That World Elsewhere

In some ways, I’ve already been

A great traveller (in distinction to a merely good one) is a kind of introspective; as she covers the ground outwardly, so she advances towards fresh interpretations of herself inwardly.
— Lawrence Durrell

The woman whose place we were to rent in Paris contacted me to ask whether, after yet another terrible year, we still intended to visit her city. I had looked online at the pictures of her home, a former artist’s residence, which had book-filled shelves, an outdoor courtyard, and walls hung with musical instruments, cooking utensils, and posters of paintings. This is a house I long to visit, and I have pictured myself making coffee and gazing out the large windows that overlook her small ­garden. In some ways, I have already been there, having imagined myself visiting a local shop for bread and eating in a nearby restaurant. The excitement of searching for the property provided me with an uncommon thrill, the twinge of contentment that comes with making travel plans.

In the time of our plague, I have cancelled more trips than I ever thought possible. Some were short outings: Rochester, Detroit. Others were longer: England, Spain, France. As it ­happened, I had a lot planned these last few years. When it became clear that I wouldn’t be going anywhere soon, as the destinations tumbled one by one into my archive folder, I began to revisit past tours as a way of filling that space of longing. It became a sort of mind travelling. I have been thinking specifically of trips I’ve made by train because for a long time I’ve been considering this form of transport, now often sidelined for the faster airplane or the more ­flexible car, and how it got me to where I wanted to go but also added to my psychic well-being. Besides, I’m a sucker for the long, lonesome wail of the whistle.

In contemplating these journeys, I have been scraping back thin layers of memory to piece together what I might have said to the woman on a train in Montreal, many years ago, who complained about not being able to smoke after a suicide had taken place on the tracks, or to recall how frightened I was when a hand reached out to grab my leg in a couchette on an overnight service from Nice to Paris. Some of these details I remember only in the telling, starting off with a hazy image, a brief encounter. I write myself into these episodes and reunite with the characters involved: Was I upset at the callousness of the smoking woman? Did I utter a word as I pulled my leg away? These scenes play out as if I’m still there.

We bring our own consciousness, our own slant, to every new landscape, and when we recreate the experiences, they become rewritten in our memory. This is what I would do. I would rewrite these excursions to create new impressions. I would look back and consider them through the long lens of time to examine who I was then and perhaps who I am now. I would live vicariously off my past adventures. So, in the years of this great pause, I could venture out without leaving home.

In the opening pages of A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe wrote of “the last great visitation in 1665,” when throngs of people left London: women, children, servants with horsemen who hauled wagons loaded with baggage. They were headed to the countryside, those fortunate enough to have obtained a certificate of health from the Lord Mayor. This exodus continued with growing intensity, especially when it was rumoured that the city was about to close and that barriers were to be constructed on roads to prevent the spread of infection to outlying towns.

At the time of the plague, Defoe was only five years old, and his memories of the event must have been slender at best (the recollections in the text are most likely drawn from the diaries of his uncle). With the book, Defoe imagined himself into an entirely different scenario, as he did for Robinson Crusoe, which was published three years earlier, in 1719. That novel was also presented as a “true account,” and many ­readers believed Crusoe was a real person, encouraged by the original title, which concluded with “Written by himself.” Defoe is assumed to have been inspired by the ordeals of Alexander Selkirk, but his writing is still an act of imagination. Striking out into the territory of inventiveness, he would have had to mentally put himself on that ship and then on that remote island, as his narrator fought desperately to survive.

In my own isolation, my thoughts have drifted to a train journey I used to make with my daughter every summer to the east coast. This yearly tradition holds the story of my bond with her: it allows me to see her out of her element, to watch her growing maturity, and to experience unfettered time alone with her. Our departure marked the end of the school year and, for me, a separation from the busyness of the previous months of work, a return to my daydreaming self. Lately, of course, this trip has taken place in my mind.

As I recreate our passage east, it is the moments after we rolled out of the Kitchener VIA station that I remember: when we pointed out rat boxes behind the bread factory, fishermen on the shores of the Grand River, and the place we dubbed the castle house — a garish paradox amid the pastoral vista, with its battlement roof and gated boundary. Who were they trying to keep out, we wondered, those owners who wanted to be seen and not seen?

Seeing and not seeing was what we did for the entire ride, as our gaze drifted from the distant scenery to what rushed immediately before us. This back and forth, our eyes scanning in a leisurely manner, was something we took for granted, so accustomed were we to this mode of travel, which we considered slow.

Along the way, as I took in the parched Ontario farmland, I was reminded of my childhood on my grandparents’ farm in Prince Edward Island: the dry heat, the dust in the yard, the scratch of hay as I hoisted bales onto a trailer. My daughter’s summers have been shaped by travel — to family in the Maritimes, then later to grandparents in England. We had packed our knapsacks full of books, notebooks, and pens; the journey had a stillness that enabled us to indulge in these pursuits. We were not agitated by the speed of the train, as we might have been at the dawn of railways, when there was a fear that women’s constitutions were too weak and that the acceleration might cause their uteruses to fly from their bodies.

If my daughter and I had been travelling on those early trains — considered the jet engines of their day — we would not have been expected to even register the trees or buildings. As Victor Hugo described his view from a carriage in August 1837: “The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red and white.” Out of our modern window, we caught sight of hawks and deer and claimed these creatures, delighted that we had spotted them. We felt connected to the fleeting images, not jarred by them. As we saw it, the ride was a saunter across the landscape.

Around the time we started this annual trip to Moncton ten years ago, my husband, ­daughter, and I travelled by train to Paris — our last visit to the city — on our way from London to Warsaw. We had a day to show her the sights, the highlight, of course, being the Eiffel Tower. The joy on her face as we turned a corner and the lattice ironwork presented itself was magical. When I ask her about it now, all she can recall is standing on the Trocadéro steps to have our picture taken by a friend. The only other thing she remembers from the day was the difficulty we had in finding our sleeper car at the Gare du Nord when it was time to leave. She has no memory of the tower itself.

My recollections compete with hers so there is no true version of what we experienced. And when I look back to that afternoon now, I see my daughter gripping her ice cream in awe in the Champ de Mars, overlaid with the image of our worried expressions as we later searched for our cabin. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent her career recording far-off cultures, some of which would never be visited by anyone else, described the process of observing in the field as a kind of “active waiting,” a readiness in which all one’s senses were “alert to whatever may happen, expected or unexpected, in the next five minutes — or in an hour, a week, or a month from now.” To have our senses so alive and alert: this is what travel offers.

After we arrived at Toronto’s Union Station, the first stage of our ride complete, my daughter was in charge of counting bags — a ­responsibility she has held since she was six — while I grasped the tickets and determined our car number. We found our seats, gathered what we needed for the next five-hour stretch. But we wouldn’t fully settle, because the car was always packed and noisier than we wanted, and we were anticipating the next leg of our travels.

In Montreal, we boarded the Ocean, which has run along the same route, some 1,300 kilometres across Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, for over a hundred years. Our cabin had a bench that converted into two bunks, a narrow cupboard for coats, and a small bathroom where one of us could have brushed our teeth while we sat on the loo, if we were so inclined. By the window, there was a booklet with historical ­tidbits for each of the twenty-eight stops: “Truro is home to the famous Stanfield Underwear Company, which invented cotton stretch knitwear and the trap door in long johns.”

The last time we took the Ocean train, we were joined at dinner by a woman in her late sixties, a professor of anthropology, and another woman, a hospital administrator, who sat down, wide-eyed and chatty, and introduced herself as Heather. She told us about clearing out her father’s basement in Halifax after he died and how she had found live bullets from the Second World War. She talked about the VE Day riots in the city after a no-liquor policy deprived the soldiers of their celebrations. She didn’t mention if her father had been among the rioters.

The anthropologist, whose name we never found out, made the crossing from Vancouver to Halifax twice a year. She was terrified of flying and had once tried to go from Washington State to China by way of two ships and several trains, only to be stranded in Beijing when one of the sea voyages was cancelled. She had called her sister-in-law in Newfoundland, who agreed to fly out to meet her. They spent a week together sightseeing; then, with the help of five Ativan, she boarded her flight and slept most of the way home. At the other end, she told her sister-in-law that she would need a wheelchair to get off the plane.

During dinner, I ordered a glass of wine in defiance of Thomas Cook, the Victorian business­man who established his travel empire by running temperance rail excursions. We talked about my daughter’s interest in social history and her passion for Ruth Goodman’s documentaries. For that hour we were companions, revealing more of ourselves than we intended. There seemed something almost aristocratic in this gathering of strangers for food and ­conversation — a tableau vivant against the ­backdrop of the crimson Quebec skyline.

In Letters Written during a Short Residence in n Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft described a journey that took her across a “boisterous” sea to a harbour where she was met by curious locals — ­curious because they didn’t receive many visitors and because she was a woman on her own. These voyages afforded her an opportunity to reflect, to ask questions of herself, as she completed her task of searching for a stolen ship that belonged to her lover Gilbert Imlay. Almost immediately, she regretted that she had not brought her infant daughter along (they were apart for the first time). As she travelled, she was both there and back in England, ­pondering her child’s future and the “dependent and oppressed state of her sex,” while “musing almost to madness” over their separation.

Wollstonecraft observed that in Norway, the horses were stouter than English breeds and did not tire as easily. She described the fertile land and the quality of the roads, which local farmers were obliged to maintain. She rode by cabriole to the nearest town, Tønsberg, a distance of three Norwegian miles, which she learned were longer than Swedish miles. “I cannot, without a thrill of delight, recollect views I have seen, which are not to be forgotten,” she wrote. “Even when gazing on these tremendous cliffs sublime emotions absorb my soul.”

In Wollstonecraft’s view, “the art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” Unleashed from the daily routine of what to make for dinner or reminders to pay the bills, the mind has freedom to roam. Her style of personal ­narrative — part travelogue, part memoir — was innovative at the time; she found a way to engage with her surroundings that allowed her to become part of them, her own emotions, impressions, failings, and disappointments laid bare. And though she was not alive to see the first steam engine chug along a tramway at the turn of the nineteenth century, the deep interiority of her work speaks to me of the draw of the railroad and the idea of looking beyond what is immediately before us. “For many women, the inner landscape is as important as the outer, the beholder as significant as the beheld,” the travel writer Mary Morris noted. “The landscape is shaped by the consciousness of the person who crosses it. There is a dialogue between what is happening within and without.”

My annual trip with my daughter had its own constant dialogue, one that has become more meaningful now that she has left home. I have no journals of the journeys we made together; it’s the inconsistencies of memory that I’m ­harvesting, the exterior versus the interior that I roll around in my head. How to describe what I see so that I can understand how it has affected me? There is an existential element to travel: we ponder, we daydream, something in us changes, even if just for a while. Our time aboard the Ocean offered a window to the land, a reminder of the country’s vastness, but also a chance for me to fully see my daughter outside the ties and habits of the everyday. This ritual accumulated more substance over the years — the shape of it like a spine in our relationship.

At night, back in our cabin, we felt indulged by the privacy. We heard steps down the corridor but knew they had nothing to do with us. My daughter had placed herself beside the window to see ahead, while I, with my back to the wall, legs outstretched, looked straight out. Mine was not so much a view but colours and shapes, like Hugo’s streaks. We were still part of this outside world, but only tangentially, and when darkness closed in, we drew the curtains, the sense that it was just the two of us complete. The steady clacking of the train provided a counter-beat to our own internal rhythms. We longed to climb into our bunks, but we didn’t want to rush.

When we finally succumbed to tiredness, having summoned the attendant to pull down the beds, I had a feeling of being cradled, not as a memory from childhood but as a state that felt completely necessary and normal. The bunk was narrow — I had to shimmy across and lift myself when I turned — but it was room enough. I propped up my pillow, positioned my book with a small light attached, and pulled the duvet over me. My daughter clambered up the ladder to the top and did much the same. We were separate, each of us quiet in our night cave, as we were rocked gently to sleep.

It was around this point that we slipped into another version of ourselves. One that was divorced from work and school, from routine and deadlines. One that settled into another way of being, where time briefly stood still. This shift on the train seemed to happen on a ­cellular level, where my whole body gave in to it. My mind released a deep sigh.

A few months ago, I picked up Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, a retrospective account of a journey he made, aged nineteen, across Europe in the early 1930s. Armed with only a walking stick, a rucksack, and a diary, he set off from the Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor didn’t publish the book until forty years later, by which point he was an established author. When he revisited the entries of his carefree younger self, as Jan Morris wrote in her introduction, he was “not only remembering himself,” he was “looking at himself too, as in one of those Cubist paintings in which we see profile and front face at the same time.” The text is fluid and impressionistic, filled with afterthoughts and cross-references — the wisdom of experience cut through with the boundless curiosity of the hopeful adventurer.

There will be no travel books for the next few years, declared a recent episode of The Book Review, a podcast from the New York Times. No travel means nothing to write about. But, of course, such narratives are never just about the physical route. In a time when I might have traversed thousands of kilometres, I have not gone beyond a radius of more than a couple of hours’ drive. I don’t know the last time I could have said such a thing. It is a given that I miss family and friends, and it turns out that both require lengthy travel arrangements to see them. I have been anxious, edgy, constantly making plans for future trips only to stop myself. And so I shift back and forth between memories and prospective destinations. Am I ever really here, I wonder? I have tried to be present and content in my daily life, but I know that this is possible only when there is the likelihood of change, of new perspectives. I can be here only when I know that one day I will be somewhere else.

But the call of the train! This, our friends in England said, would give us all something to look forward to. We decided to take a trip across Europe when this hiatus is over, to get a rail pass with our teenagers, while they are still teenagers. And just like that, the idea began to move from a fantasy to a reality; in gaining a sense of solidity, it offered some relief. For many of the places I have been thinking about, it is as if I have already been there. In moments of mind travelling, I am on the platform of an unnamed city, I am reading my book on a rocking car with one eye drifting out to take note of a French village, I am ordering a frothy coffee in some cobblestoned square. I have entered the space of whichever setting I imagine myself in. I am both there and not there.

No, I tell the woman in Paris, I won’t be visiting your beautiful home. Not yet. For now, I will remain working from the spare room that has become my office, as my attention roams far beyond. This hypothetical travel has been a salvation for me, especially on days when I’ve felt a rising panic that I might never be able to go anywhere again. I have tried to quell the restlessness that has been haunting me, the constant urge to Google potential locations, to drag and drop the little yellow man so that ­suddenly a street image appears where I can almost feel the scorch of the sun, the crust of the stone wall, the calm of the blue tiles.

These cancelled trips will ease back into my life eventually, I hope. I’m looking ahead to the future, full of possibilities, as each family member lists their favourite destinations: Italy, Poland, Greece. And for me, a return to the Ocean. But, until then, I wait and let my mind do the wandering.