Friday, December 14, 2007

The Sound of the Name

Maybe it's just one of those things that comes with having a background in Linguistics, but even before I had the sheepskin, I knew that I was fascinated by some places around the world just because of the way their names rolled sonorously off my tongue. There were places I knew I just had to see because the very sound of their names stirred my wanderlust. Long before Patricia Schultz wrote 1000 Places to See Before You Die, I had my list of places I had to see just because they sounded wonderful.

I got to thinking about this again a week or so ago when Amanda wrote about spending Christmas in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur. Koo-AH-lah Loom-POOR. It's one of those places that has such a great name. Others include:

Kathmandu, Nepal. KAT-man-DOO.

Mombasa, Kenya. mom-BAH-sah.

Amarillo, Texas. am-uh-RILL-oh. (or, ah-mah-REE-yoh, if you're a Spanish purist).

Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. FOND-doo-LAHK.

Of course, the reality doesn't always match the picture we paint in our minds. I'll probably never see Kuala Lumpur or Kathmandu or Mombasa, but in the spring of 1973 I did visit Amarillo, Texas. En route from my Air Force technical training in Denver, Colorado to my new assignment in Bossier City, Louisiana, we drove through Amarillo. I couldn't wait!

And we drove down Amarillo Boulevard, right through the middle of town, in the middle of a terrible windstorm that was blowing clouds of sand everywhere, reducing visibility to nearly zero. We drove along behind an empty 55-gallon drum that was bouncing and clanging down the middle of the street, driven by the howling wind.

I've never been back to Amarillo.

But imagination is like that. Reality seldom matches the wonderful images we can paint in our minds. I'm not the first person to realize this, of course. In his marvelous new novel Ghost, Alan Lightman's hero writes about reading, and how "...the sounds of the words calmed him, but their meanings stirred him and made him want to leave their small house and go to far places." And in the story Take Another Road (from his book Tales from Margaritaville), Jimmy Buffet writes about cowboy Tully Mars, who sets out to visit Hannibal, Missouri, home of his hero Mark Twain, but worries, "What if all the wonderful places that had filled his imagination back on the ranch all turned out to be theme-park images of things that didn't even exist anymore?"

Yes, sometimes imagination is better. I'm probably better off with the mental pictures of Kuala Lumpur and Mombasa than with the experience of actually visiting. I know that's the case with Kathmandu, because I've read the letters from my friend Tom who actually lives there, and I've read Pico Iyer's wonderful little travelogue, Video Night in Kathmandu.

But somehow, every time I hear the names, I still want to go.

Maybe someday.

Have a good day. Exercise your imagination.

More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

There are always places that we would like to visit...some because of the name or some for the history, like Hannibal MO.

About a dozen years ago there was an annular eclipse of the sun. We were living several hours north of the path of total annularity but Hannibal was right in the middle of it. I took a day off of work, we packed up the kids and did all of the Mark Twain things while keeping an eye on the sun.

A couple of years later, Aaron and I were passing through Hannibal on our way back from a Cardinals' baseball game and he asked if we could stop for lunch at the place where they make their own root beer. It's funny what kids remember about a place. It was a much better experience than your glimpse of Amarillo.

Amanda said...

I was planning on posting some photos of Kuala Lumpur for you but now I'm worried that I might ruin your mental picture. I'll still try to capture as much of the city's flavor as I can and you can tell me if its what you imagined.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

She has a book 1000 Places to see in America. I've seen a few...My places are quite odd...parks in WV with waterfalls, Vegas, the coast of Maine.

La Chanson de Phoenix said...


That's the only place in my head right now. And Michigan, and Pompei... Okay, that's three things.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Some places sound so exotic.