I was fifteen. My sister sixteen. We stood puzzled and glum in the dust. We had disembarked only moments before from a commercial flight, a blue-and-white prop jet which seated sixty people at most, a benign uncomfortable tub that looked as if it’d made the shuttle too many times. My sister and I stood on the tarmac, dumb as beasts in crossfire, wishing we had made a last call, stamped a last card, made a last effort to explain to our mother where we had been and where we were going. A last even of last times: I chanted the line from the Samuel Beckett poem I’d read in my ninth-grade English class. – We Went to Saigon, Tia Wallman
Travel writing is not my cup of tea but I do like Granta publications. So, when I saw their book On The Road Again – Where Travel Writing Went Next at a library in The Hague, I decided to give it a go. https://granta.com/issues/granta-94-on-the-road-again/ It contains a collection of non-fiction, a photo essay and three short stories. I enjoyed it as it didn’t reveal how different a place is in relation to your own. It was more how travelling connects and interconnects, with the world as a web. It highlights how travelling is contributing to climate change. More interesting, How To Fly by John Burnside brings up how when we travel, what we are really doing is escaping or even disappearing.
My favourite was We Went to Saigon by Tia Wallman. It is about her journey with her sister to Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War to visit their chaotic and absent father, who works for the CIA. I’m attuned to anything regarding children’s geographies. It also reminded me of an experience I shared with my own sister. In 1993, at the age of 13 and 14 we were unaccompanied minors at the airport in Ankara, Turkey. We were leaving for good and on our way to Geneva, Switzerland. We each had hand luggage, our heavily tranquilized pet cats. Around our necks were tags indicating who we were. We were met by someone who worked for the airline. It was either Lufthansa or KLM, I don’t recall. She was blonde and dressed in a blue uniform and extremely tall in black high heels. We followed her down hallways which other passengers would never get to see. To my amazement, we seemingly skipped passport control and all the other security. We preboarded a ghost plane and were taken to our seats.
“I’m going now but I will wait at departures. I will inform your parents as soon as the plane has taken off.”
And then she was gone. To this day, I don’t know why my parents were not with us and they don’t either when I ask them. This issue of memory is what Tia Wallman ends her piece with;
“My memories of that summer seem so clear to me but I could be wrong now. I could have been wrong then. Who is there to tell me otherwise? My sister assures me she remembers nothing. She only looks at me in wonder and says, gently, ‘Is that so?’ ‘Did it happen?’ ‘How can you remember such things?”
It was most likely that my mother had gone ahead to make sure our new house was ready and that my father was working, either finishing up in Ankara or already in the Horn of Africa which was his new posting. This situation also interchangeable. It was my father who went ahead of us before the move to the USA and there were many times my mother went away for weeks on mission to many different countries. Where exactly she was and what she was doing always hazy to me. Ditto for my father. The high mobility of third culture kids doesn’t always mean their mobility but often their parents’. It was the same for Tia Wallman, though as far as I understand she is not a TCK.
I remember him hugging me and apologizing for not being an ordinary father but I must remember that he did love me and missed me all the time. He had a strange, wild glow about him, as if he’d some treasure stashed, a secret;
We Went to Saigon is also darkly funny, I laughed out loud a few times at the absurdity of the holiday in a war zone and her detailing of the awful Air Vietnam flight with her father who was distracted and seemed to have forgotten that his daughters were due to visit even though he had invited them and bought the tickets. At one point, he is even annoyed that they managed to track him down with a telephone number. It begs the question, I hope, of why exactly it is the children trying to locate a parent? And if you doubt that it actually happened, as it’s so surreal, the author adds a few photos of the time. Tia Wallman conveys beautifully too the pain of the lack of reciprocity from the father and his bizarre behaviour. And some 40 years later, she is able to have insight into the Iraq War as there is reverberation from her time in Vietnam.
The seat covers were torn and smelled faintly of dung and sour milk, and the stewardess had a huge dark stain down the front of her ao dai, and although she was very kind, she looked distracted and her eyes flicked from the stain on her dress to the pilot’s cabin, so I thought that this must be the sort of plane that crashes. What were a few more dead tavelling to the city of the dead? What was the point of reaching Saigon safely?
Perhaps not so funny. But at times you have to laugh or you will cry. I am still mortified at what happened on the way to Geneva. The cats woke up in the middle of the flight which was thankfully only four hours. One yowled all the way to landing. The other tried to burst through the air hole. I still see her smooshed cheeks and fiery eyes. I can only imagine what it would have been like if she’d scratched and hissed her way through the cabin. One air steward eventually sat on the cardboard carrier to prevent her prison break.
We must have reached our destination, my sister and I, and went on our way. I have no recollection of what came next from the airport to the new house but I do know that in my satchel was my copy of Robert Frost poems that I’d studied in the ninth grade. A grade I never got to finish in the school I’d attended. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep…And I do relate to the Granta front cover, of a living room and on the wall is a giant photograph of some incongruous and faraway place which you can practically step into.