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My quasi-religious pilgrimage to Oxford University — will I be judged sufficiently pious?

In past columns, Charlotte Day has illuminated aspects of her life as a Third Culture Kid who was born in Sydney, Australia, grew up mostly in New York and is now studying at an English boarding school in Kent. Today she describes her quest to earn a place at Oxford, which she has long revered as her spiritual home.

At 8:45 in the morning, my taxi turns down Holywell Street, and slows to a stop at the front entrance of New College, Oxford. Approaching the Santiago de Compostela of my adolescent dreams, my state of mind can best be described through shameless lyricism.

At this hour, the streets are populated only by the purposeful. Each dark-suited individual has some thought of unfathomable gravity revolving behind his or her furrowed brow. The morning light casts a celestial glow over the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bridge of Sighs. Uniformly, these benevolent sandstone structures breathe in the sun.

God be in my head

Despite these poetic musings, I am incredibly nervous. I left my boarding school bed at a chill 5:00 a.m., knowing I did not know Crime and Punishment well enough, I did not know the Brothers Karamazov at all, and my ideas about the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf were utterly laughable.

Once they found me out, would I break down crying? And what about the unseen poem I would be told to discuss on the spot? If it were impermeable, I would certainly not be able to bluff my way through it. After all, what spotty 17-year-old can deceive them? Those eagles of intellect, with their acute, focused gazes; indisputable, measured statements; considered pauses; lofty, balanced arguments…

Oh! It was all too judicious and reasonable for an impulsive wreck like me.

You see, my feelings about Oxford are akin to an otherwordly obsession. So passionate have I grown about this ancient seat of learning that my preparations for this journey, especially in recent months, had taken on a quasi-religious purposefulness.

I spent the end of last year trying to live up to a set of self-imposed monastic ideals. I was to be irreproachably right at all times, my logic to be consistently clear, my views to display great penetration and uncanny powers of observation.

I even dressed in a way that reflected these intellectual ideals: threadbare corduroys in varying neutral tones, and moth-eaten jumpers would create a suitable aesthetic. I was unsparing of myself, subsisting largely on Lenten fare (watery porridge, steamed broccoli, etc.), and never going to bed before one o’clock if I could be reading instead.

Now I simply had to get into Oxford to complete this quest for ascetic perfection.

Getting in to Oxford… Now I am remembering all those melancholy 13-year-old evenings listening to Professor Stuart Lee’s Beowulf lectures on iTunesU, craving with all my ill-adjusted, lonely heart, that one day I would be sitting in that lecture theatre.

Lo, the full, final sacrifice

I am inching closer. Sitting in New College’s Lecture Room Six, with my baggage stacked around me, I will not return to the outside world for four days, and each minute of each of those days is shrouded in mystery.

A steady click comes from the two connect-four sets in the room: the science and law applicants letting off steam.

I gaze around the room. The English applicant is curled into herself, scanning a volume of Ezra Pound with a look of fatalistic despair on her pinched face.

The classicists sit in a convivial circle, trading sections of newspaper.

I take out my Beowulf and start reviewing my notes — columns of fluorescent green post-its, each bearing a comment more absurd than the last. Will I look too intimidating if I do this? I do not seek to intimidate — if only I could tell everyone in that room how intimidated I feel!

I glance at the Russian poem I have been given to analyze, by Yevtushenko: age, youth, gorging an omelette…middle age…the paranoia of the young? Our tendency to fill our lives with empty nothings, like omelette gorging? But these are rather pedestrian observations — is not some sort of inspiration called for? I avail myself of some instant oatmeal — to weigh down those jumpy nerves with a bit of stodge.

It is not hard to spot the two Etonians. One, so endearingly badly dressed, his argyle jumper tucked into a pair of murky-water-green corduroys. Both, so painstakingly polite, so frightfully embarrassed about their origins, so terribly unwilling to share where they live, or let slip that a relative of theirs had once been at the college himself.

I do not deny that there is a lack of diversity in that room, nor do I seek to explain it. The other candidates I encounter in Lecture Room Six are, every one, interested, charming, honest, terribly nervous teenagers — not representative of a centuries-old tradition of inequality.

Beati quorum via (I will lift up my eyes)

I am summoned out of Lecture Room Six to confront the English interview, which takes place by an electric fire, in an office lined with volumes of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Perched uneasily on a fur-swathed sofa, I answer questions on Doctor Faustus and the aesthetics of mathematics. Each response meets with a dreamy sort of assent, notes are jotted, and the conversation becomes increasingly oblique.

And then it is time for my Russian interview. I climb to the top of a rickety wooden stairwell, after a walk through the quad, turned hostile in the penetrating wet. (By now it is our second day.)

One tutor merges with the sofa, which in its turn has disappeared beneath stacks of application forms, submitted essays, and Modern Languages Aptitude Tests. The other sits before the fire, her high forehead reflecting its glow.

The discussion that ensues prompts the eyebrow-raising and chilling nods I have foreseen, and then questions about War and Peace — leaving the deficiencies of my 13-year-old’s reading of that tome quite exposed.

Afterwards, I stand, bedraggled in the dark quad, with a terrible sense of emptiness. I have two more days to fill; ahead of me, long hours in Lecture Room Six drinking bitter Tetley tea from a plastic cup. The expansive passion I have carried inside for years has tightened, wound itself into a taut cord of longing.

And I saw a new Heaven

When the fellows swish in to formal dinner, I almost feel ill. I do not know where to rest my eyes, each square inch of wood paneling makes me twitch with anxiety.

We rise with the hollow thud of wood on wood, grace is muttered in Latin, a mallet bangs, and we sit again, our murmured conversation echoing from the high arches of the ceiling.

I have always envisioned an affinity between Oxford and the stars, and even carry an image of my 14th-century counterpart adjusting his astrolabe while attempting to unveil the secrets of the heavens.

I cannot help praying, then, that a benevolent cosmos might know of the yearnings — my own and those of the other applicants — sympathize with our plight, and sweep our destinies into her swirling compass.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we invite in a guru to help us sort out some of the misconceptions our site has been propagating over the past few weeks on spiritual quests.

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img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London

I may be a Third Culture Kid, but bring me the (gluten-free) figgy pudding!

We welcome back our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, for her final post of 2011. Melding together an interest in food with philosophical musings, she has crafted an ornament of love to what she calls her “triply displaced” Christmas.

Within the context of celebrating a displaced Christmas, my family offers an interesting case study.

In Australia, where I spent my first six years, my maternal grandparents always valiantly brought out a hot ham oozing brown sugar glaze, at a time of year when most Australians took to the beaches, celebrating over seafood and chilled beer.

In our vapor-filled family stronghold, we gathered about the fireplace, though no winter’s cold threatened outside, listening to carols from King’s College Cambridge.

Fired up by dreams of a white Christmas

My mother and I were forbidden from leaving the United States in December 2002, while our green card applications were being processed. So we settled on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as a place sure to bring us the then unfamiliar Christmas apparition: snow.

Snow it did, forcing my stepfather on to the ski slopes for the first time — a foray into the unknown he hopes never to repeat.

In our hotel room kitchen, we managed to melt the plastic mould around the Christmas pudding, setting off the hotel fire alarms. Yet even this misadventure did not chasten our efforts to bring English tradition with us, wherever we found ourselves celebrating.

This year’s family cook-fest

Now ensconced at an English boarding school, I have come “home” for Christmas to New York City, where my mother and stepfather live.

What fresh culinary (mis)adventures await? The ham lies in its canvas bag, in anticipation of that most keenly felt indignity: pineapple and toothpicks. My mother has produced two gluten-dairy free Christmas puddings, determined that I should not feel shortchanged in a season that can be unkind to those with restricted diets.

Her mince pies, however, were a failure, after the dairy free butter and shortening could not be pummeled into a shapely dough.

My stepfather’s choice of fowl has diverged from tradition: he settled on a pair of Cornish hens and a duck after months of deliberation, spurning turkey early on but then toying with chicken and goose. My mother and I forbade him from using the barbecue, barring all vestiges of Australia from our emphatically English pageantry.

The “true” meaning of Christmas — the wrong question?

When considering my family’s triple displacement — an English Christmas, celebrated by Australians in America — I sometimes wonder: is there some kernel of truth we are missing out on, by not being true to the home traditions of the cultures we live in? And are we missing out on the true meaning of Christmas anyway, amid the holiday’s surface distractions?

Taking the second question first, my answer is no. For me, the sensuality of Christmas is one of the best things about it. Before we can seek truth and integrity, we must first acknowledge that the vast majority of us revel in the commerciality, the gluttony, the clichés and platitudes, no matter how much we may condemn them.

John Betjeman does an excellent job of stripping back the excess in his poem “Christmas.” It is not the holiday’s religious significance alone, but the disparity between this significance (regardless of whether or not this resonates with us) and our concerns with triviality, that should give pause.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

But whereas Betjeman emphasizes the inadequacy of mankind’s efforts to celebrate the wonder of Christmas, I think we should not be so hard on ourselves. Is it not enough that there is a time of year when we all seem to bear a little more good will towards each other than usual, when we couple shameless self-indulgence with generosity?

Trivial, exuberant, voluptuous — why ever not?

The Christmas truce of 1914, when unofficial ceasefires took place along the Western Front, involved no burdensome reflections on the holiday’s true meaning. Rather, simple gestures like sharing tobacco transformed these few days into a symbol of fraternity, exemplifying the best of humanity.

As it happens, exchanging things, often trivial things, is a very potent expression of human feeling. The medium is, without a doubt, inadequate, but it is one with which we are comfortable — and is therefore as profoundly human as any Truth, spiritual, cultural, universal or otherwise.

Returning, then, to my family’s Christmas mishmash: my family associates English stodge with the best of human sentiment, and indulge in it to the full. We do not attempt to deny our weaknesses and are shamelessly gluttonous and commercial. We may not be faithful to the holiday traditions of the cultures that host us, but we have at least remained true to our innermost desires, and to what seems natural to us.

For what would a celebration of the best of human sentiment be, untempered by these most exuberant and voluptuous of our follies? In asserting this, I do not mean to glorify the self-indulgent: we would do well to become less so. I simply feel that our self-indulgence is as deeply human — and reflects as pertinent a truth — as any more outwardly meaningful way of celebrating this oft-contentious season.

Readers, any responses to Charlotte Day’s thoughts on her triply displaced Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first of our 12 Nomads of Christmas.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London, this time with a jolly holly border (no ivy, though — that’s for next year!).

My grandfather tried saving the world long before it became trendy — with mixed results

Our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, upon reading this month’s posts about those who displace themselves on behalf of those less fortunate, felt moved to contact her grandfather in Sydney, Australia, for a chat about his own experiences with international aid work, which began in the 1950s.

These days, it is a rare teenager who has not shown some evidence of civic engagement by a certain age: spending their summers beneath foreign suns in search of that fabled sensation, that fulfillment born of “helping others.”

Of course, no altruistic act is truly pure, but I would argue that it is better than nothing.

Nothing, however, is the word that best qualifies my own civic engagement. I have reached the age of 17 tacitly scorning the moral and spiritual quests of British gap-year students, as well as American Ivy-League hopefuls, from my comfortable desk chair.

I read Dostoevsky’s portraits of tormented youths, striving in vain and misguidedly to effect a change in society…and decide that changing the world is futile.

Yet a chastening thought sometimes breaks through this complacency: there are many who do valuable work. There are many who displace themselves — not only from their comfortable desk chairs, but from comfortable world-views and notions — to serve others, outside the framework of self.

My grandfather’s first foray into global philanthropy

One such person is my maternal grandfather, Robert Ayre-Smith. He entered the field of international aid before the idea of a “third world” even existed. As he informed me in our recent email exchange:

In the middle of the last century, there were the tropics, the Empire, the Americas, the colonies, etc. But they were not rated economically as is now the case.

Paradoxically, he chose animals over humans when he initially diverged from the family profession, medicine, and entered London’s Royal Veterinary College. His first appointment as a livestock specialist came in 1952, shortly after his marriage to my grandmother, Carol. The newlyweds set off for Kenya’s Rift Valley, where Robert set up a research station by Lake Naivasha, working with cattle, sheep and pigs. As motivation, he cites scientific interests in “tropical animal production” — a topic he’d investigated while doing graduate work at Louisiana State University.

As is often true of those who move from the halls of academe to real-life applications, Robert soon found that what he calls his “enthusiasm for science itself, and then for the benefits bestowed by scientific advances,” matured into “some feeling of disillusionment.” His focus shifted away from books to people — and looking at what small-scale farmers in Kenya’s villages were realistically capable of accomplishing.

But while he found fulfillment in these human interactions, he remained bothered by the tension between his “lofty agricultural scientist’s perspective” and the perspective taken by the farmers whose cares he was attempting to alleviate.

Some thirty years later, an “Aha!” moment

Fast forward to 1989, by which time my grandfather was working in Indonesia. During a roadside breakdown, Robert experienced an epiphany. Watching a nearby farmstead owner and his family tending their crops and livestock, he “started to question the appropriateness of much [then] current agricultural research for increasing crop and livestock productivity.”

His own knowledge, “derived from vastly different circumstances,” seemed markedly out of place. Until then, he’d been seeing agricultural development in the Third World through the lens of First World research, where commercial farms are relatively large-scale operations, and where farmers are literate and can therefore study results and adopt them to increase their productivity.

Yet most Third World farmers are fighting an altogether different battle. Their farms are small in scale, with “only two acres for the house, food crops and animals and virtually no machinery except hoe and sickle.”

From that time on, my grandfather thought it would be unreasonable — and betrayed a lack of empathy on the part of the professed do-gooder — to expect farmers in Indonesia and other developing countries to make changes according to developed-world research. He became a founding member of the Asian Farming Systems Association in 1991, which aimed to “undertake research of relevance to the farmer that it was hoped to benefit.”

As he concludes in his message to me:

So you see, Charlotte, it took time to mature my thoughts and approaches — a lot of time.

The world as one’s oyster — whatever that means

This being the Displaced Nation, I felt obliged to ask to what extent my grandfather ever felt himself displaced in the course of his work. “NEVER!” came his emphatic reply. He traces the desire to live and work abroad to his mother, “a great traveler in body and soul.”

Born and raised in India “at the height of the Raj,” my great-grandmother was educated in England and Switzerland before traveling widely in the United States and then working in France as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during World War I.

Even after marrying, she continued to travel the Continent.

As Robert puts it: “I believe I may have learned from her that the world was my oyster — whatever that means. Certainly I have never had fear of the world.”

The only environment in which he recalls being ill at ease was Bogotá, Colombia, in 1980, where he was conscious of an underlying malaise about a possible recurrence of La Violencia, the nation’s horrifying period of civil conflict that had taken place from 1948 to 1958. He remembers being “hoicked out of a bus” between the Amazonian Basin and Bogotá by “some roadside gang — or was it the police?” It did not help matters that he found himself “doing an impossible job that no one really wanted [him] to do.”

Even in the presence of immense danger, my grandfather appears to have taken things in his stride. Here’s how he described being in Baghdad in late 1956, when the city revolted as a result of the British and French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis:

I remember no fear although there was one moment when I was in the street of gold and silver smiths when a big and noisy mob rushed down a street parallel to it and all the merchants pulled down their corrugated metal shutters. Machine gun fire ensued.

A plethora of lessons learned

When I asked what he considered the most effective form of international aid, my grandfather’s immediate answer was “the health and welfare of under-privileged people, maybe I should say village people.” Yet this, he added, is not a form of aid, it’s an aim of aid. He went on: “Moreover, it sounds very pompous — as there are plenty of under-privileged people in all parts of the world, not just in villages.”

On the matter of food aid, Robert had this to say:

I could make a good case against food aid, and against some of the inappropriate advice that I gave in the past to small and large landholders. But what I can say with some confidence is that people in the front line of providing development aid must have empathy with those towards whom the aid is directed.

Empathy formed the heart of his approach — coupled with a saying of his father’s, borrowed from Hamlet (Act I, Scene iii):

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not thence be false to any man.

Robert and Carol now live in Sydney, Australia — the last in a long series of displacements. Though he contentedly remembers his work in developing countries, and those with whom he worked, Robert prefers to focus on the present. Yet from time to time, he allows those close to him glimpses of the past — cuttings from the swathes of his memory.

His experiences have persuaded me that it does not pay to be defeatist about “changing the world” — and that the world, even amid current extremes of xenophobic paranoia, is nothing to be afraid of.

Readers, questions for Charlotte — or responses to her grandfather’s insights?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by the Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, Mary-Sue Wallace.

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img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London

Bon appétit, really? A TCK’s encounter with French cuisine — and culture

Our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, regales us with stories of encounters with France and French cuisine that piqued her curiosity somewhat more than her palate.

My experience of France and of French food consists of a miserable trip to Paris and the Loire Valley with my mother and stepfather in cold, drizzly March, and an even more miserable language exchange to Lyon last February.

The first experience saw us through innumerable cafés au lait, pains au chocolat and frothy miracles of haute cuisine in the Loire Valley. Afterwards, my mother went on her first raw food diet.

The second was a mandatory school trip for all French-language students at my boarding school in England, which I faced with more optimism than most. Two weeks in Lyon, two weeks back in England, dramatic language improvement and cultural interchange — why ever not?

From the moment we boarded the Eurostar, however, things did not look promising. Two boys arrived sporting Union Jacks and carrying paper cut-outs of Wills and Kate. The rest had already scoured their exchange partners’ Facebook pages and resolved to dislike them.

I suppose I ought to have anticipated this Anglo-French clash, given the historical precedents. Yet the English contingent’s narrow-mindedness unsettled me.

Yes, we were sacrificing a holiday to spend two weeks with a stranger. But their genuine unwillingness to learn, Anglo-supremacist attitude and lack of curiosity were a little disturbing.

As we descended into the arrivals hall of Lyon Part-Dieu station, the smiles of expectant correspondents ought to have rebuffed the querulous English students. Yet each went through his or her initial greeting with as pronounced an English accent as possible.

You are what you eat

My exchange partner and her mother drove me back to their beautiful old farmhouse, in a village known for horse breeding. My bedroom was large and warm, my French not as bad as I’d feared it to be.

And yet one anxiety still plagued me: sustaining a gluten-and-dairy-free diet in England was sufficiently difficult, but in France, I imagined, next to impossible. I sat in my room, weighing the relative merits of two weeks’ stomach cramps against starvation — and how to explain in French the effects of wheat, barley and rye on the small intestine?

What I found in the dining room occasioned raw joy: steamed vegetables, fish and salad. Likewise in the kitchen: a refrigerator shelf full of yahourt au soja. To their question “Ça marche?” I would have poured forth encomiums had I mastered a suitable vocabulary set. But I could not move beyond “Oui, c’est fantastique” before we sat down to eat.

This first meal was to be the most talkative of my two-week sojourn. As the breakfasts and dinners succeeded one another in an endless cortège of fresh fruit, perfectly steamed broccoli and silence, I felt that either starvation or stomach cramps around a more convivial table would have been preferable.

My exchange partner was kind, but icy. Her fastidious and sparing eating habits made me feel a glutton in comparison. Her mother ate protein powder in yoghurt more often than a solid meal. Eventually, my mornings were characterized by a solitary repast of fruit salad — no one else seemed to be eating.

Ghosts at the feast

The occasional apparition flitted around the dinner table — some closer to human form than others. The first was Pierre, the former lover of my exchange’s mother, with whom she was still sharing living expenses. He was tall and corpulent with a thunderous voice. She had cast him from her life — but only driven him out as far as the other end of the house, where he entrenched himself in a study strewn with half-smoked cigars.

At least he ate like a Frenchman — belonged to the cult of taste, before that of health. Yet he vanished soon after his first appearance, driving off to see his mother in a neighboring town. He returned after five days, at two o’clock one morning, and left again the next day.

The second apparition was my exchange partner’s boyfriend, Samson — a thin, pale young man with an unruly mass of curls; a maths prodigy who’d set his sights on attending one of the grandes écoles.

Samson, too, was slightly less given to subsist on lettuce and pumpkin seeds. My exchange partner lovingly provided him with a baguette and chocolate — which he would munch while explaining to me the superiority of the French educational system.

He cross-examined me on my plans for the future. I had got as far as a spectral PhD in Russian Literature, when he stopped me with a shocking rejoinder:

Il faut réfléchir, Charlotte! La vie est sérieuse. (In essence: “Life will pass you by before you have accomplished anything.”)

I refrained from pointing out that he had not planned beyond the classes préparatoires, or prépas — two hellishly difficult years spent preparing for university entrance tests. Instinctively, I commended his ambition and drive — yet felt him ill qualified to condemn my lack of perspective given his own determination to sacrifice two years of his youth to a virtually unattainable goal.

My tryst with moules frites

Midway through my stay, our funereal meals were interrupted by my exchange’s mother taking us on her weekend-long tryst in Brussels. She’d discovered that a childhood sweetheart was living in Belgium’s capital, and over the past months, they’d re-cultivated their relations. My exchange and I were invited along as third and fourth wheels.

José, the new lover, was almost as much the gourmand as Pierre, his predecessor.

Yet of his guests, I was the only one who ate at all.

Our meals together included lunch in a traditional Belgian restaurant, where I unadvisedly ordered moules-frites without the butter, causing a scandal in the kitchen.

We had Thai for dinner — a first for my partner and her mother — after which I turned around to see the latter and José kissing passionately on the curb.

Resolving to see something of Brussels at all costs, I accompanied the couple on a walk to the markets, while my partner sat sullenly in José’s penthouse apartment. There, I stared mournfully at beautifully packaged jams, cheeses and Breton biscuits — knowing that we were to leave for Lyon that evening, where another week of salad and silence awaited.

I returned to England appreciably thinner, with an improved French accent and a block of Belgian chocolate for my mother.

Though my experience of France did not come floating in butter, it was more French than I could ever have anticipated.

Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, should she have any future encounters with France?

img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, offering a few last-minute Halloween costume suggestions for Displaced Nation citizens.

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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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