by Kleitia Vaso

When I was a child, still safely away from stifling adolescence, the first step of a long and tiring road of actions taken for the approval of others rather than one’s own pleasure, I used to act out Ibsen’s very grown up plays. Grown up, in the best sense of the word, as the characters there, positive or negative, right or wrong, are at least extreme, very much alive. Perhaps children have a better chance of understanding them than adults who, after an endless chain of compromises with themselves and others, can no longer find their own true faces.

I did not play this kind of charade on my own but with the (slightly imposed) participation of a somewhat less enthusiastic team. In retrospect, it seems like a pretty unusual childhood game. But I loved both playing and reading and, above all, pretending that I was an adult. What better adult to be than Ibsen’s striking heroines? My early love for these plays ensured the preservation of many of their details in my memory; if I were a building, Ibsen’s plays would be the foundation and then, on top of them, stands everything else in smaller increments, less available space.

One of the first and most favorite plays was A Doll’s House, a text that cannot be fully comprehensible to a child. Yet, the very fragments that remained mysterious to me, out of my reach, were the very ones that increased my curiosity and made me read them over and over again. I wanted to understand, to solve the play like a puzzle, an approach that remains more or less the same to this very day. But, as a child, one’s understanding and tolerance of heavy drama is limited and what initially attracted me was not the true crux of the play but its pleasant surface. Nora’s life, superficially hedonistic, treated by her husband as a child, seems wonderful to a little girl. Throughout the first half of the play, she mostly entertains guests and eats sweets that Torvald, her husband, offers her. Dreamy. I could sense but not grasp the darkness underneath, the miracle that she expects from him but which, unfortunately, never comes. Now, everything is clearer. It took a long time for me to catch up to Nora although I tried, like Alice, to prematurely stretch and expand.

A memorable scene which aroused my curiosity and childish envy was one in which Torvald, coming back from a dinner that Nora for whatever reason could not attend, does not bring her the usual macaroons but a menu. Actually, at this point in time, I am not sure whether this has happened to me or Nora but I’d rather not reasearch. Something similar must have happened to us both, I suppose. Nora, clearly understanding the nature of the gesture as a last-minute gift, is disappointed, a foreshadowing of the greater disillusionment that is to follow. But, to me, it was precisely this disappointment that seemed unjustified, inexplicable. What is more exciting, I thought, than words describing food, conjuring up tastes and smells that reality could never match? Yes, there might exist a few and shocking cases in which imagination lags behind but these are extremely rare and their pursuit the very reason for looking forward to another day. Yet, this is not the case with macaroons; the name, so often mentioned in the play, was imprinted on my brain but the colors and flavors, although beautiful and delicious, cannot compare to the fruits of my brain.

After a long period of different places and, consequently, restaurants, menus are not as exciting to me as they once were. Still, I would not turn down reading those of the world’s best restaurants despite the unlikelihood of ever visiting them. I would read them without envy, for the sole reason of imagining and learning something new. Indeed, I like reading everything that is written except for applications and grants, administrative paperwork which seems like a productive pastime but I believe to be truly deadly. There, words lose their interest for me but it’s not their fault. Otherwise, I can read shampoo ingredients, product instructions and descriptions, recipes, words written on walls, lists that are not mine. Although I no longer believe in magazines, I still love to sometime look at them imagining which clothes and products I would select if all its contents were offered me. It does not matter that this, most likely again, will never happen.

Years after Ibsen, reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, experiencing awe and envy at the author’s both precise and limitless imagination, I remember feeling no pity for Kublai Khan and his inability to see and visit all the places of his vast empire. His reliance on Marco Polo’s imaginative descriptions of them probably granted the emperor a more intense experience. He probably pictured colors that would pale in reality, imagined infinite spaces that, once visited, would appear limited both in magnitude and beauty.

Now we can go anywhere we please. Even as regular people we can cover more space, more quickly, than any past emperor. Even previously unfathomable places with strange name like Bora Bora, Tierra del Fuego, Machu Picchu – once only known through stamps which, as children, we wanted to own at any cost just so we could possess a particle of these mysterious wonders – now are available to mostly everybody. Any tourist armed with a camera standing in for experience and memory – i.e. a nervous system -any conference organizer and participant, a great number of which would opt to stay and comfortably work in the internationally identical and boring hotel lobbies, networking rather than venturing outside, any family attempting to “create memorable moments,” can and has probably seen these previously remote places. Like Marco Polo once, they will have stories to tell. One small difference is that the audience for such stories no longer exists. There are too many storytellers and not enough listeners. Actually, most stories no longer rely on imagination and words but, rather, hard facts. They have been reduced to millions of images which have been captured but will rarely be revisited. Of course, there are exceptions. There are those “unfortunate” people who cannot afford to see the world, who are stuck in one place for one reason or another. I envy them sometimes. One cannot return to innocence.

Recently, while in an airport waiting to board my plane, tired of looking at my phone, I turned my attention to the people around me. Someone’s accented but nearly perfect English and loud, irritated voice drew my attention. The voice came from a man who has speaking on the phone while trying to hold a laptop in front of him. I kept looking at him not because there was anything specific about him. On the contrary, he reminded me of nearly every youngish man of our day and age. I caught myself looking at him with a disproportionate amount of revulsion that had little to do with his appearance and more with the attitude conveyed through his physical stance and entire being. His features could be considered pleasant save a few details, telltale signs of working with a laptop for a long time. His hands seemed powerless, his fingers adapted to a lifetime of scrolling and texting. A certain droopiness of the eyes, mouth, shoulders, his entire body as though gravity was very slowly dragging him to the ground, a general lack of luster and, most importantly, the flicker, which had it been there, would have brought his entire being to life.

I noticed the ring on his finger. Again, the perhaps undeserved revulsion. I remember this detail because it struck me then and there that the people with the most visible proprietary signs and symbols are the ones who should worry the least about being  tempting others. The readiness to display this seal of normalcy betrays either a lack of experience or an eagerness to be accepted into the warm bosom of society. I could not imagine him looking at somebody with any fascination, let alone desire, an impulse slowly fading through the generations.

He was traveling to Tokyo for work. He was already worried about being late for a meeting and was explaining his itinerary to someone on the other side of the line, his double, I imagined, with a slightly different face. He was going to Tokyo but he might as well be going to the supermarket across the street from his smartly decorated home. His excitement and enthusiasm would have been the same. Instead of imagining crazy streets and delicious food, all I could see were crowds of people, stressed and in a hurry, running to their trains and offices, faces, slightly greasy from standing too long in front of a screen, frowning from a lack of oxygen. Perhaps speaking our one language, professional English, no matter the country or profession.

Listening to his account, unwillingly, I lost any desire I might have had once to visit Tokyo. Or Iceland. Maybe even Bora Bora.

by Kleitia Vaso