‘The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all the bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments throughout the rest of life, and which in some cases can even survive a visit to the real countries which they are supposed to represent.’
In my admittedly limited travels around the world, I have found there is much truth in this, that the few countries I’ve visited have differed in some respects from the images I had built up in my mind of how they were, based on books I had read about them. But how could they not?
When we read about a place, we get only bits and pieces of what that place may be like: an exotic bazaar filled with the smells of pungent spices and cooking, merchants loudly hawking their wares, oppressive heat, streets filled with bike-taxis. But no matter how many details the writer gives us, it’s still only a small portion of what that place may be like in real life, for the people who actually live there, day in and day out. Vacations tell only part of the story, and how can they not? You can’t really know a place in a quick two-week visit. Most vacationers see only the best parts of any place they stay, but for people who live and work there, who deal with the politics, the job market, housing prices, lack of social mobility, isolation, walking past the same weed-choked lots every day on their way to work, they probably wonder why anyone would pay to come and vacation in their town. I know I’m always surprised to hear people actually plan vacations to my city. I think, of all the wonderful, unusual, exciting places in the world, why would anyone come here for a vacation? I’d probably think the same thing if I lived in Manhattan (ok, maybe not Manhattan).
To live and exist in a place makes it look very different from someone who only comes for a short stay and spends the time doing the things most natives never get around to doing. Maybe it is a different place. I’ve never set foot on any local golf course, but we have a couple of world-class courses here that people actually deliberately travel here to play. I find that strange, but I know that to anyone not familiar with this area it could very well seem exotic to them. What is mundane to me could be remarkable in someone else’s eyes. Some of the books I read as a child (and even as an adult) are more real to me than some of the places I’ve actually been to, especially the ones I’ve read multiple times.
One of the stories I’m working on, which began life as a NaNoWriMo novel, is set in a location that is only partially known to me. I know the present day area, but I’m setting it in the past, and so much research and imagination is coming into play. The past is as exotic to me as an Indian bazaar. In the end, I want people to think they could still travel there, walk those streets, and look at the houses, and say, “Oh that must be her house!” Can I pull it off? Time will tell.