Saturday, June 12, 2010

Spain, day one – On the surreality of travel

“It’s too good to be true!” Gabie says as we load into the van and again as we pull up to the airport curb and again as we wait at the gate to board the plane. He’s been looking forward to this imaginary thing called “Our Trip to Spain” for months. I’ve been looking forward to it for years and must agree with him. It is too good to be true. I keep waiting for something catastrophic to drop between us and the trip. But here we are, the first to board the plane (how nice that they let travelers with children go first; I vow to always travel with children). The boys are fascinated with everything about this flight. The sizes of each plane they can see from the giant windows in the waiting lounge, the baggage-loading process, the ramp, the seats, the lights, the air circulation, the screens on the back of the chairs, it’s all unfamiliar and thus completely thrilling. They have all flown before but don’t remember much (especially Gabie, who was in utero the last time and he keeps insisting that flying while in mom’s belly totally does not count).

Flying is surreal, even to me. Sure I’ve had the physics of thrust/lift/drag explained to me multiple times but as far as I’m concerned it still must take magic/faith/catchy show tunes to get this oversized Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the air. I can see the water and freeways and the skyscrapers as we take off and bank over Salt Lake City. It always seems foreign from this perspective. Not so to Gabie, who presses his whole face up against the oval window and announces, “Wow, it looks exactly like Google Earth from here!”

It’s a good thing the kids find the novelty of flight so attractive because we’ll be flying in 6 planes total before we’re through. We land at JFK mid afternoon and have to take an airport train from one terminal to another. We have already planned to stretch out our layover in New York to 24 hours so we can visit my friend Toni and see the city. This means storing our luggage at the airport. I have done the research and know there is a place for this. I have pictured a big counter with loads of shelves, something classy and official-looking, like a department store layaway office except with signs clearly stating "JFK Baggage Storage." In fact, it takes us forever to find the right place, and by right place I mean the barely marked hall where we get to leave our bags with a skinny Hispanic guy in jeans and a t-shirt who stands in the doorway of a walk-in closet. There are maybe 20 or 30 other suitcases crammed in there besides our own. I had forgotten how New York City is a crazy blend of How High can you Go? and How Much More can you Possibly Squeeze into One Spot?

Toni picks us up outside the airport and drives us into Manhattan. Toni was my roommate for two years at BYU. She has always been beautiful and petite—she falls somewhere in the middle of my kids in height—but has the energy and tenaciousness of the mother and nurse and Italian-blooded Catholic BYU graduate that she is. She talks like a New Yorker. She drives like a New Yorker. She has a red minivan which she weaves expertly though traffic, one hand on the steering wheel and one on the horn (it’s not a myth). We find a parking place near Battery Park (and anyone who’s ever been in NYC can appreciate the elaborate back story behind the simple phrase “find a parking place” but I’ll leave it to your imagination because I have better things to talk about). It’s a Friday evening and there is surprisingly little going on in the park. We wander. We snap photos of the Statue of Liberty from a distance and a sign on the grass that makes us laugh.

What, precisely constitutes “No Active Recreation” we wonder. Tossing a frisbie? Rolling on the grass? If you accidentally start walking too fast do security guards rise out of the bushes to take your blood pressure?

We make our way to Wall Street and the site of the World Trade Center which is nearly impossible to access. It is full of cranes and fences and concrete foundations and much evidence of construction but little hope of completion any time soon. It’s like a wound left deliberately open to delay healing.

Whenever I visit either place (and I’ve done this 4 or 5 times now with each) I can’t help but compare walking in Manhattan to hiking in the valleys of Bryce Canyon National Park. In both, you’re down inside slot canyons, surrounded by impossibly tall, beautiful formations. True, one is formed by nature and the other by man, but the feeling is the same to me. The way the wind squeezes between the cross streets is the same. The way you find yourself craning your neck to look up is the same. The way all the light is on top and the shadows and sounds fall to the bottom in unpredictable angles is the same. It’s like you’ve found yourself on another planet entirely.

Which brings me to compare both (in what I hope is not too annoying of an interruption here) to a De Chirico painting I studied in grad school. In the painting, the walls of two tall buildings form a narrow canary yellow street that cuts diagonally down the middle of the scene and leads to something open and bright and totally unknown just around the corner. The buildings almost overlap each other as they recede into the distance, but not quite, leaving a gap where a figure casts a shadow in our direction. All the odd shadows, the open doors to what looks like an abandoned circus cart, the arcades that retreat at different speeds, the geometry that seems precise until you look closely and then it’s totally improbable and broken like cracked lenses, it all creates a sense of claustrophobia. But it’s not a creepy kind of claustrophobia. It’s a good mystery, albeit one that you’ll never get to solve. In short, it’s a typical Surrealist painting.

Part of the strangeness of New York City is that you just can’t take it all in. You’re in this corridor of space and you know these crowded streets go on for miles in every direction and these tall buildings are full of millions of people with millions of distinct lives. You’re trying to soak it in but you know you’re catching the tiniest clue of an enormous mystery. I guess it’s all about perspective. Linear perspective for sure. But also the sense that our personal viewpoints severely limit us. It’s why flying (or Google Earth-ing) can be so fun: we don’t know how things look from above until we get up there and then it all seems so foreign. And isn’t this why we travel? We are taking this trip to Spain to show our kids a totally different part of the world. It’s important for them to hear another language, to eat new foods, to see another side of history. We want to expose them to a huge variety of new things but we also want them to understand what a tiny piece of the world they have known up to this point.

We eat “real” New York Pizza (according to Toni) at a joint named Dave’s and walk up Church street for at least 10 blocks, finally catching a taxi (another new experience for the kids, and yes, all 6 of us squeeze into one taxi with poor Toni practically squatting on the floor, good thing she’s petite) uptown to the Empire State Building. Here we all enjoy another lesson in perspective.

And here the comparison to Bryce Canyon ends because everything from that height screams “manmade and proud of it.” There are no trees or landforms. The rivers are only distinguishable by the gaps they make in the carpet of lights and the bridges that span across them like chains wrapped around darkness. Millions of people below us. Millions of tiny glowing lives. I’m resorting one last time to the term surreal because it simply does not seem possible to be up this high and in this mythical city and on the first leg of a trip that has been a fantasy for so long. Surreal: adj. over or above reality. The height is dizzying but the view is worth the climb.


LaughingElk said...

Yay! We get to go on your trip with you and see everything through your eyes! Or camera.

Gill said...

Loving reading about your trip, looking forward to more :-) Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I was hoping you'd be getting to the blog soon so we could see all about the trip! (This is Echo. I can't remember my Google account password...)