The Melancholy of the Traveler

March 18, 2010

When traveling, I often run into a terrible melancholy that Alain de Botton called the melancholy of the traveler--you're here in this glorious place, and yet, you're not making the most of it. It's all there, and you feel like you're flunking some test, you flounder, you grow melancholy.  It's like a whole life squeezed into a week, so that the wasted time seems monumental. I'm not big on scheduling, anyway, or rushing around ticking things off some to-do list, and predictably fall into this funk when traveling. It usually happens early in a trip, when it's almost overwhelming, and I get off to a slow start.

Today, I'm in New York, a city with more to do than one could exhaust in a lifetime. But what to do? how to live?  My first real day was a Tuesday, stayed up way late the night before.  That day, I didn't get out of the hotel until 3 pm.  Just no traction, no plans, aimless guilty wandering.

I ended up going to the International Center for Photography, where I saw a show of mottled prints by Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy,  which he took in the 1970s with rude cameras made of cardboard tubes and cans and shoeboxes… The wall text talked all about how sophisticated he was and it was a rebellion against technology and Prague Spring, a comment on survelliance and the State. But frankly, they were furtive photos of women and girls, snatched in public, often at the public swimming pool, mostly a lot of asses and crossed legs, blurry and decidedly fetishistic. A lot more pervy than political. And none of the wall text mentioned their essential transgressive quality--the 800 pound gorilla in the gallery.

Fed up, I moved to the next show, Twilight in Paris by street photographers Brassai, Atget, Kertesz (Hungarian), Man Ray, Ilse Bing (wonderful).  But as I looked at these photos, again, subjects caught unawares, surrealist juxtapositions (soldier inspecting shop window full of women's lingerie), street scenes… I became more and more restless. What was I doing in a museum looking at art about street life when I could go out on Broadway and just see it?

Then I remembered, the one sure cure for 'traveler's melancholy': the surrealist's game of going in search of the miraculous.

When you are looking for the miraculous, the world becomes a big treasure hunt.  Anything might be the thing.  There. You pass a man looking up, so you look up, and there's a woman with dark hair in a white slip talking to him from the third story, and then she throws something down to him wrapped in a handkerchief.  There. The imprint of a fallen leaf in concrete.

So I left the ICP and went out onto the streets of New York, that iridescent sea of phenomena.  Looking, watching…  and melancholy disappeared.  A small tree burst into a mist of tiny yellow flowers against a red wall.  There.  Two big gothic doors painted scarlet pierced the façade of a church in warm gray stone. There. In an apartment window, someone had arranged a white plaster head wearing a striped stocking cap alongside a pile of books and a sculpture made of eyeglasses.  There. An old man and a young man on a bench outside a restaurant, each with right leg folded over left, each editing some sort of papers. I could see how New Yorkers are made… in forty years, the young man becomes the old man and there's a new young man on the bench beside him.

Yesterday, I went to the Whitney Biennial with my cinematographer friend Tom (the show was very good, well exhibited, each room cleansing the eye from the last.) Afterwards, we're walking the upper east side, dense with people fresh from the  St. Patrick's Day parade on 5th Avenue wearing the outlandish Mardi Gras-ish costumes and crowding into the Irish bars. And Tom, whose mother lived here for many years, began to point out figures I would have missed otherwise. A very special type of New Yorker.  Elderly Upper Eastsiders, privileged, proprietary--this was their city, and they completely inhabited it.

Once he pointed them out to me, I saw them everywhere, in the diners, in the streets.  It became our game.  "Oh, there's one!"  There. In a lunchroom on Madison, two nicely dressed women at a table on our left, and two eating alone, on our right. and there, one about my age, on her way to becoming the woman to her left.

The miraculous boy eating red twizzlers on the subway and reading a book with a red cover.  A man with a tiny boy in the gallery at the Whitney, the boy more interested in the view out the low window and sticking his hand in his father's mouth than in the hot new artists displayed in the room.  Tiles on the wall of the Prince Street station, depicting tiny figures carrying all the range of baggage known to New York. There. There. There.

I feel so intensely alive when I'm traveling, feel my life streaming through my fingers at 100 miles an hour.  it's what's so hard about being at home, so much more difficult to feel that urgency to seek out experience.  But we can't travel all the time.  Paradox.  Thus, the surrealist's project--to make it strange again.  To make home as strange as Marrakesh, as full of unexpected delights.