It may not happen very often, but sometimes I feel the urge to put together a letter which is rather more than just an ordinary airmail envelope and a few sheets of paper, were the words are accompanied by an image which, I always hope, relates to the person being addressed, and entices them into a world of letter writing as much as into a new world filled with adventure, exploration, discovery. I write entice not in a bad way, not with the intention of tempting anyone away from their own life or persuading them to follow me on a journey filled with mystery and risk, even though it is often true that I am looking back on what has happened over many decades, and the person I am writing to, as in this case, is looking forward to the decades to come. Perhaps inspire would be a better word to use, but most of those who have expressed an interest in letter writing, in travel, in literature and the arts are already inspired, have already tasted of the forbidden fruits, and found something revealed which they cannot explain, which pulls at their soul, and lures them out into a different, a thrilling, even exhilarating world beyond their front door, beyond the borders of their experience. Most, but not all: some hold back still; scared of that initial step out into the unknown; worried that it will not live up to their expectations; that they will be disappointed and scarred for life as a result. And so I appear, or someone like me, with years of experience, and give them a gentle shove in the right direction; not a push in the small of their back as you would a small child scared to jump into the warm waters of a swimming pool and learn how to swim, but mentally, subtly convincing them that the world is a warm and inviting place just waiting for them to appear, to enrich it, and for it to enrich them in return.
Travelling, like literature and letter writing, is only a transcendental experience if you are prepared to let yourself go, prepared to dive into the whole experience and leave the real world, the world that you know and live your daily life in, far behind. For travellers who go abroad and seek out what they know, who eat the food they have at home, speak in their native tongue, follow the well-worn paths of countless travellers before them, there is nothing. All they experience is that which everyone else has lived down the ages: nothing new, nothing truly inspiring, nothing to write home about. But those who leave the pathway, who venture into the wilds and let their tourist guide disappear along the route they know to explore elsewhere, behind the scenes, away from the traps and the high prices, they can achieve that certain level of transcendence which is worthwhile, which remains as a true and enlightening memory for the rest of their days, and inspires generations to come. And, of course, the meditation that you mention, as they recall what they have seen, what they have experienced full in the knowledge that no one else with them, on a day trip, a long cruise, a package holiday, has seen and lived that which has filled their day.
Although, it is true, two people standing next to one another will never see the same thing, they will not feel the same emotions or be able to recount a situation with the same words, but why would we want that anyway? Why would the true traveller, out to gain experiences others have not, wish to compare the self-same sights shared with another person when they can tell of things unseen, of new places, new people, new knowledge? Many years ago I travelled to Cyprus with a small group of others all from my country of origin, and watched, when we got to Nicosia, as they all trooped off into the department store whose name they recognised, to the fast food chain where they always went at home, to the bar where English was spoken, and where commercial beers they recognised sold. A small part of me felt disappointed that they were turning their backs on this marvellous opportunity to meet and explore a completely different culture, steeped in history, legend and myth ranging back almost to the beginnings of civilised record. And the rest of me was relieved that I could disappear from their set ways, from their lack of interest, almost ignorance of what they had around tem and explore without distraction, even if I was unable to understand fully what was said, and had to struggle to get through everything that was on offer. But, later, I was the one who had stories to tell no one else had heard before and of places none had seen.
In many ways I wish I was old enough to have done the Grand Tour, that educational journey –often lasting three or four years – young English gentlemen were required to undertake to expand their knowledge and prepare them for a life as a Gentleman, as a Lord or as a high-ranking member of the Royal Court. I’m not sure I would have wished to travel everywhere in a coach and horses, which I am told is an exceptionally uncomfortable experience even with good weather and only a short distance to be travelled, but the idea, the whole trip would be wonderful. Young men went to Florence in Italy, to Paris in France and countless other cities across Europe where they learned languages, customs, traditions as much as refining their general knowledge of history, art and all the cultural and political necessities of their time. They stayed in post houses along their route, which would not necessarily have been of the highest quality as many complained of bad food, bad company, and most certainly of bites and illnesses as a result of a lack of hygiene or the closeness of their travelling companions. Bed bugs have never been my favourite, and I have experienced a few in my own travels, even in places where it could be expected that everything was clean and well-cared for. But the idea of being able to visit museums and view works of art which have now vanished, the ravages of war, the plundering of invaders taking their toll; or of being able to wander in safety through towns, cities and entire countries which are now considered hostile, or too dangerous for tourists and casual travellers appeals to me. I suspect I would be able to put up with a lot of discomfort for this experience.
Not that I haven’t already done so, in the many years I have been on this small planet: sleeping under bridges and on railway station concourses, on abandoned beaches and in concrete bunkers where squeaking mice run across and underneath your legs, wrapped warmly in an old sleeping bag against the cold of oncoming winter. But today everyone travels in groups and stays comfortably cushioned from the elements in hotels and boarding houses, enjoying their all-inclusive and their bed and breakfast, which really isn’t the same at all. Not that I would wish them the same hardships, but certainly the pleasures of a life on the road if nothing else.
And letter writing, as I am sure you appreciate or you wouldn’t have begun looking for correspondents, is another form of travel and expansion of the mind, even if you don’t need to leave the comforts of your own couch, the warmth of your home. Although I would hope that this isn’t the case, otherwise there is really nothing to write about after a while: where nothing new is experienced, nothing new can be explained or passed on to those curious enough to wish to know what happens in your life. It is the same as that person standing next to you seeing something different in the self-same scene: other people cannot live your life, cannot see with your eyes, interpret with your knowledge and emotions. One of the wonderful things which I greatly enjoy, and which can claim to be an exclusive right of those who write letters, is that you can share absolutely anything you want in the knowledge that hardly anyone else is going to see it, so you can tailor your words to the person receiving your letter, and there are no interruptions when you want to expand upon a certain theme. By that, of course, I mean that the person you are writing to doesn’t keep on interrupting with their own thoughts, opinions and objects to your ideas: I do not doubt for one moment that there are real life interruptions while you are writing, they are almost impossible to avoid. For me it is the cat who, having slept the entire day and left me in peace, comes out and makes a real racket if I don’t get the food ready immediately, regardless of what I am doing. Cats, I have decided, are not only arrogant, but also have no respect for the private lives and needs of others. Not that I wish my cat away, we have spent many years living together and it would be unfair to just open the door and say goodbye.
Although, I must admit, there are many humans I would be quite willing to do that to, the ones who get on your nerves all the time, who eat from your table but put nothing into the household and seem to demand, as if by right, that you do everything for them. No, not children, but those people who knock on your door of an evening and then invite themselves into your life as if you have nothing else to do but serve them, and that at your own expense. Fortunately I no longer have anyone like that, I am thinking back to my student days when some people seemed to believe that, since I had worked to put food on the table, I was there as their supplier and they had a right, because of some thin thread of friendship they had invented for themselves, to share my good fortune. This sharing did not go so far as cleaning up after a meal, or bringing something to drink with them, and hardly even stretched as far as convivial company and conversation, but that is what doors are for, why we can open them, why we can either bid others to go through that door, or walk through them ourselves.
We can travel in many other ways aside from physically setting foot upon a roadway and wandering off towards the horizon, into the sunset: the journey through literature and, of course, through the exploration of other people’s lives by letter writing are just two wonderful means of travelling. I will never, as an example, have a chance to visit Jerusalem or Constantinople (Istanbul) during the height of their powers and beauty, but I can read the works of those who were there over a thousand years ago, and picture what they saw in my mind. It is possible that I will not have a chance to walk along the river banks in Moscow, or along the route of the Nile in Egypt, but there are those who are there, who see these wonders every day of their lives, and can share with me through their letters, as I can share the cities and towns of Germany I see today, or the cities, towns, villages, countries and peoples I have explored and met up with over many years of travelling, exploring, conversation and discussion. I will never be able to debate with Socrates, Descartes and Aristotle, but I can read their thoughts and the direction of their ideas still, and combine them with my own: with my own experiences; with my own emotions and beliefs and, hopefully, find those other people elsewhere in this wonderful world who have also read, who have also understood, who also wish to debate and advance their ideas with others.
Our lives are like the small ship on the image I have included, although when you stand on the ship in harbour, it seems massive and strong. Now, out on the waves, foraging through unknown territory, we are faced with lands we do not know, ideas we have never considered, traditions which are completely foreign to us. We are brought by the currents to new worlds beyond our imagination, and it is here that we should explore, here that we should cast our lot and take the greatest chances upon the greatest adventures. Or, of course, we can sit at home and watch the whole thing on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic and have nothing from our lives but the carefully compiled and edited images other people present us, as if we were pigs at a trough awaiting our fodder.
Sometimes, though, someone is prepared to put a little something extra together, an invitation to a new world, to an exchange. How many people are still waiting for their letter to Hogwarts, and do not realise that this wonderful – imaginary – school is the very world we live in, and it is up to them to get up, to go out, and to explore. If you imagine yourself watching the approaching horizon as you stand in the bow of that small boat in my picture and stare up towards the cliffs beginning to emerge through the sea-borne mist, at the mountains beyond, then think of what lies behind what you can see. Imagine what lies behind the words on this sheet of paper, the ideas, the experience, the offer to share – far apart – and enjoy an experience very few are prepared to put themselves out for, we are creatures so used to our comforts, and consider: if you put pen to paper and write in return, what could happen next? Will a new world with new ideas be opened up to you? Will you see the experiences another has lived through his eyes, as he has seen the walls of Jerusalem and Constantinople through the eyes of those who lived a thousand years earlier?