Slow travel: becoming part of a place
It doesn’t come easily, this crashing into a place. I am not a traveler, not really. I am a creature of habit, slipping smoothly into routine.
From one country to another, I unfold and refold my clothes, placing them in the same stacks in different drawers. I buy similar versions of the same things, searching for the same products with different names. I find the same cafe, with its unfinished floors and its mismatched furniture. I order an iced coffee and sit in the same corner, watching different versions of the same world.
Relocating is easy enough. It is traveling that is exhausting. I move at a slower pace, needing time and space to drift gently, to let the chaos settle. When I arrive in Tel Aviv after two years away, I only want to wander its streets, to be a part of the people going and coming and going again, but also separate, solitary, once removed.
But it’s not like it was before, when I had the luxury of slow travel — of slow weeks and long months. Now I have a few days of circling streets, trying to find the apartment on Lessin Street and then to Ramat Gan and then my favorite cafe on Ahad Ha’Am St, the bakery on Bograshov, all the while wondering where to park the car.
I piece together my English and my Hebrew, my tongue tripping over every “r,” every “ch” falling flat. But I smile; the waitress smiles back. There is fluency in that.
I am hesitant by nature, afraid to ask for anything, loitering outside a restaurant trying to work up the nerve just to sit down. I have never been able to cannonball into social situations. I piece together my English and my Hebrew, my tongue tripping over every “r,” every “ch” falling flat. But I smile; the waitress smiles back. There is fluency in that.
I walk everywhere, stopping at every store, eating falafel, shawarma, cherries, the sweetest cucumbers, sitting on park benches, crossing and uncrossing my legs, enticing stray cats with bits of pita.
I like Tel Aviv; I love its cafes. I love the luxury of ordering a coffee at 1 a.m. just because I cannot sleep and the words are welling up in my chest and being alone in bed is not a place I want to be.
I have tried to force myself to enjoy museums, to see the tourist attractions, to spend long hours on the beach. But I am indifferent. Whether I am in Jerusalem or Paris or Berlin, I wander in search of a café, and I sit and I watch and I write. When I come home and people ask, “What did you do? What did you see?” What can I say?
I saw a man walking his dog at 3 a.m. on Rothschild, two old men playing Matkot on the beach, two Orthodox boys chasing after each other, their tzitzit flying behind them. A soldier riding a bike, three students smoking in a cafe, a beggar with blue shoes, an old woman with a crutch and a limp.
I like to sit, to wait for moments to come to me, to feel a country from the inside out. I want to wander until I am too tired to wander. And then I want to sit until I am bored with sitting. I want the imperfections, the futon in a small studio with stained walls and chipped cupboards, the fighting of stray cats at midnight and the lisped Hebrew of my 5-year-old neighbor on her way to school.
I want the way the cashier at the corner market asks if I have any change and the way we laugh when I don’t and how she apologetically drops a handful of agorot into my outstretched palm. “Now you will,” she says. I want to know the way a city shifts, the way it wakes up, the way it falls asleep. Its subtle changes, like seasons, its soft corners and hard edges. The man pouring a capful of milk for a stray cat, the woman who emptied out her wallet for the beggar with blue shoes. I have so few stories from the countries I raced across. Uganda is a blur; Croatia I hardly remember.
I want to sit in a place long enough to soak up its sweat and dirt, to drum my fingers to the beat of its pulse. Two to three days is never long enough. I am only taking my first sip before it is time to return to the road. These days, I have only a week or two, only a very short time to cram the world into my heart. And a sip is better than nothing at all. But I miss the days when I had time to sit for months, to circle carefully around new situations and tiptoe slowly in.
It is unlikely I will ever work up the energy to see the world. I will keep returning to the same places, puzzling over pronunciation of the same words, trying to wrap my head around the same people, emulating the way they step out in front of traffic, the gestures they make when they drive, the prickly-pear exterior guarding the sweetest softness, all of their unifying mannerisms, all of the ways place has influenced the way they speak and move and live.
It will fill me up until I cannot sleep. And I will slip on my sandals, pull a T-shirt over my head, and the night will feel like a familiar thing. I will walk down Weizmann and then Sha’ul HaMelech and then Bograshov and Ben Yehuda, past the tourists and beaches, the shaded promenades, the waxy leaves of desert plants, the dark alleyways and crumbling buildings, the air conditioners dripping onto the streets.
And I will want to stay. Because I always do. One sip is never enough.