Travel, as most people now know it, started as the Grand Tour, the travel and education of young English aristocrats in foreign languages, customs and cultures. Lord Byron getting about the Continent, gathering material for Childe Harold, scouring the ruins of the Mediterranean in search of that lingering magic from all the classics he read at Cambridge. Perhaps he sought a place where he might capture that correspondence between antiquity and the actual? What feels like a rare privilege, finding a fleeting or obscure quality that might still persist from ancient poet to present.
It’s still possible, but might take weeks of getting about the Aegean or Adriatic before you luck out with the right system of clouds and sunset to catch Homer’s wine dark sea. And by some contemporary, socially mediated insistence, what will it be, that open vista of richly colored water just off the stone quay, reaching out to Crete or Corfu. What for a moment etches itself in the memory — before a companion asks where the bathroom is, notices you’re sinking fascination and politely asks if you could send them a copy of the photo before they disappear (and inevitably complain about the facilities upon return). What is it but a photo you must share.
Of course, that’s an involved and complicated game of authenticity and to a degree affectation. Although, there is something rakishly American about picking up 18th and 19th century tradition for impertinence and laughs. As if, despite flying on a discounted ticket way in the back nestled up against the window amid the headphone invading roar of the jet engines, you’re really a distant relative with a genuine claim to the Dukedom of Cleveland getting about for an education before taking a seat in the House of Lords.
It’s still a powerful image, whether a book of poetry in the shade of an olive grove or lounging with blanket on the grassy bank of a stream, a bottle of wine dangling from a rope in the cool water, reading a story and looking out and not quite sure but insisting, almost convincing yourself you’ve found it in the real. It’s even more powerful as an idea, capturing a place in a fusion of personal experience and Capital C Culture.
It would be a little overboard, in the quest for authentic travel, to plough through Goethe’s Italian Journey’s before deplaning in Roma or to read the appropriate passage of The Innocents Abroad before arriving there. In a way, it’s only slightly less reductive than the picture, reading then riffing on the story some older, deader person wrote down, even if it does feel like magic, or a travelers tale, finding that quality in the place itself.
Travel should be both an enriching and a lingering experience. There’s no greater souvenir than to carry with you some aspect of a place or a people, what unlocks and summons so much more. In many ways, that’s the truest measure of having been somewhere, what you bring back and what sticks with you.
People might call it affect or putting on airs. And it can be, although I’ve found the easiest way to know whether something is an affect or a genuine habit is whether anyone notices. It’s something of a trope, the American returning from abroad and forcing new bits of slang and a not quite perceptible accent into every conversation for a few weeks.
No one really notices the habit of ordering Gin and Tonic with a Lemon. Every time I always think of this English girl I was flirted and argued with in Paris. I don’t remember her name but only a short blonde bob and this odd association with Sara Jane Smith from Doctor Who. She was adamant, insistent that the horrid cliche about limes be done away with. Another sip and for a moment I’m transported back to that summer of ’05, doing Europe out of a rucksack and later in the evening stumbling into a protest/riot/party on the Place de la Bastille for the EU Constitutional Referendum, the infamous French, NON. It’s a pleasing, expansive memory kept alive and stirring the thoughts and recollections, if only because it really does taste better than the standard lime every North American bartender drops in without a thought.
Or eating the salad last at most meals. A lingering habit from my time in France. It’s not even the Francophile indulging or portraying but utterly practical. Cleansing the palate of the heavier flavors of the main meal, prepared for desert and cheese or just leaving the stomach and taste buds on the perfect light note. It just makes sense.
Then the one that always makes me feel like a foreigner back home. They say that when it comes to Marmite and Vegemite, you either love it or hate it. I’ve found that the vast majority of the US is firmly in the hate-it camp. One of my crew mates, enlisted the brave among us in a taste test of whether Marmite or Vegemite is the superior spread. After showing me the “proper way to make Vegemite-toast,” I was hooked on that salty and savory flavor. What I would later find out is a fine example of Japanese culture’s treasured, fifth taste: umami. And while it does take me back to my time at sea. When I reach for my pot of it at, it’s not nostalgia that hits me. It’s that striking, pleasing can’t quite describe-y taste. Thanks, Karla!
There’s so many little things you can pick up in the world whether it taking the stairs, regardless, having a coffee or an aperitif before eating dinner, having dinner late, around 20h00, using military time, always saying hello and good bye to store clerks, walking in single file and keeping to the right or any of the countless little things that make perfect sense and seem odd when you return and people don’t do them.
In some ways, it might be the ultimate privilege of an American, coming from a young country and just grabbing what works best of all the world, unbothered by the strictures of custom and rules, your own included. Looking on the offerings of the world with new eyes. Who else but an American might indulge the idea of thinking in German, speaking in English, eating in French and making love in Italian?
There’s something intriguing and fascinating about the idea. Picking up a few things here and there becomes a sort of chart of your life. What you carry about as a pleasing fusion of habit and memory because at the bottom, at their very simplest, they have the power of memories unlocked, impressions that drag you away from where ever home or the semi-permanent location may be. They are potent reminders in a simple and powerful way just how large the world is and how rich your life can be.
It makes one dream and think of a self not assembled or affected by some social necessity or design. That to be is just the natural product of curiosity and a whiff of adventure. What settles in as happenstance and serendipity, what occurs by just being there, free of all the expectations. No disappointments or snarky comments or constructive criticisms but a simple pleasure in a memory, a souvenir that’s apart of you regardless of the internet connection or curated profile. A pleasing reminder of where you’ve been, what works and where you’re heading.
Make that a habit!