I remember, on a hazily hot July afternoon amidst the fallen pillars and broken stones of the ruins at Olympia in Greece, being thrilled to decipher one word in engraved ancient Greek whose harsh outlines had been softened by the rain of thousands of years: POLIPOLIS.
Correct me if I'm wrong, and steal that little sunny moment of smugness, but that means 'many cities'. I then figured that the slab I was running my finger over was talking about the old Olympics - that participants had come from many cities so on and so forth, blah blah blah. At that moment, standing on the site of one of the wonders of the ancient world amongst pillars which fallen thousands of years ago, where wars had been suspended in favour of sporting competition and cowering pilgrims had knelt before the giant statue of Zeus holding a man-sized statue in the palm of his hand, a place known throughout the world as one of past grandeur, glory, and civilisation, I felt like I could conquer the fucking world because I understood one word on an old stone.
You couldn't have hidden my ego behind Zeus, had he still been sitting there.
Another time - a grey Sunday in London. An impromptu trip for two to the capital, born of waking very early in the morning for a hotel restaurant breakfast shift which didn't need us, and standing, directionless, on the hill facing the ugly brick and cement backside of the hotel.
"Do you want to go to London?" she asked. I didn't see why not.
We were High School poor - enough money for a coach ticket and maybe a bite to eat somewhere, but not much else. This was why we got up at 5.30 am on Sundays for a little pocket money. I confess I was a bit keen on her. I wanted her to like me. I changed into jeans and a sweater from my black weskit and bow tie, and in a moment of foolishness, I decided to leave my glasses at home. We met half an hour later at the bus stop, and head off across the Island to the ferry.
My eyesight back then wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great. As my optician put it, I could see a bus coming from the other end of the street, but I couldn't see its number.
I hadn't been to London very much before, and when we came out of Victoria station, fresh tube tickets in hand, I became incredibly intimidated by the feel of the city around me. The height of everything was oppressive, and the fact that I couldn't see anything clearly wasn't helping. I got scared, claustrophobic.
It was something I felt whenever I went into London for years afterwards, finally dispelled by living nearby and becoming more and more familiar with the life and the feel of the city around, above, and under me - motion in all dimensions, in all directions, as far as I could see.
I think the feeling I had when I stepped out of Victoria station was one of panic for good reason - I was out of place. I didn't really know how to deal with London. I mean, what do you do?
I picked these two moments to illustrate a couple of times when knowledge and experience, or a lack of both, evoked different feelings.
To say that someone is cosmopolitan is to say that they are at home in many countries, that they are worldly. The word cosmopolitan comes from Greek for universe, or all-encompassing (thank you Wikipedia) and the good old -city suffix. All cities.
New York challenges me in ways which leave me feeling simple, uncultured, and ignorant. Inexperienced. Naive.
Feeling as though I don't know nearly as much about Korean, Chinese or Brasilian cuisine as I should. Or speak enough Spanish. The variants of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism which pepper the city are either vaguely familiar or completely unknown to me. Politics, movements, sexualities, civil rights, drugs, activism, music, alcohol , problems, injustice, freedom, pumpernickel bagels.
Krissa has answered hundreds upon hundreds of inane, 'What's that?' questions.
She even puts up with me ordering bizarre things off takeaway menus to hear her try and pronounce them on the telephone (Moo Goo Gai Pan from Astoria's excellent 'No. 1 Chinese' is my current favourite).
I started off on this tack because of the co-incidence of two things - the first being Krissa recommending that I start reading 'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn, a book we borrowed from fish a while ago. With a title like that, and, I'm unashamed to say, because it had come from the bookshelves of one of the internet's foremost literary ladies, you would forgive me for thinking that it was about Internet romance.
Instead I am now a hundred or so pages into a story which repels and compels me, with the latter winning. It challenges me in my graphic imagination to conjure disabled or freakish individuals, described with a super-realist's touch for the repulsive and unsavoury. A 'geek' used to mean someone who bit the heads off living chickens in front of an audience.
Now I'm all for books which challenge you, which evoke feeling and emotion with words, but there is something bitterly compelling in the gruesome detail. Something which has me wondering at my own preconceptions and prejudices, working loose those old fundamental assumptions and maybe decades-old untouched thoughts about appearance, personality and, well, it has to be said, deformity.
These are all unusual things, challenging and changing things. Taking you on a tour of things you haven't thought of or fully explored yourself and pointing gleefully at the macabre and perverse on the way.
You might think it pretty extreme...and for the most part, it is.
How many people will have to come to terms with the sort of problems of sexual identity expressed in the novel 'Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides? Not that many, it has to be said, but the book is outstanding; I know the book did a few rounds amongst bloggers and made the bestseller lists around the world. So maybe the world, after walking a few miles in that character's shoes, is a little more used to the idea of hermaphroditism.
So here's me, reeling a little bit, it has to be said, under the weight of a bundle of kitsch preconceptions and (non-judgmental) prejudices that are undergoing a daily battering at the typing hands of Katherine Dunn, and then I go out for a drink with Kate, Biscuit, Mike and Krissa.
At a gay bar.
It just so happens that I'd never been to a gay bar before.
I think, had I not been reading the book I'm reading, I would have taken it more in my stride. I'm NOT suggesting that the first-time experience of a Manhattan gay bar is comparable to the challenging mindset of seeing things from the perspective of an albino hairless midget who lives and works in a family-run freakshow.
I'm saying that to me, dawdling along in my little world of limited knowledge and experience, both reading the book and being served cocktails by a muscly half-naked man talking casually about methods of anal drug-taking (and I KNOW that this is an horrifically pigeonhole-able example, but it did happen), are new things. They're like stepping out of Victoria station without my glasses on and suddenly realising that I'm not sure how to deal with it all.
They're both an addition to that experience, an extension of my knowledge.
I'm still reading the book, and I'm still compelled.
There's a difference between feeling threatened by your lack of experience and geniunely being threatened. I was nervous to begin with in the bar because I thought it was an environment I knew nothing about, where I didn't belong -both of which are utter crap - I was drinking with friends and trust me, I know more than a little bit about drinking establishments.
And that night with friends at Splash, I chilled out, I relaxed, and I enjoyed myself.
It's difficult to feel threatened by a book which presents you with something you haven't seen or known before, unless it's a heavy Swedish encyclopedia being held above your head.
Sitting on a bench in Brooklyn Bridge Park the next day eating my lunch and looking at the vista of downtown Manhattan, I set to thinking about sophistication and what it means to be cosmopolitan.
I think it would mean being au fait with the culture and manner of the whole world, where nothing is new to you, nothing is surprising. You are at home everywhere, understanding of everything, never nervous, never impressed...
And while there is of course something in that which appeals to me, I don't want it - I don't want to be like that.
I want to go on discovering, go on asking these 'What's that?' questions, expanding my experience whilst at the same time knowing that while in the future there might be a day when I'll know my way around the menu in a Korean restaurant, a day when I'll be able to talk sideburns with a Hasidic Jew, and maybe even a day when I'll try a pumpernickel bagel, I am going to be jealously guarding and enjoying the continuous rollercoaster that is my epic ignorance of the world until the day I die.