I have been away from my desk, visiting dear friends in the United States and taking the children to see their grandma and grandpa in Virginia. I was raised the child of a diplomat, with a suitcase in one hand and a passport in the other. (Figuratively, not literally – I was not trusted to hold my own passport until I left home!) To be en route somewhere else is one of my favourite places to be. What thrills me is to see this excitement in my children as well, they love adventure at five and seven years of age as much as I do at 37. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments of complete exhaustion and tears, and times when they missed the dog and their own beds.
Most of the time, though, they were:
Jumping off a diving board. Seeing a skunk. Watching their first fireworks on the fourth of July. Sitting in the cockpit of an commercial airplane (pilot and copilot) just after landing.Kissing their 91-year-old great-grandmother on her soft, loose cheek and holding her veiny, swollen hand. Holding a Madagascan hissing cockroach at the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Tubing down a river. Sopping up Ethiopian food with the spongy, slightly acidic injera bread. Learning the difference between a quarter, a dime and a nickel. Dancing to bluegrass music and eating cornbread. Trying (and failing) to ice skate for the very first time. Baking bread with grandma. Feeding the fish with grandpa. Catching fireflies and keeping them in a jar.
Some of my most vivid memories of my own childhood are from travelling. They aren’t always happy memories, but they are imprinted like fossils in my brain. Leaving places I loved and not knowing if I would ever return. The way a velour blanket in a motel room felt on our last night in the US before flying to Germany when I was seven. The leeches which stuck between my toes beneath a waterfall in Sri Lanka and the way the blood trickled down the soles of my feet when I pulled them away. The rows of wooden painted Easter eggs in the market in Poland. The taste of gin-soaked olives from my grandma Lorraine’s martini in Omaha, Nebraska. Also in Omaha: the taste of cherries that grew in the backyard of my grandma Marge’s house. The smell of my great grandpa Guy’s pipe at his nursing home in Pawnee, Nebraska. The dark, watery eyes and protruding ribs of the stray dogs I befriended at the Taj Mahal in India. The smell of cigarettes, duty free whisky, and airplane bathrooms on a six-hour plane ride when people could still smoke on planes.
It must be the newness of these things which made them memorable, and which made me reflect back on the other things I knew with a changed perspective. To take my children back to my birthplace I have this twofold, both seeing them experience the newness of something and remembering how it felt to see it myself as a child, what a skunk smelled like the first time, how yeast bubbled when my mother added the cupfuls of warm water.
Perhaps as well it is the time we find travelling. Time to show things, to engage, to listen to questions and not have to nag and harangue and sigh. I’d like to find this time in our regular lives, this attention to the extraordinary within the ordinary, because I know it is here too. This is the small miracle of travel – it reminds me to pay attention – not just abroad but also at home. At my mother’s house I dug up an old, dog-eared copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in a trunk, a book which is not about travel but which never fails to awaken me. Dillard writes:
The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
I am home, now, but I don’t want to stop looking around with new eyes. I will do my best to try to be here.