Monday, February 20, 2012

Cruising for Travel Books -- Help Me Navigate

This is the kind of cruising I'd like -- slowly along the canals of France

It’s time to start thinking about summer travels.  Yes, another summer based in Dijon, FR.  Many people might start their plans with “What should I pack?” or “What should I see?”  For me, the first question of travel planning is “What should I read?”  What book will whet my appetite for exploring or fill me in on the spirit of a place?  What book will show me how to see with new eyes?

In scanning my bookshelves at home and the shelves in the travel section of the Big Name bookstore, a complete absence of literature by the intrepid mega-airline miles collector or the serial cruise ship cruiser becomes blazingly obvious.  Writers and travelers have spilled millions of words out on trips by train, on foot, on bike, by car and just about every possible mode of transportation that exists.  Yet not one has written a rousing tale about dinner companions on a head-swirling journey of nine ports in ten days.  Where is the book on inspiring lessons learned from a ten-hour layover in Chicago?

 According to the CLIA industry figures in 2011, 16 million people boarded a cruise ship to elsewhere, for places from Alaska to the Galapagos Islands.  You’d think that one out of those millions of people had an adventure.  I’ve yet to take a cruise or any kind of guided trip.  Many friends and family members have and talk about them as the memory of a lifetime.  They almost convince me, so I say, “Well, maybe we’ll do a week in the Caribbean.”  Discovering this literary wasteland, however, makes me reconsider one more time.

There are a million books on how to choose a cruise and how to make the best of one and why you should travel by cruise ship.  But there are no collections of lyrical essays by anyone who came back from one.

Last summer I wrote about how much I love the idea of “elsewhere,” the momentary sense of being a stranger and having to figure out a place.  No matter how short a time I spend somewhere, I love figuring out how to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.  Maybe that’s why we have no cruise literature or cross-country airplane tales.  It’s all about the sameness.  Everyone is going to the same place.  Everyone follows the same routine. Airplane travel now is arduous.  A trek through the Amazon is arduous, too, but one is numbing and one excites us for more.  People say they like cruises because everything is provided for you.  It’s so easy.  They fly rather than drive because it’s so fast.

But where is the story in that?

Who would fly if you could travel in the comfort of French regional trains?

Right now I have on my agenda one trip to Chicago for the AWP conference, one trip to Atlanta to visit family, two trips to Nashville to catch up with friends and see my main man (Keith Urban) perform, and a summer again in Dijon.  None are new destinations, but my mind is already working on what I can do or where I can go that will surprise me.  What can I do that gives me a sense of “elsewhere,” that wonderful tingle that all is unfamiliar?

To prepare for my travels, here are the books in my reading queue right now:

Paul Theroux - The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road
Theroux has collected snippets of stories and quotations of other great travelers and travel writers (including his own) on such diverse topics as railway journeys, what to pack, the joy of walking, traveling alone vs. with companions, and epic fails.  It serves as a short history of the best travel writing out there.

Alain de BottonThe Art of Travel I reread this every other year.  One problem, de Botton, says, is when we travel we take ourselves with us.  Another is we fail to ask why we are traveling in the first place.  This book reminds me to reflect on these before I set out and decide how I will respond to them.

M.F.K FisherLong Ago in France A memoir by food writer and traveler M.F.K Fisher about her newlywed years in Dijon after WWI.  I love to reread it and compare her version of the city with mine.  Last year, making a map out of every sentence about her home and neighborhood, I finally located the exact apartment she and her husband had rented and ate a local chicken specialty named after her neighbor who had become a popular mayor.

Maybe someone will finally give me that argument that convinces me to book a cruise.  Maybe some miraculous day I’ll be bumped up to business class and airplane travel will be more than a claustrophobic drudge.  Meanwhile I’ll keep checking the collections of travel writing looking for that elusive collection of essays from a big boat.  And I’ll re-watch Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember.  Something interesting happened to them on a cruise, I seem to recall.

Can you be the one to convince me to cruise?  Tell me about it.  Do you have any exciting or life-lesson airplane stories?  What books have you read that make you want to get up and go somewhere?  How do you get ready for a trip?  Talk to me in the comments box about what excites you when you travel and what makes you want to just stay home.

The Port du Canal in Dijon -- and all the essentials for slow travel, including geraniums


Tami Clayton said...

Sadly, I can't convince you to travel by cruise ship because I will never go on one - terrible, terrible motion sickness will ensue, surely ruining the whole trip. I've heard they are great ways to see a variety of places. My issue with them (besides being queasy) is that you're not in one place very long. I like to sink into a place, tease out what locals like to do/see/eat, and leave feeling like I've BEEN there, not just stopped off for a day.

As far as prepping for a destination, I think I outted myself as a bit of a neurotic travel guide reader here in this post:

When I was preparing to go to Fez, Morocco, I read "A House in Fez" by Suzanna Clark. It gave me a great sense of every day life in Fez through her trials and tribulations in renovating a riad in the old medina. Fascinating read.

Linda Maye Adams said...

-- How do you get ready for a trip? --

I have a trip coming up in about two weeks to Las Vegas. Went to it for a conference and wanted to go back and really see it when I wasn't jetlagged out. I'm a go with the flow person, so the only preparation has been to schedule an extra day to recover from the 3 hour time difference and scout out a really good hotel rate (how I picked the dates). I just made a special trip to Target to buy travel toothpaste, because I would have forgotten it. I always forget one, two, three items.

Nancy said...

Oh, Julie, you definitely want to take a small-ship cruise! I recommend a cruise of Alaska's Inside Passage and/or the Galapagos Islands. So many reasons why . . .personalized service; up close & personal encounters with wildlife; pristine,serene coves, bays and inlets; time expands when you get off the beaten track . . . I'm happy to recommend specific tour operators based on my experience.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, I had a wonderful experience on a cruise ship from Vancouver to Alaska. It takes about a week or 10 days, I’m not sure, and you see something completely different. The landscapes of Alaska are amazing, almost alien, and the side trips we took in every port of call were fantastic. Although it was summer, June I think, we sailed among icebergs.
As for travel books: I read one lately that made a huge impression on me: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. Here is the link to my review on GoodReads:

Julie Farrar said...

Olga, I've read Geography of Bliss and just loved it. Last week I finished his second one, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine. It has the same format of travel, but he's exploring religions. I love him.

brenda said...

First, evil of you to taunt me with photos of traveling. I am in need of a long holiday (just because I like to be pampered). I've not been out on a small craft as picture here, but I have been on several cruise ships and LOVE IT COMPLETELY. I never thought I would, but my sister talked us all into going one year and since.. I love it. You don't feel much on the big ships.. unless of course you're in the middle of a bad storm (and yes I have been), but have another glass of wine and enjoy.

Tele said...

Hmm - this dearth of cruising narratives does seem to be an oversight. I can't think of any, but what an ideal mystery series setting! I can't get behind the big cruise lines - such brief, shepherded experiences through designated tourist trap communities, not my kind of travel - but I definitely agree with Nancy that there are some phenomenal small ship options for seeing AK. When you plan your trip, be sure to let me know! :)

Julie Farrar said...

I'm sure there are mystery possibilities like Murder on the Orient Express. But what about a cruise non-fiction classic like Bryson's A Walk in the Woods or the like?

Alina Sayre said...

Murder on the Orient Express was the first thing that came to my mind! But I agree with you--much (most?) of the fun is in the journey. And what's the point of traveling in secluded, bubble-like comfort when you could be fumbling along in broken Italian, trying to order a gelato shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman begging to tell your fortune?

Julie Farrar said...

Ah, Alina. I wish I had been with you at that magical moment.

Cora said...

I did take a cruise a few years back and LOVED it. The only bad thing about it was the food--too much, all over the place and all day long. I gained 10 pounds that I still haven't been able to lose. The traveling part I loved-dipping into ports and spending a day or several hours and then moving on. We spent one day at the beach eating and swimming, a day on the river traveling into the interior, a day in town shopping and touring around the town, visiting art galleries, etc. Lots to do (on the ship as well) and no motion sickness (doesn't happen on big ships. I would definitely do it again.

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