It’s not that I mind arriving at a hotel, unpacking my suitcase, scanning the day’s itinerary; it’s not that I mind arriving at my destination. It’s just that I prefer the moments between when I step out my door and then later, when I sit on the edge of a strange bed and listen to traffic in a city I’ve never been in before. We’ll say a threshold, liminal space, passageway, hallway, limbo, inbetweeny place. It’s where I feel the anticipation, excitement of travel. Same goes for when I walk, fly or sail in my chair, at my desk with afternoon light breaking through west-facing windows, coffee next to the computer, and I’m furiously typing out words, images, narratives without a clue where I’m heading—but definitely on the way somewhere, not sure what I’ll find, but definitely no longer where I was when I first sat down to face a blank screen.
When I read Odysseus pushing out on the wine-dark sea, bound for the land of the dead, I think the lucky bastard has his real and imaginary tourism threaded to a fine, woven shroud he can slip on when he’s cold, slip off when the sun’s baking the earth. I wonder as he stares into blue-black waves, a mesh of sea-salt tingeing his face, does he feel the pull, the urgency of something out on the horizon, does he feel the exhilaration of leaving behind where he’s from, that dizzying feeling of leaving behind the gravity of what one certainly is, of who one certainly knows, and exchanging it for one-eyed monsters, tentacle-women, immortal cattle?
Did Herodotus also nurse that moment between sitting down in an ouzeria on the island of Naxos and hearing the first words fall from a traveler’s mouth who had been beyond the sun? Herodotus also sits high in the Hall of Fame of Cosmos-Spinning Travelers. As with Odysseus, Herodotus feels the ground slip away, watches foreign constellations wheel into the night sky as he spirals, somersaults and spins, as he wonders where this story, this new story will take him. I suppose we might call: it Going to Egypt But Not Really Wanting To Get There.
One of my favorite threshold moments occurred in Piraeus as I waited for a ferry to take me to Santorini. I’d already been in Athens for a week, so I’d formed a pattern: walking streets, kicking old marble, peering close at old pottery, feta and ouzo, then coffee, more feta and ouzo. But here at the port I was about to cast this new home off and step into a boat, waves, an island. At that moment I was not an American, not a son, not a husband, not a father. I was only a figure between sky and sea, already beginning to lift and float above ships.
And then I saw it: a small green truck with a pile of skinned goats in its bed. Bluing eyes still in sockets, mouths open like they were laughing or screaming. Their red-white vessels and tissue gleamed in the early morning sun and I saw nothing to separate me from them, saw no difference . . . only color and shape waiting to be taken somewhere on the wine-dark sea like a tourist who has conveniently forgotten where’s he’s been, where’s he going and only tries to stay in the possibility of everything and nothing. All tags, all names whirled away and like Heraclitus or Thales I tried to see the nature of the world as is, rather than as something always marked out by the same signs, the same letters. The liminal hallway of going somewhere and not getting there turns anyone inside out and into a philosopher. And that’s what it means to think, to really think, to turn inside out and upside down and for a while defy gravity. And in this moment, at the water’s edge or about to hear a story of Heracles, it’s possible to believe in a world revealed by sight and words—the lost and found traveler removes the concealment of knowing and breathes mystery . . . here’s a few sentences, here’s a setting sun.
The green truck pulled away, probably bound for some market, some shopper, some roasting pan, and then some mouth already wet with retsina. I boarded the ferry.