In The Romance of Elsewhere, essayist Lynn Freed addresses her sense of identity in some very particular ways, finding herself an expat (a South African living and teaching in California), feeling at home away from home even more than when she’s really at home. And for “home,” read also “relationships,” which, like home (“among the clatter of knives and forks, the phone going, the laundry piling up”) often seem better from a distance.
FROM A VERY EARLY AGE I have suffered a version of Baudelaire’s l’horreur du domicile (horror of the home), an aversion that seems to coexist nicely with a strong attachment to the comfort, the privacy, the intimacy, and the pride of home. I’m not sure how this happened, this pull of the strange against the familiar and back again, but I do know that the rhythm of leaving and returning has kept me nicely unsettled for more than forty-five years. And that without it, I would have drowned any desire to write in restlessness and regret.
Dreams of displacement began for me in childhood. Generally, they centered around something like a steamship, me at the rail, waving at those left behind, or me moving steadily into the distance, with the deck chairs and dancing and dressing for dinner, and time stretching out luxuriously to journey’s end. Perhaps the seed for this longing came from my grandmother, who, every year, would take off for England on the Union-Castle, with her trunks and hatboxes, and then go on to America, seeking a cure for her deafness.
Waving her goodbye from the dock, I longed fiercely to be deaf myself, whatever it would take to be the one sailing out of that bay. As I grew older, I would have given much, and still would, to be able to travel as Somerset Maugham did, or Graham Greene, or Lawrence Durrell, or Robert Graves, or D. H. Lawrence—all those Englishmen fleeing their island for somewhere else, somewhere warm, somewhere foreign.
“The moat in Mandalay is one of the minor beauties of the world,” wrote Maugham in his
notebook. “It has not the sublimity of Kilauea, nor the spectacular picturesque of the Lake of Como, it has not the swooning loveliness of the coastline of a South Pacific island, nor the austere grandeur of parts of the Peloponnesus, but it has a beauty which you can take hold of and enjoy and make your own.”
“Were the South Seas really like that?” asked Alec Waugh after reading a few of Maugham’s novels. “I had to find out for myself. I bought a round-the-world ticket that included Tahiti . . . I have been on the move ever since.”
Before television, before television documentaries, it was largely travel books that opened the door to the world for those left at home. To see that world, and to make money doing so, writers would find themselves a sponsor, then take off for months here, months there, fueled by fierce competition as to who would write first or best about where. One of the chief reasons, for instance, that Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was that Yugoslavia had not yet been written up by the competition. With the Nazi threat making itself clear, she had the foresight to grab it before it was overrun, either by Hitler or Stalin.
“Is there no one writing at all in England now?” wrote Lawrence Durrell in 1936, from Corfu. Well, no, most of them were not, certainly not before the Second World War introduced severe restrictions to travel, including passports. Even Evelyn Waugh, who had been rather sour on travel and much else, had been on the hoof for years, writing, among others, six books on travel. One of them, Labels, resulted from his literary agent’s arranging a free cruise around the Mediterranean for Waugh and his wife (also called Evelyn, or “She-Evelyn,” as Waugh referred to her), in return for some praise, duly delivered. (Which puts me in mind of Bulgari paying the British novelist Fay Weldon to mention its product at least a dozen times in one of her novels. And she did. And the novel rather fizzled.)
My first chance to be lifted out of South Africa and into what was fondly considered “the real world” came to me at the age of eighteen in the form of an American Field Service exchange scholarship. Overseas travel then was ruinously expensive for South Africans. Even my parents, who had spent years in England as students, hadn’t left South Africa again since their marriage thirty-odd years before. And so, when the chance came for me, however miscast I knew myself to be for the role of emissary, I grabbed it.
If there’s any rule that applies to travel, it seems to be that it was so much better a generation or two before. Certainly, I was a few generations too late for the sort of thrilling journey that had Beryl Markham, for instance, making her way up Africa in a single-engine plane, trying to reach Cairo without plunging into the Sudd. By the time I flew to Cairo—and then to Frankfurt, and then to Shannon, and then, at last, to New York—it was in what was then a modern four-engine prop, with about eighty other foreign exchange students, all of us hitting the airport tourist shops along the way. (I still have the small leather camel I bought at the Cairo airport, far more charming than the real camels I would encounter twenty-odd years later, when I returned to Egypt. There it is, in the back of a cupboard, an aide-mémoire for that first long journey out.)
Already, on the plane, I had begun what would become a monstrous accumulation of aide-mémoire—letters home to my parents, which, over the year and the years that followed, constituted what amounted to a performance of my life for their audience. At first the letters assumed the voice of a heroic reporter from the front—or, rather, from some uncharted frontier—providing observations and commentary for those unlucky enough to have been left behind. The farther away I got, the more romantic seemed the distance between us. I even envied the students being sent on to California, not because I knew enough about California to want to go there, but because it was farther still than New York, where I was to remain.
If this is madness, I wasn’t alone in it. There has always been romance in distance—a shallow romance, certainly. But it has its corollary in the fact that home is so very unromantic. There, among the clatter of knives and forks, the phone going, the laundry piling up, the heart tends to stay still, at least for me. And a still heart doesn’t do much for the imagination. Which is not to say there are not wonderful writers who seldom venture far from home—of course there are. One doesn’t hear of William Faulkner hopping a freighter to Tahiti, or Robert Frost striking out for Kashmir. Perhaps the delight in placing oneself as a stranger in a strange place is a form of derangement, from which they, and others like them, are and were happily spared.
Whatever the case, there I was, half deranged with delight at the thought of being in New York, half a world away from home. We were staying in dormitories at the AFS headquarters, down near the UN, and as soon as I could escape the endless orientations, I plunged out into the stifling throb and swirl of the city.
At the bottom of Forty-second Street, I joined a crowd climbing onto a bus. “Does this bus go uptown or downtown?” I asked the driver. I’d acquired the terms from a guidebook I’d picked up at AFS headquarters. They meant nothing to me, uptown or downtown or anywhere else, but it was lovely to be able to try them out on a native.
The bus driver banged the palm of his hand violently on the steering wheel. “Shut up,” he said, “get on, don’t ask questions.”
And I couldn’t have been more delighted had I been Cortés encountering Montezuma for the first time.
Excerpted from The Romance of Elsewhere: Essays by Lynn Freed. Copyright © 2017 by Lynn Freed. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved.