Wednesday, September 3, 2008

You Can't Come Home Until You Leave

My new job at Village Books has me shelving books in all kinds of subjects. Like clothing brands and high schoolers, some books are just more popular than others. If you drank three cups of tea for every copy of Three Cups of Tea that we stock, well, I just hope you enjoy the decor of our restrooms. (See also, Water for Elephants) The Twilight series is also quite popular, as is Eat, Pray, Love, though I imagine for different reasons. Jokes aside, I enjoy being surrounded by the good, the bad, and the ugly of literature. I always end up wandering through the biography section in downtime, and I’ve been enjoying the travel section. I haven’t read anything from it yet, but opposite the guides to places like London and Brazil are what we call travel literature. They are, in a sense, memoirs written by travelers to anywhere and everywhere the world has to offer.

When I was in high school I worked at the public library in my hometown as a page. Vaguely resembling what I do now, this meant that all of the materials that were returned went through me. I checked them back into the system and shelved them in their proper places. I’d always been an avid reader—nothing extravagant, just a modest interest in literature—but when I became a page, I became intimately acquainted with every section of the library. Whereas before I stayed safely within the boundaries of the fiction section, now I was introduced to the vast variety of topics in nonfiction, the human stories of the biography section, and I was forced to reconsider the quality of genres I thought were behind me, books for children and young adults.

Because I spent more time in these sections, almost by osmosis I began to read more from each of them. I started with the more popular titles or the books in the “New” section. I picked up the Harry Potter series shortly after the fifth book was published. I read the Sting autobiography Broken Music. Then I started reading Mary Roach’s investigation into the curious world of cadavers in her nonfiction title Stiff. I revisited her when she published Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. At a moment I can no longer identify, I fell in love with nonfiction. The word itself seems to say, “bland.” Something about it screams, “BORING!” Something about facts and figures. That it actually happened in real life, and real life is decidedly uneventful. But Mary changed that. Mary and those that came after her, Steve Almond, Sue Carpenter, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs.

In addition to the new brand of books, I simply could not get enough of was the independent film. My library (because I had grown to think of it as my own and that all others were simply guests) had a subscription to Film Movement, which issues a handful of titles each year from all around the world and distributes them on DVD. Admittedly, and much to my own embarrassment, my first draw to them were the advisory warning on the back, that these films are unrated and may not be suitable for children under 18. I was in high school, what can I say?

I began with the Brazilian feature The Man of the Year about an assassin who becomes a town hero when he begins picking off members of the local gangs and mafia. The film was enthralling. I enjoyed every minute. When I returned it, I immediately checked out a Norwegian film called Buddy. In this dramedy, one man tries to juggle a serious relationship and a best friend who suffers from agoraphobia. From there, it was only a matter of time before I watched four Canadian titles including The Republic of Love and Wilby Wonderful and two Australian films (one starring musician Ben Lee in The Rage in Placid Lake). Spain gave me El Bola, and Croatia offered Witnesses. Italy, Light of My Eyes; Russia, Roads to Koktebel; Morocco, Le Grande Voyage. I saw The Forest for the Trees thanks to Germany, and Brazil showed me The Middle of the World. Over two years and fifteen international features later I began to itch for cities like Toronto and Oslo and St. Petersburg.

Each movie I checked out at work, I watch the following afternoon, when both my parents were gone. My brother had moved out by then, so I gorged myself on international cinema alone, in the basement, jumping every time I thought someone might have come home. This was my own secret that I wanted so badly to keep. Each of these movies took me somewhere far more interesting than Post Falls, Idaho.


The summer before leaving for college, I joined fifteen or so other high school students on a mission trip to Scotland. We spent two weeks in Glasgow facilitating a youth program at the local Assembly of God church. We took a day trip to Edinburgh. Another to Sterling, where there is a memorial tower for William Wallace of Braveheart fame.

Two summers later, I would spend a month in Australia with two of my roommates. We would spend a majority of our time in Sydney, taking a week to spend in Melbourne, and a few days for Brisbane. While there, we would see Sydney Harbour, the Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the National Gallery of New South Wales. We would play a Tuesday night trivia game at a nearby pub, hike the trails of the Blue Mountains, and surf the beaches of a small Sydney suburb called Cronulla. In Melbourne, we would stay with family friends of Seth’s. They would show us the Queen Victoria Market (the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere), the Great Ocean Road, and a sanctuary for the continent’s most famous animals. In Brisbane, we would go sailing with local yacht club, explore the city’s particular botanic gardens, and restlessly wander the city streets until the train station decided to re-open its doors to us in the wee hours of the morning. Over the consistently large blocks of travel time (13 hour plane rides, 12-16 hour train rides) I would read a total of six books:

Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rawlings

Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse

The Reivers – William Faulkner

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

After three and a half weeks of constant travel, constant activity, and endless walking, we would decide to settle into Lorin’s dad’s apartment for the last week. We would stroll into town and spend hours in the local Gloria Jean’s Coffee Shop, just reading. We would also get an account at the local Blockbuster. We watched four Harry Potters, an Indiana Jones, and Idlewild that week, every night deciding that the world was sometimes just too big and exciting for me. I could pretend like I was home, safe, normal, simply watching all the excitement on the screen.


At Village Books, I’m shelving tour guides to Sweden and Montreal. In three months I’ll be done with school. I’ll work full-time. I’ll participate at the INN. Meanwhile, I’m deadly curious about places like Helsinki and Amsterdam. I would love to go to Denmark. I want to see Russia. When I got back from Australia, I swore the next big trip I took would remain stateside. There’s so much of my own country I have yet to see.

My friends Katie and Allison visit. They’re looking for cookbooks, and then Katie mentions, “I want to go to the Tillamook factory in Oregon.”

Vile temptress. “Me too! I love the Tillamook cheese factory,” I say. I know I won’t be able to go because I’ll be working, but Oregon just happens to be one of my favorite vacation destinations. Portland. Tillamook. Astoria. The coast.

As much as I do want to see those places far away, I’m most assuredly not going alone. So until I can wrangle someone to join me for a couple weeks in Finland, I might just stick around and visit (or think about visiting) the cheese factory in Tillamook with friends.


Cynthia Mathai said...

Do it! And on your way, come pick Kelli and I up in Portland for the adventure of a lifetime!

Katie said...

Another great piece. Made better by the fact I read it in Australia! We will have many stories to exchange when I return.