Sunday, August 11, 2013

                                                                                      Photo by Andie Williams

Why We Travel
The New York Times runs an occasional photo feature on the Sunday Travel page, filled with one-of-a-kind sights which make one’s heart beat faster. Most of us lack the quickness to capture a once-in-a-lifetime photo, so we try, instead, to capture it in words.

Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room, describes a particular kind of travel which focuses on the importance of the place itself and on one’s return to the place, over and over.  He describes a friend taking a ferry to an island off the coast of North Carolina and how he knew – he just knew – he’d come back to the same place each year, “to relive that feeling of leaving his old self behind. That annual renewal, the re-acquaintance with the person he felt himself to be on that island, was something he wanted to organize his life around.”

Dramatic words – organizing one’s life around a place.  Troubling words.  “Organizing one’s life” isn’t how I have come to think of travel. Certainly the moment of discovery is part of why we travel, but once we find the special place, can return trips still count? Won’t multiple visits lead to the inevitable collection of real estate guides and searches for a second home? This notion of return is at odds with my sense that discovery is inherent in the act of travel.

And yet. The hectic aspect of finding new destinations year after year; the inevitable disappointments; the frantic energy spent climbing the logistical learning curve; all are enough to make one crave a different kind of travel that offers comfort instead of surprise.  A century ago, people embraced the idea of estivating at resorts in which even the table at which they dined was unchanged, year after year.  That has its appeal.

I thought I found my place this summer in Maine. Perhaps it happened because I didn’t know I was looking for it. Like any relationship, it is in its tentative first weeks. I keep waiting for that sobering Monday morning to hit, forcing the experience to recede forever into a summer moment and nothing more.

We vacation as a large family which complicates my personal search somewhat.  We are encumbered with every age, from 5 to nearly 85, and a multiplicity of needs at every hour from all those in between.  We rented a house on the coast of Southern Maine, south of Ogunquit and north of York, where the sea stretched all the way to Ireland. We stayed in an old house with just enough modcons to avoid being annoyingly old without being annoyingly new.

The house had a beguiling charm.  The best way to explore was to take time to enter each room and get its measure before proceeding. We climbed up and down unexpected staircases and turned through awkward corridors tracing a layout closer to a children’s fantasy book than a traditional center hall colonial. The inhabitants had lovingly added on rooms over the years, with quirky but intriguing results.

The sense of culture was overwhelming. The furniture and fixtures came from all over the world. We recognized textiles from Guatemala and marveled at carpets from the Silk Road.  Original artwork hung everywhere, and sculptures, some frightfully fragile, graced tables. The house took on new life after dark.  Behind closet doors was an extensive classical music collection, and in every room, including the kitchen, were libraries.  

Outside, a walk across the lawn led to cliffs overlooking tidal pools and enough rock formations to satisfy a geologist. No placid Cape Cod, the waves truly did crash below us, sending up tangles of spray.  There were chairs with granite footrests, a thoughtfully left can of bug spray (not needed with the stiff winds) and long rock walls which served as a backdrop for a magazine-worthy show of perennials, best admired from a pergola that ran the length of the house. Those who know the charm of living alongside the sea need no further description. The sound of the foghorn, the smell of salt, and misty mornings gave the house an appropriately mystical setting.

Inside, the amenities bespoke wealth and elegance. A separate wine refrigerator, Waterford decanters, a butler’s pantry so well stocked one could find everything from fish forks to chop sticks, a gorgeous chess set in an octagonal alcove, a piano, and then, on top of all that  -- the books! Each room was shelved with a lifetime’s worth of books. We inventoried with increasing wonder.  One room had walls of books dedicated to theater, drama, and Italian art. Another room, complete with spiral staircase and loft apartment, featured English literature, poetry, and history.  Still another was filled with children’s first editions. Kenneth Graham, Philip Pullman, Brian Selznick. We speculated endlessly about the inhabitants, casting roles for them as retired Broadway directors, former college presidents, Booker prize winners living under assumed names.

The bookd were either ones we had read and treasured, or ones we had always wanted to read. No banal “summer reading” here.  I began leading two lives. In the daytime, I dealt with the joyful camaraderie and chaos of a multi-generational family. At night I greedily devoured a John Banville I had never heard of. Reading in a room with so many other books lent a heightened sense of literary atmosphere. If you doubt this, consider unpleasant venues where you have read – an airport lounge, perhaps. And then imagine your own personal Athenaeum.  I rest my case.  

There were annoying imperfections, of course.  A ridiculous step down into the dining room that everyone tripped on. A raised tile platform for a wood burning stove, another tripping hazard.  A kitchen wildly over-equipped – restaurant style warming shelf, professional meat slicer, deep fryer, three fridges,  and a wood burning pizza oven, along with sterling silver spoons.  And yes, sometimes there was a sense of it all being just too much.

But even the real cheetah, draped over the billiard table like someone’s private joke, could not spoil the sense of culture. It came from another time, when piano keys were made of ivory and fireplaces were topped with antlers. I found the five-year-old gently patting its head, whispering to it as though it were a stuffed tiger, which it more or less is.  

The place cast a spell. I would have been content to spend the week reading, but we had visitors, stimulating and insightful.  I watched our 17-year-old draw with a skill I never knew she had. We took field trips and did all those things that make a sojourn a vacation.  At night we had a full moon and seabirds shrieking above the fish. One evening was so magical that as we sat on the widow’s walk terrace, three storeys high, I fully expected to see a gryphon loping along the stone wall below.

Alas, we do not own the house and I doubt the experience can be repeated.  I can find other houses along the same coastline. I can spend a lifetime filling them with near-identical contents.  But I can never duplicate the personalities of the owners who created something extraordinary from an overgrown Maine coastal house.

Even as my heart sings that I have found my place, my brain knows that this is most likely a love affair that cannot last the winter. Or can it? Some experiences are too intense to easily relinquish. And I saw enough whimsy in one week to make me wonder about what I can’t control. Who knows? Even if I say it can never be my place, it may say, oh yes it can.


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