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Things You Get for Free

Things You Get for Free

by Michael McGirr

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Things You Get for Free is a travelogue rich with charm and wisdom and sparkling with its author's singular wit. As a priest, Michael McGirr decides to take his charming and inimitable mum on the honeymoon she and her late husband never got around to having. He uses his six-week vacation to take her on a tour of Europe. Between meditating on their hilarious and


Things You Get for Free is a travelogue rich with charm and wisdom and sparkling with its author's singular wit. As a priest, Michael McGirr decides to take his charming and inimitable mum on the honeymoon she and her late husband never got around to having. He uses his six-week vacation to take her on a tour of Europe. Between meditating on their hilarious and illuminating travels and on the historical figures who dot their voyage -- everyone from Hemingway to Michelangelo to the quietly heroic people who inspire Michael's special brand of faith -- McGirr plunges deep into his family history, unearthing sickness and instability but also moments of great love and perseverance. Things You Get for Free is a deeply moving spiritual and intellectual journey, proving the truth behind a mother's favorite saying: "I know more than you think I do."

Editorial Reviews

This memoir chronicles the travels of an Australian Jesuit priest who takes his widowed mother on the European vacation she always planned for but never went on. A wry observer of human behavior—his own and that of his often eccentric companions, particularly his mom ("a great believer in the Things You Get For Free")—McGirr records insights on home, spirituality and the baggage people carry with them. The pilgrimage becomes a personal catharsis, as the author confronts repressed emotions, particularly about sex and death. Having decided to become a priest in his last year of high school as a way of fleeing home and avoiding dealing with his father's death, he notes that "sex and grief are deeply intermeshed. I went through my [St.] Augustine period at the same time I was going through my AC/DC period." McGirr's prose is spare and occasionally touches the sublime. This wise, funny book is a celebration of traveling light.
—Eric Wargo
Publishers Weekly
A young Jesuit priest from Australia and his "mum" tour Europe at the height of summer and live to tell about it in this witty, engaging travelogue and family memoir. In 1996, McGirr decided to take his mother on the honeymoon she never had a six-week whirlwind jaunt through London, Paris, Rome, Florence and other well-traveled destinations ("We've boldly vowed to go where millions have gone before," McGirr tells the travel agent). McGirr and Mum experience the best and worst of Europe: lunch in the peers' dining room at the House of Lords, the paint-peeling profanity of a Glasgow tour guide and the flabbergasting sight of hundreds of nuns carrying make-up compacts into the Sistine Chapel (they use the mirrors to see the ceiling without craning their necks). They frequent pubs, ridicule other tourists, hang out in tattoo parlors and generally enjoy the hell out of themselves. McGirr offers some of the sharpest observations of European foibles since Mark Twain swept through the continent. But his book is more than just a travel comedy. It is also an investigation into the past of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits and the McGirr family itself, which left Europe just two generations before. Readers will come for the humor, but they'll stay for McGirr's haunting memories of his path into the priesthood, his mother's sacrifices and his father's death. Brimming with lyrical insight and earthy humor, this debut is a rare treat. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.54(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I was with my mother when she bought her suitcase, but I didn't see her pack. The suitcase took a lot of finding. It had to satisfy a list of criteria. It needed wheels. It needed a compartment for wet clothes. It needed extra room for all the stuff that we'd get for free from hotels and airlines. It had to be strong.

    'Not like the case your father got me for our wedding. You remember the one.'

    Mum's questions often sound like statements. I couldn't visualise the bag she was talking about.

    'He gave me a suitcase but it got mildew in it and fell apart. I had to throw it out.'

    Suddenly I remembered. It was a huge yellow thing. If ever it was full, you would have needed six pallbearers to lift it. The very sight of it spoke oceans about Mum and Dad's idea of travel when they married in 1959. They had booked to travel to England on the Fairstar and had already been down to look over their cabin before the wedding to work out how they were going to get their luggage into such a confined space. Mum's bag was built to accommodate half a dozen loosely packed frocks and other delicate items. Shoes travelled separately. As did cosmetics. As did hats. As did children, if you had them. The result was a suitcase the size of a life-boat with a single flimsy handle and a couple of half-hearted locks. It was made of cardboard and designed for bulk not weight.

    Mum's big trip with Dad never eventuated. The bag spent years slowly rotting under the house in an area which seemed to have been speciallyhollowed out to make room for it. The day we took it to the tip, after Dad died, the house lurched slightly on an unaccustomed vacuum.

* * *

My mother, like myself, is a great believer in the Things You Get For Free. She has almost fifty fridge magnets in the kitchen, all of them give-aways from the businesses they advertise. Over thirty of them, in fact, come from the pharmacy where she works. We grew up washing our hair and fighting acne with the free sample sachets she got from pharmaceutical companies. Mum isn't mean. She is dangerously generous. But she was never going to buy a new suitcase when she was always on the verge of winning one on the wheel at a local fete and the fete needed her support. Over the years, she has bought enough tickets to kit the Australian army.

    Mum spent years planning her first trip overseas. She never bought a guidebook. Her preference was always for what she calls 'literature'. 'Literature' refers to the glossy brochures you get for free from travel agents. Mum was a junkie for them. She'd often drop by and pick a few up when she was feeling low.

    'Have you got any literature on England?' she'd ask.

    No agent ever misunderstood what she meant. When we were little, Mum would prop herself up in bed, get one of us to massage her feet, and read the fine print about package holidays until Dad decided he wanted to go to bed and threw us out of their bedroom. One result of Mum's fantasy life was that our school geography projects, however ignorant, were always the best illustrated in the class. The other was that Mum became exceptionally well informed about a certain type of travel.

    In 1996, when I was thirty-four and had been a Jesuit priest for a couple of years, I managed to organise about six weeks off work. I suggested to Mum that we do the trip she and Dad had planned so long before. Mum swung into action. She booked flights to and from England, with a free side flight to Rome. She booked two weeks' car hire with bed-and-breakfast vouchers in Britain. She booked a ten-day package tour of Italy. She booked trains for us to go to Paris.

    'You've obviously done this before,' said Craig, the travel agent.

    'First time overseas for me and first time out of Asia for my son,' said Mum. She was the star rookie. She discovered that if you booked a second tour with the group that was taking us to Italy, you got a discount. So we booked to do Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Paris in seven days. They weren't to belong precisely to the category of things she got for free, but we were to be the first travellers in history who went to those places to save money.

    'Is that it?' asked Craig. He seemed a little disappointed that we were sticking to such a tried and true itinerary.

    'We've boldly vowed to go where millions have gone before,' I announced.

    'I must tell you one thing.' Craig looked serious.

    'What's that?' Mum was turning to the back of a brochure where she could show him that whatever he had to say she had already read the fine print about it.

    'I must tell you that you are going at the busiest time of year. These places will be pretty hot. And crowded,' I added.

    'The crowds in the European summer can be incredible.'

    'It doesn't matter,' said Mum. 'I want to arrive in Rome on the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.'

    This obviously didn't mean much to Craig.

    'I want to be there on June 27. My wedding anniversary.'

    We got free vinyl cabin bags from the company with which we'd booked our bus tours. Even so, Mum still wanted to buy a bag with wheels. And, as it turned out, she wanted one with a few secret pockets where she could keep stuff hidden. Stuff she wanted with her on the other side of the world, in the place her father had come from.

When I think of my father, he is getting into a car.
He is getting out of the house. He has his
Gladstone bag. He needs to get out, to go somewhere.
He doesn't know where.

Chapter Two

I have a thing with bags. When I was twenty, I moved from Sydney to Melbourne to live in a house which had an enormous number of suitcases in the cellar. I had been nearing the end of my final year of high school when Dad died and I joined the Jesuit novitiate in a bit of a rush the following February. I didn't cope with Dad's illness well, and I coped with his death even worse, so I ran away. At least, that is what I thought for years. I didn't realise at the time that my decision, impulsive as it was, was more complex than mere flight. I was desperate to get out of home. But buried deep inside that desperation was a need to lose something so I'd know how much I valued it, a need to feel homesick. I also had a buried talent to give and receive love. For free. It was years before I could recognise this. By then it was well and truly time to go on a trip with my mother.

    Our noviceship had been a gruelling experience. Far from helping me come to terms with myself so that at the end of two years I could freely commit to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Jesuit order, it pushed important issues under the surface until they...


Excerpted from things you get for free by Michael McGirr. Copyright © 2000 by Michael McGirr. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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