Reflections: Foreign Affairs
On September 11, I thought I'd never travel again. I thought planes would never fly again, and that I would never see my mother, father, or brothers again, since they all live in different parts of Europe. But a few days later I caught myself thinking, I started flying when I was two, and I'm not going to stop now.
That first flight was from Alexandria, Egypt—where I was born, of Italian parents—to Athens. It was only the beginning of a life of displacements, or, rather, one in which displacements have been the way we've kept our family united—piece by piece, sequentially, if not simultaneously, in the way of traditional families. Many pieces are always missing from the mosaic, and no sooner is one found than another is lost. At different times we have lived in Khartoum, Cairo, Tokyo, London, Milan, and New York. Our grandparents, uncles, cousins, and friends are always somewhere else, places we have to travel to.
Then, aside from the people I travel to see, there is the person I am when I am with them. Different people elicit different versions of us: the people we become in one another's company emerge and are joined in secret couples that others may only have glimpses of. Every one of us is a multitude of people, and many places have formed us. That is the chameleon skin of a seasoned traveler.
I'd like to have a tea party and invite them all, my alter egos from around the world, but they don't travel: I am the one who must board a plane if I want to see them, and the more worldly I become, the more they become provincial. The Chianti me relishes the small-town life of Strada—discussing with the butcher and the carpenter and the house painter (nicknamed Giotto) what to do about a hornet's nest. In Madras, I watch Indian me emerge, at first timidly, the "Auntie" who wears a sari or a kurta and sits in that room we call the icebox because it is so air-conditioned your teeth chatter: reclining on beige pillows, my friend Prema dabs vermilion powder between my eyebrows so that I might be mistaken for a lady from Thanjavur when I go to a temple to hear Vedic chants.
It may look as though I am alone here in this room in Manhattan where I work. But in fact I am accompanied at all times by a few dozen creatures, versions of myself that have lived different lives in different towns and villages and cities and landscapes. I travel to be reunited with one or another of them. The journeys between one place and another are the thread with which the persons I am are sewn together.
Freya Stark, who traveled by herself all over the Arab world in the 1920's and 30's and was pretty fearless, said that you have to pass "through fear to the absence of fear." I am not going to let my animal spirits (as John Maynard Keynes called them) falter. I'm flying to Nebraska next week.