Color me jet-lagged, footsore, amazed, and fractured. Pondering metaphysical questions like, how long will it take my circadian rhythm to catch the CST beat? When will my swollen feet and ankles subside? Will I ever be reunified with the me I know and sometimes even like?
Translation: I just got back from 10 days in France—my first-ever 10 days in France—where I saw awe-inspiring sights and got overwhelmed by history and ate way too much bread and thwarted at least one possible pickpocket.
(It was raining. I was dancing the umbrella ballet with an unruly gaggle of similarly sheltered pedestrians and admiring the dowagers presiding over Paris Center—those creamy, five-story ladies adorned with lacy, wrought-iron balconies and long French windows—when he moved off the corner where he had been leaning and ghosted my way, just back and to my left. Coincidentally, the side my bag was on. I slid him one glance—”Peekaboo, mon ami.”—and he veered smoothly and immediately away. A shady move, if you ask paranoid me, so I cast him as a pickpocket and felt pretty good about getting the best of him. Don’t ruin the intrigue for me, okay? I mean, if he was a bus driver taking a smoke break, I don’t want to know.)
Maybe the sense of displacement started with the fact that I don’t speak French … although I did try to learn before I went. (No Ugly American, I.) Unfortunately, Rosetta Stone, while an excellent program, didn’t equip me with many words and phrases useful to tourists. I never once, for example, got to tell anyone I had three keys. Nor did I have a chance to comment on the bigness (or smallness) of given dogs, the colors of various bicycles, or the fact that women were swimming. I did get to say, J’ai un stylo twice, but nobody seemed very impressed to hear I had my own pen.
Or maybe it was the fact that the French are so unexpected and unpredictable … from my admittedly sheltered point of view. I mean, who knew “Parlez vous Francais?” was a loaded question, let alone understood the many and varied responses it could trigger? A burst of compassion for the dumb tourist; the eloquent Gallic shrug; clear joy at the chance to strut one’s bilingual stuff; utter contempt for the stereotypical arrogant American who goes around braying, “Everybody over there speaks English, anyway.”
(Note to Christophe, waiter at the American Cafe in Paris: I didn’t ask because I expected you to speak English, I asked because I desperately hoped you might, so I wouldn’t end up ordering chocolate covered snails au gratin. I have to admit, though, your gift for sarcasm transcended any and all linguistic barriers between us. And I always admire people who are good at what they do.)
Of course, my lingering sense of dislocation may be due to the fact that I just don’t get out much, and France was way out, both in terms of geography and comfort zone. (England was a long step removed, too, but at least the Brits spoke my language … sort of). But while I expected to leave the continental U.S. and my comfort zone, I didn’t expect France to take me outside myself.
I haven’t managed to get back in yet. I wonder if I ever will.
The experience changed me, which means it changed the writer in me. I feel enlarged, broken open, filled to overflowing. Thoughts and ideas are tumbling through my head like the colored chips in a kaleidoscope. I want to write short stories about pickpockets and the alms-seekers kneeling on the massive stone steps of Sacre Coeur. I want to paint word-pictures—Chagall with a keyboard. I want to pour these feelings of displacement and awe and excitement and bewilderment onto the page. To wrap my readers in the champagne fizz giddiness of exploring far horizons and the paradoxical comfort and dread associated with coming home to both the warmly familiar and the soul-killing routine you managed to escape for a handful of days.
And I wonder.
Isn’t the artist in me alien enough? Do I need to repeatedly set myself up as a twofold stranger in strange lands to feed the Muse? Does a writer have to travel?
Not that I don’t want to travel. In fact, I’m already planning a trip to Italy next year, God and the economy willing. But let’s face it, long-haul flights in cramped, crowded planes aren’t the adventure they were when I was 20. And the security hoops you have to jump through nowadays? I could fall and break a hip just taking off my shoes one more time.
Since I’m not sure I’ll be up to or be able to afford travel again, I’m pleased as punch to know Kafka had this to say about globe-trotting: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Rilke says, “If your everyday life seems poor, do not indict it; indict yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon its riches; for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
So, okay, I probably don’t have to travel to write. What I do need to do is find a way to come alive to the world, to get the world to come alive to me, without leaving home.
Once I can do that, any travel will be gravy.