Tim Leffel reviews of books covering the seedy side of historic Western Europe, the depressing backwaters of Eastern Europe, and one with meandering observations of travels through multiple continents.
While Tony Perrottet is an A-list travel writer who frequently has destination feature stories appearing in some of the biggest magazines on the planet, he’s a man with a clear mission: uncovering the often-suppressed sexual history of Europe.
That subject matter is not always easy to dig up, but it can lead to some startling revelations—and fun reading—once it’s found. Whether it’s sex clubs in rural England or pornographic murals in the Vatican, Perrottet makes it worth the hunt. He latches onto these quests like a dog on a postman’s leg. After a great deal of effort he gets to his collection of phallic objects or his heavily guarded papal bathroom and lets us live vicariously through his telling of the tale.
The author has put out several books revolving around his theme, with titles like Pagan Holiday, The Naked Olympics, and Napoleon’s Privates. All are funny, well-written romps through Europe. What makes this one stand out is the decision to take the family along—a wife and two sons—and do all this digging in the heat of August, when most Europeans are on vacation. This provides plenty of comic relief and many spouses will surely relate to being dragged along to unattractive places on research trips instead of lounging poolside at a nice Mediterranean beach resort. Plus of course there’s the whole absurdity of having two kids along on a trip looking into sexual practices in ye olde Europe. Half the fun is watching poor dad squirm.
“We hiked up 343 neat stone steps to reach our rented cottage. Here we discovered that not all Swiss homes look like IKEA catalogs. Somehow I’d managed to find us the last slice of Swiss grunge, an old worker’s croft in gray concrete with a bathroom tiled in seventies olive green. Henry took one look at the rusted shower and declared it ‘unsanitary.’ He and Sam then took to shouting “Unsanitary Swiss people!” for some reason, laughing dementedly as they danced in a circle. The balcony, built for two with knees touching, afforded ‘partial lake views”—that is, a sliver of sparkling blue water between two luxury apartment buildings, each with panoramic terraces.”
Oh yes, and there’s the sex stuff. Some of the items and practices covered I can’t even go into here without setting off every library internet filter. Let’s just say you’ll learn plenty that makes The Tudors look tame and you’ll get confirmation once again that poor hygiene has never been an impediment to promiscuity.
Titillating, educational, filled with good cocktail party factoids, and at its heart a good family European Vacation tale. What more could you want?
See an excerpt of the book here: The Covert Casanova Tour in Venice
On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
By Andrzej Stasiuk
Andrzej Stasiuk is a writer well-known in his native Poland, with 18 books to his credit and four of them translated into English. He has written short stories, plays, and poetry, with the last genre playing a big part in this book. Every page paints a poetic picture of a depressing landscape and people with not much to do. It meanders from the border of his native Poland down to the Adriatic Sea of Slovenia and Albania, then over great expanses to a range of towns on the Black Sea coast. This includes a land called Transnistria between Moldova and Ukraine that’s sort of a country, complete with bored border guards, but not really.
Thankfully there’s a map in the front because the author frequently reels off obscure towns in passing like we should know where they are, even though there’s no set itinerary or sense of purpose in any of the chapters. One day we the readers are bumping along in the dark in some village in Hungary, the next chapter we find ourselves in some equally faceless place in Romania. Other times in the book I had no idea where I was and it didn’t’ seemed to matter. The unifying themes are boredom, bleakness, and a vague sense of hopelessness, places where the world keeps passing the people by.
“Only Moldovans and Romanians cross here, and probably not one of them comes for pleasure. After that, to the right, is a village on a slope. Several houses atilt; the rest have fallen. The earth sank and took a few dozen farms with it…the houses all the same size, shape, and color, and all topped with the same asbestos tile. They look like tents of bleached canvas. Nothing stands apart; they are all of them together. Then you have nothing until the next village.”
I wanted to like this book, but getting through it was a struggle. For such a seasoned author, the end result is disappointing. If there’s a theme, it’s that life in a big chunk of rural Europe is downright depressing, with few redeeming qualities but a whole menu of gloomy ones. The cover gives a hint of what’s to come, with a lone man walking through a spindly winter forest to empty railroad tracks. In this book, the sun only appears occasionally—making things stifling hot—and drinking starts early, to numb the pain or boredom, not to celebrate. Mostly, people hang out, just passing time.
“They seemed to be waiting for something, an important piece of news, an announcement, an event, but no news came, and at each dawn they assembled again, the crowd growing as the hours passed, thinning a bit at siesta time, but in the afternoon the street was packed, the crowd swaying yet never really moving in the heat…The men stayed in place, awaiting some change, staring at the vast emptiness of time, sentenced to their own stationary presence.”
The real reason to read On the Road to Babadag is to see a man with a good sense of the ridiculous putting a big underline below the silliest bits. Of the concrete bunkers littering Albania he says, “I kept reminding myself of their numbers: 600,000. In each, let’s say, you had two soldiers manning a machine gun or holding machine guns—that is 1,200,000 people, which meant about half the population of the country.”
If you’re planning a trip to the Baltics or the former Iron Curtain countries, you may want to wait until after you return to read this book. Otherwise, you’ll probably change your mind and buy a ticket to a happier place instead. If you have a bad case of wanderlust though and want to see places without a Starbucks or McDonald’s in sight, you might know the answer when a border crossing guard looks at the author’s multi-stamped passport and asks, “Sir, what’s the point of all this?”
Common Sense & Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far From Home
By Bill Murray
This debut book from Bill Murray also suffers from a lack of focus, but unlike Stasiuk’s wanderings, Murray’s are actually enjoyable to read. The stories don’t really go anywhere and are literally all over the map (Sri Lanka followed by Madagascar followed by Tibet), but this is a nice book to pick up, read one section of, and come back to later.
Murray is an experienced traveler and writer, one of those “been to 100 countries” types that has been experiencing the world for decades. Unlike some, however, he hasn’t gotten jaded and cranky in the process and approaches each destination with a thirst for adventure—or at least looking to find a taste of something unusual.
The results are unpredictable, and often aren’t much of a story in the traditional sense, but that’s part of the fun. The Madagascar chapter is not about animals. The Patagonia chapter devolves into an argument between two people in the author’s hotel common room. Other sections are just random collections of observations, always with a keen sense of the ironic and bizarre, told without embellishment. Take this passage from his mountain climb in the Borneo chapter:
“Twice we passed Japanese girls in flip-flops and the last one was really hobbling, on her boyfriend’s arm. Mountain climbing may involve stepping over rocks. Apparently they were not told.”
Many of these sections come off like repurposed blog posts from Common Sense & Whiskey, complete with frequent dividers between them to signal each complete change of subject. I get tired of reading on a computer screen all day though, so this I don’t mind so much. Murray is an accomplished photographer (see Earthphotos.com) and it’s best to view this book as a collection of photos in text form. He shows us these destinations from multiple angles, often through the people actually living there, and doesn’t shy away from the country’s underbelly or the dark sides of tourism. In a time when so much travel writing is of the “Look at me and what I’m doing!” variety, Murray is an author who lets the place and the people tell us the real deal.
Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of four travel books, including The World’s Cheapest Destinations, now in its 3rd edition. He also writes weekly on the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.