From WTP Vol. V #8
Shake Me Up, Judy
By Joan Frank
The first thing I do these days, when planning travel, is to want not to go.
Mortal risk, hindrance. Bad idea.
I’m not proud of this unpretty, animal panic, this dumb shuttered obstinacy like a dog’s.
There are plenty of reasons for it. They all make sense, in a “life is hard and then you die” way.
You may cut me off; call me grinchy or spoiled. You may remind me that most normal people would sacrifice a body part just to be able to consider—let alone consider abstaining from—the luxury of what is called “leisure travel.” In fact I would have been you cutting me off, not long ago.
I can only describe a developing malaise that intrigues me partly because it is so unpopular.
Everyone loves travel. Everyone is proud of that. Say the words We want to travel. Watch people nod and smile: conspiratorial, intimate, eyeballs glassy. We’re all sophisticates here. Of course you want to travel. Everyone wants to travel.
Except when, after a while, you don’t. Or not so much.
You’re No Good in These Situations, Are You?
Innocents imagine that travel brings wisdom; that they’ll be rocked by electrifying insights as they gaze on exotic vistas. In reality a traveler’s thinking lapses into a vacant trance whenever it can, a spaced-out suspension of wits (to give wits time off before the next urgency).
I will allow that travel does also give moments when beauty arrives; beauty so large, so bouleversant as to feel like pure revelation—indeed like “all ye need to know.”
But these transcendent bits, in my experience, slip away. They’re like a concert you recall having been thrilled by though you can no longer remember the music, or even the substance of the thrill. As a writer, I regret this. Writers have an immense stake in their image as flaneurs or roving scribes, heading out into blue yonder to soak up material. But rarely have I experienced that quality of rich reflection I once supposed to be a natural byproduct of journeying—the orderly, stately insights flowing from the mouths of Henry James and Somerset Maugham narrators, a depth and acuity only accessible, presumably, while they are “free.”
Not for me. Reflection—and its fruit, new understandings—tends to arrive in the much-much-later, the months and years that follow: in solitude, peace, and perfect privacy.
In the actual moment? A traveler craves relief from constipation or shin splints. She frets about why an ATM won’t work, sore and swollen lymph glands, where to print a boarding pass, or (waking with a craggy rock lodged in her throat) whether she has contracted tonsillitis. Or that local pharmacies or ticket counters or grocery stores are closed. Or that she’s arrived, with no time to spare, at the wrong terminal. Or that the contemptuous German passport agent now screaming at her may fine her thousands for breaking the Schengen 90 days rule. Or that security personnel in the sleepy Idaho airport will step forward (as she stands innocently in line) to select her for a special test—swiping the palms of her hands with circular white pads which set off alarms on the test machinery because apparently, logically and conveniently, the hand lotion on the skin of her hands triggers those alarms, so that she’ll be led to an isolated questioning/pat-down center—after which every single thing in her luggage will be removed, and only when officials have satisfied themselves that she and her belongings pose no danger to the American population, will she be asked to repack.
(All the above happened.)
It gets stranger.
Together with the fantasy of diving into a well of clear, deep thought, I’d nursed the notion that my own natural sense of apartness—a writer’s loneliness—might be rescued by a smarter setting. That is, my sense of alienness in my own country (a hopeless, permanent Quasimodo-ness) would somehow blend perfectly inside another language and different cultural norms—even be cosseted there. To use a bloated analogy: think of James Baldwin in Paris, or Shirley Hazzard in Positano. If my own culture viewed me as a gloomy boho, surely a certain savoir faire elsewhere would recognize, and tend warmly to, the visiting artist.
Instead? Savoir faire zooms past, hellbent on earning a living, hooking up or breaking up with people, raising kids, finishing school, nailing a job, or finding a nice piece of fish at the market.
Product Failure, Stopped Time, Catastrophic Thinking
To travel is to become an astronaut—ambulant, self-sustaining—since there’s no guarantee that any stopover, any backdrop, will supply what you need.
But that backdrop, remember, is why you’ve gone.
You’ve gone to meet the new. You’ve gone to place yourself voluntarily inside the crunching maw of newness. In many ways it’s a video game. Stuff comes at you. Think fast. Duck, parry, deal. No shying away. No tranquil withdrawals, no calm reflection. Oddly, very little privacy comes with travel. You’re theatrically visible, On with a capital O. You must be alert, navigate, negotiate—mindful where you are and who’s around and what happens next, forced to make fast deductions and choices that do not (contrary to ads) invigorate. Too bad if you are hungover or sick. Where do we buy tickets? Which kind? How does this machine work? They cost that much? Where did you put them? Did we miss our stop? Whose fault is that? Where are we now? Whom should we ask? You have the language; you start asking.
Often, this is where the bickering begins. I am routinely guilty, it seems, of something called catastrophic thinking—a term supplied by the physical therapist I visited after a sudden, prolonged vertigo attack. At the time of the attack (floors tilting, walls spinning, me vomiting) I feared I was having some life-threatening brain event. It turned out, after tests, to be an unfixable inner-ear event. Meaning I must live with the vertigo (now a vexing but manageable dizziness). Given a life-threatening brain event or vertigo, I’ll take the vertigo. But the episode still reminds me how terrified we’ve all learned to be, defensively, most of the time. Because—sorry—crazy-awful things happen to people for no reason, all the time. Electing risk, alongside this knowledge, becomes something of an art form.
It’s also considered—unfairly and romantically, in my view—a measure of character.
“You’re no good in situations like this, are you?” is the accusation I can’t deny, but hate hearing. It means I’d be the last choice of whom to be stranded with, whom to face problems with. This shames me. Hate accuser, hate self. Lose-lose.
Then the zipper on the (“durable!”) travel wallet fails, going off its track. The wallet flops open from its dangling position around your neck, grinning at strangers, exposing all its credit cards, passport, multicolored paper currency. You have to use rubber bands to close it, maneuvering them complicatedly around your wrist while extracting what’s needed as the wallet splays shamelessly, flaunting its innards. Husband stares at the broken wallet as if its failure represented some moral lapse of your own. In fact you’d obsessed about purchasing that wallet. In truth, you’d fetishized the getting of all your travel gear—researched, analyzed, agonized—finally choosing what you judged would be right.
The right gear, you’d assumed, would make travel easier.
Here is what is true. The little Ryanair-approved carry-on you acquired, in order to avert their drastic fines for outsized luggage, was pleasant—at first—to pull along like a wobbly pet. But it holds so little (a grocery bag’s volume) that, desperate for the pathetic few things you feel you must have, you pack it too full. It begins to split open.
Like belongings, the body (first and last luggage) starts to show wear that—puzzlingly—you can’t remember inflicting. Fingernails break. Feet grow callouses. Elbows sprout patches of rough, scaly skin. Bruises and cuts you’ve no memory of receiving. Unprecedented rashes. Stomach problems, intestinal problems, viral visits. A patch of lower gum turns meat-red with inflammation. Why now? For what cause? You’ll never know. Needless to say, it’s twice as miserable being sick on the road as it is being sick at home. (Souvenir snapshot: Paris’s enchanting Pont des Arts on a fall afternoon, the city around us glinting in the sun, my husband standing aside irked and helpless while I’m bent double in coughing fits.)
In fact most of travel’s torment proves crushingly physical. Sleep’s elusive. Stress is amped. Demands don’t slacken just because you’re underslept: quite the contrary. Most days you’re obliged first thing to jump up, make decisions, run around. You lose control over food and exercise. Eating out, however carefully, means high-fat and heavy starch (paradoxically, never filling enough). Your body begins to soften and expand. Midsection and thighs start to feel like wet cotton batting. You can’t fasten the top button of your jeans. This makes the fly slide open and they bag down.
“Your jeans are bagging down,” your husband points out.
Doing laundry in another country is like trying to do it on another planet, or else as a last resort, bribing someone on that planet to do it for you (uncertain you may ever see your clothes again). Unsurprisingly, dryers in distant lands—if they exist—are weak. Do people there just walk around damp? And thinking about laundry summons another earmark of travel:
Fathomless amounts. Blood-draining eternities. Pointlessness is its punishment.
We know, of course, that time is precious. Time’s waning. We should by rights relish slowing time. Why then does waiting feel like prison? And what can so much waiting finally mean? Are we secretly waiting for the whole trip to end? Or for the reward—the flash of joy or enlightenment, like the elusive green flash when the setting sun dips into the sea—that all this fuss hoped to spark?
Are we waiting for life to resume?
Or are we waiting for the safe, known life to resume?
Why, on foot, do people thicken around you, blocking your path or clipping you as they speed past, as if choreographed to trip you up? (In London we actually stumbled over a woman’s lost, single shoe at a mobbed streetcorner.) This makes you surly. Instead of (as hoped) becoming more sensitive and porous to human plights you morph into a hulking, scowling, forward-pushing shrew with an attitude: angry survivalism. The shift happens animalistically; a primal, pre-emptive guard. Nerves on red alert have little margin for empathy. Worse, people around you seem to want one of two things: that you get out of their way or give them money. Often I have felt like a football player running toward the goal (whatever it was) with one hand out to fend off interference.
I, who carry spiders safely out the door rather than kill them.
As noted, I’m not proud of any of this—or of the implication rattling within: what kind of savage am I? Does it take so little to scratch off the humanitarian veneer? What wouldn’t I do, finally, to get what I want? Whom would I betray?
Enter a hot sense of identity fraud: who we were at home (reasoning, thoughtful, benefit-of-doubt-giving) versus who we become in the airless concrete cell of a stifling Munich hotel in humid summer (where the window won’t open more than an inch). Or when gypsies almost (not quite) make off with our wallet in a Paris metro. Or when an unknown guide drives us through a deserted outback in Turkey and we realize we could easily be robbed, killed, and left there with no one any wiser.
Mortal Reverb, Cellular Memory,
and the Unanswerable Question
As countdown to departure looms, if you are planning to travel far, those dear to you begin to look more precious, a bit shrunken. You search their eyes. They search yours. Everyone’s choked by something no one dares name. The surrounding air in those moments grows still.
It’s mortal terror. The act of going away removes us, with no guarantee of return— imitating its metaphorical brother, sleep: a Petit Mort, a Little Death. Now we have the spectre of the 2015 Paris massacre to decorate our imaginations. But the ethos of Travel Trumps All stands tough, indestructible (externally, at least). No one slaps departing friends on the back and cracks don’t forget to avoid suicide bombers in the same way they might chime don’t forget your phone charger or don’t forget to text. Yet we invest farewell celebrations with unspoken, ghoulish significance: this may be the final goodbye.
Alright then. Why do it? Why go?
I have asked that question, of myself and others, ten thousand times.
When I was young and poor and feckless, no such question occurred to me. Without a flicker of hesitation, travel on any terms was snatched up. I’d go anywhere on a dime—and I never had more than a handful of dimes. I went to West Africa with the Peace Corps, ate and drank and sang and wept with my co-volunteers, all very young women like me who (like me) fell in hopeless love with our handsome Senegalese language instructors and who (like me), once installed out in the bush, often spent a lot of time squatted over a makeshift hole in the earth (courtesy of amoebic dysentery), looking up at the vast African sky filled with pinpoint stars. All this was carried off with easy fatalism. (Dysentery was a nuisance, but we were immortal.) Years later my then-boyfriend and I, between rentals, slept in a pup-tent on pastureland halfway up a Hawaiian volcano. A cow liked to lean against the tent to scratch itself in the morning. We stashed our few belongings in the tiny storage pocket behind the back seat of my old Volkswagen Bug and washed in local gas station restrooms. Later we stowed away to the island of Tahiti on a flight chartered for a soccer team, and slept our first night in Papeete in a public park. I woke at dawn to find the park’s French security guard stretched full length beside me, wistfully running a hand ever-so-lightly along my exposed leg. (No harm done. I woke my boyfriend; we gathered ourselves groggily and raced away; the guard sat up smiling, sheepish.)
It’s startling to look back upon that young woman now. What most touches me is her spirited Yes to everything. You simply got on with the adventure in those years, however you could. That was the single mandate. No blame, no whining, no equivocating. There wasn’t even a half-baked mission statement: just cheerful, practical onwardness. More touchingly, beneath that I see, like strong bones in an X-ray, the core assumption—not belief but assumption, the way we assume the fact of air—that all these wanderings were important. All had meaning.
My husband remains, even at our late ages, much like my younger self. He grew up so poor in the industrial north of England that his family could never afford to go anywhere very far from its depressed mill town. He’d show his parents brochures for warm, pretty places. They’d shake their heads. The best they could offer were small drives to the city of Manchester’s airport, to watch planes come and go. (The first suntan my husband ever saw was that of Prince Philip, who popped through town on the way back from visiting his native Greece.) Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that my husband would gleefully be packed and ready to fly to the moon in fifteen minutes if asked; he’ll sleep in a hammock and eat a bowl of gruel-drizzled rice if that’s all there is en voyage. He rushes now to arrange each next trip—often a year in advance.
I understand his reasoning. It’s everyone’s mantra, words people love to fondle and recite on cue:
That it’s good for us.
Good to be forced to push, especially when it’s hard. Good to be uncomfortable, to solve or fix or cope. Good to be stone-mystified. Good to wade into difficulty, strangeness, humbug. Good to see new stuff. Good for the brain, good for the body. Oh, right. We’re alive.
Brain and body waken, as well, to the fact of Others: their decency. This comprehension, for me, is probably the central gift of travel. Despite everything, most people are focused on staying upright, caring for themselves and their families. These tasks are visibly harder outside America, even in posh capitals, and travel always reminds us of the comparative luxury of our own lives. The arbitrariness of our luck brings a moral undertow: how should we live in response to that? In responsible response, that is.
Somehow, the cells remember everything. This is not quite related to the whatever-doesn’t-kill-you model. It may be closer to a trope expressed by the character Mr. Smallweed in Dickens’s Bleak House. Smallweed is a venomous but curiously vital man whose unnamed illness keeps him stuck, semi-supine, in a chair. His body’s old and rotting. When he wants freshened clarity he orders his strong, grown granddaughter, who obediently moves behind him, “Shake me up, Judy!” She gets her upper arms under his armpits from behind, and proceeds to lift and turn his torso while administering a good hard series of downward shakes. You can hear the crack and pop of rearranging bones.
I can no longer buy the stock salespitch, the hearty take your weird-tasting travel medicine and become a better person bromide. It’s too pat. One size may not fit all.
Why the Bear Went Over the Mountain
Facts? Travel beats us up. It’s shockingly expensive. Its effects upon the planet, and upon those we visit, are morally questionable. It takes a chunk of time to recover. (The cells remember that, too.) There is also, floating over these concerns like a polluted cloud, the troubling fact of a scarcity of human interpenetration. That is, most tourists are routinely buffered first to last by a sealed environment, so that their “trip” consists of acting out in familiar ways, in familiar language, against a borrowed landscape. (If you have ever lived in a resort destination, you have dwelled in the graphic, daily evidence of this.)
Other tourists make a prideful mythology of travel ordeals: “It happened this way, which proves that I am right about what is real.” Though telling stories later is not strictly why we go. (No one’s listening for long, immersed as they are in their own stories.)
We go, I think, driven by combined ennui and curiosity, for the same reason the bear went over the mountain: to see what we can see—meaning, to my thinking, what we are able (physically and spiritually) to discern and to name, flavored by who we are in the moment of seeing; what shape and strength of mind and soul we bring to it. What we see will forever inform everything we think, say, and do, including (if we are looking carefully) a fresh understanding of our own potential barbarism, our fearful, greedy parts. We know more, respect more, are humbled by more—most of all by what we don’t understand.
I am uneasy, however, letting that argument plant its smug flag there and dust its hands.
Why should anyone’s aversion to risk and discomfort, particularly as they age, automatically translate as weakness of spirit? Emily Dickinson seldom left her house. Proust, in the habits of his person, was not exactly an action figure. While we live, there’s no report card. After we die, there are only platitudes. Why not do more of what we like to do and less of what we don’t? In the same way that perceptions refine with age, why shouldn’t tastes?
An aging east-coast friend, a shrewd and vibrant writer, once told me she was embarking on a brief getaway to a small Italian town with her (eighty-something-year-old) boyfriend—and that while there she meant to try her best “not to learn anything.”
That shocked me a minute. Then it flooded me with delight. I still delight in it when I think about the great earnestness of most Americans—me foremost among them. American earnestness often seems a kind of solipsistic apple-polishing, a shiny dream of self-in-the-world, a story we tell ourselves, while stepping off the cliff, about who we are and (for that matter) that the world cares.
It also enables us—strangely—to do things we did not know we couldn’t.
What I finally suspect about my growing dismay is that it springs from a common condition, not limited to age: Weltschmerz, defined online as “melancholy” and “world-pain” or “world-weariness.” It may not be something to brag about. It’s also a solid element of art that people recognize with relief, even elation—think of flamenco or blues—because it makes them feel less alone. Wikipedia describes the word as originating with a German author who declared that Weltschmerz “denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who believes that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.”
We travel expecting something. We get something else.
“Everything,” said a wise man to me once, when I was young and arrogant, “is exactly what you hold it to be.” We are free to create meaning; free to change it. The stories we tell ourselves will be as real as needed, until the next story bumps it. Experience will bear out what we wish it to. Travel is a luxury, an emblem of courage or pluck, an edifying, sometimes life-changing milestone. Travel is a deluded, vain, superficial, exhausting, costly business, bad for the planet’s health and soon forgotten by its perpetrators—ultimately, by everyone.
So why is not easier, I wonder, to “snap out of” Weltschmerz?
One guess is that it’s pure biology—an organism’s life-force slowing. But right up in our faces, generations of artists do their best work in their sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties. (Pablo Casals, asked why he was still practicing the cello in his nineties: “Because I think I’m making progress.”) Everything is what we hold it to be.
If the fault, then, is strictly a failure of imagination, why can’t I just will a reversal? The truth makes such a buzzkill. I don’t travel well anymore. There it stands: homely, inexcusable.
But will I volunteer that to the young people in my life?
My granddaughters are in their teens; a stepson and nephews in their twenties and thirties. Some are starting families. All have to live through the events and interactions that will form them. That’s sacred stuff to discover, consider, revisit, tweak, and reflect upon along the continuum of time—like one of those moving walkways at the airport. The walkway is a constant for all of us: the only variable being where, along its spectrum, we happen to stand.
For the young, understanding through the eyes, ears, nose, and guts that the rest of the world really exists is no small thing—maybe even vital to the making of a moral citizen. When people say Buenos Aires or Bangkok or Pago Pago, it’s crucial for the young to know—in their bodies—that these are not just words but homes to fellow beings, their lives and dreams.
I will lock away my own embattled weirdness and tell my young family there’s no more passionate, no more permanent an education than travel. That’s all I will tell them, and it won’t be a lie. Everyone—but especially the young—deserves a shot at going to see what they can see. Adventure is still a sturdy word, and the vision it evokes from old Latin and French—a thing about to happen or better yet, what must happen—is still delicious. I will urge them to be sane, avoid war zones. But I will urge them to get out there. They won’t need (or want) to hear about my own weary tune, as I keep eyeballing those ads for a durable travel wallet popping up in the margins of my computer screen. The manufacturers make many claims for the product these days: slashproof, waterproof, scan-proof, grab-resistant, and—they assure me—secure zip closure.
Joan Frank is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection. Her last novel, All the News I Need, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction; other honors and awards include the Richard Sullivan Prize and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year awards. A MacDowell Colony fellow, She also reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle.