It feels good to read books set in or originating from the places you visit – the added depth creates something like immersion; an extra layer of understanding. This works in both directions – your understanding of the book is tied up forever with your experience of the city. In London, I read A Room of One’s Own. In it, Virginia Woolf describes London as being ‘like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern.’ Running the foot race that is the first week of a holiday, with its equal measures of panic and liberation, I felt the force of the machine of London ricochet through my body.
Woolf became a ghost shadow beside me in that drizzling almost-summer city. Bloomsbury charmed me with its blue plaques and pavers, its well-tended gardens and student housing. I visited Persephone Books, and gravitated towards a copy of Woolf’s diary extracts. Later at the London Review of Books bookstore, I felt a magnetic pull toward a white, gold, and blue covered book titled Too Much and Not the Mood (by Durga Chew-Bose) which, on further inspection, turns out to take its title from something Virginia Woolf wrote. Woolf walked beside me in London, and it was a comfort. Her presence made an unfamiliar place feel more like home.
Much of A Room of One’s Own is about finding a distinctly female way of writing and claiming that space as “one’s own” – calling it home. As I made my way through Germany, Holland, France, and Iceland, I played home in other people’s spaces and wondered what it might be like for me to stay there. I tried on cities and lifestyles – could I adopt this life? Could I be a different person here? I stayed no longer than a week in any one place, which isn’t long enough to really know anywhere, but I got a true feeling of ‘yes’ (yes, this could be my life) in Amsterdam. Something about the familiar accents and the quality of the light and the seedpods dancing their way off trees and into the canals. I also came to miss my actual home, in bits. I missed the slipstream of productivity and interacting meaningfully with the people I love. But travel is a game of comparisons – noticing, detailing, and defining exactly how new places are not like home.
Marseille was not at all like home. The hills, the men drinking coffee on terraces, the long, long days and their boundless sunshine. The colours and constant strangeness – this was not like home. And how. I wondered whether it would be liberating to live in a place with a constantly visible horizon – all that space, stretching without end. The cliffs and hills that border the inland edges of Marseille are clean and empty, interrupted only by the grand church at the highest point, with its golden Mary and baby Jesus looking over the city. There’s a feeling that everything tumbles downwards from there, into the Mediterranean. The city’s docks bump into bright blue sea, and a fortress and two large islands sputter out before the seeming forever of ocean. At home, I’m surrounded, always. I can never get above ‘it all’ and see a flat stretch in the distance. I dream, also for a second, of living with these different edges and this novel concept of expansiveness. But would the horizon line become its own kind of tyranny? Would I feel myself being ushered into the sea? I thought of Woolf with her rocks and her river. With these questions, I measured the distance between my life and all those other lives I don’t have – the rooms I don’t call my own.
I dropped out of the publishing cycle while I was away, but two long articles I did manage to read in this time both revolved around the concept of home – Fiona Wright’s ‘Perhaps this one will be my last share house’, and Omar J Sakr’s ‘Home is what breaks you’ (through his TinyLetter, unfortunately not archived). Both pieces speak of the immense power of home –the difficulty of finding one, the magnetism of having a place to belong, and the unanchoring its absence brings. Each of the spaces that we label ‘home’ marks us indelibly. With attachment as hefty as this, it’s silly to imagine borrowing someone else’s so carelessly.
I read for the rest of the trip in the same way I’ve been reading for months now – in small bursts, unable to sustain anything for long. I’d been overambitious when packing books before leaving – assuming more time, more energy, than I actually had. I dipped into Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading in hope of some instruction. I re-read half of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me while in France. Like Fisher, I was delighted by the confidence and mindfulness of French meals. Although Fisher’s meals were more consistently refined than mine, I enjoyed watching French dining from the outer with her. On airplanes, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked kept me company, diving into the intricacies of female friendship and civil rights in Oz. Wicked was there between Melbourne and Alice Springs. It kept me busy again for part of the stretch between Brunei and Vietnam. But after that the first hour or so of each flight, I was useless – it was all trash films, in-flight meals, and high-altitude crying.
In Europe, there’s a constant visibility to air traffic. Jet trails cut up the sky, cross-hatching the blue and serving as a persistent reminder of many people’s mobility and transience. This freedom makes it tempting to resist my actual home – maybe I could just keep going too. But I’m home again now, and it turns out I’m glad for it. I’ve brought with me the small keepsakes of Woolf’s company and a renewed ability to read. The rhythms of recent travel have marked out some space in my days. I haven’t quite tripped back into busy routine just yet. I’m looking at this room of mine with fresh eyes, looking at the stack of reading material that took up a decent portion of my luggage allowance, and awaiting the further books I ordered on my return. I continue constructing my home made almost entirely of paperbacks, only now I feel like I can finally read them.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Cordite, Antic, The Wheeler Centre and others. Her work has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers and the Lifted Brow and non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Writing Prize. More at samvanzweden.com and @samvanzweden