Friday, August 14, 2009

Where am I? Memory flickering

It's happened a thousand times to me, and probably to you: that word you wanted just slithers away like a whitebait. You have to trick it into returning to its cage of axons; you have to pretend you don't care, and ambush it later. It's usually lurking there somewhere.

Now that doesn't matter if it's a word like axons which you use rarely because you have never been a brain surgeon and the only brain you work with is your own.

But what happens if the name of an entire country escapes you — the country you are in? That's the sort of question doctors ask you after a head injury: Do you know what country this is?

On Day 2 of my holiday in Tonga I woke early and couldn't figure where I was. I could have confidently found it on a map, or told you it was a South Pacific island kingdom less than three hours' flight from New Zealand. But what was its name?

I lay there for (probably) several minutes unable to retrieve this significant little vocabulary fish from my memory. Could it be Tonga? I wondered. Tongatapu and Nukualofa slithered around without pushing Tonga to the surface. Tonga was in my mind, yet I couldn't quite connect the word to the place. Sheepishly I got up and confirmed my hunch by consulting a pamphlet: Yes, Tonga.

Then a truly scary moment came: for a few seconds, Tonga didn't quite convince me.

Whenever I travel, whether at 69 or 29, I'm likely to feel this disorientation in the early morning. You too? I assume it's quite common. After dawn we can use the sun's position to tell north from south and east from west, although even that can be tricky in a different hemisphere or on a ship or near the Antarctic. But at 5 a.m. in an unfamiliar bed, our location can be a mystery.

Nevertheless, I can't believe that losing Tonga is normal for younger people. It just might be normal for an old lady.

Might as well laugh about that, I suppose.

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