In the Other Country

The other country, is it anticipated or half-remembered?Carol Ann Duffy, "In Your Mind"

Evening Walk

At breakfast, X reminds us of Paris Syndrome, a transient psychological disorder that strikes certain Japanese tourists visiting Paris for the first time. It's caused by the vast chasm between their expectations of the city and its busy, gritty reality. The distance proves too great, and they become literally sick from shock. I remember finding that Paris far surpassed any half-formed expectations I might have had of it, but then, my expectations come usually from fictional representations, and in the case of Paris it was mostly Hemingway's poverty-stricken portrayal in A Moveable Feast that formed the pre-images in my head, and when I got there and found that time had marched on here, too, I was relieved, in a way, and refreshed by the knowledge that the city was partly Hemingway's but also far bigger.

Then I think of the infamous mal d'afrique, the dark yearning for the lost continent, the soul-sucking craving for something almost indescribable except in terms of geography. So strange, these sicknesses for places; so powerful geography's grip on us, as if our bodies as well as our minds have been infected by maps and all that they represent.

Once bitten by an idea of a place (an image, a book, a line of poetry, a friend's recommendation), our dreams, our very beings, become infested, and then the rest is inescapable. We go away--if not with our bodies, at least in our minds. Expectation matters. Representation, reality, logistics, and a thousand other tiny factors influence our desire, as well as our ability, to travel; more than that, they influence the outcome of any journey.

And it's all to do with these place-ailments; there are more of them than we think, they are everywhere, we are constantly being called to or repelled from new and different geographies, always offered the chance to form an identification in our hearts, an affiliation in our minds which so aligns us with a destination (even if that destination is only a favourite bench in a little city square--travel is minute, infinitesimal in its everyday possibilities and occurrences).

I read a poem, "In Your Mind," by Carol Ann Duffy--The other country, is it anticipated or half-remembered? she asks, and the truth is that it is both. Its language is muffled by the rain which falls all afternoon/one autumn in England. I've been half-remembering Kenya for years, though I've never been here until now. I've remembered through other people's eyes; it makes the world such a strange place to be.

I am in Kenya. Say it again, so that it begins to sink in: I am in Kenya. But still half-disbelieve it, because after all this time, all this imagining, it no longer seems possible, it no longer seems like a real place; it's only a recurring dream, or a place in the back of the mind. And then it occurs to me that I have lived in Oxford for two years and am only now getting used to it as a real place, only now coming to my senses; so how can I begin to do it here, in so short a span of time? "The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are," Samuel Johnson wrote--but how are they, really? Giddy with the thought of actually being here, I suddenly mistrust my own senses. Things as they are, I think, are inseparable from things as they may be. Things as they are are only the way they are because of how we have imagined them. I read Duffy again. "Lost but not lost," she writes. I am lost but not lost--

Then suddenly you are lost but not lost, dawdling on the blue bridge, watching six swans vanish under your feet. The certainty of a place turns on the lights all over town, turns up the scent on the air. For a moment you are there, in the other country, knowing its name. And then a desk. A newspaper. A window. English rain.