Lost and found. Travel explored.
Whenever I swing my suitcase over home’s welcoming threshold, with the dust of Manhattan, Milan or Madrid still clinging to my shoes, my feet start prickling indecently soon. The travel itch, I’ve learned—once scratched—is incurable.
Funny, isn’t it, how the comforts and safety of home, the pleasures of familiar faces and places can lose their shine. How listlessness and overwhelm can settle in until we feel more tied down than Gulliver, restless to cast off ropes and escape from what’s known.
When memories flock in—of a tender, still-warm almond-and-ricotta pastry from a backstreet pasticceria in Florence; the pale scalloped ranks of misty Scottish highlands seen from a mountaintop on Skye; the choppy sound of cars whizzing over cobbled Parisian boulevards; the crisp sting of snowflakes on my face on a Grindelwald afternoon—I know it’s time to book a flight.
I’m energised when out of the familiarity of home, rescued from too-comfortable thinking and behaviour. And closeness to strangers on trains, boats, planes, and in rented rooms, lays bare any over-concern about my own comfort, nudges me to find something endearing about the prattling man swigging neat vodka from a bag-covered bottle—the man whose elbow and leg are way too far on my side of the plane seat, and with whom I’ll share the next, very long, 17,000 high-altitude kilometres. Or that closeness calls on me to lie awake with bleak resignation until almost 3.00am in the Edinburgh dorm room where I’m sardined with seven tossing-and-turning women on the storey above the floorboard-rattling youth-hostel jukebox.
For writers, enclosed spaces offer unparalleled opportunities for shameless eavesdropping, observation and character analysis, as well as endless fodder for fictional descriptions of faces, expressions, bodies, movements. I listen for quirks of speech to use in dialogue—a notebook always to hand for discreet scribbling. On a train, I once spent an hour recording side-splitting exchanges between a young mohawked father and his five uninhibited children. The most memorable sentence from the father? ‘Stop swearin’! People on the train don’t wanna fuckin’ hear that!’
I pore over books and maps before leaving, but stay open to the surprise of terrains that for me are unstoried, unfabled. Places where local familiarities—landscapes, customs, languages, accents—are new and exotic: the Polynesian hotel receptionist on a Pacific island invites me to her 21st birthday party where her bare-chested sarong-wearing brothers cook seafood wrapped in banana leaves on hot stones; in Reykjavik, a heartbroken Danish girl sobs about her unfaithful lover, and after a night yarning together in a low-ceilinged pub near Ireland’s Clonfert, an old farming couple returns in the morning to hand me a bag of potatoes and cabbages for my journey. Kindness is offered everywhere, making every place a kind of home.
But a moment always arrives in open-ended travel when home pulls me like iron filings to a magnet. I can’t shake it. By leaving behind what had seemed too familiar, a yearning for it eventually settles in. So I postpone the side trip to Corsica and Sardinia and reschedule the flight home.
Despite the inescapable familiarity of ‘me’ on these pilgrimages, travel always electrifies and enlarges me, restores my enthusiasm and sense of possibility. In other places, with other people, I know myself more. As an oyster builds a pearl, travel lays down permanent new layers. It shines light on truths and insights I may have become blind to at home, restores reverence for what’s mine and banishes ennui. And afterwards, there’s the ever-available inner cargo of encounters in faraway places, traveller’s treasure.
Feature article by Susie Surtees