Comfort Crash Course

Follow our new series, Comfort Crash Course: 4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

There comes a point for many a writer when one is driven to seek solitude, to pack up and embark on a journey in search of solitary reflection.

For some, it’s to a cabin in the woods; for others, a desert oasis, or a cloister on the highest peak of a godforsaken mountain range.

But not me.

No, my desert island is far less romantic. Far less scenic. Far less sexy. Far less . . . comfortable. It involves thousands of tons of solid steel and 4,000 miles of nothing but bitter, cold open ocean.

My place of solitude will be a freighter ship. That’s right, a freighter ship, loaded to the brim with a few thousand steel shipping containers on a 15-day trip across the North Atlantic—in the dead of winter.

A writer's paradise?

Why, you might (reasonably) ask?

To confront comfort.

Confronting comfort: it’s a vague concept; one that has the potential to hold a lot of meaning should you choose to assign it, but one that also takes work to understand.

If you’ve followed the BMW Guggenheim Lab at all over the past seven months since it first launched, you’ve likely heard the phrase. It’s the overarching theme for the first cycle—the first three of nine cities the Lab will visit—and is explained by curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer as follows:

We live in a highly globalized and urbanized world. Yet complex urban landscapes that are increasingly intertwined through transnational and informational networks continue to be based on rigid systems of urban planning, architecture, and infrastructure. These systems have fostered an expanding homogeneity that puts at risk the relationship of our cities and urban areas with the specific conditions of their immediate context and their own past. More important, it puts at risk our relationship, as citizens and individuals, with the urban environment, affecting our sense of ownership and awareness of the space around us, and our sense that we should be able to change and improve it.

As a result, we have constructed relentless systems of consumerist comfort that alleviate the monotony of these static landscapes by blocking interaction with our surroundings. The comfort we derive from these solutions—which range from communication commodities to fancy gadgets, to privacy and security devices, to comfort food and other ways to appease our bodies—diverts the mind from the repetitive processes of everyday life in cities that at times we feel we have no possibility of changing.

Maximizing comfort has not only allowed us to cope with sometimes grueling urban conditions, but it has also become a measure of individual wealth, success, and status. Unfortunately, our irrepressible human aspiration to find ease often leads us in unsustainable directions. How can we find a balance between notions of modern comfort and the urgent need for environmentally responsible solutions that empower us as social individuals? If we were to achieve such balance through creative solutions, how would our understanding of comfort change? How would we respond to the newfound ease attained through responsible means?

But before we can think of confronting modern notions of comfort, we must first understand what comfort is in the first place. And I am the first to admit that the more I think about the word, the less I understand it—far less how it applies to the urban beast.

So I pitched a wild and crazy idea: Armed with a library of readings on comfort that originally helped inspire the theme, I would remove myself as far from the city itself as possible—and the comforts it both offers and takes away—to dig into the belly and roots of how the notion of human comfort came to be. What is comfort in the first place? Why and when did we begin to seek it? How has that desire shaped the cities we live in today? And ultimately, why does it need to be confronted? I would explore this all, of course, through a brilliant and enlightening series on the blog. A crash course in comfort, if you will.

I mean, I have to get to Berlin somehow, right?

Et voilà, here I am, six months later with a one-way ticket to Germany on the 45,000-ton Hanjin Palermo in hand, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

In a few days (date of departure tentative due to shifting shipping schedules and . . . prevailing winds, or something) I will leave all my urban comforts behind and, tracing the same transatlantic path that the Lab itself took just a few months ago, blog my way from New York to Berlin. And, hopefully, too, to a better understanding of what this thing we call comfort really is.

Of course, this post is an attempt to tempt you to follow this series, Comfort Crash Course: 4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort, along on the blog.

But wait!! I need one more thing from you.

My binder of readings is broad, and substantial in size.

And that's a Kindle there on top . . .


It includes everything from Socrates and Confucius, to medical studies on “diseases of comfort,” to essays on the invention of the washing machine and on Rococo furniture design (seriously).

But it is not yet exhaustive and I’ve got a lot of time to fill in the coming weeks, so I’m soliciting suggestions. This is important: What have you read, listened to, or seen that deals in some way with the topic of comfort? Tell me any other reading materials, podcasts, video blogs, lectures, you name it, that you think I should bring along with me, either in the comments section below, on our Facebook page, or at

Help me build the Comfort Crash Course reading list!

I’ll be in touch again with more before I set sail. Stay tuned.

Freighter ship photo used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License from Mr. T in DC.

  • Leslie G. Lewis

    For reading, try these:
    Still Here by Ram Dass
    Insight Meditation by Joseph Golstein
    The Art of Happiness by the Dalia Lama
    Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka

    All great for finding comfort and happiness no matter where you are.  True comfort and happiness come from within, not from your outer surroundings.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your suggestions, which Christine has brought with her on her voyage. Hope you’re enjoying the Comfort Crash Course so far!

  • Junji Shirai

    Hi Christine;  Here are some tips for your travel:
    1    Besides reading books, you would discover a lot more things on your voyage.
          The sunset and sunrise on the horizon, changing colors of clouds, view of vast amount of water 360 degrees around you and no land in sight.
    2    Make a few trips through ship. Control deck, engine room, propeller shaft and clue’s cabin. And feel the fact that below a thin metal plate is hell.
    3    You would have plenty of chance to talk to captain who has tons of wonderful stories you never heard of.
    At the end of day you would discover what the “Comfort” really is.
    And, don’t miss the first sight of the port where you disembark. That is the sight people see the land from ship after so many days of missing it.

    Have a great voyage !
    Junji Shirai

  • Diananemi

    Christine: in your anticipation at confronting comfort, be comforted by the fact that your city has not just been completely leveled by a tornado. 

  • Lucas Dixon

    Fun plan! My little sister did the reverse, from north of France to south Carolina by freight ship, then trains to NY, then car-shares and buses to San Fran, and car-shares back to NY again. She’s finally flying back to France. Her experience of the boat was that she didn’t read as much as she expected – she played a lot of ping-pong, and chatted with the crew and fellow passenger. She was the only woman on board and had a little more attention from the crew than she wanted (love notes under the door and such), but loved the trip. In terms of comfort, I don’t expect it will be challenging in the sense of lacking obvious comfort, but more in the sense of doing the unexpected and unknown – challenging a deeper comfort. Good luck and have fun!

  • Barbara Mayer

    Hi Christine –
    I did the trip on a freighter from Europe to USA 12 years ago, and I would recommend not to read loads of books but to spend most of the time walking the ship, observing the ocean, being  on the bridge, talking to the staff and learning an lot about the problems of sailors, international trade etc.It’s special world. 
    And: it ‘s just crazy to ship bottles of mineral water across the ocean  – beside other goods we probably don’t need really or simply should be produced and consumed in national markets 
    Have a safe trip – the Atlantic will be stiff in spring! I’m German and I’m planning to visit the BMWGuggenheim Lab in Berlin.
    Take Care,
    Barbara Mayer

  • Maarten Jan Van’t Oever

    First thing that comes to mind is discomfort… ;-(
    Your post, Berlin and my trips there made me think of the Berlin Wall Museum exhibiting all kinds of manners, East Germans smuggled themselves over the border into the West. 
    See for instance this Isetta story

  • alex

    Hi Christine,

    its great to see how people discover new things by leaving their comfort-zone to do things they´ve never done, to experience discomfort to learn and value comfort. I would like to know more of your journey to berlin and maybe we will be able to exchange our experiences and thoughts about this topic in Berlin :). Take care, Alex

  • Maryvanvalkenburg

    Hi Christine,

    When I was a little girl, I pronounced the word we’re discussing as “cumterble.” I was so embarrassed in school when I saw the spelling, and realized how many sounds and syllables I’d been omitting all my life. It was terribly uncomfortable to get my tongue around “com-fort-a-ble” but eventually I mastered it.

    When I was a college student I majored in Classical Civilization. A final exam  I never forgot asked whether it was preferable to live in Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome and why. While Greece’s ethics, arts, and politics were inspirational, I had to admit (a little ashamed of myself) that as a creature of comfort I’d opt for Rome’s baths, toilets, and well-paved roads.

    Now I’m old, and when I take my sabbatical this spring, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ll be living in the center and symbol of newly gentrified Berlin, in Friedrichshain, smack on Simon-Dach Strasse. But I’ll be safe and comfortable, I’m sure. And I’ll be visiting the BMW Guggenheim Lab on May 24, likely with comments on comfort.

    Have a good trip. I really do hope you’ll be comfortable.
    Bis bald,