Sometime in 2008 or 2009, I was browsing new fiction in the bookstore across the street from me. At random, I pulled out a novel titled, Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a Barcelona author new to me. I was smitten by the first sentence about a father who took his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he was to carefully choose a book and assume responsibility for it over his lifetime.
At that point, Spain was not on my travel list, but by the time I finished, I had an urge to walk down Las Ramblas, ride the funicular, and see La Sagrada Família, the monumental and still-unfinished neo-gothic church designed by artist Antoní Gaudí (below). In 2010, I did all of those things, ordinary touristy things that felt magical to me because of one novel. At the time, I would have said the connection between the book and the trip was a one-off, a serendipitous discovery of Zafón, followed by an actual excursion to Barcelona.
A few weeks ago, during a sea cruise to see the breathtaking fjords of Norway (below), I had an epiphany about imagination and travel: Whether we know anything about our destination or not, we imagine what it will be like, often taking our cues from literature and movies. Who hasn’t set foot in Paris for the first time and been haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway, Sartre, and Beauvoir? Upon a recent departure to Paris, my Algerian driver to the San Francisco airport told me to be sure to go to Café Flore, where the literati in the 1920s and 1930s hung out. Perhaps it is as close as we adults get to the childhood game of Lets Pretend.
It need not be high art or philosophy that precipitates an expedition. Before we boarded the ship bound for the Western coast of Norway, a friend and I, who had been in Copenhagen for a week, took a side trip to Malmö, Sweden. Why Malmö? I had read six detective novels set in Malmö; she was well into her first of the series. One can go to Malmö from Copenhagen by ferry, bus or train. Our choice of a bus was dictated by a compelling Danish TV series called The Bridge, which begins with the discovery of a body in the middle of the new Øresund Bridge (below), one-half on the Swedish side, the other half on the Danish side. Even though I knew rationally that the plot was fiction, and the close-up scenes on the bridge shot elsewhere, I nevertheless felt like leaping out of my bus seat when we crossed what I felt was the spot.
Something similar happened when we visited Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s museum home outside of Copenhagen. Despite her writing fame, we arrived dominated by images of Meryl Streep from the film Out of Africa. There we were: in Blixen’s study, gawking at her desk and the typewriter that she used to write her stories (below), or pausing before a dining table, fully set, as if guests were arriving shortly. The smell of fresh-cut flowers from her garden in each room gave the house a living, breathing feeling, a sense Karen Blixen might be nearby in the kitchen. Still, even though I suspect the images of Streep and Robert Redford, who played Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton, may be difficult to supplant, new images will at least compete.
Someone asked me if pre-voyage fantasies or just Googling a city or village before a trip ruins the magic of seeing something for the first time. Absolutely not, I replied instinctively, surprised by the question and at a loss for a more thoughtful response. I suppose it is an age-old question: Should one come to a painting, say, without any knowledge of the artist, genre, or technique so that the experience is unfiltered, or does information about a painting help you better appreciate and/or understand it. (It’s probably clear that I’m an audio guide person.)
As I was traveling down this path of ideas, I was brought up short: In March I gave a speech in Australia at an International Women’s Conference on writing and identity, in which I contended that, since high school, I had written primarily to make sense of my experience. I didn’t realize then that the reverse could be said: that my experiences were often sparked first by imagination.
The more I considered these relationships, I more I realized the possible combinations of imagination and experience are kaleidoscopic. Traveling can develop our historical imagination. Boarding a re-created Viking Ship wasn’t just a means of transport to see a remote Norwegian fishing village (below). For just a moment, I could conjure the Viking period, and imagine what Viking sailors saw over a thousand years ago as they navigated their way out of the long-fingered fjords. Before this experience, I had no interest in the Vikings, their culture or their period of conquest.
After several bus and train trips up into the mountains and over bridges, even the existence of Trolls began to seem possible. A folklorist cautioned that encounters with Trolls never end well. Upon my return home, I thought how well this old admonition applies to modern-day trolls on social media. Again, I had no knowledge of the Troll legends before I went to Norway and had always wondered why the term had become so vogue.
I am currently steeped in the novels of Yrsa Sigurdardottir, which are set in Iceland. I wonder – is a visit to Reykjavik in my future? Even if not, I am the richer for this new understanding of the magic and romance of travel. After all, I can go there any time in my imagination.
–Karen M Paget