January 3, 2016, I sent an email to 66 friends from CGD. In it, I wrote about falling in love with the Eiffel tower, spinning around in circles, and the entwined history of luggage and travel.
July 1, 2017, another email from CDG. This time to 322 people. I wrote about an early morning walk through Paris, about going between a social whirl and being alone.
In between, 70 of these. Postcards, love letters, something in between. I call it “Where the Hell is Cate”. It is an art project, an embracing of the transient, a map of the path taken, a musing on the in between. Most of them from airports, two of them from shipping ports. One from a train station. The subject line just the code. A handful sent from places. A letter from Pablo Escobar’s abandoned mansion, the one with the hippos (Hacienda Nápoles). In one I told the story of the kettle I left in Australia… I called it “Home”.
There’s a format. One picture – I’ve found I look at the world, experience photography differently, when I am trying to pick out only one. One favourite thing – a reminder to find the unique experience, the best moment of appreciation in every place. An essay. In the first letter I included this idea of “unexpected joy”. When I flew out of LHR after the Brexit vote, I forgot to find the piece of happiness. When I arrived at EZE still shaken from seeing a corpse on the street the night before I had nothing else to say. When I flew out of BUD, I shared a cab with a random woman, who turned out to be a friend of a friend and there was no essay. Each exception has it’s own story.
When you travel a lot, especially when you travel a lot for work, it’s easy for everything to blur, to lose sight of what you love about it, to decide to explore next time rather than right now. The act of choosing a favourite thing, the act of appreciation, connects me to the place and time.
Sometimes it’s easy. When I saw a giant sea turtle lay eggs in the middle of the night (SJO). Or when I edged around a rubbish dump, walked along an abandoned runway, and found myself standing on an abandoned WWII lookout point at the edge of an island that felt like the edge of the world (FUN). When my friends and I snagged last minute tickets to the Harry Potter play (LHR). Sometimes it’s hard to choose or describe. The river of five colors (LMC). Guatapé, the view from the top of El Penol, or the beautiful, eerie, abandoned La Manuela. The owl cafe – or the hedgehog cafe – or the bunny cafe (HND). The aquarium, or finally seeing the DMZ from the other side (ICN). The month I spent skiing every morning before work (TCL). My birthday adventure (MXP).
And sometimes it’s hard to find a moment of joy. When the startup I was working at failed, and I packed up my life (MDE). When I said goodbye to my east coast home (EWR). When I was being stalked and threatened (SEA). When I visited the ghost of the life I left behind (SYD).
It’s easy to start selling on social media. Selling an idea of a life we’re not really living. We’re not really that happy, or that angry, or that good– not all the time – life is made up mostly of in betweens. A blog post always needs a point. A thing to take away. I need to succeed in public, on the internet. As my “followers” have ticked upwards, my ability to be myself has slid down. My photo blog would lead you to believe I lead a charmed life – and in many ways I do – but the nuances of that are more safely explored in another place, without a character limit, or a “like” button. A place to be imperfect, and incomplete.
At the end of each one, I include a postscript.
People write back. By email. By Twitter. By iMessage. By GChat. In person. They join me on my adventure as it ends, or sometimes weeks later – that’s the nature of email. Sometimes people write me an airport goodbye, as they begin – or end – an adventure of their own. Often these are my “IRL friends”, the reason why this started, who I’m closer to as a result. We plan our next adventure, and exchange snippets about our lives. The burden of keeping a correspondence is high, and so we embraced the “ambient awareness” of social media. But this project has created a new kind of space, where we correspond without pressure, and we know there will always be this prompt to resume. Another airport. Another adventure. Another story. Another goodbye.
Sometimes they are internet friends. I went straight from ORD to meet friends for dinner. One of them had hired a designer, given her a brief, and made stickers. She put them in a card, with a lovely message. It was the most beautiful thing that anyone has ever done for me, and this project – that grew out of postcards I sent my friends – was paper once again.
And sometimes they are strangers. One of them called me his “imaginary friend”. Another wrote me this:
“First, you talk about feeling a sense of gratitude for people who go first. The implication seems to be that you don’t, but I disagree. The fact that you let strangers into your life via these personal updates is very “Where the Hell is Cate?” to the point where I have to remind myself that it is, in fact, a very asymmetric friendship.”
And one of them, went from a friend of a friend to being my boss. She forwarded him a letter. He subscribed. As my last job ended, he reached out.
I created this project to stay in touch with my friends, to create a space to be real – vulnerable – long form. Whilst it hasn’t grown in scope, the meaning has grown beyond what I ever imagined. It’s given me a different format, helped me grow as a storyteller and a writer. It’s prompted me to step back and see how I’ve grown as a person.
There are three letters total from CDG. The first, the most recent, and one other. In that one, I talk about how I found my friend Natasha at the Gare Du Nord. I sent a letter from SXP and she realized we were both on trains, heading to the same place, at the same time. We got something to eat, and walked underneath the Eiffel tower and along the Seine to the miniature Statue of Liberty.
Now she’s in Thailand, and I’m in Colombia. But soon, we’ll be reunited in NYC. And she’ll know I’m coming, because I’ll send an email with subject: MDE.