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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Rick-Steves-Postcards-from-EuropeBack when I used to pretend to be cool (a ten-minute period back in 1997), I couldn’t imagine anything more embarrassing than using a guidebook while travelling.  If I’m honest, I still refuse to pull out guidebooks in public places and prefer to consult my maps in out of the way places where no local will dare offer to help me find my way.  Presumably this stems from the belief that if I don’t do these obviously touristy things, I will be mistaken for a local.  This has never worked outside of a select group of countries (the joy I feel when presented with a completely incomprehensible menu in Dutch or Czech is immense) but I persist in thinking it will.  But I am wandering off topic.  My point is that, while preferring to use them covertly, I love my travel guidebooks.  I study them religiously before going on trips, memorize the city maps they contain and any suggested travel itineraries, and, as a result, have a marvellous, stress-free time once I arrive at my destination, well-prepared to embark on my adventures.  And, though no guidebook is perfect or comprehends everything that you want to know, Rick Steves’ books are my favourites when it comes to planning my European holidays.  After years of reading his books and watching his travel shows on PBS, I knew much about Steves’ philosophies (for example, his passion for Travel as a Political Act) but very little about his background.  So, when I heard about Postcards from Europe by Rick Steves, first published in 1999, I picked it up eagerly.

The book follows Steves as he makes his way across Europe, meeting up with old friends, rediscovering favourite places, and marvelling about his luck at turning a love of travel into a full-time job.  Through the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, he relates stories from his many years as a travel guide and from his own early adventures in Europe, first on a staid but eye-opening family holiday and then on the “Europe Through the Gutter” he and a friend took after graduating from high school.  It is a nostalgic journey, as Steves examines how he has changed over the years and what his influence has been on changing some of the places and people mentioned in his guidebooks.

For me, the best part of the book was learning more about Steves’ past.  How he came to love Europe and how he basically fell into the travel industry by giving talks (which turned into classes) to raise money for his upcoming European holidays.  The early years of the tour group business sound a little sketchy (stays in hostels and tents, rides on the top of the coach bus, torrid love affairs among clients, guides, and bus drivers, etc) – a particularly funny juxtaposition if you’ve ever come across a modern-day organized Rick Steves tour while travelling (average age seems to be mid-sixties, though that might be generous).  But maybe I am being overly censorious; perhaps the seniors are getting up to equally remarkable (and legally questionable) high jinks today.  I rather hope so, especially since they are of an age to have been some of Steves’ original clients back when he started conducting tours.

Every so often, there was an anecdote or joke that took me completely aback.  There was nothing crude or offensive, just a little racier or saltier than my PBS-sanitized mental image of Steves.  These were memorable stories (a young mid-Westerner’s encounter with a particularly enterprising female thief in Rome stands out in my mind) but left me shamefully embarrassed – for myself, not Steves.  It’s that same sort of shock as when you first hear your parents make a dirty joke.  It takes a while to recover and to realign your universe.

Amsterdam (2013)

Amsterdam (2013)

As usual, Steves make me long to go to the places he talks about in the book.  Most are old favourites – the Netherlands, the Rhine Valley, Munich, the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland, and, of course, Paris – but others I still long to visit.  His enthusiasm for Venice is infectious – even if I hadn’t already been longing to go, I’m sure reading this would have sent me running to the library for more books on that watery city.

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Most of all, I appreciate how liberal he is with jokes about national stereotypes.  If there is one thing I love, it is sweeping generalizations about the characteristics of nations (think Letters from England or Switzerland for Beginners).  There are many particularly good zingers about Americans here (Steves is, after all, on a quest to broaden the minds of his fellow countrymen), one of my favourites being:   “Babies, ancient astronomers, and Americans think the universe revolves around them.”  But there is one joke, supposedly told to Steves by some Dutch friends, that I have joyously shared with all my friends and family and which comes at the expense of us otherwise adorable and inoffensive Canadians: “Canada could have had it all: British culture, French cuisine, American know-how…but they messed up and got British food, French know-how, and American culture.”  We are working hard on righting this, but how true!

Reading this was like, after years of admiring but never really knowing someone on the edge of your circle of friends, finally sitting down with them for a few hours and learning their life’s story.  It was an informative, fun, and more than a little surprising experience that, in this case, left me even fonder of Steves than I was before.

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The Politics of WashingMuch of my spare time – not that there is a lot of it right now – is spent thinking about Italy.  I’ve never been but I hope to remedy that next spring.  I want to see Florence and perhaps Rome and, most of all, Venice.  But, unlike Florence and Rome, there seems to be a scarce supply of books about Venice.  You can buy hundreds of memoirs of life in Tuscany but how many can you think of about Venice?  For that reason, I was so excited to come across The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles.

When Coles, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, moved to Venice with her family (she has four children), she already loved the city.  In this book, she chronicles the things she loves about Venice and also the things that bother her – which seems to be almost everything.

I can’t imagine Venice is an easy place to live, especially as an outsider.  Overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians aren’t exactly known for their warm welcomes.  And the city is a logistical nightmare to get around in when dry, nevermind when the waters rise.  But it is romantic, in its sad state of elegant decay, and Coles does do a good job of capturing that allure.  However, a true Venetian now, she is also very keen to keep that romance for the Venetians, jealous of all the tourists who she sees as destroying the city and its way of life.  Undoubtedly, modern tourism has had – and continues to have – a disastrous physical effect on Venice but Coles is equally worried about its effect on the Venetian people and their communities.  She talks about all of the native Venetians who have moved to the mainland, preferring to sell their Venetian homes or, more profitably, turn them into rentable properties for tourists.  Apartment buildings once full of families and locals are now overrun by an ever-changing array of tourists who roll in and out every week.  Coles is deeply frustrated by this and the impossibility of building a strongly knit local community under such circumstances.  It is an understandable position but a rather naively frustrating one.  Venice hasn’t exactly been a sleepy backwater for the last thousand or so years, only just discovered by modern tourists.  To hate that integral part of it seems to me to be a willful misunderstanding of its identity.

Already slightly put off by her general pessimism, Coles completely lost me – and often – when she began spouting aspiring-to-be-politically-correct, rather too deeply felt platitudes.  She becomes angst-ridden over the use of the formal pronoun “lei” rather than the familiar “tu” in her passing relationship with a young neighbourhood nanny:  “I hear the lei/tu distinction as an overt statement of hierarchy –of my elevated status in relation to Barbara.”  She treads a weird line between excessive tolerance and embarrassing romanticism when she talks about Venice’s gypsies: “These Rom children, whose language uses the same word to express both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ have a grip on time, a foothold in it, born of a social unity, and through that a historical continuity, of which I have no notion, to which I can only bear astonished witness.”  (I think we should all be deeply impressed that I made it past that passage.)  And she harbours dreams of a future tourist-free Venice “in which the city can become a place of artistic and artisanal excellence again and a cultural centre where people are able to live on a small, environmentally sustainable and creative scale”, a dream which rather ignores Venice’s history as a hub of commerce, culture, and, yes, tourism.  And do not get her started on the Italian school system and its quest to destroy her children’s spirits.  She is aghast that children are expected to be moulded by teachers rather than nurtured and indulged.

I think the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it has prepared me for the worst of Venice.  Perhaps that was the goal, to deter future tourists and promote Coles’ dream of a Venice for Venetians.  If so, it didn’t work on me and I still can’t wait to go.

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Switzerland for BeginnersIn just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland.  I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.

I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012.  Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim.  But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes.  I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.

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.  An early Bill Bryson, if you will.  His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”?  But, until now, I had never read even one of his books.  Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.

The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world.  They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating.  They are adorably, endearingly boring.  This is perhaps why there are so few books about them.  A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth.  One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.”  I kept thinking about that as I read this book.  Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.

Mikes has fun with his book.  His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it.  It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:

Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports.  It is not an easy task.  Dangers lurk in every corner.  In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.

He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations.  Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner.  And one can’t argue with the amusing results:

The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues.  Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear.  Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea.  But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it.  They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair.  The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money.  This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing.  And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein.  The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages.  And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!

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The Seasons of RomeThere are places in the world that I have no particular longing to visit but which I love to read about.  Rome is one of those places.  For all the other cities and regions in Italy that I long to visit, Rome does not entice me.  Milan, yes.  Venice, absolutely.  Rome, not so much.  But I love reading about the city and so turned the pages of The Seasons of Rome by Paul Hofmann with delight.

Austrian by birth, Hofmann (who died in 2008) spent decades living and working in Rome.  By the time The Seasons of Rome was published in 1997, he had lived in the city for more than 30 years (including during the war) and the book reflects both his first-hand and his learned knowledge of the capital’s history.  In these short journal-style entries, he is able to examine a year in modern Rome and see in it the echoes of its classical heritage as well as the more recent past.

It is recognizably the work of a journalist.  Hofmann was chief of the New York Times bureau in Rome for many years and his writing is factual and understated.  He uses the first person but without gushing and emoting in the manner of many current columnists.  Essentially, he reports.

I was fascinated by the city’s never-ending appetite for papal gossip.  Neighbours gossip about the pope’s health constantly, with everyone seemingly having some connection, however tenuous, inside the papal state to provide private info.  In turn, the gossips then gossip about their sources.  One of Hofmann’s neighbours gets her (unerringly correct and days ahead of official new sources) updates on Pope John Paul  II’s ailments through the sister of her daughter-in-law:

She is an unmarried woman in her thirties who ten years ago was hired as a computer operator by an administrative office in the pontifical state; meanwhile she appears to have risen to a quasi-executive position under the supervision of a high prelate. ..I remember her as a chubbily attractive, fashionably dressed blonde.  Later I was told she lives in a nice apartment in a church-owned building not far from the Vatican, has a Filipina maid, and in August every year spends her vacations in Switzerland.  Inevitably there is talk that she has a clerical friend. 

Innocent that I am, I was a little shocked by the idea of a “clerical friend”.  But then I am rather surprised by the mention of modern-day mistresses in any context.  If you trust what you read by Italian and Irish authors, a mistress seems to be an absolutely essential accessory even for modest businessmen in Catholic countries.

Hofmann loves Rome and made his home there for many years but is far from blind to its faults.  What was most fascinating for me were the pieces (and they are many) which discuss the difficulties of Roman life: the mail lady who comes maybe two or three times a week (as opposed to the promised 9 times); the disruptive and never-ending strikes by unions and students; the nepotism and cronyism among politicians; the pervasive influence of the mob; the racism experienced by Asian and African immigrants…the list goes on.  But he is not negative, just truthful.  There is never any doubt that Rome is a city he loves and through his eyes even I could see its appeal.

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A Time of GiftsAfter countless starts and stops, 2013 was the year I finally read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor from start to finish.  On previous attempts, I’d made it up to PLF’s arrival in Vienna  – yes, attempts plural.  This book and I have a bizarrely long history of me starting it, loving every single word, falling completely in love with PLF, and then, for a variety of reasons, having to abandon it before reaching then end.  But not so this year!  I have triumphed and discovered that the second half of the book is just as wonderful, if not better, than the first.

In 1933, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen years old, he set off of the first of what would be a lifetime of travel adventures, wanting to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul).  The story of this journey spans three books (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and, just published this year, The Broken Road), with the first detailing PLF’s experiences from Holland to Hungary.  For me, this book is not just a beautiful example of travel writing but also a reminder of places I know and love, though they have changed in many ways since the days when PLF saw them as a young man.

I am, I am sure it will surprise none of you to hear, a romantic at heart.  Sometimes my romanticism is cloaked in stubborn practicality but it is nonetheless there, the legacy of romantic Mitteleuropean ancestors whose most romantic exploits became family lore.  At eighteen, indeed even now at almost twenty-eight, I can think of nothing more alluring than setting out as PLF did to travel on foot across Europe.  But it is much better that he was the traveller and I merely his audience since a) he writes so beautifully about his journeys, and b) I suspect modern Europe would be significantly less hospitable to a penniless traveller, however charming a guest he/she might be.

PLF outlines his background in a delightful introductory letter but what it comes down to is this: by eighteen, he had been thrown out of schools both conventional and experimental, had toyed with joining the army, and finally had found himself living among a set of older friends in London whose means far outweighed his own.   At this point, dependent on an allowance provided by his father in India, PLF decided to begin his journey, presumably on the basis that it is less depressing to be poor and travelling than poor and staying put.

It is an overwhelming thing, to set out on foot across Europe.  For all the people PLF met along the way, a large portion of his time was spent along and I loved reading his descriptions of those periods.  I especially enjoyed the image of him entertaining himself on these solitary marches:

Song is universal in Germany; it causes no dismay; Shuffle off to Buffalo; Bye, Bye, Blackbird; or Shenandoah; or The Raggle Taggle Gypsies sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles.  But verse was different.  Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity.  Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm.  Regulus brushing the delaying populace aside as he headed for the Carthaginian executioner, as though to Lacedaemonian Tarentum or the Venafrian fields, called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring on a heightened pitch of voice and action and double one’s embarrassment if caught.  When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying.  But some passages demand an empty road as far as the eye can see before letting fly.  The terrible boxing-match, for instance, at the funeral games of Anchises when Entellus sends Dares reeling and spitting blood and teeth across the Sicilian shore – ‘ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes’! – and then, with his thronged fist, scatters a steer’s brains with one blow between the horns – this needs care.  As for the sword-thrust at the bridge-head that brings the great lord of Luna crashing among the augurs like an oak-tree on Mont Alvernus – here the shouts, the walking-stick slashes, the staggering gait and the arms upflung should never be indulged if there is anyone within miles, if then.  To a strange eye, one is drunk or lunatic.

How wonderful to have had such an education and such a memory!  I will sing or recite things to myself on long walks (you can only go so many hours in silence) but my repertoire is sadly pedestrian compared to PLF’s.

As PLF journeys on, he is buoyed along by chance encounters and charmed introductions.  He finds himself holed up for a couple of nights with two teenage students, Annie and Lise, in an adult-less apartment in Stuttgart (surely every teen boy’s fantasy?) before moving on to even more enchanted digs, as letters of introduction furnished by a contact in Munich help him to find shelter along his route in charming schlosses with minor aristocrats:

The word “schloss” means any degree of variation between a fortified castle and a baroque palace.  This one was a fair sized manor-house.  I had felt shy as I ploughed through the snow of the long avenue late that afternoon; quite baselessly.  To go by the solicitude of the trio at the stove-side in the drawing room – the old Count and his wife and their daughter-in-law – I might, once again, have been a schoolboy asked out for a treat, or, better still, a polar explorer on the brink of expiring.  “You must be famished after all that walking!” the younger Gräfin said, as a huge tea appeared: she was a beautiful, dark-haired Hungarian and she spoke excellent English.  “Yes,” said the elder, with an anxious smile.  “We’ve been told to feed you up!”  Her husband radiated silent benevolence as yet another silver dish appeared.  I spread a third hot croissant with butter and honey and inwardly blessed my benefactor in Munich.

As PLF notes, “there is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again.”  The contrast is no doubt good for the soul but it is the providers of the four-poster beds who supply PLF with a truly extraordinary education, giving him access to their libraries and engaging him in intelligent and absorbing discussions on all manner of subjects.  PLF recalls fondly the civilizing affect of one of his most extraordinary hosts:

Yet, without any effort, he exerted an emancipating and de-barbarizing influence similar to the mood that radiates from a few exceptionally gifted dons: liberators, that is, whose tact, insight, humour and originality clear the air and store it with a new oxygen.  He resembled a much-travelled Whig aristocrat – a friend of Voltaire and Diderot, perhaps – who, after enjoying and exhausting the intrigues and frivolities of half a dozen European courts, had retired to his books in some remote and well wooded shire.

Can you imagine?

It is impossible to read this book without feeling some (or, in my case, immense) nostalgia for the Europe PLF travelled in but which had vanished completely by the end of the war.  I am not sure that the loss is entirely a bad thing but I am so happy that here we have a record of what now seems like an enchanted journey through an enchanted and very long-ago land.

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Letters from EnglandGiven my love of travelogues, books about British identity, and humourous writing in general, it is no wonder that I loved Letters from England by Karel Čapek.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Čapek wrote a series of “Letters from” books detailing his travels in Italy, Spain, Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, the United Kingdom.  Written to his fellow countrymen, Čapek tries to interpret what he sees on his journeys for his Czech readers and the results are truly delightful.

There are two impressions which are completely fantastic: to discover something unexpected, and to discover something altogether familiar.  One is always taken aback to meet an old acquaintance unawares.  Well, in the same way I was astonished when I discovered the Houses of Parliament by the Thames, gentlemen in grey top-hats in the streets, two-metre bobbies at the crossroads, and so on.  It was astonishing to find that England is really so English.

Though an admirer of England and the English, Čapek is not immediately impressed by his surroundings when he arrives in London in 1924.  In fact, he is (quite rightly) horrified by the monotonous architecture of London’s sprawling suburbs:

At last the train bores its way between houses of a curious sort; there are a hundred of them entirely alike; then a whole streetful alike; and again, and again.  This produces the effect of a fashion craze. The train flies past a whole town which is beset by some terrible curse; inexorable Fate has decreed that each house shall have two pillars at the door.  For another huge block she has decreed iron balconies.  The following block she has perpetually condemned to grey bricks.  On another mournful street she has relentlessly imposed blue verandahs.  Then there is a whole quarter doing penance for some unknown wrong by placing five steps before every front door.  I should be enormously relieved if even one house had only three; but for some reason that is not possible.

London proves a disappointment for Čapek.  He finds the size and bustle of the city overwhelming, the people reserved and the public places cold and impersonal.  He is duly impressed by the tall policemen but he finds the city impersonal and lacking in the warm communal spirit he is familiar with in continental Europe:

Only the people here are quieter than elsewhere; they talk to each other half-heartedly, and their aim is to get home with the least possible delay.  And that is the strangest thing about the English streets: here you do not see respectable ladies telling each other on the kerb what happened at the Smiths or the Greens, nor courting couples strolling arm-in-arm like sleep-walkers, nor worthy citizens seated on their doorstep with their hands on their knees (by the way, here I have not yet seen a carpenter or a locksmith or a workshop or a journeyman or an apprentice; here are nothing but shops, nothing but shops, nothing but Westminster Bank and Midland Bank, Ltd.), nor men drinking in the street, nor benches in the market-square, nor idlers, nor tramps, nor servant-girls, nor pensioners – in short, nothing, nothing, nothing; the London streets are just a gulley through which life flows to get home.  In the streets people do not live, stare, talk, stand or sit; they merely rush through the streets. ..In our country, in Italy, in France, the street is a sort of large tavern or public garden, a village green, a meeting-place, a playground and theatre, an extension of home and doorstep; here it is something which belongs to nobody, and which does not bring anyone closer to his fellows; here you do not meet with people, and things, but merely avoid them.

He does acknowledge that an Englishman’s silence has a certain sort of dignity and power – “A man from the Continent gives himself an air of importance by talking; an Englishman by holding his tongue” – but still it is not a silence that he could ever be comfortable with.

When Čapek finally leaves London though, he is delighted by what he sees: Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside?  Green pastures dotted with contented sheep and  majestic oaks scattered across the landscape leave Čapek with nothing but affection for pastoral England, though he is slightly confused by the lazy agricultural practices of the English, who leave so much good land unfarmed and seem to just leave their horses grazing in fields all day rather than putting them to work.  After visiting a few, he becomes particularly enamoured of the English country home, which, in 1924, represents all that is comfortable and gracious: …tennis and warm water, the gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort selected, stabilized and blessed by the centuries, freedom of children and patriarchal disposition of parents, hospitality and a formalism as comfortable as a dressing gown…

Čapek travels northward through England, up into Scotland (where he finds himself much more at ease among the Scots than he was with the English), down to Wales, and out to the South West, where, already a bit irritated by the piety of the English, he finds himself stranded in Exeter on a rainy Sunday:

An Exeter Sunday is so thorough and holy that the very churches are closed, and as regards creature comforts, the wayfarer who despises cold potatoes must go to bed with an empty stomach; I do not know what particular joy this causes to the Exeter God.

He leaves happy to have visited (the final section details some of the prominent literary figures with whom he spent time during his visit) but very happy to be going home.  As much as he finds to admire in the English – they are courteous and absolutely trustworthy – he still finds them “hard as flint, incapable of adapting themselves, conservative, loyal, rather shallow, and always uncommunicative”.  It is with relief that he heads for home:

The Continent is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, madder, subtler, more passionate, more affable, more amorous, fond of enjoyment, wayward, harsh, talkative, more reckless, and somehow less perfect.  Please give me a ticket straight away for the Continent. 

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Without ReservationsHer in late fifties, divorced and with two grown sons, journalist Alice Steinbach decided to take a sabbatical from her work in Washington, DC and spend a few months travelling alone in Europe.  Her aim was to rediscover her independence (having spent years defining herself in relation to others) and she recorded her experiences in this lovely memoir, Without Reservations.

Steinbach did not explore much of Europe but instead focuses on a few specific areas – Paris, London, Oxford, and various locations in Italy – all of which, I think we can agree, would be lovely place to spend any amount of time.

Though she sets out on her own, Steinbach seems to spend very little of her travel time alone.  In Paris, she falls in love with a Japanese businessman whom she is able to reconnect with throughout her time in Europe.  In Milan, she meets the most engaging of her travel companions, a young American woman on her way to her fiancé in Florence.  In London, she falls in with loud, outgoing and obscenely wealthy Australians.  Even on a day trip into the Cotswolds she manages to find someone to spend the afternoon with.

This way of travel is utterly foreign to me and, though I would frankly find these constant connections a bit hellish, I cannot help but admire the ease with which Steinbach attracts new friends (even if the friendships only last the day).  She is a true journalist, unable to resist a chance for conversation, the opportunity of hearing someone’s life story, and so she spends more time recording the details of these encounters than she does describing the places she visits.  In this way, this is not quite the travel memoir it at first appears to be: Steinbach is a wonderful writer and a fabulous observer of people, but not places.

Mostly, Steinbach reflects on her life so far and her family.  The focus of her thoughts is generally on how her routine, busy life in Washington differs from what she really wants in life, what it is that makes her happy and excites her.  A lot of time is also spent remembering her grandmother and pondering how her father’s early death affected her personality.

For me, this introspection could, at times, grate.  Steinbach is very intelligent but also very romantic and very earnest.  Some of her fantasies had me rolling my eyes and I am still not sure I can forgive her for her almost complete lack of a sense of humour.  She is very enthusiastic and optimistic and that should be endearing but I found her continued earnestness almost embarrassing.  The combined lack of humour and determined, almost aggressive focus on self-discovery don’t mare the book but do clearly signal the author’s nationality.

I have read this before, shortly after it was first published in 2000, and will doubtless read it again one day.  Steinbach only published three books before she died in 2012 – two travel memoirs and a book of personal essays – but she was a beautiful writer, clear and concise, and I look forward to reading her other books.

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A few brief reviews to help work through some of my backlog before the end of the year!

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy is a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way.  If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end.  It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians.  Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting.  There are ghosts, an apparently endless supply of adulterous women, plenty of amorous men, a noble, upright country gentleman whose male ancestors going back one century have all committed suicide for love of a woman…all very peculiar.  And the book is mostly concerned with character portraits of these odd people (which turn into multipage monologues, frequently describing past conquests or erotic fantasies) rather than structuring any kind of solid plot around them.  Usually, that wouldn’t be a problem but here it just didn’t work for me.  There were numerous passages where I loved the writing but just as many where I found it frustrating.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr, which I first heard about from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go.  Doerr was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome prize, which awards the winner a stipend of $1,300 US a month, an apartment, and a studio in Rome for a year.  With six-month old twins and an exhausted wife in tow, Doerr moves from Boise, Idaho to Rome.

The wonder of this book is Doerr’s beautiful way of describing the details of his deeply domestic Roman life:

Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower; water leaks nonstop from the spouts of a half-sunken marble boat in the Piazza di Spagna.  A church floor looks soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.

Work on the novel Doerr had planned does not go well and though I usually love reading about an author’s writing process, I found these passages tedious.  They seemed such a waste of space when Doerr excels at writing about the amazing city he finds himself in and the adventure of raising twins.  I particularly loved his comments on how Romans adored and fussed over his babies:

Try this sometime: Park a stroller in the shade in Rome in the winter.  Within a minute an Italian mother will stop.  ‘They must be put in the sun,’ she’ll say.  Once a pair of ladies took the stroller out of my hands and wheeled it thirty feet across a piazza and positioned it themselves.

I finished it desperate to run away to Rome.

In a similar vein, I also enjoyed I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside.  In his late forties, Greenside, an American writer, went on holiday with a girlfriend to Brittany.  The relationship didn’t last even the length of the trip but Greenside fell in love with the tiny village where they had been staying.  Despite speaking no French and having no money, he soon finds himself, with his mother’s help, the owner of small house in the village, which he lives in when not working in America and rents out the rest of the time.  The memoir touches on some of his experiences in Brittany over the years, mostly focusing on the kindness of those who Greenside interacts with and how he is humbled by his new circumstances, as an Anglophone in France, an American in Europe, and a clueless first-time homeowner.

And when it comes to reading about far away places, though Italy and France may be deemed more romantic, there is something just as alluring about Oxford, which is why I picked up Oxford Revisited by Justin Cartwright, a slim volume which mixes Cartwright’s personal memories with a very interesting history of the university.  He touches on delightfully random topics, from the tutorial system to bee-keeping, and is full of quotes from and reminders of Oxford’s more famous graduates.  And I love how affectionately Cartwright views the university:

From the moment I arrived at Trinity College in the mid-sixties, I was in love with Oxford.  It plumped up my dry colonial heart; I loved the first autumn term, the darkness, gowned figures on bicycles, crumpets after rugby, the pale – although not very numerous – girls, the extraordinary buildings and the water running through and around the town.  I felt as though I had always known the place, or some simulacrum of it, in another or parallel life.

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In The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, Weiner, a chronic pessimist and veteran NPR journalist, travels the world seeking out some of its happiest (and, for contrast, unhappiest) places.  From Iceland to Qatar, the Netherlands to India, Switzerland to America, Weiner visits a handful of countries that are either proven to be happy (by the statistically minded Dutch, who track such things) or have made happiness a priority (such as Bhutan, with its measurement of Gross National Happiness).  For a surprisingly delightful contrast, he visits the very unhappy people of Moldova, proving that a pessimist like Weiner is at his best when given much to grumble about.  

For me, the book was perhaps too personal, too subjective.  I would have loved to have been showered with data and statistics where Weiner only briefly alluded to a few studies and instead relies on his own limited observations and experiences in the countries he visits.  For a trivia geek like me, this was no where near sufficient.  I loved when, early on, Weiner visits Ruut Veenhoven, who runs the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands.  Here were trivia-worthy tidbits :

The happiest places, he explains, don’t necessarily fit our preconceived notions.  Some of the happiest countries in the world –Iceland and Denmark, for instance – are homogenous, shattering the American belief that there is strength, and happiness, in diversity.  One finding, which Veenhoven just uncovered, has made him very unpopular with his fellow sociologists.  He found that income distribution does not predict happiness.  Countries with wide gaps between the rich and poor are no less happy than countries where the wealth is distributed more equally.  Sometimes, they are happier. 

Of all the places Weiner profiles, I was most fascinated byIceland.  I am not completely sold that it is a happy place to live (there is much made of its binge drinking culture) but its commitment to writers certainly made it sound appealing:

In Iceland, being a writer is pretty much the best thing you can be.  Successful, struggling, published in books or only in your mind, it matters not.  Icelanders adore their writers.  Partly, this represents a kind of narcissism, since just about everyone isIcelandis writer or poet.  Taxi drivers, college professors, hotel clerks, fishermen.  Everyone.  Icelanders joke that one day they will erect a statue in the center of Reykjavik to honour the one Icelander who never wrote a poem.  They’re still waiting for that person to be born. 

Iceland may have sounded fascinating, but if I had to choose any of the Weiner’s profiled countries as a home, I think it would come down to either the Netherlands or Switzerland.  Probably Switzerland, when I think about it seriously.  ‘Happiness is boring’ is how Weiner describes the contentedness of the Swiss and that has great appeal for me.  Order and structure, no extreme highs and no extreme lows, seems to fit my own personal definition of bliss.

Part of the discussion in the book, particularly the section aboutAmerica, is on the ability of people to relocate to happier places.  Obviously for most of the six billion odd people on earth, this isn’t a practical solution but for many of us in the Western world, it is.  But the measure of what makes a place happy, though to a large extent quantifiable (it’s difficult to be happy without political stability and proper infrastructure, for instance) is, in the end, subjective.  I love being by the ocean and surrounded by forests, with access to major cultural events.  Though I lived in Calgary for more than two years, a city consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to live, I hated it because what it offers had very little in common with what I need.  We each have our own criteria, which will hopefully lead us to where we want to be.      

This book wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be but it was still interesting enough, if a bit plodding at times.  Weiner’s humour can be laboured – an issue since this is meant to be a humourous book – but the countries he visits offering intriguing contrasts to one another and through them he offers an excellent cross section of many different kinds of happiness.

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The Places In Between by Rory Stewart must be the most well-known recent book about Afghanistan, and rightly so.  In January 2002, Stewart was the only tourist in Afghanistan when he set out to walk from Herat to Kabul, following in the steps of the Mughal emperor Babur.  While I was certainly interested in Stewart’s encounters with both friendly and hostile locals, and while I greatly admired his intelligent but unassuming style of writing, I never quite clicked with this book.  I found it fascinating and vastly informative but, for the most part, not particularly absorbing. 

However, I will forever adore Stewart (and overlook his enthusiastic and unrestrained use of footnotes) for this footnoted comment from my favourite part of the book, discussing the liberal, western administrators newly arrived in Afghanistan:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism.  But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer.  Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home governments would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny. 

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialist have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitations and oppression. (p. 247-248)

It is an excellent book, offering a valuable perspective on the over-simplified issues of a much-discussed nation, but not likely to be considered one of my favourites.  I will undoubtedly look out for Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, covering the time he spent as a deputy governor in the marsh regions of Iraq after arriving in the country as a diplomat with the Coalition Provisional Authority in August 2003.

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