Sunday 16 September 2012
Where do we go, really?
There are people who come back from a long weekend in, for example, Madrid, and say, "We've done Madrid."
Really? How? Oh, that museum and that famous tapas place and coffee in that square and that park and that fountain and that palace. No, you haven't done Madrid. You haven't tried to pay your phone bill in Madrid. You haven't protested there. You haven't wondered how you're going to get back with all those bags from the supermarket. You haven't got on a bus and realised you don't have enough fare. You haven't read the local paper from cover to cover. You haven't looked churlishly at someone because they come from a certain neighbourhood in the city. You have visited. You've had the pleasure of stopping by.
Because that's inevitably what we have to do when we travel. Glimpses and mouthfuls, dances and strolls. One croissant, one ruin, one hike, one painting, one smell, one song, one bite, one look. We want everything, instantly, all of the time, it's so easy to live without smelling the flowers when we travel. Then again, that's why it's called travelling places and not living in them. You've got to grasp as much as you can. You've never "done it".
That's why books written by brilliant writers are so fabulous. You can travel to places and live there, side by side with the inhabitants. You smell their smells, you breathe their air. The rusting cars, the torrential rain, the annoying neighbours, the slow post, the trees that grow by rules of their own: they are all yours as well. You wander their dusty streets, you taste their golden chickens, you are afraid of their brutal policemen, you sleep with their smell of jasmine.
Right now, I am travelling in Columbia with doctors and photographers and women with broken hearts in García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. It is a place you read about and feel on your skin. I was there the moment early in the book that I read this:
In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.
Who wouldn't want to live in a place like this? Who wouldn't want their imagination opened by that dust and watch children flying past as their window as they make lemonade? It's a place where the tinkling of the piano reaches your ears between the turning of the pages; a place where in your own siesta you dream of swimming in its rain. There is time for you to be awakened by sadness too.
I would like to stumble sweaty out of an Egyptian pyramid, to pull faces at the pong of geysers in Iceland, to drink tea listening to the quarks of parrots in Costa Rica and to follow a shark-shaped shadow under the waters around Australia. Maybe one day I will do those things and maybe I won't. But I am comforted by the fact that someone who loves words, somewhere, has written about those places and I can live there too by opening their book.