Reflections on Staying in Place
Today’s guest writer is Jeremy Bassetti, a professor, writer, and the host of award-winning podcast Travel Writing World, in which he interviews authors like Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, and Monisha Rajesh about their work and the business and craft of travel writing. He holds a PhD and teaches humanities at a small school in Florida.
The sun had been incinerating Madrid as I dashed across the Puerta del Sol, sidestepping the distracted tourists and peddlers that swarmed the public square. I had nearly made it out of the plaza unscathed when a young woman stepped in front of me.
“Excuse me,” she said.
I gave her a once-over to see if she was a tout.
“Sorry,” she said as she dug into her purse. “Do you know where a print store is?” She produced a USB stick from her purse and wagged it at me.
“Yes, I do,” I said after thinking for a moment. “In fact, I’m heading in that direction now. I’ll show you where it is if you want to follow me.”
“It’s not too far,” I offered.
“Okay,” she finally said, and I led her down a few small streets into the Barrio de las Letras.
“You can print in here,” I said as I stopped in front of an office supply store.
“Thank you,” she replied. “Your city is cool, but it is confusing.”
My city? I was living in Seville at the time, only making my way to Madrid a few times a month to work in the historical archives. I felt validated by her offhand remark. I felt as if I had unlocked an achievement in the game of living abroad. My city. I knew it well. I had leveled up. “My city,” I said to myself as I walked away.
I had been teaching English in a high school in Seville, but it was a front so I could be in Spain. I was less interested in teaching English than I was in being close to the historical archives that I needed for my dissertation. During the weeks I had to work on it, I spent the first few days in a classroom in Seville reciting simple passages in English to young teenagers. The next few days I spent in an archive in Madrid, babying manuscripts older than the United States.
My international friends in Spain had it better, I thought. It seemed like they visited a new European city every weekend. I was envious that they were traveling so much and that they were free of the kinds of obligations I had.
One of my friends in Seville had a mission to visit 30 countries before turning 30. She succeeded two years before that. But here I was, freshly 30 years old and bitter that my work schedule and obligations didn’t give me the freedom to do as they did. However, something happened that changed my mind.
One day, I visited a friend in Málaga. I had met him at an English teacher orientation earlier in the year, and I invited myself to crash on his couch. He had a map of Europe taped to his wall. It was full of pins.
“You’ve been all over the map,” I said. “Is this all from this year alone?”
“Every weekend,” he said. “Just about.”
“Lucky. How do you pull it off?”
“Ryanair mostly. It’s super cheap.”
As I admired his map, it dawned on me that Spain had almost no pins. Málaga had been pinned, and so had Madrid, but the rest of Spain was uncharted territory. He had been to Stockholm, but not to Seville. He visited Venice, but not Valencia. Birmingham, but not Barcelona. Tangier, but not Toledo. Glasgow, but not Granada. It seemed like he spent more weekends outside of Spain than in it.
“You should come visit me in Seville one weekend,” I offered.
A few weeks later he came to visit. I showed him around the city, taking shortcuts through its alleys and visiting my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars as I normally would.
“Seville is so confusing,” he said to me on more than one occasion.
The streets of Seville are infamous. Tourists are known to lose their bearings in them. However, they’re just as enchanting as they are perplexing, and over time, I came to know them well. While he was jet-setting to far-flung destinations, I was getting lost in these streets with my friends. If I wasn’t in Seville, I was doing the same in Madrid.
In his famous book Place and Space: The Perspective of Experience, the scholar Yi-fu Tuan writes that a place is a space that has been “endowed with value.” What I think he means is that a “space” is void, empty, and meaningless until someone interacts with it and experiences it in some way. With time, both interaction and experience with a space impregnate it with significance, value, and meaning. Only then does a “space” become a “place.”
There is something to be said about getting to know a city. It is all too common for travelers to hop from city to city, breezing through them and checking off the major sights, but I wonder if the value of the experience is diminished in doing so. Can we cultivate meaningful experiences with a city and its people if we’re just passing through? Can we establish and develop deep relationships and memories in a place that we’ve barely spent time in? Is the point of travel to say that we’ve stepped foot in 30 countries before turning 30, or is the point something else?
I wonder if my friend had been experiencing Málaga as I had Seville and Madrid, and I wonder if I had come to know two foreign cities better than he had known one. I wonder if he now has a sense of nostalgia for his time in Málaga. I also wonder if he will ever return to Málaga and have the sensation that he’s returning home, as I feel when I return to my cities.
But when I think about my city, I’m unsure if I possessed the city or if the city had possessed me. I could have planned my work so that I could travel to other European countries on the weekends. I could have scrounged together the money for the cheap Ryanair flight and the hostel. Instead, I fell in love with Madrid and Seville, and the more I got to know them, the less I wanted to leave.
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