We walk toward the Saturday flea market in Hannover, Germany; my eyes saccade between the shop windows and my children, who dart ahead toward the river. A woman is kneeling on the ground at an intersection of this pedestrian zone—a square that interrupts the busy street. In front of her are shopping bags and a large block of paper. She’s moving an orange wax crayon across a fresh white sheet of paper. More passersby gather. Gradually the impressions become visible. The words Hannover and Landeshauptstadt and a coat of arms appear. The onlookers murmur “Gute idee” (good idea). Impervious to the small crowd, the woman continues moving her right hand back and forth across the sheet. My gaze turns upward to examine the square’s medieval church façade. The stone sculpture on the portico features a skeleton resting against a muscular saint. My children look up in the other direction, perhaps imagining the stone lions’ roar from another old building’s façade.
This woman directs our attention in the midst of the late morning bustle; she makes the engraving on the ground visible and calls my attention to the architecture I would not have otherwise noticed on my way to the flea market. She leaves with impressions on paper, which she can transform into a unique work of art.
This artistic technique is a way to describe the first steps we can take when we write about a foreign place. Rubbings make the smallest impressions visible; they reproduce textures on a new surface by way of contrast—the paper’s elevated surfaces become dark while the indented surfaces remain white.
When we’re in a foreign place, we tend to judge a foreign culture against the standard of our familiar world; we can’t avoid comparisons. What kind of impressions are we capable of gathering when we tour a city in a few days? If our arbitrary observations become assertions about a place, we may risk falling into the traps of cliché and stereotypes. So, how do we give our readers a sense of “what it’s like to be there” and connect that experience to some deeper understanding? When time and language limit the access we have to another culture, we can pay attention to the textures and contrasts we notice. These help give us access to the features of a place that lie under the surface.
“The eye that searches for it is almost always able to find it.” Joseph Mitchell, “Street Life”
In Joseph Mitchell’s piece, “Street Life,” he tells about his habit of poking around and wandering aimlessly in New York City; his eye searches for architectural ornamentation, converted churches or old buildings no longer used for their original purpose. At times, he can’t explain his attraction to these places, but he pays close attention to what he is strongly drawn to and why he’s drawn to it:
Every so often, riding along, I see an old building that I feel drawn to—it exerts a kind of psychic pull on me—and I get off the bus at the next stop and go back and take a closer look at it. I stand around and look at it and try to figure out why I feel drawn to it. If it is a public building or a commercial building and if it is open and if I am allowed to, I go inside and wander around in it.
This habit of wandering without a specific aim and examining what draws us in is important for gathering the raw material of travel writing. Wandering through a foreign place (instead of following a guidebook or hopping on a red tour bus) is a way to take in the unique sensory landscape of a place. Inevitably, we’ll see, hear, taste, touch and feel a place. The way I move through a place—my experience of a foreign place and the contrasts I notice with regard to my home and habits—creates a unique subjective experience. This is my subject matter.
“You could kidnap and blindfold me and set me down in Italy, and I would know I’m there by the way it smells.” My friend, whom I met as an exchange student in Italy, told me this recently as we sat in her kitchen piecing together our memories from twenty years ago. For me, sounds resonate as well: the sizzling of garlic in olive oil, whining Vespas, clinking espresso cups and spoons.
In Germany, where I’ve lived for six years, natural textures are elements that rise to the surface: leather, wool, candle wax, wood, chestnuts, grapevines and asparagus shoots. These materials are part of the surface of daily life—tangible traces of a place. If the travel writer is successful, the contrasts she chooses will lead her readers to a deeper understanding about place or humanity. A specific place and time will determine which details she’ll bring to the surface. Landscape, architecture and sensory information are elements that any traveler can access in any place—if her eye, or ear, nose, taste buds or fingertips search.
In her essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ariel Levy employs both the architecture of her hotel and the frozen landscape to depict the tragic fate that Mother Nature deals her when she decides to take one last trip before the birth of her first child. She’s pleased with the idea of going to the Gobi desert pregnant to report on Mongolia’s economic transformation: “It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself.” She gives us an image of the landscape upon her arrival in Mongolia, where temperatures drop to twenty degrees below zero at night: “The drive into town wound through frozen fields and clusters of felt tents—gers, they’re called there—into a crowded city of stocky, Soviet-era municipal buildings.” The gers stand in stark contrast to The Blue Sky Hotel, where she stays—a new hotel with a sleek lobby. Each time she refers to it, she uses its proper name. Her description of it as “a new and sharply pointed glass tower that split the cold sky like a shark fin,” also creates a contrast to Mother Nature, against whom she is ultimately defenseless. Levy creates another fine contrast, again with landscape, to illustrate her luck and distance from death and tragedy up until that point in her hotel room. She recounts her youthful adventures, backpacking in the Himalayas: “pushing my young body up the mountains, past green and yellow terraced fields across rope bridges that hung tenuously over black ravines with death at the bottom.” In the end, nothing in this harsh environment can protect her against the force of Nature: “I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me.” The winter sky, frozen landscape and hotel are surface impressions through which Levy conveys depth; they help us grasp Levy’s devastating grief and the fragility of human life.
A few weeks ago, my ESL students read Ta Nehisi Coates’ essay, “Pardon My French,” about his experience attending language school in Switzerland. He concludes the article in praise of immersion: “The older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend.” One of my students, having just arrived from Vietnam, objected: “I believe no one enjoys having a sprawling period of incomprehension.” She’s right—being alone in a foreign place without knowing the language is painful and humiliating. But the confusion we encounter in a foreign place often serves as a way under the surface. The woman in Hannover doing the rubbing had to kneel down in a busy public space to capture the textures she was drawn to. If we are willing to put ourselves in an uncomfortable place or posture and trust our instincts, we may come away with a few treasures of insight.
Recently, I met my daughter’s teacher at her school. While I was trying to catch everything she had to say (in German) about third grade mental math, I noticed on the wall a chiaroscuro print, “The Flight into Egypt,” by Adam Elsheimer. The painter has ancestral roots in the small town where we live in Germany, so it wasn’t the first time I had seen it; still, it struck me. The painting is overwhelmingly dark; there are only a few sources of light: the moon and stars, a lantern in the foreground and a bonfire in the distance. These limited sources of light offer glimpses into this dark scene. The family is traveling in a veiled, uncharted, foreign land. The beauty in such a chiaroscuro, heightened by contrasts, lies in the small details we discern. Similarly, our moments of disorientation in a foreign place—our distance from familiar comforts, language and spaces—all such contrasts offer us a glimpse of beauty. The textures and sensory details are where I begin to describe and understand my journey.
Sheila Madary is a freelance writer, editor, teacher and mother of four. She has lived in Europe for more than ten years. In 2011, she received her M.A. in English from the University of New Orleans. Her travel writing has appeared in Ellipsis, Ascent, Modern Farmer and elsewhere. She lives near Mainz, Germany. You can visit her online at sheilamadary.com.