Periodically, I start to hate travel writing. Or maybe I start to hate travel writers? The whole enterprise starts to seem kind of cooler-than-thou, involving comparisons of passport thickness measuring, a contest in extroversion in which the writer who talks to the most unusual people as far removed from the tourist infrastructure as possible WINS.
Also it seems like there are bonus points awarded for discomfort — social, physical, emotional. Or on the other end of the spectrum, bonus points are also available for the most obnoxious, outrageous, expensive pampering that should make anyone want to die of guilt considering the starving children and homeless not to mention all the euthanized cats and dogs in the world. (Happy holidays y’all.)
I get all this: we read first person writing to see what it’s like to do things that we haven’t done, or wouldn’t be willing to do. I do all this myself. I even teach all this, at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
But as I said, sometimes I get tired of all this.
So in the course of teaching travel writing this term, I decide to get back that loving feeling for travel writing and travel writers in the time-honored way of teachers everywhere: I assigned myself the task of finding travel writing I really enjoyed each week, to assign to my students. Here’s some of what I found:
- The Spoil of the Mariners, Lapham Quarterly. I suppose I’m lucky that I didn’t lose every single one of my students when I assigned this piece on the first week. It’s basically about scurvy, and Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, where the land does not keep its dead for long. “Over the years, the annual freezing and thawing of the ground just below the surface has the curious effect of gradually raising up large objects to the surface—most notably, coffins and their contents.” Who can resist this? Not I.
- On the Nuclear Trail, Hemispheres. I had been planning to visit the Trinity Site in New Mexico this Fall, but the sequester messed that up — the site is only open to the public twice a year when the government is actually fully funded, now it’s only once. I do have a marked preference for both dark subjects and difficult history, as this selection made clear. “The Titan Missile Museum is not about display cases and dioramas; it is about experiencing a once secret physical environment exactly as it existed during the Cold War. And so the deceptive camouflage that makes this preserved missile silo look unimpressive from the outside is actually part of its strategic design—one that becomes all the more stunning when you behold the giant rocket, command center and troop residence hidden beneath the surface.”
- Stilettos in Paris, World Hum. At this point, my students were starting to wonder if travel writing was a truly grim enterprise, so I decided to leave aside a couple of stories that caught my eye about concentration camps and instead remembered this essay by Eva Holland that I really enjoyed. “The dueling pianists at Napoleon’s pounded out Lady Gaga and the Michigan State fight song in lieu of Gershwin, and in those same Toilettes a PA system shared a series of “useful French phrases” for visitors: “Good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go to Vegas” and “Can I buy you a drink, or do you just want the money?””
What I learned: travel writing isn’t so bad after all. God bless us everyone.
Alison J. Stein
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