Even travel letdowns are worth it

I’m a jaded traveler, asking much, with high expectations and a low threshold for disappointment. 

So naturally I’ve at times been disillusioned during my many journeys around the world. It happens. And it’s not a terrible thing. After all, how letdown can you be by, say, Madrid, a great city that pales a bit compared to its more lustrous and colorful cousins, Sevilla and Barcelona? Not much.

In a previous post I told how I recently unpacked piles of my travel journals from cold storage after several years. Written in blue ink in black notebooks — usually on barstools after long days wending wide-eyed through cobblestone streets and spindly alleyways — the pages are filled with the magic of travel, the mirth of discovery, the shock of the new, amazing people and far-out food (like the whole cobra I ate in Vietnam). 

The journals are also laced with descriptions of those isolated times when I was dissatisfied, underwhelmed or — what! — plain bored. I’ve re-read these bits with a kind of dismayed surprise: Really? That’s how I felt about Rome? Rome? 

Well, yeah, on that particular day. Travel experiences are colored by everything from jet lag to daily frustrations (taxi rip-offs, getting lost, language hassles). They are mutable. What deflates one day might electrify the next. 

My journals reminded me of this in bold strokes. These are some examples of thwarted expectations and little letdowns on travel’s twisty, rugged road: 

In 2000 I went to Israel a hardened agnostic bordering on a true atheist. Astounded by religion and the mindset of its believers, I wanted to go to the desert nation that’s home to the big three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and see what makes them tick. Scenes from my journal:

“Today in Bethlehem I arrived at the perhaps blasphemous idea that the region is a historical Disneyland, a realm of fairy tales. ‘Here’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.’ ‘This is where Mary slept.’ We might as well be told, ‘This is where Snow White ate the fateful apple,’ or ‘Behold the tomb of Cinderella’s stepsisters.’ It’s psychotic that pilgrims succumb to the fanciful whims of Constantine’s mother, who randomly appointed holy designations to places here. Paraphrasing something I actually heard on a tour: ‘Here’s King David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper, but, uh, not really, because they’re lost somewhere far below the city.’ And people eat this stuff up.”

Later I noted:

“Believers hoisting giant wooden crosses follow ‘Christ’s final footsteps’ on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s maniacal, and not half as fascinating as you’d think. That’s how religion is for me now. Just silly, impossible to be contemplated in the higher regions of the mind. It absolutely fails to astonish. So this trip, which is wonderful thus far — peaceful, pleasant, edifying — is innocent of any celestial wallop, of a blinding halo glow and spiritual intervention. I am unmoved. I am unchanged.”

Then there’s Prague, which I visited with inflated enthusiasm in 2002. I should have known better, especially since so many blinkered Americans just love the tourist-clogged Czech capital and callow expats infest the place. I got there and sighed, writing:

“Not entirely impressed by the city. Like an Eastern Amsterdam: beautifully antiquated, charmingly European, painted with time and soot, tired but proud. And yet rather vacant. It’s all show, with a familiar, generic Euro tang. My true feelings are stifled from sleepless flights. My impressions are, for now, Cubist — fragmented, jumbled, unreliable. But, so far, a fine, sturdy European city of great charm and Old World wealth. A Disneyland-like anachronism, bursting with pastel façades and fairy-book antiquity, tourist throngs and souvenir kitsch.” 

Two days later I wrote: 

“I like Prague, and yet needing to write that means I’m working at liking it as much as I’m supposed to.”

On my second trip to Italy, in 2003, I revisited Florence and Rome, with a day trip to Pisa to see that teetering tower. My scribbled impressions:

“Pisa is a university town with a tower. Not sure why Italy doesn’t touch or connect with me the way Paris does. It’s less refined, more brusque. Its virile, violent history isn’t as deep and textured. It’s less intellectual, less progressive and less interesting. It’s about gelato and church.”

And about Rome specifically:

“Rome is OK. Trevi Fountain, Vatican, St. Peter’s — all numbingly familiar and inert, just there, edifices radiating gray. The city is sort of like Madrid or Berlin — popped expectations.”

What’s notable about the Italy trip is that when my girlfriend finally arrived to meet me there, everything shimmered to life with a giddy radiance. The Trevi Fountain at night was a splashy thrill, the Sistine Chapel an almost spiritual swoon. I loved my girl, and I loved Italy. 

I’ve learned that the fluctuating charms of travel cannot be underestimated. They should be greedily embraced. Up, down, it’s all about the ride, the swirling ecstatic journey.

It’s my journal. If only it were more.

“Journal entries, those vessels of discontent, are notoriously fickle, subject to the torque of mutable feelings; without caution, speculation falls into usurpation.” Cynthia Ozick

I’ve kept a journal for more than 22 years. It’s mostly electronic, tip-tapped on my computer, though I’ve printed out hundreds of pages from the first decade or so and bound them in a plastic spiral binder, as if I wrote a book. It’s quite fat.

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A big hunk of my journals, bound.

(This word barrage, incidentally, doesn’t include the stacks of Moleskin notebooks deliriously filled during my extensive world travels.)

What I write in the journal is hardly revolutionary. I report, remember, ruminate, philosophize, complain, yearn, whine and woolgather — all that human stuff. Most likely it is ravenously narcissistic, disgustingly self-obsessed, irretrievably solipsistic. (And how.)

Some of it’s pretty juicy, even naughty, but I’m careful not to get too personal about others. For one, I’m not comfortable anatomizing friends and family; second, I wouldn’t want to injure feelings of someone who pried where they weren’t supposed to. (Once, someone did pry where they weren’t supposed to. A romance that was in its death throes was instantly snuffed.)

It wants badly to be literary, more narrative than journalistic, even occasionally novelistic, lyrical, with cartwheels and curlicues. This means a lot of it is dreadful. Perhaps what I’m aiming for is the memoir-y fictions of writers like Ben Lerner (the astounding, erudite “10:04”), Karl Ove Knausgård (the granular, un-put-downable “My Struggle” series), Teju Cole (“Open City,” a minor masterpiece), and Eve Babitz (“Eve’s Hollywood,” a delicious, decadent Didion), paragons of the form, of living, breathing autobiographical novels.

And then there’s one of the Platonic ideals, Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” the first half of which is the faux-memoir of a blustering, philosophical nihilist, spittle flying with frothing apoplexy. It’s nuts, pure sulfurous id.

And, three attempts in, I still can’t surrender to this undisputed (until now) classic novel. Despite its machine-gun stream-of-consciousness, “Notes” is a grinding slog. The book rushes headily but incoherently, a corrosive rant by its nameless protagonist that loops-the-loops, caroms, careers and pinballs. Zesty, it’s also strangely insipid. I don’t know what the character is on about most of the time, but there’s a zing and energy propelling his transgressive thoughts.

About putting it down, yet again, I am conflicted, though I am mostly just bored, and that — boredom by a work of art — is unforgivable. I persevere for my friend Sativa’s sake. “Muscle through,” she, a fan of the book, tells me. But I can’t.

Still, I wish my journals were as combustible, as gnarly and smart. Sylvia Plath’s published journals, so frank and vivid, have inspired me, told me how to limn a banal day, galvanize a simple gesture. Lerner, infusing the quotidian with ballistic intelligence — he’s something else. (I’ve twice read “10:04.”)  I return to my bloated journal, its thirsty computer pages, recording the day, feelings, longings, and do what I can, all the while hoping for something approaching, or just faintly grazing, art. Ha.