The English writer Leslie Poles Hartley once said that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." As I spent my evening reviewing old conversation exchanges between my graduate classmates a few years ago, I could feel myself light up again. Those years were like pages pulled from The Dead Poet's Society, students clambering around to order pints and debate wildly about literature and politics, global warming and human rights. I sat across the round kitchen table from my roommate, where we drank bottomless cups of coffee and tea and talked, quite literally, for hours. It's still like that. And I laughed a lot.
I've been back from Varadero for a week. Everything seems different though nothing has really changed. One cold afternoon -- cold for Cuba, at any rate -- my sister and I walked down to the beach clad in jeans and sweatshirts, while the ladies by the pool wrapped themselves up in rented beach towels, trying to soak up some sun without turning blue. She took a few shots and I waded calf-deep in the water as the waves lapped at my skin, the edges foaming up around my ankles like a poorly poured pint of beer. The air felt warmer down on the shoreline. As we dodged the higher waves and attempted to save the beached jelly fish, my defenses dissolved.
If you are a girl who stands at barely over five feet and can barely pass for eighteen on a good day and still fits easily into children's clothes, navigating the corporate world certainly presents a challenge. A few months into my role, my boss, over coffee, mentioned that I let people walk all over me and advised I become more assertive. But until I stood in the sand, now knee-deep in the gulf, I hadn't realized how far down that road I'd gone. How much of my spirit I'd compromised in trying to prove myself to others, in trying to defend myself. I traded my passion for academia for a steady job and a good paycheque, and while I've never regretted it, I do regret how cold I've become, how willing I am to keep people at arm's length. Back then, we were provocative dreamers and foolish and made mistakes. We taught classes with our tails between our legs and wrote our theses frantically, hoping our ideas would amount to something substantial. And I believed in the value of what were doing, in the beauty of it, even if its purpose was immaterial. Particularly because its purpose was immaterial.
If I took one thing away from Kerouac and Twain and Montgomery and Munro, it's that life is, at its very best, an adventure; even our geography shifts and moves with the years. The most wonderful thing about life, to me, is that we get to live our all of our years. We can indulge ourselves in a night of electrifying conversation with friends and family, feasting on great food and wine. We can eat street food in Vietnam or see the Taj Mahal or walk the shoreline of a beach in Cuba, deserted at the end of the day, trying to be as present as possible. Wondering what's in store for 2012.
"He regarded a country's food as the story of its people, its culture and its history, without which one couldn't hope to understand or report on a place," Catherine Collins writes of her stepfather, R. W. Apple Jr., in the Editor's Note of the exceptional Far Flung and Well Fed. He ate fish sandwiches and drank delicious bourbons and doused his biscuits with gravy; he sought out the best espresso Italy had to offer and remarks how the Triestines claim that the fish on their side of the Adriatic tastes better than the fish on the Venice side because the sea bottom near Trieste is rocky rather than sandy. I read the book on the beach that week while sipping on Johnnie Walker Red and savoured it, trying to keep the words on my tongue. He was a man who really lived, unabashedly, merging the past with the present and the future, some kind of time machine sandwich. As I flipped to the final page, I thought, yes, the past is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. And I'm glad I went back, because it has made me more present.
And cheesier. Obviously. Some things don't change.