Vagrant Ruminations of a Compulsive Traveler

Speaker's Corner: Peter Wortsman recalls a life of travel inspiration.

09.24.08 | 10:37 AM ET

Ferris Wheel“He didn’t really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself ... Gustave’s preferred form of travel was to lie on a divan and have the scenery carried past him.”—Julian Barnes on Gustave Flaubert

Wrong Way
Midway through a long-distance drive, bleary-eyed and tired at twilight, rounding the cloverleaf ramp linking two highways, my eye latches onto a phantom sign off to the far left. Wrong Way, it warns, immediately ticking off a twinge of terror. Have I entered an exit ramp by mistake? Am I headed for imminent collision with a tractor-trailer or a tanker filled with nuclear fuel? Reason kicks in, and I realize that the warning is inscribed on the rear of a road sign located on the far side of a divider. It isn’t meant for me. But relief gives way to annoyance: What’s the point of a sign that is either irrelevant, or by the time you see it, is too late? Gallows humor, I suppose, to keep the motorist on his toes. But now that the seed of doubt is planted, I have to fight a powerful, perverse urge to swerve and cross the divide, and, come what may, take the Wrong Way.

Motion Sickness
I travel badly. Cars, forget it, unless I’m at the wheel, and even so I often need to stop. Long-distance buses strain my stomach and bladder capacity. Airplane delays try my patience; departures are frightening. I don’t even try to understand the physics of flight but superstitiously mutter prayers and hum the national anthems of port of embarkation and port of call on takeoff and landing to placate transient and local spirits. Nausea and panic are part of the package. In-flight magazines beguile me with alternate destinations, airport travel posters confirm my doubt, disappointment is practically inevitable upon landing. I’ve made a big mistake and really ought to be headed someplace else. This, oddly enough, is the moment of truth. For while the prettiest locale, canyon or cathedral, soon enough loses its virgin sparkle, that lingering and disorienting feeling of having taken the wrong turn and being in the wrong place puts me on the spot and opens the way for what pilgrims call epiphany.

A Door to Nowhere
Leafing through an old family photo album from childhood, I come upon the snapshot of a bathhouse on the shore of Lake Thun in Switzerland. Two portals inscribed in faded Gothic lettering, one marked Männer (Men), the other Frauen (Women), command separate entry. We, the unseen subjects of the picture, pause, wary, unsure of whether to obey or tear off our clothes and charge through helter-skelter, notwithstanding the absence of uniformed attendants or other would-be bathers. The onset of puberty and the shame of secondary sex characteristics just then asserting themselves foment my insistence that we respect the signs. Passing through different doorways, my brother and I to the left, mother and sister to the right, we immediately find ourselves reunited on the far side. It takes the blink of a camera shutter for the implied partition to crumble and the ludicrous truth to reveal itself: This is a bathhouse without walls. While I can’t recall what the lake was like or if we even went for a swim that day, all that remains is the tenuous tingle of passing through that door to nowhere: essence of travel.

Border Crossings
All other avenues of escape being closed, my late beloved father makes a sport of fate, fleeing his native Austria in the wake of the advancing German army, first into Czechoslovakia and then into Poland, catching one of the last boats out of Danzig for London en route to New York, the long way around. He has been celebrating displacement ever since. Over the crest of the waves, beyond the thin line that cuts blue from blue, he points, as we walk, hand in hand, ankle-deep along the shore. “We came by boat,” he says, and I wonder why people are always crossing borders and bodies of water, why my grandfather wrapped his possessions in a rubber bag and swam across a river, and when will I get to do the same? Some refugees cling with a fierce resolve to their new habitats, nevermore budging an inch. Not so my parents, who instead feel compelled to forestall any future forced expulsions by vaccinating themselves and their offspring with healthy doses of deliberate escape. Our old car is dubbed “ein Kilometerfresser” (a kilometer glutton), which is how I come to think of myself. The atlas is our bible. Passports are never allowed to lapse. Our heroes are Odysseus, Sinbad and Arthur Frommer, who knows how to travel light. 

Elsewhere Beckons
At 7, I am seated in the holding cell of Miss O’Donahue’s second grade class, our teacher a licensed sadist who won’t let my classmate Stephen Long out to do his business before the bell and subsequently keeps him sitting in it all day. I myself have to go badly but don’t dare ask lest I be made to share the smelly shame of Stephen Long. With aching bowels I stare at the clock above the blackboard encased in its protective metal mask, as if time itself were kept locked up, when a knock at the door makes all heads turn. In steps a dapper stranger in a dark striped suit who turns out to be my father, though he might as well be the Messiah for he’s come to deliver me from Miss O’Donahue. Back from a business trip overseas, his first visit to the Old Country since it sent him packing, he can’t wait to communicate the bittersweet pleasure of return. I am most impressed by the miniature knights and medieval siege and torture equipment he brings us back as gifts and his lyrical evocation of the taste of German sausage.

Unreal Realities
The New York World’s Fair of 1964, a hodgepodge of inter- and multinational displays, affords me my first bona fide whiff of the world. I am particularly taken by two attractions: the Belgian Village and the Coca-Cola pavilion. The former, a cobblestoned copy of the tiny town of Durbuy in the Ardennes Mountains, improves upon the original, and is reduced to a florid and rather contrived imitation of its replica, souvenir stands included. As for the Coca Cola pavilion, a microcosm of the world as a consumer paradise, in every clime of which you can quench your thirst with “the real thing,” artifice likewise name-brands reality. No woodland trail have I since hiked, but that the natural forest bed fails to bring to mind that soft green simulated moss carpet with its canned sound effects, courtesy of Coca Cola.

In Praise of Ripe Tomatoes
Miracles do happen, though never when and where you expect, and certainly not in prescribed sites like Fatima, Jerusalem, Assisi or Lourdes. I who am ordinarily repelled by the unwholesome odor of religion, the suffocating fumes of candle wax and frankincense meant no doubt to simulate the passage of the Holy Ghost, do once indeed sniff eternity in a church in the former Yugoslavia, where my wife and I happen to be honeymooning in ‘87, oblivious to the fast-approaching winds of war. No suffering cloves of Christ, no sacrosanct essence of martyrdom do I smell, but the fertile scent of mercy, an olfactory cornucopia of nature’s bounty. It’s Mary’s perfume that makes my knees buckle under, me a Jew, constitutionally disinclined to genuflect before the god of the goyim or his immaculate mother! But I can’t help myself. “This must be a place where lovers bow and barren women come to bare their hearts and fill their wombs,” I whisper in awe to my wife, herself a non-believing atheist of Catholic culture. Nostrils twitching with the fragrance of ripeness unplucked, I comprehend the mystic meaning of the medieval cult of the Virgin, (more recently rekindled by new sightings in a village nearby) when all of a sudden the flimsy bundles I am clasping disintegrate in my hands, East Bloc brown wrapping paper being a poor prophylactic for the ooze of fruit. The source of my revelation, I realize, is no slow swinging thurible wielded by repressed priest or pimply choir boy, but the overripe plums and tomatoes we bought at the open-air market just outside the church, unintentionally crushed and vaporized by my innocent grip. So that’s why this place is famed for the essence of its fermented plums, I fathom in a flash, and why the same word designates both kinds of spirits: the ethereal kind you sense but can’t see and the liquid kind that makes you see the unseen. When later we picnic in the country on what’s left along with some bread, even a rabid carnivore like myself can’t resist the red flesh and sweet nectar, nature’s aphrodisiac. Our firstborn is the fruit of that revelation.

The Flying Unicorn
The memory of travel invariably arouses a desire for more. Whereas carnal knowledge is short-lived, travel keeps it coming, forever dangling the possibility of more before your sated gaze. Boats and planes are traditionally given female names, of which advertisers take full advantage—FLY ME! SAIL ME!—though I suppose those big bodies in motion can just as well double as floating and flying phalluses. When in the soft-core movie version of the French erotic novel, “Emanuelle,” the airborne heroine first stimulates herself into a pleasant frenzy and subsequently succumbs to the probing fingers of the stranger seated beside her, she is fulfilling the universal fantasy of the traveler. (The book chapter, by the way, is entitled “The Flying Unicorn,” an offhanded reference to the legendary lore that the only way to trap a unicorn is to lure it into a virgin’s lap.) Since time immemorial, travel has stirred the glands of virtual encounter. Shipwrecked and naked, Odysseus services Nausikaa and beds down Circe without making a pig of himself. Aeneas dallies with Dido. Marco Polo couples with the comely wives of accommodating Kamuls and Kaindus.

Back in the days of single solo travel, I myself once faced a memorable dilemma, pinned in on a wide-bodied Boeing between a French woman of a waning but enticing middle-aged beauty to my left, and a tantalizing Pakistani teen to my right, the latter ritually painted from head to toe. “I wonder if it will please my husband,” frets my French neighbor, fondling a bottle of perfume purchased duty free, whereupon I gallantly propose to offer my humble opinion, on her husband’s behalf. She smiles and dabs her wrist. “C’est bon, très bon!” I whisper, nostrils aflutter. And just then the plane drops several feet, our stomachs rise and thighs collide. We may never come out of this turbulence alive, I reason, considering my options à la Emanuelle, as I feel a head thump against my right shoulder. The lovely Pakistani has fallen asleep with me as her pillow. I sit out the flight frozen in place, gripped by conflicting stimuli. And when finally Miss Pakistan wakes up and her scandalized companions tell her how she let her head fall on the shoulder of the young gentleman to her left, she shrugs and smiles: “I’m sure the gentleman didn’t mind!” Indeed he did not. As to Madame, an almost imperceptible smile of complicity and regret passes between us in the welcoming crowd as she looks up from her husband’s embrace—“What’s that scent?” I hear him ask. The vivid memory of what might have been is relived every time I board a Boeing and hear the click of a seat-belt buckle. 

A Fleeting Fix of Elsewhere
Ask me why I travel, and I’ll tell you that I’m ever on the hunt for extreme particularity of place. New Jersey or Senegal, I don’t care where, as long as it’s virgin terrain to my eye: towering gray smokestacks or red termitaries, ugly or beautiful, even Coney Island’s rickety old Wonder Wheel will do for a whirl. A travel junky, I’m lying, of course (though the lie is essential to the illusion I’m after). All I really want is to dissolve in a fleeting fix of elsewhere and get lost.

Peter Wortsman’s travel writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Washington Post, FranceGuide, the 2008 Lowell Thomas Best Travel Book Gold Award-winning book "Encounters with the Middle East," and Travelers Tales’ The Best Travel Writing 2008 and 2009. A writer in multiple modes, including fiction, drama and translation, he was selected as a Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin. His translation of Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is forthcoming from Archipelago Books in 2009.

6 Comments for Vagrant Ruminations of a Compulsive Traveler

Jason Trask 09.24.08 | 9:41 PM ET

Another great travel piece by Mr. Wortsman, who to my mind is the Champion of Elsewhere (what with his fresh eye and fresh pen).

Janice Ellsworth 09.27.08 | 11:38 AM ET

Wow!!!!! Such writing!

Tim Patterson 10.02.08 | 5:12 AM ET

Incredibly lyrical, beautiful writing of a sort that doesn’t show up much online.  Loved it.

Benton Kingsley 10.13.08 | 12:24 AM ET

Wow this is the first time I have felt like my compulsion to move around the world is okay and that dull boredom that seeps in after the “sparkling virginity” has faded is okay also.

Robbie Schemenaur 10.26.08 | 4:10 PM ET

It would seem that I am about to be in the minority, but then I usually am. Poor Mr. Wortsman…so full of cynicism. Had he kept the ideals of the first line of the last paragraph I could have respected him as a true vagabond traveler. However, he’s just a bum. My spouse & I work hard so that we can afford to feed our travel addiction every 2 - 3 years. Ours, however, is a quest to absorb history, cultures, architecture, attitudes of citizens, and the pure joy of traversing what is new territory for us. Of course, when we return we share our “adventures” with friends and family, and as a result many have arranged their own adventures and returned with tales of their own. THAT is what traveling is about. It should not be a drudgery but a joy! If it is not…stay at home and read about it.

John M. Edwards 11.18.08 | 10:40 PM ET

Hi Peter:

You are certainly, peradventure, a stylish master of the bon mot, but I take umbrage at the idea that, within the genre of travel, life is elsewhere. We move in the here and now. That’s Ayers Rock right in front of me, red dust in my eyes. Our dreams of travel, or, as you say, the “fleeting fix” often come true, not by dismaying over distance but by laughing on location.

John M. Edwards

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