One day in the 1990s, I was sitting in a rather seedy, ancient plaza in Sevilla in southern Spain. I had rented an apartment nearby for a month to attend flamenco performances at the city’s renowned biennial festival. I was alone but chatting with total strangers, struggling to recover fluency in the language that was my second major in college.
It’s hard to understand this experience if you’ve never had it, but a moment arrived when I felt like more of myself than I’d ever felt. My heart suddenly opened, my breath became deep. The phrase “you’re home” popped into my head. The notion that my soul could have a home that was quite different from the place I actually lived seemed bizarre, but it was so true. For the better part of a decade, I traveled to Spain frequently – but that ended after 9/11, when I went through a nightmare trying to get back to Atlanta with my luggage filled with supposedly suspicious, dangerous books with Arabic titles related to my doctoral dissertation research.
During those years, I traveled elsewhere too, but Spain was not about vacationing by simply losing myself in another culture’s oddities or chilling on a beach. Spain’s oddities, like flamenco, were portals to a much deeper experience of myself. Granted, I was an oddity in the Sevillanos’ own culture. During one visit, I was bizarrely mistaken several times for Harrison Ford, who was making a movie there – hey, we both have blue eyes! All I wanted to do was fall deeper into the often dark poetic and pagan imagination that seemed so much a part of the culture.
I always took Spanish classes while I was there and frequently wrote papers or talked about the emergence of psychic phenomena in flamenco – music and dance which I’d come to see as something like a somatic psychotherapy that occurred with the performers and audience alike. My teacher invited me to dinner one night with a friend who was a psychologist visiting from another city. At dinner, the shrink asked me what kind of diagnoses I worked with in my own practice. I told him I had a sign in my office that literally said, “I oppose all diagnoses.” I explained that my clients were creative people who were struggling with “personal growth.” This was one of those moments when you realize you are, as an American, also a visitor from another planet. The psychologist laughed, as did my teacher. “Do Americans not have friends to talk to?” he asked me. “What about family?”
I explained that we are encouraged to blame our families for everything and changed the subject to flamenco. A few months later, after he read that I was giving a talk on flamenco at a conference, I received a serious invitation to work at his clinical practice on the coast. When it came to becoming an ex-pat, I couldn’t take that step. Hello, my partner and friends were in Atlanta, even if my soul belonged to Spain! Neurotically, I’m terrified two decades later to return to Sevilla. What if my soul is done with the place even though it still fertilizes my imagination constantly? I still have oranges I picked from trees outside the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, the martyred gay poet and playwright, on my office mantle.
I honestly believe cultivation of the imagination is the value of travel. It used to be a required part of education – academically and socially. You don’t have to feel as melodramatically as me that your soul, the part of you in which the imagination lurks, may be homeless where you are. But to have the best experience, I think it’s necessary to travel outside your immediate comfort zone. I mean, I’ve had friends for whom so-called ethnic restaurants on Buford Highway were lightyears from their comfort zone, but once they bothered to have a taste, it became impossible to get them back to Wendy’s.
But, yes, I do have limits. For years, a friend tried to convince me to go on gay cruises with him. He offered to pay all my expenses, he was so sure I would love it. All I could imagine was throwing myself overboard into a circle of sharks were I stuck on a boat with 700 men in rainbow thongs. I stand by that, so I do know there are terrifying limits! But even two weeks in the summer heat of Turkey with no air conditioning, crawling through underground cities and getting infected with giardia, was worth the few days I spent in Ephesus, an ancient city whose ruins still celebrate the collaborative beauty of the mystical, the intellectual, the mundane, and the obscene.
American exceptionalism is dead. We have lost the ability to talk to one another and even the best-intentioned of our leaders seem to have no idea how inferior our society has become compared to many others around the world. Maybe they are just paid too much money to say so. Travel has become expensive and an angry, inconvenient undertaking for many doing it for business. But we need to find ways to restore its former priority. Every soul needs a home.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now offers coaching to people seeking solutions to blocks in creativity related to their work and lives; cliffbostock.com, email@example.com; 404-518-4415.