The Best American Travel Writing 2002by Frances Mayes, Adam Gopnik, Molly O'Neill, David Sedaris
Giving new life to armchair travel for 2002, here are ten unabridged tales on such varied concerns as God and airports; a dangerous Bolivian festival; one perfect meal in Cambodial; the eternal pleasures of Rome, and much more. See more details below
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Giving new life to armchair travel for 2002, here are ten unabridged tales on such varied concerns as God and airports; a dangerous Bolivian festival; one perfect meal in Cambodial; the eternal pleasures of Rome, and much more.
Mayes (Bella Tuscany, 1999, etc.), assuming the annual’s editing tasks for the first time, selects glimpses of places that run the gamut from the middle of nowhere, as in Michael Finkel’s piece on "The Void" (a.k.a. the center of the Sahara desert), to the middle of everything, as in Adam Gopnik’s report from NYC immediately following the September 11 terrorist attack, "The City and the Pillars." Not surprisingly, 9/11 is acknowledged in a number of essays, most specifically in Thomas Swick’s thoughts on languishing air travel at the end of 2001 and in Scott Anderson’s "Below Canal Street." The anticipated exotic spots, however, are also solidly represented: Laurence Gonzales sets out to visit the least inhabited area of the US in "Beyond the End of the Road," Tony Perottet rambles through Menorca in "Spain in a Minor Key," and Kevin Canty tours the folksy American landscape in the evocative "Postcards from the Fair." Particularly hypnotic is Isabella Tree’s portrait of languid living on the Aegean island of Spetses. At one point, honeybees set up shop in the bathroom, whereupon the house’s human tenants set out bowls to catch the honey to sweeten their bread and yogurt—a demonstration of sangfroid difficult to imagine occurring in the prosaic continental US. The collection is larded with impressive pieces from ringers: P.J. O’Rourke offers a remarkably upbeat travelogue of a recent driving tour of Israel; Molly O’Neill pays a visit to former Le Cirque chef Sottha Khunn at his childhood home in Cambodia; and David Sedaris turns a cancelled flight into an absurdist meditation.
Dazzles with itsfantastic variety.
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I traveled to Helsinki for the first time several Novembers ago. It probably won’t surprise anyone when I report that Helsinki in November was brutally cold with a wind that whipped across the half-frozen harbor, that the sun didn’t rise until midmorning and quickly set by early afternoon, or that it snowed part of every day.
I wandered around the city’s snowy, quiet streets without purpose, following signs I could not read. I haggled with a Russian fur vendor over a muskrat hat in the market square. I drank coffee while sitting on boxes inside a tent near the fish vendors. I whiled away a dark afternoon at a tiny table in Café Engel, looking out across the stark Senate Square, warmed by sun lamps that the barista told me had been set up to counteract “the winter blahs.” I ate reindeer served with cloudberries and lingonberries, dropped markkas into the cup of a blind accordion player, and listened to people ice- skating in the park across the street as I lay in my hotel bed.
The trip seems rather uneventful in the retelling, I know. And it surprises me a little to say that this trip has become a meaningful part of my personal historymore than I ever could have imagined when I bought my plane ticket. The reason has as much, or more, to do with context as with the destination.
If you remember back to the mid- to late 1990s, you may recall those years as the zenith of America’s sudden, red-hot love affair with gourmet coffee and its accouterments. It also happened to be the zenith for a certain genre of niche, connoisseur magazine. During those years, I wrote forand later improbably became the editor ofan attractively designed magazine called Coffee Journal, which covered what it termed the “coffee and tea lifestyle.” The magazine dutifully tasted and compared coffee roasts, reviewed the newest espresso machines and grinders, provided biscotti recipes, and profiled cafés all over the world. Travel was a major part of this so-called coffee and tea lifestyle, and I wrote stories about visiting coffee farms in Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as an article entitled “The Best Coffeehouses Coast to Coast.” By the time I took the reins, the magazine’s demise was imminent. America’s love affair with gourmet coffee had cooled considerably.
Following an argument with the publisher over whether our next issue’s cover would be a photo of a coffee mug with doughnuts or simply a photo of a solitary coffee mug, I decided to assign myself a travel story on the coffeehouse culture of Helsinki. The clever Coffee Journal angle for this travel article, I am embarrassed to admit, would go as follows: A widely circulated statistic asserted that nine cups of coffee was what the average Finn drank each day, the highest per capita consumption in the world. Taking that bit of information as my cue, I would sit in Helsinki’s finest cafés, drink nine cups of coffee each day just like the Finns, make notes on the interiors of cafés and those sitting in cafés, and soak up just enough local color on which to hang an itinerary our readers could clip out and follow. It was basically the type of story one writes for a connoisseur magazine that has long ago exhausted its niche. Come to think of it, it’s exactly the type of thin, slave-to-the-angle story I read in abundance over the course of the year while searching for quality travel stories for this anthology. I might add that it’s the type of story that rarely, if ever, gets selected.
Well, I made my Finnair reservations, and two days later Coffee Journal ceased publication. I was now unemployed, but since it was November and flights were as cheap as they would ever be, I decided to fly to Helsinki anyway. Free of artifice or gimmick or even the need to do any particular sightseeing at all, I chose to wander in the cold and do just about nothing that would be of interest to the average travel editor.
I met a number of Finns who were tremendously amused that I had come to visit their city in November, a month that the Finns consider to be the worst and most unpopular time of year. So amused was one man, a journalist, that he wrote a story about my visit and published it in the Helsingin Sanomat, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, under the headline “Silence of November as a Souvenir.” The journalist quoted me as saying, “I enjoyed the silence when walking the streets.” Instead of my writing a travel story, one was written about me.
That newspaper clipping in its original Finnish hangs on my bulletin board. When I look at the article, it does indeed make me think of the strange, silent beauty of Helsinki’s streets that I enjoyed, and of the snow- coated gargoyles and statues, including the two giant stone men wwho hold ball-shaped lights in front of the railway station. But soon enough, I find myself thinking of being unemployed, of how worrrrrried I was that I had made bad decisions, of loneliness and melancholy, and of how callow and absurd my thinking often tends to be. Now that some time has passed, I find that Helsinki also marks the end of thingsthings such as the end of my twenties, and in many ways the end of the 1990s too.
“I found that what I remembered, what seemed to transcend topic, and what affected me were not only essays with a grounded sense of place, but ones written in a highly personal voice,” writes Frances Mayes in explanation of why she has chosen the twenty-six pieces that make up this year’s anthology.
I couldn’t agree with her more. We all know it’s impossible to separate honest personal experience from the place at hand. Life happens even when we’re in a new place, far away from home. That’s why it always baffles me when writers and magazine editors try to pretend otherwise.
My friend Maggie recently showed me a postcard she’d received from her seventy-year-old mother-in-law, sent from Colonial Williamsburg. The photo was a typical scene of docents in period costume riding in a horse- drawn carriage. The caption on the back read, “A gentle mist and autumn shades of yellow, orange, and red provide the backdrop for this splendid carriage that conveys passengers around Palace Green.” Pretty banal stuff. But then I looked at the hand-scrawled personal note:
Dear Ds, We have had light rainno carriage ride this year. Edgar and I have played tourist and enjoyed the history and each other’s company.
Dad has gotten herpes zoster back (10 years since) and in his ears?!!!! Went to a “doc in the box” for treatment. Better already.
Driving home today.
While I felt sorry and chagrined for Edgar, Maggie roared with laughter at the thought of her prim and proper mother-in-law scribbling this note. Clearly this postcard, and this otherwise straightforward trip to Williamsburg, had already become part of her family’s comic shared history.
Some other friends, Dave and Andrea, just returned from a trip to Vietnam, where they went to adopt a beautiful four-month-old girl. I watched their travel videos, with some great scenes capturing the hustle and bustle of Saigon, including some fabulous footage of Dave getting a haircut by a street barber as deafening motorbikes careen by. Of course, everything else on the video is overwhelmed by the dramatic footage shot inside the Saigon orphanage, where expectant parents from the United States wait for Vietnamese nurses to bring out their babies. This was a human moment that certainly transcended the destination. Even in amateur format, the expressions and reactions of these parents were riveting to watch. That moment defined Dave and Andrea’s trip to Vietnam, and no one else’s. How different is their trip from that of the fifty-year-old war veteran who revisits the jungle where his buddies were killed thirty years ago? How different is the Vietnam experience of a twenty-two-year-old backpacker just out of college, who has never been outside the United States before?
The travel writing one finds in magazines too often suffers from a reluctance to transcend the topic at hand, a reluctance toward digression of any kind. I realize that some of this is the result of space concerns, but it is still unfortunate. Anyone who reads travel classics such Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada or Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana or D. H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia or Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads knows that digression is a part of all great travel writing. In many ways, the digressions are the story.
The stories collected here are fiercely personal. How does tragedy turn a simple walk home in Manhattan into a meditation on how much New York matters, and how much we have to lose? Read Adam Gopnik’s “The City and the Pillars” within these pages to find out. What personal ghosts turn a pleasurable summer getaway to Rome into a haunting reminder of what’s eternal? Read André Aciman’s memoir “Roman Hours.” What turns an octogenarian grandfather’s annual winter retreat to Acapulco into a lesson on how to live the good life? Devin Friedman will share that wisdom. How does a famous chef’s trip home to Cambodia to cook dinner for his family turn into a bittersweet tale of reconciling the past? Molly O’Neill’s skillful hand will show you in “Home for Dinner.” Whose sensibility turns a flight delay into one of the funniest essays you will read all year? David Sedaris’s, of course.
All the writers whose work you will read in this anthology share the ability to transcend their chosen destinations, to understand that a trip’s contextwhether personal or politicalis as important as the trip itself, and they all deliver a compelling and beautiful narrative.
The stories included in this anthology are selected from among hundreds of stories in hundreds of diverse publicationsfrom mainstream and specialty magazines to Sunday newspaper travel sections to literary journals to in-flight magazines. My eyes are far from perfect, but I have done my best to be fair and representative, and in my opinion the one hundred best travel stories from the year 2001 were forwarded to Frances Mayes, who made the final selections.
And so with this publication, I begin anew by reading the hundreds of stories published in 2002. I am once again asking editors and writers to submit the best of whatever it is they define as “travel writing.” These submissions must be nonfiction, published in the United States during the 2002 calendar year. They must not be reprints or excerpts from published books. They must include the author’s name, date of publication, and publication name, and must be tearsheets, the complete publication, or a clear photocopy of the piece as it originally appeared. I must receive all submissions by January 30, 2003, in order to ensure full consideration for the next collection. Further, publications that want to make certain their contributions will be considered for the next edition should make sure to include this anthology on their subscription list. Submissions or subscriptions should be sent to Jason Wilson, The Best American Travel Writing, P.O. Box 260, Haddonfield, N.J. 08033.
It was an honor to work with Frances Mayes, whose well- documented life in Tuscany I have deeply envied for some time. I enormously appreciate her efforts to pull this collection together on the heels of finishing her first novel. I would also like to thank Samantha Pinto for her assistance on this year’s anthology, as well as Deanne Urmy, Melissa Grella, and Liz Duvall, among others at Houghton Mifflin. But of course the writers included here deserve the greatest praise. The Best American Travel Writing is dedicated, as always, to them.
Monarch butterflies are camping in the eucalyptus trees around my house, a California pause in their long yearly migration. Sitting at the kitchen table reading essays for this book, I look up and see them flickering among the leaves, showing their orange wings to the sun. I wonderis travel a natural instinct? Birds ride updrafts across continents; turtles are born knowing how to swim from Africa to Brazil; wildebeest herds thunder across the veldt, on their way somewhere. Chaucer’s storytellers felt the spring sap rise in their veins, sending them out on pilgrimages to seek the holy blesscd martyr. Today, late February, the crabapple trees in full frisson, I’m longing to air out my carry-on bag, search for my passport, and take the first thing smoking on the runway for I know not where. Maybe some primitive push in the genes makes humans light out for the territories, makes us long, from time to time, for anywhere, anywhere other than where we are.
When I graduated from high school, I was given a set of leather luggage by my mother. It was smoky blue leather with my initials stamped clearly in silver, FEM. A large, a medium, and a round bag, all lined in quilted satin. I was ready to go. Where was I going? Only to college in Virginia, eight hundred miles from home. That was my first encounter, all on my own, with a new geography. As a teenager, I had traveled with my motherto Washington and New York and to see the battlefield at Gettysburg. My father always said, “Packing and Unpacking. If we had a family crest, we should carve Packing and Unpacking in Latin across the top.” We loved to go. Not that we went very far. From our house in southern Georgia, when I was a child, we traveled to St. Simons and Sea Island, two of the Golden Isles of Georgia; to Atlanta, Daytona Beach, Fernandina Beach; sometimes as far as Highlands, North Carolina. Although she never considered Europe or Hawaii or even Californiathere be beastiesmy mother was restless. Occasionally my parents went to New York. After my father died, my mother tried a few Caribbean cruises, where she hoped to meet someone glamorous who would rescue her from the boredom of life in a small town. Instead she would come home with stories of ladies from Upstate New York being pelted with tomatoes by angry natives in Barbados, of dining with a Canadian gentleman who excused himself shortly before the check arrived, and of sharing a stateroom with an old friend who had nightmares and called out, “My virtue, my virtue,” in the night.
These, I suppose, were the first travel stories I ever heard. We were bees in amber in that small town. Within its one-mile parameter, we lived in a world unto itself. When I came across Thoreau’s wry remark about having “travelled much in Concord,” I knew exactly what he meant.
Besides my brief excursions away from my hometown, books gave me the idea of travel. In our town we didn’t have much to entertain us, but we did have a Carnegie library. I methodically read my way across the shelves, with the librarian occasionally calling my mother to report that I was reading unsuitable books. I must admit that I devoured Frank Yerby’s stories of octoroons and plantations, and all writers who oozed the Deep South mythos. But what I came to recognize as a sense of place I happened upon in D. H. Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry James. Other worlds, I realized, whole other worlds are out there.
By the time I went to college, I was ready to bolt. Ever since then, there has not been a time when I was not planning a trip. Unlike my mother’s preparations, which involved wrapping tissue paper around a great deal of pastel linen and packing a huge suitcase, my preparations merely raise my usual bedside stack of books to the teeter point. The pretrip is almost as much of a pleasure as the actual trip. Half of my suitcase is taken up by books and maps. And on returning home there are more books to read, because I encountered unexpected places, paintings, foods, people, and customs. What delicious study.
Because for me reading and travel have a natural symbiosis, reading the essays for The Best American Travel Writing 2002 has been a joy. Every few weeks over the rainy California winter, series editor Jason Wilson sent me bundles of photocopied articles from an enormous range of publications. Since he had selected them, I found them all good. I read them with my morning cappuccino, in the bathtub, in bed, and even creeping up Highway 101 in rush-hour traffic. (Please don’t tell the highway patrol that I read and drive at the same time.) Early in the process I began to wonder what exactly qualified as travel writing. I am immediately drawn to the incongruous qualities of spontaneity and reflection. I like to read about journeys when the traveler is charged or changed by the place, when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another during the course of the trip. Some of the strong pieces seemed to veer away from travel and fall more comfortably into the category of investigative journalism, with a topic or situation more than a place as a focus. I reluctantly put those aside. As my yes, no, and maybe stacks drifted back and forth across my desk, gradually I found that what I remembered, what seemed to transcend topic, and what affected me were not only essays with a grounded sense of place, but ones written in a highly personal voice. Keats wrote a short poem, “This Living Hand,” in which he implores the future reader to remember the vital, living hand that wrote the poem. The essays collected here mostly display that quality of immediate touch.
A late phenomenon, travel writing in America is blossoming. As a reader, I’ve always loved the genre. I was astounded, about fifteen years ago, to walk into a London bookstore and see an entire wall of travel narratives. The biggest shock came from discovering the Victorian ladies, such as Lucy Duff Gordon (Letters from Egypt), Margaret Fountaine (Love Among the Butterflies), and Mary Kingsley (Travels in West Africa), who set out for Africa with tea sets and butterfly nets, lifting their long skirts over mud holes. From Florence Nightingale cruising down the Nile to Freya Stark trekking across South Arabia’s Incense Road in the thirties, these traveling women, usually “in possession of a modest private income,” captivated me. I loved, too, Eric Newby, the marvelously eccentric Sitwells, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Lawrence Durrell.
The English may be the most intrepid travelers who ever pushed off from a shore, but from now on, I think the Americans will equal them. Our lineage, after all, includes Francis Parkman, William Bartram, M.F.K. Fisher, Jack Kerouac, Washington Irving, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and my old friend Thoreau. All of them would be astounded at the liveliness of American travel writing today. In unprecedented numbers, people are traveling. Everywhere I go I meet people who keep to the motto Packing and Unpacking.
Since the publication of my three memoirs about living in Italy, I have received hundreds of letters describing travels. Some have drawings or photos, or a sprig of lavender or a red poppy tucked into the envelope. Written from foreign café tables or from back home, these letters are often moving. With the removal of a few coffee stains, many could be published. Travel magazines, Sunday papers, and a dizzying number of Web sites advertise adventure travel, house rentals, study trips, cruises, painting trips. There are now fantastic cruises and walks and courses. Forget the tour group pouring out of a bus into a parking lot and trudging off behind someone with a flag. There are specialized trips out there, magical opportunities for seeing and learning. I am going off this spring on a boat that sails around the whole boot of Italy, beginning in Naples, docking at small ports, and ending in Venice. What a dream.
I’ve never read anything about the enormous privilege of travel. Those of us who can contemplate where we would like to go on vacation are plain lucky. Turkey this year? A llama trek across the Cascades, skiing in Banff, the sacred return to Pawley’s Island for August, scuba diving in Virgin Gorda? What a miracle! Although in 2001 Americans were paralyzed by terrorism, all indications right now are that they are gaining confidence in new airport security, are refusing to be intimidated, and are picking up again and going to most of the places they want to go. Let’s hope this confidence can hold and grow. Still, ugly new barriers have been erected. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go to Egypt. I’d finally planned to go this year, but an English friend, who was hissed at and shoved, convinced me not to attempt the trip. I’m waiting.
As a people we have been too insular, too content, too ignorant. If any good comes out of the terrorist attacks, it’s bound to be that we look with more comprehension and benevolence toward other ways of being in the world. The travel boom of the recent past works toward that, too. When you travel, if you are open to experience, you cannot help but be changed by the validity of what you see. A quirky American traveler, Mark Twain, noted that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” What you expect from a trip sometimes doesn’t happen; what you take with you sometimes must be jettisoned. It is an odd, sometimes uncomfortable sensation to feel your expectations breaking off and floating away as you encounter the real place. The great gift is that your perception expands, as your love expands when a new baby comes to the family.
Many travelers will write about their trips, whether in e-mail journals with photos to all their friends or in magazine essays or in books. I’m ready to read all of them. The current variety of travel writing is a delight. My sisters and several friends send me clippings from their local papers. I like the magazine column where someone writes in about the disappointment of construction noise in paradise and the ombudsman wields the power of the magazine to make the guilty hotel owner offer a free week. I even like the page in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle where people write short letters saying what restaurant they enjoyed or what B&B they stayed in up the coast.
I love the books best, the delicious narratives that make you know what it would be like to live in Spain or Mexico or to open a taverna in Greece. In an extended piece of writing, time enters. The reader and writer have time to understand how place has had its way. When we put ourselves down in a foreign place for a period of time, we begin to change, like it or not. We begin to see how the people who live there were shaped by the place, even as we feel ourselves being shaped. I’ve found, by living in a small Italian hill town for part of every year, that the learning curve never inscribes its downward side of the bellit keeps rising. “I had a farm in Africa,” Isak Dinesen wrote. Everything follows from that. By the power of her writing, Out of Africa became a classic long before Meryl Streep imprinted her moody beauty over the visage of the bony, haggard Dane. Some other classics of place are being reissued, such as Ann Cornelisen’s Women of the Shadows and Torregreca. Bravo! More is better. Other worlds, whole other worlds are out there.
Unfortunately for writers who like to publish in periodicals, many magazines have shortened articles to conform to some idea they have of the readers’ attention span, or to save money. I’d prefer fewer but more developed articles to sound-bite sentences. Some magazines require of their writers a formulaic progression or a mind-set. One where I published an article insisted that I identify the exact location in the first paragraph, including the exact number of miles from a known place. This axed my opening. Once I wrote an article for a magazine published by a credit card company. I included a description of a bus trip, a mention of poverty. Cut, cut, cut, the editor wrote back. She crossed out the bus section with a big X. “The cardholders do not ride buses,” she scrawled in the margin. Too many rules and red pencils, of course, lead to the erasure of the individual passionate and observing voice. We’re left with mere practicality instead. I may jot some of the what, where, when, and how from such an article into a notebook, but I will not reread it.
I will reread Jim Harrison’s “Soul Food” for the delight in his use of language, André Aciman’s “Roman Hours” for his grasp of the workings of memory and place, and Thomas Swick’s “Stolen Blessings” for his perception of how travel changed after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11. I’m partial to the personal quest, a guarantee of idiosyncrasy. In “Sovereigns of the Sky,” Stephen Bodio travels to Mongolia to pursue his interest in falconry. Toni Mirosevich’s “Lambs of God and the New Math” is a contemporary version of the archetypal pilgrimage tale. Kira Salak in “Making Rain” and Kate Hennessy in “Slow Flying Stones,” distant descendants of those long-skirted Victorians, set out on adventurous quests to discover why they are on quests.
I loved finding essays that rip the rug out from under my expectations. It is a pleasure to take a trip to Israel (“Zion’s Vital Signs”) with P. J. O’Rourke. Who would expect to smile when reading about Israel these days? O’Rourke gently reminds us that there’s more to the country than the latest explosion. Humor’s edge sharpens when someone finds a laugh where no one else would look for one. Flights and airport delays might seem the last target for a funny essay, but David Sedaris (“The Man Upstairs”) jumps right in.
These and all the other essays published here heighten my appreciation for the liveliness of travel writing we’re able to enjoy in American publishing venues. “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,” Keats also wrote. The gold referred to gilt-edged books. Although this volume lacks gilt, it offers instant premier status in the realms-of-gold department. These writers cover many latitudes and longitudes, physically and metaphorically. They know, as John Steinbeck said, that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Not one essay is irksome. Some travel writers can become serious to the point of lapsing into good ol’ American puritanism. Travel writing is not about pleasure, some of them insist. You must be slapping fleas, hunkering down in the hold of a rusty ferry, or confronting the last leper colony on earth. What nonsense! I have traveled much in Concord. Good travel writing can be as much about having a good time as about eating grubs and chasing drug lords. (For me, it’s dangerous enough to live in an American city.) I think it is indisputably harder to write well about happiness than it is to write about travail. As these essays reveal, travel is for learning, for fun, for escape, for personal quests, for challenge, for exploration, for opening the imagination to other lives and languages.
In The Best American Travel Writing 2002, “travel” is an adjective. “Writing” is the most vital word in the title. There are as many reasons to travel as there are travelers. For a writer interested in place, the subject can be any dot on the map. One goes to a war zone, one takes a wildflower walk, one experiences a gun at the temple, one trails a foot off a sailboat in aquamarine waters. Only the writing will reveal who traveled furthest.
Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company Introduction copyright © 2002 by Frances Mayes Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Meet the Author
David Sedaris is the author of six books, including When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Me Talk Pretty One Day. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Public Radio International's This American Life.
Frances Mayes is the author of the best-selling Under the Tucsan Sun and Bella Tuscany. She and her husband divide their time between their homes in San Rafael, California, and Cortona, Italy.
Frances Mayes is the author of the best-selling Under the Tucsan Sun and Bella Tuscany. She and her husband divide their time between their homes in San Rafael, California, and Cortona, Italy.
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