I’m a cowardly traveller. I’m not afraid of trains, planes, cars — just of change, and of elsewhere. Months ago I agreed to go with my colleagues from Bath Spa University to a conference of creative writing programmes in Chicago. As the time approaches, I resent that past self who said yes: foolishly enthusiastic, deluded about my own character. The prospect of travel makes the days leading up to it feel insubstantial, as if they are only a preparation. I have no interest in Chicago, where I’ve never been. There’s a metaphysical puzzle about time which has gripped me since I was a child — faced, say, with a school morning of maths and double Latin. Why does this moment I’m in have to be now? Why can’t it be then, when the trip is over?
When we emerge from the tunnel of unreality that is air travel, Chicago is overwhelming, beautiful. Its boldly cut-out shapes against the sky are satisfying as a city built in children’s blocks; the skyscrapers’ sumptuous lobbies are secular temples, unaristocratic palaces. We have pancakes for breakfast in a café where policemen really do sit in shirtsleeves bantering with talky waitresses topping up their coffee. The city seems saturated with its blue-collar past, stockyards and grain and steel. Perhaps American visitors to London or Cardiff intuit an old-fashioned substratum which the natives can’t feel. (Or perhaps it’s my nostalgic illusion.) In the Art Institute my husband and I seek out American paintings: Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’s women trying on shoes in a shop, in a brilliant fuss of vivid brushstrokes; Eldzier Cortor’s angular black sleepers on the floor of a boarding house room. My past self (the self before the one who wished I wasn’t coming) was right after all: travel is good for me, elsewhere is a revelation.