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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

I first encountered George Mikes back in 2012, when I read his delightful Switzerland for Beginners, and I knew immediately I wanted to read more.  Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  And I knew even back in 2012 which of his books I wanted to read next: Über Alles, about his travels in post-war Germany, and Any Souvenirs?, in which he wanders around much of Central Europe – or, as I like to call it, the Best of Europe – spanning both sides of the Iron Curtain.

I just didn’t realise it would take me six years to track them down – five and a half years of which were spent exhausting my options through library loan systems.  They are readily and cheaply available for those who wish to buy them, as I eventually did, so let me save you five and half years: if you want to read them, just buy them.

I started with Any Souvenirs?, published in 1971, because as much as I love Germany, I love it in tandem with the rest of Central Europe more.  Mikes visits Bavaria, Austria, bits of Yugoslavia, and his native Hungary.  Where he doesn’t visit is the one country I am most interested in: Czechoslovakia.  In his defence, he did try to visit; they just wouldn’t let him in.  And he doesn’t even try to make it to Poland and excludes Switzerland because he’s already written a book on.  Such is his prerogative as author.

From my past experience with Mikes, I had been expecting something light but not particularly insightful.  Instead, I discovered a very succinct political and social history of the region peppered with sometimes humorous but always on-the-nose observations of the people.

After taking a quick look at Bavaria, Mikes heads into Austria, a country that may look to outsiders like Germany but which he enjoys for its comparative sloppiness and imperturbable happiness (my favourite chapter title belongs to the Austrians: “How to Lose an Empire and Stay Happy”).  He then journeys south to Yugoslavia.  He is fascinated by Yugoslavia, understandably, as Tito’s experiment was like nothing else and succeeded in a miraculous way.  However, the fear over what would happen when the great man himself was no longer there lurks over the visit:

The relative peace between nationalities – such as it is – is due mostly to [Tito’s] prestige, authority and the respect he commands.  One gathers the strong impression that this is very much the calm before the storm.  Would-be successors are positioning themselves for the battle and long knives are being sharpened.

Peace held longer than Mikes might have thought – Tito died in 1980 and the Yugoslav Wars did not start until 1991 – but I doubt he would have been surprised by what happened.

Finally, he reaches Hungary.  Mikes emigrated before the Second World War when he was still a young man so the country he returns to is more a place of memories than current connections.  It is a good section and by the far the funniest, the best bit of which was his startling realisation that the friends of his youth have now been immortalized by city planners:

Walking along a street in Buda, you remember Hungary’s great humorist, Frederick Karinthy.  Here on the corner used to stand the café he visited every day and where, at frequent intervals, he got into debt with the head-waiter, being unable to pay his bill.  Then you discover, with a start, that the street itself is now called Frederick Karinthy Street.  And somewhere else you see another street named after another friend who used to be unable to pay his bill in another café.  Yet another one reminds you that a third friend still owes you five pengoes, but as he, too, has now been turned into a street, you’ve haven’t much chance of seeing your money.  With a largish square you once had a drunken fight at three a.m. in the City Park and that statue there – so majestic on his pedestal – used to go to bed with one of your girl-friends.  It hurt very much at the time – it was certainly not the behaviour you expect from a statue.

img class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-12205″ src=”https://thecaptivereader.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/uber-alles.jpg” alt=”” width=”175″ height=”288″ />Travelling back in time, I then picked up Über Alles from 1953.  The rebuilding of Germany in the post-war period was miraculous and Mikes was amazed to see what had already been accomplished.  And what was being accomplished daily:

In Bavaria, Berlin and Hesse I saw people work till midnight.  Not only waiters but also bricklayers and decorators.  I saw others working as early as four in the morning.  Yet all these people jibe at the Swabians and make contemptuous remarks about them.  ‘Oh, these Swabians,’ they keep saying.  ‘They work too hard.’  I visited Stuttgart but failed to detect anything to distinguish the way the Swabians work from the way the rest of Germany works.  Perhaps they work twenty-eight hours a day – I could not find out.

In the midst of this rebuilding, Germany was still figuring out how to deal with its recent past and that makes for some interesting conversations – or struggles to have conversations, as Mikes searches for people who are willing to discuss the Nazis.  And making sense of the present is no easier as he wanders through divided but pre-wall Berlin.

It’s a well-done book and far more humorous than Any Souvenirs?  Most importantly, it gives me exactly what I want from Mikes: an extended essay on How to Become a German.  Here are the highlights:

You do not need to be a Teutonic god. You do not need to be six feet tall, broad-shouldered, fair, blue-eyed and divine in any particular way.  If your laugh chimes melodiously like church-bells sunk in the Rhine, that is all right; but if it happens to be an uproarious belly-laugh, do not worry.  If you are brave and vengeful like Siegfried, good for you; but if you are meek and humble that will do as well.  If you are lean and muscular like the warriors of the Nibelungenlied that must be good for your health; but if your girth borders on the miraculous and you have a treble chin as well as a treble neck, you are still eligible.

Go and have a haircut. Most people have an ordinary European haircut but a large minority – I always felt that only they were the true Germans – have their hair shorn off completely, except for a fetching little mane just above the forehead.  Then dress up.  Dress like a hunter but never go hunting.  OR as a golfer but never play golf…

Whatever you do, be stiff and formal like a foreign ambassador performing his official duty. I have always believed that ‘charm’ often conceals a streak of weakness.  The majority of Germans are completely free from this weakness…

Be decent, well-meaning and clean. And believe that cleanliness is one of the greatest of human virtues.  Look down upon the French because some – in fact many – of their lavatories are dirty…

Be highly cultured, quote Greek authors in the original, be interested in everything and amass a huge volume of factual information. If you have a chance – and you will often find one if you are on your guard – air your vast knowledge just to show that you possess it.  Be paternal to everybody and teach everybody his own business.  Do this benevolently, full of the noblest intentions and with the tact of a baby elephant…

Ah yes, that is what I had been looking forward to.

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A long, long time ago, Danielle wrote about Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment and instantly convinced me that I had to read it.  That was five years ago today.  I may not be fast when it comes to reading books off my to-read list but I am tenacious – I get there in the end!

Heidi’s Alp (also published as The Canary-Coloured Cart) is a memoir of a trip Hardyment took with her four young daughters around Europe in a camper van in the early 1980s with an itinerary gently guided by classic children’s stories.  Hardyment isn’t rigid in her itinerary (sensible when travelling with so many children) so they take in scenic spots and child-friendly sites as well as places with literary ties.

Rather than a straightforward account of her travels, Hardyment’s book is part travel memoir but also part literary history.  She looks at the facts behind the stories and explores at some length the life of Hans Christian Anderson, which I found unexpectedly fascinating.  I was also captivated by the chapter on Hamelin and various theories behind the tale of the Pied Piper and the children he led away.  Were they young people who went as colonists to Moravia?  Confused with those killed at the battle of Sedemunde in 1259?  A fiction created to drive 16th century tourism?  Victims of a plague (like St Vitus’ Dance) or hopeful young people who set out on the Children’s Crusade of 1211?  There’s no way of knowing the truth but it’s interesting to contemplate so many possible explanations.

Hardyment also goes into some detail about the logistics of living in their cramped van (christened Bertha) with so many children.  At the start of the trip she is accompanied by a friend with a baby, making for five children and two adults.  It sounds messy and cramped and exhausting.  When her husband joins them (and the friend and baby return home) a little more order is restored but it’s still not a way I’d plan to travel.

But the places they travel to, those I would happily visit – and in some cases I already have.  I loved hearing about Denmark, a country still on my to-visit list, and their experiences in and impressions of East Germany during a brief visit there.  But, predictably, I mostly loved hearing about the places I know: they visit the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, relax at a campground within easy boating distance of Venice, find themselves charmed by laid-back Lucca in Tuscany, and are awed by the unbelievably scenic Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.  Having spent two weeks in Lucca last summer studying Italian and living within the city’s walls, I loved hearing their impressions of it:

We hadn’t meant to come to Lucca at all, let alone stay there for a night and a day, but we did.  We ate a leisurely breakfast in another little square, climbed the bizarre treetopped Guinigi tower, admired the old Roman amphitheatre, and walked halfway round the shady city walls back to Bertha.  Inside the cathedral Tilly found an early Renaissance effigy of silky marble, the young wife of Paolo Guinigi lying in state…We all loved Lucca, both for its beauty and for its down-to-earth quality.  It was a good solid reminder of everyday reality.

Lovely Lucca

What I also loved – because I have thought it every single time I’ve crossed the border myself – is their observations of the changes you see coming down into inexplicably slovenly Italy from neat, orderly Austria:

Well, it looked like Italy.  The countryside was picturesque enough.  Sad cypresses flanked robber strongholds in the Dolomite gorges.  The immaculate wooden chalets of the Austrian Alps had changed to dilapidated farmhouses with crumbing terracotta roofs and peeling plaster walls.  Olive groves and vineyards replaced the flowery alpine pastures.

‘It’s funny,’ said Tilly.  ‘The houses here are shabby again, like they were in East Germany, but it doesn’t look as if the Italians mind, somehow.  It looked as if the East Germans couldn’t afford to do anything up.  But it looks as if the Italians can’t be bothered.’

Northern Italy

But Hardyment is more comfortable with the more lax Italian (and French) approach to life.  After a stay in Switzerland, she finds herself frustrated by national obsession with order and longs for a bit of chaos:

Switzerland had delighted us in many ways…And yet we felt strangely displaced there.  The premium the Swiss lay on good behaviour and orderly living is something of a strain to those of the casual gipsy persuasion…The minute we crossed the border and met the casual insouciance of French manners, I felt a load tumble off my shoulders.  We stopped in an untidy lay-by around seven in the evening to change drivers.  I sat at a bitumen-covered trestle table, glass in hand, and considered the unlovely public conveniences, the overfull wastebins, the lorry-drivers drawing on their Gauloises, with perverse satisfaction.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way myself but I’ve certainly felt the reverse!  I was so delighted to leave Italy after an extended stay there this summer and head back to the Germanic and Slavic worlds where things are clean, people are cheerful, and everything runs on time.  (It should also be noted that I come from Canada, a country based on “Peace, Order, and Good Government”, which primed me from birth to like such things.)

All in all, a very interesting concept for a family trip and a wonderfully compiled account of it.  I hope Hardyment’s daughters (ages five to twelve when the trip was taken) retained their love of both stories and travel as they grew up.

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The receipt in my copy of The Marches by Rory Stewart reminds me that I bought it a year ago today.  It took me almost a year (a very strange and hectic year in my defense) to read it but one year from purchase to reading is hardly my worst record.  I had been looking forward to this book for a long time (it was announced years ago but the publication date kept getting pushed back and back and back – I can understand why, having read it) and wanted to have the time to savour it.  It was completely worth waiting for.

The book is subtitled “A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland” and is based on Stewart’s walks through the borderlands – first along Hadrian’s Wall and then from Stewart’s home in Cumbria to his father’s home in Crieff, Scotland.  Only 44 years old, Stewart has already led a fascinating life and walked through some precarious places.  Currently an MP, he has been: a lieutenant in the Black Watch, private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a diplomat serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, a deputy governor in two coalition-held provinces in southern Iraq, the founder of a NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard.  He also, in 2002, found time to walk across Afghanistan (among other places) and wrote a fascinating book about it (The Places in Between).

I picked this up because I was feeling the urge to encounter someone out of the ordinary – both eccentric and a bit old-fashioned (at least in their ideas of duty and service), which I knew Stewart to be.  What I didn’t realise is that there was someone who fit that description even better than Stewart: his father, Brian, who is the most perfectly eccentric person I have come across in years.  And he is the heart of the book.  What starts as a journey to understand, in advance of the Scottish independence vote, the differences between the people on either side of the border becomes a tribute to the life of Brian Stewart, proud Scotsman and lifelong British public servant.

We meet Brian in book’s opening paragraph, immediately discovering he is a very involved older father (he was in his fifties when Stewart, the first child of Brian’s second marriage, was born) and a rather unique one:

I was five years old and it was just before six in the morning.  I walked into my parents’ room and poked the shape on the right-hand side of the bed.  My father’s head emerged.  He rolled himself upright, retied his checked sarong, pushed his white hair flat on his head, and led me back out of the bedroom.  Once we had dressed, we marched to Hyde Park for fencing practice.  Then we marched back to the house and laid out toy soldiers on the floor to re-enact the battle of Waterloo.

Throughout the book, Brian is a huge part of both Stewart’s daily life (in the average month he would write his son emails totaling 40,000 words and they check in by phone regularly during his walks) and his memories.  A former soldier, diplomat and British Secret Intelligence Service officer (the second-most senior one, in fact) who invariably called his son ‘darling’, Brian had much practical advice for Stewart when he was establishing his own diplomatic career and working in places (like Indonesia) well known to his father.  The casual helicopter parent of today had nothing on Brian Stewart.  My favourite anecdotes were the ones describing how Brian descended on his son’s new postings and, with characteristic energy and focus, immediately started in on projects:

When I left the Foreign Office to set up a charity in Afghanistan, he was eighty-four.  This time it was nine months before he came to visit me.  When he did, he flew through the night to Kabul, came straight up to our office, laid out his sketchpad and began designing a formal Persian garden.  An hour later he began an essay title ‘You know more Persian than you think.’  By supper he was standing in the kitchen, training the cooks.

How terrifying and how absolutely wonderful.  And how excellent that his son appreciates the father he has and the legacy Brian has given him: “not some philosophical or political vision, but playfulness and a delight in action.”

But the book is not entirely about Brian (though his spirit dominates).  It is also about Stewart’s inquiries into the identity of those who live along the border and what that may tell us about the future of both Scotland and England – a debate that is particularly relevant to him, as a Scotsman who lives in England and has, like his father, devoted a good portion of his life to public service.

He begins by walking along Hadrian’s Wall, more a border of imagination than reality, reflecting on the Roman occupation.  He does a superb job of making that strange place of uncertain purpose come alive, a place where foods imported from across the empire were eaten by soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Syria and North Africa and a dozen other places.  And he marvels at how it all disappeared – of how little remained in Britain after the Romans left.  For him, the parallels with the collation occupation of Afghanistan are clear and fascinating:

…while archaeologists seemed to want to insist there was a rational, practical purpose to the wall, which could be read from its architectural design, I sensed absurdity.  The wall was cripplingly expensive to build and maintain.  It failed to prevent incursions from the north, that devastated the economy and society of southern Britain.  Over the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Romans and hundreds of thousands of Britons were killed and indigenous cultures were smashed forever.  And in the end nothing sustainable was left behind when the Romans departed.

Later, as he walks north to his father’s Scottish home, he considers the artifice of local “heritage” and identity.  The border should an “irrelevance” but as long as the people on either side think of themselves as different they remain different.  In what was once a Welsh kingdom, then the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, he now finds three distinct “countries”: the area north of the Scottish border, the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the area between the two.  His observations are excellent and this entire section is just a superb piece of travel writing.  In particular, his comments on how southern Scotland has co-opted highland culture, embracing traditions (Gaelic, tartan, etc.) that have no ties at all to the region, are especially interesting.

In the end, Stewart’s journey comes to an end and the book comes to its inevitable conclusion: Brian’s death at age 94.  From the structure of the book, from the importance of Brian’s presence throughout, it was clear that this was a tribute to him as much as it was an exploration of a specific region.  It would have been an excellent and fascinating book without Brian; with him, it is unforgettable and incredibly moving.

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The theme of 2017, for me, was travel.  This was reflected in the three months I spent in Europe, obviously, but also in my reading throughout the year.  I read books to help me plan, to inspire me to visit new destinations, and just to enjoy learning about people doing things I haven’t the slightest interest in doing.  Some of the books were helpful, others not, some were well written, and others were absolutely cringe-worthy.

The best of the bunch was The Way of Wanderlust by Don George.  So much so that as soon as I finished reading it I went back and read through my favourite bits again.

As someone who haunts the travel section of my local bookstore, George’s name was vaguely familiar to me from his work as the editor of countless collections of travel writing but that was it.  I knew nothing of him as a writer or a traveller in his own right but just flipping through this book’s table of contents and seeing the variety of places he wrote about convinced me I needed to try this.  Croatia, Japan, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Jordan all beckoned.

This is a collection of George’s best works and they range over his lifetime as well as over the globe.  Separated neatly into three sections (pilgrimages, encounters, and illuminations), he writes about youthful adventures in Europe and Africa, family life in rural Japan, spiritual encounters in the Outback, how it feels to stand in front of a beloved painting in Paris, and so many more things that aren’t necessarily obvious subjects.  But in George’s hands, they are not just worthy of attention – they are precious.

His writing style changes from subject to subject and with time but he is always engaged, empathetic and fully present in each story.  I loved how confident he was regardless of his tone, able to make fun of himself but also to feel awed and humbled by the things he encounters.

One of my favourite stories, “Conquering Half Dome”, is about a vacation he took with his wife and children to Yosemite National Park in California.  Despite a lifetime of travel and moderate outdoor adventures, he finds himself terrified by the cable route up Half Dome.  His account of it definitely falls into the humorous category:

I’d read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about sixty degrees.  In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall.  That doesn’t seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room.  From the plushness of my couch, with a  soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, sixty degrees hadn’t seemed too steep – but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep.  I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain – and I thought, This is a really stupid way to die.

I could cheerfully read an entire book written in that vein, but this is not that book.  In my other favourite piece, “Japan’s Past Perfect”, the beauty of his opening paragraph shows just how well he can set the mood and how beautifully he can describe a scene:

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars.  Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes.  No other houses are visible.  The only sound in the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.  The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air.  I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

There are 33 stories in the collection and all are fascinating.  The foreword he includes for each piece is also wonderful, giving the reader some context around both the place described and George’s life.  George shares a lot of himself in each story but these forewords provide even greater intimacy.

Really good travel writing isn’t necessarily about making you fall in love with a certain destination; it’s about making you fall in love with the entire world and feel that exploring it is a great and wondrous adventure.  And in this wonderful collection that exactly what Don George does.

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When I found The Coast of Bohemia by Edith Pargeter in a used bookstore in Nelson, BC last summer, I gasped audibly and then spent the rest of my visit with the book clutched firmly to my chest.  No one was going to part me from this book, which I had been longing to add to my Czech collection for years.

Never heard of The Coast of Bohemia before?  Or Edith Pargeter?  Fair enough, though you might have heard of Pargeter under her pen name of Ellis Peters.  As Peters she wrote the best-selling Brother Cadfael mystery series.  Lesser known are her translations of a rather marvellous variety of Czech works, ranging from beloved 19th century tales to political memoirs to post-war classics.

Czech is not a language you pick up easily.  But for Pargeter, who became fascinated by the country after befriending Czech servicemen during WWII, it was a labour of love.  The country, the language, and the people all fascinated her.  In 1947 she made her first visit to Czechoslovakia and then returned for three months in 1948, the trip which she recounts in The Coast of Bohemia.  She would continue to visit the country regularly but it was only this early trip in the hopeful post-war years that she chronicled in this wonderful, enlightening travelogue.

Pargeter arrives in Prague in the midst of the 1948 Sokol slet.  The Sokol movement was based on gymnastic exercises but involved a whole ideology (see Wikipedia for more detail) and the slet was a mass exhibition that drew in people from all over the country, as well as foreign spectators.  For Pargeter, it set just the right festive mood for her stay.

Pargeter roams widely in her travels but Prague is her base and her love for the city flows throughout the book.  I particularly loved this passage about the view towards the castle, perhaps because it is so much how I feel when I am there:

I have many great things still to see, but so far I know of no prospect which lifts up my heart and stops my breath as this does.  Gothic towers have always a quality of tugging one towards heaven as in a rising whirlwind, and here the towers are themselves the culmination of an upward rushing of roofs, palaces, gardens and orchards, all climbing with an equal impetus of flight from the level silver calm of the river, and the counter-balance of bridges.  I can see it twenty times a day, and never without an answering leap of the heart; at the end of a close daily acquaintance with it for three months it is as new as at the beginning, yet coming back to it has every time something of coming home.

Because she has so much time to explore, she also takes delight in discovering Prague’s “subtler serenities” and “less accessible charms” which come only “to those who have time to appreciate them.”

Much of the pleasure of her visit comes from the fact that she is not alone.  She spends most of her time with Czech friends who squire her about to show off their country but are also happy to just spend quiet evenings in discussion.  By slipping so easily into family life, she really gets to know the people and the country in a way that the vast majority of travellers never do.

And she sees places most travellers never see, even today.  She goes on daytrips from Prague into the countryside or along the river, visits nearby historic sights (including Terezin, the former concentration camp), spends some time in a famous spa town, and relaxes in the mountains.  I read this back in June, knowing that I was only weeks away from going to Europe but with no plans to stop in the Czech Republic while there.  It was torture.  As things turned out, I did get to spend almost two weeks there (split between Prague and a Moravian spa town) and so I was able to stop being so jealous of Pargeter.

Because she has close Czech friends, Pargeter gets to ride along on family visits to friends in the countryside outside of Prague.  There she is rather amazed to see the family’s son, the elegant and sophisticated Honza, comfortably helping out – something she can’t imagine British city-dwellers being able to do:

It seemed to us that in Czechoslovakia there was no such gulf between the townsman and the countryman as can often be found in England.  You could take any apparently typical young Praguer […] and find that he had firm roots somewhere in the soil and a very close knowledge of country matters.  The link not only exists, but is close and strong.  We discovered during the war how completely ignorant many town-born English people could be of the most elementary facts of country life.  Jaroslav and his family would go off during the summer holidays to help with the harvest on his brother’s farm in Sumava.  Honza, when he talked about his childhood, often trotted out incidental anecdotes about the hop-fields, and his uncle’s draught oxen.  Shop-gazing in the streets of Prague, or forking manure and casually shepherding animals here, he fitted into the picture equally securely.

Whether this is universally true, I can’t say, but it certainly remains true in my family.  Connecting with the land is important to Czechs – after all, the national anthem is a love song about the country’s beauty.  Combine that with a love of physical activity and you have a nation that can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend the weekend than foraging for mushrooms, building a friend’s cabin, or, joy of joys, getting together a small group to slaughter and process a pig.  I doubt this is uniquely Czech but it is certainly more common in continental Europe than in the UK, both then and now.

Pargeter’s love affair with the Czechs was only beginning when she took this trip and wrote the book (it came out in 1950).  Her Czech was minimal (only around 50 words she estimates) so her ability to grasp all the nuances of the Czech character are limited.  While she is delighted by all the visitors come to Prague for the Sokol slet, dressed in their regional costumes, her Prague friends view them with condescension, explaining to her that “most of these […] were Slovaks.”  Slovaks are never to be admired, even as picturesque peasants.  And when a Czech man she meets on a train very neatly explains the national character to her as “everyone smiles, but has a sorrow in his heart” she is not quite sure how seriously to take him.  In time, I’m sure she learned just what an accurate description that was.  In fact, even by the end of this trip she was well on her way to understanding why the Czechs were different:

The Czechs seem very like us, we say – and indeed I believe they are – why do they not think as we do?  The answer is on the map.  They simply cannot afford to. […] She looks back on a history of unending troubles, wars and wrongs, all because she made the mistake of being the very antithesis of an island, the core and crossroads of a continent.

Pargeter is an excellent and enthusiastic observer of the Czechs and, more than anything, a fond one.  The book reads like a particularly erudite love letter to the country and the people, and is a wonderful reflection on both.  I think any traveller (or armchair traveller) with an interest in the Czech Republic would enjoy this but for Czechophiles it is a true delight.

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Only in NaplesI have itchy feet.  Spring always brings it on, the urge to run far from the office and have an adventure in some foreign land, and every spring I manage somehow to resist it.  But only with intense literary aid.  If I did not have travel memoirs to escape into at these desperate moments, who knows what would happen.

Right now, two of the three books I’m reading are travel-focused: Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, about an English couple who moved to Andalusia in southern Spain, and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim by Harry Bucknall, about walking the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.  They are both perfectly suited to my mood and I can’t decide which I like more.  Farming in rural Spain is far from my idea of perfection – or even, let’s be perfectly honest, something I could tolerate for more than a week – but Stewart has won me over.  On the other hand, the Via Francigena fascinates me, as all pilgrimage routes do, and it’s one of the few pilgrim routes I could see myself doing one day.  This is why I keep flipping between the books, loathe to neglect either.  Bucknall at breakfast and before bed, Stewart to accompany me to and from work.  For someone who rarely has multiple books on the go, this is a shocking aberration.

Of course, these are not the first travel memoirs I’ve read this year.  Let us be serious.  They are the fourth and fifth, following the excellent trio of I’m Off Then by Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian’s account of walking the Camino de Santiago (okay, that makes it sound dire and I promise it is not), Falling in Honey by Jennifer Barclay, about an English woman who visits and then moves to a remote Greek island, and, my favourite of the bunch, Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson.

After finishing university, Katherine Wilson moved from America to Naples to take up a three-month internship at the U.S. Consulate, following her family’s tradition of complimenting classroom learning with an “experience abroad”.  Her parents had done the same and had marvellous memories.  Naples, however, was not the vision of a European experience her family had in mind for her.  Upper-class overachievers who graduate from Princeton go to Tuscany, not the seedy south.   But upper-class overachievers can rebel too, albeit in a very small way (government service not being a particularly rebellious pursuit, even in Naples).

In Naples, Katherine finds her introduction to her new city through the Avallone family.  Salvatore, a twenty-three year old law school student, will go on to become her husband.  But the book is really about Katherine’s relationship with Raffaella, the glamorous and eminently practical matriarch of the Avallone family, and the lessons Katherine absorbs from her about Italian culture and cooking – and the management of Italian families.

To an alarming extent, I could identify with Katherine who “spent my childhood overachieving at private schools, and in college I could have majored in Surpassing Expectations or Making Mommy and Daddy Proud”.  She is not apologetic about her financial independence and I loved the family’s attitude towards trusts: “interest could be skimmed off for emergencies, but the phrase tapping into capital was akin to shooting up heroin.”  As someone whose days are spent doing financial planning, this is music to my ears.

I loved this book.  Katherine writes well about food and the Italian food culture – and about her conflicted relationship with it when she first arrives in Naples, pudgy and suffering from a binge eating disorder.  It is a warm and funny and kind book, a memoir not just about discovering a new culture but about growing up and coming into a new family.

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VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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