Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris
By Graham Robb
The pre-eminent prize for travel writing in the UK is the Dolman Travel Book of the Year, successor to the old Thomas Cook Award. Reading through the short list of six is a quick way to catch up with the contemporary state of the genre. And it seems that the emphasis has changed from the good old days of Eric Newby, Paul Theroux and Jan Morris from personal to historical encounters. Indeed the word "history" appears in the title of the winner (Molotov's Magic Lantern, reviewed earlier in Perceptive Travel) and one of the runners-up reviewed here.
The book that didn't win perfectly sublimates its scholarship rather than parades it in undigested form. Graham Robb's Parisians is even less a traditional travel narrative than Molotov but its series of vividly realized stories, all true, makes you long to go back to Paris and see with fresh eyes some of its most famous landmarks such as the Catacombs, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Centre Pompidou. This book may carry no restaurant recommendations, but it promises to make your next travels in Paris more perceptive. (As to restaurants, it does reveal that President Mitterand's favorite eatery was the Brasserie Lipp — currently rated 2,996 of 5,129 on TripAdvisor — which is where he ate before faking his own assassination attempt in 1959 to gain popular sympathy.)
This audacious book tells 19 stories of historical figures from Napoléon to Sarkozy, some of which are so startling they read like Ripley's Believe it or Not. Varying story-telling techniques are called into service, all of them imaginatively oblique and gripping. The first one "One Night at the Palais-Royal" describes in quasi-novelistic style how the young Bonaparte lost his virginity. Napoléon is not named until the last page (unless you happen to have looked up Napoléon in the Index and seen that pp 11-22 pertain to him) which might seem coy or annoying. Instead it grabs and holds the attention in the same way a whodunnit might. If one were to take a stroll in the Palais Royal gardens near the Louvre after reading this tale, it would be impossible not to call to mind how it was in the late 18th century, an important marketplace and leisure center frequented by Parisians of all classes, particularly women of the night.
Using the dramatist's art, Robb's fresh-minted tales bring characters alive who in turn bring their city to life. Ingeniously, the story of the affair in the early 1950s between the jazz musician Miles Davis and the beautiful Juliette Gréco under the watchful eye of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, takes the form of a screenplay. Like all the stories, this vignette deepens our understanding and appreciation of Paris as a city of romance, inspiration and culture that willingly embraced a black musician at a time when racial hostility was rife in the US.
The subject of another intriguing story is a 20th-century alchemist who was convinced that one of the carvings in Notre Dame prefigured a nuclear reaction. Quickly you flip to the 25 intriguing photographic plates, but alas there is no reproduction of the carving of the cloud rising from the earth in a funnel, and a winged figure with his right arm raised. Like the tourist's flashbulbs described on page 231 — "A group of people standing near an unremarkable row of carved medallions in Notre Dame are struck by all the unsuspected details that suddenly burst into blinding clarity as each flashbulb exploded" — these stories illuminate the city then and now, far more memorably than Rachel Polonsky's flickering magic lantern sheds light on Russia—winning a prize or not.
Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America
By Catherine Ryan Howard
I first came across this young Irish writer a couple of years ago when she wrote to me about her experiences working in Disney World for inclusion in a new edition of my book Work Your Way Around the World. I realized that she had an engaging sense of humor when she described her struggles with the touchy-feely parts of the Disney ethos and when a directive to the staff stipulated they must use words of three or more syllables if asked by a guest how they were, she instantly lit upon 'homicidal'. So when her new travel book Backpacked came to my attention, I was keen to give it a go.
Inevitably, Backpacked grew out of a blog which she and her best friend Sheelagh kept during their nine-week trip in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Converting blog to book is the dream of many a traveler. In this case, it has worked, because the author has gone through a rigorous self-editing process to excise the mundane lists of what they ate and the folks they met that litter most travel blogs.
Maybe it was just the relief after the two heavy-duty high brow tomes topping the Dolman awards, but I found this book pretty funny. The author hits a low point in Choluteca on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, a place that "was to Granada as a Porta-Potty is to the Palace of Versailles". When suffering her goodbye drinks hangover overlapping with a chest infection, she feels like she is knocking on death's door, a door that her anti-malarial pills are answering. Her friend's travel cash is stowed in all sorts of unlikely hiding places dreamed up by her father ("just call him Q").
Like so many backpackers before her, she had allowed herself to be seduced by the idea of travelling (the beaches, the Facebook pictures — she imagines her photos earning a medal from Mark Zuckerberg) without focusing on the possible reality. Before long, she is asking herself ("not for the first time - truth be told, not for the first time today") what on Earth she is doing staying in a dirty, baking town in the middle of nowhere.
Her persona is as a hyper-cautious traveler beset with anxieties at the prospect of any outdoor activity (like swimming) or of meeting strangers (especially men). As she sets off (reluctantly of course) on a group hike on Pacaya volcano in Guatemala, her lack of fitness soon forces her to accept a lift on a horse. Later she refers to the phenomenon as "fat girl shame". She is tormented on the volcano by imaginings of imminent death. She was not to know that at least in this case her nerves were not misplaced: last year a journalist was killed when the volcano erupted and newspaper headlines declared "Guatemala's tourists warned against visiting deadly Pacaya volcano".
The friendship from childhood between the travel companions is touchingly conveyed. For Sheelagh "strangers are only friends you haven't met" whereas for the author "strangers are annoying morons you've thus far successfully avoided"; yet the two bob along contentedly together. The backpacking bore recurs amusingly. Take Edward who boasts ad nauseum that he is travelling with 20 books (quick, get the man a Kindle) or Gillian who pries into Catherine's attitude towards the use of tampons.
You sense that the self-deprecating tone is genuine and grounded in sanity, which makes the voice a thoroughly likeable one. McDonalds meals and comfortable hotels disappear and, predictably, the author is converted to the joys of the open road—or at least reconciled to some of them.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.