“Do travel-loving artists have a point, that roots strangle the imagination as a tune worm strangles thought?” —Norma Mandler
In my favorite airport, Schiphol, the departure screens beckon: Gothenburg, Vienna, Bombay, Madrid, Cairo, Prague. Each a trinket, a sign, an emblem of a heart’s desire. It seems no matter where I’m flying—and I’ve flown to many of these very cities, from this same airport—I want to be at another gate, another lounge, with another set of passengers going to a more exotic destination. This time my endpoint is Prague, and yet I’m drawn to the lounge next to us, Gothenburg, where I flew four years ago to give a paper. I know what lies at the end of each route: know the airport with its polished marble floors and bright gift shops (glass in Prague, hiking and spa gear in Gothenburg). And yet … this one or that, here or there? It’s all tricked out in the word destination, isn’t it? Or “departure,” as if to fly somewhere is to part yourself in some way, separate one component from the rest, leave not just home but the self you know so well in order to take on another culture, language, cuisine, and perhaps identity for a sum of days. Always, I suspect, beneath this is the desire, deep-seated, to make a clean break of it all: discover a new world, a heretofore hidden self.
Maybe that’s what’s going on at the airport: what kind of person will I be if I board the plane for Cairo instead of Prague, Madrid and not Birmingham?
Depart, from the Latin dispertire: “to divide.” With its nod to the archaic “to die.” We shall depart this life …
Each trip offers its own metaphors. The sign of Pra/, for example, with its various endings, signaling the possibilities of travel, the various ways you can behold a place—this city—depending on your point of origin. Mine is Pra with a “gue” tacked onto the end. French, I suppose, but also American, though pronounced like the blunt German “Prag.” The ending I long to claim, of course, is the lilting Czech “ha,” with its implicit laugh—irony being at the core of this city.
Here in the Municipal Library where I’ve come in an effort to untangle my imagination from the roots of home and work, someone has built a column of books, a hollow tower with mirrors at both top and bottom so that when you poke your head inside, the thing looks as if it goes on forever.
But it’s an illusion, and the column itself something of a nod to a vanishing species. Today I’m mostly surrounded by people with laptops and iPads and e-books, although across from me a man in his forties is stuck deep in a tome sprinkled with maps and building plans and long paragraphs in Czech, with its dazzling diacritics—the little cockeyed haĉeks positioned, like caps, over Rs and Cs and Ss in what strikes me as another gesture of irony, for surely the Czechs know how this small mark dashes the hopes of any Anglo seeking to speak their language.
And so I’ve settled for Prague, which I find both prosaic and exotic, as I’ve found the other cities to which I’ve de-parted down the jetways at Schiphol. It’s in the anticipation and aftermath of travel, I suspect, that we most untangle the imagination. Or perhaps I simply haven’t been here long enough to undo the ropes, whose knots are ever tighter in our wired/wireless world. I love and loathe the little “connected” icon at the bottom of my computer screen. When I lived in Spain 25 years ago, I had to rely on the post office and Telefónica for contact with home, which was expensive and infrequent. In the apartment we’ve rented here in Prague, the mailbox sits empty. Friends have asked where they can send a Christmas card, and we’ve told them we’re not even sure of the postal code and don’t have a key to the box. From that, at least, we are truly departed.