The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

The road trip and the teenage soul

Beginning today, Charlotte Day joins The Displaced Nation as monthly columnist and will comment on our themes from her third culture kid (Australia-US-UK) perspective. September, of course, was road trip month. Though Charlotte has yet to earn her driver’s license, the prospect of free time between high school and university has begun to fuel her imagination…

Sitting at my English boarding school desk, with English boarding school weather drizzling down from the sky outside my window, the idea of a road trip seems utterly foreign. While I’ve been putting together my application for English universities over the past week, which involves a disgustingly trite “personal statement,” the post-exam summer has been jeering at me from behind an ever-growing pile of books.

The road trip represents all of a stressed and stifled sixth former’s ideals, the first being absolute freedom. This freedom is born more of security than anything else — exams finished, hopefully a university offer in the bag, five whole months to dispose of, no looming responsibilities. The image of the angst-ridden teenager is romanticized and misguided: we do not seek malaise and uncertainty but rather comfort and certainty.

Evaluated in this sense, the road trip is akin to a ghost story. The pleasure we take in listening to ghost stories comes from the knowledge that, though the tale itself may threaten, secure reality encircles and protects us. Teenagers nowadays go adventuring in South America, more often than not supervised by charitable organizations and subsidized by their parents. Setting off into the wilds, they seek a future that doesn’t seem vulnerable to any current of chance. Rather, adventure is a brief detour from a pre-set plan.

I have often contemplated my own post-exam adventure in the form of a road trip across the Australian desert with one of my oldest friends. Yet, I am tempted to wonder, what is the point of venturing into the unknown, if only to return to the comfort of the known?

A true coming-of-age adventure would take courage — and would not end in merely turning the van around and arriving home with several memory-sticks full of photographs. That said, I do not cancel the possibility of driving through my native country — an experience that would very likely prove both enjoyable and “life-changing” in a tame sense. But my phantom road trip, eschewing tameness and security, is, undoubtedly, more interesting material for this column.

Let us begin, then, with the road. (I can’t say I know much about roads, save that hairpin bends on a mountainside are as hair-raising as country dirt roads are romantic.) Given that this is the Displaced Nation, familiarity with the territory is out of the question. I will forcibly displace myself — ruling out the United States, England and Australia.

Setting out to conquer … Western Siberia?

This still leaves a huge selection of countries — and having done the electronic version of sticking a pin at random in a world atlas, I have settled on Western Siberia.

Given I am a passionate Russophile and speak a modicum of Russian, my cursor couldn’t have landed on a better country. But confronted with the expanse of Western Siberia, it is doubtful that either of these qualities will be of much use. Perhaps it is telling that Google maps cannot plot a journey from Yakutsk, through Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, to Novosibirsk.

One dilemma instantly presents itself: where would I stop and spend the night? I would doubtless end up sleeping in the car for the vast majority of the trip, which brings us to the car itself. In my perhaps misguided road-trip fantasies, I had always pictured one of those old Volkswagen vans — slightly falling apart, squeaking along an endless highway.

But the prospect of breaking down in the middle of Western Siberia does not appeal to me. I must settle for a more prosaic Winnebago-type vehicle, and seek excitement elsewhere. And, as traveling through a wooded desert of sorts, alone, would be not only foolhardy but isolating, a companion seems necessary.

But who, of my sensible friends and relatives, would jump at the chance to travel Siberia in a Winnebago with an insane Russophile?

Given this journey is a child of my fancy, I will not scruple to add another fantastic fabrication: someone whom the power of affection has persuaded to join me on my ill-advised quest. In short, a boyfriend: thoroughly idealized, as a genuine boy in his late teens would prove a terrible nuisance, stuck in a Winnebago from Yakutsk to Novosibirsk. (But of course, the conceit of the comfortable Winnebago is also absurd: such things are found with difficulty in Russia.)

Relishing the … monotony?

You may ask, save an endless parade of trees, open space, greyish vegetation, what would I hope to see? Just that, smattered with the odd town, church cupola, river, lake, blue sky, grey sky, sunrise and sunset.

Unlike Konstantin Levin of Anna Karenina, I do not see myself losing my heart to the Russian land, and devoting my future to wheat threshing. I would become an unfulfilled Chekhovian heroine, stifled in the provinces.

But I believe the fields must be seen, just as we must eat bread, where macaroons would bring more pleasure to the taste buds. Macaroons, far from nourishing, make us fat and complacent. Bread sustains, and makes us grateful to be alive and fed.

I would like to see land in all its endless, characterless glory, to drive from sunrise to sunset, and to talk the night through (although not literally, as I would be loath to crash my Winnebago through exhausted inattention).

I envisage some sort of talisman, suspended from my rear-view mirror—and not one of those scented pine trees, seen so frequently dangling from the rear-view mirrors of American cars. Perhaps an Australian gum leaf on a string, as a reminder of my greater journey’s starting point, now eleven years in the distance.

After all, if I am not to return to the known at the end of this journey, I must bring a fragment of it with me, into the dangerous, the blank, the uncharted space, from which discovery springs.

Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, before she sets out on any phantom — or real — road-trip adventures?

img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, the first in a new series on the joys and challenges of being an expat in France and attempting to master French cookery.

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2 responses to “The road trip and the teenage soul

  1. Road Trip Dad October 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    The best trips are the ones where you don’t come back the same…doesn’t have to be a life changing experience, but something in you changes a little bit. Maybe it’s just a fresh perspective, but I always feel energized after a nice long trip.

  2. awindram October 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Charlotte, great to hear you’ll be contributing regularly to the site.

    i seem to remember as a sixth-former it was the thought of a vehicle rather than any sort of road trip you might use that vehicle for that excited me and that represented freedom. We were still going to the same prosaic places in the same prosaic town, but being driven by a friend rather than a parent was wonderful stuff even if the driving often left a little to be desired.

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