The Intangible Nature of Travel

I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve forgotten something since leaving Pearson International Airport. My neurosis intensified because of an unconventional route taken through Iceland on my way to the UK. The ‘zag’ North instead of the usual  ‘zig’ straight to London combined with a six hour layover in Gatwick, prior to my departure for Switzerland, has given me excessive time to ruminate. Now, as I float through the Zurich airport, on an express tram piping in the sound of mooing cows, the feeling grows. As I descend underground to the train station and the myriad of languages I’ve been hearing over the last twelve hours narrow into one, Swiss German, dialect, I figure it out. My sense of negligence is being stoked by something much larger than a power adapter left on the kitchen table, or a book forgotten on a seat at the airport. My youngest daughter was born in Zurich and my eldest was a year-old when we moved here. I’ve now returned, for the first time, without them. Sure, there have been visits when I’ve accompanied them and  bid them farewell, upon arrival, as they head off to spend time with their father. But, whatever I’ve ended up doing on my own, I’ve always known they are somewhere out there, on the streets, eating schoggi Gipfeli (chocolate croissant) from Sprungli; also letting memories of a place we had called home meld into the life we’ve now made for ourselves in Canada. I haven’t forgotten anything, I’ve just left behind all that really gave me purpose during the ten years we lived here. My kids.

Here, to begin testing my new cultural travel app, my intention is to not only reacquaint myself with the culture of Switzerland but to look at it with fresh eyes. I may have said to the customs official that this is a business trip but there’s more to it. I never wanted to leave this country. It was my home. I left for a reason that is far too complicated to get into in a blog about travel and culture.

On my first morning, I exit the apartment where I’m staying, in a neighborhood overlooking the city, and breathe in the abnormally cold air. I’ve forgotten what tram goes where so I decide to walk to the city center. I’m giving myself a day to settle in, to kick jetlag and see how Zürich ‘fits’ after so much time away. I walk past the Schauspielhuase, a Playhouse that experienced a revival during the war years for its explicit anti-fascist direction. Crossing the street, I’m met by the Kunsthaus, a museum that houses major works by some of the greatest European artists, including Swiss artists such a Alberto Giacometti, Johann Heinrich Füssli and Ferdinand Hodler. Turning onto a narrow path, I soon drop into the ‘Old Town’, where I find myself walking on the cobbles of Neiderdorfstrasse. My eyes are wide open and my curiosity piqued in a way that I don’t experience at home as I emerge into Munsterhof Square, where crowds gathered in 1946 as they anticipated Churchill’s ‘United States of Europe’ speech, at the university. Just down the road, I pass the Cabaret Voltaire, where the Dada art movement was birthed by international artists and intellectuals during  WWl. Looking to my left, I take in the address where Lenin lived in exile for a year before the Russian revolution. Amidst these landmarks, the intangible weaves through my experience bringing with it a sense of culture that is alive and fluid. Little tots run by me with a bratwurst in hand, friends greet with a kiss to the cheek, three times; flames are lit beneath Fondue ‘Caquelon’ in preparation for kirsch dipped bread.

This fixation on the novel, and what it has to teach me, immediately connects me to a place through the simple transformative power of wonder. Switzerland is ‘fitting’ me surprisingly well. I’m here for the purpose of cross-cultural understanding; it’s what my business is about, but as I walk the streets of Zurich I feel the full force of what it is I’m hoping to accomplish. I’m once again connected to a culture I love and miss and I’ve reignited my own passion for discovery. It was important for me to remember the bond I have with Switzerland that isn’t based solely on the fact that I raised children here and adopted certain customs and traditions because of this. It’s far more profound. Switzerland taught me, through its idiosyncrasies and it’s ironies, as much about myself as about its own people. This trip was made to honor, and relish in, all that I love about this country. It’s reminded me of that feeling I get, not just here, but everywhere I travel — that sweet-spot just outside of my comfort zone where, cradled in my own curiosity, I could roam forever and I can be at home wherever I land in the world.

 

Book’s Beginnings

July 9th  (prologue)

July 9th, for me, is a memorable date. It was the day I was married, in a fairytale wedding, at a castle in Scotland. It’s a date that has either lifted my spirits or fell hard upon me, depending on the year; the time of my life. I was married for eleven years and have now been separated for seven. The last few years I’ve been in the clear; have managed to maintain benign thoughts as July 9th comes and goes. I’ve done the work, I’m good. That is, until today. July 9th now screams for attention — a wounded day that cares little about love or pain, or what it’s asking of me. July 9th is making sure that I will never again be able to treat it as just another day.

Pink liquid is being pushed into my veins. It’s not how I pictured it – like in the movies where you sit for hours hooked up to an IV, reading books and magazines or chatting to your neighbour. I brought my computer along, thinking I’d have two uninterrupted hours to do some work. Instead, nurse Jackie (her real name) sits prepped before me. She’s working the first syringe with two more on deck. We’re playing a game of deception. The plastic tubes look like they’re full of Kool Aid but it’s medicine that’s being pumped into me that will kill the cancerous cells inside of me. It will also kill healthy ones. I don’t feel sick but from this day on, for the next several months, this ‘medicine’ will turn me into someone who looks sick — bald, skinny, powerless. As it saves my life, it will also zap the life force out of me and with that knowledge, I’ll struggle to define who I am in all of this. I don’t know if I’m ready for this level of acceptance. Again. Why again? No this isn’t a cancer that’s returned, not literally. Just another challenge that’s come at me, out of the blue. I’m trying to remember the feeling of doors opening. I must go back four years to the last time I tried to remember who I am and what’s important to me. Then, it was brought on by an event that shocked me out of complacency. I thought I got it – I thought I was on the road to some smooth sailing. I guess not.

 

Annie Griffiths  (March 13, 2012)

I’m sitting on a balcony seat at the Jack Singer Concert Hall feeling giddy. Finally, I’m in the same building as one of the reputed photojournalists I’ve been reaching out to over the last several months.

A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is the name of Griffith’s sold out talk. It’s also the title of her book, the one I just bought in the theatre foyer. She has spent three decades working as a photojournalist and she did it, amazingly, while raising two children. She’s done exactly what I had once envisioned myself doing about twenty years ago. I thought I’d be the one, baby on back, camera in hand documenting cultures around the world. Instead, when the time came, my camera bag was put down; replaced, for all practical purposes, with a diaper bag.

Griffiths opened her talk by showing a photo of her first assignment as a student of photography, describing it as “the day I became a photographer;” explaining she was “in heaven” as she took the image of a tree bathed in light. In her book she writes, “It was the first of a lifetime of days when time stood still and I became far less important than what I saw in the camera’s viewfinder.”

I felt a pang listening to Griffiths. I have few regrets but in that darkened theatre in Calgary, in the very city where my photographic dreams began; as her experiences were unveiled, I was reminded of motivations long forgotten. Griffiths’ words during her talk wondrously echoed the themes I expected to be addressing in a book about women photojournalists. She spoke of the tool the camera can be for communicating the resiliency of women in the world saying by doing so, “we can change the world”. She spoke of human connections and a certain “intimacy” that arises with strangers by virtue of having a camera in hand.

At one point Griffiths talked about an assignment she had in Nebraska on a family ranch. Staying as a guest, she was awakened one morning by the light, a sunrise so beautiful and luminous she grabbed her camera and tore out the door to get the shot. After hooting and hollering over the incredible image she had captured, Griffiths then noticed a line of cowboys also taking in a first in a lifetime scene – that of a National Geographic photographer shooting in nothing but her underpants. Her message, and one she also communicated to a crowd of Calgary school children yesterday afternoon: “Find something in your life that excites you so much, you run out of the house, forgetting to put on your pants.”

There are more women on my list with whom I hope to meet. I couldn’t have chosen a harder ‘breed’ than the photojournalist to try to pin down, in time and location. There were other things to consider.  I was telling these women that I was researching a book on women photojournalists. It wasn’t a lie. I intend to write that book. I’m just not yet sure of the concept or even what it is I’m trying to illicit from them. Is it bad, I wonder, to admit that this is a personal quest that’s as much about me reclaiming my sense of self as it is about them and the work they do? Must these be inseparable?

There was something about the time I worked as a photojournalist that sticks with me; never quite leaves me alone. It arrives in flashes, the way a vivid dream haunts a day causing emotions to rush as meaning makes an escape. Pursuit of an explanation has, until now, felt futile because it doesn’t ‘fit’ into the composition of my days. I’m meeting these women hoping they can do the impossible — hold me in a dream so I won’t ever again forget what makes me feel alive.

 

Zurich, Switzerland. 1999-2009. Position: Hausfrau

I lose myself in the average day. In a world that presents no apparent threat, I’m dysfunctional. Mind numbing tasks cause me to forget myself, leave body parts strewn throughout the house. Chores then become an act of survival, my female form eventually taking shape as the day progresses. Once I find my legs, I managed to walk throughout the house collecting things. Toys introduce an ear; girl’s pants, a nose; newspapers unveil a breast. Just in time for my husband, as he walks through the door at the end of the day, I find my fingernails, eyelashes and lips. I come to him, slightly rising to my toes and brush my lips with his – careful not to let them loosen and fall to the floor. I had clumsily made order of things but the puzzle was never right. Pieces were always, always missing.

SUV’s pull up to the school; kids pile out and hours later they all pile in again. What happens in between?  What happens in between the drop off and pick up, while my husband walks through a parallel universe, gone to work by the time I  awaken. I’d moved to Switzerland but inhabited yet another foreign territory, that of a hausfrau and of motherhood and I was unsure of my footing.

I recall the early days, wondering if this would be the day someone asks me where I am from. If so, I’d explain that I’m from Canada and when the kind mother replied saying how beautiful it is there, I’d agree. From one beautiful country to another I’d travelled, or so it seemed… if you don’t count the journey in between.

Perhaps she’d ask about my husband. Wonder if he’s Canadian or Swiss. But I’d be getting carried away, letting my imagination run wild at this point. The Swiss don’t pry; aren’t prone to small talk either. But, I’ll forge ahead, imagination usurping culture.  I’d tell the woman that I met him in South Africa. Surely here, the conversation would fall silent and I’d ache for continuity. Is it so hard, I’d wonder, to say such simple words?  If the ever so kind mother would just find it in her heart to say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” my feet would fill the shoes around them, trust the ground beneath the soles and I would, just like that, be standing right there in the world again.

What happens in between? In between the story I hold inside and me asking you what bank it is that your husband works for.  Inhaling deeply, I feel like my 8 year – old rushing in the door at the end of the day head filled with a tangle of thoughts. With distracted mind, I capture her words as they fly in the air; hang them on a line, like laundry needing to be dried and sorted —put in its proper place. But, I couldn’t expect that from a stranger – such hard work for my words. I’d choose the easy way out – blame language or culture for our awkward moment and our words would become so very practical.

With cold toes and a shiver settling in, I’d say good-bye to my daughter outside the school, and as I catch another mother’s eye, I’d smile. Maybe she’d be the one who surprises; opens a porthole for this incongruent being; pulling me ever so gently through. Yes, she’d be the one to ask: “What is it you did in such a place?” Allowing for that space where the language of my past can be interpreted. Encouraged, this breathless child would speak, relying ever so much on her to understand what the hell I was talking about.

I was a photographer for a year on a newspaper during the country’s first democratic elections.

“Did you see anything awful?”

Socks fly out of my mouth.

“It’s a pretty dangerous place, isn’t it?”

Underwear and bras catapult from my teeth

“Were you at all frightened?”

Shirts and blouses swirl in their glory above my head; a tornado of laundry threatens to lift me off the ground.

The school bell rings with each article stopping mid-flight; hanging suspended in the crisp fall air. She walks away, a child tugging at her sleeve and all comes tumbling down.  I gather it up, the costume that covers my life, grateful, for a time, that it keeps me safe and warm.

 

Please visit my author’s Facebook page and ‘like’ if you like! Thank-you for reading.

The Box

9603907-camera-lensThis began as a book about women photojournalists but evolved, out of necessity, into a narrative that includes my personal story, following a divorce. The photojournalists, with whom I spoke over the course of a couple of years, held my focus while I learned to ‘read the light’, again. This isn’t about photography as much as it’s about trusting my instincts and rediscovering a curiosity about the world. What I came to remember was how it felt to take in a scene with all my senses while my hands moved over my camera’s settings — how to gain more depth; how to stop the action when life moved too quickly. It’s an attempt to reclaim the spirit of the photojournalist and the intuitive way they connect to what really matters in life. Today, I thought I’d share the prologue. Days before the idea for this book began to take hold, this is what was going on:

Prologue

Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

box 3With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me in a flack jacket flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

Please also visit my author’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/KendallHunterAuthor/