Rules of Travel

Photo montage: Rules of TravelFrom my first days of international exploration, when I was still a wide-eyed college kid meandering Europe with my older sister, I recognized that whatever differences I see and experience in each place and on each expedition, there always seem to be threads of very familiar commonality as well. My sister and I dubbed these rather predictable elements of the journey our Rules of Travel. There is often a noticeably preset quality to certain places, events, and happenings that can make me feel, simultaneously, utterly out of my element and surprisingly at home wherever I roam.

For example, personal comfort is the lens through which I always view my current place in the world, so it’s only natural that such things as temperature, relative safety, quantity of elbow room, and other such characteristics always feel slightly less ideal than, well, my ideal. So one of our Rules went a bit like this:

Degrees of ambient temperature in the waiting area for a winter train are inversely proportional to the number of minutes before the train arrives.

That wonderful three-and-a-half month trip happened to be in the year of a record cold winter, when typically easy-rolling European trains were stranded or derailing, never mind having trouble keeping to a tight schedule, when towns that normally were undaunted by modest drifts of snow became isolated spots on a vast white map, unconnected by their accustomed transport and communications alike and filled with a cohort of folk ranging from the slightly mystified to the miffed, who were parked there perforce until such time as a bit of thaw or an intrepid snowplow should free them again. Needless to say, our itinerary moved in unpredictable fits and starts that found us standing for rather extended periods shivering on train platforms, huddled in our entire inventories of clothes layered together with a few sympathetic donations from relatives’ and friends’ closets, wondering not just when but if our train would ever arrive, and finding that it was essentially up to chance no matter how everyone tried.

Dashing through many a train station, airport, and tourist venue over the same trip, we had plenty of opportunity to observe a number of other repeated elements.

One obvious constant of student travel like ours was that funds were ever seemingly flush only in currencies not applicable in our present location; the corollary to this rule was that we always managed to arrive in said location on a Saturday evening, when the banks would not be open again for the exchange of funds into the local currency until Monday morning. By that time at least one of us was actively considering whether the peeling wallpaper in our shabby flophouse-du-jour had been applied long enough ago to have wheat-based paste behind it for the licking. Okay, that part was literal only once that I can remember, thankfully. The rest of it was pretty frequent, though, the Saturday arrivals happening oftener than they should to a couple of people who had somehow managed to get accepted for university studies. Sometimes, at that, arrival was on the tail-end of a marathon train trek meant to avoid overnight hostel fees en route but where we’d also regrettably neglected to pack more than one lunch for the whole two or three days, as the trains didn’t take our current currency either.

You see where this is going. Natural, practical brilliance, at least on my part, was never actually part of my traveling kit.

Another Rule: Escalator and pedway handrails are precisely calibrated to move at a rate relative to the underfoot surface that guarantees anyone holding a steady position of both hand and foot will arrive at the end of the stair or passage fully prone. For greater variety and increased adventure, some engineers build variable speeds into both surfaces’ mechanisms, providing the options of both ventral and dorsal arrival positions on the same equipment. It’s similar to the knowledge that all shopping carts worldwide are produced to assure that one wheel will consistently aim fourteen degrees further to the right, the east, or the direction of Purgatory than whatever direction the other ones are headed.

You might think from reading this that I am not fond of travel, or at least that I’m quite awful at it, but I’m really just more tolerant of uncertainty and willing to subject myself to chance than I generally give myself credit for being. In a way, I realize that I’m a living miracle. I am terrified of change and newness, easily intimidated, I have no natural compass sense, I’m forgetful and quickly confused, and I abhor discomfort. I stumble around, blundering little animal that I am, and forget all of the smart Rules I’ve ever known. But I’ve gotten to go gallivanting in a pretty good variety of really wonderful and interesting places, to meet fantastic people and see and do amazing things, and above all, I’m here to tell the tale. If that isn’t a fine endorsement of going with the flow as a traveler, I don’t know what is. That’s the only Rule that counts.

Veiled References

Secrets. For good or ill, we all have them. Not much remains secret for terribly long; guilt brings out our ‘tells’ and happy secrets will always do their best to bubble to the surface because we long to share them. Secrets.

Strangely, there are times when we have no secrets, too. Not just when the latest secret, good or not so good, has been revealed, but that’s often the moment of assessment when one might consider that the slate had been wiped clean. There are times when it seems that all in life goes so smoothly and predictably and transparently that no secrets are generated. Or required.

But most of us crave a little surprise, color, mystery, adventure. At least at times, we rather thrive on the frisson of the unknown, don’t we. I love to feel safe and on track, I crave it. But behind the mask of convention or genteel propriety, there somehow lurks the slightest hint of the curious child, the rebellious iconoclast, and maybe even a tiny, tiny, tiny touch of  the mischief-maker that thinks a secret is a good substitute for the more dangerous sort of thrills that lure adrenaline junkies.

Even though I know that’s a charming little delusion. Secrets can be dangerous.

Still, there is a certain amount of the unknown that fuels my imagination and brings out a part of me that’s braver and more interesting, more dedicated to seeking both answers and new questions, than my overt and ordinary, everyday self. That, I’m pretty sure, is neither a dirty secret nor a secret of any sort at all to those who know me even a bit. But I might surprise you all one day, if it should turn out that I had secret superpowers or was secretly fabulously wealthy or was secretly brilliant. I know it’d be a surprise to me, having been so successfully kept secret from my own self all this time as well. She said, looking demurely coy.Graphite drawing: Veiled Secrets

Sailing Ahead, Wherever That May Be

The only time I’ve ever been on a sailboat was to sleep. There’s a great Tall Ship converted into a youth hostel in Stockholm where my sister and I bunked for a couple of nights on our college gallivant across western Europe. [Which hostel appears to have been recently renovated, and very nicely, if any of you should be interested.] While there may have been the faintest of motion rocking us to sleep in our on-board berths, I doubt it replicated very accurately the sensation of actual sailing. My next opportunity was during graduate school when I got a fan letter (one of the very few in my life, as you can imagine!) from a stranger who’d liked a gallery art installation I made so much that he offered to take me out sailing to the nearby islands. I don’t think there was anything predatory about him, but besides my still having a grandiose case of social anxiety in those days, there is the fact that the art show in question was entirely a walk-through, life-sized illustration of an espionage thriller; while I am doubtful that was his inspiration, I didn’t take him up on the offer.
Photo: Adrift on the High Seas

But whenever I see a sailboat, I do think it’s a beautiful representation of a genteel form of freedom that captivates my imagination all the same. Yes, I know plenty of tales of grueling trials on the high seas, no matter the size of the craft; even some of my close friends and relatives have such stories to tell, thankfully, having survived them. And I know, too, the old joke about testing one’s real interest in boat ownership by dressing up in a rain slicker and standing under an ice-cold shower for a couple of hours while flushing hundred-dollar bills down the toilet. But I also know that a vast number of people who could jolly well choose to spend their money and time on less demanding, safer, and far less expensive pastimes still choose boating. There’s clearly a strong pull to counterbalance any such negatives.

I, too, have spent some happy times on boats, just not sailboats. As a coastal kid, after all, I grew up thinking time spent on the ferries was as much pleasure and sightseeing as it was commuting or transport. I have been fairly miserable on a North Sea ferry in stormy seas while I was recovering from the stomach flu, but it did not so permanently scar either my psyche or my stomach lining that I didn’t look forward to the next time I got to be on a slow boat cruising along the shore, or perhaps best of all, in a rowboat or canoe, dipping the oars or paddle in with the rhythmic soft splashing that accompanies my reveries.
Photo: All Ashore

Living far from any natural body of water as I do these days, I am beached like an old craft whose hull is no longer seaworthy. But like those old boats I see, dry-docked on the beach or alongside the tumbledown barn or in a weedy field, I keep in my soul a firm and loving memory of every good time spent with the waves rocking me softly from below, telling me stories of their own and inviting me forward, ever forward, wherever that might take me.

FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

Portals

Photo montage: Portals 1Every doorway, every window, every gate is a portal to adventure. It may well be that those  portals are locked when I approach. More often than not, I find that it’s I who locked them up, who put impediments in my own way. That is the price of fear, of laziness, and of self-doubt. What holds me back or shuts me out is rarely an insurmountable obstacle; it’s me, often and only me. If I want to grow and change, learn and progress, it’s up to me to find the openings I most want to explore, and challenge the barriers with all my might. If I can’t find the key, I should make one. And frankly, if I can’t do that, I should probably make some adventures of my own and not bother waiting for the right portal to appear. Knock, knock! Life calling!Photo montage: Portals 2

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

Digital illustration (BW): Grinning Genie 1It would be hard to imagine a person who is less the early adopter than I am. Newness frightens me even under the best of circumstances, and I am intimidated beyond words at the idea of trying to learn anything. Worst possible example for anyone’s edification when it comes to scholarship, growth, adventure, futurism, daring, and tireless commitment to progress of any sort. I’m the one you’ll find huddled somewhere in the shady corner as far back of the starting blocks as I can manage to be, while everyone else is already sprinting gleefully into the turn.

Chalk it up, pretty succinctly, to fear. My self-diagnosis, summing up my own observations and experiences with the insights of better educated therapist and doctor supporters over my lifespan, is that the recipe made by my own ingredients of personality, health, situation and resources tends to combine into a person who’s timid and easily defeated. Add a dollop of laziness to my already potent blend of anxiety, dyslexia and other perceptive and receptive oddities, and my lack of physical strength and grace, not to mention of any sort of courage, and you get an unwillingness, even a very stubborn one, to set foot into new territories, whether actual or metaphorical.

Still.

When I feel I can experiment safely and without anyone else observing me at work, I may occasionally delve into something new with a surprising (to me, at least) sense of play and eagerness. Though I’ve resisted the idea of learning to use any new forms of technology, at least until they’re far from new anymore on a general scale, even these can be both useful and entertaining if and when I finally get up the gumption to try them. So here I am, finally, fiddling around with the iPad as an artistic medium. On our recent week’s jaunt to Puerto Rico, the iPad provided a convenient way to reduce the weight and size of my baggage from the old laptop I have lugged around for the last five years, and while I found it slightly irksome to peck at the tiny integrated keypad on it to write posts, it did work for that, and as long as I used newly made images or ones in my stream of digitally stored photos, I could plug in illustrations as well. Photos taken on my iPad or iPhone do not impress me much, and I find both a bit awkward to use at this point. But with a new set of digital drawing/painting toys, I’m distracted from any such photographic and textual shortcomings by the process of teasing out the secrets of each art-related program.Digital illustration: Grinning Genie 2

Once introduced to this plaything, of course, I loosen up and lose my inhibitions gradually. Knowing that after years of such untutored play with various iterations of Photoshop, I still only use a hundredth of the possible functions and tools it offers—and those, probably, in wildly incorrect and inefficient ways—I can only imagine that there will be exponentially more things I can learn and do, as well as fail to learn and do, with these newer tools and toys. But at least I’ve managed to wiggle my recalcitrant self into trying them, for a start.Digital illustration: Grinning Genie 3