Monday, September 7, 2009

On Surprises

As I've said before, I am not a good person to travel with. I don't take tours of famous houses or churches unless it is the only way to get inside. I hated the tour I had to take in order to see the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico or the Villa Louis in Wisconsin. I don't take the audio tours at museums. I avoid any situations in which someone is telling me what to look at or what to see. At least initially I prefer to bungle along in my own way, browsing, taking in what I want to see, and being surprised.

In other words I like to make my own discoveries. The only person I know who feels as strongly about this as I do is my husband, Larry, and I am very grateful that we can travel this way together. Perhaps this comes from something deep-seated inside of me. A stubborn streak, I'd have to say. I recall being at movies with my mother who'd jab me in the ribs and say, "This is the funny part." Or my father who, before I'd even opened a menu say, "They have great hamburgerers here." I want to discover things my own. What is the point of traveling if you don't like to be surprised?

I recall the Soviet soldier who danced in my train compartment as I played Rachmaninoff for him. The pristine swimming pool my friend, Carol, and I discovered in the middle of the desert outside San Miguel. The baker's son who walked with me through the Champs de Mars in Paris, singing the "Bella Ciao." And the Navajo policeman who, for some reason, believed me when I told him my brother's van, which Larry was driving and which my brother had forgotten to register, wasn't stolen.

And then, of course, there are those sudden sightings. The light shining on haystacks in the Loire Valley that really does look like Monet. The moment when the fog cleared over Macchu Picchu. I have always been drawn to surprises. This summer we were in a little town outside San Sebastian, Spain whose beauty astounded me.

Then I learned that Victor Hugo had once been here too. In 1843 he was taking a walk from San Sebastian when he stumbled upon a seaside village ("this humble corner of land and water') and he was amazed by everything he saw. He decided to stay for a while. He wrote: "This magnificent and charming place that all at once has the double character of joy and grandeur, this untouched place which is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen...this little radiant Eden where I arrived by chance..." (from his Voyage Vers Les Pyrannes).

Hugo, who was believed to be visiting a mistress in San Sebastian, stayed in this place until the tragic death of his 19 year old daughter brought him home. Hugo just came upon Passaia, the village where we spent a couple weeks this summer on our own. We stumbled upon it as well, you might say, as well. Friends asked us to meet them in San Sebastian for Jazzfest and we found this little house through a house exchange. I saw pictures and knew this was where I wanted to be. We had use of a car, plans to visit Bilbao and Bordeaux. But in fact we never left.

Each day brought a different surprise. The children leaping from the seawall, the fiesta that last seven days, the little boat that took us across the river for sixty cents. To connect the writer here to the wanderer I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said that if what you are writing doesn't surprise the writer, then it won't surprise the reader.

It is a wonderful moment when you are writing and something completely unexpected happens. Or if you are traveling, and you make an unexpected stop. You see a painting or a landscape you have never seen before. You taste a spice that you know you have never tasted before. A character does something in a book you didn't seem coming. And suddenly nothing is ever the same.


  1. ... or the time I almost drove over a cliff because the road "looked" passable... (ha) my idea of travel hell is a "package deal" or a "bus" or a well-palm-greased concierge. Exploring on one's own is the only way to be surprised. I've also learned that the best way to find the best restaurants is to poll the local bartenders. GM

  2. Thanks for this, George. I did forget to mention those grittier moments of surprise, and the ones that saddened me. I guess I'd have to differentiate between surprise and shock. Though I do remember that sign I read in New Mexico on a narrow strip of road. DANGER. SLOW DOWN. LAKE AHEAD. But I suppose if you were drunk enough to drive into the lake, you'd probably miss the sign. But, returning to the most pleasant side of surprises, the best guides are always the locals and we always eat and drink and hang out where they are...But this might become a whole other post...MM

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. I'd take the rickety, local bus over the air-conditioned tourist mobile any day.

  4. ah Carina, is this you??? Worldwander...Yes, I agree...thanks for the comment!

  5. haha yup yup. it's the title of my blog... so whenever I make comments it gives me that identity.