“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ~Bilbo Baggins (JRR Tolkien)
Getting Out There: Since most of you are writers, I’m guessing a few of you will identify with this: I dread going places. And the longer I write, the worse I get. Even an approaching dinner party can make me squirm with reluctance. Heck, I even dread going to the grocery store on a Saturday. I’ll take a non-crowded Tuesday morning, please.
And as exciting as vacation travel can be, as the departure date looms, I am filled with dread. You have the packing, the passports, the parking, and dealing with people. There are airports, security checks, and dealing with people. There are hotels, tour schedules, and dealing with people. Have I mentioned that you have to deal with people?
I guess I’m a bit like old Bilbo. “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning!” But once something (or someone) gets me out there (I don’t have a Gandalf, but I do have an adventure-loving wife), especially after a day or two on the road, my old curious, wandering soul tends to reemerge. The dread dissipates and is replaced by what darn near resembles an adventurous spirit.
Such was the case on our last trip—a river-cruise on the Rhine River, from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam. And get this: the ship even offered second breakfast! That’s what I call traveling in style.
Seeing is Believing:
“Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ~Gustave Flaubert
One of the reasons we chose a Rhine River cruise was that part of my trilogy is set in the region (most of the first half of book three). Besides the second breakfasts, we also loved the idea of seeing such a vast swath of the heart of western Europe and only unpacking once. I’d done quite a bit of research in writing the segment set in the region. Traveling there let me know I’d mostly gotten it right; the slope of the river banks, the walls of the ancient cities, etcetera. But I knew from past experience, there’s nothing like actually being there and seeing it for yourself to sharpen your perceptions.
I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable rewrite of book three, just knowing I can imbue the prose with even more of the region’s atmosphere. Now I’ve actually stood on the banks of the mighty river, and contemplated a cold-weather crossing. I’ve gazed across to the far hilly shore, perfectly comprehending what it might feel like to know a hostile force was probably hidden in the trees overlooking the far bank (chilling). I’ve seen the old Roman arched gateway of Cologne—Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium in those days—and walked the original square. I’ve seen the ornately-decorated, colored wine glasses and flagons used by the colony’s merchants and administrators (seen while touring Cologne’s Römisch-Germanische Museum, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me). I know from experience that the infusion of carefully placed details can breathe new life into the work. As wonderful a tool as the internet can be, there’s nothing quite like being in a place to sense its history.
Guiding Lights: I used to disdain guided tours while traveling. I used to think I was better off discovering a place on my own. I was a traveler, not a tourist, damn it! Tour guides were for blue-haired ladies and multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerds. Now that I’m older (and a multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerd), I’ve grown an appreciation. Particularly for a really good tour guide.
One of the first times I realized what a resource a guide could be was on a tour of Pearl Harbor and the USS Missouri. Here was a man who could point at the ground to show us where he was standing, at the age of seven, when he realized the attack was on. He then pointed up to the mountainous horizon as he told us where dozens of Zero fighters and Val carrier bombers came into view. The emotion was still fresh on his face and in his voice as he described first seeing the Japanese rising suns on the wings, and hearing the first rattle of machinegun fire. I can still clearly recall the tour, over ten years later.
And good tour guides abound. Some better than others, but there is always something to be learned from each. This trip was no exception. To name a few, we had Jack in Colmar, Alsace—a Welsh expatriate, fluent in French and German, with a tremendous grasp on the region’s history and culture, delivered with passion and humor. Then there was Franco in Cologne, whose knowledge of the cathedral and its history seemed an expertise that could not be topped—until we went to the Roman museum and he warmed to the topic of the Roman colonial era in the region.
So when the opportunity arises, don’t be too cool for school. Take the tours. Listen up and ask questions. You are bound to learn from those passionate enough about their area to put up with the likes of us sunburnt nerds. And don’t forget to tip!
Up With People (No, Really):
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men, places, and things cannot be acquired vegetating in one small corner of the earth.” ~Mark Twain
One of the things I dread about cruising is that there are bound to be other passengers. Have I mentioned my reluctance about dealing with people? And yet, I am always intrigued. For a writer, travel is a wonderful people-watching opportunity. And we met our fair share of interesting folks on this trip. For example, there were the sisters traveling with their mother, revisiting Germany for the first time since their German father passed. We’d gotten friendly onboard, and they already knew I was a writer. Over a traditional German meal (and quite a bit of German wine), it came out that their father had written a book—a memoir. Turns out he had been in the Wehrmacht during WW2. He was not a Nazi, and was forcibly drafted into service as a boy, toward the end of the war. The book was about not just his experiences in the war, but the aftermath—living in a postwar world as an ex-German soldier. It sounds fascinating, but I’d have never learned of it if we hadn’t spent a week, and several meals (and no few cocktail hours) with these interesting folks.
There are also the people you encounter at every stop and on every outing. Not just the guides, but the shopkeepers, hotel and museum workers, fellow diners, even waiters and waitresses. Even very brief conversations (often with the difficulty of language differences) enhance the experience of being abroad. It’s always fun to tell people that we are from Chicago while traveling abroad (we actually live in SW Michigan, but Chicago is the nearest city). I often get the sense their image of Chicago is one of heavy industry, gangsters, and corrupt machine-politics. Which gives me a better insight into my own worldview.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” ~Henry Miller
There’s more to travel than the specific things you learn or the pictures you take. There is a gained sense of worldliness. It’s inspiring, and as exhausting as it can seem in the short run, it’s ultimately revitalizing. Travel renews our sense of wonder.
As author Bill Bryson says in his book, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe: “[This is the] glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I can vouch for the danger of street crossing, particularly in France. Our Welsh tour-guide Jack warned us that the French used their brakes as if each application depleted a finite and precious resource.
Just like reading a good book, travel is an immersion experience, and is bound to broaden your perspective and your worldview—which can only be a good thing for us writers, right? So if you’re a reluctant traveler, like me, do yourself a favor, and step out onto that road. The odds of being swept off your feet are much better than if you stay holed up in your writerly den.
Your turn to embark. Has travel influenced or inspired your work? Where are you off to next?