Last night we saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” wherein our hero Gil Pender visits Paris in the 1920s after midnight every night. He meets all his heroes: Zelda and Scott, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot, to whom he gushes, “where I come from, people measure out their lives with coke spoons.”
I have never, at least not since childhood, ardently wanted to go to the past, not least because women couldn’t wear pants and they didn’t have corrective eye wear. But Woody’s is a lovely fantasy, and it made me wonder: Where is the Paris of the twenties of today? You know, that hotbed of creative geniuses, sleeping with each other and getting drunk and swapping tips on landing the right agent, who will shape the culture of the next generation? Is there such a place? Was New York in the seventies one of them? Where is it? Shanghai? Mexico City? Or is no such thing possible because we all live on the Internet now?
Attempts to monetize travel, take 374: "Sabbatical consultant." For real.
So I got a press release from a high-priced PR agency offering the chance to interview a “sabbatical expert” on how to “energize your career and life by taking a break.”
Woah, I thought. You mean closing up the personal and professional shop and bolting overseas for an undetermined length of time is now considered a wholesome, constructive thing to do?
I investigated further and came upon this team of behatted women who offer “personal, professional, and corporate consulting and sabbatical coaching.”
Why didn’t I think of that?
I told my boyfriend, a freelance travel writer, who was naturally appalled, and we shared a moment of disgusted superiority over what kind of losers would have to hire someone to teach them how to take an extended vacation. But then I pointed out that our sense of superiority was precisely our problem. Those women were making at least enough bank to throw money at expensive and dubiously useful PR. Our downfall—possibly existential, at the very least financially hampering—was that we disrespected the very “customers” who could most benefit from our wise counsel.
I’ve always understood the word “slut” to mean a woman who freely enjoys her own sexuality in any way she wants to; undisturbed by other people’s wishes for her behavior. Sexual desire originates in her and is directed by her. In that sense it is a word well worth retaining. As a poet, I find it has a rich, raunchy, elemental, down to earth sound, that connects us to something primal, moist, and free.
The spontaneous movement that has grown around reclaiming this word speaks to women’s resistance to having names turned into weapons used against them. I would guess the police officer who used the word “slut” had no inkling of its real meaning or its importance to women as an area of their freedom about to be, through the threat of rape, closed to them.
Houdini and the traveler: Is it all a giant escape act?
At The Daily a few days ago we published this video on the one trick that stumped Harry Houdini. The video is now having what I’m told is a moment, having been watched nearly 50,000 times. Houdini was a magician, a debunker of spiritualists, and an escapologist. My colleague Rob maintains that the first was his most interesting career, but Rob is biased: I hired him because down at the bottom of his resume, under the “relevant experience,” he mentioned that he himself was a magician.
I think Houdini’s escape artistry was what made him so compelling. Who can resist the idea of breaking free? Here’s what I wrote in a very short chapter about Houdini in “Wanderlust:”
"The idea wasn’t so much to be free as to get free…the excitement is in the instance of deliverance itself, because that, not the final destination, is the only moment of being free. It’s the moment of feeling most alive and most oneself, undburdened by the expectations on either side.”
Is part of the fun of travel the act of busting free?
I took this in July 2005 while on a motorcycle trip through central Europe. Prague was in the grip of a heat wave. We sweltered our way on foot over the Charles bridge, then found this restaurant with a view of it. Boom, the skies opened, and everyone went scuttling indoors. Afterward it was nice and cool.
Wanderlust on the couch: Book writing as free therapy.
One of my Amazon reviewers has introduced me to what sounds like a concept from Jungian psychology (is that the one with archetypes?) He writes:
"This book describes a period in the life of the author when she was dominated by the archetype of the puer"—a puer being one who hankers after eternal youth and chafes at all restrictions.
He goes on: “…it’s wonderful state of mind, but it can have an imprisoning downside when it keeps people from committing themselves to a relationship or a place or one path and then realizing the depth of riches in doing so. Puellas see what’s lost when enchanting possibilities are cut off rather than what may be realized through commitment. I wonder if it has to do with evading psychic suffering.”
From the cutting room floor: Jerusalem media scrum
An outtake from “Wanderlust,” which really belongs in my (unwritten) book about how public opinion gets made:
"I’m on top of the city wall, inside the parapet, looking down at the encampment. It’s a rectangle hemmed in by the backs of multi-story Muslim homes on the other three sides. The settlers have set up tents and cook stoves for their dinners. They have washbasins for their clothes.
Everyone turns up. The neighboring Palestinians are incensed; Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian legislator, comes by to make a statement. Israel’s archeological authority is not amused; it wants to get to the Roman mosaics underneath. The kids from the Israeli group Peace Now are here. The soldiers are here, looking steely and bored in olive green, to make sure no one kills anyone else.
The biggest faction of all is the media. I stand on the city wall in a long, jostling row. This sort of settler-Arab clash is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, but this one is uniquely configured. With the top of the wall up here, and the settlers down here, it’s like an amphitheater. And the kids down there know that they’re in a play. They go about their business, getting dinner and polishing guns, never breaching the fourth wall. The eyes of the world are on them. Israeli newspapermen; cameramen from Fox and ABC; photographers from France and Japan. I scribble in my notepad and call in quotes. It’s like a wildly anticipated show on opening night.
They say that there are more journalists per capita residing in Jerusalem than anywhere else in the world. They come, in part, because this kind of thing happens right on your doorstep. You can travel into a warzone and be back on your garden terrace by supper.”
Last night I had my book party for “Wanderlust.” For a few weeks I had been monumentally stressed out about planning it. I didn’t even know if I wanted to have a party. People who maintain a healthy distance from the publishing world kept asking me if my publisher was going to throw one. Other authors did not ask me that, but shared tips on how to get booze purveyors to donate bottles in the name of PR.
But a few wise people told me I must celebrate, and in the end my publisher donated some money and a box of books, my parents donated some more, my friend Lawrence donated his home and it’s leafy back garden, and I spent a not insignificant amount of money myself.
The wise people were right. In unexpected ways. Of course it was wonderful to see so many friends and collected people in one place at one time. (I think about 100 rolled through.) And to be toasted and flattered and praised and hugged.
The unforseen upside is that now I feel different. Like something happened. Like there was a before and now there’s an after, and they’re different eras and I’ve passed through from one to the other. It feels like the first day of a season, or a year. The page is blank. The way is clear.
Wherever I have gone, I have taken pictures of walls, windows, and doors. Especially doors. I think there’s a kind of fantasy voyeurism behind it. What’s going on on the other side? I took this one in Narni on a misbegotten trip to Italy’s Umbria region in 2005. (Wanderlust p. 294). I was probably imagining a life-swap with the person on the other side.
Earlier this week I was interviewed by a charming and talented 23-year-old who works for both an Important Literary Quarterly and a Prestigious Publishing House. Talking about my post-college choices (to travel and live abroad) veered into talking about hers, and she said, with exasperation, “here everyone says, ‘what do you mean you’re 23 and you haven’t published a novel yet? What’s wrong with you?’”
Which leads to the perennial question: Move to New York after college or do something else? I told her that if she stayed here, she would have fun, and have great connections in publishing and magazines as her friends came up in the world. But she might end up writing yet another novel about young well-educated people making their way in New York. Or she might never make enough money to give herself just five damn minutes to work on her own writing.
And then there’s—well, the rest of the world. I’m biased. But really: just go.
Coincidentally, a friend just asked me to advise his 23-year-old nephew, an aspiring writer and recent college graduate, who also lives in New York. I told him to go work as a ditch digger in Arizona for a year (or metaphorical equivalent) and get back to me. I don’t know if that was what his uncle had in mind.
There’s a wonderful new piece in New York magazine by @wrongologist Kathryn Schulz, called “Ode to a Four-Letter Word.” It points that using f-u-c-k in your writing is not necessarily a mark of laziness:
"Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one. “
This excellent essay, though, only really tackles “fuck” as a modifier or expletive, to which I would add, it’s often the best choice as a verb, too. There’s no other word for having sex that is as staccato, specific, and monosyllabic. It’s downright elegant. To be sure, it sets a certain tone, and, depending on context, will jar some readers. But others will appreciate your refreshing straightforwardness.
Separately, I assumed the New York story was written by a dude until I looked at the byline. What’s up with that?
Yemen's garbage king, or, how to get things done in difficult places
One of the first trips I ever took as a freelance writer was to Yemen. I went for a month, with three assignments, and when I broke even on the trip I was thrilled.
I guess I didn’t have a strong sense of travel writing in the conventional sense because I ended up writing several profiles. One was about a guy who devoted two decades to trying to get the trash picked up in Sana’a, the capital. Among other tactics, he let a 2.5-acre pile of garbage accumulate where he knew the president would see it.
That president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has just, after 33 years in power, gone off to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after being wounded in an attack on his home. There has been violence in the streets of Sana’a these last several weeks. But I find that some of the most poignant fights in places like Yemen are the ones by people who are just trying to get things to work.
Travel as faux quest: Is that really why you're here?
Earlier this week I bought Paul Theroux’s latest, “The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road.” In the first chapter he revisits this thought from his own “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star:”
"One of the happier and more helpful delusions of travels is that one is on a quest."
That hit home. I’ve often been suspicious of quests, including my own. It’s not that I don’t believe it when you tell me that ever since you were a little girl, you wanted to uncover the source of the bagel. It’s just that I think maybe, if it hadn’t been about the bagel, you would have found another reason to be a thousand miles from home.
So let’s be honest. You’ve always wanted to climb Kilimanjaro backwards. Kayak the Danube. Eat the perfect morsel of eel. Or, for that matter, save the world. Blah, blah, blah. I’m sure you do. But consider. Could it be true that under all that, you just want to be on the road?
Of course, if I want to write another book about travel, I will have to come up with a burning quest soon. The suggestion box is open.
I’ve never seen a roadside cross in the United States. Why is that? Does no one think of it? Are there rules about building personal shrines by the side of the road? Are we moving so fast on our six-lane freeways that we wouldn’t notice them anyway? Are there fewer traffic deaths? The closest corollaries I’ve seen in America are the white ghost bicycles erected in cities in spots where cyclists have been downed.
I’ve seen roadside crosses and shrines in lots of places, but the ones in Baja Sur particularly captivated me. They’re objects of grief but also beauty, sometimes painted bright in the dry sun. I took this photo on one of my first trips to Baja, which must have been in 1996. Later I digified it by taking a photo of the photo.
Theroux to Susan Sontag, lazy pontificators: go somewhere, for god's sake.
Paul Theroux has been popping up lately, first in the New York Times and now in the FT. Could it be that….why yes, he has a new book coming out! An occasion to be celebrated. I don’t care how many books he writes that make you feel like you’re trapped in a train compartment with a cranky old dude who might grope your leg if you fall asleep. (And then, indeed, write about the eros of it all.) There’s still “Dark Star Safari” and “The Mosquito Coast” and the railway books and dozens more, including my favorite, “My Secret History.”
In this FT excerpt he argues, basically, that anyone who thinks travel has been rendered blah by technology should get off her damn ass and head for Mecca, or Antarctica, or the Congo River, and then get back to him.
I take issue with one point. With regard to going to Mecca (as a non-Muslim) he writes:
"Now there’s a challenge for a technology-smug couch potato who prates that the travel book is over. Of course, this daring trip is not easy. It is, perhaps, not a journey for a gap-year student wishing to make his or her mark as a travel writer…"
To which I say: Why not?
Anyway. The book has the doh-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that title “The Tao of Travel.” Downloading now.