Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May/June 2006
by David Farley and Tim Leffel

In this issue: The Rough Guide to Travel Survival, The Romanian and Tales from the Expat Harem

The Rough Guide to Travel Survival: The Essential Field Manual
By Doug Lansky

In the last decade, adventure travel has quietly gone from the survival of the fittest to the survival of the richest, as luxury tour operators cater to traveling fat cat jetsetters, manufacturing "danger" by day and top-shelf cocktails by night. Doug Lansky’s new book on travel survival will not help this set. But it might aid the growing number of travelers who can't afford (and don’t want to take part in) luxury adventure, as well as those globetrotters who would rather be trekking across a rainforest rather than through the streets of Rio or Rome.

Lansky, an American-born, Swedish-based writer, who's penned the travel books Last Trout in Venice and, most recently, Sign Spotting, among others, has put together an impressive team of experts for Travel Survival: doctors, lightening safety instructors, an Aboriginal living skills instructor, and even a teacher at a tornado chasing school. This isn't a book you’re going to read cover to cover on a rainy day, but instead, you'll take it with you on the road and pull it out when the unthinkable happens. It's encyclopedic in its scope and, at times, unintentionally comical. When, one might wonder, will I need to know how to drive across water? Or gather termites and ants? Lansky dedicates subchapters to nearly every kind of dangerous situation: what to do when everything is stolen, foiling a scam artist, what to do after a plane crashes (hint: don't eat the other passengers), how to handle a kidnapping or hostage situation, dodging gunfire, and how to eat insects.

In fact, the only thing you won't learn how to do in Lansky's book is turn a junked Chevy pick-up truck and a few bamboo sticks into a tank (a-la The A-Team). Which is a shame because that would be awesome.

If I had enough testosterone to take a hair-raising trek through the jungle or wander around a war zone, I wouldn't step off the plane without Lansky's book. It's jam packed with essential and helpful info; for an adventurous trip, its important to have in your bag, but hopefully you'll never really need to use it.

The Romanian: Story of an Obsession
By Bruce Benderson

Bruce Benderson's memoir, The Romanian, illustrates survival of a different kind. The story begins on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, where Benderson was sent to write a piece for on the city's brothels. But the author is immediately taken with a young Romanian street hustler named Romulus—a twenty-something with broken pro-soccer dreams who floated around post-Communist Europe, immersing himself in the black market. The author quickly ditches his assignment to chase after something he finds more alluring, taking readers from Budapest to New York, Bucharest to Paris.

The 404-page "story of an obsession" beautifully captures the strange relationship between the older Benderson, who lusts after his muse's young beauty and Romulus, who clearly has affection for the author but is also lured into the relationship for money and the prospect of making a better life. The subtitle isn't an exaggeration, the most perverse example being when the author insists on bathing in Romulus' bath water.

First published in France, The Romanian was dismissed by American publishers until it won the prestigious French book award, the Prix de Flore (the first book by an American to win the prize). Romania, apparently, is not a place Americans care to read about. True or not, Benderson makes Americans want to read about it. For those who know nothing about the country of Dracula and Ceausescu, Benderson effortlessly weaves in and out of history, the state of contemporary Romania, philosophical musings, and personal anecdote, telling a story that's as nearly as addictive as Benderson's is to his muse. At times some of the history he threads throughout the narrative (particularly that of playboy royal Carol II) feels slightly forced.

But for whatever minor flaws exist, there are a hundred other reasons to read this book. One of those is how Benderson scouts out, finds, and then details the "lost" Europeans, those ubiquitous shadowy figures, usually immigrants, who lurk in the main railway stations in any capital on the continent. Like Romulus, they've fled their homeland hoping for better opportunities, but have been stymied by discrimination, eventually resorting to petty crime, prostitution, or drug running. For many of these people, risking a jail sentence or injury in exchange for the possibility of a more agreeable lot in life is better than being back in their economically stagnant and opportunity-less homelands. Benderson takes us into this fascinating world, painting—as he does through the entire tome—graphic portraits of its desperate protagonists and seedy places.

In terms of "travel writing" (a genre that's impossible to define), The Romanian delves into topics about place that commercial travel writing (i.e. newspaper travel sections and travel magazines) would never touch. For example, the encounters he has with wild dogs on the streets of Bucharest. When Romanian cold war dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, razed the city's "bourgeois" 18th and 19th-century apartment buildings, installing in their place gray concrete blocks apartments, many families had to ditch their dogs due to lack of space (and increasing poverty). The result, roving packs of wild dogs, makes strolling down the street in Bucharest an exercise in courage (or just plain exercise—as many people find themselves sprinting away from the hell hounds).

Benderson indeed helps fill in the gaps on Bucharest that we'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere. But he also tells a story that makes it hard to put the book down (or stop talking about once you do).

Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey
By Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökman

Tales from the Expat Harem is a lovingly produced book that probably gives a more rounded, fully fleshed-out view of Turkey than any book has managed before. It achieves this through narratives from 29 women who have made Turkey their home, either for a time or permanently, in locations scattered throughout the country. (A helpful map in the front shows each city or village where stories take place.) About half married a Turk. The others were in a relationship that didn't fly, were trying to figure out how to date there, or were trying to navigate life as a single in a country where being alone is seen as a bit odd and sad. This variety of place and experience allows a deeper look into the culture than could ever be managed by one writer or a group of travelers.

Many of the stories revolve around navigating cultural expectations, dealing with a mother-in-law, and trading independence for an ever-present extended family. In reading the collection, I sometimes felt like a man eavesdropping on a conversation between two girlfriends, with ongoing dissections of what another woman really meant by the phrases she used, her body language, and the tone of her voice. The kind of discussion that will quickly send a man running to a bar that's showing ESPN.

There are regular departures from this path, however, starting with the first story, Maureen Basedow's tale of being the female boss at an archeology dig manned by rough village laborers--all men. Or when hotel owner Eveline Zoutendijk must quell a staff rebellion over a historic painting that may or may not be an affront to Islam . In "Evil Eye Exorcism," Annie Prior Özseraç and her husband suffer from ongoing apartment problems and finally call in a type of shamen to get rid of their apparent curse of the evil eye. In "The Headman's Pajama's" Dutch journalist Jessica Lutz recounts the shock of going back in time in a traditional, far east village caught up in a war zone next to Iraq. "As I tried to ignore the sound of the gun and the occasional thump of a bullet that hit the wall, I swallowed hard and felt grateful for not having been born in a Kurdish village."

The tales are divided into sections that reflect an aspect of the culture, such as the Turkish bath or wedding rituals. Some of the stories I enjoyed the most celebrated the boisterous music and dance side of Turkey I saw and loved so much when I lived there. Diane Caldwell describes the exhilaration of being in a culture that celebrates being moved by music, rather than suppressing the urge. In "From the Hip," Sally Green follows this with a contrast of belly dancing lessons in Colorado with how people actually belly dance in Istanbul: "Turks-with their small children, their teenagers, their parents, friends, or anyone who wanted to join in-would circle their hips, ripple their arms, loosen their ribs, and swirl their wrists. No sequined costume required!" This Turkish zest for life also looms large in "A Fine Kettle of Fish," where Trici Venola's excellent piece of writing describes a larger-than-life man who captivates her, despite his obvious flaws. It wins the prize for the best opening: "Kasim would take a cab for one block if he could; I thought he was lazy and grandiose and that may have been true, but later I realized he had only one pair of shoes and they hurt him."

Like much expatriate literature, there is a tendency to constantly sprinkle in foreign words, interrupting the flow unnecessarily. (Do we really need to see yogurt written as yoğurt or see harar instead of "burlap sack?") The quality of the writing is uniformly high, however, despite the fact that many of the contributors were amateur writers coaxed--and carefully edited--by Ashman and Gökmen. The two editors each contribute a tale as well: Ashman with a description of her opulent, high-society Istanbul wedding, and Göl;kmen with a story about giving her Turkish language skills a workout as she takes a road trip with her American mother. For anyone who wants to get a real feel for what it's like to marry into a foreign culture, or to see how daily life works out while settling into another land, this is an engaging and masterful collection.

- Tim Leffel, Editor

The first two reviews above were written by David Farley. He contributed The Coast of Bohemia in the last issue and  is co-editor of Travelers' Tales Prague. His work has appeared in The Best Travelers' Tales 2004, New York Magazine, Playboy, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University and Gotham Writers' Workshop.

Also in this issue:


Buy The Rough Guide to Travel Survival in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy The Romanian in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

living in Turkey

Buy Tales from the Expat Harem in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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