Matchstick Monuments: A View from Above

I suspect everyone who’s flown into SFO has had the same experience. The plane is rapidly descending , and the only thing visible from the window is the Bay. Lower, lower goes the bird, and still no sign of terra firma. Any moment now. Any moment. Any–Oh my dear and fluffy lord, we’re gonna’ die!

Then the wheels hit the runway and everyone heaves a sigh of relief.

Seems like it might be wise to warn first-time fliers into San Fran of that hub’s peculiarity.

Amid the vacillation between trusting the professional pilots and convincing myself I was bound for a watery grave, I was able to behold in the distance the picturesque skyline of that majestic city and her most famous landmark, The Golden Gate Bridge. (Or a bridge at least. It didn’t look golden, but it was far away. I assumed by its proximity that this was the one.)

I’ve always wanted to tour San Fransisco, to see not only the Golden Gate but to walk around Haight-Ashbury and watch the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks. But Saturday morning I was flying in after a whirlwind tour of Seattle. I’d attended an academic conference where a couple of colleagues and I presented. Though it was my fourth trip to the Emerald City, I blew off several parts of the conference. The rest of the time was spent drinking in the sights and scenery of the Northwest’s great crown jewel.

I would have loved to have done the same in San Fran, but I had exactly an hour and twenty-two minutes to get to the next gate for my connection to Nashville. Hardly enough time to summon an Über to whisk me off towards The Castro.

One of these days …

On a flight to Vegas a decade and a half prior, the pilot directed our attention to the left-hand side of the plane. Beneath us was the Grand Canyon. It was impressive, even from 30,000 feet. It didn’t do much justice to what I saw when I actually stood on its precipice two years later.

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Slightly more impressive.

I flew into Paris on my European jaunt. I toured Lyon and her Roman ruins extensively. I gobbled up the fare served in “France’s gastronomic capital.” I saw the Rhone Alps. I was charmed by the Alsace-Lorraine.

All I saw of Paris was Charles de Gaulle, an unnavigable airport that made me yearn for the chaos of La Guardia or Dulles.

But from the window, I could vaguely make out the Eiffel Tower, which, amid the sprawl of indiscernible Gothic facades, looked like a couple of matchsticks propped against one another. Yeah, I saw it.

I’ve also seen the Building Formerly Known as the Sears Tower from a plane window, though I’ve never toured Chicago.

I’ve been in the cities of Houston, Dallas, Cincinnati, Denver, San Diego. The time I spent in each was in airports.

***

Some people have said I’m “well-traveled.” I have been to about half of the 50 states as well as nine other nations. I’ve set foot on three separate continents. For an American, that is pretty impressive; to a European, it’s laughable.

I’m aware of my shortcomings as a traveler. I’ve never been to Frisco, Chicago, Rio, Dubrovnik, Romania, Thailand, Edinburgh, Sunnydale. (I know, I know: I can never go to the last one. It was destroyed when the Hellmouth collapsed.)

I was once thrown for a loop by a silly question posed at a party: “Would you rather never read another work of fiction or never be able to travel again?” Why not ask me something easy like how to fix America’s broken health care system? The only tougher question would be: “Would you rather never eat another piece of cheese or never have another drink of whiskey?”

Thankfully, I’ll never have to face that ridiculous scenario. Still, I’m well aware that, when I go to my grave, it will be too early, not because I want more breaths in my lungs, but because I’m well aware I will shuffle off having never read many of the hallmark tales I should have and I will never have visited all the places I’ve wanted to.

There’s an obscure word, ellipsism, which means “the depression you get when you realize you’ll never know how history turned out.” I have that often. I also think we need other related terms. What could we call “the sadness at knowing you’ll never read all the great novels, short stories, and poems written?” Just as bad, “dejection upon realizing you’ll never get to visit all the sundry places in the world you wanted to.”

Reading and traveling are very closely linked. Both shed insights into a window of culture of which you aren’t a part. Both allow you, for a stolen season, to embrace another lifestyle. I read fiction and travel to escape my own menial existence, to experience how other people live.

Truly avid readers like myself know this dilemma: do you go back and revisit a book you’ve read to enrich your understanding and appreciation or do you pick up something new? Both have distinct advantages. This is also felt by the traveler.

Last week’s trip to Seattle was my fourth. I saw so much I never had before. I want to return to Prague at least a couple more times. When I spend the time and money visiting an old haunt, however, I’m aware that I could be setting foot on soil uncharted by me. It’s the same feeling I get when I return to The Unbearable Lightness of Being while Pale Fire, which I purchased a decade ago, is still sitting beside it, desperately in need of a swipe from a Swiffer duster.

Should I really be going back to Seattle for a fifth time, New York a fifth, Miami a seventh, New Orleans a–I don’t know–seventieth time? There are so many other places I’ve never experienced.

I love my little corner of the world. One of my favorite things to do is to entertain visitors. I want to show them all the remarkable sights, locations, and customs that to me are workaday. I realize how unique they are by living vicariously through the non-residents.

I want to experience that everywhere I go. Both literature and travel have taught me that humanity is basically all the same, yet amid that homogeneity, there are, ironically, significant differences. I want to know what those are. I want to understand what people who live in a certain corner of the world feel, think, eat. What is their daily humdrum?

***

Another silly party question I was once asked: “What is one cliché that defines your life?” Easy: “When in Rome …”

When I’m in a new city, I want to be a local.

Sure, I hit the tourist spots. It’s sort of a prerequisite. You can’t go to Rome without visiting the Coliseum. You have to stand on the Empire State Building in NYC, the Space Needle in Seattle.

The other thing I do is talk to locals. Maybe it’s a server or bartender. Maybe I just run into someone. Nonetheless, I always seek hidden gems not included in a Lonely Planet book.

When I’m in a new place, I want to be a local, not some annoying tourist. It’s why I refuse to stroll Bourbon when in New Orleans. In Seattle, I would never do something so inane as to play air guitar beside the statue of Jimi Hendrix.

0jimi
OK, but, to be fair, there were drinks and coercion involved. Thanks, Jeff!

No matter how far off the beaten path I go, however, I realize that I’ll never fully comprehend what it means to be a resident of that corner of the world. Waking up in a hotel and strolling the streets for a few days isn’t a fair glimpse into what it means to roll out of bed each day, go grocery shopping, commute to work, have drinks with friends on Friday after a particularly stressful week.

Each town I visit is a book, and at some point I have to read the final sentence and close the cover. Just as I never get the full story of each character’s life, I never see every nook and cranny of a town, never get to dig underneath the surface and really know what life is like there.

It’s barely more comprehensive than gawking at the matchstick Eiffel while on an ear-popping descent towards the runway. The world’s a big place, and our time here is finite. We can crave more, but, in the end, all we can do is accept our limitations. The only alternative is to close our window, pop a sleeping pill, and snore through the flight of life.

Though frustratingly shallow, I’d rather appreciate the view from above.

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