Welcome to The Modern Nomad, a meditation on geographic promiscuity and the pathological need to travel. On the urge to stay and to go. On the people you meet on the road. On a search for community. On here, there, and everywhere else. And on nomads past and present.
[Adolf Konrad’s illustrated 1963 packing list from the exhibit “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations.” Via The New York Times.]
Passports (Canadian and European)
Photocopy of my citizenship papers (Britain)
Photocopy of my birth certificate (Canada)
One or two or three books (paperback, not eReader)
Laptop, fully charged
iPod shuffle filled with podcasts
Notebook & pens (ballpoint, as I’ve had countless of my favourite liquid pens explode on planes)
Clothes—one week’s worth
Camera and digital recorder
Toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush
Sometimes I pack my camera but not the charger, or I pack the wrong charger and the battery expires on the first day of my trip. Or I change the settings without realizing it and, as happened in Scandinavia, come home with only a photo of a small bird trapped on a cruise ship and a pretty yellow flower.
Sometimes I forget my pajamas. Sometimes I forget my trousers. I almost always bring one pair of shoes too many.
Sometimes the airport security guards question the legality of knitting needles on planes. (Once, on a flight from Denmark to Canada a starched flight attendant stopped by my seat when we were halfway across the ocean and said, incredulous,“You can’t have those on here!” But I already did, I told her, and kept on knitting.)
I must take off my shoes at La Guardia, in New York, and Dulles, in Washington, but am allowed to keep them on in Toronto and London. In Vancouver, the American customs agent smiles and he does not seem to be trying to trick me with friendliness into admitting some immigration error. (Tip: Never joke with customs agents.) In Toronto, an agent interrogates me when I arrive, sleepless, on a red-eye from Paris. “You mean you went alone? Why would you travel alone?” It is a judgment presented as a question. She waves me through.
Every airport looks the same but different, like a brightly lit, too-clean shopping mall. The terminal in Zurich is bright and spacious and the one in Copenhagen is small and intimate. I spend five hours in an almost-deserted section of O’Hare Airport, in Chicago, and do my daily stretches. A man in a uniform sleeps on the other side of the room. Up the hallway, a queue forms in front of a flight to Guadelajara. A stream of Mexicans going home for a visit or for good. In Edmonton, I negotiate for two hours with the airline sales attendant about the matter of a refund for a cancelled flight and then walk to a competing airline to buy a ticket. Deprived of sleep, fresh off a flight from London, I begin to cry and she says, calmly, “Don’t worry. We’re going to sort this out.” I half expect her to offer me cookies and a glass of warm milk.
I have already mapped out my directions from the airport to the city I am visiting. The city is still fresh and new in those first few hours. When I arrive in a new place, I walk the streets, poke in shops, right myself. I am trying to place myself within its geography. I want to map the space, wrap my head around the city. For a long time I would immediately begin to imagine where I would live, what my flat or house would be like. I tried to picture myself living there. I don’t do that so much anymore.
But soon, after a few days, some strange emptiness gnaws at me. Even after all these years I rarely sit in a bar alone, even if I bring a book. I circle cafés in Paris unable to take a table. It takes many trips and moves to overcome what is not quite shyness but some inarticulate discomfort. The only reason I ended up chatting with a stranger from France and a few locals at a “ruin pub,” or kert in Budapest is because I was on assignment for a travel magazine and my editor would have been angry if I simply stood, like a wallflower. I needed quotes.
That emptiness is a temporary dislocation. I could probe it further, but blogs are not the place for deep psychoanalysis. And anyway, part of the beauty of a new place is that you are invisible. This is also the peril.
I rarely leave anything behind when I leave a place. Except perhaps a person I have grown fond of, or a memory. Sometimes I shed books. In a guesthouse in Prince Edward Island, on the east coast of Canada, I left a Michael Ondaatje novel, its spine uncracked, hoping that the next person along would find more in it than I did. On that trip I scraped the red Prince Edward Island sand off my shoes. But it didn’t quite come off and was the only souvenir I took home.
+ “Lost and Found" is a short personal essay by philosopher Mark Kingwell that I commissioned when I worked at enRoute magazine. Getting lost in a city, he writes, might be the best way to discover who you are. “Becoming strange to ourselves is the gateway to seeing how dependent on strangers we are for our own identities.”
+ “Why We Travel,” a classic think-piece by Pico Iyer, who writes “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”
+ Which brings up Rebecca Solnit’s non-fiction book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a plotless, meditative book on all kinds of ways of being lost: abandon, transformation, and self realization. (From The Guardian's review: “reading her prose is like spending time in the company of an earnest, determined hiker who disdains maps but nevertheless knows some unexpected and fascinating fact about every house, hill or tree that you pass.”)
+ Do you, like my mother, proofread your packing list? Do you illustrate it, like Adolf Konrad, above? Do you even make one? See more lists from the 2010 exhibit on lists from the Smithsonian’s archives here on the Archive of American Art’s website.
“I always wish I was somewhere else,” the writer Bruce Chatwin once told Michael Ignatieff, in an interview published in the literary magazine Granta. Chatwin was famously restless, a reputation he advanced both in interviews and in books such as In Patagonia and The Songlines. “My God is the God of walkers,” he wrote. “If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.”
Photo via Segnaleorario, Flickr
Chatwin spent six months walking acoss Patagonia, tramping from village to village, sketching out the characters he met as he chased a relic from his childhood—a scrap of skin from a brontosaurus which turned out to be, as all myths do, not what it appeared.
It seems to me that for Chatwin walking was a means to an end. Though he might have disagreed. In The Songlines he writes that the nomads he meets, first in Africa, were “peoples whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning or end.”)
Chatwin was guided by a personal mythology, and his writing is sometimes likened to magic realism. “Myth, like love, is a decision,” the Canadian author Charles Montgomery wrote in his own quest story, The Shark God: Encounter with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific. “What it answers is longing. What it demands is faith. What it opens is possibility.”
The possibility that Chatwin opened in The Songlines and In Patagonia was accomplished through this walking, this tramping, this nomadism. This restlessness. It was a quest that could never be finished. Sometimes, when I am new to a place and I miss my family and friends and enter that strange ecosystem of foreigness where one is both a part of a community and apart of it, I am skeptical of this kind of endless quest. As I’ll explore in The Modern Nomad, it can become a goal never accomplished, a place never reached. Momentum for the sake of momentum, you might say.
When I think about the God of Chatwin’s personal mythology, I’m reminded of a great line from Peter Behrens’ novel The Law of Dreams: “Tramping was strange and addictive, a kind of perfection, but there came a time when you had to stop or you would walk right out of yourself.”