Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Visiting and Staying: A Reflection

Everyone recognizes that our style of living when we travel is much different than when we stay at home.  The anonymity of the hotel room, the level of observation when sights and sites that are everyday to a resident are things that we, as visitors or vacationers, see for the first (and possibly the only) time.  Understandably, there’s a tolerance (especially in tourist areas) toward the blunders and misdirection of strangers: despite American tourists’ return to the States with horror stories about our mistreatment at the hands of resentful locals, I’ve received far ruder treatment from my countrymen than I ever do from people I meet abroad (though I’m sure the Italians have their share of inhospitality, you’re not very likely to find it in a tourist area, where livelihood depends on courtesy to strangers, and sometimes even the most discourteous ones).

So it’s different when you travel from when you stay.  But when have you ceased to tour and begun to take up residence?  I think I have a domestic streak that finds myself at home readily—a lucky quality to have as a traveler.  When I return to lodgings after only several days, there is a sense of gaining my bearings, as though some interior sense of balance is restored in the play where I am staying, the vestibular system signaling my acclimation, the road anxiety kicking back into my recesses.  The flat in Aosta with its long corridor, bulky, almost monumental furniture, and glimpse of the Alps over the rooftop (I've inserted pictures of both), became home within the week, and the neighborhood became my neighborhood (after one irritating and hot afternoon of getting lost only a block or two from the place).  I adjust easily: as habitual as the old man I am becoming, my first trepidation at any change falls away quickly, and I find the routine in the strange and set my feet there.

But how does the transition go?  When do we stop visiting and start staying? 

You begin to stay, I think, when domestic tasks return to your daily patterns.  You cook at home, clean the apartment, shop for groceries and for little, temporary items (a paring knife, a cheap alarm clock) unavailable in the place you are staying. The curiosity of Italian supermarkets—handling the fruit and vegetables with plastic gloves, large butcher shops and a dearth of pre-packaged meats, the glory of an extensive wine aisle—becomes customary eventually, and you adopt a version of the pattern you had at home.

You begin to stay when you learn your neighbors.  When you have neighbors, actually. The woman at the laundry who knows no English and negotiates task and cost through signs and pantomime, the brilliance of her invention a source of marvel to you at first, but customary as you return.  The barber who slyly compliments your virtually non-existent Italian, and reveals on the second visit that he was a jazz drummer back in the day, in Greenwich Village, showing you his CD, where his own able compositions are fitted among popular standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”.  The lovely green-haired young woman behind the counter in the bakery, who begins to use your visits as an opportunity to learn English and progresses remarkably as the weeks unfold, her learning curve a product of intelligence and youth, but also an intense curiosity about the world around her.

You begin to stay, oddly enough, once the wanderlust returns.  When there’s a part of the town or the region that provokes another curiosity, sets your steps away from the neighborhood—your neighborhood by now—toward a new street, a new stop on the rail or bus line, toward a land you have heard of.  You begin to stay when you become restless, and in that sense, staying is a prelude to wandering once again.  ©2014 Michael Williams

1 comment:

  1. Love your insight here! Can't wait to return to Aosta, and this flat and neighborhood.