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.
Fishing on the Bosphorus Painting by Charalampos Laskaris