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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Undiscovered Country

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View of Ischia from the Sea, Charles Rémond, 1842
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

WHAT nostalgia to recall the delights of travel before jets were invented! You did not then swoop down out of the stratosphere; you came to the Old World majestically on a fifty-thousand-ton steamship a quarter of a mile long. The coast of Europe presented itself gently to the senses – visually, as a band of green low on the horizon; then orally as you came close enough to hear dockside voices singing out over the water; and finally, as you walked down the gang-plank, you smelled the stacked cargos – cheeses and wines, fruits and legumes, with the scent of the land itself behind the odors of its exports. It was apple-blossom time in Normandy when we debarked in Le Havre. . . .

Thus begins Chapter Three of Kathryn Hulme’s book Undiscovered Country (the inner life, not a geographical place, though the passage quoted here is geographical), about her time spent with mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in the 1920s and 30s.

I long for what she describes of her slow travels almost as much as I long for the undiscovered country of the soul. To trade an airtight airplane cabin for an open sea. To wake up morning after morning with light through a porthole, tugging me out for a sustained, solitary stroll on the deck’s weather-worn teak, rather than arrive at my foreign destination within seven hours of departing, mercilessly without a wink of sleep. To feel the distance -- in the passage of time, change of weather, sunsets, stars rotating in the dark night; gentle sea, rough sea. Gulls. To write, with elbow room. Empty time. To read with the sound of wind and the feel of it urging open the next page. To approach the port destination with honest respect, quietly, without the siren-boom of jet engines. To walk out onto the quay where to walk is to mingle with workers of the city, rather than in interminable terminal tunnels of metal, glass and overused and filtered air, then emerging for fifteen feet in the fumes of a taxi stand and into a taxi. Like this! to meet a new place! And lest I over-romanticize the welcoming port: to smell the diesel with the crated fruits, the fermented garbage with the salty sea, the body odor from a wool sweater worn as long as my passage by a man who tosses a welcome while he pitches another crate onto the truck.

I have a sea inside that is populated with slow travel. It is undiscovered in factual, physical experience. But I can explore it in my mind through reading, writing, imagining.

I have read and imagined with my friend Vagabonde, who has journeyed on slow ships since a child, and she still does. I hope she doesn't mind if I invite you to embark with her on her love affair with the sea. If you are like me, January is a good time to be off on a good adventure, at the very least someone else's! Read here to begin a three part series of sea travel and beauty. As a child she sailed from her native France to Istanbul, where I lived in the late 1980s and smelled fish in baskets, felt the mighty wind and heard men yelling Simit! on the quays, when we embarked and debarked from ferries crossing the Bosphorus.

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Fishing on the Bosphorus Painting by Charalampos Laskaris
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43 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

Mmm... Body odour? Just mentioned that in my just-posted post too! Yet another blogging synchronicity! Albeit a rather basic one...

Ruth said...

Robert, next trip to Istanbul, I'm passing out Merino wool shirts to the men on the Bosphorus quay. :)

The Solitary Walker said...

I doubt it, Ruth. I just have an inkling you may prefer the romance of the sweat!

Ruth said...

There is a Turkish saying:

Bedava sirke baldan tatlıdır.

It means basically: Free vinegar is sweeter than honey.

:)

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh yes! Love it, love it :)

Friko said...

These journeys ARE still available. You can sail down the coast of Africa, through the Mediterranean, on all the great European rivers from West to East and back again; you can sail to Asia, East Indies, Australia, anywhere you fancy. And it doesn't have to be on huge, boring, one-size-fits-all, cruise ships either.

You might not need Robert's Merino wool underpants either if you chose your time right.

I am not sure about the ripe odours on men of toil at the dockside anymore which used to be available for the price of simple inhalation, I think most produce is shipped by plane nowadays. The Saints preserve us from having to go without Kenyan beans or roses in deep winter.

I too am friends with Vagabonde and I admire her intrepid spirit enormously, although being rather less enterprising I tend to do a lot of travelling with my finger on a map or with my nose in a book.

Whichever way we travel, may the journey be worth the destination.

Ruth said...

Friko, if I ever manage to save the funds for a trip like that, I will leap onto the ship. My sister sailed on the Bounty off of Florida, on a beautiful week's cruise. I think the smaller ships would appeal to me, although there is something about getting lost in solitude that is very attractive.

Vagabonde is a travel genius, the way she seeks out and finds bargains and interesting excursions.

I love your final statement. Exactly.

George said...

Absolutely beautiful and delightful, Ruth. One of these days, I will tell you about some of my sea travels, such as the time I sailed back from Europe on a troop carrier with 3,000 U.S. soldiers. I was the only civilian, a twenty-one year old who had been kicking around Europe pennilessly for several months, and who now had a letter from the U.S. State Department stating that I was "a destitute American citizen" who should be given passage on the military ship back to the U.S.

How well I know that you have a "sea inside" that is populated with slow travel, among other things. Your statement, however, calls upon me to ask whether you have ever seen "The Sea Inside," a wonderful movie starring Javier Bardem.

I am amazed, Ruth, at how beautifully you write. I always look forward to the next posting, whether it's a recipe for a cherry pie or a meditation on metaphysics.

Ruth said...

George, you have delighted me absolutely with your delight.

I practically giggled out loud at that official status you carried as "destitute American citizen" -- could anything be richer than that? I almost want to weep with the beauty of it, and picturing you as that twenty-one year old. To have lived that penniless existence for months, to be shipped home in the arms of the U.S. military, I think it deserves either me taking a slow train to have that long-awaited coffee with you, or a blog post at Transit Notes . . . or several!

I have not yet seen "The Sea Inside" though it is on my film queue, and I very much want to. The theme of it, the title (!), reviews, Bardem, and now your recommendation, all convince me I will enjoy it.

You do me such great honor with your words, my friend, I am humbled.

Oliag said...

I was just bemoaning the fact that we have no plans for a winter interlude this year...now I really have the wanderlust. A transatlantic voyage sounds lovely but at this time of year I yearn for warmth and sun. I am off to visit Vagabond...

Vagabonde said...

Ruth, what an enchanting post. You have such a way with words – always finding the right word which leaves a picture in the mind and a feeling in the heart. I am very honored that you would mention my blog and my travels. It is easy for me to post my trip photos but I only wish I could write such beautiful prose to go along with them. Traveling has been in my soul since I was a small child in Paris and I am still passionate for it after all these years. My preferred way of traveling is slow travel, by ship, of course, but I also will jump at any type of travel : by bicycle, car, truck, bus, train, boat, ferry, ship, plane, horse, camel, not to forget hiking. Traveling gives you so many wonderful memories as Renoir said « Les seules choses importantes d’une vie sont celles dont on se souvient. » Jean Renoir (the only important things in life are those we remember). Traveling is important to me, it keeps me alive inside. What a lovely post.

rosaria said...

What a romantically sensed post, so rich, so evocative of another time, other places. I want to travel this way too, to get lost among different languages, different smells, different sounds and sights.

Ah, to dream this way!

Jeanie said...

Perhaps you will remember -- not that long ago -- two friends meeting for the first time over strawberry rhubarb pie. You asked me if I read Vagabonde -- I didn't, but ever have since that day, and oh! The delights!

I, too, long for a more leisurely travel place and the sea sounds like a wonderful one. Lovely post -- I'm glad others will be introduced to her space!

Dan Gurney said...

What a lovely contemplation on travel! You remind us that in our hurry to abandon slower forms of transportation (our feet, boats) we have failed to appreciate how much of value we leave behind in our hurry to arrive in distant places as quickly as possible.

It occurs to me that travel isn't improved with speed, but is cheapened and degraded, like sex.

Char said...

winter always brings out my wanderlust

Pat said...

I just was wondering about a trip by train! Flying DOES seem so impersonal.

ds said...

And because you share so beautifully the results of your travels on your "inner sea" we are all enriched.

I'm reminded of a book I read (surprise) but can't locate at the minute...will be back with title...
Will also visit Vagabonde.
Thank you.

Gwei Mui said...

So rich and wonderful. It has exacerbated my already itchy feet! The further I will be getting to at the moment is Sheffield I will have travelled full circle - well almost. Next up will be to take a trip some where hot and vibrant perhaps Marrakesh

Ruth said...

Oliag, maybe like me, you'll almost get your wanderlust fulfilled by visiting Vagabonde. But reading her adventures also makes me long for my own. What a life she's lived!

Margaret Bednar said...

Ok, I want to see a photo of and blog post about a 21 year old George, another wonderful journey with Vagabonde traveling by camel, and a poem by Dan Gurney comparing travel and sex! See what you do, Ruth? With your beautiful words, you inspire creativity... ;).

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, thank you for such very kind words. But I must say that you write beautifully, and I could only hope to express myself half as well in a second language, you amaze me that way. Your English is perfect, and you have even created your own "voice" -- by which I mean that you write in a way that is your own: presenting historical and cultural facts while sharing much from your own life and perspective.

It's a beautiful thing, that you have found what keeps you alive inside, and that you are able to follow it with such intensity and joy. Brava! I hope many here will travel with you.

Ruth said...

Rosaria, thank you, it is pleasurable to feel this way with others, to know we long for it. Boats have been around 10,000 years. This goes way back in us. Do you know what distinguishes a boat from a ship? If one vessel can carry another, the larger is a ship.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, yes, I remember it well. How could I forget an event with strawberry rhubarb pie?

But seriously, I do remember our wonderful lunch, and telling you about this amazing Vagabonde, while you and I discussed the joys of travel, and our beloved Paris.

Ruth said...

Hello, Dan! Thank you, and especially thanks for the reminder that walking is free and highly accessible to most of us (as Robert, The Solitary Walker has been pointing out). I can leave my port any time and go for a journey on foot.

I also smile and appreciate your comparison of travel and sex. It's so true! We lust after the images we are shown constantly in the media (of both travel destinations and sex), and it is easy to feel that we need it now, quickly. In Friko's point, in both these cases, the destination can be worth the journey.

Ruth said...

Char, and you're in Alabama (and Vagabonde is in Atlanta) . . . think of us in the North! :)

Ruth said...

Pat, I see you took a short trip by train, and that whetted your appetite for a longer one. I have loved train trips to Chicago (about five hours), in Turkey (overnight), and the Flying Scotsman sleeper from London to Edinburgh is the best. Wouldn't it be marvelous to take a train across the U.S.? Or down the Eastern Seaboard, or the West Coast?

And what about the Orient Express? I wish someone would give me a trip from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express . . . Oh man.

Thanks a lot for getting me thinking about a train trip!

:D

Ruth said...

DS, thank you, dear friend.

I do hope you'll visit Vagabonde, such a richness she brings, and that you'll come back with the book title.

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, Marrakesh ? . . . you're killing me . . .

Thank you for that deadly reverie though!

Ruth said...

Margaret, don't I love the visions of those three too! Let's hope your request for these blog photos and posts will be granted.

:D

Woman in a Window said...

I'll let go of the rats and the close walls to take your hand of romanticism. Truth be told, I would live amongst the rats as well.

So taking your hand and having heard your voice, I wonder if there on the sidebar, is that your wrist?

xo
erin

Loring Wirbel said...

When Carol and I took that ship through the Panama Canal in 2009, it was worth a hundred long-distance plane flights. Viva slow!

shoreacres said...

I have a copy of Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps on my bookshelf. I pull it down now and again, reading at random to remind myself what it meant to travel the African bush as Greene did, one step at a time through the cloying heat.

I left Liberia intending to meet a friend at London's Victoria Station six weeks hence.I traveled by taxi and bus, by foot and by scooter, by Land Rover and VW until, at last, I was forced into air travel at Las Palmas.

Ten years later I returned, stepping off the plane into that same slow, dream-like world. There had been great changes politically and economically - a coup had taken place - but the travel was no different. Only the mottos painted onto the taxis had changed, and far too many roads had been destroyed.

Would I do it now? Would I dare to cross west and north Africa as a woman alone? Probably not. Too many civil wars and too many massacres have made that an unreasonable choice.

But if I choose not to travel there, I still choose to travel, and for me the slow, hidden and sometimes uncomfortable journeys still are the best, whether walking the bush paths or steering a course by my own hand, waiting for the first scent of land to come drifting across the water.

Of course, the truth is that such slow journeys don't require ships or bearers or distant, romantic ports. There are journeys waiting for us at our doorsteps - pathways into close-at-hand worlds we can hardly imagine but which we could enter tomorrow.

Woody Allen had it right when he said, "The longest journeys begin with a single step, but the best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity."

Ruth said...

Erin, yeah, the walls inside are close . . . but the decks! The ocean! The sky!

Yes, that's my wrist. If you click on the image, it's a full photo of me reading a poem, one of the rare times. It's not like I do it often, except here now, in podcasts.

Ruth said...

Loring, that was so cool, that trip!

Ruth said...

Linda, it's great that you took that long slow trip in Africa while you could. It makes me shiver to think of it now, in today's Africa.

I appreciate and admire, always, your steady voice reminding us to explore our own back yards, we need not travel far and wide. To walk outside, regularly, where we live, to learn about the land of our locale, the animals that live here, the plants and trees. To get to know our towns and the people in them. It is not something we do as a culture much any more. Something I love to do on a Saturday morning is to drive on country roads where I haven't been before. I am ever amazed at what I find, of beauty and surprise. If I could get out and wander on foot without trespassing, I would, and sometimes I do. But even here, in my own back yard, I sometimes have fears of being in unknown territory alone as a woman. Sadly.

What do you suppose Woody Allen meant by that? I take it to mean that often our best journeys start with a mistake, sort of like scientists who make great discoveries that way.

Dutchbaby said...

This post speaks to one of my favorite quotes: "Festina lente" - Make haste slowly. I learned it a few years back during a weekend seminar called "The Second Half of Life". I learned that our rhythms naturally slow down in our second half of life and we should expect to move through life more slowly. I cling to this notion when I feel I don't accomplish enough.

The opening paragraph of this post sent me back on our ship that glided slowly up the Norwegian coastline this summer. I loved how it was also a freight ship, stopping at many tiny fishing villages carrying mail and other cargo, rather than speeding from one tourist destination to the next.

I'm so glad you featured Vagabonde's delicious posts about the sea.

neighbor said...

Perhaps, some years hence (because I know that in spite of all that speed, we proceed slowly), Slow Travel will become the new Slow Food. Though the mainstream of our culture has convinced us that the automobile is the height of personal freedom and the world is available to us by jet, fuel costs and other issues will require that we change how we move ourselves.

I think we have to learn to be more *of this world,* more human - in order to understand the full meaning and beyond.

This year I am walking more, and seeing what arises.

I love this: "I have a sea inside that is populated with slow travel." I have a sea inside... that, in itself, is worthy of slow exploration.

Arti said...

Beautifully rendered, Ruth! Thanks for leading us to an internal journey... I can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the air, and whatever that comes with it. Anyway, as one who suffers from severe motion sickness, I'd prefer the quickest way between two spots, even though it means a stuffy, constraining seat in economy. However, your post is so romantic that it'll do fine in the imaginary sea of my mind. I look forward to a magnificent journey as I start a new year of blogging, and I know where to go for creative thoughts and stimulating views. ;)

ds said...

Yes, I am back--finally-having read 2/3 of Vagabonde's wonderful prose (when I finish she may have a new devotee), and also with the book title I promised. It is The Names of Things by Susan Brind Morrow, and it is a memoir, a travelogue (of sorts) and simply a beautiful book. You would connect with her on several levels, I think. The part of the book that is relevant to this post is her description of a journey (one of several she made) down the Nile, but there is so much more to it. Do seek it out, and if you cannot locate it, tell me. I might be able to help...

Soul Dipper said...

My trip across the Atlantic as a young woman of 19 from Montreal to Le Havre was a bit of everything - including great company and terrible weather. In the Captain's 20 year career, he had not encountered such a storm. I was invited to the wheelhouse (a prairie girl NOT seasick - imagine) and the rolling, shuddering and diving of the bow of that vessel was incredible. I wondered how we didn't twist into splinters. So I smile when you talk of placid crossings, peacefully reading books, etc. It was the trip of a lifetime for sure!

I am blog buddies with a great writer, Jamie who is Armenian. I've sent her the link to Vagabond. Looking at the site, the two women look like carbon copies in their sophistication and grace. Jamie is at http://musingbymoonlight.com/2011/01/06/not-in-his-name/ if you are curious.

I'm certainly delighted that I have subscribed to yours!

Susan said...

I'm waaaay behind, as usual!

The only downside I can see to that lovely travel scenario would be the heavy and cumbersome clothing women were required to wear. That and the hazards of the sea, mainly being in the sea and drowning, my least favorite way to die, I think. I don't even like to put my head under water when I'm in a swimming pool. ;-) Other than those two things, it sounds perfectly delightful!

Ginnie said...

This post reminds me not only of those ship passages I have been privileged to take, Ruth, but the car trips we purposely take on the back roads of Holland when we don't want to get anywhere fast. That's when we SEE the soul of this country and feels its pulse. It reminds me of Bennett and how he loved to do the same in Michigan. Why didn't I do that then and in Georgia? I don't know. But it sure feels therapeutic to do it now where I am.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

This comment just came into port on a very slow boat from Spain. Your prose is as poetic as your verse, Ruth, and the line "I have a sea inside that is populated with slow travel" sounds like a great first line for a poem or, at the very least, for a dip in the sea.