Over the past few couple of weeks, I’ve taken two long plane rides — one to California and one to Spain. In the process of trying to find some sense of place in the midst of my time travel, I wondered (out loud, I think) if we were meant for such things, if we lose something of ourselves in the pursuit of what is faster and quicker.
Wait. I’m telling the story out of order.
On the last night of my time in California, the folks I was with drove about an hour up to San Francisco for dinner together. One of the guys used the maps on his smart phone to get us around town. When we started back to where we were staying, he said, “It says it will take us fifteen hours to get back to the hotel” — then he realized he had left the map settings on walking instructions.
On the flight back, I was rereading John Berger’s book of essays on art, The Shape of a Pocket. In “Studio Talk” he talked about face and place in paintings. Two quotes stuck with me, Whether I understood then completely is another story, but they stuck with me. They even haunted me a little bit.
When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It’s like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of a painting begins in this hollow. (29)
When the painting becomes a place, there is a chance that the face of what the painter is looking for will show itself. (31)
We left Durham on Thursday for Spain. As part of Ginger’s sabbatical we are going to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrim trail near the northern coast. We got to the airport around one o’clock with the best intentions and highest hopes to end up in Barcelona the following, well, day, I guess. I mean, we were going to fly all night, but the night we would be flying through had already happened in Spain, so we would get there in the early afternoon. The plan was simple: RDU to JFK to Barcelona. Then the news came that storms in New York were delaying our flight such that we would miss our connection, so they tried to send us to Philadelphia (then Paris then Barcelona), but the plane was too heavy once loaded. The next version was Atlanta to Paris to Spain, but the Atlanta plane never took off for reasons unexplained, so at eight o’clock they flew us to Boston to wait for the next day’s flight to Amsterdam and then, finally, Barcelona. By the time we got to Spain, we knew neither the day or the time, only that we had finally made it. We stumbled into a cafe for dinner and went to bed.
We rode a train across the Spanish countryside working our way to the place where we will begin our walk: seventy-odd miles from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela in the steps of countless pilgrims who have gone before us and I am back to Berger and paintings, to hollows in the sand and flight delays, The train took over twelve hours to take us across a land we do not know, stopping at towns filled with people who have lived full and happy lives without any knowledge of us and who speak a language I can only butcher. I am out of place here, even though Ginger looks like most every Spanish woman we have passed on the streets. I trust that the steps we will take over the next week, taking five days to walk what one could drive in an hour or two, will show me the hollow in the sand or, as the old hymn says, the hollow in the hand of our Creator. Something about walking, about kicking up the dust from which we were made, grounds us, both literally and spiritually, reminding us we belong here and we belong together because whatever place is, it is not solitary.
The airports in Durham, Boston, Amsterdam, and Barcerlona all had a Starbucks. I stood on one street corner this afternoon in downtown Barcelona flanked by a KFC and a McDonalds. Though they are familiar, they offer no sense of place. A brand is not the same as a place. Step inside most any mall and you have no need for an address, or for any kind of geography because you are nowhere discernible other than the mall. You can find the same ten stores, the same window designs, the same things on sale, but you will not find anything to show you the hollow in the sand, to connect you with something beyond what you see on the shelves.
As many evenings as we can, Ginger and I take a walk through our town. We have a three mile loop that takes us past Fullsteam and Motorco, past the Senior Center and the Post Office, then past Pleiades Art Gallery, Ninth Street Bakery, Pizzeria Toro (please reopen soon), the Cupcake Bar, and Bull McCabe’s, then on through the West Village and on to Torero’s, Fishmongers, the James Joyce, the Federal, the Other End of the Leash, down the side of Duke’s East Campus, circling through houses until we’re back at Cocoa Cinnamon and Geer Street Garden, the local tienda, and the TROSA dorm. My list of landmarks is far from exhaustive. We mark our steps by places we know because of friends and faces, moments and memories.
The faster we travel, the farther we go, yes, but the less we get to notice. We flew to Barcelona and felt mostly disoriented. We walked in Barcelona and we saw couples strolling hand in hand, a little girl dancing in the train station, and a Schnauzer who stopped to greet us outside our hotel. We are riding tonight to a place that offers us nothing but walking, has scheduled nothing but time together. Perhaps the hollow in the sand will offer us one another: faces we know and love with time to tell our stories over and over.