Making travel an energetic process
Jackie Fihn Isaac is the only one of my grandmothers I can remember and, perhaps more importantly, the only one of my four grandparents with whom I had what I would call "a relationship." A relationship with Jackie means, to me, that I experienced a significant emotional exchange with her, that she impacted my life in more than one instance, and that my interaction with her somehow changed the way I see the world around me. When Jackie died in March, life seemed to grind to a halt. So much of what I do every day I do with her in mind, and making her proud of me had been one of the strongest motivations in my life. She had represented to me for so long so many qualities I longed to see in myself.
Jackie was, far more than I, good at social interaction. Merriam Webster defines an extrovert as being someone who gains energy from interacting with others, and this describes Jackie precisely. In the days following her death, I felt more introverted than ever.
During the various social gatherings my father and his sisters hosted that week in Jackie's home, I found myself making frequent trips to the upstairs library, where I would listlessly peruse the shelves and attempt to "recharge." I found myself craving a cigarette more than I had in months -- anything for an excuse to be alone and silent, to be away from all the people milling around in her home. I knew only a few of them, and talking about school or Berlin or my plans for the future with those who were only vaguely familiar seemed too tall an order.
What I was feeling was probably more a combination of jet lag and unprocessed grief than introversion, so maybe there's still hope for me to develop social skills like my grandmother's. It's true that the exhaustion began to fade once I was away from the epicenter of my loss, away from home and the feeling that everywhere I turned, she would be waiting to remind me of how much I loved her and how much I would miss her.
My seatmate on the flight from Newark to Milan was Connor, a student at an art school in northern Jersey that I hadn't heard of. We got along famously; Connor knew just the right amount of conversation to attempt in a eight hour flight, and he was a delightful mix of knowledge, eccentric accomplishment, and humble wit.
We stuck together through immigration, which turned out to be a test of patience. Although the area was divided into lanes, any other attempts at crowd management were either so feeble that they were ignored or simply hadn't been made in the first place. As the other foreigners around us began to sink predictably from credulity to scorn and ultimately quiet outbursts of stifled aggression, Connor and I were buoyed by our new friendship. After immigration, we exchanged emails and parted ways. About 20 minutes later, I had purchased a ticket for a shuttle to Milan and nestled into a seat on the bus by myself.
As the bus sped along toward Milan on a highway lined with familiar northern trees, I delighted in how my surroundings could be at once so comforting and so strange. I realized after a few minutes that I had been smiling broadly. Here is a new place, I thought. I am alone, yet safely swathed in a layer of anonymity. The plan is vague and far from foolproof. And yet, when everything inevitably goes wrong, when I'm running late and the pay phones don't work and the bus ticket is not five euros but ten, everything still feels right.
I'd had three hours of sleep in the past two days, and I felt more energy sitting by myself on an Italian airport shuttle than I had felt in the weeks at home, surrounded by my family.
This--whatever "this" is-- is what I was born to do. Even throughout the stressful process of elbowing my way to the front of the immigration room, I was gaining energy. I'm delighted by experiences that fundamentally differ from what I'm used to, and I love connecting these experiences to the culture that produces them. So perhaps what I learned from my grandmother was not extraversion, but extrospection. She taught me to look outside myself, to gain energy from the environment around me and to draw inspiration from what I sense. Extroverted travel.
(The above image is of my grandmother with her father and brother)