Friday, July 26, 2013

The Sad Pleasures of Travel

cartoon by Edward Gorey
"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. "The great affair is to move." To move, to go, to travel; the need can be so great as to be almost a sickness, away-sickness, maybe, an untamably sweet longing to go somewhere that will never be your home among people you'll never know well enough to belong to.

When I was little, my uncle gave me storybooks with pictures of kids around the world: a Dutch girl surrounded by tulips and wearing a starched white cap with wings; a Chinese boy with a pigtail who slept on a brick bed heated by coals. They were cliches so bald it's embarrassing to think about, but I loved those books and wanted to be everywhere those children were. More than that, I wanted to be those children, each of them in turn. I think maybe the first real sadness of my life came when I realized that I couldn't.

Later on, I pinned a map to a wall and drew a red line along the routes I had traveled: Europe, the Andes, India and Nepal; for some reason, I didn’t chronicle the U.S. or Canada. Then I realized that all I had seen was what was on either side of that line, and that made me too sad to continue.

One night in the seventies, friends and I, probably stoned, created a travel agency of the mind. We'd offer package deals to tiny countries (Andorra, San Marino, Fiji), or to countries colored green on the globe, or we'd organize terrorism tours to the sites of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. (Long before 9/11, I used to walk a version of that in Washington on my way to work.) We would call our agency Book in Haste, Repent at Leisure.

And why not, really? Once you eliminate travel for work or family obligation, you have tourism, and tourists have more pretexts than reasons for choosing one place over another. But once you do choose, the world becomes full of reasons: the tart crunch of the apples the Buddhist monk pulled like a magic trick from his maroon-and- saffron robe when we shared a bus seat on the world's highest highway; the Andean air that's ripe as cheese and thin as gauze (music and smells are most evocative of place and time); the moment the lights come on in Florence's Brancacci Chapel and you see the Masaccios for the first - or tenth - time. I have no words for that.

In Venice late one afternoon, as I put my camera to my eye to shoot a narrow canal with laundry flapping overhead like Chinese kites, a man came out of his house right in front of my lens. He looked at me as if I were nuts, photographing his underwear, and all I could do was point at the sky and say, "La luce." The light. "Ah," he said, nodding gravely, and walked on.

So there's that too in the mix: those giddy moments when you connect across language and custom and all the ways that we divide the world into pieces. And we do divide. Every culture I know of has a word that means not-us."

With luck and time, you make deeper connections, too, but the odd convergences are particularly seductive because they can't last, would turn into something else if they did. Travel, too, by definition moves and changes. Travelers arrive with such expectation, peer into a landscape and leave. They're always passers-through, outsiders. They try to hold onto a place with travelogues and photos, but even the teller tires of twelfth-told tales, and snapshots begin to seem like the blur of calendar pages that movies use to signify the passing of time. Travel is sweet because it doesn't wear out its welcome, bittersweet because it puts time and place in perspective and reminds us how small we are.

I went through a sixties graduate program in which one of our "learning modules" (we had nothing so pedestrian as courses) was Cross Cultural Training. We studied a seven-step acculturation process, which began with establishing communication and ended somewhere around Nirvana. In between were all the clumsiness and victories people go through when they try to navigate a place they don't know very well.

One assignment was a Peace Corps exercise called the drop-off. With to one dollar and whatever fit in a small backpack, you were left in an unfamiliar town for 24 hours to fend for yourself. I ended up in Zoar, Massachusetts, which, as far as I could tell, was home to three workers building a nuclear power plant, ten snarling dogs and one whorehouse. I immediately hitchhiked to the next town. There, embarrassed by the preciousness of my situation, I told people I was researching the psychology of humor, whereupon they invited me in, answered my impromptu questions and fed me cookies. It wasn't the last time I traveled on prevarication, little money and the kindness and strangeness of strangers.

When I was 33, dissatisfied at work, bored at play and living as if busyness were the moral dimension of my days, I decided to move to Portugal. Why Portugal? everyone asked, right after they said, You're so, lucky; I wish I could do that, which I knew they didn't mean because I'd learned that Americans view anyone who chooses to live somewhere else with suspicion. Besides, most of them could have done it if they had really wanted to.

I suppose I was working on the assumption that if you can't change who you are, at least you can change where you are, but I still don't know why I chose Portugal. I told people it was because it was cheap, until my mother told me to cut it out, but when it came time to go somewhere anywhere (and what a dizzying freedom that is), Portugal was it. I broke my lease, threw out what I couldn't pack and stored the rest in a friend's attic. I bought a map of Portugal, an international driver's license, and a plane ticket to Lisbon and left before I could chicken out. More busyness, but it worked.

The woman at the pensaƵ where I stayed made me speak Portuguese. "A practicar," she said. When I could bear to practice no longer, I fled to the streets, getting happily lost for hours. Lisbon is a wonderful city, full of half-seens and dead ends, and I'd find triumph one minute in mastering the ticket machines for the subway, despair the next when I couldn't understand directions back to my hotel. Being a tourist must be the single most disconcerting occupation in the world.

How I reveled in anonymity those first days! I could be anyone I wanted, could make myself up out of whole cloth in the good American traditions of lying and rebirth. I imagined disappearing, simply slipping away - easy enough, since no one knew me there and the people who knew me elsewhere didn't know where I was. (If a tourist falls in a strange city, does she make a sound?)

I headed to the Algarve, the south coast, to live by the sea out of season, as I had promised myself I would, then did everything in reverse: place to live, clothes in closets, calls to contacts of the contacts I had called in the States. I had arrived with only two suitcases, English and Portuguese dictionaries and baggies of the five spices I had determined I couldn't do without. I had nowhere to be for the rest of my life. But soon enough, other things found their way into this new life of mine and they, too, had to be hauled around whenever I moved. You can run under Moorish arches at the sea's edge to your heart’s content, but you're still running on your own feet.

Some time around then it occurred to me that the only way to avoid being a culture cliche is to live in someone else's culture. It may be also the only way to live outside history. When you travel, it's easy to avoid your own history in the making; you just don't buy a Herald Tribune or watch CNN. As for the history of another country, you escape that without trying too hard to translate the rapid-fire newscasts, too complicated to unravel the allegiances of power. After a while, it comes to seem no more consequential than a children's story: Once upon a time in a far-off land called Portugal, the escudo was devalued for the third time in a year, so one day when little Jose and Maria went to the store, they found that the price of bread had risen once again.

We travel to look at people who have stayed put. We'd rather their cultures stayed put too, stalled in some moment we think of as genuine. The Guambiano Indians, who live on a high plain in the Colombian Andes, used to hand-dye the deep blue fabric from which they made their clothing, but by the time I lived there, RIT and polyester had taken over. When I bemoaned this - what - impurity? - to an anthropologist (the place was lousy with anthropologists), she scolded me: insisting the Guambianos stop at the plant-dye stage, she said, was like insisting that American culture be Elvis Presley.

I think about that often, and not just because some people do think American culture is Elvis Presley. The commercial dyes were crummier than the natural ones, but they seemed to come along with the paved road and potable water that our town was lucky to have in this poor region. The changes made life easier and safer for the Guambianos at the same time that they undermined what I -- and probably they -- thought of as their culture. So I'm not sure where I stand. Predictability is the enemy, inimical to travel, but no matter how lightly they tread, travelers leave footprints. I travel to find what I don't already know, and the more I and everyone else aims for that, the less possible it becomes.

After nine months in Portugal, I returned to London, where I had worked two years before. I'd sit in pubs for hours, nursing a whiskey and reading, while the other patrons watched me with suspicion since pubs aren't libraries. I gloried in hearing my language spoken all around me, though, if pressed, I'd have to admit that I'm most at home when I'm out of place. It was probably the first time in my life that being taken for a tourist didn't seem like a mortal sin.

Then I walked. At Parliament Hill, I imagined taking a little house furnished with a desk and a daybed pushed in front of the window to look out over London's rooftops. I'd live there from April to October, when it wasn't perpetually damp, and I'd read and write and take a lover who was married and lived a little ways off. (Oxford sounded right.) He'd visit me a few afternoons a week when we'd make vigorous love, and after, we'd wrap ourselves in robes and drink whiskey or tea, whatever the weather demanded. Then he'd go back to his town and his wife and not bother me. Laws of travel: To know how a society functions, transact business at the post office. To know how a society falls apart, fall in love.

Expatriates tend to be great monologuists, as if they are renting space in their adopted country and using words to form the walls and ceilings and floors. They strike up conversations easily (people on the move recognize each other by their lack of belongings and their shoes), but all they really share is the knowledge that they don't fit and the itch to move on. So many ways to be out of place, all these refugees fleeing nothing and playing at exile because, unlike real exiles, they can go home again. Travel is the rare situation in which you can change and be yourself at the same time.

Travelers also like to talk, and have a penchant for sweeping statements like the ones in this essay. The best of them are able to sum up whole continents in a single adjective. They're notorious plagiarizers, too, forever quoting opinions and seldom giving more credit than "someone said" or "I hear." I hear Indian men are the most sexist in the world. My friend says Portugal is a cold country with a warm sun. Someone told me Parisians are less rude these days. Oh no, please not that last one. Insult is part of travel, and one of its many mixed blessings.

Travelers collect things - factoids, addresses, train routes, totemic clothing. I collect words about states of travel.

Querencia (Spanish): A sense of belonging intensely to a place, which can be as big as a country or as small as a room. You don't have to know
you're looking, but when you find it, you feel as if the only time you're whole is when you're there.

Saudade (Portuguese): Inchoate longing, fond remembrance, the almost but not quite, the satisfaction just beyond reach. It's the kind of voluptuous yearning that infects travelers, expatriates, refugees, exiles, all the people misplaced by choice or circumstance. But these definitions miss the delicious languor of its melancholy. They miss, too, the understanding of how futile it is to try to tame sadness (some cultures embrace it, others deny it), which is just as well, because if you could say the ineffable, it would be just one more thing with a name.

Two final stories. The first takes place at a casino on Portugal's south coast where a bunch of us who were living nearby went to hear a friend, a singer, perform. She sent over bottles of wine and joined us between sets as we jabbered about all the places we had been and liked best; but after a while, our talk lessened. "It is well known," wrote Neruda, "that he who returns never really left." But that's true only sometimes. Love for a place is like love for a person, and remembering from a distance is really very lonely.
Then, as she was going back on stage, the singer threw her arms wide to encompass us all and with a cackle proclaimed, "You know, for people who've never had any money, we certainly have had a good time."

The second story takes place in Lisbon. Two old women are taking photos of each other in front of a looming statue, and I stop to watch for several minutes as one takes a picture, then walks carefully across the plaza to hand the other the camera before arranging herself-- a little to the left, the right, smile. Then, their task complete, they help each other down the subway stairs and disappear. That will be me too someday, l think (do 1 laugh or mourn?), a traveling companion to some equally lost old woman, taking pictures to prove we were there, so light and dry that we rustle.

Ah yes - but having a very good time.

© Nan Levinson 1998
Originally printed in the Women's Review of Books (1998). Reprinted in Life Studies: An analytic Reader, 2001.

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