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QUINTESSENCE

From Afar: Reflections

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

***

“With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.

In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

- Ernest Hemingway, A MOVEABLE FEAST

After my travels through the footsteps of history, in the good company of adventurers and scholars, and funny, wise old souls, I found myself filled with what Hemingway described when he said, “By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.” What filled this space of goodness now ended expressed itself as a wealth of deep thinking; tapestries of symbolism, sensual impressions spilling over into my dreams. The richness of languages Dutch, German, French, and Swiss murmuring in my ears. The funny thing is, to calm my mind before sleep I was re-reading Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" - the re-edited, restored version, to which Hemingway's sons, Patrick and Sean, contributed extensive introductory notes on the orignal and drafting chapters left by their father as he worked on the never incompleted memoirs of his early years in Paris.

There is something about the way Hemingway describes the reality of daily life as an ex-pat, his own writer's awareness of how things were and needed to be "made, not described" as he put it, that mirrored the impressions of my own journey from Holland by way of the Rhine into the Alps of Switzerland. Hemingway's receptivity to the frank, the unusual, the distinct and simple - "oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away"- even the deep lingering melancholy of a late spring, anchors us in what is bold or unfamiliar. As I read his essays on his artistic strugges to write a first novel, his appreciation of raw nature and less innocent darkly undertoned friendships, even the details of the uncertain but stable domestic routines season to season with Hadley and "Mr. Bumby," his young son, I fell to thinking about what it is about ourselves that makes both the strangeness of new experience and the familiar world so deeply penetrate our consciousness. Why do we travel and why do we always then make "home away from home"?

“Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love,” Hemingway noted after a convoluted, unsettling journey to Lyon in the company of fellow writer and friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. A sense of trust and comraderie is essential to the good traveling companion. Ease and sharing provide both space and permission to relax, to be oneself, to focus on the adventure, not a recalictrant "other." Travel instantly highlights those couples who are compatible in their natures, and those for whom the burdens of a journey create additional friction or underscore rough-edged dissimilarities domestic routines hide. I found myself appreciating my fellow travelers even as Hemingway found his own solace within Sylvia Beach's "lending library" on the Left Bank, the welcome aperitifs in the salon of Gertrude Stein. We find friends in the places our minds and souls take comfort.

Hemingway writes his way into deeper understandings of life by opening himself to the journey, to what simply is - good and bad, successful or a struggle. His words have a clean, direct way of marking the truth of the moment like the swift, loose charocal outline a painter understands a picture might be. I like to think directness, the unadorned experience, is the way to begin to learn, to think, to define. Reflecting on the loves and friendships of his Paris years, Hemingway concluded, "You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

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