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Touring that quiet world behind your eyelids

Email|Print| Text size + By William F. S. Miles
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2006

During 20 years of otherwise blissful marriage, my French wife and I have argued over the best form of afternoon refreshment. She, of the Old European school, believes that imbibing a small but powerful dose of thick, sweet, black coffee is both constitutionally uplifting and socially approved. I, who can tolerate the taste of coffee only in ice cream, have instead retained a premarital habit cultivated during two years of Peace Corps duty in Africa: the daily nap.

Twenty minutes is all I need, I keep explaining. But I do need them. Otherwise, whether in Massachusetts, Mauritius, or Martinique, I am a walking dead man in the afternoon.

To the obvious benefit of combating sightseeing fatigue, travel napping confers additional advantages. Since you are forced to study public space with an eye toward an eventual siesta, you become aware of otherwise overlooked nooks and crannies in unfamiliar surroundings. Foreign napping affords special encounters and insights.

One mid-afternoon in August 1991, I was hitchhiking on Malakula, an island in the South Pacific. My last ride dropped me off on a dirt road next to a coconut grove at 1:15 -- perfect timing for a siesta. I stretched out on the side of the road and donned my napping gear (airlines-issue blinders). Lulled by warm, tropical air, tempered by the slightest of breezes, I recharged my nervous system in pristine tranquillity and supreme solitude.

Fifteen minutes later I heard a truck approaching. Rousing myself would cost the precious final five of my standard 20 minutes, but I never wish my snoozing to alarm others: stop to inquire about his well-being. So I popped up and waved to show that I was all right. The yellow four-wheel -drive vehicle screeched to a halt.

``Well, hello there, Mr. Bill!" the driver, trademark cigar in hand, exclaimed. It was Tim Isaly, a Peace Corps teacher whom I had met on a recent 40-minute drive to make a phone call. He didn't seem the least surprised to run into me under such circumstances. The Peace Corps fraternity develop s such respect for each others' napping needs.

Napping in the bush is more easily accommodated than the urban siesta. In certain countries, the legal line between public napping and vagrancy can be thin. One must be careful, even in libraries. This I discovered on the otherwise laid -back Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Seated at a desk, surrounded by serious tomes to provide scholarly cover, I had discreetly laid my head down, cheek on folded hands. My journey to Napland had barely begun when a sharp rap on the desk rudely reunited mind with body. A library minder had performed his duty to remind the patron that the library is for reading, not resting.

On another tropical island, clear a cross the globe, I was in a public garden for a vertical siesta. Perched on a bench midday in Fort-de-France, Martinique, I had succumbed to the daily nap attack. Twenty minutes later, I opened my eyes and collected my belongings. A middle-aged man seated on the bench directly across from me became agitated. Unable to contain himself, he blurted out in creolized French, ``I was watching you all this time, and thought you were blind!" before breaking into belly-shaking laughter.

I had napped ``naked" -- without the standard protective eye patch, sunglasses, or turned-down cap brim. The ``protection" is less for me than for squeamish passersby: My children constantly remind me of how spooky my eyes look in nap mode -- irises rolled upward into socket s, lids lightly closed, whites peeking out ghostlike. Think of it as transcendental meditation minus the mantra: During my brain's routine battery-charging, I am generally conscious.

The Hall of Biodiversity in the American Museum of Natural History is an 11,000-square -foot chamber with giant, preserved specimens pinned to the cathedral-size walls. In it is a covered, dimly lighted rain forest diorama and a bench, the far end of which intersects with a corner partition 90 feet along the diorama.

Even I admit that flat-out napping on public benches smacks of vagrancy. But the nap half-position -- back and head propped up and erect, legs stretched out at 45- degree angle -- is less tramplike while sacrificing little in refreshment. Eye cover is advised; shoe removal, obligatory.

So ideal were these napping conditions -- maximized by accumulated hours of museum visitation fatigue -- that I soon fell into sublime and motionless rest. Eventually, however, the combination of museum context and napping immobility prompted a vigorous debate among members of at least one family over whether I was a part of the exhibit or an actual human being. Older brothers dared their younger siblings to encroach on my space. Only when one poked me did I decide to end the dispute by making a slight but obvious stir. The ensuing shrieks of shock and mortification, followed by fleeing footsteps, provided some satisfaction. I concluded the temporarily disturbed nap without further incident.

A comparable experience in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum did test the napping tolerance of an even more sophisticated segment of society. On the second floor of the mansion, in the Early Italian room -- in the shadow of such jewels as Gentile Bellini's ``A Seated Scribe" -- is a chair. While not an expert on classical furniture, I surmised that there was nothing antique or Italian about it. A uniformed security guard confirmed my hypothesis by assenting to my request to sit in it. I curled the brim of what a stranger called my ``Colombian coffee picker hat," and immediately fell into my daily trance.

Why does sitting quietly in a chair create a public disturbance? From deep within my nap, I realized from the surrounding chatter that I had become the center of attention.

Visitors gawked at the sight of a perfectly still man sitting in a chair, face partially concealed by leather headgear. Less mature ones sneaked a closer peek and then squealed about ``freaky" eyes, as if I were some stand-in from ``The X-Files." Film goers asked each other, and then the security guard, if I was part of the exhibit. The latter, annoyed and increasingly exasperated by their inconsiderateness, initially protected my privacy, saying, ``He's just resting." What tipped the balance was when Japanese tourists starting shooting pictures of me. That's when the guard used his walkie-talkie to call for a higher level of security.

So a burlier maintainer of law and order sidled up.

``Are you all right, sir?"

I nodded, softly reassuring him that I would be only a few more minutes. He left. Five minutes later, my nap quota fulfilled, I rose, apologetically thanked the first security guard, and mumbled something about a blood sugar problem that periodically downs me in the afternoon.

I continued my self-guided tour with affected indifference, despite the pointing, whispering, and giggling of the adolescents. I glared, barely resisting the temptation to return an ``X-Files" stare.

Nappers of the world, unite!

Contact William F.S. Miles, who teaches political science at Northeastern University, at b.miles@neu.edu.

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