is a blast, but it's unlikely to give you anything but the most superficial understanding of France or the French people.
In my own case, I've traveled around Europe a ton, but mostly like a skipped rock. I've spent, for example, two days in Budapest, Prague, Ljubljana and Bratislava. But let's face it: I don't have any deeper understanding of those places than anyone who has read their Wikipedia entries. We like to talk about 'soaking up the character' of a city or 'getting a feel' for it's people, but in my experience those activities really just boil down to superimposing our preconceptions on our very limited experiences in foreign places.
I've seen this a lot with Americans visiting Copenhagen for a few days or a week. They often say things like 'You can just tell that everyone feels taken care of' or 'Danes seem so confident.' These observations are usually made when observing entirely un-indicative behaviors, such as people barbecueing in a park, and are almost always incorrect, at least compared to the conclusions I've made after living here for 3 years.
But then I think of the observations I've made about cultures like China ('you can really feel the excitement about the future') or Kazakhstan ('People seem like they're stuck in a holding pattern'), and I realize that I'm doing the same thing. Traveling in those countries was fascinating, but it hasn't given me any deeper knowledge of them. It's just given me 3-d illustrations of what I already knew.
I'm not saying this to talk shit on tourists. I'm an avid one, and I think travel is a blast. All I'm saying is that our culture-wide lionization of short-term travel, as opposed to deep engagement, obscures the purpose. Many of my smartest, most fascinating friends aren't particularly well-traveled, and when they do travel it's not to look at a decaying cathedral through a viewfinder. They go river rafting, or trout fishing, or tropical triathlonning. Others simply want to find a warm, beach towel-sized rectangle next to an ocean and read a book for 15 days. More power to 'em.
Travel, especially European travel, is often used as a proxy for engagement or interest in a country. 'I don't need to know how World War I started — I've been to Austria!'
But the cosmopolitanism we're praising only comes from living in a country, having friends from there or actually sitting down and learning about it. Getting a Euro-squeezer in a hostel dorm room doesn't count.