Travel

The Razor’s Edge

Our guest blogger today is Clinton A. Harris, a travel writer who also writes fiction. You can check out his blog, Getting Out More, right here.  He is the author of Song of the Cinder.

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The Razor’s Edge.

I have tried to read this book. Yes, I have an English BA, I am a writer, I have read many of the classics with varying degrees of difficulty, subtext, and mechanical artistry that make them nearly opaque. But for whatever reason W. Somerset Maugham’s story of Larry Darrell begins with the author himself standing right in the way, like someone with a really big hat sitting in front of you at the theatre, and he just never gets out of the way. So, I’m going to talk about the Bill Murray version of the movie instead.

Decades before Lost in Translation, this was his first serious role. Rumor has it that Bill Murray held out on taking the starring role in Ghostbusters just so this movie could be made. I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Larry Darrell (Murray) is a member of the Chicago aristocracy. He is engaged to be married to Isabel Bradley and everything seems great until war breaks out in Europe. Like many of his peers, Larry volunteers for the war effort and finds himself postponing his marriage so he can be an ambulance driver on the Western Front. There, we get to see the absurdity of war as well as the tragedy of how easily human life is wasted. At a pivotal scene, Larry is riding shotgun in his ambulance, as Piedmont (played by real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), sings a flat, monotone rendition of Frere Jacques to the dying men as the Germans lob artillery shells at them.

The Razor's Edge Film 1984

The World War I scenes are marvelous, and often echo the expatriate tales of disenfranchisement started by writers of the Lost Generation such as Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. The scenes of battle, loss, heartbreak and disillusionment are nearly cut and pasted from this film into the widely more popular film which launched Brad Pitt’s career ten years later: Legends of the Fall.

Piedmont’s cynicism is infectious and after his death and the war, Larry returns home changed. Isabel and his socialite friends haven’t missed a step, however Larry’s best friend, Gray, seems to have taken a liking to his betrothed, much to Sophie’s chagrin, as she was Gray’s fiancée herself. Larry seems indifferent to all this. Something inside of him has been lost since the war and so he decides to take some time to get his head back together. He goes to Paris where he lives in squalor, works menial labor jobs, and reads. Isabel makes a surprise visit one day and after seeing the state of Larry’s living conditions, she bolts and presumably gets more chummy with Gray. Larry is even more indifferent and so after being introduced to the Upanishads by a coal miner, he decides to go to India, then to the Himalayas.

The ahah! Moment hits Larry as he is freezing to death on top of a mountain where he has been reading and searching for answers in himself. Bill Murray captures this moment perfectly, in such a subtle way that makes the 1946 version of this movie so melodramatic and heavy-handed. You truly get to see Murray’s genius in this moment. He lets go and just starts burning the pages of the book he is reading for warmth. He had lost himself in the quest to find himself and has come through to the other side.
Returning to the world of his old peers, Larry seems relaxed. He has learned that Gray and Isabel are married, Sophie is an alcoholic prostitute, well, really a flapper, but potato-potahto. He doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. He takes in Sophie, gets her cleaned up and begins a romantic relationship with her, which pisses Isabel off to no end. The film ends in more tragedy, and even though Larry is saddened by it, he continues on. The years of his life and the pain being so many pages going up in flames. He isn’t lost or ruined. Larry continues on in spite of the way things have turned out.

I would consider this movie to be more of a travelogue than anything else. In his travels, Larry realizes that the person he is has been with him all along, but in his journey, he has lost so much of what has burdened him along the way. I think it is a story of survival as well as revelation, and would put it in the same category as Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken, about Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and also Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is a story of overcoming addiction and self-destruction and finding oneself at the other end of a long, difficult journey.

Those stories, as well as The Razor’s Edge are played off as victories, unlike the narrative of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated, yet fairy predictable tale told by Krakauer in Into the Wild, which though fascinating, is much more suited to the sub-genre of something more like Titanic or White Squall. A car-crash in slow-motion we continue to watch, but cannot pull ourselves away. We are at first wowed by the wonders and then tradegy brings it all into focus, rather than emerging from the chaos to find a sort of truth.

Stories like these are cathartic. The climax of the story is often reached when the protagonist learns a vital truth about themselves or the world and is better for it. Why did I drag everyone through this analysis of a 1984 movie? Because as a person who wants to write about traveling to places, I want to convey the spirit of the experience. How in leaving the comfort of our own homes and regions, we not only explore these places we are seeing, but also how we fit into the large scheme of things. By being open to new experiences we often reach a moment of catharsis. We lose something of what we once knew or held as sacrosanct and it is lost, yet replaced with something new. A broader perspective.

In writing fiction, you often take a kernel of truth and surround it with a fictional universe, or at least one that is somewhat recognizable. In writing about travel, you are drilling down through the layers to find that kernel and bring it into the light. An “enlightenment” in a very real sense. Sometimes our adventures are a mess and sometimes they are a way to find peace. The reality of both is being able to look into these experiences and gain from them, rather than detract. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with.

The TD;DR is This is Larry. Larry went through some bad times. Now Larry is happy. Be like Larry.

 

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Back in Time – Remembering a More Peaceful Syria

Damascus Airport

It has been widely reported that Syria is currently up in arms and engulfed in flames, but it wasn’t always so.  Back in 2005, I used to travel to Syria on a monthly basis, and we will be posting little details of what it used to be like, something that I believe has interest for both historical purposes and as a memorial to a time that will never return, and a “before” impression of the impression I had of the country’s invaluable cultural treasures – many of which have since been damaged in the fighting.  

 

In the semi-twilight of Damascus airport at four in the morning, it’s pretty much normal to wonder how in the world you ended up there.  It’s also normal to wonder when the next plane out was leaving but, sadly, that wasn’t an option for me.  I had just gotten there – and I had  work to do.

I nervously negotiated the immigration process, using a combination of English and sign language to communicate with the olive-uniformed airport personnel.  At each position, I became more and more worried that no one in the airport seemed to have a basic command of the English language.  I’d been to quite a few places, and had never had quite this hard a time talking to the airport people.  The uniforms weren’t good for my nerves, either.

About half an hour after leaving the plane, I emerged into the civilian part of the airport where I was greeted by a few desultory guys with moustaches leaning against a wall and holding up signs with names on them.  None of the signs had my name on them, so I walked past them to look for the official taxi stand.

It was unmanned.  There was a hand-written sign on the counter presumably giving instructions on what to do in this event, but it was in Arabic.  There was nothing even remotely resembling an information desk.

At this point, I stood completely still.  I would have cried, but that wouldn’t have been particularly manly.  I knew I could just walk out and grab a random cab on the curb, but years of travel in Latin America had taught me that that could be a very, very bad idea.  I had no idea what to do next.

And then a cell phone rang.

Normally, this wouldn’t have made any difference.  Ringtones blend into the background of airports like the sound of airplanes or the PA announcing flights.  It is not something one pays attention to.

But this one was impossible to ignore.  The ringtone was the lead song from the movie Lambada.

Just like that, all was right in the world.  Any country whose people could choose that ringtone wouldn’t be all that bad.  All the worries simply disappeared into a self-effacing chuckle, I reminded myself that I’d traveled over 24 hours to get to Damascus airport.  The last couple of miles to the hotel wouldn’t be the point at which I gave up.

Damascus taxis

I walked outside and climbed into one of the cabs on the curb.  “Hotel Semiramis,” I said.  The driver said a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand and I just shrugged, repeated the name of the hotel and hoped for the best.  He mirrored my shrug and drove off.

 

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New kid on the Block

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Being a global citizen is emphatically not an exclusively Western thing, particularly over the past few decades, where India and especially China have become huge drivers of the world’s population and economy.  Today’s guest writer, Vero Nica, spent a long time in China.  Unlike most Westerners who visit China, she wasn’t “just looking”, so to speak – she moved there, and had to work to make ends meet.  As you can imagine, she has amassed a wealth of amazing stories and insights and, better still, has agreed to share some of them with us.  Enjoy!

I arrived in Beijing in November 2006, with a job as an English teacher. I had the right qualifications for the job. Mainly, I looked foreign. This leads us to an interesting insight into the imagery of the Chinese population: all foreigners speak English. Therefore, the main characteristic needed to teach English at that time was to look foreign. Nationality, education and actual level of English were rather distant second considerations. However, I hear that has changed now, as you are expected to have a passport from an English-speaking country – and preferably, look foreign.

I felt in a different world. I had studied Chinese for a year, but quickly realized it was nowhere near enough the level I thought it was (particularly my pronunciation of the infamous 5 tones). It was surprising, though, how far the words “this”, “that”, “thank you” and “how much is it?” took me those first few weeks. Anyway, the first few days I didn’t explore much, as I was adjusting to the time zone, the college (a joint Canadian-Chinese venture), the job, the apartment, etc. I did, however, need to eat and clean the apartment, so I ventured out to get the necessary supplies.

The staff at the school had provided teachers with a computer-generated map to a supermarket catering to foreigners (meaning, expensive imported stuff, but in a language you could actually understand), and I headed that way. It was just two blocks away, but when I got to the first corner, I found a biggish sort of obstacle. It was the meeting of two two-way streets, and was fairly busy by my standards.

I stood there waiting for the light, and started to cross. And I was surprised to see that cars did not seem to respect the traffic light a whole lot. I made  to the other side in one piece, but the episode left me confused. A bit of background is in order here, I think.

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I have lived most of my life in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Why is this important? Well, I am completely used to being on the receiving end of aggressive driving and having drivers treat traffic lights, speed limit and driving regulations as suggestions, as opposed to something that actually needs to be respected*. Still, cars can only advance – in any direction – when the light is green (with the exception of the usual homicidal/suicidal rascal who goes on ahead regardless of said traffic lights, other cars/pedestrians and anything else that might prevent them from gaining those precious thirty seconds). If you are big into survival skills, I do advise a trip to downtown Buenos Aires during rush hour. For the complete ninja experience, try a busy crossing with no traffic light. I have been to other places where driving rules are different, but they weren’t as notorious since drivers STOP for pedestrians. But I digress.

After a few more tries, I figured it out. There WAS a traffic light, and it worked,and people respected it, but traffic seemed to pour continuously into the street. Why? Well, I discovered that cars/motorcycles/mopeds/buses/etc. can always turn right, without having to wait for the traffic light, as do bicycles. At the same time, when the traffic light was green, oncoming traffic could turn left onto the street I was trying to cross.  None of this is legal where I come from, and made for some interesting/crowded moments, and made me feel like an owl every time I stepped off the sidewalk.

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Chinese drivers have a few saving graces, though: they don’t drive fast, and they usually signal their actions. Not only with their lights. If they drive into the “turn” lane, they will turn. This, of course, is radically different from my native country, and initially added to the confusion.

The important thing is not to panic, grab your towel, do as the Romans do, and submerge yourself in the challenge (and the smog, as it was) of opening your mind.

*I am usually a pedestrian or obnoxious cyclist. I do turn into a wilder beast behind the steering wheel.

Aerobics for My Brain

Open Road Canada

Today’s entry continues our series of guest blogs, and is perhaps the one (so far), that best summarizes what this site is all about.  Our guest today, Ace Lightning is a woman of many, many talents (as the piece itself will hint), having been everything from a Wiccan priestess to a broadcast engineer – which is a scope that is impressive even by the standards of this blog!  It tells of a familiar feeling for world travelers, and one that never gets old.  Enjoy!

 

My second language, after English, is Spanish, with French a very poor third (some random phrases I picked up when I worked at UN Radio – they inexplicably placed me in a French-speaking studio – and culinary terms). I live in the New York metropolitan area, and it’s easy to reach southeastern Canada from here. I had been to the cities of Montréal and Québec, and enjoyed both greatly. In Québec, I had occasionally had to resort to my fractured French, but as soon as I mentioned that I was American, not Anglophone Canadian, everything was all right.

Welcome to Quebec

When my son was in his early teens, we decided to take a family vacation along the St. Lawrence River. Neither my husband nor our son speaks a word of French, although we all speak Spanish. I was hoping I’d be able to see the Northern Lights (an obsession of mine); my son wanted to see moose in the Parc Gaspésie; and my husband was interested in seeing what Canada was like outside of the major cities. We flew into Montréal, rented a car and drove to Québec, then drove out along the river, staying overnight in a different place each night. Our accommodations ranged from a rather nice hotel in Montréal, to a rustic motel in Rimouski that had a door which opened out directly onto the beach of the river. The further away from the major cities we got, the less English people spoke; I soon found myself having to do most of the communicating. I had to teach the menfolk a few phrases, such as “Je suis Américain“, “Je ne parle pas français“, and “Où sont les toilettes?” I also watched French TV in our hotel rooms – usually MéteoMedia, the Canadian weather channel. Soon I was able to order meals for three people, buy petrol, and ask for (and even occasionally understand) driving directions. Everywhere we stopped, one of us would ask, “Do you speak English?”, and someone would reply “A leetle beet!”… which turned out to be the extent of their English. It was often frustrating, but also fun. (My husband and son just found it frustrating, although my son was often amused as well.)

We stopped in Cap-Chat, because I was especially interested in Éole – a huge vertical-shaft wind-powered generating plant, built as a “proof of concept”. I was immensely fascinated and impressed by the simplicity of its engineering. The tours were only given in French, and I wished I was able to ask more questions, but I still learned a lot. (Note: Éole is no longer in operation, although the structure is still there; the site is now an education center concerning wind-powered and other alternative sources of electricity.)

eole cap chat

We went all the way out to Gaspé, stayed for two days, and drove back to Montréal. I insisted on stopping at Éole again – this time they found someone who could describe some of the machinery in English. We also visited the site of an old copper mine, which had been made into a historical center, although we didn’t have time to take the tour of the mine itself. We made our way back to Montréal and flew home to New Jersey.

A day or two after we got home, I was describing this adventure to a friend, who said, “That must have been awful! Weren’t you terrified, being in a completely unfamiliar place, and forced to try to communicate in a language you barely know?” I said that, on the contrary, it had been positively exhilarating – I described it as being “like aerobics for my brain”. My friend couldn’t grok that at all; my mere description of the experience gave him a panic attack. Then I described it to another friend, a White Russian who had been raised in Paris and spoke something like 103 languages. He grinned and said, “Oh, yes, that’s always so much fun! But there aren’t many places where I can’t make myself understood.”

Next time, I want to try something really difficult, like trying to find my way around in Finland or China.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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As most people concerned about the cultural decline of Western civilization continue to moan in despair* , I would like to take a moment to abandon my own complaining and look at one group, at least, that seems to be bucking the trend.  But before I get to the point, I need to digress again which, I suspect, is why many of you are reading this in the first place.

It used to be, there were places where you could meet the right people, even if you were far from home.

When railroads and a general lack of Europeans from different nations slaughtering each other on sight made travel a lot more pleasant, certain places came to be generally accepted as the ones one went to to meet acquaintances.  Perhaps for the Anglophones among us, the archetypal example is the Pump Room at Bath (below).  Anyone familiar with English novels of manners from the pre-Victorian period will have run into this (even casual readers are likely to have encountered it in Austen).

Pump Room Bath

Essentially, it got everyone who was anyone together in one place, without having to go to the trouble and expense of getting invited to the Royal Gala or whatever.

There are other places (notably certain hotels where one would meet for lunch), which took the anglophone through the Victorians and into the 20th century, but by then, the world had once again become a much smaller place, and culturally relevant people – even insular Englishmen – were no longer meeting exclusively in their own cities, or with people from their own countries.

By now, they were meeting in Paris.  More precisely, they were meeting in the Paris Cafés.  1871 is usually pointed to as the beginning of the Belle Époque.  From then until the first world war, Paris was the place to be seen at, and to meet your acquaintances, French, Dutch, Austrian or British.  There is a myth, an image flying around that this era was overrun with impecunious artists.  It is relatively true, but only tells a small part of the story.

Small, but what a story.  It must have been amazing to witness the birth of a new and major current in art every few weeks, driven not by the established masters but by a previously unknown artist from the countryside, or from Spain or somewhere equally unexpected.  The heady times among the currents and countercurrents in the avant-garde were balanced by almost equally exciting events in what was then considered high culture, from the World’s Fair, to Stravinksy.  Even the now reviled Paris Salon gave us iconic images.  Not all the great works were famously rejected, you know.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette

But WWI brought it to a screeching halt.  Europe was not really in the mood for it all, and any mingling of nationalities would be best done on neutral ground, so the circus moved to Broadway.

Broadway in the twenties

Eventually, the in-crowds moved to Hollywood,  and then spent some time in Monte Carlo (always at least peripherally on this list), but it also lost some of its melting-pot feel.  The problem is that, as the world became smaller and smaller, the enclaves started catering to the super rich… and no one else.  I’m certain you’ll run into the right people if you snag paddock passes for the Monaco GP, but there aren’t many of them, and you might have to sell a yacht to afford them.  Any Dubai pool party classifies in the same category, too.

The day you sell a yacht is supposed to be the second best day of ownership after the day you buy it, but what about those who either prefer to keep their yachts or simply aren’t in that financial class?  What about the slightly less well-to-do global citizen, who wants to be surrounded by like-minded people, but has accidentally travelled thousands of miles from their usual base of operations?

The answer to that, after decades of traveling in a variety of budget levels is surprisingly heartwarming, and I first got an inkling of it when I bought a pass that saved me money on a variety of New York attractions.  The way it was set up was the clue: each ticket let you enter one of two attractions.  One of the options was something typically touristy, while the other option was generally a museum.  Strangely, the typical things you see on TV were usually mirrored by things that I really wanted to do.

I probably missed out on a lot of people very different from myself by choosing the museums.  But I did enjoy them.  And most of the people I generally have things in common with have spent a disproportionate amount of their time in major cities at the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado or the National gallery, and considerably less at the photogenic large buildings / famous actor’s former homes / scenic countryside than others who visited the same places.  Art museums seem to be the one place where you’re likely to run into the polymath and global citizen today.  Even the ones who prefer hiking and hitchhiking aren’t going to miss the city’s big museum(s).  The fact that the great cultural artifacts of humanity also attract much smaller crowds than Graceland is only a secondary consideration to the kind of people this blog is aimed at.

Most of them can tell me which wall this…

757px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

is hanging on.

Which, when you stop to think about it, is kind of nice.

*and yes, I know, we urgently need a nice knock-down, drag-out fight about the relative merits of high culture as opposed to popular culture on this blog – the very nature of this space cries out for that particular battle.