Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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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I just finished reading Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen.  Actually, to be precise, rereading.  I know I read this four or five years ago but for the life of me I could not remember anything about it aside from a vague sense of disappointment.  Now that I’ve reread it, I wonder how there could have been any vagueness about my reaction. 

In theory, this is just the kind of book I should adore.  Quindlen, an American author, has loved London since childhood but never visited until in her forties.  But even before she visited there in person, she had been there many times in the pages of her favourite books:

I have been to London too many times to count in the pages of books, to Dickensian London rich with narrow alleyways and jocular street scoundrels, to the London of Conan Doyle and Margery Allingham with its salt-of-the-Earth police officers, troubled aristocrats, and crowded train stations.  Hyde Park, Green Park, Soho, and Kensington: I had been to them all in my imagination before I ever set foot in England.  So that by the time I actually visited London in 1995 for the first time, it felt less like an introduction and more like a homecoming.

It is certainly a sentiment I can agree with and yet there is something about Quindlen that rubs me the wrong way.  Rather than being able to nod along with the book, I found myself fixating on minor errors.  Nigel Nicolson was not Virginia Woolf’s nephew (as asserted on page 33) and Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga is not set 150 years ago (p. 39).  How could I truly accept Quindlen’s credentials as a devotee of fictional London after that?  I read through to the end but I no longer trusted Quindlen’s facts and being suspicious of an author does not make for a particularly pleasant reading experience, however brief (the book is very short).  Her delight in Dickens only served to further distance me from her.

I agreed with many of Quindlen’s statements but agreement does not necessary equal an enjoyable reading experience.  I do not think she and I are kindred spirits, certainly not based on the strength of this book, and, frankly, I found her rather obnoxious and smug as she bragged about her (frankly questionable) cultural knowledge.  It may be an interesting book if you like Quindlen but it is relatively useless if you’re interested in hearing about London, literary or otherwise, because of all the personal tangents she goes off on.  This is a tale of Quindlen’s personal relationship to her reading and to the city of London that she knows through her reading, but her London is not a city I recognized either through my own reading or my visits nor is it one I’m particularly eager to visit.

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