Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Distracted Mind of a Globetrotter

by Grace Bridges

It first began to happen in my first year living in another country. I’d blink, or catch a hint of a smell, or move in a particular way, or snare a random thought. Boom! I’d be somewhere else in my mind, in a flash, snatched from whatever very ordinary thing I was in the middle of doing in my new country of residence, which at that time was Germany. The entire sensation of that other location would become as real to me as if I stood there once again. It wasn’t even necessarily a significant place; most often it was some random street that I knew well but which had no particular meaning for me, other than that it came from another life, one that was now no more. Back then, and in the years that followed, it would invariably be scenes from New Zealand that forced themselves upon my consciousness at such times.

I welcomed it. It was a breath of fresh air from the home I hadn’t yet had time to miss. And as I took short trips around Europe and returned to my home in Bavaria, those places were added to the memory banks to surface at will. Years later I shifted yet again, and stayed on the road for the best part of a year; now that I’m back in New Zealand, there is a complete pool of all my travels for these flashbacks to dip into.

It might be a modern housing estate by the sea in Ireland, where I lived for four months, or one of that fair country’s fine natural wonders: a wild, windswept beach or soaring cliff or crag of an island or ancient ruins or city streets or small towns or the home of a friend newly gained.

Or perhaps the river Danube at sunset, reflecting all the colours of an evening sky beneath centuries-old bridges and tall spires and odd-shaped pastel-plastered houses. A cobblestoned street filled with the sounds of children at play. A private courtyard at night, with neighbours’ lights glowing softly across the gap. A pair of drunken but harmless louts singing a German drinking song in the street far below. A village at the edge of a huge field, planted in strips of different coloured crops, backed by a forest of sternly pointed pines.

The city of Rome, with its cold-hearted historical remnants of an empire that lost its glory long ago, to be replaced by 50cc scooters whose drivers lash each other with their tongues. The feral cats among the ruins of Caesar’s Forum, and the lavish moss that grows between the ancient stones. The twisted river Tiber and its bridges as dusk settled.

Someplace in the American heartland, at the home of a friend I met on the internet, curled up with their dogs or cats as the case may be, talking a mile a minute about all the things that brought us together. Meeting fellow travellers, Kiwis even, on a Greyhound bus. Spending all day and all night on a train and emerging none the worse for wear. The feeling of breathlessness at the top of Pikes Peak, the endless snow of North Dakota in November, the crisp air of the Chicago lakeside, the musty smell of a slightly dodgy motel in the middle of nowhere, the jetlag that woke me at 4 AM so that I wrote a good deal of a novel in said motel before it even got light and the dark shapes of the trees across the road became distinguishable from the sky.

How about the fog from the English Channel rolling in over a cemetery full of white crosses? Townships built on impossibly steep-sided islands and cliffs, clinging to the side, hanging over? Medieval walls and fortifications and castles and keeps and moats and getting to sleep inside all of that. Canals and the Mediterranean and more islands and boats and Roman ruins and rustic villages and incredible palaces. And Paris - city of dreams, but also of beggars and hawkers. Lights reflected in the water, art at every turn, history at every corner, a different ambience in every quarter.

And Africa. How I loved your warmth that hugged me as if the air were a blanket. Your smell of dust and something wild out there beyond the settlements. A beach all to myself as the sun rises. A sea of faces asking for a story. A different sense of time. Timbuktu, that didn’t want me to leave, seen from atop a camel, or the verdant cities farther south.

Sometimes, the flashbacks only come once in a day; other times there will be several. Is it any wonder I can hardly get any work done with these things pushing into my mind like virtual photo albums?


  1. Thanks, Grace. I've been 'somewhere else' with you for the past few minutes as I read your post. Nicely done.

  2. Been travelling with you too, Grace, in my mind. But went especially to Rocamadour where we visited a few years back and it's even more vertiginous than your photo. I have a postcard of the strange 'Black Virgin' in the strange stone chapel. And been singing this Poulenc recently:


  3. Who says good travel writing died with "Riding the Iron Rooster" and "The Search for Kim."

  4. We have been digitizing our slides. What a lot of memories of places around the world where we have lived or visited. It has been quite a journey.

  5. Thanks for the memory flashes, Grace. Isn't it funny how the places you've once visited haunt you, yet you so often miss the mundane of where you are now?
    I love your comment about the warmth in Africa that hugged you like a blanket. A beautiful picture! I would say, "Oh it's so hot tonight!"
    Shirl -- who can't sleep tonight, 'cos of that blanket you describe. :-)