Travel writing is no way to earn a living. (That’s why I also write about everything else under the sun.) But it’s a darn good way to see the world in a way you might not otherwise see it. Why? Well, mainly because serious travel journalists don’t typically sign up for “Norway in a Nutshell” tours or consider seeing Glacier Bay by sailing past icebergs on a gigantic cruise ship.
Travel writing takes a certain amount of courage. Not the writing part. But the being part. If you want to write something people want to read, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there and do wild and crazy things, strike up conversations with complete strangers, and remain perfectly placid when a random Frenchman sticks his finger in your stinky cheese.
Of course, you don’t have to be a travel writer to do any of this. If you want to see the world with new eyes, just act like a travel writer. Skip the “See Europe in 12 Days” tours and forget the drive-by sightings of grizzly bears in Yellowstone. Instead, immerse yourself. Rent an Italian villa for a week and drink wine with every meal, and instead of peeking at that grizzly through a telescope, take a hike up Mount Washburn. The key is to get dirty. Here’s how to get started….
1) Explore the back streets. Yes, so it seems obvious. Get off the main tourist strips. But if it’s so obvious, how come no one is doing it? If you really want to get to know a place, leave the madding crowd and hit the back streets. A case in point: when I was in Cannes, France, last fall the Boulevard de la Croisette—the hip (and expensive) shopping street lined with boutiques and department stores—was jam packed with tourists. It’s not like I could afford to buy anything in a place like Alexandra where all the movie stars and “ladies who lunch” shop anyway. So I just started wandering down the side streets. Not only did I find myself taking in views of the entire city and long stretches of the French Riviera from the Musée de la Castre on a high hill overlooking the Mediterranean, but I also found some delightful (and less expensive) shops and restaurants patronized by locals along curving back alleys. When my friend, Dorothy, and I sat down for lunch at a tiny outdoor cafe in Le Suqet behind the more heavily traveled Rue Georges Clemenceau, we not only spent our meal enjoying the sounds of French-speaking natives all around us but had the delight of drawing the attention of locals walking to work, one of whom stopped to show us how to eat our artisanal cheese plate, poking our cheese with one rotund finger and advising us to start with the mild chevre before moving onto a French version of Stilton. And did I mention our French waiter, who got a kick out of Dorothy’s accidental thank you’s in Spanish, also gave us complimentary shots of what he gleefully termed “fruit juice” at the end of our meal? And that was on top of the house wine at only $2 a glass.
2) Don’t make any plans. That was how Dorothy and I took on the lovely medieval city of Kotor, Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea. The result? A fantastic and unplanned hike up the side of a fjord to explore the city’s centuries-old fortress, restored with money from American citizens. We stumbled upon the trail when walking down back streets in the old city, looked up the steep steps curling up the mountainside, shrugged, and said, “what the heck?” An hour or so later, we were enjoying the most magnificent view of our entire trek through southern Europe. Not as good as Norway, of course, but still pretty damn good.
3) Or make a ridiculous plan, and see if it works. Sometimes, however, more fun than winging it is trying to navigate your way through another country (or two or three) via the Internet. That’s what I did when my former husband and I decided to visit Northern Europe two years ago. Trying to figure out how to get us from Sandefjord, Norway, to Kiel, Germany, in a way that would be far more interesting than a flight to Hamburg, I planned the most absurd 24-hour journey from Point A to Point B ever. My husband was convinced it could never work. It began with a short train trip from the Sandefjord airport to city center, a long walk to the wrong ferry terminal, followed by a wild taxi ride to the correct one 30 kilometers away in Larvik, and a four-hour journey by ferry across the Black Sea. (Did I mention Color Line offers a fantastic Norwegian buffet of cold fish, cheese, salads, flatbread, and Scandinavian pastries?)
Once in Hirtshals, Denmark with the sun setting, we hopped on a train, making countless middle of the night connections, including a startling encounter with college students participating in Carnival (one of whom sat in my husband’s lap and another of whom sat on the table in front of my seat with her scantily covered thighs just inches from my nose) and a four-hour stopover in an outdoor station at Fredericia, where I spent hours dancing on cement to keep warm (And no, no one was there at 3 a.m. to watch.) The next morning we arrived in Kiel, exhausted and amazed that we had made it. “I gotta hand it to you,” my husband said, “I never thought this plan of yours would work.” Truth be told, I never thought it would work either.
4) Talk to the wait staff. They live here, you know, so don’t treat them like background music. Strike up a conversation. You might be surprised at what you’ll experience and what you’ll learn. In Barcelona, I chatted with a bartender who knew no English and a smattering of French. I, on the other hand, knew almost no Spanish and spoke only passable French. Somehow we managed to communicate in a fascinating mixture of three languages. And then there was the cruise ship waiter from Honduras who happily answered all questions on the inner workings of the dining room and staff life on a giant ship. Plus, he offered nightly demonstrations on how to balance forks on wine bottles using toothpicks (and who couldn’t use a new parlor trick every now and then?). Meanwhile the Serbian sommelier offered the inside scoop on what and what not to drink in Montenegro as well as insight on the economics of being in the culinary industry in Eastern Europe in the wake of civil war. A darkly handsome man with a thick and decadent Serbian accent pouring me wine while giving an up close and personal history lesson…I’m sold!
5) Be open and approachable. Wear a smile, and almost everyone will want to be your friend and help you, even if you don’t ask for it. Like the conductor on a train Dorothy and I took from Naples to Pompeii. He could speak no English but knew we had taken the wrong train (even though we ourselves did not know) and began to offer us aid with hand signals and requests for help from other English-speaking passengers…of which there were none. But we smiled and made our best efforts to communicate in our pathetic and miniscule Italian vocabulary (and, by the way, never visit Italy if you don’t speak the language because if anyone there speaks English, they’re not letting on). He eventually enabled us to shift to another train to get us to the ancient ruins of Pompeii instead of Sorrento, saving us what could have been an hour or more of wasted time backtracking in a region of Italy that is none too safe anyway. (Did I mention we were nearly mugged at the train stationin Naples and escaped the situation with some very fast walking?) Thank you, Neopolitan conductor, for saving two semi-clueless Americans from further trouble….