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Brasilia, August 20, 1996. There are probably smarter things to do than attempting to launch a weekly column the week before a big trip, but, as the saying goes, conditions are never ideal. I have been meaning to get started on this thing for some time now, and it might as well be now.
In truth, there is another reason for my getting this column started now. My wife Eleanore had a talk on the phone with her mother last night. It would seem that my wife's parents have just purchased a new and fancy computer. Eleanore had the impression that they had done so, at least in part, so my mother-in-law could get a look at my home page now and again, as one way of keeping in touch with us. I therefore felt honor-bound to post something new into my home page, in order to help justify the purchase.
Of course, I'll be seeing my in-laws in about two weeks anyway, and I expect that I'll be put to work helping them to get the new computer tuned up, so they can check in on the home page to see what's up with us so far away, even though I'll be right there. That sort of shoots down some of the logic behind starting now, but never mind.
I suppose another reason for starting the column now is the instinct for getting one's affairs in order before heading out the door. It's never much fun to return home after a long trip to be welcomed home by all the work you had meant to do before you left. Get this started now, and it'll be checked off the list.
The primary purpose of my big trip is to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles, California. Various side trips have already been tacked on to the main excursion, and probably there will be some further additions. But for now, my itinerary runs this way: Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Miami, Los Angeles, Fresno (to visit the in-laws) Los Angeles, Washington DC, Cape Canaveral (where, if all goes well, I'll get to see a Space Shuttle launch), back to Washington, then Miami, Rio de Janeiro, then back home to Brasilia. (Though I have to admit that, even after more than a year here, I have a hard time thinking of Brasilia as "home.") I'll be gone about three weeks. And, unfortunately, I will be traveling alone. My in-laws will see me, but not their daughter.
If all goes well with Internet connections and so forth, I'll be filing colums from various of those places in the weeks to come.
My guess is that most of the people who read the list of destinations above will react one of two ways. Either they will think it sounds exciting and adventurous to go to so many places, or else they'll shudder at the thought of that much time in airplanes and that much time in hotel beds. Persons having either reaction are exactly right, and I'd agree with either -- indeed both.
The scary thing is that this sort of trip has become more or less routine for me. I guess this will be about my fourth or fifth trip out of the country since we've moved to Brazil. With one thing and another, since moving to Brazil in March 1995, I have been to Boston, San Francisco, Glasgow, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Chicago and Sao Paulo, among other places.
I have never had any great ambition to travel the world. It just sort of happened. It's terrific to go to new places, but the getting there is rarely much fun, and getting ready to go has sort of devolved down into a complicated (if not very interesting) routine that starts with reserving the tickets, changing the reservations two or three times when something happens, and then, finally, swallowing hard when the time comes to actually pay for the damned things. When you buy cheap tickets, the way I do, there are substantial penalties for changing from aisle to window seat (okay, slight exaggeration) so it's best to get your schedule totally nailed before paying for the tickets. It is, of course, impossible to get your schedule anywhere near nailed down in time for an advanced ticket purchase, so there is a certain amount of crossing one's fingers and praying involved. But, now, at least, I have the tickets. I have checked at least a half-dozen time to make sure they have not magically leaped up out of the file folder marked AUG 1996 TRIP TO STATES and made their escape. (I just checked again. Still there.)
I am pretty much done with the long complicated series of phone calls and email messages to set up and change and reschedule appointments and hotel rooms and visits and so on. Now I am just about at the digging-out-my-passports stage. (Yes, that's the plural, "passports." As the dependent spouse of a U.S. diplomat, I carry two of them. My diplomatic passport has my visa for Brazil, and I am to show it only when entering or leaving this country, to demonstrate my exalted diplomatic status. In all other places, and all other times, I am to show my plain old passport, which shows me to be just another citizen. I live in constant dread of some poorly trained official somewhere who notices I am carrying two passports, decides one is a forgery, and busts me on the spot.) I haven't yet gotten to the take the Brazilian-stuff-out of the wallet and put-the-American-stuff-in stage. But I do want to be sure I'm carrying my US, and not Brazilian, driver's license, just in case. I'm on about the third draft of my list of errands to run and things to buy, both for our household, and for other people down here. The list runs from Pagemaker 6.0 software to cheddar cheese and hairclips. I have my address book up to date, and I have the list of phone calls I plan to make as soon as I hit the States.
Then there is packing. Clothes, I must admit, are an incidental in this regard. What I worry about much more is what work to bring. (Notes for and manuscript of the current novel, obviously, but should I bring the next book proposal?) And I should remember to bring a printer cable, to be sure I can plug into whatever printers I find at the other end. Do I really need to bring the big camera, or can I get away with the old? And what should I read on the plane? There are the two manuscripts I agreed to read, but those things are huge. Maybe they can wait until I get back. But there's no way around taking the stories for the writers' workshop. Or the power supply for the laptop. Or the modem. The computer equipment and paperwork will more than likely outweigh my clothes. Then, of course, there's the question of leaving room in the suitcase for all the stuff I'm supposed to bring back.
Anyway, you get the idea. But, in about six days' time, the fog of details will lift. Everything either will or will not be done, and I will be on the plane. There's a certain relief to that moment, when everything you meant to do but didn't become a moot point. The trick is to keep the moot points down to a workable minimum.
I am looking forward to a great many things on this trip. (Speaking English, for starters.) I'm going to have a great time, and get a lot of things done, and see a lot of old friends, and see a lot of interesting places. But, I must confess, what I am most looking forward to is being in my old home town, and enjoying the comforts of home. I'll be staying with my parents in Bethesda, Maryland, (just outside of Washington) for about a week. I'm looking forward to reading the Washington Post at the breakfast table, to seeing squirrels and blue-jays and crows and mourning doves in the backyard. (For some reason, none of the birds here in Brasilia can be tempted to a birdfeeder -- except for the humming birds.) I'm hoping there will be just a hint of fall weather in the air, and that the leaves will have started to turn. I'm looking forward to visiting a bookstore, and a hardware store, and a library, and a coffee shop. ( Yes, they have all those things here, more or less -- but trust me -- it's just not the same.) I've got a very long list of old friends to see. I'm looking forward to sitting in on the poker game with the people I've played with for years. (As the group's tradition requires in any month that has such a date, we'll be playing on Friday the 13th. )
As I have said on more than one occasion -- generally when baffled by foreign phone booths -- home is where you understand how the telephones work. (That rule, of course, assumes that the phones do, in fact, work, which is not always the case here in Brasilia.) But home is where you understand how everything works, how the people work, how the roads fit together, where the bagel shop is and which cabinet the coffee is in. And while everything else I see back in the States will be exciting -- and a lot less foreign than Brasilia -- what I'm looking forward to most is being in a place I know, and understand.
Everything else will be fun, but knowing the place where I am -- that'll be worth the trip, all by itself.
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