The Abandoned Forest

They lie on the sidewalk, cold and naked. Who knows what rural burg they were taken from; almost certainly they were more beautiful then. But that was before they were cut down and dragged to the city — dispersed, separated from kin, transformed into refugees, and propped up for the delight of others. And then the families that embraced them simply put them out into the cold and the dark. With bare limbs, they wilt and rot by the roadside, slowly fading into sicklier shades until by some mercy a municipal worker brings around the wood chipper, and shoves them in.

It’s a strange sight this time of year, these little patches of discarded forest. Some have been flocked in gold while others are humble, small and sad. They are all dying — needles turning brown and sloughing off. Yet they once brought so much joy and warm sentiment. Is this the Western equivalent of the Tibetan sand mandala: to dress a pine tree in a tangle of lights and ornaments, stuff its undercarriage with gifts delicately wrapped in paper that will be torn to shreds, and then pick it apart again and toss the whole thing out with the trash?

The imagery seems all the weirder here in the District of Columbia, in this seething, sinking swamp. All around it looks like a Lilliputian lumberjack went to town on a pine forest no one knew the city had, leaving his bounty by the stoop. And with temperatures this January that would sooner be fit for Southern California, it’s easy to forget that we even just had Christmas. But the evidence is all down the block, a littering of holiday spirit, now as lifeless as dried sap.

Our tree never was alive. It never felt the breeze winnow through its branches, the cleansing force of a soaking rain, or the freshness of the morning dew. But it never felt the pain of  being sawed from its roots either. It never grew. Like an android, it was made by man — pieced together in some Chinese boomtown like Shenzen by people who are probably now scrambling aboard a train to get home for the Lunar New Year. While it stood in our apartment, I noticed an ornament that I didn’t remember either my wife or I picking out: a paper triangle with a “B” on it. It was the product tag. It’s still on there, with the tree that now sleeps beneath our bed.

Morning on Castle Hill, Budapest

Úri utca (Lords' street), Budapest

J and I wound our way up to the top of Castle Hill along the cobblestone path, just as we had done the night of our arrival in Budapest. Then it had been dark, and some of the stones had been covered in a treacherously thin glaze of ice. But our empty stomachs and the nine hours of plane travel — plus six spent fitfully trying to sleep in Amsterdam’s airport — had urged us out into the fresh night air.

Now, six days later, it was a pleasantly cool and grey morning; there was a slight mist in the air that I had to continually wipe from my camera lens. Compared with our earlier night walks around the Royal Palace grounds, the place was thronging with tourists. But we muddled through them, past the bronze sculpture of the mythical yet menacing “turul” bird, and a field of ruins being slowly unearthed. From a platform raised above them, we caught our first view of west Buda in the full daylight; we had seen it once before on Christmas Eve in the drizzle and the dark, and the lights of the buildings then seemed to float disembodied in the inky fog. It was clearer now, and the whole panorama unfolded. It was a surprisingly hilly region, in stark contrast to the flatness of Pest,  and dappling the landscape in the distance were haphazard clusters of houses. They looked as though they had been shaken out from a great cup, like sprinkles on a bundt cake.

While Pest and the Castle District of Buda where we stood were known to possess the architectural marvels of the city, this view was impressive in a special way. Below in those homes were the quiet and unknowable machinations of thousands of lives, linked to eras of both great human inspiration and destruction (a land impacted by Franz Liszt’s compositions and the shells of Soviet tanks), now appearing settled in a grey and calm moment. And beyond the mist, the whole stretching expanse of Western Europe.

We meandered the full length of Lovas út gazing at this scenery, occasionally turning our heads to look at the splendid old homes and down the alleyways. Invariably, J and I debated over which apartment we would want to live in, taking into account how the leaves of the trees — when they reappeared — would obscure the vista. There was one unit with a tiny deck and an appropriately small sitting hammock, which I liked. J picked out the deck two floors above where there was a small and simple table, just large enough, perhaps, for a couple of cups of coffee.

At the end of the street we turned toward Úri utca, Lords’ street, and a stunning view of the patchwork diamond roof of the National Archives building — looking like a shiny plate of ornamented clay, gold and turquoise scales. As we walked down the avenue, I found myself wondering where the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (who I’d been reading during our trip) might have stayed when he visited Budapest. I imagined the street bustling with life and the clacking of carriages and pull carts, as must have passed often that April in 1934. We went up between the conical pylons of Fishermen’s Bastion, designed, according to my guidebook, to resemble the tents of the ancient Magyars. From here we could see the whole of Pest, no hills to hide any corner, and behind us the jagged, sawlike steeple of the Mátyás Church.

Before descending into our final afternoon — we planned to tour the Opera House, an amazing and ornate structure — we found our way to the green exterior walls of the Ruszwurm coffee house, the city’s oldest, and ducked inside. I had a slice of cake with raspberry merengue and gel, while J had a double chocolate cake named after the cafe. We both ordered cappuccinos, and as at every kávéház in Budapest, they came served with tiny shot-glass size cups of water — a detail I loved. I tried to imagine all the people — the writers, aristocrats and diplomats — that likely inhabited this cozy space for brief moments; or in successions of moments, writing, dawdling, meeting with friends, and then one day never returning. But it was difficult without a firmer grasp on the history of Hungary.

While I was thankful for many things we chanced upon during our trip, among them was a new spark of curiosity and a morsel of knowledge about this part of the world. I had a feeling that we would be returning — an urge, really, already developing. It would be warmer, I think, with foliage on the trees, and some time not too far away.

Stomping Grounds

These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.

– Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

I don’t return often to Seattle these days, but when I do, I have a habit of revisiting old haunts — as I suspect many do when they come home after a long spell of being away. The feelings that accompany the experience differ by place. If a store or building has changed a lot, then I am distracted, surprised and maybe saddened at being unable to revisit that particular corner of my memory. If it has stayed the same, then it acts as a canvas: How have I changed, what roads have I taken since I last left this ground? More often places have undergone only subtle alterations, creating what feel like surreal pockets of the city where personal history and new realities converge.

Cafe Allegro is one such place. I slung coffee there as a college student before moving to the Midwest and onward. When I started it was summer and I was still living at home in the suburbs. I made my way through several late shifts a week, loading up on caffeine and free day-old pastries, and shutting it down with the help of a co-worker after eleven o’clock. Then I would make the drive south along an emptied Interstate 5, eyeing routes east as I plunged through the heart of downtown.

The cafe was fronted by a pay parking lot that was almost perennially empty, giving patrons and the baristas a full view of the leafy University of Washington campus through the tall windows. The vista was even better from the upstairs deck. But even while I worked there, the threat of development loomed. There was a petition to bar the construction over the lot — which would close Allegro into an alley — and to turn it into a park instead. It almost goes without saying that, in a city hungry for growth, the effort failed.

A friend and I visited the cafe on my most recent trip back to the Northwest in late November, and on the night we arrived it was predictably chilly and damp. People sat outside on the bench smoking cigarettes in a wash of yellow light, facing the wall of the new building. My friend remarked that the feeling of the place was different. Though Allegro had remained in the same spot for more than 30 years, it now occupied someplace hidden; it was easy enough, in the winter dark, to pass by the alley without turning your head to notice the coffee shop’s existence.

We went inside, ordered drinks and looked around. All of the workers were new (or new since I’d worked there).  I saw three regulars that I still recognized; one of them did a double-take when he saw me but couldn’t seem to place my face.

It was strange that the cafe had remained — mostly unbowed to change — with people flowing in and out of its walls like the regular ebb of the tide since a time when my friend and I would have sat there discussing the stresses of organic chemistry and planetary science. And now we had washed ashore so many years later, altered, new, only to roll out back into the night a few moments later, with no thought of when we might find the place again.

Life, Mediated

For someone who spent his high school years tinkering with the Visual Basic programming language and the inner-workings of Linux, I have approached technology in recent years with a surprising amount of unease. I am not on Facebook, for example. While I own a smartphone, it took me a good long while before I really integrated it into my life — joining the engrossed masses who put themselves in danger daily of running into a light pole. My record on twitter has been spotty. One or two tweets a day is about the most I can muster, and I’ve been known to leave the conversation for weeks.

I’m not sure when I developed this reluctance to embrace the new era of digital connectedness. It started growing as a just a vague sense, I think, during my years in Wisconsin — not as a repulsive force, but rather out of my being drawn the opposite direction. I spent a lot of time riding my bike out in the fresh air, reading paper books and paper newspapers, and spending time in coffee shops with friends. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was able to articulate this notion, or rather, found it so clearly articulated by someone else. The travel writer Pico Iyer, in a column, described his life in Japan as unfettered by mobile phone calls or high-speed Internet, and instead filled with rambling walks and afternoons spent writing letters longhand.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.

This resonated with me. At the time, I was spending six days a week locked in front of a computer screen editing copy for a newswire. Meanwhile, what I longed to do was to travel, and immerse myself in the journey such that my sense of place would not be fractured by an impulse to share each step with a global Internet community, or by allowing the noise in. I mulled the idea of quitting all social media to embrace a purer life with just a notebook and pen. (OK, and email, too.)

I didn’t, of course. Maybe it was just addiction, but I would like to think it was because I was tempering this impulse with a measure of reality — something I think is missing from Iyer’s essay. Severing ties draws us inward and makes us less “of the world,” to borrow a friend’s phrasing. There probably isn’t much value in tweeting every thought that flits into our heads, or in poking  people and scribbling on their walls (or whatever it is people do on Facebook). But there is also certainly something valuable about being able to partake in the wider discussion, and connect with views and perspectives around the globe.

The counterpoint to this, and perhaps the other extreme that Iyer would warn against, was described in an article in this Sunday’s Times by William Deresiewiscz called “Generation Sell.” While I would disagree with a lot of the finer arguments he makes, I think the author is spot-on in saying that many in my generation use social media to brand themselves, and carefully craft their outward message. I’m guilty of this myself — I think anyone who has been a freelance writer is. But the pressure to feed our own personal PR machines carries a real danger. It not only fractures our experiences by taking up considerable time and attention, it impinges our ability to really observe.

The key then is to strike a balance in this new world, somewhere between reclusive asceticism and full-out salesmanship, that allows us to communicate in a meaningful way while still being present. It’s not easy, but it’s something to work toward.

Sideways on the Pocomoke River

We were not born kayakers — that was becoming quite clear. Almost as soon as we’d paddled out of the docks at Shad Landing, near our campsite along the Pocomoke River, our boat began veering sharply and inadvertently to the left.

“Steer!” I called to J, who was sitting in the back. “You need to steer!”

“I am steering!” she shouted back. “You’re not paddling hard enough!”

We continued to swing off course, almost going sideways now against the current. At J’s instruction I dug in hard with the right side of my paddle, trying at the same time not to fling sheets of river water into J’s face. Slowly, we began to correct. And then (despite my strong paddling) we began pulling to the right.

Shad Landing, Pocomoke River State Park

We repeated this frantic exercise about a dozen times, S-curving against the gentle flow of the Pocomoke’s black waters (so colored because of the cyprus trees growing along its banks) for the better part of a half an hour. Our inability to move in anything resembling a straight line was so ludicrous that we gave up for a while, floating in the middle of the river while laughing hysterically. That laughter gave way and I became more panicked when two jet-skis buzzed along either side of us, leaving us bobbing precariously in their wake. Our untrained arms had already grown tired by then, and we decided that — rather than try to continue the well-traveled loop down a creek — we should just turn back.

And that’s when things got borderline stupid. With the current now at our backs, each misdirection was amplified, so much so that we nearly crashed into tree branches along the banks, and then — after completing most of a 360 degree turn — went blundering through a patch of fronds jutting above the river’s surface. We avoided careening into a passing canoe paddler (who looked on with an expression of great confusion) by again nearly running into the banks.

Somehow, we maneuvered our way back to dry land. J and I laughed and grinned sheepishly at each other as we stood back aboard the docks. “We’re not telling anyone about this,” she said.

I took off my life jacket and went to go pay for our 45 minutes of boat rental. “For sure,” I said.

***

This was J’s first time camping. We had been accumulating the necessary gear for the better part of a year, first buying a tent that was on sale last November, and then by making regular pilgrimages to REI for every sale thereafter. By the time we had all the necessities — sleeping pads, sleeping bags, cooler, stove … — the oppressive mid-Atlantic summer heat had set it. And so we waited. When we finally settled upon the last weekend in September, the forecast changed to rain. We pushed our plans back by one more week, but with a new determination that we would get out and make the best of any weather. That determination was tested when a cool drizzle rolled over DC on Saturday morning, but J had already prepped our food and our gear was all laid out. We loaded up the car, swung by the store for last-minute s’mores essentials, and set out down Highway 50.

When we arrived at Pocomoke River State Park — a low-key campsite suggestion from a co-worker — the sky was a light mix of blue and grey. We set up camp, went for our embarrassing river excursion, took a walk along a swampy path called The Trail of Change, and then circled back to our site to start building a fire. This would be another experience that would dent my (admittedly baseless) self-image as a natural outdoorsman. The rain from the previous days had left most of the kindling damp, and logs we bought from the camp store were so dense that they refused to catch. We burned a week’s worth of New York Times issues trying to get them started, but were left with only inky ash.

It was lucky that Terry, who was at the campsite across from ours, had seen our struggle. “Need some cheater fluid?” he asked, offering a cup of bluish liquid in a styrofoam cup. We gratefully accepted, but even doused in lighter fluid, the logs wouldn’t stay lit. Terry walked over again, wearing cuffed up sweatpants, flip-flops and a stocking cap, this time with a pile of kindling he had collected and an axe. He showed us how to build a little teepee out of the kindling and newspaper, then chopped down some of the logs we had so they would light easier. “Once you get that going, you just start stacking ’em like Lincoln Logs and keep on feeding it,” he said with a friendly smile. It seemed like Terry and his wife Chris were accustomed to offering this kind of help to strangers. The couple had spent many nights out on Maryland’s beaches during the summer, and retreated into the woods for fall, he said.

J and I watched the fire burn brighter even as darkness gathered in the forest. We saw stars through the canopy of trees, and for the first time in a long while, heard what night sounds like absent the crying of sirens. We ate potatoes and kielbasa out of foil pouches, and made s’mores for dessert. In the chilly air, I breathed deeply, and felt still.

The Elsewhere Illness

It was a little more than a year ago that we peeled away from the tarmac of South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, bound for Hong Kong. Early that morning J and I had hoisted our bags onto our backs, snapped a parting photo of the door to our Seoul apartment — Unit 703 — and then lumbered down to the metro. We were both sad and excited; after a final exhausting week of preparing to leave our adopted home, we allowed the plans we had set in motion to carry us forward.

We landed in a foreign world. While J had visited the tropics in other regions, neither she nor I had experienced this part of Asia, and its features were fantastic. The machinery of the city was stitched together over spits of land. It was cut into steep peaks and nestled into jungle, with Hong Kongers traversing it unblinkingly via boat, tram, underwater train, careening double-decker or soaring cable car. The humidity was so impermeable that we woke each morning in our air-conditioned hotel to fine drops of dew on the comforter.

The end of the line at Shek O, Hong Kong Island

It was overwhelming — and wonderful. We slurped strong milk tea and drank fresh mango slushies; we ate delectable crab congee; we cooled ourselves in the waters of a tiny bay after a sweltering hike along “The Dragons Back”; and we versed ourselves on the history of the qipao, the stunning, form-fitting dress that is iconic of Hong Kong. The heady mishmash of experiences had us buzzed for the road ahead through China, India and Southeast Asia. It seems strange now that barely three weeks later, in a hostel in the middle of Xian, the momentum was broken.

We were considering a change of plans after reading reports that dengue fever was rampant in Delhi, and one surprisingly cheap plane ticket would have taken us back through Incheon. Suddenly, I found myself aching at the thought of returning to Seoul.

“I can’t,” I said to J. “If we go back, I don’t think I’ll be able to leave again.”

***

It’s been called lots of things, but the nuance is different with each turn of phrase. “Wanderlust” is a common encapsulation of it; “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is another, although that’s more negative. What I was suffering from — and continue to be afflicted by — is what I call “the elsewhere illness.” It’s that involuntary habit of losing yourself in where you were, or where you would like to be. It comes suddenly but its effects linger, like a chill or a heart palpitation. You might spend an afternoon coping with the residuals, finding that spot on a map and then just wishing to relive the feelings that place brought. Or you might just scroll through flight times on the Internet for a while, hovering over the “purchase” button when you find the one you like.

It’s not always that self-indulgent. One of the most wrenching fits of it I ever saw was after a friend of mine back in high school named S, who had come to the Seattle area from Korea to live with her father, opened a care package from her mom. It had clothes and some books, and a short note. After reading it, she just knelt down on the carpet for a while and cried — wishing, I’m sure, to be back with her mother for even just a moment, to reclaim her old life.

A few days later, S and I drove down to shore of Puget Sound, and with the waters of the Pacific at our feet, I pointed northeast and said, child-like, “Korea is just over there.” She cracked a smile. That’s the bright point of the elsewhere illness; it can inspire a feeling of connectedness, or drive an ambition to move onward and upward.

But the great irony of the elsewhere illness is that while it may push you out the door and onto the road for adventure, you continue to carry it. The problem then is obvious: even when you arrive, you’re never fully there — the present is obscured by restlessness. There were times while living back in Unit 703, usually in the morning, that I would look out our window onto the quiet Seoul neighborhood below. Occasionally I would see people watering their roof gardens, or jumping rope in a morning exercise routine. I would try to just be still and take it all in, reminding myself of how I had dreamed of making the city my home for years. But I could never quite focus, and there were many other times I spent sitting in that apartment feeling just plain homesick.

The View from Unit 703, Seoul

Negotiating a balance between a passion for “elsewhere” and desire to be happy — I might even say “settled” — in my daily life has been my work since moving to Washington. Admittedly, what I have often felt since arriving here has been akin to the ache that struck me in Xian. It isn’t helped by the way I’ve chosen to keep up my Korean listening skills: listening to a downloaded radio talk show about — of course — travel. For a change of pace, I decided to try listening to a different show one week, this one called “Blue Night with Jeong Yeop.”

The first show I listened to as I rode the train home from work. It opened with bit of moody piano and an easy beat; then a narrator, presumably Mr. Jeong, piped in with an even moodier, ponderous tone. “Sometimes people ask us, ‘When was the happiest moment in your life?”” he said. “Most people who are asked this question hesitate — not because they can’t think of a happy moment, but because they can’t figure out how to separate them, how to pick the right one.”

Here he added: “You don’t have to agonize over it, though. Because the right answer is, ‘That moment hasn’t arrived yet.'”

It was cheesy, but it made me chuckle. The train came up out of the tunnel and onto the bridge across the Potomac, and briefly the evening sunlight filtered into the car where I sat. A few moments passed before the train sank down into the earth again, and pulled ahead.

Walks Around Town

GOING OUT FOR WALKS has become a part of my routine, though the time is never fixed. There was never a need to schedule a walk back in Seoul. Aside from the metro, which leaves swaths of the city uncovered, feet were how I got around. And that suited me. After so many hours kept in front of the computer, once turned loose I was liable to amble on for miles.

Since returning from our travels, J and I have been staying with her parents in a small Wisconsin town bordering Illinois. Like many true US towns (not suburbs or subdivisions or sub-what-have-yous), it is dying. Business has drained from its downtown and walking is not really a part of people’s lives anymore — though there is plenty of waddling at the Walmart.

J grew up here. She’s shown me the trails and the parks, and sometimes we just stroll around her neighborhood. On each walk we see signs of fall yielding to winter; one tree stood bare with all of its leaves lying in a neat circle around it, like a woman who had suddenly dropped her dress. During one outing I actually saw kids playing in the street (I thought they’d all been lost to Xbox and forgot about their yards). But they, too, have since retreated.

This morning the sky was sunny and crisp. The season’s first cold snap had blown in the night before, and the leaves still left hanging were tinged an especially brilliant red. On the lawn, frost huddled in patches of shade.

I put on my hat and scarf and set out alone this time. I walked across the road, past the empty baseball fields and down to the creek. The park was absolutely empty, though I hesitate to say not a soul was there, for it lies next to the cemetery and you never know what hovers above those graves.

It was probably the most isolated I had been in months, and that gave me both calm and unexpected fright. I walked on the grass and was happy for its springiness, its give. I heard the rhythm of my breathing. Like entering a hot bath, a walk takes easing into. Once you’ve adjusted you feel like you could float away.

I had brought my headphones just in case I wanted to listen to the news while I walked. I didn’t, really. The sound of chittering squirrels and the flapping of a robin’s takeoff was a good soundtrack. I almost started talking to myself (the thinking habits of an only child) but then held my tongue.

I went back across the road, into the neighborhood. Eventually I popped in my earbuds: rounds fired from North Korea, analysis of the Brazilian election. A whole world going on out there. And me, just walking down the street.