When I finished my long career as a teacher, I made my fourth trip to Europe, accompanied by my son and daughter. When we got back, I found that my mother and father were in hospital. Their days of looking after themselves were over, and my life had entered a new phase, demanding and sad. My parents had been wonderful people. I had the greatest admiration for them and, as long as they lived, it was not possible for me to be away from Melbourne, their city and mine, for very long. After they died, I made two more trips to various parts of the world, but An Airline Suite is a summary of my travel experiences in that period before everything changed. I make this statement with some caution because travelling is also an agent of change as we deal with people and events that haven’t previously been part of our lives. Even as I say this there comes to my mind a huge black pig sprawled on the floor of a stylish market in Firenze, a threatening creature if you’d encountered him in a forest, now dead himself, but a reminder to visitors such as myself that the word ‘nature’ didn’t mean quite the same in Italy as it did in Australia.
We are different when we travel, and conversely we become keenly aware of what our ‘normal’ selves are like. Sitting on a huge aeroplane, bored stiff, but privileged, even as we have to do without most of the things that normally sustain us, we prepare for whatever we’re going to meet in the country where we’re going, not realising, perhaps, that the plane itself is a place where chance encounters of the seating system may upset or dislodge some of our cherished beliefs and habits. The person sitting next to you is somebody you’ve never had to deal with before, and will never see again. People say things, let out aspects of themselves they would in other circumstances hold back. We may be constricted in our movements but loosened in our minds, willing to use strangers as a means of release!
And it’s much the same when we arrive. France is different. We see things in Italy, in London, Barcelona or perhaps some foreign airport, that cause us to think as we’ve never thought before. These encounters change us. When we’re unprotected by habit, things happen more deeply. Minor incidents become large, because we can’t contain them in a category already devised.
We love to be away, we love to get back home. Travelling is the time when we can explore, and possibly love, this ambivalence. I’m too old to travel now and I’m sorry that I can’t fly into ambivalence again. I have to explore what it means to stay home!
One last word. In 1989, this story was published in Australian Short Stories, edited by Bruce Pascoe and Lyn Harwood. Bruce told me that he laughed at the passage near the end when a father holds his baby to the window. Bruce thought that in having the proud father call his son ‘Geoffrey’, I was being satirical. I assured him that ‘Geoffrey’ was the name I’d heard the father use. I’m not sure whether Bruce believed me or not but the question allows me to say that writers can only occasionally do better than life itself in producing the weird and wonderful things that cause us to think, and after that, to write.
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