When the going gets tough, the world beckons.
Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By THOMAS SWICK
Lydia Davison Whitcomb
A Love Affair
by Elisabeth Eaves
Seal Press, 304 pp., $16.95
Toward the end of this clear-eyed, finely wrought memoir, the author finds herself in Paris with her diplomat-boyfriend, living the life of a freelance writer in an elegant apartment off the Champs-Elysées and wondering where it all went wrong. “As we get to know the area,” Eaves writes, “we like it less and less.” She complains about the chain stores on the famed boulevard and the lack of life on the side streets. When people do appear, their faces are often distorted, telltale signs that they’ve just been to one of the neighborhood’s numerous plastic surgeons.
It takes a good writer to make Paris appear unappealing. But having read the previous 280 pages, we fully understand Eaves’s dissatisfaction with her fate. She has a restless soul, and heart, and her life up to this point has been anything but tame. Eaves, author of the well-received Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, is one of those people for whom travel is an almost physical need. At the age of nine, living in Spain during her father’s sabbatical, she discovers Tintin and dreams of foreign adventures even while in the midst of one. This year abroad shows her, at an early age, “that when you were somewhere else, you could be someone else.” Back home in Vancouver, she attends a French immersion school until the ninth grade, so she speaks two foreign languages before many American kids study one. At the University of Washington, she takes up Arabic.
Her good friend Graham sets off on a year of travel, and reading his aerograms—mailed from Hawaii, Fiji, Australia—she falls in love with him. Has he become someone else? Or is it that she sees for the first time his adventurous and sensitive sides (having experiences and then putting them into words)? On his return, they become lovers. Then she sets off for a summer in Spain, where she meets Pepe. Their passionate affair causes her no conflict; she is back in the land that taught her about adopted identities: “Graham and Pepe were not even relevant to one another. They were in different languages, and I was a different person with each one. They belonged to two separate worlds.”
This summer establishes a pattern of finding love and escaping from it, only to succumb again in another place. The desire for new lands becomes inextricable from her need for new lovers—the sensual pleasures of both satisfying her unquenchable thirst for experience. Travel provides a way out and (if she wants it) a way back in—with everything fresh. “The traveler,” she writes, “always betrays the place.” Romances don’t sprout everywhere. Eaves spends a year abroad in Cairo—“I needed something that would sear me, something that might hurt”—and includes a fascinating section on the problems of traveling as a woman (which will open the eyes of any male who has ever been mildly hassled in a souk).
There is a special hell reserved for foreign women. With her friend Mona she travels to Yemen. These chapters—which, like the others, have old-fashioned titles like “On Being an Alien,” “On Adaptation”—nicely capture the atmosphere of not only the place but the feeling of being adrift in a very strange land. The two women managed to go beyond the tourist experience (which is often easier in a country without many tourists) staying with a Yemeni family in Taiz. Reading her cool, detailed depictions of the culture—after her more personal revelations—I was reminded of the memoirs of Kate Simon, possibly the greatest travel writer (certainly the most underrated) this country has produced. Eaves has the same knowing, unflappable appreciation of the world, and the ability to make it come alive on the page.
Returning home, she breaks up with Graham and then meets Stu before heading off on a State Department internship in Karachi. It is in Pakistan that the futility of Foreign Service work is revealed to her (though the feeling of powerlessness she experiences as an intern is not surprising, and perhaps not the best indication). Stu joins her at the end of her stay, and with some colleagues they make an arduous journey to the Chinese city of Kashgar. Here they find a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer (“no one came”), snow leopard pelts, and the predicable assortment of international travelers: “We thought we were iconoclasts at the far edge of the world, but here we were in uniform, like members of any clique.” As they take turns telling about their travels, someone dismisses Australia as “all about sex and lager.” Eaves—“tired of proving I was tough enough”—finds that description rather attractive.
Back in Seattle she sets up house with Stu, even plans a wedding, but after a year and a half bolts for Asia. At this point a few readers are going to critically question how they spent their twenties. “The mind is primed by going away,” Eaves writes. “Desire and appetite build and you feel like you can’t miss a thing, because who knows when you’re going to have just this chance again? Everything has to be tasted.” In Malaysia one night she calls home and receives the news that her grandmother has died. “I felt relieved to be so far away, because I was excused from grieving. . . . Going away could free you from feeling too much.” Though some readers might see this as travel’s curse. Eaves makes her way to Australia, gets odd jobs, and falls in love with a landscaper named Justin. With some friends they make a leech-filled trek through Papua New Guinea. Then she leaves Justin to reunite with Stu in New Zealand. This time, departure doesn’t lessen the hurt.
She compares herself to Houdini, whose “point wasn’t so much to be free as to get free.” In Auckland, she and Stu renew their Seattle life, Eaves working once again for a shipping company. She leaves the job on short notice to work on a boat sailing to Tonga. A weeklong storm makes them change course and head for Fiji. (If Eaves’s land life is anything but stable, why should her sea life be any different?) Back in the States, Eaves attends Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. There is a glorious passage describing what it’s like to be young in Manhattan. New boyfriends accrue—including an ex-Marine and one with no name other than “the Englishman”—as do foreign assignments. But technology has changed the nature of long-distance relationships: “Now we have email and cell phones. . . . Reality intrudes on the perfection of the distant image. . . . Time and age have also done their part. The implicit permission to do anything no longer flies. Monogamy is part of the boyfriend-girlfriend deal, and forgiveness isn’t assumed.” Yet three pages later Eaves is still longing for the double life, which, she says, is not the product of travel but the inspiration for it.
Can someone like this ever be happy? Walking around her arrondissement, Eaves finds the women with facelifts frightening. She writes that “becoming them is one possible outcome of a life spent trading on sex appeal, and I know that I’ve dabbled that way.”
About this she needn’t worry. As Wanderlust shows, she has other talents.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.
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