She has a travel-for-work kind of job, so I tag along sometimes.
Initially, I was worried the sensory overload of travel- the airport chaos, being out during sun hours and so on- would make it too miserable. But I discovered that the opposite was true…that I felt more balanced and settled away from my own country.
It took me a few years to understand why. I traveled, felt completely out of place…yet oddly comfortable at the same time…then finally realized: I’m more at ease in strange settings. Awkward is my natural state…so trips overseas, where I’m a tourist, and the expectation is that I won’t mesh with the surroundings…that’s a good fit for me.
I feel just as strange at home, yet others don’t understand this. My out-of-placeness in familiar settings comes off the wrong way- it strikes people as weird or rude or whatever- so it’s a relief to be in situations where people accept my inability to fit in.
For me, that’s what travel means. Suddenly, my daily, inexorable social discomfort is appropriate to the context. It’s a rare thing to feel.
Away, I’m perfectly at home. It’s when I return to my actual home that I feel most displaced and confused. I’m far more of a tourist in my own country,
The above is preface. What follows are travel notes from the last few weeks, written at the end of each day.
Ready Player One: Saturday, June 27th
We fly, wind up in St. Louis for a day. I look around the city, walk, weave between the sports people. Everyone asks if we’re there for “the game”. I always consider answering, “Checkers?” but instead just shrug a lot and try to avoid people.
A passing cop says the river is flooded, so I head immediately to the river. Water surges past; it has risen above roped-off pedestrian areas, covering the sidewalks and benches. A swath of floating debris bobs around a submerged gift store. Me and a few dozen sports people crowd around and stare at it all.
For fun, I imagine yelling, “I’m a mermaid!” and leaping into the river. It’s a pretty good time for me, this thought. Then I resume the walking and people-avoiding.
We leave, fly somewhere else, board another plane, fly over the ocean for eight hours. During the flight, I sleep, eat tiny foods, watch a robot movie and read a depressing book about morose Norwegians with dire employment issues.
We land in Amsterdam. I don’t know what day it is. Our luggage has issues, so we have to wait around for a few extra hours. The baggage area is cavernous, deserted. It’s so empty the silence echoes.
We notice a backpack sitting crumpled on a seat. Someone had walked off without it.
Unattended bag in an airport…it makes us nervous, so we stay clear of it, sit on the other side of the room.
I try to imagine the contents of the backpack. I think of guns and bombs and stolen museum artifacts and golden Willy Wonka tickets. I get really curious. I have to look in that backpack. She tells me to leave it, but I casually walk over, then tear into it. I see travel books, notebooks, pens, cigarettes. No drugs or rare snakes or ray guns. I dig around some more, but then a door opens and a guy walks in, stares at me. He walks over, takes the backpack. He stares at me a little more and I say, “I held it for you. Because security was going to take it away and I thought you’d be back so I held it for you.”
Backpack Guy gives me a dry, skeptical “thanks” and leaves.
She pats me on the back and gives me the look that I get when I do ill-advised things, which is pretty often.
Amsterdam: June 29th, Monday
I walk about, deranged.
It’s everything in waves: buildings lousy with windows, sidewalks alongside them, bike paths next to those, then narrow streets, then canals. Sun so bright it is seemingly inside of my head, radiating outward.
The buildings squeeze the canals and streets together, forcing the people and cars and boats and bikes to surge faster. All of the movement freezes, jerks forward, stops, flows. My mind can’t separate all of the visual data.
I weave through it, nauseous, seeking out the small, mercurial openings that drift about like living wax- the spaces where I can step without being jostled or knocked about. Eyes track the openings; mind stitches them together with the magic of fearful steps. Forward movement as the magic accumulates.
Vertigo hopscotch; sweating.
A “ding” means a bicycle is aimed at your back.
Grinning mammals float past on wooden boxes; dazed eyes, green bottles, wine mirth and stupor.
People, cars, boats, bikes; flowing, stretching into frenetic bars that stab forward, overlap.
(I imagine video of myself drifting in a river during a log jam, head barely above the water, logs surging forward, their violence buffeting my skull as I frantically seek out the safety of open spaces. And someone is messing with the video, pausing it, speeding it up, reversing it, all at random, without any discernible pattern. And somehow, within the video, I am conscious of the changes, aware of the observer and the alterations to my reality; aware of the speeding forward, the reversals, the abrupt pauses.)
Periodically, she looks back, waves me forward, tries to keep me unlost.
Then she says “market” and we enter it and I stare at cherubic fruits and stacked cheeses and shaved, pink flesh and row after row of sedate gems in the juice aisle.
We tote sacks through the log jam, up dollhouse stairs and I lay around reading comic books until the nausea passes.
Wednesday, July 1
I walk around the Rijksmuseum. New Dutch art. Old Dutch art. Napoleon stuff.
I like the portraits of Napoleon’s generals: they’re large paintings, colorful; the wall with these features a row of jaunty dudes in uniforms, a few of them smirking, seeming to relish their paintings as they were being created, each brushstroke a marinade of status.
War selfies, basically. I look at those, and Napoleon’s dinnerware. He had really nice dinnerware. I stare at ornate soup bowls, think about death; my death, the death of all of us. I imagine the world ending during the soup course at a fancy dinner. Luxury hell. Extinction event via dinnerware shrapnel.
I spend most of the day staring at a very large painting of a goose. Later, I discover that the museum provides printed infographics with a detailed explanation of their major paintings, and that’s when I realize the goose is a swan. The painting is entitled, “The Threatened Swan“.
I stare at the beast, read about it, stare some more.
One room has Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”. Massive painting, basically a depiction of politically intense, like-minded fellows posing for a year book photo.
I notice an elderly tourist trying to push open a heavy wooden door. I run over to hold it for her. She walks through…stares…laughs. It turns out, she’s the first in a very large group of elderly women traveling together. So I hold the door for the entire group, as they slowly walk past. It’s a good five minutes of door holding. They laugh about it. One lady in the middle of the group pats my arm as she’s passing by, as if to say, “Is that hurting yet?” Then I go back to staring at the swan.
The modern Dutch art, a mix of painting and sculpture, is appropriately scary and whimsical. Skeletal people lost in bleak corridors, happy fellows with floating beards, an immense vagina couch.
Mostly I think about the swan.
Southern Belgium, Friday/Saturday, July 3rd/4th
A night in Assesse.
Everyone speaks French. No English. Dinner is a challenge.
Small restaurant, outside table seating. Waiter places tiny cups filled with green liquid in front of us. We debate the purpose of the cups (asking the waiter resulted in language barrier issues).
Her theory, since the cups are so small, is that the green stuff is likely a sauce and that we should wait for the next thing to come out, to mix with the sauce.
I worry that it’s a soup and that if we just leave it, the staff will feel like we’ve shunned their efforts. We spend a few minutes surveilling the other customers. Finally, we see someone else get the cups. They immediately pick it up, drink the green stuff. It’s soup! We drink ours before the waiters get suspicious.
Next day, driving, driving.
We stop in Redu, a town known for its many bookshops. I see lots of literature and antiques and first editions. I buy a comic book.
Weilerbach, Germany: Monday, July 6th
I don’t understand why I feel so afraid around people; even here in this heavily quiet village, I wire-walk the streets, fearful. I rush back to the basement, darken it by clamping down shutters. I freeze up, try to hide behind stillness.
I like the shutters here. We need more thick shutters in the states (and in our hearts and our minds…we need immense, towering life-shutters, to keep away all of the people-fear).
Evening: our hosts say “Let’s have dinner!” They want to walk to a nearby place.
I decline; I had crawled into pajamas early (around noon). I said I would stay in the basement. I sort of cough and pretend to be sick.
They wouldn’t hear of it. I was a guest.
“Let’s have dinner!”
I tell them to go ahead, that I will meet them there after changing out of pajamas. They tell me to hurry as they leave.
I pace around for a bit, put on social clothes, exit the basement. Within a few minutes I am lost. Weilerbach is a small village, but I still manage to lose my way. At first I walk quickly, thinking I can find the restaurant in time. After an hour passes, I slow down, just drift along. Every so often I sit on a bench and stare at German cats and German clouds. Then more walking. A heat wave has been intensifying all week; I pass quite a few elderly shirtless gentlemen working in their gardens.
Walking; heat bends the sight lines. Streets waver, lead me astray.
I walk past a tiny farm populated with wooden chickens. I wonder if I am dreaming.
Eventually, I see my hosts walking through a park. I had missed the meal; they were heading home. I follow. I don’t eat that night, which is for the best; I feel nauseous from the heat.
I tell them about the tiny farm and the wooden chickens. It feels like I maybe discovered a magic place hidden within their village, and I’m excited to tell them about it. But they tell me it’s just an old poultry museum.
At their house, we watch a confusing television program. The hosts talk over it trying to explain what is happening, but I can’t make sense of anything. It’s like a soap opera with guns and the scenes feel out of order and the actors make confusing facial-expressions that seem unrelated to anything going on around them.
I go to the basement, resume the pajamas. I read Hunger (again), by Knut Hamsun, and come across a favorite passage:
“The Lord stuck his finger in the net of my nerves gently- yea, verily, in desultory fashion- and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibers and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping whole after the finger, which was God’s finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of his finger.”
I feel haunted by the words, but in a not-unpleasant way. Disorder among the threads; I think about that a lot.
I read and sleep and wake up and stay shuttered in the basement.
…and so forth and so on…the rest is more displacement, discomfort, yet counter-balancing familiarity and none of the strangeness of home.