Perceptive Travel Book Reviews February 2012
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two women writers move to remote mountain villages, the first a middle-aged Englishwoman to Italian Liguria, the other an American with a young family to Croatia. Proceeding from the micro to the macro, the last book is a treasure trove of excerpts from travel writers describing all manner of places throughout history.

Thin Paths: Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village
By Julia Blackburn

The paths of the title refer to the overgrown tracks that overlay a mountain valley in Liguria where the author has lived on and off since 1999. They also weave a metaphorical meaning through this poetical yet precise meditation on "love and old age and travel and death."

While in her early 50s, Julia Blackburn accepted an invitation from a long-ago lover to visit him at a house he had bought and renovated in a remote valley of northern Italy. Before long she and Herman are married and spending most of their time in this wild and forgotten place. Gradually Julia, a novelist and writer, acquires the patience (and enough Italian) to unravel the stories of the older inhabitants of her village who describe a semi-feudal pre-industrial way of life. She is a gifted listener and accords respect and dignity to the characters in her story, even the sullen and the daft. The bond with her neighbors is from the heart; in fact the book is dedicated to Adriana (now 76), her main confidante.

The forests and streams, vegetation and wildlife, shepherds and hunters are vividly brought before us. You look in vain for a map to locate the area, and must be content knowing that it is somewhere inland between Genoa and Nice. The omission of place names imparts a timeless, almost fairy tale and universal quality to a land where mule tracks have for centuries carried lavender, chestnuts and wine. The writing is spare and beautiful, the sentences almost child-like in their simplicity: "He had twelve hunting dogs, wild pigs in a shed, a tame fox that sat on an armchair and a jay that perched on his shoulder — and three more children were born" which is a description of Adriana's deceased husband Arturo. The author animates the crumbling stones, populates the ruined houses that she and Herman pass while out hiking and camping. Like an archaeologist of the human condition, she gives voice to these otherwise obscure people who have suffered greatly. Recollections of the humiliation and anguish that they experienced under Nazi occupation are still sharp and painful.

Dozens of the author's moody black and white photos are included, along with old family photos and hand-drawn maps. Short sections are given topical headings like "Insects" and "Caves" or the intriguing "The Man Who Wanted to Forget" and "Scooter Woman". The writing is of the highest order. We have all marveled at the tiny terraced fields on steep hillsides but who has thought of them as resembling "the seats of a vast amphitheater in a city of giants"?

Nostalgia courses through the book. At one time fireflies, bats, hares and toads could be found in profusion. Where there had once been nearly a hundred shepherds in the valley, now there is only Giovanin who is in his late 70s. Yet the past is far from golden. No one in the valley misses the pre-war obligation to give half of what they produced to the padrone (master). On the edges of the book's field of vision, times are rapidly changing. At least three other houses have been bought by foreigners, including a German. The local people accept him despite the horror of their memories of World War II, although Adriana has to rush away when she hears her new neighbor use the word "kaput" (of his car).

One day Julia and Herman decide to explore a different route to the hillside village of Tuvo, using a crude map drawn by Armando, an elderly villager. As soon as I googled Tuvo and was taken to a vacation rental site, I regretted it and felt as though a spell had been broken. But on further investigation, this turns out to be a different Tuvo. The magical world constructed in Thin Paths can remain intact in the imagination.

Running Away to Home: Our Family's Journey to Croatia in search of who we are, where we came from, and what really matters
By Jennifer Wilson

It is fascinating to read these two accounts side-by-side, of outsiders from faraway countries who gradually find a foothold of belonging in an utterly different world. Jennifer Wilson decides to uproot her nuclear family from their pampered lives in Iowa and move to the mountain village of Mrkopalj in northern Croatia, the home of her emigrant great-grandparents. The motivations for taking a family sabbatical sound familiar to me (from researches for my book Gap Years for Grown-ups). For Jennifer and her architect husband Jim, the American Dream has lost its sheen and they are searching for a way to fix their family, to find the time and space to bond more deeply, and to lay down a bank of happy shared memories.

As travelers, these authors go deep rather than wide, both burrowing into one small community. But their styles couldn't be more different. In the fine tradition of gentle self-mocking humor typical of other mid-western writers like Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson, Jennifer Wilson uses lively colloquial language to record the family's day-by-day struggle to understand and adapt to their alien new milieu. Her voice is engaging and her honesty disarming, admitting to feelings of disappointment: "I'd dreamed of this trip as an escape… but life follows us everywhere. I could be as restless in Croatia as I was in Iowa. Jim was still a mother hen. The kids were still four and seven. Parenthood still had a tendency to trump romance."

She does not shy away from revealing the extent of the culture shock. They arrive to find that the apartment they have arranged to rent has barely begun construction (though they receive absurd reassurances: "We finish rooms in maybe two days"). It takes Jennifer much longer than her husband to get used to the prodigious amount of alcohol that everybody drinks. One morning at 10 o'clock, a neighbor slides a shot glass towards her, and taking the advice she has been giving to her children to forget the old rules, she drains it after saying Živjeli ("Cheers" in Croatian). By page 169, she has come to realize that "the more I drank in Mrkopalj, the more I became part of it". The family's situation forces them to relax familiar American standards of hygiene, punctuality and order, and for Super-Mom to relinquish her control freakery. The journey the author makes towards acceptance and wisdom is a touching one, entertainingly told.

In Thin Paths, a villager remembers his grandfather's advice: "If you want to be happy, you must never leave your own village." Both Thin Paths and Running Away to Home illustrate that exactly the opposite can be true.

The Traveller's Daybook: A Tour of the World in 366 Quotations
By Fergus Fleming

The cynical amongst us might assume that this is merely another publisher's concept book. This is an anthology of extracts, mostly no more than a few paragraphs, from the letters, diaries and published work of travelers, arranged according to the day they were written, one for every day of the year. The publisher, respectable Atlantic Books of London, invited an author and historian of exploration to select writings according to what might seem artificial criteria. Yet searching for extracts written precisely on November 17th or March 2nd has led Fergus Fleming into some remote and unexpected byways of travel literature and literature about travel.

The range and variety of entries are extraordinary, and the serendipitous ordering has many charms. Big hitters in 20th century travel writing like Freya Stark and Martha Gellhorn, Eric Newby and Wilfred Thesiger make multiple appearances. Household names from world literature such as Lord Byron, Thoreau, Chekhov and John Steinbeck share their insights on (respectively) the guillotining of felons in Italy, the strange appearance of orchards on Cape Cod, the unsuitability of his luggage for an overland trip to Siberia and the anticipation of a trans-American road trip at the age of 58. Quotations from obscure writers are often just as interesting as those by more celebrated personalities. The rosy spectacles have been kept firmly locked away in many of the extracts. Following consecutively we have "A Plague of Hawks 1845" about the Australian desert, "A Sordid Paradise 1939" (about the Caribbean) and "Snakes in an Egyptian Garden, 1889."

Hints of a theme occasionally emerge with adjacent entries about Mexico or miserable traveling conditions. But this is quite unlike Lapham's Quarterly in which a miscellany of historical documents, quotations and pictures is arranged according to a theme (including Travel in the Summer 2009 issue). Here the reader makes his or her own connections between extracts on (for example) foreigners' attitudes to America. Simone de Beauvoir's distaste for the consumerism and the racism she encountered on her travels are quoted from her America Day by Day of 1947. Dickens sounds flagrantly anti-American when he describes a river cruise on the Ohio River: "You might imagine the whole male portion of the company to be the melancholy ghosts of departed bookkeepers who had fallen dead at the desk, such is their weary air of business and calculation." More than one hundred years later, the British poet Ted Hughes finds the opulence of his wife Sylvia Plath's world in Massachusetts alienating.

The historic and stylistic sweep is impressive. Fleming has cast his net wide, which makes for surprising conjunctions. For a brief moment on April 19th the reader is immersed in the offshore waters of Haiti only to be whisked on the next day to the North Pole and a fraudulent claim by the American explorer Frederick Cook to have reached it first. An anthology can't rely on building a narrative, so each account must have intrinsic merit. Some are melancholy (Zweig's suicide note written in exile in Brazil, Captain Scott's heroic failure) or poignant (Robert Louis Stevenson's longing to travel to "the port of middle age" after a tubercular hemorrhage). Only a few are funny, including Bill Bryson's hilarious description of a rule-governed bed and breakfast on the south coast of England in 1973 where he was told how to operate the three-bar electric heater in the bedroom and when that would be permitted "essentially, during an Ice Age".

The anthologist has inserted attention-grabbing headlines such as "Winged Rabbits in Iceland" by an English visitor who was encountering puffins for the first time in 1856; or "Fried Fish of Destiny" by Salvador Dali. The author's elegant introductions deftly provide a context for each extract. He is not afraid to express his opinions: Goethe is a windbag, Dickens is an ungenerous traveler with a jaded attitude. The extracts which reveal more about the writer than the place are among the best, especially those which reflect on what compels them to seek adventure and travel in their own way.

Anthologies intended for dipping in and out are sometimes dismissed as "bog books" i.e. entertaining reading for the lavatory. (Bog is British slang for toilet.) But that would be to underestimate the delights to be derived from this volume. There is no denying that it is a gift book for armchair travelers. The production values are high, and the text is interspersed with pleasing drawings and photos. If you happen to be given a copy for your birthday, you have much to look forward to — wherever you choose to read it.

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.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Thin Paths

Buy Thin Paths in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Running Away to Home

Buy Running Away to Home in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

The Traveller's Daybook

Buy The Traveller's Daybook in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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