My Gypsy Soul

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with travel, perhaps a manifestation of my Celtic-Gypsy soul. Even in utero I was transported across the country from Boston to Los Angeles as my pregnant mother traveled to join my father, who had found work in the West. When a college student minoring in Spanish language and literature, I flew during a typhoid epidemic to Mexico City to study Aztec and Mayan anthropology and Latin American poetry in Oaxaca and Pueblo, respectively. Fortunately, I avoided not only the contagion but also sudden death via a bus ride along the narrow winding mountain roads from Mexico City to Oaxaca. I returned with a consciousness transformed from its middle-class, suburban, San Fernando-Valley-commuter-student sensibility to one more global and far more comprehensive. This propensity for travel was further satisfied as a trip to Spain on my honeymoon introduced me to the Iberian delights of oxtail soup and the Alhambra, humbling my previous self-notion of Spanish fluency.

As my husband traveled extensively during our marriage, and I was homebound with babies, I sought to quell my resentment by begging familial passage, and when that was no longer practical, I insisted on meeting him at the airport upon his return, excited as I was by even that sampling of national and international comings and goings. I am the only one I know—and I am sure it will be written on my tombstone—who finds driving to LAX to pick up and drop off family and friends exciting.

When my children were independent enough to allow my return to teaching, I immediately saw the international field trip as a way of sating my obsession, and therefore, sponsored educational itineraries for my Spanish and English literature classes to England, Ireland, Spain, and France. I also sponsored a parish trip to Rome. When my marriage came to an end, I found solace in finding overseas employment teaching in the East Anglia region of the UK with easy access to London and Cambridge, and short Ryan Air flights to Dublin. 

This overwhelming wanderlust ironically did not negate a very powerful “fear of flying,” not of the Erica Jong variety but an actual and terrified get-out-the-rosary-during-turbulence kind. My ex would blame my lack of understanding of physics, a complete ignorance of how planes actually stay up in the air. And that may be true. For me, it is a kind of incomprehensible magic that becomes life-threatening when we start bouncing around in the sky. I am very glad that pilots try to avoid turbulence when possible, and it isn’t as strongly felt in the larger European Airbus. 

Those fourteen years of overseas residence required repeated ten- to thirteen-hour fuselage captivity (sometimes three times a year). London-to-Los Angeles journeys cross the polar regions of Greenland, Iceland, and Canada and finally upon entering US airspace hover over Montana and Colorado and then descend for almost an hour over the larger LA metropolis. It was during those journeys that I began to fill my bookshelves with what I now call “airport fiction.”

Preparing to fly back to the States for Christmas or spring or summer vacation, required highly proactive management. First, it was necessary to make the decision about whether to take the “base bus,” tentative transportation provided by the government, or to choose the more expensive yet less iffy reserved cab ride. Either way, there would be a lot of waiting at the airport to account for all the possible traffic scenarios and anomalies on the way to Heathrow. A three-hour wait would not be extraordinary, and once you had eaten and walked around all the shops, there was nothing left to do but read. For me, the good news was that not only did the airport have many bookstores for novel perusal, they also contained a good sampling of my favorite type of escapist fiction: the crime thriller.  

British crime fiction in the form of Agatha Christie is well-known and acknowledged. Many highly satisfying yet less famous writers also grace the reading lists of informed readers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey. But what is even less known to the non-European traveler is the crime fiction of Scandinavia. There is something psychologically marring about long periods of darkness and cold, gray climates. Either by virtue of the fact that a lot of time must be spent indoors or because of the dismal reality of being outdoors, an imagination is created that verges on the macabre. This combines with the well-developed characterizations of sleuths, who are brilliant in the ways they must be to solve crimes, but who are also complicated and sometimes even troubled.

I would go immediately to the Mystery section of the aisles and decide what looked good. Sometimes it was another in a series of tales narrating the adventures of a familiar sleuth semi-hero, who whether preoccupied by grief, loss, or emotional dysfunction, sometimes exacerbated by alcohol abuse, would nonetheless be able to get it together enough to see what others didn’t and doggedly pursue what others wouldn’t, almost forming a bond with the slightly more psychologically aberrant killer.

The interesting thing about all of this fascination is that three hours, or maybe two by the time you were able to purchase the book and find a seat, would not enable you to finish it. The idea was to take it onto the plane and make progress there, which you did. But you didn’t finish it. Once you landed jet-lagged, because of course you wouldn’t be able to sleep in the roar of 35,000 feet at 500 plus miles an hour in seats that required upright posture, you were more intent on finding a location where you could horizontally recline into unconsciousness. Then, when rested, you'd meet with family and friends. The book would go on the shelf with other similarly collected texts to be returned to when the completion of such indulgences was possible.


Gail Brady teachers English as an adjunct instructor at Pasadena City College. She holds an MA in English Literature from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The above piece is from a memoir in-progress. 

Categories: Airports, Trips

Latest Stories
Checking In/Checking Out

Filter by Category

Everyone has a story to tell...

Submit Yours Here

Points of Departure: