Traveling in the Present

Traveling, denotatively, involves the physical act of moving one’s person from this or (as in our case) a succession of places to yet other places. Connotatively, traveling – unless it’s for business or to visit family – also suggests that wherever one lands is in one way or another unfamiliar, and that the journey is undertaken with the explicit intent of discovering unknown sights and sites, human settlements, topographical lands and oceans, textures, flavors, smells, sounds. Whatever “experiencing” a different culture or place means, traveling is customarily the way in which one endeavors to do it.

Contemporary psychologists advise spending discretionary resources on purchasing such constructed moments rather than on goods, owing to their long-term bang-for-the-buck superiority. A new necklace will always become an old necklace. But a trip! It can ignite months of anticipatory reverie. Then it will unfold, however it does, at as slow a pace as everyday life. Then, once completed, its moments and its entirety will be repeatedly savored retrospectively, the mind consolidating the impressions and recounting the narratives into mental vignettes, little polished crystals that get shoved into that overstuffed storehouse, memory.

Traveling creates especially powerful, resonant experiences precisely because whatever ordinary life is, traveling is different. Professional obligations, most of them, catapult into some distant galaxy. Schedules are kept, schedules are disrupted. Tidiness becomes irrelevant; no matter how carefully you lay things into dresser drawers at your temporary abode or pack them up again when the itinerary dictates moving on, you’re just going to be pulling stuff out of your suitcase again. Everything feels new. So much is new: the shape of the illuminated red figures on crosswalk signals, the color of cobblestones, clothing styles (floral patterns, I have discovered, are big in the Low Countries, both for frumpy matrons and the chic set), the clean sky in the late afternoon light.

A group of literary theorists in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century developed a uniquely salient concept to describe the experience of this-and-there-ness, or of this-and-there-and-absolutely-nothing-and-nowhere-else-ness, that a work of art can inspire: defamiliarization. You’re reading a novel, or scanning a painting, or watching a performance, or listening to a piece of music, and it all seems more or less familiar, observations or brushstrokes or phrases or movements you’ve borne witness to before, until suddenly — it’s not. It’s strange. It’s new.

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Defamiliarization, or estrangement, is a concept I pondered and revisited in those hazy, unreal weeks after delivering Veronica, my first child. Gently I would slide her tiny body into the Snuggie and go for summer walks. Once I stopped on a bridge to show her the train tracks running below. Now, I wondered, what could an infant possibly make of this? To this creature, nothing was familiar, all was strange.

Traveling, I am learning, differs from traveling well. Traveling well, or skillfully, requires many qualities one finds in a robust individual: determination, flexibility, humor, resilience, energy, a collaborative orientation along with partners with whom collaboration is both possible and gratifying. The last exigency of traveling well: living in the present or, to use the now-clichéd phrase coined by the Buddhist writers with whom I mentally hang out on occasion, being in the moment.

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To receive what travel can offer necessitates making oneself as open as a sieve, letting every facet of every fleeting experience run through that self clean. Guard against preconceptions. Watch. Interpretations, later. Moments well used are moments spent scanning, thinking, scanning, listening, inhaling, smelling, wondering.

One thing I’ve discovered three-and-one-half-weeks into a yearlong trip around the world: life doesn’t stop just because travel starts. Surprise. On some days, I open up more than others. Ruminations of a fugitive sort, wondering how this book is faring or why that author chose to confess what he did, idle musings about a friend’s (or my son’s) state of mind, fantasies of other lives and others’ lives, all these, and more, wrests me from my – our – appointed task.

It’s coming easier. Belgium, where I have never been, seems a turning point of sorts, probably the first of many (I write this on the place from Amsterdam to Arusha). Why does a Flemish city as small as Ghent, our post-Amsterdam destination, have so many churches concentrated in such a small central area? (In the early middle ages, Ghent’s cup runneth over, and it became the third largest city in Europe, bested only by Paris and Constantinople.) Does Gouda really smell different in Amsterdam than in New York? Why is it that in Flanders gabled roofs are stepped, called crow-stepped roofs? (Easier to climb up and down to repair, I discovered.) And what’s the difference between a Dutch gable and a Flemish gable? (Dutch ones are curved.)

How many people live in Ghent anyway? And what is it about that city that has completely stolen my heart?

— Sarah, written in Ghent, posted 12 August 2017

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