MOMENTS IN THE LIFE OF A NOMAD

“...a member of a people having no permanent abode, and who travel from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock. 

...a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.” 

“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.”  

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky 

Are you searching for your destined mate? Forget Tinder, try travel! 

The word “nomad” and its associations have become popular in recent  years, with NoMad, an elegant Manhattan hotel and restaurant on Madison and 28th Street, taking on the moniker. The original meaning of nomad, which meant the member of a wanderer-tribe who nevertheless experienced cohesion both of community and work--e.g., roaming with family to find fresh pastures for herds of livestock--has been romanticized to mean a free spirit who roams the earth in search of ever more novel experiences. This definition would seem to loosen the modern nomad from the ties of family and itinerant work which characterized ancient nomads.   

There are many adventures which arise in the course of nomadic travel: the pleasure of staying in tiny hotels or exotic AirBnB rooms; the challenge of communicating in a foreign language; the fantastic friendships and familiarities that are formed, it seems, by Kismet. But nothing compares to colliding with a Significant Other on the road, the thrill of chance, of charmed coincidence, of synchronicity, the conviction that the universe has determined we find this special person; that our encounter with this particular person is a fateful crossroads Meant To Be. Such chance meetings are far more exciting than anything we could plot on Tinder. 

During my twenties, I met numerous lovers in the course of my travels and tenures in foreign countries. But my strangest travel relationship began in Barcelona, the city that was to be my three-month swansong to seven years of nomadism in Europe. This period had included long spells of living in London, Glasgow, Berlin and Cologne. I had always wanted to see Barcelona, in particular because of the strange, visionary buildings--bony, undulating and mosaic-encrusted-- of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). 

From a Catalan girl I had met in Cologne, I sublet for the summer a long apartment with many rooms, blazing with sunlight, on the Calle Enrique Granados in Barcelona’s graceful Eixample district. The Eixample was marked by an abundance of art nouveau apartment buildings, many of them highly decorated with floriated patterns in ceramic tile. They were extraordinary in their scale and ornament, reminding me of Paris, but the residential avenues were wider, marked by broad, triangulated corners, where dwellers put out their unwanted furniture once a week. I began collecting old bentwood chairs I would never be able to put on the plane with me to New York.  

New York as my destination and home was already receding; Barcelona was beckoning, as yet another foreign place to live, although I spoke no Spanish. In the powerful sunlight there, which dictated the siesta everyone took in the late afternoons, I wondered why I had spent so many years in cold and bitter Northern climates. Spain had the warmth and beauty of Italy without its chaos.  

Despite Barcelona’s sunny mood, I did not make friends there easily. It seemed as though everybody was already in a couple, tanned and stylish, and I had difficulty communicating. On the corner of my street was an outdoor cafe where I had coffee and bread every morning. One morning I beheld two men, one silver-haired, the other young, sitting, having breakfast, and carrying on an animated conversation. The younger one, dark-haired, had a way of gesturing with his arms outspread, almost like a dancer, but with exuberance rather than affectation. I could see, with appreciation, the veins and sinews beneath his tan skin.   

I was going through a bad hair siege, having decided, once I arrived in Spain, to dye my red hair black; I’d had it cut short in London. (Hairdressers are another accident of travel.) I tied my hair up in a white silk Japanese rag, roughly woven, and wore, each morning, a series of rather long dresses I had, cinched in at the skinny waist, the full skirts unbuttoned to the thigh.  

The sexy, mysterious stranger completely ignored me, every morning for weeks on end. Then a male friend arrived from Cologne to visit me for a few weeks, and I forgot the Adonis in the cafe. 

Having reluctantly seen reason at last, I returned--with a bentwood chair on the plane-- to New York, where a colorist at Barney’s restored my hair; and set about reinventing myself, from writer to interior decorator, a transformation, which like my black Spanish hair, was unreal and did not last. 

But there was an intervening event. One evening, ten days after my return, I was on the 1 train,  making my way from my studio on the Upper West Side to an art opening in the West Village. Across from me I saw a face that was very familiar but which I absolutely could not place. From one station to the next I wracked my brains,  then, at 18th Street, I saw it: the veins, the sinews, the skin.  

Emboldened on home turf, I said to the stranger, “You used to drink coffee on Calle Enrique Granados.” He followed me off the train. 

The rest is, not exactly history, but just another tumultuous chapter in my life. Years later, I often wondered why Providence had taken such pains to connect me to a man who would eventually disappear from New York as suddenly as he had appeared on the train, moving back to California, where we both were from. For Michael was not Spanish at all, but American, from a place close to my own original neck of the woods. Like me, Michael had spent seven years living in Europe. We had roots and nomadic journeys in common, yet we did not jell. I remember lots of red wine, rumpled sheets and arguments, from Chinatown to Clinton Hill to Chelsea, where he had various sublets during the year he spent working for a custom hardware company in Tribeca, a frustrating job for an already thwarted artist. 

Recently, my question about Providence was answered.  

Michael, who in the seven years since we last saw each other has become a successful garden designer, contacted me via the blog I write on architecture and interiors. We are now collaborating on the story of a farmhouse he is building from scratch in the wine country of Northern California.  

 

The designs of the gods are different from ours.

 

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