Wish I Were There: The Life and Times of a Travel Writer




“HAVE YOU READ The Great Railway Bazaar? It’s by this American who rides trains through Europe and Asia and makes fun of everybody he meets.”

It was the spring of 1977 and I’d just been collared by a colleague in the Trenton Times newsroom. Bob was a reporter, I was a feature writer. Every week I’d leave the newsroom and hang out with someone my editor had deemed worthy of a story: a tobacconist, a harness race driver, a man who taught sculpture and boxing at Princeton. My dream was to become a travel writer, and feature writing was providing the ideal training, getting me out into the world (in this case, New Jersey and its environs) to meet some of the interesting people in it.

Bob’s description of The Great Railway Bazaar put me off the book for months. I was envious of someone who had traveled so widely — I had not been outside Europe, or west of the Mississippi — and quietly outraged at his reported unappreciativeness. The previous year, as a student in France, I had read and reread Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, but the supercilious traveler seemed a role better played by an Englishman than an American. We hadn’t earned the right to cynical mockery and wry world-weariness.

When I eventually picked up the book, I devoured it. I loved how Theroux ignored the sights and wrote about the people, how he included details — like hairy brown sweaters in Istanbul — that all travelers noticed but that professional travel writers left out of their stories in their pursuit of the Important (which was also, often, the Already Known). He appeared to be very much under the influence of Waugh, but he added an American bluntness and seemed equally incapable of writing a dull sentence.

I left the newspaper to move to Poland to pursue a woman I’d met on my way home from France. In the age of the backpacker, I became an expat. This too was helpful to my desired, unlikely career. Some of my favorite travel books had been written not by adventurers but by people who had fruitfully set up house abroad: Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada, Elliot Paul’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, Lawrence Durrell’s Greek island books. The authors, through their deep knowledge of the culture and intimate connection to the people, made travel writing a serious, almost anthropological pursuit.

Unlike those writers, I chose an unromanticized country (for romantic reasons) that I knew almost nothing about. But my timing was excellent: Hania and I were married two months after the founding of Solidarity and the emergence of Lech Wałęsa as its leader. I settled in — teaching English, learning Polish, reading writers I’d never heard of: Mickiewicz, Norwid, Prus, Tuwim. The satisfaction of getting to know a place through its language, literature, and everyday life was heightened by the fact that the place, and the life, were so far removed from what I had known. I stood in lines for food and every month received ration cards at school. The political situation — strikes, demonstrations, rumors of invasion — added to the intensity. I kept a detailed journal, an act that turned clandestine when martial law was declared in December 1981. Nine months later, through a friend’s kindness, the two loose-leaf notebooks were spirited out of the country in the Dutch diplomatic pouch after officials at the American embassy told me I was not entitled to such privileges.

I returned home with a story to tell and found, to my delight, the perfect climate in which to tell it. Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Poland, the commercial and critical success of The Great Railway Bazaar had created a rage for travel writing in the United States. With In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin had become Theroux’s erudite confrère at the forefront of the genre’s renaissance.

Publishers couldn’t get enough of travel books; some — Random House, Prentice Hall, Atlantic Monthly Press — came out with their own travel series that included titles as rustic as Making Hay (by Verlyn Klinkenborg) and as subversive as All the Wrong Places (by James Fenton). Granta magazine, under the editorship of Bill Buford, became travel writing’s unofficial house organ, introducing new writers — Jonathan Raban, Redmond O’Hanlon, Isabel Hilton, Bill Bryson, Ryszard Kapuściński — while recognizing old ones like Norman Lewis and Martha Gellhorn. The writings of M. F. K. Fisher were rediscovered and reprinted (presaging, or possibly prompting, the current obsession with food) and Rolling Stone regularly ran Jan Morris’s coruscating essays on place, which were subsequently collected and published by Oxford University Press.

Travel writing seemed a realistic career.

If you doubted it, you had only to enter a Banana Republic store where, past the racks of safari-style clothing, sat a travel bookstore selling guidebooks and narratives and, for one brief period in 1988, a magazine of travel stories, personal reminiscences (Richard Ford on growing up in his grandfather’s hotel in Little Rock) and whimsical illustrations. In appearance and approach, Trips resembled a scaled-down version of Holiday, the great travel magazine of the mid-20th century. That it was produced by a clothing company seemed not inexplicable, given travel writing’s popularity; that it lasted only one issue suggested something that, in my euphoria, I preferred not to think about.

In 1980, Paul Fussell had published Abroad, a book that examined the interwar period in England, which produced many great travel writers (Robert Byron, Norman Douglas) and great novelists (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) who wrote great travel books. The age of travel, Fussell lamented in closing, had begat the age of tourism, which, inevitably, signaled the death of travel writing.

Yet the new generation was proving him wrong. In Old Glory, his book about sailing down the Mississippi River, Jonathan Raban gave the lie to the complaint that “every place has been written about” by focusing his attention not on the destinations tourists travel to, but on the hometowns they travel from, demonstrating that, in the right hands, any dot on the map is a valid subject. And because his readers knew the surfaces of these places all too well, he dug deeper; he told you not just what the place looked like, but what that particular look revealed. Colin Thubron, in more far-flung lands, was perfecting the observe-and-interpret method (which V. S. Naipaul had been employing since The Middle Passage), and soon, in Video Night in Kathmandu, Pico Iyer would use it to wrest travel writing into the age of globalization.

The field was rich and getting richer. It seemed absurd not to think that as long as there were places there would be writing about them.

That winter, in my brother’s old bedroom in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, I wrote in longhand my book about Poland. I had chosen to focus solely on the pilgrimage to Częstochowa, which I had walked that August with thousands of Poles. In a dramatic scene in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel The Deluge (1886), invading Swedish armies are repelled in their attack on the monastery in Częstochowa, which holds the painting of the Black Madonna, the revered protectress whose image was rarely absent from Wałęsa’s lapel. Because of martial law, the annual religious rite took on a strong political cast, and I envisioned my account of it as a colorful travelogue that would encompass religion and politics, past and present, and show how in Poland they are all entwined.

That spring, I found no publisher interested in a book about a pilgrimage in Poland. A few of the rejections hinted at the country’s lack of appeal, presciently leaving the door open to the coming deluge of books about the pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, a more likable nation.

¤

My blue Honda Civic sailed the Overseas Highway, its windows open to the salt air. It was a brilliant winter morning, and I was a recent enough transplant to still feel giddy at warmth in the middle of January. I was making my first trip to Key West, a storied place I was eager to see, because the annual literary conference that year (1991) was devoted to travel writing. I was attending not just out of personal interest but in my new role as travel editor of a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale. Adding to my good mood was the fact that my book on Poland was coming out in the fall. (So I would be interviewing favorite authors with the knowledge that I would soon join their ranks.) Never in my life had so many reasons for happiness converged.

The book was a travel memoir. Over the years, in the evenings and on the weekends, I had written about the rest of my time in Poland, and cut the pilgrimage down to a long chapter. My agent placed it with Ticknor and Fields, then a division of Houghton Mifflin, after 41 rejections. A few of the declining editors had wanted more of me and Hania in the book, implying that it was too much travel and not enough memoir. In 1988, Mary Morris had published Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, one of the first of the introspective travel books. But she had been in Mexico, where nothing of global significance was happening; I had witnessed the beginning of the end of the Soviet Bloc. To focus on our love affair would have seemed trivial. Also, I had started out as a feature writer; I was used to telling the stories of others, an approach that, considering the circumstances, now struck me as obligatory.

The book was, of course, written in first person; the best travel writing is first person. “And the worst travel writing is first person,” went the glassy-eyed travel editor’s riposte. But in my new job — which I had found through an ad in Editor & Publisher magazine — I was hoping to prove those travel editors wrong. Most of the freelance stories I published were personal accounts, but they were redeemed by interesting voices and a curiosity that carried outside the self. On my trips I always tried to meet people, because of my early journalistic training and also my invaluable stints abroad. I didn’t believe that you could write intelligently or accurately about a place without the insights that locals provide. And if those people became friends, as they had in Poland, they would give me an emotional connection that, I knew, would elevate my story. Traveling as a travel writer I tried to replicate, as best I could, in the short time allotted me, the life of an expat.

Most newspaper travel sections were in the information business; readers didn’t go to them expecting to be educated, entertained, or moved. But I was attempting to bring the styles and concerns of contemporary travel writing into my pages, to get it more converts. The top editors were not enamored of my approach, especially the first week of the Gulf War, when I ran on the Travel cover a story about Baghdad (written by a local woman who had recently returned from a teaching job there). Pragmatic people, they were more comfortable with vacation tips, which I ran inside the section. But after getting on my case for a while, they would eventually return their attention to the more important sections of news, business, and sports. There is a lot to be said for being a low priority.

My section’s uniqueness — its frequent focus on the lives of the residents rather than the pursuits of tourists — was partly driven by my desire to make travel a subject worthy of respect, to demonstrate that my job was work too. Often I’d return from a trip and be asked by colleagues, “How was your vacation?” Like them, I went out of the newsroom and reported what I found; I just went farther out than they did, though often choosing places — Alabama, Ohio, Paraguay — that wouldn’t look like larks. But what readers read on Sunday was more the product of my desire to bestow on others the gifts of knowledge and pleasure that travel writing had given me.

In Key West, I interviewed the prodigiously gracious Jan Morris and, a few days later, ran into her doing her power walk down Duval Street. I told her that, in an attempt to meet people, I often attended religious services while traveling — we were standing in front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church — and she expressed bemusement, saying she preferred the company of pagans. Calvin Trillin, after our interview, invited me to lunch with Alice and their daughters, and on our way to the restaurant I expressed admiration for A. J. Liebling. (Liebling Abroad and Liebling at Home were two more troves from travel writing’s heyday.) In his quiet, Midwestern way, Trillin suggested I read Joseph Mitchell.

The following year, Pantheon came out with Up in the Old Hotel.

¤

The ’90s were my postcard decade. I visited, for the first time, the Caribbean, South America, Central America, the Middle East, the Midwest (Iowa in an election year), and Asia, choosing Vietnam as my introduction, because, of all the countries, it seemed the most familiar to someone who had come of age in the ’60s. Also, having grown up in New Jersey, and written a book about Poland, I had a fondness for unsung places — a fondness that Vietnam significantly deepened. From each trip I came back with multiple stories that I wrote at my own pace, sometimes months after the fact.

“What a great job,” everyone told me, and I’d agree, and then try to explain the reality. But even I had to admit it was the reality of a miracle.

I worked for a medium-sized newspaper in a small Florida city that thought it beneficial that I travel the globe. Dozens of other papers around the country worked under the same conviction, that they should use their personnel and resources to tell their readers about the world, at least its sights, hotels, restaurants, resorts. The cost of this extravagance was justified by the large amounts of money the sections brought in from advertising. And they were seen as providing a valuable service, printing information 52 weeks a year that Americans could use to plan their measly annual vacations.

Nobody questioned it. Travel editors were an absurdity in a nation of workaholics; the consumer-driven travel section appeared on Sunday more as a taunt than an escape. By bringing to it some of the qualities of travel literature — by giving subscribers something to read as well as to reference — I was trying to make it less ridiculous and more useful, the very thing top editors periodically grumbled it wasn’t.

9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.

Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?

There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.

The Other, even when it presents itself, frequently gets dismissed. Terry Gross, interviewing Louis C.K. on Fresh Air, mentioned that the comedian spent his early childhood in Mexico City. Then she passed over this intriguing fact and inquired about his relationship with his father. One of the world’s most dynamic and clamorous cities could not compete with dad. (A signed copy of Between the Woods and the Water to the first interviewer who asks him about his family name, Székely, which is pronounced “say-kay” — hence the C.K. — and is the name of a Hungarian subgroup with a long history in Transylvania.) The recent war books are less about what we have done to Iraq and Afghanistan than about what those countries have done to us. All nations indulge in varying degrees of self-absorption — it is difficult to understand Polish literature without a knowledge of Polish history — but most temper it with an interest in life beyond their borders. Kapuściński frequented a map store in Warsaw not just to buy maps but, as Paolo Rumiz tells us in his book The Fault Line, to see “the people hungry for the world.” Here, we seem to have created a society that is weary of a world it has never gotten to know.

¤

In 2008, with a feeling of relief (probably on both sides), I got laid off. Newspapers were staggering under the dual blows of recession and the internet, and mine, in an attempt to salvage readers, had adopted the mantra of “local and useful.” The first idea is death to any travel section, the second one was anathema to mine.

I could still write, of course — the great advantage of being a writer as opposed to a banker — but I had lost the incomparable privilege of being my own editor.

The true nature of this loss became painfully clear to me in 2011, when National Geographic Traveler sent me to Warsaw. After three years of freelancing, I was somewhat accustomed to binge editing. Certain publications, I had come to realize, desire bland writing, not because it pleases so many people but because it offends so few. And the larger a magazine’s circulation, the greater the number of the potentially outraged. Unfortunately, this means that a country with little information about the world receives it, at least from its travel publications, watered down.

My editors at National Geographic Traveler objected not just to my individual sentences but to my overall approach, which failed, they told me, to portray the city as an attractive destination for their readers. This criticism puzzled me — as it would puzzle anyone who had published a travel story about Baghdad during the Gulf War. While writing a travel story, I never ask myself: Is this going to make people want to visit? Instead I ask myself, over and over: Am I accurately — and entertainingly — capturing the spirit of the place as I experienced it?

The main editor on the story urged me to bring out more of the “romance” of Warsaw. The city had blossomed in the two decades since the Berlin Wall had come down, but it was still a place that had been, as I wrote, “destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt by the Communists” — a fate that had shaped the emotional as well as the physical landscape. The story opened with a description of the gray, postwar apartment blocks one sees on the road in from the airport — and on every other road — which are as much sad reminders as they are drab residences. I insisted in an email that Warsaw is not a romantic city, like Paris, or Prague, and that to portray it as such would be inaccurate.

In her rewriting of my rewrites, this editor took out the apartment blocks (which I knew would never appear in any of the beautiful photographs) and inserted a line about my entering a hotel to visit a bar that I’d never heard of. Because the hotel — the Bristol — was Warsaw’s most luxurious, I assumed this fabrication, like the call for more romantic imagery, had been made in hopes of attracting advertisers, the true concern of glossy magazines. In their communications with writers, the editors of these magazines euphemistically refer to the advertisers as readers.

At the newspaper, I had never had to think about advertisers. Not a fan of cruising, I occasionally wrote stories poking fun at the industry; no one ever told me to cut it out. The heralded wall between editorial and advertising stood tall and impenetrable. It was a shock, writing for the publication of an esteemed national institution, to discover that I had enjoyed much more freedom to write stylishly, and honestly, at my middling Florida newspaper, whose editorless travel section today is indistinguishable from any other.

I started work on another book, which came out in 2016: a meditation on the seven joys of travel. (A life of less movement made me, necessarily, more philosophical.) Much had changed in the quarter century since my first book. Travel writing was now viewed by some, in our hypersensitive age, as, at worst, an outmoded tool of imperialism, and, at best, an off-putting exercise in privilege. Writing about the saddest pleasure had suddenly become a guilty one. And the people who retained a keen interest in the world had been given a myriad of enticing and value-free (if not necessarily superior) ways to see it — HD, interactive apps, virtual reality — which made the idea of following blocks of black letters on a white page (or even a screen) seem depressingly like work.

Recently Granta came out with a “Journeys” issue. Interspersed with the travel stories were short essays addressing the question: Is travel writing dead? It was a bit like Vanity Fair asking, in its Hollywood issue, if movies were finished. The general consensus among the travel writers gathered was no; that the genre, if not thriving, is still a pertinent endeavor. Even if somehow every place got written about, travel stories would not disappear because, as Samanth Subramanian pointed out, places are always changing, requiring new chroniclers. There is no end to the study of the world. Travel writing has legs; it just needs to attract eyes.

¤

Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has been included in The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2014.


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