Thursday, June 17, 2010

Travel Reading Recommendations

My first ever trip abroad was junior year of college, 1997.  Spring break in London with a gaggle of girlfriends.  We crashed Anita's flat near where she was studying at London College of Economics for the semester, and then took off for the weekend to Paris.  Young, inexperienced, and wanting to be stylish in a city of style, I wore incredibly uncomfortable shoes but we still walked from one end of the city to the other.  That was the trip that planted the seed for my travel bug.

It was a trip to Italy in the summer of 2000 that started my insatiable appetite for travel books.  I planned the trip as a treat to myself for a grueling summer finishing lab work and research for my Master's Thesis.  I was a broke grad student but I made that trip count for every dollar by stretching a two-week vacation into at least six months of dreaming by devouring travelogues about Italy and fiction set in Italy.  Some of my favorites were:

  • "Under the Tusan Sun" by Frances Mayes
    Please PLEASE forget you saw the movie starring Diane Lane, even if you sort of liked it at the time.  The book is nowhere near as sappy (and I'll say it- lame) as the movie.  This book has evocative descriptions of the food, traditional architecture, and lifestyle of the Italians. It will whet your appetite for a coming trip to Italy or will transport you to Tuscany (for small money!) if you can't afford a trip right now.

  • "Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy" by Frances Mayes
    Frances and her husband return many times to the Tuscan house they've made their own, and you'll be dying to renovate a rumbling old farmhouse and move to Italy by the time you're halfway through this book...

  • "Italy in Mind" by Alice Leccese PowersAn anthology of letters, poems, and excerpts, this rich book is packed with amazing writing that lets you traipse all over Italy from the comfort of your sunny spot on the couch.  

During the summer of 2002 I spent two weeks driving a rental car from the D-day fields of Normandy, across a bar of sand to Mont Saint Michel, then through Paris (again!), stopping to drink wine in stone villages in Burgundy, then continuing to Alsace in western France to hike through vineyards.  We continued onward through the cool forests of Bavaria into rainy Munich.  The trip went by much too fast, so once home again I savored the trip with some great reading on life in Paris and in the French countryside:

  • "Paris to the Moon" by Adam Gopnik
    Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, moved to Paris with his wife, baby son, and mother in 1995.  Just as we all do when we meet Paris, he fell in love with its cafes, neighborhood shops, and the simple pleasures of everyday life.  

  • "On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town" by Susan Herrman Loomis
    For the cost of this book, you can indulge in the pleasures of living in a country house covered in roses, wandering through the French countryside to gather specialty cheeses and fresh oysters, enjoying rich coffee and buttery pastries in a cafe just steps from your home,  and selecting organic lettuce and smoked bacon from small shops.

This was also the trip that forever cemented my undying loyalty to Rick Steves.  I swear, if you're travelling anywhere that Mr. Steves has covered with his cut-to-the-chase guidebooks, his book is all you need.  Though the Rick Steves books are thinner than Lonley Planet and Let's Go, and have hand-drawn maps without glossy photos, they are packed full of precisely the sort of information you really need- like what sights are not worth your time and which ones can't be missed.

A fall of 2007 trip to Turkey and Greece was the first really-far-away trip that Mohit and I took together after we'd been dating for just over a year (not counting the not-so-far-away trips to Vancouver, Montreal, and across New England).  We were inspired to visit Turkey because my close friend Tulin grew up there and we'd been listening hungrily to her descriptions of the food, the culture and the landscape.  I certainly was not disappointed- that trip is still my all-time best vacation ever.  Amazing food, amazing places, in love with my future husband (little did I know at the time!).  Since I'd been super busy at work before we left, I hadn't done as much advance reading as I had for past trips, but I enjoyed some fabulous books about Turkey while we were there, including:

  • "A Fez of the Heart" by Jeremy Seal
    Turkey's ongoing struggle to pursue European culture and respect while maintaining its individuality and predominantly Muslim religion is fascinating. This book gives you some insight into Turkey's rich history in a humorous and interesting way.  

Meeting Mohit expanded my travel horizons.  He challenged me to push beyond the comforts of Europe (Turkey was my first baby step).  Our month-long trip to Vietnam in October 2008 was my first time ever in Asia and a big step into the still-developing world.  To Mohit, it was no big deal- he'd already backpacked through Thailand alone and had been to India multiple times with his family.  But I was nervous.  I had no idea what to expect.  So once again I ordered armloads of books from, determined to understand the Vietnamese culture better so that it wouldn't overwhelm me when we landed.  The absolute best book about Vietnam was:

  • "Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam" by Andrew X. Pham
    Andrew is a Vietnamese-American who came to America as a child when his family escaped post-war Vietnam in the 1970s.  In his late 20s, he returned to his birth country and penned a page-turner of a memoir documenting his guilt as a comparatively wealthy expat, his exploration of his childhood memories of the complex country, and his reaction to new experiences.  One of the best travel memoirs I have ever read.

For our recent around-the-world trip, I purposefully held off my travelogue reading until during our trip, because I wanted to take in each place fully by both being there and also reading about it at the same time.  I wanted to understand not only what I could see and hear and taste, but also the hidden stories about a place that books could share.  As soon as I unwrapped my new Nook eReader on Christmas morning (a gift from me to me!) I loaded it up with the 30 ebooks I'd been carefully adding for the past several months to my Barnes & Noble wish list.  I've already reviewed a bunch of these books along the way, but just a few of the best that I haven't yet shared:

  • "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts
    It's rare that Mohit and I enjoy the same book, and neither of us could put down this action-packed page turner.  At 944 pages, it's a bit heavy for travel if you haven't got it loaded on an e-reader, but it's worth its weight in gold.  Based on the life events of Mr. Roberts, you're never really sure which parts are real and which have been embellished, though you really could care less because it's such an amazing story and a wonderful introduction to all the parts of Mumbai that you'll never see as a tourist.  
  • "The Twentieth Wife" by Indu Sundaresan
    I was so sad when I turned the last page of "Beneath a Marble Sky" by John Shors, and then so thrilled to find this book, another fascinating peek into the world of Mughal India in the time of Shah Jahan and the building of the Taj Mahal.  After you've devoured this one, check out the next installment, "A Feast of Roses".  
  • "The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca" by Tahir Shah
    OK, so I do enjoy home renovation projects, and yes, this seems to be a common theme among travel writers but it's a formula that works, because there's no better way for a foreigner to get knee-deep in local life than to tackle a crumbling house.  Tahir Shah is a great writer, and this book is not just about rebuilding a crumbling riad- by the time I landed in Morocco I felt I better understood what motivated Moroccans in their everyday life through Mr. Shah's memoirs (also see "In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams"). 

Later this summer Mohit and I are headed to Greece for Reetu and Stavros' beachside wedding (I know, it's a rough life, right?).  I can't wait!  Local wine, turquoise waters, and an event where I get to wear one of my Indian sarees and all that fun jewelry I've been accumulating!  The event is in northern Greece, on a beach near Thessaloniki, so before joining our friends we'll spend a few days on one of the Greek Islands.  We're considering Skopelos, which is where Mamma Mia was filmed, or maybe Crete.  So if any of you out there have any recommendations for some good Greece reading, please send along your recommendations because we've still got 10 weeks to go and I've got plenty of time to savor the anticipation!

1 comment:

  1. Attractive post. Nic pics you have mentioned in the post.