PLACE is the bedrock of our existence. It ties together our most cherished memories, defines our experiences, and bookmarks our most important experiences. Place is not always at the forefront of what we do, or the defining totem of memory. But it is there, a vital organ in the body of our existence, and when we travel it takes on an added dimension to reflect the unique situation that we find ourselves in.
From an early age I was cognizant in an unspoken, instinctive way of how significant place is. Even my earliest memories are filled with quiet yet rich details which I can plunge into.
For example, right now I am remembering a Shabbat dinner at my aunt Ruthie’s house when I was probably no older than four years old. My cousins were all girls so I was making do with cousin Jacqueline’s Polly Pocket set; yes, I will admit that Nathan c. 1994 was a brony. We were sitting on an off-white carpet. Anyways, I remember fiddling with the white and pink plastic parts which seemed small even to me then. We were playing in the living room while the adults ate; there was a white tablecloth on the dining table and the walls were illuminated a pale yellow from the lighting. Behind my uncle Elias was a sliding glass door leading to their backyard, but it was dark outside so it was impossible to see outside. There was a cherry-colored wooden end table with brass handles on it, and when I became bored with it we played with Jacqueline’s—or maybe Sophie’s—Lite Brite toy.
I tried to think of the most mundane example I could to illustrate a point: the focus of the memory was playing with the Polly Pocket toys, but there are so many quotidian details I can recall as well. Why should I remember what color the walls of my aunt’s living room were? Why should it be important that I remember such things?
Seemingly mundane details are not limited to my own life; they are oftentimes the defining feature in literature and art. One of an infinite number of examples is the final passage from one of my favorite books of all time, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest. We are privy to the last moments of the protagonist’s life, which Hemingway chooses to show us directly from his perspective as he lays dying in the rugged Sierra Guadarama (which even from afar are mesmerizingly beautiful). Jordan’s hyper awareness of the minutiae around him —the light breaking through the trees, the meadow beyond, the pine needles that push softly against his chest — buttress the notion that memories and even consciousness are demonstrative of the macrocosmic influence of place.
So if some of my earliest memories from childhood and the memories of a fictional character — albeit one conceived by one of the greatest writers ever — in his dying moments are saturated with an awareness of surroundings, they must be equally instrumental in giving context and in some cases meaning to my memories of travel.
Place, for me, is the cacophony of motorbikes, the shouting of merchants, the richly hued bolts of fabric hanging from the rafters, the Saharan sun marinating the back of my neck as I walk through the narrow reddish streets of the medina in Marrakech.
Place is the setting sun casting waves of shadows that spill across row after row of vines as Dennis, PJ and I sit on the back porch of our gite in the Ardeche and savor the fat of veal’s belly dissolving on my tongue, and the chilled glass of wine sweating gently into my hand, and seeing the green foothills of the Alps rising up off the plain.
Place is the impending roar of a solitary passing car on a gravel road in the depths of Iceland’s Westfjords, the quivering lap of gentle waves falling across the rocky shore, the dense mist which rolls across my sleeved arms and the low clouds like tarnished steel that are pierced by the sharp peaks as they pass overhead.
Place is a gray Parisian afternoon — the naked trees, the muddy swirling Seine, the dampness saturated with the knowledge of fleeting time — become monolithic to me.
Dennis asked me when I visited him and PJ in Cape Cod last May to write some sort of recollection of my travels, which to me is an exercise in summoning forth the essence of my memories and what I felt in this or that particular moment. There are certainly greater conclusions that I can come to by synthesizing my travels into a grander sum — I have been told time and again by friends and family I haven’t seen in two years how much more outgoing I am now, how much more bold I am (and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment) — but they are phenotypes of greater changes which occurred within the depths of myself.
What unifies my experience of almost two years traveling is not a change in my personality, nor a broader outlook on the world, nor a willingness to throw myself into the vagaries of chance that lie around corners on the road. The collective seams of numerous memories, themselves composed of infinite threads of place, are the substructure which has defined my life for the past two years. I am simply grateful that I had the courage, the means, and the desire to walk down a path — literally — that has lit up my consciousness with the fire of discovering something new, again and again.
This guest post by Nathan Mizrachi is illustrated by PJ’s photographs from our time together in the Ardèche a few years ago. Nathan stayed with us at a gite for a week as we photographed this beautiful region.