“Every city I describe is really only a description of me looking at the city or responding to it. Of course, some cities have a more brilliant image. In this case the city overtakes me so that I find I am not, after all, describing what I feel about the city but describing something very, very powerful about the city itself.
For example, Beijing: I went to that city in my usual frame of mind, in which I follow two precepts. The first I draw from E. M. Forster’s advice that in order to see the city of Alexandria best one ought to wander around aimlessly. The other I take from the psalms; you might remember the line “grin like a dog and run about the city.” — Jan Morris, Paris Review interview, Summer 1997.
My standard tool of travel planning is a stack of 5×7 index cards, filled with lists: places to go, restaurants to try, shops to visit.
The thickness of the stack, and the density of my plans, first has to do with the size of the place, in the expected ratio: more planning for big cities, less for small towns. It also has to do with my familiarity with a place, although in an inverse way. I tend to plan less for a place that’s entirely new to me — as I’ve mentioned, I have a hard time wrapping my head around a place I’ve not visited before. So when I’m revisiting a big city– like, say Paris, where I’m heading next week — the stack is very thick indeed.
I don’t tend to follow my plans very closely, but when I’m traveling, unmoored from the constraints of responsibility or a fixed schedule, I worry about feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities and spending the entire visit staring at my hotel room walls in a state of paralysis.
In reality, this has never happened. And I do end up wandering around a lot — if only after setting myself off towards some pre-determined destination. Which makes me wonder: is advance planning simply a way of burning off pre-trip anxiety? Would I do better to simply arrive in a destination with nothing in mind at at all?
I took a break from my Paris planning to to dig into Jan Morris’ touchstones a bit deeper. I started with Forster, who, I learned, spent time in Egypt in 1915, when he was volunteering with the Red Cross. I have no doubt that he wandered quite a bit, but his volunteer duties definitely had him on some sort of schedule, which created a structure for his time there — points of departure for aimless wandering.
And as for the grinning like a dog — it turns out this is from Psalm 59: “They go to and fro in the evening, they grin like a dog, and run about through the city…” The psalm was written by that great biblical pen wielder, King David, but the people he refers to here are not admirable — they are his enemies (King Saul’s secret police, apparently). The line is often translated as “howling like a dog”, or “making noises like a dog” …in other words, not a friendly puppy dog at all. (“Consume them in thy wrath, consume them so they may perish,” the psalm continues — not an outcome than any traveler hopes for.)
Okay, I’m taking this all far more literally than Jan Morris intended. In A Sense of Place, Michael Shapiro’s excellent book of interviews with travel writers, she elaborated on what she took from Forster’s advice — “have your antennae out in all directions, so that nothing, absolutely nothing, is uninteresting.” And she explained that the grinning was quite literal — “if you smile deliberately at people, their responses are very revealing because they show every degree of confidence, or shyness, or self-doubt, inhibition, all things which can be extrapolated not only into a civic meaning but even into a national meaning if you’re rash enough to do it.”
All of which I can get behind — and none of which conflicts with an occasional glance down at my stack of 5×7 index cards, which I’ll now go back to happily creating for my trip to Paris next week.
Alison J. Stein
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