Thoughts from a rooted cosmopolitan
When you live in Winnipeg, as I did growing up, travel is a serious thing. Nowadays, I live in Ottawa and I can drive to Montreal for the day if I choose. My kids go to Toronto for a concert or a Raptors game. Just before Christmas, my son went to see his best friend in Washington, D.C. and it took just one day in each direction to drive.
From Winnipeg, you can drive five and a half hours and get to…Regina. If you are a little more ambitious and prefer something with an international flavour, you can drive seven and a half hours and get to…Minneapolis. By my rough calculation, Winnipeg is further away from an ocean than any other place else on earth.
Being a boomer, most of my childhood occurred before the advent of cheap and ubiquitous air travel, so my father’s late-50’s model Ford Fairlane was our mode of transport. I dearly love my brother David, but when he was born in 1962, it meant there were seven of us and the Ford was no longer capable of transporting us all, so family travel became complicated.
A few months after David was born, we moved to Rutherford, New Jersey during the final year of my dad’s residency to become an obstetrician and gynaecologist. My dad drove the three eldest of us in the Ford, staying at motels and eating at Howard Johnson’s along the way. (I loved the HoJo hotdogs that came in toasted bread instead of buns.) My dad allowed us one comic book each a day to amuse us through the four days of travel and he got seriously annoyed when none of us would look up and take it all in when we drove through Chicago.
My mother flew to New York with the two youngest, David and Christopher, both still in diapers, and when we went to pick them up at Port Authority, the old Ford stalled in the August heat and rush hour traffic and a cop on horseback—that was exciting!—helped us get to the side of the road.
I think it must have been that year in Rutherford that opened me up to what travel might mean. Our house was on an escarpment overlooking East Rutherford—then an industrial wasteland, and now, of course, home to the Jets, Nets, Giants and Devils. But look past the rusting landscape below and there was the picture-postcard Manhattan skyline, with the Chrysler Building glittering at sunset. My dad liked to say that before moving to Rutherford, my mother pledged never to ask to go into Manhattan. “And that was true—she never did ask.” Ba-dum-bum.
For my part, I was in Grade Three and had to depend on the kindness of others, but I made it up the Empire State and around the Statue of Liberty. We went to the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Bronx Zoo, and a musical on Broadway. We got to a Mets game with the community club, and more importantly, a Yankees game, where Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra played and we saw Whitey Ford in the bullpen.
It was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and I remember seeing maps on the news with concentric circles showing how far the nuclear missiles could reach and New York City was in a much smaller circle than Winnipeg was. In school we had nuclear attack drills in which we got under our desks in the kiss-your-ass-goodbye posture. It was also the time of the civil rights movement and it did not escape our notice that while our parents had no trouble with us playing with the kids on the next block where the Black people lived, this was not an attitude shared by our immediate neighbours. There was a lot more to worry about in Rutherford, but it was much more interesting.
I loved Winnipeg, I really did. My grandparents, especially, and summers at the cottage. But let’s face it, New York it ain’t.
As a grown-up, I now realize, I lazily think of travel as falling in the not-serious category, along with going to hockey games, watching Netflix on TV, or doing Wordle. More expensive, but essentially a form of recreation.
But it must be more than that, at least for me. Here is the list of places I have lived: Langdon, North Dakota, Winnipeg (on, count them, five separate occasions), Rutherford, New Jersey, Ottawa (on four separate occasions), Oxford, England, New York City, Edmonton, Toronto, Gatineau, Quebec, Tel Aviv and Wellington, New Zealand.
My late wife, Suzanne, was a Canadian diplomat, and a few years after she died in 2016, I found a notebook she had kept in her last months. Among the bits and pieces in there was a list of what I quickly realized were all the countries she had visited over her lifetime. There were nearly seventy. Some were on the tourist’s standard round—Italy, France, England, China and Japan. But there were many, many more: places most people never get to such as Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria. She even listed the Cook Islands, where she went to attend a meeting of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Pacific Islands Forum, and where she first noticed the lump in her breast.
When I look at that list, it seems to me that she was taking a measure of her life. Not the only measure, of course. But that crazy long list was a way of cataloguing the fullness of her life. Even if she was to live just 56 years, it seems to say, they were eventful years.
Suzanne continued to travel even after her terminal diagnosis—to Panama, Chile and California with friends, to Banff with our daughter Sophia to ski, and to Vancouver with our son Alex to watch Rugby Sevens. The vagaries of her treatment and the strictures of my work schedule meant the easiest thing for the two of us was short hops of five to seven days. So, partly just for logistical reasons, we made a lot of trips to the American South—a region I had read a lot about over the years but never explored.
We travelled to Washington, D.C. (and from there to Gettysburg, Bull Run and Monticello), to New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah and the Barrier Islands. Note what we did not do: beaches in Mexico, Florida, or the Caribbean. Relaxation was for the cottage.
Somewhere along the way, we had seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave and Suzanne had then gone and read the original slave narrative on which it was based. As we travelled through the South, we were constantly amazed at the contrast between the story people told themselves—and shared with the tourists—and the history as it actually was.
In South Carolina, we were told that, sure slavery was bad, but better there than down in Louisiana, where the conditions and the work in the cane fields were brutal. In New Orleans, they told us slavery in Louisiana was never as bad there as it was further north because of the Code Noir left over from the French, that legislated slavery in a more humane way. We went on a plantation tour up the Mississippi from New Orleans where the guides were dressed as southern belles in Gone With The Wind style dresses. The slave cabins out back had been restored, but there was considerably less effort at making the experience vivid.
Suzanne always chaffed against this semi-official story and would work hard to find little museums of Black history or an African-American guide to walk us through antebellum Savannah.
At the end of our New Orleans trip, we decided to take one last walking tour of the French Quarter, even though Suzanne was tired from recent chemotherapy. Because we were booking last minute, most of the tours were full. There was one in French, however, that still had a couple of spots, so we went for that. Of course, the tourists were all from France or Quebec and the guide was a transplanted Frenchman, so no one’s precious pieties needed to be protected. Instead of the usual Lost-Cause-lite, the guide was pointing out slave markets and jails that none of the others had thought to mention.
Suzanne was always hard to buy for and so before one of her last Christmases I asked her what she wanted. To my surprise, she asked for books about slavery, and I gave her five of them. I can’t imagine a lot of people in their last years or months would choose that as their preferred topic. But she wanted to compare what we were seeing with what she could find out.
Last year, a Black American writer named Clint Smith published an extraordinary book called How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. He travels to historical sites in the South and elsewhere—including West Africa—where the history of slavery or the Civil War is memorialized in some way. And what he does with immense grace and erudition is compare the stories that are told with what the historical record shows. I wrote him a fan letter recently, something I have never done before, and told him a little about Suzanne and the relationship I imagine between her and the subject of his book. He sent a short sweet note back and that pleased me enormously.
I am not sure what all this adds up to. I am not trying to say that travel should be recategorized from not-serious to serious: moved from the company of Netflix and Wordle to that of Death and Taxes. Of course travel is fun, not least because it is different from our routine. Travel for me is also bars and restaurants and music and plays and all kinds of entertaining stuff. Nowadays, when I no longer have an automatic travel companion, it is also about seeing friends and family to fill up my heart, and just plain pass the time. But it is certainly also about reminding myself that people everywhere are just like me and completely different from me, with different joys and different sorrows and different stories about themselves. And that’s so damned interesting.