Travel, once upon a time, was extremely painful for me. I grew up in a small rural town and a settled family, non-travelers for the most part who rarely took vacations or went further than the next county away from home. Nearsighted and prone to motion-sickness, I found even medium-length car trips difficult by the age of four. Later I begged to stay home from school bus trips, and even in high school, though I always went on band trips for winter concerts or the marching competitions we participated in all summer, I'd often spend the day before in semi-panic. Because I was a smart and talented kid from a fairly well-off family, I grew up knowing other children would only be too happy to find a reason to laugh at me. This suffering, which I experienced as an interior anxiety, anguish and shame, battled with my increasing curiosity about the larger world. Gradually the latter won out: I went anyway when the opportunities beckoned. I took dramamine for the motion sickness, and aspirin for my severe menstrual cramps, and began to discover that I could survive, my anxiety mostly undetected by classmates, teachers, and boyfriends, because that was the worst of it: the fear that my capability and apparent calmness would be unmasked, and this darker, frightened self revealed.
Travel outside the family cocoon presented another problem. I was, fortunately or not, very empathetic and observant, aware both of the range of emotions and reactions in the people around me, and of subtle variations in the visual landscape. I quickly saw, for instance, how people in another place were dressed and how they behaved. If someone I was travelling with was loud or awkward, I saw it immediately, and noticed other people's reactions. I was hyper-aware of my own clothes, shoes, and hair, and -- because no one had ever suggested anything different -- I thought other people were equally aware. It would be many years before I realized that no one in a strange city gives a damn about your appearance; most of them will never see you again. And, conversely, that strangers are compassionate and helpful; awkward situations usually work out and teach us something in the process; that vulnerability is not to be feared.
The choice to attend a big university changed me a great deal. Afterwards I moved away to New England, where I knew no one, started a business, made friends. I found out that I loved to fly. During my short-lived first marriage, I went on an extended six-week trip to Europe. And then, in my late twenties, I met and married a man from a foreign family: citizens of the world who knew many languages and had lived and traveled widely. Gradually, with J., I learned to be more comfortable in urban environments, especially New York, and with more frequent travel. But it was London that changed me the most; during a series of trips in the 1980s and 90s I discovered the joy of being alone in a foreign city, the pleasure of anonymity, the pride of coping with new things, the passion for exploring and discovering things on my own. Without the gifts that London gave me, I would never have been able to move to Montreal.
Before this trip I hadn't been in London for eleven years. I was curious to see how it had changed, but what I didn't expect was the mirror it held up to me, reflecting how I had changed, too. Walking the old streets, entering familiar tube stations and later emerging up the long escalators, I watched myself, fifty-nine years old now instead of forty-eight, a woman altered by world events, of course, by deaths and dislocations, relinquishments and accomplishments too, but also simply by another decade of living, thinking, reading, and communicating with others.
I found myself much less rattled by anything; at first this seemed almost like indifference, but I realized it wasn't, it was just a sort of calmness that has come from seeing more and more of life. And with that greater calmness, a freedom to be myself: not caring too much about what others think, and not judging them, either; worrying less about what might happen and simply being present to whatever was in front of my senses at the moment. I was far less concerned with rushing to accomplish everything on some sort of "travelers's list", and much more content to go with the flow of the days and the people with whom we were in contact; an irony, perhaps, for someone who is becoming more and more aware of mortality, loss, and the shortness of time. And yet, that's exactly how it was, and is: a palpable relief, and the discovery of an even greater freedom.
1) A chestnut burr, Hyde Park
2) A juvenile coot on the edge of the Serpentine, Hyde Park.
3) Arch, Marlborough Gate, Kensington Gardens.
4) Aphrodite riding on a swan, red-figured kylix, c. 460 BC, British Museum.