Message in a Bottle
Traveling Companions

imageFor the first time in years I’m actually taking a substantial vacation, one that involves airplanes and oceans and everything. Which also means that for the first time in years I can read travel books without experiencing crippling jealousy. Some stay-at-homers may find them inspirational, but those readers are clearly better, less petty human beings than I. The last thing I want to read when I’m trapped in the daily grind without hope of escape is a story about someone finding thrills or (God forbid) enlightenment in an exotic land.

The only exceptions to this rule are books featuring writers raising families in foreign countries. Examples include Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr; The Moon, Come to Earth, about Philip Graham’s experiences in Lisbon; and the seminal Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. (Big miss, Doerr–should’ve called your book Quattro Stagioni Sulla Luna if you wanted to complete the trifecta.) I give these books a pass because the authors aren’t flitting about the globe for their own selfish purposes, they’re trying to immunize their offspring against a plague of Happy Meals and teach them what a globe really looks like. I can tolerate descriptions of lazy, late-night meals in piazzas and effortless visits to picturesque ruins by telling myself, “Think of the children.” Who knows, I may someday raise bouncing bilingual babies of my own by following the good example of Messrs. Doerr, Graham, and Gopnik.

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When my tickets are in hand and I can look at the rest of the world without envy, the time arrives to forget about formula and diapers and take up a tale or two by a solo sojourner. Even then I’m not looking for traditional vacation fare. I don’t want anything too breezy or yoga-centric, I want something weighty that will provide ballast on my trip. I want to learn something about a place that I wouldn’t find out on my own, to pick up details that the natives might not know, and understand how the author’s mind processes it all. Which shouldn’t preclude a healthy dose of fun, mind you. A tall order, I realize.

imageThe classic travelogue that fits this bill is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. In her glamorous youth she was noted for her scandalous, decade-long affair with the much older H.G. Wells, but by the time she came to write her magnum opus she’d become a major-league intellectual and activist with a reputation that more than matched his. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon relates her travels throughout the Balkans in the period shortly before World War II, but it also covers about a thousand years of regional history. It’s still the book that offers the most insight into the confusing ethnic and cultural strife that continues to splinter what used to be known as Yugoslavia. And it’s entertaining, believe it or not.

What’s most wonderful about the book is the way West can digress so fruitfully in unexpected directions. Everything she sees and everyone she meets can inspire marvelous asides that other writers would build whole novels on. Like this bit, which is so good that I can recite it from memory:

Remember, when the nuns tell you to beware of the deceptions of men who make love to you, that the mind of man is on the whole less tortuous when he is love-making than at any other time. It is when he speaks of governments and armies that he utters strange and dangerous nonsense to please the bats at the back of his soul. This is all to your disadvantage, for in love-making you might meet him with lies of equal force, but there are few repartees the female governed can make to the male governors.

imageThe only other travel writer I can think of who matches up against West’s literary firepower is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, but not before completing a legendary trilogy. As an eighteen-year-old he walked across Europe, roaming for almost two full years from the English Channel all the way to what he romantically insisted on calling Constantinople, and recording the journey in three parts. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published during his middle years, and the adventure ended just a few months ago in the posthumously-published The Broken Road. Fermor was an amazing figure (if you don’t believe me, just read the biography by Artemis Cooper; his military exploits alone will astonish you) and his writing style is as charismatic as he was in person.

Hmm. Between Rebecca and Paddy, I’m up to 2,100 pages. Guess I’ll need a bigger suitcase.

—James

This piece was first published at bookriot.com.

Where Do Babies Come From?

(continued from part one)

In a way, it was a book that led me into parenting in the first place. I’d always been fond of children and had never had that fear of them that some young men seem to have. Will I break it if I hold it? What if it cries? Why is it looking at me? During college and shortly thereafter, I worked on and off in a daycare and a preschool. I was a manny before someone smug coined that word, come to think of it. Despite all this, the idea of having kids of my own seemed no less far-fetched than the idea of my one day becoming Emperor of Gondwanaland. Fatherhood was too life-changing a thing, especially for someone with creative aspirations like someday writing for a bookstore blog.

About ten years ago, though, I read Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker who spent several years reporting for the magazine from France, and while the collection impressed me with its insightful, humorous take on Parisian culture through expatriate eyes, what struck me most was its depiction of domestic life. Gopnik moved to Paris with his wife and young son, and they’re never far from view. He covers high art, but then, amid the crowd on a holiday shopping excursion, there’s his son in his stroller, swaying to the music like “a cobra in mittens.” Between bites at the brasserie, there’s equal talk of education and national politics, and even bedtime stories—about a phenom preschool pitcher facing off against Ty Cobb at the Polo Grounds, whiffing him with the aid of a doctored “bottle-ball”—get serious consideration. While the family was abroad, they added to their little clan with the birth of a daughter, and the chapter on that experience is one of the highlights of the book.

I’d never read (or didn’t register it if I had) anything that so well integrated intellectual life with private life, and balanced adult concerns with childish ones. Paris to the Moon was the first book, the first experience of any kind that made me think that parenthood was possible for me, maybe even desirable. Until reading it, thinking about having children meant wondering about the compensations for all the diapering and the sleepless nights. Afterward, I realized that evaluating “compensations” is a pretty petty, immature way of trying to tackle this particular decision. I’m still not sure I could explain exactly how that decision should be made, but make it I did—not immediately, mind you. Five years later, I became an expectant father for the first time, and it worked out so well I went through it again. A boy and then a girl, just like in the book. No, I didn’t do it all on my own, if that’s what this sounds like. My wife undoubtedly has her own version of this tale, but she’ll have to write her own post to tell it. 

Now, I might have stumbled onto something else that would have provoked the same kind of epiphany (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, which I read a few years later, could have done the trick) but I’m not sure that I’d be a dad today without Adam Gopnik’s example. I do know that without him, I wouldn’t have as good a name for how fatherhood feels. During his wife’s second pregnancy, he learns the French expression used when a firstborn son is followed by a daughter, and reading his book taught it to me. It’s le choix du rois—the choice of kings.

(continued)

James

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