Saturday, 10 July 2010

The present is a foreign country

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The heart is the undiscovered country. You travel to a foreign country to discover your unconscious mind.

Laurence Durrell said you have two birthplaces. The place where you are born and the place where you learn about life. My second birthplace was Bucharest.

For some people who do not put their feet on the ground there can be a transparent sheath between themselves and life. They are tourists all the time, even in their home town. Perhaps I am one of these people. I felt throughout my four years as an undergraduate at Cambridge that I was a tourist there. In London where my contemporaries were pursuing paths to money and love I walked around with an acute overwhelmingly passion for the city which you can only feel if you grew up in Southend-on-Sea. As Philip Guedalla said of Micheael Arlen’s characters they walk down Jermyn St with such an acute sense of its being Jermyn St that one almost suspects them of being in London for the day.

Is this how I have lived in Bucharest in the last twelve years? Better to live in a foreign country than feel a foreigner in your own country. How awful to feel at home somewhere. Does anyone feel? Does anyone interesting? Perhaps grown-ups do. Perhaps that is one definition of being grown-up.

If as Malcolm Muggeridge said sex is the mysticism of materialism, then this can also be true of travel too. And not particularly the beach holiday kind of travel so much as the more adventurous travel. Travel agents sell dreams. Only books and travel have the qualities of dreams and for the young only dreams are real. Reality is a terribly dull thing. When one gets older life acquires a texture and begins at last to one’s surprise to feel real, which means like a novel. About the same time novels seem less interesting. For some people perhaps travel does too?

When I came to live in Bucharest in 1998 I felt that I was a character in a novel by Joseph Conrad in the South Seas in the 19th century. The foreigners who had floated here after the Revolution who could have been created by Conrad in ironic mode. Bucharest had changed a lot between 1990 when I first visited and 1998 when I came to live here but it seemed extremely far away from the western world and it seemed in some ways still living in if not a nineteenth century novel then at any rate 1954. Later I refined it to 1959 .

Whenever I flew back to Romania in the late 90s I felt for a few hours like a character from Star Trek materialising slowly on another planet. Now Romania, last of all the former Communist countries to become globalised, has a painted face and a new spirit. People struggle with mortgage repayments and have less time for flirtation and books. But to me it still seems much less like everywhere else than anywhere else except for Belarus and Albania. And is the western world a concept which is time limited?

Romania has changed in part because countries mean less than they did before the internet and cheap travel(budget air flights came to Romania only three or four years ago). Where will Romania be in fifty years, I asked an academic economist friend. I don’t think it will still exist he said. But the language will still exist. He wasn’t sure. Perhaps the languages of minor countries are economically inefficient. Instead a future of English, gadgetry golf-courses instead of the eighteenth century countryside and shopping malls instead of grimy jerrybuilt Communist towns and cities.

Travel books are like all literary genres from another age, when abroad had another meaning . When John Paget wrote almost no-one among his readers, all people who paid income tax and a tiny fraction of the English population had been to Hungary or heard of Transylvania. For a long time travel was expensive and difficult and travel writing was information for the curious and a story with the writer as protagonist. (And funny foreigners. All foreigners for the most liberal Englishmen were very faintly comic until some moment some time in the second half of the 1980s.) Now they are something to help us choose where to go on holiday, to prepare for holidays and to compare notes afterwards. And writers create the country they write about. Arabia is about Wilfred Thesiger. Delhi is now about Sam Miller and William Dalrymple. It is a literary construct.

And countries are an idea which is changing. And the word foreign is changing too. The Guardian newspaper seems to think it a word to be avoided at all costs, like manly.

Will Romania be a country in fifty years time or a part of a big non-country called Europe? Countries are about traditions and traditions are now at best anachronistic at worst oppressive or racist. And about excluding foreigners which seems xenophobic and discriminatory. And about violence in the past the future sometimes in the present. And about languages but languages are being subverted by English. Countries are a difficult concept in the post-modern post-Marxist world.

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