Entries in travel (8)

Thursday
May312012

early world

 


I sometimes think my vision of the sea is the clearest thing I own. I pick it up, exile that I am, like the purple 'lucky stones' I used to collect with a white ring all the way round, or the shell of a blue mussel with it's rainbowy angel's fingernail interior; and in one wash of memory the colors deepen and gleam, the early world draws breath.  (from Ocean 1212-W - Sylvia Plath)

For Plath, the sea. For me, the cold Canadian lakes - some of which were so big they seemed like the sea. And the little sandy shored, pine-ringed lakes that we'd drive to on a weekend; my legs swinging and sticking to the leather beneath my short 1970s dresses. The regular peel and slurp of skin released from leather mingled with the car radio and my own low singing. Sometimes, to fade out raised voices in the front, I would sing harder. As we drove, I watched for patterns in the clouds that dominated the big skies. Some days, there would just be blue. A bright dazzle - just blue and the yellow disc of sun. 

At the lake, the first slap of cold against hot summer skin. The scent memory of sun cream and pine, earthy lake water and the rubbery swim hat I was sometimes made to wear. Then into the water and the freedom of moving further away from my non-swimming parents. My dad taught me to swim by making me arrow towards him underwater; and as he gradually moved further away I found myself to be a swimmer. The transition from the speed and grace and cool shadow underwater to the splash and struggle of swimming in the air was one I made reluctantly. So when the shouts and splashes and noises of a busy beach began to drown out my daydreams, I'd happily submerge and swim long, slow pulls underwater. That water is glass green in my memory, striped at intervals by the sun. 

My early world, encapsulated by those lakeside moments, is tucked inside my own seashell - ready to open at any time. I'm opening it now.

Thursday
May032012

thinking about clams

Venice is one of those cities, like San Francisco and Stockholm, that I slipped into so easily that coming home felt wrong. Even the greenly dank smell of the water didn't worry me. I accepted it like the little flaws you secretly like in someone you love. Evading the crowds who trod heavily round the same few streets, the pleasures of getting lost amidst the back streets were heightened by the frequent discovery of a tiny deserted church with a centuries old fresco. I dreamed of training in fresco restoration and spending my life there. Sitting quietly with a prosecco in a neighbourhood square, watching the life move around us, we talked of how easy it would be simply not to go home. 

But for all the many good memories I have attached to Venice, surprisingly few of them are culinary. Some of the most disappointing Italian food I've eaten has been in Venice. There are glorious exceptions. Plates of cicchetti served in little bars full of raised voices and crowded with office workers. Gefilte fish eaten in on the canal side in Cannareggio. Little polpetti that were so hot and fresh that we burned out mouths in haste and greedy hunger. And the best spaghetti al vongole. There were no tomatoes or chilli - just a lot of garlic and wine and a soft, leafy green that lay across the clams like a little blanket and melted on contact with your tongue.

Listening again to this programme, I determined to celebrate all things Venetian with my own tribute to that vongole. Chard will be my leafy green, and I'll use a heavy hand with the garlic and the wine bottle. And I've just remembered there's a bottle of prosecco in the larder from the days when it was actually spring - hurray! It's so cold and grey here that a little feast is just what's needed. What are you cooking tonight?

Friday
Jan272012

winter morning

Sipping slightly too hot soup by the stream at lunchtime, I welcomed the bracing, wintery feel to the day. I'm feeling oddly emotional; or rather, full of emotions that I can't quite identify. The intense happiness that I felt this morning on my drive home from school has filtered into something more complicated. Like finding something lost, I retrace my footsteps. I remember the joy of that drive through the narrow lanes with the sun still low and pink in the sky and the air heavy with ice crystals. I remember the pleasure with which I listened to Vikram Seth as I drove. Then I remember what the music made me remember and it occurs that perhaps the answer lies there.

The distinctive voice of Lata Mangeshkar sent me back to a cinema in Kathmandu and the first Bollywood film I'd ever seen. Breathless after the scrum to find a seat, I sipped gratefully from a flask of chai laced with ginger and pepper to try to combat the vicious cough that would only clear when I briefly left the choking pollution of the city for the mountain air two months later. Senses already heightened by my rapidly rising temperature, watching that film was unlike anything I'd known. People clapped, cheered, booed. Walked around, chatted, argued and spread out food. Sang along. I remember my hands on that flask in the dark and my senses singing.

Intense cold, a constant cough, an odd sort of loneliness and a discovery of my own self-reliance are what I remember most from those first weeks. The intensity of that time was greater than the warmer, easier days that came later with familiarity, changing seasons and the arrival of John. An intensity of memory that equals my early days of motherhood: always intertwined because I came back from Nepal pregnant with Joel. 

So when it came to Seth's choice of Bach's Partita for Solo Violin No 3 in E Major, another layer of memory was revealed. One of my favourite pieces and especially so during those odd, intense, exhausting early weeks after Joel's birth when I'd lie on our bed with Joel propped on my knees and we'd gaze at each other, working on our new relationship in the outside world, letting the music fall around us.

Funny things, memories. Now it's time for the drive back to school and I've let the fire go out, so wrapped up have I been. It's the onion, memory. *

 

* Craig Raine

Wednesday
Dec282011

light can be both wave and particle

me, by Joel

Several years ago, I found myself stuck in the middle seat of the middle row of a jumbo when I'd expected to be in splendid isolation on the side aisle. Oh I was unhappy. Pinned in on both sides and unable to move my arms and legs my claustrophobia began to rise at the thought of the lengthy transatlantic flight. I determined that this was all a bad show and my bad mood radiated off me. I ignored my fellow passengers, scowling instead into my book. Time passed though my fury remained.

Suddenly the man beside me said 'it's true, y'know'. I blinked at him. He just smiled and repeated 'it's true - the book'. I was reading Ellen Gilchrist's Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle. With that, the journey changed. He was a physics teacher, travelling back home with his wife. We all talked for the rest of the flight. I remember nothing of our conversation but that it was good and thoughtful and unexpected. He took the risk of breaching my barrier of gloom and it lifted the day for all of us. 

I'm not a fan of the strict resolution but this year I'm going to try and remember to live with more generosity and lightness. To smile and see the best in someone, or a situation. To cut off a bad mood before it affects other people. To enjoy the simple fact that I'm alive to see in another year. I hope you've had some good days and are looking foward to the chances that this new year brings. Happiness to you. 

Monday
Oct312011

sunlight on your eyelids

Good morning. And it is good. Sitting outside with my coffee I realised that something felt different: yes, the leaves had yellowed dramatically but it wasn't that. It wasn't even that the grass is so thickly carpeted with yellow and orange leaves that light is reflecting happily upwards. It then struck me that there was a lot more sky and water than normal. After a night of strong winds the tops of the tallest trees are bared and the lower limbs of the trees surrounding the lake have dropped, letting in so much more light. Tilting my closed eyes up to the warmth and brightness, I thought of this song, discovered via Lily and played over and again.

On first hearing, images exploded of my first trip to India. Driving dazed from the airport in a taxi playing bangra. Rolling along the stall-lined, rutted, back streets of coastal Kerala as dusk descended abruptly candles flicked on alongside us, the stars switched on above and woodsmoke wove in front of our headlights. I stuck my head out the window like a crazy mutt, all the better to inhale the scents of smoke, food, dust and dung. The smells of India. Addictive. But then, the scent of dusty pavements drying after rain is heaven to me. My first night in India, not sleeping. In a hut on a cliff above the beach where the incessant crashing of surf mingled with the shouts and songs of fishermen and early morning calls to prayer. And from somewhere, music. In India there is always music.

The colours of an English autumn can't compare with the vivid tones of India but this is our season of yellows and orange. Warm colours reflecting the welcome warmth of the last day of October. Sunlight on your eyelids: it's a good way to start the week. I hope your day - and your week - contains a little sunshine.  

Friday
Oct142011

ah, grasshopper

detail of a journal entry

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn't have expected. Ben Okri 


A couple of weeks ago during heavy rains, the little stream that runs down through our garden to join the wider stream at the bottom started to forge an alternative tributary to accommodate the greater volume of water. I have a little perch next to the point where the streams meet and, sitting there one afternoon in the stillness of the after rain, I noticed how beautifully the stream had dealt with its problem. Instead of overspilling wastefully over the garden it had quietly forged a neat path past various obstacles, to join the river at a very sensible point close to its twin. I saw there might be a lesson in that for me.

My life so far hasn't been entirely predictable. I've stopped and started and moved and changed. I went to Nepal seven years ago to teach and to explore, with a deep need to change my life. I anticipated the change would come slowly, through travel and encounters and the gradual unfolding of a new path. John joined me after a time and we planned to change our lives slowly in tandem. Instead, in Nepal, I found myself pregnant. So life did change - and it's been a wonderful change - just not at all as either of us had anticipated.

The route of my life has taken hasn't been straight and undoubtedly I'll continue to encounter detours and change. The lesson I take from the stream is that if I move purposefully and consistently back in the direction of my childhood dream - moving steadily and calmly past the obstacles - I'll get there. The journey and the destination may not be exactly how I planned, but perhaps that unknowing is part of the joy?

Monday
Oct032011

I'll always have Paris

I remember a dark room, with early light squaring up against the desk at the end of the bed. Too early and a scratchy start to a weekend in Paris, woken by the shouts, laughter and noise of the bakery opposite. Too early to speak I picked up my camera and snapped. Still lives of our lives on the desk. Keys, notes, glasses, a watch. Bed, unmade. An unsmiling portrait of him, hands crossed, in the chair. That light, that street, that bakery. The rest of the weekend passed by as they did between us then: a little light followed by dark and back again. But nothing is as clear to me as that first morning. A morning more than 20 years ago. And those photographs exist only in memory as the roll of film didn't catch.

I was reminded suddenly of those lost images of the early days of a long-complicated affair when I read Brooke's post. And it made me think about why - and how - I take photographs. Sometimes my eyes see something that creates such a jolt of pleasure, or memory, that I feel a need to record it. Brooke describes beautifully how carefully she composes with film but, film or not, my method is to work quickly, without much regard for technique. Of course, it's a further joy when a moment captured looks as beautiful as it did in my mind but ultimately, the end result is less important than the process. And key to the process is being attentive, engaging, being present. 

Perhaps that answers why taking photographs is so important to me. It's a form of mindfulness - anchoring me back in the now - but also a reminder of what I repeat to myself so many times it must qualify as a mantra: there really is so much that is beautiful. Snapping a moment whose recall will later make me happy is my way of acknowledging, and being grateful for, those frequently incidental moments of pleasure that, together, make for happiness. My snaps are the scraps of happiness I throw in the path of a future I sometimes fear: a store of memories to remind me that sometimes it's better not to look ahead but simply to look around. Be here, right now - remember this.  

Those lost photos sound sad but, in my head, they aren't. Instead, they're a symbol of hope. Every time the shutter closed it said "the morning may not be what we wished but we're here, this is us, these are ours, this is you. That is a good thing."

Joel at 2. I love it despite its imperfections, for what it makes me remember.

Monday
May302011

travellers' tales

 

On Friday night, I slipped out of the cottage to listen to Colin Thubron in conversation with Paul Theroux, as part of the Charleston Festival. Discussing their respective new travel books, the similarities and differences between their motivations and methods were revealing.

The impetus to travel comes from a similar feeling that the world 'out there' is inherently more interesting than home and offers a bracing corollary to the writer's desk. Both men prefer to travel alone. For Thubron, however, the impulse to travel and choice of destination arise from a more complex and internally generated desire. Theroux takes a more pragmatic approach that stems from a need to see and to find out about the world. Neither carries more than a notebook.

As I listened, I considered what travelling without a camera would mean to me. And I realised that I 'look' differently with a camera in my hand. Seen through a lens, the world tends to distill to the elusive and the incidental: a moment, a colour, a pose, a shape, a texture. To catch what my eye sees reminds me what I value and adds depth to my memories rather than simply acting as a substitute for memory.

So the shadows on a tent roof, bunting fluttering in the darkening sky and the impressionistic blur of a flower bed at dusk evoke memories of a cool glass of sparkling wine, sipped in shivery haste amidst the blooms as house-martins swooped overhead. And a starlit welcome back to the cottage and the comfort of fresh mint tea and a very hot, very unseasonal but very necessary, hot-water bottle.