Desk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday.
Hans Christian Andersen appears to have first identified the rare disease of “out-sickness.” He describes this malady as similar to restlessness, and as the opposite of a more typical condition—homesickness. The stationary victims of out-sickness sense a “painful travel unrest” at surprising moments—from a wayward breeze, during a sunset, when crossing the street. Even the smallest of impulses can trigger this need to travel. A book by Paul Theroux—The Tao of Travel—introduced me to the letter where Anderson writes about this serious condition, for which I quickly affirmed my own diagnosis.
Long before I recognized my symptoms, I believe the condition remained latent, where it rested without the ability to strike. I imagine that the gene for out-sickness did manifest itself in small, almost imperceptible ways while I played as a child at a nearby park, or when I used my bike to explore streets far past what felt permitted—yet the condition itself, that visceral urge toward travel, remained dormant until I was older.
One of my first international trips took me to Prague, where I booked a small attic apartment for three weeks, unsure whether that was too much time, slightly apprehensive about the potential for boredom, not quite certain about how I would fill my days. Yet Prague wasn’t an accidental destination, as I’d already spent years absorbed by countless Czech writers, all of whom seemed to summon me closer—Václav Havel, most importantly, but also Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, and, of course, Franz Kafka, among countless others. Within a few days of that first visit to Prague, the disease that was previously latent revealed itself, compelling me to recognize the shortness of three weeks in any unfamiliar spot.
Over the years since that first journey, literature has remained a catalyst for my trips. When I discover a new novelist, or come across an unexpected essay, I sense how my urge to investigate the ground is triggered, there’s a surge in pressure, an undeniable rush to explore the streets of my reading, and I feel an abrupt need to jump aboard the nearest train or plane. Writers frequently provide the thrust with which I purchase my fare, though my arrival almost never satisfies that original curiosity. Once I land in a new spot, instead, the search merely continues, with a new language, with unexpected encounters and conversations, with all that I discover that’s unfamiliar and intriguing and curious as a mere shove toward more reading.
The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer tells to the folks gathered around the fire after his or her journey.
Although this is a useful Paul Theroux quote, the listener or reader determines whether a story qualifies as a travel narrative, especially because travel narratives don’t always require journeys: when you tell stories about your home, the stranger who listens hears a travel narrative. A good mystery novel can incite travel. Even good thrillers provide curiosities and intrigue about a distant land. The pulse and vibrancy of any solid novel reveals the flavors of its setting—its mood, a sense of atmosphere, nuances of the time. Simply reading good literature from another country uncovers—for the careful foreign reader—a travel narrative.
I hadn’t read Ismail Kadare before I visited Albania, but the streets of Tirana almost demanded a confrontation with his work; I had read Pablo Neruda before my stay in Chile, but only in translation, without a full understanding of the history and culture of his time, an absence of context that became clear once I walked the steps of his home in Valparaíso; Orhan Pamuk can be partly blamed for the spontaneous trip I took to Istanbul nearly a decade ago, where I sought to measure his words with my impression of the streets. Even if a writer captures only the edges of a city, that’s sufficient, it’s another clue toward understanding a distant land. No single writer has captured Paris, for instance, nor has any writer ever captured contemporary Rome, but many writers have offered faint glimmers that suggest the contours of both cities.
Digging into the literature of Romania has been a particular and ongoing challenge of mine. I keep shoveling, the pile of dirt behind me appears to grow, but the hole doesn’t get deeper. It seems that I’m forever just a few writers away from comprehension. Despite all the time I’ve spent in the country and the instruction that I’ve been given—steering me to particular authors and periods—there’s something impenetrable: the more I learn, the less I understand. Recognizing how little I grasp, however, might be a good sign. Perhaps disorientation and perplexity means that I’m on the right path with Romanian literature.
I’ve even spent nearly a year living near Cișmigiu Gardens, a bucolic park right in the heart of Bucharest, with its winding paths and wide walkways, where a colonnade of trees provide a shaded canopy for the solo walker, and where the grasses are speckled with brilliant flowers. In the early mornings I used to sometimes head to the Rotonda Scriitorilor—a circular clearing with a dozen stone busts, each one depicting a Romanian writer. The spot is secluded and away from the park’s entrance, so I would typically find myself surrounded by lush foliage and chirping birds, alone amid these stone busts of writers, artists, politicians, revolutionaries. In the dawn light, I swear the statues laughed. I could hear these stone figures giggle behind my back. To understand any of their paragraphs demands a discernment of regional history, local culture, an appreciation of a few thousand years of swaying power, of a Latin language somehow shoved eastward, suffused by other tongues. Yet underneath those cruel laughs was a whisper that gave guidance: the secrets of their texts are best understood in the atmosphere of the city, along the boulevards, within the streets, inside basement bars, at the pace of my feet.
For those without out-sickness, one mistake is the belief that wanderlust implies an escape. If your first orientation is toward home, toward the familiar and routine and comfortable, than those who step beyond those thresholds appear on the run; when the impulse to explore doesn’t move you, little appears to separate the fugitive, the odd stranger, and the traveler—something must have gone wrong and forced them to flee.
Of course this is incorrect. A failure of imagination. An inability to perceive motives. What’s more accurate is that the traveler has simply chosen different priorities, and, with those priorities, chosen different downsides. With the benefits of familiarity comes the loss of discovery. For the gains of discovery there’s little to count on for security. Which tradeoff would you like?
These paragraphs came from an early morning glance out my window during the first hints of sunrise. Beyond the scattered trees and nearby buildings, I caught the subtle hints of the dawn inferno, a fierce orange tinting the clouds. Memories of past sunrises came flooding in—along the Charles Bridge in Prague, another off the coast of Brazil, a third in the furnace of a Marrakech summer. Each leaving its mark, and still giving me a little prod, a slight nudge, as I felt that desire bubble upward, once again.