29 September 2010

Quote of the day: Americans abroad in a time of tumult

Here's a fun game. Below is a quote from a travel guide chapter on the importance of keeping a low profile abroad. Guess the year.
In the years past newspapers have headlined anti-American demonstrations in Tokyo, Lima, La Paz, Pnompenh [sic]; Algerian riots in Paris; fighting by Greeks and Turks over Cyprus; border raids between Syrians and Israelis.
That's from Rochelle Girson's Maiden Voyages: A Lively Guide for the Woman Traveller. Published in ... 1954.

Girson's advice to travelers should also feel familiar, every bit as timely and spot-on for today's world. Don't be held back by your fears and the headlines. Go anyway. But be smart about it. A traveler can go pretty much anywhere, "providing she uses her head and doesn't try to be a smart aleck."

Other timeless advice and observations:
  • "Keep smiling." 
  • Use "discretion and tact."
  • "The most important things ... that any woman can take with her abroad are an open mind and restraint. Astonishing as it may seem to us, a considerable portion of the world--and not only the Communist-oriented--regards America as an imperialist power."

27 September 2010

Happy World Tourism Day!

No, seriously.

To celebrate, go take several dozen photos of a nearby landmark and refer to yourself as a "traveler."

What do YOU think: Has travel gotten safer for women?

Help me out, won't you? I'm looking for some comments from women who have backpacked in Europe in the last few years. 

If you're new here (welcome) here's what the project documented on this blog is all about: last summer, I traveled around Europe using both a 1963 edition of Europe On Five Dollars a Day and copies of my mother's letters from her Grand Tour in '67. I was looking at How Things Have Changed (Or Haven't) on the backpacker trail since that time. Now I'm working on a book about the experience (forthcoming from Perigee, Spring 2012).

One of the things that Mom talked about--at length--was sleazy, sketchy, grabby Italian men. She encountered them all over the continent, not just in Italy. I've included one of her letters below. (I should note that she also met one or two totally wholesome Italian men, but they were, sad to say, the exception.)

Here's the thing: I'm not female. It's kind of hard, then, for me to say whether or not this has changed--or, for that matter, if Europe has become a safer, more comfortable place for women travelers (solo or otherwise) in other ways. Maybe everything is different. Maybe it's the same as ever. I realize that my Y chromosome makes it rather difficult for me to know for sure, no matter how much I tried to be aware of the goings-on around me. 

From conversations with my fellow travelers--and reading various travel blogs--I got the impression that, yes, things have changed, at least to a large degree. Travel is safer; scumbags are fewer. Elizabeth Gilbert echoed this sentiment in Eat, Pray, Love (also quoted below) But I'd like to hear more thoughts, more stories, if anyone would be willing to share. I'm genuinely curious to know what's changed; it's an important piece of the then-and-now comparison of the book, but one that I really can't fill in based on my own experiences.

I'd also love to hear any other thoughts on the specific topic of being a female traveler in Europe in the twenty-first century (or, for that matter, in any era).

So. I'd really appreciate any stories, observations, or insight anyone would care to share. It'll help make for a better (and more accurate) book. If you're comfortable sharing your thoughts, please comment below or, better yet, e-mail me at doug@douglasmack.net. And, of course, I'll only quote you with permission. Thanks in advance!

And now, here's what Mom had to say in one of her letters (and I should note that this story is just one of many):
Dear Bob,
Do you know why Italian men are so awful? Because they start very young. Tonight we had a hysterically funny experience. We walked to the train station to find out what time our train leaves tomorrow. On the way back we were “blessed” with the escort of 4 young men—whose ages we estimate to have averaged 15 (at the very oldest) . . . At one point there were also 2 soldiers (Italiano) and one other guy, but they left 2/3 of the way back here. Bob, these kids ended up walking us home from the station—which is about a mile—all the way Ann and I spoke French to each other and these little boys were trying to address us in various languages—French, Italian, English, and German. Poor kids—we really frustrated their attempts to communicate. Ever been told “I love you” in 3 diff. languages by a 14-year-old? I hope you appreciate the humor of the situation, for Ann and I are still laughing. When we got to our pensione, Ann invited them up to meet our father, an invitation which they declined. 
Italian men are very ‘attentive.’ One just came over—ugh. . . . I cannot wait to see YOU.
Here's what Elizabeth Gilbert had to say on the same subject in Eat, Pray, Love: 
I ask around, and everybody here agrees that, yes, there's been a true shift in Italy in the last ten to fifteen years. Maybe it's a victory of feminism, or an evolution of culture, or the inevitable modernizing effects of having joined the European Union. Or maybe it's just simple embarrassment on the part of young men about the infamous lewdness of their fathers and grandfathers. Whatever the cause, though, it seems that Italy has decided as a society that this sort of stalking, pestering behavior toward women is no longer acceptable. 
So. Thoughts? Really, seriously: I appreciate any comments anyone cares to offer. This book will be a lot better for it. 

25 September 2010

Quote of the day: information overloaded in 1844

"There is, probably, not a famous picture or statue in all Italy, but could not easily be buried under a mountain of printed paper devoted to dissertations on it."

-- Charles Dickens, Pictures From Italy

Click here for the full book on Google Books. 

24 September 2010

Here be cheese-eaters

Not-so-coincidentally, this is also basically the Grand Tourist's map of Europe (although I'd change Italy to "Godfathers and pizza").

via @myessis

21 September 2010

Do guidebooks create the beaten path?

I have a recent edition of Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door. Here's what it says on the back cover: “Avoid crowds and tourist traps . . . Discover off-the-beaten-path towns, trails, and natural wonders.”

But as anyone who has followed the insider knowledge of such guidebooks can attest, by the time you get to one of these hidden gems, you'll find a dozen other tourists already there, each one bearing your same guidebook and the glum expression that says, "This is not what I was promised."

You know that famous Yogi Berra line, "No one goes there; it's too crowded"? With guidebooks, we get just the opposite phenomenon: everyone goes there because it's not crowded.

This is nothing new. A 1963 profile of Arthur Frommer in Time included the following anecdote:
Last week in Paris one proud hotelier told Frommer: "It is your book which bought this elevator." But the new lift meant higher rentals, and Frommer sadly made a note to drop the hotel from the next edition. 
Or there's this, from the 1966 edition of Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe (and which serves as a reminder that the snarkiness of youth is timeless):
In the low-cost field the most popular guide is Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day, which has become so widely circulated among American tourists that you will generally find them sitting on top of each other in the hotels and restaurants recommended.
The most telling example of a guidebook's impact on a place is, I think, one that involves Frommer's rival Temple Fielding, he of the raffia basket carry-on and the portable record players and the mink-covered beer can opener. Such was the impact of his guidebook that, according to John McPhee's 1968 New Yorker profile, "A waiter's strike in Italy was postponed when leaders of the national waters' union were informed that Fielding was in the country."

The guidebook effect extends way off the beaten path, too. In Getting Stoned With Savages, J. Maarten Troost travels to the South Pacific island of Malekula, where he meets a man while walking through the forest:
"I am George," he said curtly. "Do you have a Lonely Planet?"
I did indeed have a Lonely Planet guide to Vanuatu. We had brought it out from the U.S. Remarkably, they had a chapter on Malekula, which I had read thoroughly, highlighting all the references--and there were many--to the dangers posed by sharks.
"Turn to page one-fourteen," he said. "Do you see?" He jabbed at the page. "That's me."
The entry to which he referred read, in its entirety: "In the village on Wala Island, George's Guestroom  is small, for one or two people."
And have you read Eat, Pray, Love? Don't lie. You're reading a travel blog. I'm just going to guess, then, that you've either read or intentionally avoided Elizabeth Gilbert's gazillion-copy-selling spiritual self-help tract masquerading as travel writing. Just a hunch.

Anyway. So she goes to Bali. To (proper-noun) Love. But she's not quite done with the praying and the physical health stuff, either. Gilbert befriends a healer named Wayan, and decides to help her out--in part so that Wayan can reach that eternal goal of the tourist-area business owner: a listing in a prominent guidebook.
If she had a home, she could finally be listed in Lonely Planet, who keep wanting to mention her services, but never can do so, because she never has a permanent address that they can print. 
As it turns out, Lonely Planet was not the book that really put Wayan on the tourist trail. That, of course, fell to . . . Eat, Pray, Love.  From Time last month:
Wayan, an outspoken Indonesian healer of dark beauty and another of Eat, Pray, Love's personalities, was, with her young daughter and two adopted orphans, once on the verge of eviction. Now a staff of well-built men churns out her healthful Vitamin Lunches for calling travelers. From January to March of 2006, 237,260 foreign tourists stopped by Bali. Since then the number has swelled steadily, and in the same three months of this year, there were 551,186 visitors to the island.
While precise figures are not yet available, industry observers from the Denpasar Tourism Academy have confirmed that the island has been repopulated by tourists looking to develop their spirituality. . . . "It's a thing we want to promote because those activities bring peace to mind," says Nyoman Suwidjana, deputy chairman of the Bali Tourism Board. "And Bali loves peace."
Emphasis mine. Just in case you missed the irony. 

17 September 2010

Eat, pray ... No, just EAT.

As is apparent from the existence of this blog and this project, I'm a fan of quirky travel quests. But I don't think I've ever been on one so monumental, so crucial to science, so important to the advancement of culture and possibly even world peace ... than the one I recently completed with my friends Teague and Alex.

I speak, of course, of Doughnut Quest 2010. 

Three men. Three boroughs. Three days. Ten bakeries. Twenty-five doughnuts. One delicious, gut-busting attempt to find the best doughnuts in New York City.

Teague has the official, analytical, chart-filled write-up over at his blog. (You thought I was kidding about this being scientific? Please. When it comes to pastries, we do not mess around.) 

Take it away, Teague.

Above: Alex takes the ceremonial first bite of the first doughnut. 
Let the eating begin!

10 September 2010

Quote of the day: travel as conspicuous consumption

"By the 1970s, social trends were again altering the nature of comparative consumption. Most obvious was the entrance of large numbers of married women into the labor force. As the workplace replaced the coffee klatch and the backyard barbecue as locations of social contact, workplace conversation became a source of information on who went where for vacation, who was having a deck put on the house, and whether the kids were going to dance class, summer camp, or karate lessons." [emphasis mine]

-- Juliet Schor, The Overspent American