Among other things, summertime is a time of observation and introspection for me. The other day I found myself reflecting on how our sense of physical spaciousness evolves with our age. I know, I know, duh! but still, at this particular point in the week, it struck me how far I have come in the concept of what I call “my world”. And how places that once seemed huge and never ending, feel tight and small today.
One of the things that my son loves to do is listen to stories from when I was a child. A few days ago we hopped on the subway to visit my parents as we had a couple of days in between vacation travels. There is a subway now that takes us across town, all the way to where they live. Sitting in the subway I enjoyed reminiscing and telling him what a novelty this particular means of transportation was when I was his age. Once we got to our destination station, we still had some walking to do, across two neighbourhoods quite well known for me as a child. As we were walking and I was telling him stories of what used to be, trying to help him see the places through my childhood eyes, my mind was marvelling at the changes in me, in my perception of space. I smiled inside remembering how I was completely sure that my world was my street, then the neighbourhood, then the city, then … endless … .
I was born in the south of Bucharest, into a neighbourhood where people lived in blocks of flats. Since in the communist Romania of the 80s children could play unhindered in the streets between the blocks (there were so few cars and everyone seemed to know each other, that children unsupervised in the street was absolutely ok), my brothers and I would spend our days on these alleys. Our worlds were so small in hindsight but … who knew? At first our parents would not allow us to even go around the building, it was such a dare, playing hide and seek and hiding behind the block – it was the forbidden fruit (therefore, so much more appealing). Around the time I was eight or nine years old I was allowed to travel to the next neighbourhood where I would go to purchase books from the only bookstore in the area – books were the gifts I would take to birthday parties I was invited to. To go two neighbourhoods down was already too daring. It felt adventurous.
Going to high school extended my world by some distance. I now had to take a bus to get there and all of a sudden I felt a largeness, a bit more of a freedom to move, to be, to observe. This physical independence was the root of an inner independence that was going to grow in the years to come.
I was a sophomore in high school when I boarded a plane for the first time. This one was a biggie – I was going to the US, as the recipient of a one month scholarship to a diplomacy affairs seminar and a journalism workshop in Washington DC and then in Minneapolis, Minnesota. How fun! How scary! At the very same time. There is a lot of fear when our worlds are extended abruptly. Of course, there is a lot of growth as well but the feeling of being a stranger, of not being able to get your bearings for quite a while, it takes time to get adjusted.
I turned eighteen in Seattle, Washington, in the middle of my senior year at Shorecrest Highschool, as an exchange student (I liked to think of myself of only a “change” student – there was no American taking my place at the Romanian high school I had come from but what I went through in the US definitely changed me for good). Being away from the continent, country, city and street I was born in for ten months sealed the largeness of my physical world and made it so that, when I returned, and tried to fit in, things felt small, unsettling and like a step back. There was nothing wrong with my neighbourhood, my country or my people. I was the one who had changed and had tasted the infinite possibilities that the world presented. I could no longer be confined. Once again, more prominently, physical spaciousness was the force pushing me out of my shell.
France, Spain, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Italy, Russia, the US again and again, China and Singapore. I kept exploring the largeness of the world with joy and curiosity. It is probably the thing that I have missed the most in the middle of the pandemic. I am happy that, as I am writing this on a highway in Hungary on our way to Italy, things seem to be coming back in terms of our ability and freedom to travel (thank you to science and medical research!).
As a child, I don’t recall feeling constrained; my world – a street in between two buildings and maybe two neighbourhoods away – felt just as natural as my world feels today when I can get into our car and travel three countries down the continent. Going back to my roots the other day, looking back on where it all started for me, made me really thoughtful about the beauty of the growing up process and made me smile at the limitations that we are so certain of at various points in our lives. It made me remember Michelle Obama’s indignation at a question we all get so many times, especially as children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Her wondering is simple and clear: Are we ever supposed to stop growing? Is there a point where the growing is up? When do we stop? Isn’t that really the end?
Ready to embark on yet another travel across borders, I smiled melancholically remembering how certain I was of the boundaries of my world as a 6 or 7 year old, how excited I felt at the adventure of going across two neighbourhoods and how it felt expansive. I remember with certainty, looking in magazines and watching TV, seeing strange places like Paris, New York, Washington DC in movies and feeling like they were a different planet. Today they feel friendly and familiar. What a miracle!