While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Chronology of Travel, Part One

Remembered Time

From June to October this year, I travelled. Some might say I'm still travelling now, even though I've been in Edinburgh two months and will be here at least another twelve. On my travels I've been to houses turned into tourist attractions. Franz Kafka's in Prague, Anne Frank's in Amsterdam, Sherlock Holmes' on Baker Street. All of these people felt fictional when I stood inside these buildings.

I've been to villages in Malawi where the children want pens, pencils and paper more than anything. They get their older siblings to write you notes introducing themselves and asking for you to be their penpal. To these people the written word is still valuable, still contains magic.

I've been hundreds of metres above Victoria Falls in a microlight, and seen the crack that will become the next Vic Falls in ten million years. I've seen what water can do, and wondered if I should commit myself to irrigation rather than literature.

I've been to houses in Italy which do not contain a single book, and may never have contained books. Even the recipes are in their heads.

And now I reside in a city where the main train station is named after a fictional character, the highest monument is to a novelist and there’s a writer on the five pound note (Walter Scott’s Waverly, Walter Scott, Walter Scott). Other writers are remembered here too: Burns, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, and then there are the crime writers who populate Edinburgh with criminals instead of tourists.

Edinburgh is a city of writing. Not reading. Writing. That is partly what drove me to this quest for a million words: to not write in Edinburgh is to cease moving.


Sitting alongside the newly discovered ‘to write or not to write’ dichotomy is another, not-quite-complementary, not-quite-conflicting way of viewing life: Travelling and Not Travelling.

Before travelling for an extended period, Not Travelling would have been meaningless to me. It was School, Study, Work, whatever. Now, it's all Not Travelling. Stasis.

The problem with stasis—the irony of stasis—is that time, in retrospect, passes more quickly when you've done nothing. I’m talking about that, “Is it December already?” feeling. The “What have I done the last month and a half?” feeling. I am not talking about the “God, this day is taking forever,” feeling, which is an entirely different animal.

Here, I should probably differentiate between lived time and remembered. Lived time is the ticking of your wristwatch, the three hundred seconds you spend in the shower and the three minute phone calls with suppliers. Remembered time is what you have left of a day, a week, a month, after the fact. The memorable moments: watching the man get talked down from the ledge opposite your office, your landlord admitting he has MS.

Travelling, holidays, anything that takes you out of your routine, your usual settings, makes lived time seem to pass more quickly. You are often too busy to clock-watch. Travellers do not spend an hour pretending to work before they can head out to lunch. Time flies when you’re having fun.

But on reflection—that is: in remembered time—a week spent travelling contains so much more compared to a week not travelling. Looking back, it feels like you stretched time to fit so much more in. You did not, physically, of course. You breathed the same number of breaths, aged another 168 earth hours. But you did, spiritually (if I use this word, I might have to explain my definition… some day).

But why is the reserve of memories from travelling so much greater than those when not travelling? Because of the sameness of workdays, you are often left with a composite day, a metonymic day, one that stands for all similar days; but for travelling, even if you spend a lot of time doing the same things (sitting in trains, eating food, sleeping) you are doing these things in different places, different ways and with different people. Difference permits individual meals to be remembered. What did I have for lunch yesterday? No idea. Every lunch I’ve had at my desk for the past month is trying to get through the one-memory-sized aperture in my brain and as a result: nothing. What did I have for lunch in Venice in August? Quattro Stagioni Pizza. Lunch in a tea plantation in Tanzania? Ham sandwich on brown bread and some pasta salad made from leftovers. In terms of remembered time, travelling consists of a lot of time, working of very little. I suspect this is how people can work in the same job for thirty years: because when they look back, they do not have thirty years of memories to weigh them down.


To travel is to fill lived time with moments that can be readily recalled in remembered time. But that is only part of the equation…

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