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

I returned home with a story to tell and found, to my delight, the perfect climate in which to tell it. From each trip I came back with multiple stories that I wrote at my own pace, sometimes months after the fact. 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. 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. 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. Paul’s Episcopal Church — and she expressed bemusement, saying she preferred the company of pagans. While writing a travel story, I never ask myself: Is this going to make people want to visit? ¤
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. 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. 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 book was, of course, written in first person; the best travel writing is first person. Traveling as a travel writer I tried to replicate, as best I could, in the short time allotted me, the life of an expat. 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. Recently Granta came out with a “Journeys” issue. 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. It was a bit like Vanity Fair asking, in its Hollywood issue, if movies were finished. 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. The main editor on the story urged me to bring out more of the “romance” of Warsaw. When I eventually picked up the book, I devoured it. K. The following year, Pantheon came out with Up in the Old Hotel. Travel writing seemed a realistic career. I worked for a medium-sized newspaper in a small Florida city that thought it beneficial that I travel the globe. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political. On my trips I always tried to meet people, because of my early journalistic training and also my invaluable stints abroad. That winter, in my brother’s old bedroom in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, I wrote in longhand my book about Poland. In the age of the backpacker, I became an expat. 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. 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). The Other, even when it presents itself, frequently gets dismissed. ¤
The ’90s were my postcard decade. 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. 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. 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. 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). Pragmatic people, they were more comfortable with vacation tips, which I ran inside the section. I had chosen to focus solely on the pilgrimage to Częstochowa, which I had walked that August with thousands of Poles. 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. Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? The book was a travel memoir. J. Instead I ask myself, over and over: Am I accurately — and entertainingly — capturing the spirit of the place as I experienced it? 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. 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. The heralded wall between editorial and advertising stood tall and impenetrable. 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 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). We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. 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. 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. Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. I settled in — teaching English, learning Polish, reading writers I’d never heard of: Mickiewicz, Norwid, Prus, Tuwim. After three years of freelancing, I was somewhat accustomed to binge editing. 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. 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. 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. 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. That spring, I found no publisher interested in a book about a pilgrimage in Poland. I stood in lines for food and every month received ration cards at school. Terry Gross, interviewing Louis C.K. 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. 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. I told her that, in an attempt to meet people, I often attended religious services while traveling — we were standing in front of St. The writings of M. F. 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. Interspersed with the travel stories were short essays addressing the question: Is travel writing dead? With In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin had become Theroux’s erudite confrère at the forefront of the genre’s renaissance. 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. I didn’t believe that you could write intelligently or accurately about a place without the insights that locals provide. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. There is no end to the study of the world. — 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. To focus on our love affair would have seemed trivial. But I was attempting to bring the styles and concerns of contemporary travel writing into my pages, to get it more converts. 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 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. This too was helpful to my desired, unlikely career. 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. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. 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. Colin Thubron, in more far-flung lands, was perfecting the observe-and-interpret method (which V. The political situation — strikes, demonstrations, rumors of invasion — added to the intensity. 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. 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. Unlike those writers, I chose an unromanticized country (for romantic reasons) that I knew almost nothing about. 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. The field was rich and getting richer. I kept a detailed journal, an act that turned clandestine when martial law was declared in December 1981. (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. Bob was a reporter, I was a feature writer. 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. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. In their communications with writers, the editors of these magazines euphemistically refer to the advertisers as readers. 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. Not a fan of cruising, I occasionally wrote stories poking fun at the industry; no one ever told me to cut it out. Most newspaper travel sections were in the information business; readers didn’t go to them expecting to be educated, entertained, or moved. 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. Then she passed over this intriguing fact and inquired about his relationship with his father. 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. The cost of this extravagance was justified by the large amounts of money the sections brought in from advertising. His work has been included in The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2014. There is a lot to be said for being a low priority. 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. “And the worst travel writing is first person,” went the glassy-eyed travel editor’s riposte. 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. 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. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots? 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. Adding to my good mood was the fact that my book on Poland was coming out in the fall. The true nature of this loss became painfully clear to me in 2011, when National Geographic Traveler sent me to Warsaw. 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. 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. 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. Yet the new generation was proving him wrong. My agent placed it with Ticknor and Fields, then a division of Houghton Mifflin, after 41 rejections. 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. 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. (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. 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. 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. 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. 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. ¤
In 2008, with a feeling of relief (probably on both sides), I got laid off. Nobody questioned it. 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. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. It was a brilliant winter morning, and I was a recent enough transplant to still feel giddy at warmth in the middle of January. 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. Unfortunately, this means that a country with little information about the world receives it, at least from its travel publications, watered down. 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. “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. The general consensus among the travel writers gathered was no; that the genre, if not thriving, is still a pertinent endeavor. 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. S. (A life of less movement made me, necessarily, more philosophical.) Much had changed in the quarter century since my first book. 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. 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. We hadn’t earned the right to cynical mockery and wry world-weariness. It seemed absurd not to think that as long as there were places there would be writing about them. 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. 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. The authors, through their deep knowledge of the culture and intimate connection to the people, made travel writing a serious, almost anthropological pursuit. 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. Bob’s description of The Great Railway Bazaar put me off the book for months. on Fresh Air, mentioned that the comedian spent his early childhood in Mexico City. 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. I started work on another book, which came out in 2016: a meditation on the seven joys of travel. One of the world’s most dynamic and clamorous cities could not compete with dad. I was attending not just out of personal interest but in my new role as travel editor of a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale. Liebling. Writing about the saddest pleasure had suddenly become a guilty one. (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. Certain publications, I had come to realize, desire bland writing, not because it pleases so many people but because it offends so few. I left the newspaper to move to Poland to pursue a woman I’d met on my way home from France. 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. And the larger a magazine’s circulation, the greater the number of the potentially outraged. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? APRIL 16, 2017

“HAVE YOU READ The Great Railway Bazaar? ¤
My blue Honda Civic sailed the Overseas Highway, its windows open to the salt air. Travel writing has legs; it just needs to attract eyes. 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. 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 age of travel, Fussell lamented in closing, had begat the age of tourism, which, inevitably, signaled the death of travel writing. At the newspaper, I had never had to think about advertisers. In appearance and approach, Trips resembled a scaled-down version of Holiday, the great travel magazine of the mid-20th century. 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. This criticism puzzled me — as it would puzzle anyone who had published a travel story about Baghdad during the Gulf War.