Lately I got out of San Francisco and traveled to Turkey. I’d been there many times. But even revisiting it after so long (6 years), I was struck by the differentness of the place. All the sights and sounds are different. The bread smells different; it has some variant of sesame we don’t have in the US. Every little thing is different, as if rethought from scratch by someone unfamiliar with our culture. That is what culture is, I suppose: a radical rethinking of everything along a slightly separate vein.
I marveled also at the effect travel had on me, even after only three years of living exclusively in the US. My brain was challenged with every sensation. The Turkish language exemplifies the foreign feeling of everything there; the language possesses radically different concepts from English (and all Indo-European languages). I speak some Turkish. I struggled to form the words of the most basic sentences. I lost the feeling of full command over language that we enjoy in our mother tongue. I was trapped inside halting, idiot-like speech. Hearing myself speak English occasionally, I thought with relief, “My god, I actually speak something well.” It was like the swordsman without a sword, making do with a little stick instead. When he finds the sword, he feels like he’s slipped into his own shoes.
The little challenges of parsing differentness, in every form, was a boon to my imagination. I was liberated from the routine I enjoy in SF. I walk to work. I have an altogether pleasant life. But even in that pleasantness there is a monotony, an unchallenged state of the brain, that hampers creativity.
It seems crucial that the brain be challenged. Merely hard work is not enough. Foreignness is required. Differentness makes time slow down. It makes you see things in another light. The slowest times I ever felt, bar none, were the most difficult days I spent in Guinea. Those days felt absolutely glacial. But my brain was on. Each moment was a memory precisely because the differentness was at a fever pitch. Those are the days you remember being alive.