NB: This wasn’t written for anyone — that I couldn’t imagine even where to pitch it is a sign of the sad scarcity of venues for short-form personal essay in journalism today. Travel + Leisure was kind enough to consider it, but it was altogether too dark for them, I’m sure.
I miss the cleaning liquid in Mexico. I used to smell it no matter where I went in the country, a soapy national absolution. I miss the things about Australia, Bosnia, Laos, and Namibia that the travel magazines say I’ll find there. I miss the scent of the firewood smoke in Zimbabwe, the soft dust of the laterite, the grown-over railroad tracks, the pink streaks in the sky.
I miss eating French-supermarket cous-cous with my wife, using plastic utensils we’d kept from the airline, on a bench at the head of the beach at Collioure. I miss the way you feel like less of a fool with a newsboy cap on your head once you step off the airplane in Dublin. I miss those greasy koeksisters at the truck stop in the Karoo. That everywhere smell of diesel that says you’re not in America anymore. The aufguss in that northern part of Italy that is Italy only in name. I even miss the roadside chickpeas in broth in Kirkuk. That’s how you know I’m hurting.
I miss the Euro trance on the stamp-sized dance floor of the night ferry from Bari to Athens. I miss the Euro trance in the tiny car I shared with the mogul, his very young wife, and the wife’s very ambivalent mother on the cusp of midnight in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve. I miss the Euro trance at a rave on the banks of a river in Moscow. An exile from the former Soviet Union, I miss Russia more than I ever imagined I could, now that I can’t ambivalently go there.
I miss being breathless in the Lares Valley, in ways good and bad. I miss being pelted by rain while I slept, indoors, in Rio. I miss the timeless grandmothers and thugs who gather at the Ivano-Frankivsk train terminal at four in the morning. I miss being received in offices in the former USSR – the wood-paneling, the crystal, the shine in the suits, even 30 years later. I miss having to go abroad to find fundamentalists. I miss how innocently the sun shines in Kibuye, innocently enough to forget, as many would like, that only 26 years ago, innocent people were run into a church there, raped, hacked to pieces, shot dead if they were lucky.
I miss traveling with my parents – I had only just understood how much I missed it. I miss being able to pretend that I am the doomed hero of a Graham Greene novel just because I am on a night train that takes 15 hours to go 250 miles. I miss how little coffee the Europeans expect you to need. I miss Canada – us, but better. I miss crossing the Greece-North Macedonia border by foot at dawn and having a breakfast of hot burek. I miss trying to seduce my best friend’s cousin at a wedding in Skopje. I miss dancing with my wife at a wedding in Cork.
I miss the way Coca-Cola tastes after 12 hours hiking in the Atlas Mountains without water because the re-supply donkey never bothered to show. I miss everything about South Africa. I miss smoking cigarette after cigarette on a windowsill in Düsseldorf. I miss the way Finland forces you to remember how close Russia is. I miss floating in a pond after being smacked with four kinds of leaves in a rural Latvian sauna. I miss how behind the times, for a capital in Europe at least, you can still feel in Vienna. I miss that triumvirate of giraffes in Botswana, because how can you not. I miss managing to choose, for my Caribbean island vacation, the only one without beaches. I miss exchanging money behind a car in Caracas.
I miss feeling like I could start my life over just because I’d climbed into an airplane for an international flight. I miss dressing up for international flights, because that’s what we did in the Soviet Union. I miss staring at every single face on the plane. On the flights east of Vienna, I miss smelling the bodies. You don’t smell anything to the west.
These feelings don’t compare to what others are going through. They are not debilitating. I’m sure they are a privilege, not least because I get to live in Montana, surely God’s embassy here on earth. Alas, they decline to dissipate no matter how many times you chastise yourself. They waft over you like that campfire smoke, gone before you can touch them, though they definitely took something from you as they passed.
Born in a country that made it incredibly hard to go anywhere, I am so lucky to have gone to so many places. But it feels like I’ve gone nowhere at all. I miss feeling like I could make up for that whenever I wanted. I miss that most of all.