What does a 17th century novel have to do with our 21st century journey around the world?
We considered this while chatting with an old friend the other day about a presentation we’d given the night before in Washington, DC. He asked about “measuring the Earth with our feet,” so we shared the story of our tagline and ran by him a few others that we were considering as replacements. You see, on this visit home we’re taking the opportunity to step outside of ourselves and question whether certain words still hold and capture what we believed they once did.
As we concluded, we both realized that “measuring the Earth with our feet” still captures why and how we travel while it hints at our curiosity-driven approach to life. Our friend suggested, “You should tell this story.”
Don Quixote and Shower Curtains
When I was young, my grandmother had a shower curtain that featured an image of Don Quixote executed by Pablo Picasso.
In those days, I wondered about the story behind the figures that dangled around the shower stall. Outside of the fact that Don Quixote was the guy who “tilted at windmills,” I knew very little about him. And the book? It was thick and hefty, flush with microscopic text; it intimidated me.
Fast forward to 2005 when Dan and I were living in Prague, Czech Republic. In the book review segment of the Economist magazine, I learned of a new translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman. Intrigued, I ordered the book on Amazon, but somehow neglected to notice that it was a hardback edition.
A two-and-a-half pound brick of a book arrived. Our intent: read it before our next move.
But our intentions outstripped time. When it came time to sell and give away all in Prague before our December 2006 departure, we felt a sudden urge to read Don Quixote. Into Dan’s inaugural around-the-world backpack it went.
Seeking Meaning, Finding a Tagline
A week later, as that year’s monsoon season lingered on the island of Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand we edited photos for a project and took large chunks of free time to clear our minds by reading on the beach. Dan devoured Don Quixote.
When I took my turn, I noticed a few pages whose bottom corners were turned up (an odd note-taking system that Dan employs to indicate something notable or well-written). On one of the dog-eared pages, I noticed this passage highlighted in fingernail scratches at the page’s edge:
‘Look, my friend,’ responded Don Quixote, ‘not all knights can be courtiers, and not all courtiers can or should be knights errant: there has to some of each in the world, and although we are all knights, there is a vast difference between us; courtiers, without leaving their chambers or passing beyond the threshold of the court, travel the entire world by looking at a map, not spending a blanca or suffering heat or cold, hunger or thirst;
I could relate. I had spent the previous four years gaining book knowledge — on tax and legal issues, on people and operations — across twenty countries in the former Soviet Union. But I never left the comfort of my desk in Prague; I never had the opportunity to see those places or meet those people firsthand.
The passage continued:
‘but we, the true knights errant, measure the earth with our own feet, exposed to the sun, the cold, the wind, and the inclemencies of heaven, both night and day, on foot and on horseback…’
In just a few words, Don Quixote had managed to sum up the nature of our journey. We wanted to learn about the world by experiencing it ourselves — meeting its people, eating its food, and questioning why things are and envisioning how they could be.
As Uncornered Market — the journey, the concept, the website — unfolded over the following months in Southeast Asia, we returned often to this passage and to the meaning of the those that surrounded it.
It contained the right tagline then. And as we reevaluate, it still does.
Tilting at Windmills?
When we decamped our old life in Prague in December 2006 to travel the world, we felt a bit like Don Quixote. Our friends and family supported us, but a fair chunk of them — some openly, some perhaps secretly — thought us certifiably crazy to leave the comfort of the lives we had built for ourselves. In other words, they thought we were tilting at windmills. Perhaps that explains why we were drawn to read the book and to lug it with us halfway around the world.
With introspection and self-awareness in equal doses, we occasionally wonder whether we are tilting at windmills. As we “measure the Earth with our feet,” only time will tell.
What About You?
Do you use a similar quote or tagline that you believe captures who you are or means much more to you than the words themselves? And do you sometimes feel that others think you are tilting at windmills?