Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2018
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Three women writers explore destinations that reflect their own states of mind—an expat Bulgarian in the Balkans where borders are blurred, a Briton who examines nature struggling to survive against the odds in her own industrial backyard, and a Californian chasing distraction and solace.

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
By Kapka Kassabova

The mountainous region between the Aegean, Black, and Marmara seas in the southeastern Balkans is so remote and unknown, readers will have to remind themselves that this is still Europe. Having spent her childhood in Bulgaria before her family was able to emigrate after the wall came down in 1989, Kassabova remembers family holidays on the Black Sea and an uneasy awareness that although the neighboring countries of Turkey and Greece were very close, they were off-limits. The militarization of borders during the Cold War and since resulted in tragedy and untold suffering. In her early 40s, she decides to return to the region where those old borders are now open (at least to travelers with the right passport). She aims to tell a multitude of border stories from the point of view of real people rather than history books, and spends long enough to become a participant as well as an observer in community life. Readers may sometimes lose track of whether they are in Bulgaria, Greece or Turkey, which is exactly the point.

The history and ethnography of this region is incredibly complex with Slavs, Turks and Greeks, Orthodox and Muslim populations having been forcibly exchanged at various points. When she visits Edirne in the European part of Turkey, she identifies "visiting Greeks and Bulgarians, Bulgarian Turks who still spoke both languages after their 1989 exodus, milky-skinned Muslim women in baggy trousers from the Rhodope Mountains who spoke archaic Slav dialects, and beautiful fierce Gypsies who spoke everything." As a speaker of Bulgarian, the author has a huge head start in understanding the region, but one who writes beautiful English, which verges on the poetic at times.

The periphery of Europe has been largely overlooked by modern globalizing forces. Villages are empty, poverty is extreme, and the prevailing feeling is of melancholy and loss, which is also personal for the author because she too has been severed from her roots. Many people she meets have been dispossessed of everything except their oral history—their stories and superstitions are all that remain purely theirs.

But their indomitability shines through in the stone faces of the older women and "archaic Balkan expressions of granite-like endurance" of the men (noticed by the author, incongruously, at a baby shower). Heroism can be detected in unexpected corners. She meets Nadia, the social worker in a Bulgarian border town, who took supplies from her own house when Syrian refugees began to arrive ("I refuse to do nothing") and Tako, a Muslim Gypsy, who has become the self-appointed custodian of a sixth-century rock monastery near the western Black Sea coast of Turkey ("Church or mosque, it's all the same; a place of God and silence").

This book evokes wonderfully "our bitter beloved borderless Balkans" about an obscure part of the world where shepherds stride, Gypsies make music, vast virgin forests engulf you, and local myths and superstitions take hold. On departing from the Village in the Valley (some places remain unnamed) she asks is this paradise or purgatory? The answer is obvious: both.

Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery
By Alys Fowler

Here is another book that juxtaposes opposites and keeps them in balance. The author seeks adventure on her unlikely doorstep in Birmingham, a huge conurbation in the industrial heartland of England. She buys an inflatable canoe to explore the extensive network of canals left over from her city's industrial heyday in the early 19th century. Her expert naturalist's eye is turned on the plant and animal life, as well as the human canalside life, but without a hint of sentimentality. Sometimes the water is "goose-shit green" and the sky the color of potter's clay. Often she paddles through scum and detritus, past the back of factories that smell of curry powder or laundry detergent. But her refusal to be put off by the surface ugliness and her close attention to redeeming details can transform a scene for the reader and, almost miraculously, persuade us that if the sun shines and flowers bloom, mallards dive and fishermen wave, this is a destination worthy of exploration. As she lazes in her blow-up plastic boat, she watches "condom packets and Carling Black Label cans float by as the sun danced through the toadflax, and the blackberries eked out a living in cracks in the wall. There was a large gang of geese and a handsome alder, the necessary buddleja scattered about the wasteland, and a heron or two."

How is it possible to fall in love with such unlovable places? Probably because this flawed and threatened landscape reflected her damaged and unsettled state of mind at the time of writing. The title of the book has a double meaning. She is discovering her own hidden nature, because she slowly realizes that her marriage to her husband is finishing and is being replaced by her love for Charlotte. The crumbling canals mirror her life. Focusing so attentively on the life of the canals has a healing power for her; noticing the first touch of red on brambles and a small fish leaping soothes the troubled mind.

This is a wildly original travel book that demonstrates how it is possible to experience the familiar in a new and exciting way. She can reach various launch points by catching a local bus, with a packed-up boat, folding bicycle, and paddle strapped to her rucksack. Inevitably in journeys with such a narrow focus, there is a lot of repetition and the book could have done with some paring down. I occasionally tired of the many lonely anglers and itemized lists of plants. But there is far more than description of place going on. With subtlety and grace, she probes both the backwaters of her city and of her psyche. By the end we share her belief that nature can renew. "If the rotting tarred dark past of that valley can spring forth with such light and life, then the slimy rubbish-strewn inner-city canals... can do the same."

Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir of Love and Loss
By Shannon Leone Fowler

Here we have more autobiography and another brave journey towards survival. We see up close the aftermath of one of those travel tragedies that occasionally come to our attention. A happy young couple staying on a Thai island could never have foreseen that one of them would be randomly stung by a deadly box jellyfish and would be dead within a few minutes. This is what happened to the author's Australian fiancé in 2002.

Ironically, Shannon Fowler is a marine biologist with a life-long love of the sea. After the tragedy, she can't forgive the ocean, but she can still travel. She is compelled to run away from her PhD studies, and heads for Eastern Europe. She finds herself at Auschwitz on All Souls Day and for the first time since Sean died feels she is in the right place, in the company of so many ghosts. She concludes that Eastern European cultures understand loss: "Stories here were so different from the ones I'd heard growing up in California—scarier and more honest, less Disney and more Brothers Grimm." She is similarly attracted to Sarajevo because she expects it to reflect her devastated condition and looks for any outward signals of recovery. (People warn her of the dangers of traveling solo to Bosnia which was unstable at the time, but since she feels the worst has happened to her, she sees no point in being cautious.)

Her story is affectingly and effectively told by using flashbacks to earlier travels with Sean in China, Spain, Slovenia, etc. She is trying to fix memories in case they begin to vanish, though nothing can erase the crystal-clear memories of the day he died. Concentrating on travel logistics and learning the basic civilities in different languages from Hebrew to Serbo-Croat is a welcome distraction. Here we are allowed intimate access to a woman attempting to navigate love, loneliness and loss—or some of the time just plain navigate, whether finding accommodation at midnight or working out the right train platform when all signs are in Cyrillic.

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 and Teaching English Abroad, she has also 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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

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Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery

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Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir of Love and Loss

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