By Jennifer Levasseur
After a long-awaited trip comes the inevitable letdown: the lazy or exciting or action-packed days in a foreign city are finished, the cheap and delicious local food long digested (those whole sardines covered in salt and grilled on the street in pits that look like they haven’t been cleaned in years, tar-thick rich coffee, tarts piled high with custard, endless flakey pastries…), the few phrases we’ve perfected in Portuguese (or Italian or Spanish) continue to fade until they are forgotten completely.
We fold the memories away, gleefully tell the most horrific travel debacles which have now become the funniest. We display our little trophies (those glass beads from Murano, earrings made of tiles) and our photographs. We pay the credit card bills and shuffle back to work.
How do we make sense of it all? Accept the pure pleasure of days that belonged to us alone? Dine out for years on the sights we saw, on the meals we ate? Why do we brave the forty-two cramped hours of transit back to reality? Why do we put ourselves through the discomfort, the embarrassment, the confusion that are always companions of the happy, the relaxing, the joys of travel?
And how do we solidify our experiences so that they don’t fade into barely remembered swathes of color, blurs of beauty, those flashes that make us ask each other: in what city did we taste that unusual sparkling red?
I’m always looking for that after-the-fact guide—someone smarter, more worldly, someone with a sharper memory—to validate my impressions of a place, to push my understandings so that they become part of me, and so they change me. To help me understand how to incorporate the places I’ve been, how to bridge the excitement of the new with the inevitable letdown of the known.
In this past week, Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) has excelled at the job. As Jan Morris writes in her equally charming introduction to the author’s collected travel pieces, Pleasures and Landscapes, Bedford maintains a “somewhat imprecise status in the republic of letters.” Lots of people have heard her name, but “few realise the range of her gifts… mistress of an altogether inimitable prose.”
Bedford is chatty, connected, silly, impractical. She stays up all night in Capri, leaning out of the window while Martha Gellhorn spills all of her Hemingway stories. She chronicles her meals in great detail (“curled pasta that lay like a nest on the plate, with the green Genoese dressing of pounded basil and garlic”). She gives us (now long out-of-date) recommendations. She dissects her fellow travelers with precision.
She also throws out grand pronouncements about travel for us to ponder, such as the opening of “The Quality of Travel”: “A part, a large part, of travelling is an engagement of the ego v. the world.…”
The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, colour, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note. … It wants to be soothed, reassured, attended to, left in peace. It doesn’t want to be stared at. It wants to be made to feel competent, generous, knowledgeable and of accepted looks. It wants to find everything just as it expected, only rather better. It also wants to find the unexpected, but it wants that to be manageable. And whatever it wants, it wants it now.
Bedford doesn’t allow us to forget our foibles even when—especially when—we want to be better versions of ourselves: when we’re making ourselves anew far away from everyone we know. We’re still vain, still bumbling, still discontent, even as we’re striving to be glamorous, cosmopolitan, adventurous. Somehow, she doesn’t make us feel bad about this; she’s doing it too. We’re all a bit laughable, but she knows how to help us laugh at this rather than despair.
There’s something about hearing or reading another person’s travel stories, even if they’re from the other end of the earth, that reminds us of long-forgotten episodes. The pleasure of their pleasure forces our own pleasures to bubble up from the deep. We taste the six-layer sponge cake and hear the waltz again. We feel the crunch of rock salt against our teeth. We feel the burn of muscle as we climb up unfamiliar paths.
We pull a bit of that travel into our everyday lives. It may seem mundane or even banal, but those little nods toward a different place and a different people—and even a different version of ourselves—are important. It may look like an affogato or a sip of Port, but it’s really an embrace of something unnatural to us that begins to feel natural, that becomes natural, that makes the world more comfortable, more pleasurable. That makes us slower to shy away from strange things, from people who look unlike us, from ways that are not intrinsic to our upbringing and our own tribe.
So that’s what we do. We remember how hilly those Lisbon streets are as we stroll the flat bayside beaches of Melbourne. We hunt the local bottle shops for Cava. We read about other people’s journeys from forty or sixty or a hundred years ago. We ask others to tell us their stories. We, with every word, with every bite, with every memory create and remember a pleasure—a love, a concern—for all the pieces that make up this scary, wonderful world.