OPINION: In memories of travel

The problem with most travel experiences is my memory. Some of the trips I regard as being formative are now recalled through little more than a few snapshots, feelings, or lone sentences in scattered conversations. Days I spent gazing at some of the most unbelievable historical sites, hiking distant hills, or eating delicious meals are tampered down by my mind until only one clear moment remains as a memory that I can call to mind at will. The rest of it is in there, waiting to be dragged to the foreground by a smell, a friend’s comment, or a glimpse on a television show, but for the most part, I have to satisfy myself with those lone, moments, perfectly remembered, but standing now without context.

So it is that I recall an afternoon spent in a dark cellar bar in Bruges from a single sip of beer, peering out at bottles racked in their thousands against the walls, while candles flickered on the tables. I remember the barman had recommended me that perfect beer on the basis of my descriptions of what I liked, and if pressed I could probably walk you to that bar, or at least the region of it, but for me that place will always be remembered because of the memory of that one, perfect sip.

I remember watching Midsummer night’s dream at the Globe in London, pressed up against the stage with the others in the pit, simply by the moment that Puck looked down at me and playfully winked. That second is seared into my memory and I can scroll around it in my minds-eye like looking at a photograph, but the rest of the play is a blur of costumes unremembered and characters ill-defined.

An afternoon on a yacht off the coast of Greece must have been absolute bliss because that’s how I feel in the one brief glimpse that my mind has chosen to retain. I am bobbing in the warm Mediterranean looking up at the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion on the top of its hill, the boat some distance away in the calm, clear sea. The warm afternoon sun sparkling off the water. I am at peace.

I remember the cold that seemed to radiate off the grey stone in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, in that small gravel-stoned courtyard where years ago their government executed by firing squad, 14 men who had taken part in the ‘Easter rising’ – the large wooden doors, the little memorial cross and just how small, yet bright blue, the sky.

Or the day I walked across a near flat island off the coast of Madagascar toward a small copse of trees, with the searing heat blazing off the white beach, and a light breeze in the air, as azure seas lapped the shore. Behind me, a seafood meal was cooking under the sand.

At first glance, it seems a lot of money and time to spend capturing brief snapshots in my mind. Of course, I have photographs, but they aren’t at hand, and on a daily basis those holidays are made up of the sum total of what I can remember. But then I broaden my mind and realise that this is true, not only of holidays, but of things that should be far more important. These single images, sounds and feelings are how I remember my father, dead now the last two years, the birth of my son, and more than a decade spent at school.

Placed alongside how few of these vivid moments I have captured from my day-to-day life I start to see just how important travel has been relative to the amount of time I have spent doing it; how my mind’s unconscious ability to select what it remembers clearly makes my few months of travel more important than the years of commuting, working, grocery shopping, and queueing in the bank. We build our images of ourselves from our memories, and the actions we can recall, which is, I guess, why, it turns out, travel is so much more valuable than the Facebook likes, or the trinkets you buy on your way home.

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