Down and out in Venice and London

December 2016

Transiting through London Heathrow on the way home from Oslo to Montréal conjures so many memories; of my comings and goings, of my travels to Europe in my early twenties, to the past ten years of what is best described as a transnational life, suspended between worlds.

It is only recently that I have taken up the habit of writing while I travel, writing most diligently and prolifically when I am travelling alone. The habit of writing fieldnotes and the general need to write near constantly while pursuing doctoral studies has improved my diligence. Yet, I wish I had written more consistently while travelling; not only because memory is unreliable and not just because writing in the moment can later evoke all the feelings and places so much more vividly and in finer detail but also because I think we are often unkind to our younger selves. In our imaginations, our younger selves are less experienced, less knowledgeable, less worldly, more naïve, more prone to folly; and many of us have a tendency to amplify these perceived shortcomings in hindsight. We imagine our younger selves as different people. Yet, as I sit here perusing one of the only travel journals I was truly dedicated to — a small spiral yellow notebook decorated with black ink drawings from my first trip to Europe alone over sixteen years ago – I cannot help but smile at the continued relevance and familiarity of my words. Our younger selves may be less experienced, still unknown to all the tragedies and sorrows and joys of the future, those which indelibly change us, but they are nevertheless still a part of us, shaped by the very same experiences of the common past we do share. It is these similarities between myself now and myself of the past that surprises me most; that the ways I travelled as an inexperienced and innocent twenty year old are not all that different from the ways I continue to experience travel and the urban today.

Snacking on fresh fruit and pausing with graffiti, Rome (2000)

I began working part-time at seventeen years old. I spent four consecutive summers between school semesters working as a clerk in a tobacco company and what I did not spend on the books I would read under my desk during my lunch break and slow hours at work, I saved for travel. In 2000, with very little money, I travelled from Montréal to Toronto by train, from Toronto to London by charter flight, from London to Venice by plane, from Venice to Zadar in Croatia by a slow-moving boat across the Adriatic, and then back again in reverse order. It was a powerful experience travelling alone and in August 2000 I wrote the following in my journal about this feeling. While there is an immaturity and innocence to the writing, the experience is one I have experienced many times since.

“As the airport shuttle bus neared the point at which I was completely lost looking for the marina on the exact same type of day only one week and some days ago, I feel my eyes water. I know already that I’m sensitive but rarely does something like this bring me to tears. It wasn’t a bad feeling I felt, not something entirely in the pit of my stomach. Sad, happy, hopeful. I cannot believe how wonderful everything went, not at all what I expected. It was more than I ever could have hoped for and I just want to cry some more. I’m so sad to leave Venice, not only because of its charm and beauty but for what it has come to represent; a testament or symbol of my independence, my ability, my capacity to live, love, and whatever … wander the streets, get lost, fall in love, have your heart broken, break others’ hearts, buy postcards, admire art, let places  change you and mold you forever. It’s an indescribably wonderful feeling of promise that just wells up from within, rising up in your throat and settling somewhere in some subtle smile.”

Travel journal from 2000 from a trip to England, Italy, and Croatia

In my journal I write frequently of getting lost (and of getting lost frequently), of payphones and night buses, and of meeting new people. There was the Canadian girl who had similarly spent the summer laboriously reading ‘Anna Karenina’. I travelled from Venice to Verona with her by train to see the opera ‘La Traviata’ in an open-air amphitheatre. It is an opera I would later see repeatedly at the state opera house in Budapest and in a confusing modern Nordic reinterpretation in Oslo. There were the Croatian bartenders, an apartment full of Polish girls, and an Italian sailor; all of whom spoke little English. There was the American boy whom I befriended on a boat. He bought me a sandwich and we kept each other company as we attempted to sleep on the hard surfaces of the Venice train station platform, waiting for a train to Rome. This was all before the pervasiveness of mobile phones and roaming data, when the blue light of screens did not interfere in these serendipitous encounters of travel and public space, protecting us from the discomforts of small talk and human interaction with strangers. There were the three Irish boys I met on the train from Rome to Venice. We began talking when I noticed one of them reading ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell: the same book that I had also packed with me but subsequently lost. I still cannot remember ever having finished reading it. We talked about Jackson Pollock and The Stone Roses and when we arrived in Venice, I walked them to the Peggy Guggenheim museum which I had visited earlier. I still remember the small gallery space and the emotional force I felt encountering the soft blues of Picasso’s ‘Bathers with a Toy Boat’ from 1937.

Renaissance hues of the Grand Canal, Venice (2000).

I met up with those Irish boys some days later in London. I mispronounced the River Thames when I called them from a payphone along the embankment in London. We tried to meet up at the Tate Modern but our wires got crossed and I instead made friends with a French girl whose name and face I can no longer recall but with whom I ended up going dancing with later that evening; I danced with abandon to the British music that I loved so much, the songs that they never played in Montréal. I got lost heading home from Soho that night and I called the transit authority helpline from a British telephone box, trying to make my way back to my dormitory room in Earl’s Court. I sat at the back of a double-decker bus where a man mixed gin and tonics out of duffel bag and somehow on that chaotic night bus, some fellow passengers kindly escorted me back to my hostel at five in the morning.

Early morning shadows at Piazza San Marco, Venice (2000)
Early morning walks before the tourists arrive at Piazza San Marco, Venice (2000)

I have thought a lot lately about the nature of research and how important it is to keep moving in new directions, not to get stuck in one place, yet all the while maintaining the core or the heart of our work constant. While topics may certainly vary, the pith remains the same. Pith in the sense of the core, but also pith like the white bits of an orange running through the whole fruit, interstitial, intervening spaces running through our entire corpus. I know what the pith of my work is. It has always been something in the meeting of art and science, the tensions of art and science, the sameness of art and science. I have boxes in my childhood home of albums of photographs and paraphernalia of travel; ticket stubs and stamps, and bits of foreign languages. Looking through these albums, I can see not just the developing sophistication of my travels but also that of my photography. I also see the heart of my work. It is present in the ways in which I travelled, in the journal I wrote at twenty, in the photographs I took. In these grainy film photographs — some of which are shared here — I see the beginnings of my love and skill for photography, those photographs taken with my small point and shoot Canon film camera. It was cheap, grey and red, plastic and childish looking, automatic and unsophisticated, and nothing made me happier. In my photographs I can see a love for place and travel, a love for light and shadow and the beauty of the everyday, a love for walking and exploring. And I am so surprised in fact to see that I really have not changed all that much, that my heart of twenty still beats strong inside my chest. I still see the world with that magic, and with that endless curiosity of my much younger self when I might have stared at flowers and sung at trees and fallen in love with cute foreign boys on trains. Or sat on the soft grass at Concordia’s Loyola campus and read with a dictionary by my side as I struggled through the difficult words of Tolstoy, not understanding all that much about the significance of its politics nor in my inexperience, not really understanding much about the love story either but muddling through nonetheless as I prepared for my first trip alone.

We do things without knowing we are doing them. Not that we don’t understand, we simply do not or cannot know. It is often only with hindsight that we see, oh yes, it makes sense why I did this.  We make patterns subconsciously. I no longer travel the same way; I no longer stay in hostels or drink to meet people. I rarely go dancing or trust so confidently in strangers. But the heart of my wanderlust is the same. I still buy books and I write, I take photographs, I drink coffee and wander, I cry looking out of the windows of trains and buses, I traipse through galleries and museums, and try to figure out how I might change the world in some small way, travelling with hope and faith. I travelled to Gdańsk to see the Lenin Shipyards in 2016. And in 2000, I travelled from London to Brighton just to see the pebbles on the beach. I wrote the following:

“Now I’m sitting on the beach once again. You can hardly blame me. Despite all the people at seaside amusements it’s beautiful. I’m just in time for sunset. The sky’s a gorgeous pinkish hue in the direction in which the sun is setting. The sound the water’s making as it rolls against the pebbles, even the cries of the seagulls and the boom boom bass of the clubs along the seafront are oddly in harmony with each other. You can forever capture a moment with a photograph; that sudden visual instant come and then gone forever but you can never capture everything because with that moment are attached so many other elements. That sound that slight chill in the air, enough to just make the hairs on your arms stand on end, the way the pebbles feel cold and damp at my ankles, the slight smell of, hmm, what is that? Even the visual is incomplete. I just took a photo of some people against the pink sky, looked really quite interesting because they were a distance off and only silhouettes to me. But you won’t see to the left the west pier extending out over the water or the double strings of lights that line the street up above at the right. Still, I guess that’s what memories are for? Memories. I’ve left so many out of this journal that I’m afraid they’ll be lost forever. I just ripped up a love letter.”

I am surprised at my younger self, at the unknowable foreshadowing of my future work. I never thought I would be applying the practices of my travelling self as a type of research methodology in the city. I am surprised at how much I have been reflecting about the idea of moments and the instant of a photograph as I write my dissertation.

After an afternoon of exploring the Roman Forum, I rinsed off in the sink in the washrooms at Termini station; washing the sweat of 40 degrees Celsius weather and Roman dust from my arms; a rather nomadic act. Rebecca Solnit writes the following in her 2006 collection of essays ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’: “nomads, contrary to current popular imagination, have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places; they are far from being the drifters and dharma bums that the word nomad often connotes nowadays”. I like this way of unsettling the term nomad, a word which is frequently applied with a modicum of disdain for an individual’s inability to stay in one place. I have been a nomad since I first travelled alone, but not without roots and not without a desire to settle. I suppose, I long still for independence and mobility, to know what I am capable of, to walk cities and take photographs like I am twenty years old, alone for the first time in a world of possibility. But I do have these fixed circuits now and stable relationships to place, and though I continue to saunter nomadically, and I do enjoy doing so alone, I am equally open to sharing these experiences with those who are similarly content to walk for hours exploring the city, sit quietly and write in cafés, take photographs, explore bookshops and museums, those who can talk emphatically but also revel in silence, those who still see the world with the magic eyes of youth.

Waiting for the boat at sunrise in Zadar, Croatia (2000)

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