Last night just before I got into bed, I glanced at my little collection of notebooks stacked on the radiator and noticed my journal from my Lebanon/Syria trip from…geez, 1999? (The same one I swooned over a few entries back…)
I’m the worst journal-keeper–long ago, I kept a couple of self-indulgent minute-by-minute ‘wow-what-I’m-feeling-is-so-unique’ kind of travel diaries, and they were just so awful to read over again that it put me off the whole enterprise. I think I even chucked them out. But of course, because I also hate taking photos, and my memory sucks so terribly, whole swaths of my life are just plain gone. I’m sure I did enjoy living in the moment, though, even if I don’t remember what that involved.
So when I went trundling off to the Levant, I happened to pick up a little address book, and decided I would keep a journal based on alphabetical entries, rather than chronological ones, so I could maybe avoid some of the ‘and then I wandered around the streets and was awed…and then I went to dinner, and was awed…and then I sat and had coffee and thought some deep thoughts…’ kind of narrative.
Kids, don’t go po-mo in your travel journals. Your older self will hate you even more than when it reads your boring normal journal. Despite the charms of Calvino and Cortazar, narrative deconstruction has never really improved on anything.
Most infuriating: URGENT NOTES in all caps to WRITE TO so-and-so…who the hell was Abd al-Razzaq and what city did I meet him in? And when? And what was I supposed to write? I failed to write any dates next to the entries, so I couldn’t even reconstruct it chronologically if I wanted to (maybe I could piece together according to what pen I used?).
Another urgent note to self, lost until now: “DOLLY’S HOT KETCHUP–look up at home–Delaware?”
Thanks a freakin’ lot, grad-school Zora. It was all about looking things up, never actually learning them–I certainly didn’t internalize anything about Dolly’s, because I can’t remember what was so remarkable about it.
I guess it was ketchup. And it was hot. So that sounds good–so I looked it up today on the Internet, only to find that Dolly’s is a Lebanese brand, not an American one. And there seems to be no resource on the web for getting it in the US. A dead end, just like almost every other entry in my stupid diary.
Like, what was the name of the hotel in the tire district in Aleppo? Where’s the phone number of the Coke-seller-on-the-border’s mom? Who the hell is Bill? Where did I buy my carpet? What made me freak out and write the “Nerves” entry under “N”, in which I panic about being de facto trip leader? There are no other details from the day–just a messy blob of anxiety sitting there on the page, with no context.
I did at least have the presence of mind to write down the name of the amazing restaurant in Aleppo–Sissi House–where we dined under the watchful eye of old-school waiters who spoke textbook French (one eagle-eyed monsieur noticed that I’d had to spit out my vile-tasting green walnut into my napkin–he came over and discreetly told me that I was supposed to peel it first), and the lights went out but the oud player kept strumming sentimental tales of lost love, and the stars shone over the courtyard.
I remember all that without the aid of a diary or a photo, but I didn’t remember the cold lamb tongue slices, or the salad of green olives, cucumber and mint with a pomegranate-molasses vinaigrette. And I didn’t remember that I’d once again confused the words for grilled stuff and stuffed stuff (even now I can’t remember which is mahshi and which is mashwi), and ended up with a table full of meat instead of the stuffed vegetables I’d been hankering for.
Maybe if I’d written my diary in a more accessible way, I’d have my Arabic vocab straight, and I’d have been eating that olive-and-cucumber salad all this time! And why didn’t I just buy a bottle of Dolly’s Hot Ketchup while I was there? Reading these little snippets in this diary made me fear for all the other things (especially food) I must have forgotten.
But what’s gone is gone–and now I happen to have a job that requires that I take copious, obsessive notes about all the unsentimental aspects of a trip: prices, addresses, opening hours, what size beds, a/c or fan, appetizers, entrees… and not have any time to write anything else. All of it’s completely boring and unevocative to read over when I get back.
Cosmic payback for my hubristic journal-by-letters experiment? Fine, I’ll take it.