A few weeks ago I went to Munich to see a dentist. The meaning of that experience had not dawned on me in all its vastness until recently.

The very word “travel” is repugnant to me. I have never used it to describe my movements, since I always feel I am going somewhere for a reason (at times, admittedly, rather trivial). But to feel otherwise, in my system of values, would be indecent.

Yet all around me people travel. One spends a truly unforgettable Venetian holiday in the worldly atmosphere of the Excelsior and the cozy intimacy of the Des Bains. Another chooses Porto Cervo, the heart of Costa Smeralda, staying, perhaps, at the Cala di Volpe. At any rate, the travel brochures they receive in the mail suggest that they might.

At last, it seemed, I had the opportunity of finding out more about the nature of such shameless indulgence. The ostensible reason for the journey made for the flimsiest of pretexts, yet it sufficed to quiet the first pangs of my troubled ethic. Yes, now I too would travel.

My fiancée decided to come along, and so it was only reasonable to try and expand the trip beyond its original scope. We would travel—yes, travel—to Switzerland and stay for a few days with some friends in Lucerne.

We missed the plane to Munich, of course. I say “of course” because this is the sort of thing that always happens to people who travel. I have never been late for a business appointment in my life, and I always arrive at the airport, the train station, or even the restaurant hours earlier than necessary. This time, however, I was not in my element, and we ended up flying to Frankfurt instead of Munich. Indeed, from the travel brochure’s point of view, why should one be better than the other? I was beginning to understand the arbitrary nature of pleasure.

Missing the dentist’s appointment was a little irritating, but idle lives are made of such petty irritations. I remembered the time when, as a child, I heard an American lady telling my father and the other guests assembled at our house in the Moscow countryside how she had lost her raincoat while changing airlines. It was a long and complicated story, punctuated by the names of distant, fabulous cities like Munich and Lucerne. We tried to sidetrack her, since we knew we would gladly lose all we had to experience one of her misfortunes, but she pressed on towards the tragic dénouement. The insurance would not cover it.

We rescheduled the appointment by telephone from Frankfurt and boarded the 13:45 to Zurich, via Mannheim and Basel. “Unfortunately,” said the clerk, “you will have to get off in Mannheim.” It was in Mannheim that Mozart fell in love for the first time, with Constanze’s sister. Perhaps the clerk wanted to shield us from young Wolfgang’s torment? Doubtful.

Let me repeat. We rescheduled the appointment by telephone from Frankfurt and boarded the 13:45 to Zurich. Even as I write this, I shudder. Who am I, for God’s sake, to dial Munich from Frankfurt? To say “I am sorry, but I am in Frankfurt instead of Munich”? To change British pounds for German marks, and German marks for Swiss franks, as if the world is some sort of casino and I am there to gamble away my conscience? Or are Munich and Frankfurt just places, different because one of them has a dentist expecting me?

Outside the train station in Zurich, where we were waiting to be picked up, sat a middle-aged bum. With a bottle of white wine in one hand and a piece of smoked meat in the other, he was incongruous and therefore unappealing. Like the American lady of my Vnukovo childhood and all the travelers around me today, he was unconscious of the blessings of his freedom.

My fiancée asked, referring to nothing in particular, if I had ever wanted to ride a camel. Answered in the negative, the question was amusingly à propos. Understood as the pursuit of happiness on the back of an exotic animal, freedom becomes as monotonous as a desert landscape. In that landscape, the bum, the American lady, and many of our friends glide smoothly and noiselessly forward while holding on to their possessions.

Our friend’s house, as one might have expected, was a villa overlooking the Lake of Lucerne. Over breakfast, the host, a charming German businessman who agreed with everything I had to say about South Africa, presented evidence that the reactor at Chernobyl had been used to produce nuclear warhead material. In other words, we were having a wonderful time; but the feeling that I was in Switzerland without a purpose, that I was guilty of traveling, that none of this would ever come to anything, would not leave me. The host’s young American wife thought War and Peace was a sequel to The Thorn Birds (perhaps I misunderstood her); but that wasn’t the reason. The reason lay in my realization that travel was a metaphor for freedom, and in the context of that metaphor I was on the wrong side. “The metaphor,” wrote Georg Christoph Lichtenberg of Gottingen in his Aphorisms and Reflections, “is far more intelligent than its author, and this is the case with many things. Everything has its depths. He who has eyes sees something in everything.”

It was only roast pork I saw in the dish set before me by a nimble waiter at the Bratwurstherzel, in Munich’s Heiliggeistrasse. I was less than a traveler now, I was a tourist.

This column is an act of public repentance.