Polo’s Shoes

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Although I tell myself I’m a big fan of reading, I must admit that I’m poor at keeping up with the wealth of literature out there. I can count the number of books I have read in the past two years on my fingers. A poor measure near the accomplished bibliophile. I discovered Italo Calvino through my younger cousin, who recommended Invisible Cities to me. I borrowed his copy and read through it a few weeks before I left Pakistan for the US. Even though I cannot even come close to comparing myself with the likes of Marco Polo, but I think I understand what Calvino was trying to say through Polo’s fictional narrative.

As someone who loves turning into new corners in distant streets in faraway places, this sentence from the book sort of stuck. It grew on me in the first few weeks when I roamed Houston on my own. There was excitement and there was despair. I relished the freedom but I missed home terribly. I knew not where to go and yet I wanted to go everywhere. While I faced open streets and the liberty to go about as I pleased, this city felt empty. Pakistan, where I had grown up, was full of faces and memories but it was far away and long gone.

I have learned that you may often find yourself headed to a new experience in a new place, subconsciously propelled by the need for the familiar. By the need to be close to what you miss and whatever adds to your sense of belonging. I walked into the Jung Center art gallery in the Montrose area in one of the early days. I went out of curiosity, but I half-wished I could share that trip with someone back home. There were so many cool paintings, and the bookstore inside was stocked with many treasures. It was not anything that induced nostalgia, but just a new piece of discovery that would make better sense with some of the old, so to speak.

While Kublai Khan sat in his court and listened to Marco Polo’s accounts, the explorer started to make sense of his own travels. His forays into distant cities made him think more and more of Venice and days from his childhood. Eventually, every city he went to became in part, defined by his association with Venice. A new kind of appreciation and valued longing to the place that he had left behind so long ago.

Here is the quote once more, Calvino is a genius at portraying Polo’s journey.

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.