Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Pleasures of Armchair Travel

Well, today is the last day of Spring Break.  I’m back home in Austin, having spent most of the week with my family in Phoenix, and trying (in vain) to catch up on all the work I SHOULD have been doing.  Spring break is always like this (at least for me.)  You set yourself all of these goals and then achieve none of them.  This break, my goal was to read a few Jose Cruz Gonzalez plays, in preparation for a paper I’m writing this week comparing his work to Suzan Zeder’s work.  You can imagine how well THAT turned out.  So far, my thesis is both authors have a number of Z’s in their names...

I did manage to achieve one goal (of course, the one that was completely un-work-related.)  I read a pleasure book.  A whole book!  Actually, I read one and a half. I managed to finish Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a novel I’ve been working on since August.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re the sort of person who enjoys  character-centered stories filled with quirky, humorous personalities and just enough plot to keep the whole thing interesting, Alexander McCall Smith is your man.  He’s written several series, but the Scotland Street novels are definitely my favorite. They come with the added bonus that they’re written in an episodic manner, so you can read a few chapters at Christmas and return to it over Spring Break without needing to remember exactly which plot developments you read 2 months ago.

The main book of the break was Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice.  This book has been at the top of my “read me” list for years now, and I finally got around to reading it.  I’m so glad I did.  Calvin Trillin strikes me as the sort of person I’d really like to have a meal with, maybe wander through a European market remarking on the annoying presence of non-edible items like mops and gathering cheese, bread, and olives for a picnic by a lake in Tuscany. 

Dan Cryer from Newsday describes Trillin as, “The sophisticated traveler masquerading as the innocent abroad,” but I don’t think this fully captures the odd mix of sophistication and insanity that Travels with Alice seems to hold at its heart.  Anyone who can eat about 8 fast-food burgers and french fries in one afternoon (in the name of “assessing the authenticity of French Fast Food restaurants), enjoy a game that essentially involves tricking a bull into standing in a paddling pool, play a rousing game of fooseball (called babyfoot in France) in the local bar, and then trot off to the local market to sample fresh fruits and vegetables, pastries, and cheeses all in the same trip is definitely insane in a fantastic sort of way.  He’s exactly the sort of person I’d love to go on a trip with.

There’s something paradoxically sophisticated and simple about the way Calvin Trillin describes his vacations abroad.  He’s one of the few writers I’ve ever encountered that would seem equally at home in a dive-bar that just happens to have the best seafood this side of the atlantic, and a restaurant in Paris that won’t let you in unless you’re wearing a tuxedo.  I really admire that kind of flexibility, and it definitely makes for an interesting read.  It also helps that Calving Trillin is HILARIOUS. (For proof I point you to the chapter entitled “Beach Picnic” where Trillin contemplates bringing an entire ham, which at the time was hanging from a peg in the ceiling of his living room, to a trip to one of the British Virgin Islands, known for its beaches, but not for its food.  He ends up leaving the ham at home, at the behest of his wife, but they do bring an entire suitcase full of provisions.) 

The best thing about this book is that it got me thinking about some of the places I’ve been.  Calvin Trillin tells his stories in such a natural way you feel like you’re sitting in his living room (under the ham) hearing stories about his family’s latest exploits, and gearing up to tell a few stories of your own.  His tales of exploring the Mercato Centrale in Florence reminded me of my own experiences there (he even mentioned the incredible, overpowering smell of meat that hits you when you enter the market, one of my chief memories of that place), and his stories about France actually invited me to fantasize about returning to Paris, even though my experience there wasn’t always positive (not being able to speak french makes it difficult to enjoy France.)  If you’re looking for a book that will take you on a journey, that will make you laugh, and that won’t take you long to read, Travels with Alice should definitely be on your “read me” list.

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