Travel is a powerful thing. It’s not only that time seems to move differently and normal routines are completely shaken up, but that perception itself changes.
A few days ago we left Budapest, where we’ve been living and writing for the last month. We travelled by train from Budapest to Munich on Thursday and then to Paris yesterday and we’ll be on the train home (or at least to Morlaix, where a neighbour will kindly pick us up) tomorrow.
When things have changed
There’s a cult of novelty in our culture. From seeking the next dopamine rush of ‘likes’ on Facebook to chasing the exotic in the hope of experiencing the chemical high of ‘newness’. But travelling across Europe on this trip, I was very aware of changes that seem to be spreading regardless of place.
In most of the large stations on this trip small cafés had vanished to be replaced by generic chains selling a monoculture of processed carbohydrates, sugary drinks and bad coffee. The café with little French tables and a wonderfully grumpy waiter had vanished from Gare de l’Est and the balcony café that sold whole foods and salad at Munich was also no more. Even the bar that sold good coffee and huge steins of beer (being enjoyed by a group of German men at 4 a.m. the last time we passed through) had disappeared. It’s hardly an exhaustive survey but the sense of fewer options in the control of fewer and larger corporations prevailed.
In Prague we headed up the hill towards the castle to book a birthday meal at our favourite restaurant. The Rainer Maria Rilke was run by a lovely host with a tiny team of chefs serving a small and unique menu. It was no longer there—one of many places not to survive Covid. We continued up the hill, glad that the small gallery and house of the photographer Josef Sudek was still open (occasionally) and in search of the small shop of perfume maker. I’d bought some as a gift on our last visit, blended to order after some discussion with the perfumer who was holding conversations with several customers in an array of languages—Russian, German, English, Czech, French… The shop had gone. Another day we crossed the river and wound through the back streets behind the main tourist areas, trying to remember the location of another shop. This one was even smaller, the atelier of a man who bound hand-made journals, printed his own cards and worked in paper arts. Now it sold alcohol.
What flourished were huge tour groups being led around and largely looking bored and thirsty and long rows of very cheap restaurants that sold huge jugs of beer from early in the morning. Prague was still a place with inventive little bistros, unchanged and exquisite architecture, friendly locals and the beautiful river Vltava lined with rowans, ash and beech trees. But what stood out most was how many shops in the centre had become ‘cannabis shops’. There were several brands, but all were characterised by neon green store fronts and green lights flashing inside.
Despite the plethora of these shops (the busiest streets each boasted several), cannabis is not legal in Czechia. The marijuana-containing products are made from a herb variety with only trace amounts of the active indgredient (THC). They include cannabis beer and highly coloured absinth. And they also sell paraphenalia realted to cannabis—pipes or papers for rolling joints. A whole industry has sprung up selling expensive tourist gimmicks, though (reading articles later) apparently the tourists often don’t realise this until after they’ve parted with their money.
Was this an act of desperation? I wondered how the economy of Czechia was doing and discovered that it’s amongst the most stable in Europe with very low unemployment, economic growth and thriving exports. So not desperation—merely capitalism exploiting another set of human desires.
Change, of course, is inevitable and can be creative. A stagnant culture is no more appealing than a person who has closed down to all new influences and experiences. But change can be either growth or decay. Prague seemed to exemplify both in ways we might not have noticed in a place we are accustomed to seeing every day, rather than every few years. And in this sense my unease with some of the changes isn’t a comment on Prague at all, but instead alerted me how easy it is not to see things that we are close to. Travelling changed my perception of change itself.
When the change is within
When we stay in one environment we can become static in how we see ourselves. Shifting environment doesn’t only expose us to the newness of a new place but to ourselves. How do we react when things go wrong? What do we miss? What aspects of life feel most important when we are away from the day to day routines?
Travel reveals an enormous amount about our interrior reflection, what our passions and values are and who we want to be. I never return home quite the same person. It’s not only that I come back shaken out of the humdrum, but that travel makes me question how I spend my time and how I work and live when I return.
What’s most profound about travelling while writing is that we discover ourselves as much as the places we visit. If revisiting places I loved made me aware that they were subject to such different influences—some constricting and unsettling, others expansive and exciting, how much more did it make me look at those opposite pulls within myself?
When I stay in one place for a long time I stop seeing it. Heidegger had a word for this—”Alltäglichkeit”—
that which in our lives is most familiar and therefor invisible, furthest, unknown and constantly overlooked in its ontological meaning.
as Lance Olsen comments in [[[There]]]
Wittgenstein similarly thought that the features of things that are most important to us are hidden precisely because we are so familiar with them.
Yet as writers we need to be able to reflect on what our internal processes are. What are we noticing? What are we avoiding? What are we listening to or ignoring? What is consuming our time in ways that are creative or draining or… ?
In Budapest, my health improving after the food poisoning which had followed various other stresses of the winter and spring, and away from home, where we’d been doing battle with invading mice and a failing roof, I had the space not only to begin imagining a new story to write, but also to reflect on how I live—on how I make change that is growth…
When change is a process
But of course, we don’t return from a period away from home transformed. Change is always an incremental on non-linear process and writing the new novel is part of that. It’s in its early stages. Set in 2065, it imagines a very different society than the one we live in now. The working title, Smiling at Grief, comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, (II.iv.111–114):
She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
The title also relates both to the protagonist, a young herbalist in the forest of Huelgoat, and to a central question in the narrative—how do we hold together the disparate (and sometimes clashing) elements of our oh-so-unpredictable lives? That’s the question that I’m taking home with me for the next part of my own journey and it’s one I might not have unearthed without the travelling.
There are lots of other memories and experiences from the trip to process over the coming months and I hope they will also help me to live more in my senses so that I embody days with a sense of savouring that will effect how the novel develops. Experiences are one of the ways we become different stories, something that Michael Ondaatje captures in an extraordinary passage in The English Patient. His character, Catherine, is injured and alone in desert, curled in the darkness of the cave of swimmers:
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.
I’m somebody who lives in my head a lot, but travel pulls me into the world and into my body and makes me so much more aware of connections. When you know hardly any of a language, tone, facial expressions and body language go a long way. I begin to use my senses differently in an environment that isn’t so easy to read. It’s another way to push at the boundaries of our thoughts, expectations and assumptions.
In travel, we have to let go of the notion that we can control everything, that life is a cerebral exercise. John Steinbeck puts this brilliantly in Travels with Charley: In Search of America:
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.
Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
When change is the story
There’s a texture to place that is physical. Small nuances of local character and mannerisms. A particular wind, the way the rain falls, the colours or scents. In the book I’m currently writing those textures and scents will (perhaps ironically) be local ones, but being away from my usual environment has made me more aware of them. I hope I’ll return with just enough defamiliarisation to see the place freshly, helped by the fact that I’ve only lived in Finistère a short while and am still learning its sounds and smells, weather and whisperings.
I write to change my own story. I write to witness to a wider story that could be different. Writing that changes us seems to flow more readilly when we shake up our norms, allow changes to take place without trying to control everything and immerse ourselves in transformative experiences. For me, travel has these effects.