Great road stories often make me want to grab the author by the lapels and exclaim, “Are you insane?” But in a good way.
Take George Mahood, a perfectly normal chap who decides to set off on a 1000-mile journey penniless, without luggage, and naked except for a pair of boxer shorts emblazoned with the Union Jack. Incredibly, he persuades a pal to do the same, and as the two bumble their way north up the length of Britain, relying on the generosity of strangers, I find myself laughing out loud at their exploits. George’s book Free Country is especially pleasurable to read while you’re wrapped in a warm quilt on the sofa, sipping hot tea, and congratulating yourself on having the good sense not to commit that particular folly.
Want yet more proof that the course of a great travel narrative never runs smoothly? Cast your mind back to emails from vacationing friends describing the pretty scenery, tasteful restaurants, people just like themselves ... I’m sorry, I must have dozed off there for a moment. In contrast are the late-night page-turners, such as Duende by Jason Webster and Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker, two very different tales in which young men seeking a more authentic life join the Gypsies (in Spain and rural Romania, respectively), with chaotic, intense, and riveting results.
Moments of crisis are often the springboard for unforgettable adventures. Two popular works – Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman and Halfway to Each Other by Susan Pohlman – begin with women on the brink of divorce. Rita leaves home to spend her life blithely traveling alone through countries all the guidebooks say you’d be crazy to visit without a professional guide and an armed guard. Susan and her husband obey a sudden, mad impulse to grab the kids and move to Italy for a year in hopes of repairing their fractured marriage. In both cases, it’s the twists and tumults that keep you eagerly tapping your Kindle’s screen.
Even without such high-stakes drama, a good memoir plunges the author (and reader) into the unknown. Peter Mayle’s classic A Year in Provence and Victoria Twead’s delightful Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools are charming, leisurely tales about the often-surprising perils and pleasures of moving abroad and restoring an old house in the country. Even learning how to kiss cheeks – twice in Paris, three times in rural Provence, as a general rule – requires considerable finesse. “I now pay close attention to the movement of the female head,” writes Mayle. “If it stops swiveling after two kisses, I am almost sure I've filled my quota, but I stay poised for a third lunge just in case the head should keep moving.”
I loved both those books but confess that when my turn came, I was tremendously relieved to learn that foreigners moving to Europe aren’t actually required to buy a crumbling farmhouse and restore it with the help of semi-literate but wise and amusing locals. As readers of Dancing in the Fountain know, I chose to live in the city of Seville, which offers just as many cultural pitfalls and pratfalls, but with less mud and a clear-cut rule about cheek kisses: first right, then left, then stop.
Some writers hold us spellbound with insights that help us see our own journeys in a larger context. “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go,” says Alain de Botton in A Week at the Airport. Pico Iyer, author of The Global Soul, puts it this way: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate... And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
Great travel books offer us the exhilarating experience of being a young fool again – without actually having to undertake a journey of 1000 miles wearing nothing but unmentionables and a hopeful smile.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I have not included any books (or indeed any products anywhere on my blog or website) due to sponsorship of any kind. The books mentioned here are ones that have helped me on my journey; I believe you might find them entertaining and useful while planning your own adventures.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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