I was sure that everything would work out if I could just keep moving. I’m still here, so it must have. But in the short term, my faith in movement only made things worse. Because I didn’t pause to get my bearings, I ended up missing the on-ramp for the Autostrada. I drove for hours on regional two-lane roads that seemed to be headed in the right direction, but were exceedingly slow going. Periodically, I would see signs for the Autostrada and head in that direction, only to find myself stuck in yet another belltower-dominated town, navigating a maze of traffic circles and one-way streets. Since few roads in Italy are numbered and my map only showed major highways, I had no way of knowing how badly I had lost my way.
At one point, sitting at a traffic light, I realized that my car had a cassette player. Digging through my carry-on bag, I found my case of tapes and extracted Yo La Tengo’s I Hear the Heart Beating as One. I’m enormously fond of the American road-trip. But I can’t imagine taking one unless I have control over the music I hear. There’s something comforting about the fusion of new landscape with old sounds. And on this day it was particularly welcome. Hearing the record’s first track slowly swell to volume, I relaxed. The call-and-response of song and steering wheel helped me through another 45 minutes. When the tape switched over to Yo La Tengo’s Painful on Side B, however, I started to panic again. I was supposed to arrive at my destination in the south of Austria by 6pm. It was already 4pm and I was still seeing signs for the same cluster of towns: Venezia, Treviso, Padua.
Finally, I located an entrance to the Autostrada. But I had no lire. As it turned out, I probably could have used my credit card to pay the toll, if I had known which lane to pick. With no knowledge of Italian, though, I was too frightened to get on a freeway I might not be able to leave. So I drove back to the nearest towns, looking for an ATM that might work. Because it was Friday afternoon, the banks were already closed. But I was sure that my experience at the airport had been an aberration. There had to be a machine that would accomodate a secret code of more than five digits. Wrong. When I returned to the States, a friend told me that there are Citibank ATMs in every major city that will do the trick. But I was mired in the small towns of the Veneto.
Despairing of ever escaping Italy, I decided to backtrack all the way to Venice. At least I would be able to get a cash advance on my credit card at the airport. And the signs for Venice were a lot easier to follow than the signs for points north. After another hour, I arrived back at Marco Polo. I finally did secure some lire, though my worn-out brain requested less than I should have. More importantly, I managed to extract myself from the airport’s parking garage. A few minutes later, I was finally on the Autostrada.
This was one occasion when I would have reached my destination faster by slowing down. But I was overwhelmed by the desire to stay in motion. Michael Herr describes a similar feeling in Dispatches, his book on the Vietnam War:
Herr’s breathless prose here provides a window on the specific horror of the first televised war. But it also reveals something important about American identity. We aren’t accustomed to feeling like targets. And when we do, we hit the road.
“Best way’s to just keep moving,” one of them told us.
“Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?”
We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of thewar, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a “survivor.”
Like most Americans, I definitely felt like a target in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Once I had collected myself, I realized that my long-anticipated trip to Austria was in jeopardy. Yet I still booked my flight for Europe in late September, figuring that air travel would be safer because of the new security measures. If the world situation worsened prior to my departure, I would stay home. Ironically, it was the situation at home that took a turn for the worse. Even while the American-led intervention in Afghanistan struggled to make headway, it was already clear that there was little chance of the conflict spreading in the immediate future. But the comfort that this realization might have brought Americans was deflected by the discovery of multiple letters containing anthrax in the postal system. Suddenly, it wasn’t just men from the Middle East who were inspiring anxiety, but our trusted mail carriers.
As I write this, we still have no idea who sent those deadly letters. Yet, whatever their intentions may have been, they certainly picked a perfect strategy for undermining the American home. Having a mailing address is a prerequisite for participating fully in the modern world. Without one, you can’t use credit cards, own property, or vote. Some wealthy people have a separate office to handle their correspondence. For most of us, however, mail comes to our place of residence. It is the place where our private and public lives most consistently overlap. We are delighted when the mail brings good news, depressed when it brings bad. I’ve heard people say that an unwelcome letter or unanticipated bill has “contaminated” their space. Now the metaphor has become frighteningly literal. But the metaphor lives on.
Like many Americans in the wake of September 11th, my partner and I had to make a conscious effort to limit the flow of information into our house. Not only did we make it a point to keep the television off when our almost three-year-old daughter was up, we also told ourselves not to look too hard or long at the horrifying images. The fact that FOX News and CNN rapidly developed a strident “yellow journalism” that would have made William Randolph Hearst proud gave us another reason to tune out. Even brief exposure to the marketing of “American’s New War” made it hard to remember that we were, in fact, the victims of a terrorist attack. In the first few weeks afterwards, we got most of our information from The New York Times, whose daily supplement in section B, “A Nation Challenged,” forcefully reminded us that the appropriate injunction was not “Remember the Maine!” but “Remember the Arizona!”
Once the anthrax scare began to dominate the headlines, though, our attitude towards The New York Times changed. Somehow, the fact that the newspaper was delivered to our door like the mail marked it as being part of the problem. The mere act of removing its blue plastic sheath seemed dangerous. But it was reading the paper that proved hardest. I vowed to read the summary of the previous day’s developments printed on the bottom of page B1, yet found it increasingly difficult to complete even that five-minute task. My partner stopped reading the “news” altogether, confining herself to “Arts and Leisure.” From that point, our commitment to staying current rapidly decreased. By the middle of October, I was taking two or three of that week’s papers out of their wrapper on recycling day.
I recognize that this is a fundamentally irrational response to the prospect of bad news, like that of the person who refuses to get screened for cancer just in case he has it. The parental role we had exercised in limiting our daughter’s exposure to potentially disturbing knowledge had been turned back on ourselves. We were content to live as toddlers. But we were happier as a result. To read the paper was to risk losing what little sense of security we had left. The more information we absorbed, the more we perceived ourselves to be “sitting ducks.” In contrast to Herr’s experience as a wartime correspondent, this was one case when it might have been easier to preserve our innocence by staying in motion. The “cone” of awareness Herr describes grew in proportion, not to how much ground we covered, but to how much news we allowed into our home.
As I boarded the plane in Phoenix on October 25th, I was glad that I had decided to fly Lufthansa to Europe. I could have taken comfort in Lufthansa’s safety record, in its stringent security measures, in the mere fact that it wasn’t an American airline. But what pleased me was something far more mundane: the newspapers. The racks at the end of the jetway presented me with the new issue of the weekly Die Zeit, as well as the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau. I eagerly clutched them all to my chest, intent on immersing myself in the minutiae of German life. Sure enough, although the papers held planty of information on the war in Afghanistan and the latest events in the anthrax crisis, their tone conveyed a sense that these stories were simply more “news of the world.” The melodrama of American television and the fixation on details in The New York Times was absent. In fact, you almost had the impression that September 11th had only marked a watershed for the United States. By traveling to Europe, I hoped to be temporarily moving back to a time when it was still possible for me to read the news with detachment.
As I left Marco Polo Airport behind me for a second time on October 26th, I felt relief. I could finally immerse myself in the familiar logic of the expressway. From that point onward, my drive to the Austrian town of Klagenfurt became considerably less stressful. Yet it did take longer than it should have. Traffic was heavy. I wasn’t sure of my car’s capabilities. But mostly I was just too tired to make time. Years of making ridiculously long drives with my partner – we once left Chicago at dinner time and were in Denver by 8:30 the next morning – has impressed upon me the importance of stopping to refresh my eyes. When I start to zone out these days, I pull over. Luckily, this wasn’t hard to do on the Autostrada. My friend Joel had told me to look for the Italian roadside rest areas. “You can get a wonderful espresso and tasty panini, Charlie. You’ll love it.” With this helpful advice in mind, I stopped repeatedly.
At first I only had the courage to order coffee, figuring correctly that I could pronounce “espresso.” The panini were another matter. There were many to choose from and I was sure that I would be asked questions about my selection. So I waited until I was close enough to the Austrian border to be able to make my requests in German without feeling overly rude. The panini were pretty good, though more like convenience food than I had imagined. Then again, it was difficult to gauge their taste through all the cigarette smoke. We’ve become very spoiled in the United States. It’s actually possible for non-smokers here to avoid all but the briefest encounters with tobacco. Europe is another matter. I actually enjoy the scent of good tobacco when I stand outside with my friends who smoke on a cold, rainy San Francisco night. But my asthma acts up whenever I’m in a room where someone is smoking. As a consequence, my stops at rest areas became a strange balancing act. I stayed long enough to clear my head, but left while I still had reasonably clear lungs.
The strange thing was that, for all of the discomfort that cigarette smoke brings me, I actually found the bad air quality comforting. It reminded me of my childhood, when my grandmother would provide biting commentary on the world, perched over the ashtray. And this memory proved peculiarly consonant with my desire to escape to a safer time in American history. The events of September 11th were responsible for many ironies. But the fact that the 1970s suddenly seemed like a time of pastoral innocence – when highjackers wanted to go to Cuba instead of their graves – was certainly not the least of these.