Tag: Travel

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

This was supposed to be a bit of light-as-Devonshire-cream reading, a fun refresher for a lazy weekend. Instead, it turned out to be a captivating page-turner about depression. On the surface, it’s a well worn out trope, standing on the shoulders of giants like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Bronte’s Madwoman in the Attic, all the way down to Sylvia Plath and her “domestic surreal.” A woefully unfulfilled housewife Anna Benz is tumbling down the nauseating rabbit hole of tepid, monotonous, safe, sated, comfortable middle-class life and all of its requisite trappings. There’s a picture-perfect house tucked in a village near Zurich. There’s the Swiss banker husband, reasonably kind, reasonably good-looking. There’s the kids, suitably sweet, and a statuesque mother-in-law hovering ever so diligently somewhere on the horizon peppered with school runs, play dates, and zoo excursions. Kinder, Küche, Kirche, living strong and proud in the land of scrupulous financiers, punctual trains, and premium chocolate.

The reader is never explained what is the poison festering under such picturesque a facade (there are some scant nods to childhood trauma, but not much to go on). We are only led to accept the facts – Anna Benz is a serial cheater, engaging in infidelity with a mechanical rigour of an athlete. She finds little comfort or solace in this walking on a razor’s edge. Instead, there’s only desperately delicious darkness, thick and viscous like licorice.

Leafing through these litanies of busy nothings, the reader just knows something is coming. A jolt. A bolt of lightning. A catharsis. The only thing left to unveil is whether this is going to be the kind of seminal event that gifts redemption, or the final plunge into the abyss.

“Grief is not simple sadness. Sadness is a feeling that wants nothing than to be sat with, held, and heard. Grief is a journey. It must be moved through. With a rucksack full of rocks, you hike through a black, pathless forest, brambles about your legs and wolf packs at your heels. 

The grief that never moves is called complicated grief. It doesn’t subside, you do not accept it, and it never – it never – goes to sleep. This is possessive grief. This is delusional grief. This is hysterical grief. Run if you will, this grief is faster. This is the grief that will chase you and beat you. 

This is the grief that will eat you.”

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Two themes run in powerful streams through the heart of this book – psychotherapy and German grammar. Outside home, her therapist and her German classes are just about the only nodes on an otherwise barren network of Anna’s activities. Rolling off the tongue of Anna’s therapist are nods to Jungian mono-myths and origins of pragmatic Swiss mentality, and to Freudian dream interpretation. Dawdling over her German homework, Anna feels the clinical solitude of these complicated language rules: “The disconnect between ‘general’ and ‘specific.’ The vast, vapid chasm that divides ‘this particular one’ from ‘some of them.'” This language evades Anna, contributing massively to her alienation in this picture-perfect country:

“She thought about Switzerland. Where a smile will give you away as an American. Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur. Cold, efficient Switzerland. Where the women are comely and the men are well groomed and everyone wears a determined face. Switzerland. The roof of Europe. Glacier carved. Most beautiful where it is most uninhabitable.” 

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Anna, she says, “was a good wife, mostly.” Alas, depression doesn’t care much. And even in punctual Switzerland there are days when all trains run late well into the night…

Image: Nonchaloir, by John Singer Sargent.

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer did for the travel genre what Anthony Bourdain did for the culinary arts. With thoughtful reflections on world’s most enduring attractions (as far as the Western gaze is concerned, at least), executed in impeccably eloquent prose, Iyer has traipsed around the globe, from revolutionary Cuba to aethetically minimalist Japan, discussing airports, jet lag, diaspora, cultural appropriation, displacement, identity, and the very essence of global spirit under assault by winds of history.

Today, reading Video Night in Kathmandu, written in early mid-80s, is an interesting exercise. This travel narrative is an echo from a time when the geopolitical theatre was playing a decidedly different movie: China hasn’t entered the WTO yet, Hong Kong was still the crown jewel of the British Empire, USSR was still alive and kicking, and Rambo and Madonna were at the zenith of Pax Americana pop culture. Other things were already as par for the course then as they are now: Thai sex tourism, Bali’s it’s-already-spoiled-paradise kitschization, Tibet’s enigma, Myanmar’s isolation. In Iyer’s Asia, globalization is already in bloom but still fresh enough to still get you excited about being able to order burgers and Pepsi in Nepal.

Travel according to Iyer is both an elegy and a eulogy, a love emoji from Othello to the unfortunate Desdemona, a guilt-laden sentiment only amplified by a thousandfold in today’s age of Instagram hyper-tourism. Today, forty years later, we have moved a wee bit further on the spectrum from a Babel present to a homogeneous Esperanto future (to use Iyer’s gorgeous expression), but we are not fully there yet (and who knows if we’ll ever get there).

Video Night in Kathmandu is an Hieronymus Bosch iconostasis of Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Myanmar (described as “a malfunctioning guinea pig of fundamentalist socialism”), Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. The verdict on these lands is complicated:

“Bali drew its strength, its magic and its eerie purity from the ancestral currents that pulsed through its soil, currents that Westerners could sense, perhaps, but never touch; just so, the moving yet unwavering faith of Tibet would withstand the ravages of tourists, I hoped, as surely as it had withstood the vicious assaults of the Chinese. Burma had calmly closed its door to the world, and China had opened it up just enough, so it planned, to take what it wanted, and nothing more. Prodigal, hydra-headed India cheerfully welcomed  every new influence from the West, absorbing them all into a crazy-quilt mix that was India and nothing but Indian; Japan had taken in the West only, so it seemed, to take it over. As for Nepal, and Thailand even more, both gauged Western tastes so cleverly and adapted Western trends so craftily that both, I felt, could satisfy foreigners’ whims without ever becoming their slaves. Even Hong Kong, the last pillar of the Western Empire, was now getting ready to return to Asian hands.” 

Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu

Pico Iyer, a product of Indian, English, and American heritage and, being keenly aware of this legacy, cannot talk about the East without the Raj, the Foreign Office, and Rudyard Kipling. Globalization, some would say, is simply a mutated colonization, a virus adapting, so to speak, to better feed off of its host. As such, the jury is still out on whether “a Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Image: Beyond Street by Swarat Ghosh.

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila

The Inland Sea: an elegy to rural Japan

The Inland Sea: an elegy to rural Japan

In 1971, Donald Richie took his readers on a tenderly wistful journey of Japan’s Inland Sea, unfolding before his audience an intricate tapestry of fishing villages, ritual baths, ubiquitous tea, statuesque babies, sagely grannies, virgin boys and magnetic courtesans. That was not the high-tech robotic Japan of ingenious design and legendary workaholics. Richie’s Japan is that last dip of the proverbial fishing-net, right before the tide recedes, forever condemning all that charm and innocence into macabre depths of merciless Progress. In this respect, The Inland Sea has aged well, painting a traditional landscape of shrines, boats, and seawater, before ambitious new bridges drove the fish and the fishermen away.

In many other respects, however, this book religiously follows classical tropes of a travel narrative through Western eyes. There’s that conventional quest for innocence and wisdom preserved by the superior hearts and enviably alabaster brawn of the “noble savage”. There’s that all-too-familiar fetishisation of all things foreign, and, of course, the good old pilgrimage to “find yourself.” And above it all, there’s palpable desire to flee, to escape, to disappear by all means possible from our complicated, industrial, dehumanizing, and artificial century. The author, in a touching display of sincerity, replicates this attempt at an escape not only from the womb of his civilizational home (Ohio, The West, America, whatever) but also in the context of his marriage. We see his wife popping in toward the end of the book, on a detour from an undoubtedly fascinating journey of her own. We see her through his disinterested eyes, her in all her blondness and tallness and impenetrable disappointment, contrasted with younger distractions sampled by her pilgrim-husband in this village and that… Alas, it’s not even framed as a sad moment. Instead, it’s just another wholly self-contained bead on the necklace of life’s myriad moments. This is where Richie goes Japanese, taking a bite off of that transient verisimilitude, so fundamental to that culture’s understanding of life:

“Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth. There is no crack between the mask and the face because the mask is the only face anyone ever has.”

Well, that ought to make things simple, no? No. This is still a pilgrimage, after all. There is still a purpose, the narrative is still linear because our hero is still a Westerner. No amount of sake can reprogram his settings. He journeys from island to island, admires the quiet beauty of landscapes and the charming indifference with which it is regarded by the lucky souls who call it home. He claims to find peace, here or there, yet it’s always tainted with a delicate note of disappointment, translucent like mountain mist. His pilgrimage won’t be a success, for he is a Ulysses of the Inland Sea. This is no Mediterranean. This is a nearly landlocked body of water, an overgrown lake pretending to be a sea. He will bounce from an island to an island, like a billiard ball hitting the edges of a pool table.  His problems won’t go away, and he won’t find that coveted elixir of life’s eternal happiness. Alas, that’s perfectly alright, and our traveller gracefully accepts the scant embraces of detached resignation. Such distinct aesthetic of “sadness-lite” infuses not merely the narrative (or, rather, the emotional stasis) of the book, but also, quite literally, its very pages. In my edition text is printed in two vertical columns for a “Japanese look,” no doubt.

And then there’s Hiroshima…

Richie takes his reader to the place whose name is heavier than all the tears of the world. And yet, in all this history, legacy, and pain comes a thought that’s quite optimistic:

“This is also one of the facts of death – that one forgets it. One may disapprove of oneself for forgetting, may have wanted to keep the fact green, tended like a grave. It is impossible. Life is too strong. Death loses on every occasion except the last.”

It is life’s inherent strength that penetrates island after island on the silver backs of fish and carves itself into the weathered faces of the fishermen, only to return back to them in the calming glow of a full moon. We feel it too, this dignified strength, all throughout and into the final paragraphs, ending in a particularly lovely image of a grandmother and grandson, their finely chiseled shadows vanishing into the sunset.

Richie ends his labour of love saying he doesn’t care if he never goes back (to the States, presumably, not Japan). Many call this book an elegy, even an epitaph to the lost world of rural Japan. I, for one, wonder how many more elegies will pop up within the travel fiction genre as mass tourism and its insufferable practitioners (aka pretty much all of us) pollute the magic of this world’s most beloved treasures with our own ambitious pilgrimages.

Image: a 16th century European map of Japan.