A Place to Stand

by wjw on March 30, 2007

Last night I caught two episodes of the Travel Channel’s latest, 1000 Places to Go Before You Die, based on the best-selling book of the same name. (A copy of which my 2005 Clarion students kindly gave me as a parting gift. Or maybe not so kindly. Maybe they were suggesting I go to Borneo and stay there.)

Anyway, what Travel Channel did was interview 900 couples to find a couple of attractive young newlyweds named Albin and Melanie, and now is zooming them around the world, to thirteen countries in fourteen weeks, in order to catch the sights and be filmed while catching them. Attractive hosts, gorgeous scenery, deluxe accommodation, what’s not to like?

What’s not to like is that the producers neglected to provide one of the essential elements of travel narrative.

Point of view. Or, if you like, attitude. Or, if you like, edge.

Archimedes said that given a place to stand and a long enough lever, he could move the Earth.

But you have to have a place to stand.

Albin and Melanie aren’t given a place to stand, and they didn’t bring one with them. All the places they visit are presented empty of context. The only thing we learn about the history of Venice is that George Clooney recently stayed there. The only Venetians we meet are those whose job it is to deal with tourists. Otherwise we watch Albin and Melanie deal stand in front of St. Mark’s basilica, and visit a glass factory on Murano, and take a ride in a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs (the historical context of which has to do with the film, A Little Romance).

They say “Wow!” a lot. And, “Oh my gosh!” And Albin, or whoever is narrating, mispronounces a lot of foreign words.

(I can imagine future episodes. “Wow, it’s the Taj Mahal!” “Oh my gosh, it’s Angkor Wat!”)

It doesn’t help that their accommodations are princely. They don’t stay in any ordinary Venetian hotel, they stay in one on a private island, where Mr. Clooney stayed. The odds of meeting actual foreigners, or having an actual Venetian experience, is about nil.

And in Venice— the home of many famous painters, and positively lousy with frescoes, mosaics, and paintings— they never saw a single work of art! It takes genius to avoid stumbling across art in a place like Venice.

Many of the best travel writers have loads of attitude. And if they don’t put a place in its context, they at least have a context that they bring with them. Wherever he went, Evelyn Waugh never stopped being a grumpy old English guy, mad at foreigners for being foreign and mad at the English because they weren’t Catholic and mad at the Catholics because they weren’t his kind of Catholic. There’s always a point in Paul Theroux’s adventures where he gets fed up, and he stays fed up for the rest of the trip, and watching him turn angry and snarky is part of the fun.

And then there are the stylists. Right now I’m reading one of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s memoirs, about walking across Europe from Holland to Istanbul in 1933, the year Hitler took power, and the style is gorgeous and evocative, and he lets Horace and Tacitus provide the context, plus our own knowledge of what happened in history. I only wish I understood the Greek and Latin tags.

Jan Morris is a perfect empath— she can always sniff out the heart of a place, and in an amazingly short time.

Anthony Bourdain is a great travel journalist, because he’s always looking for unconventional angles, and because his membership in the Great International Brotherhood of Cooks gives him access to a lot of people. Even in such a travel-worn place as Paris he manages to find the guy who’s making absinthe from 19th century equipment. His piece on Los Angeles managed to avoid Hollywood entirely, and dealt with diners, ethnic food, real neighborhoods, and an amateur roller derby league. Plus, being a New Yorker and an ex-junkie, he’s got attitude to spare.

And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, he ate the pig’s anus in shit sauce, because the Bushmen offered it to him, and they are poor and he is not, and he didn’t disrespect them.

Even if you find Rachel Ray’s bubbly personality irritating, at least she has a personality.

Which brings us back to Albin and Melanie.

The sad fact is, if I were on that show, I don’t know if I’d do much better. The whole point of the show is to see the places that are in the book, and to be seen seeing them. (“Oh my gosh, it’s Waterford Castle Hotel and Golf Club!”)

It’s a checklist. You make a checkmark next to whatever you’ve just seen and move on to the next. Albin and Melanie might have loads of attitude and knowledge, but it’s all left on the cutting-room floor because this just isn’t that kind of show. This is the show where you get to travel like a fabulously rich person, surrounded by cameras, with an entourage that stands between you and the plebs. This is what it’s like to be George Clooney, except without his intelligence or politics or talent.

You have to wonder what the 899 rejects were like.

What applies to travel writing applies to writing in general. The lesson I would give my students (assuming I had any) is this:

It matters what you bring to the table. It isn’t enough just to tell a story, you have to leave a piece of yourself in the work. You can be grumpy, you can be snarky, you can be bubbly, you can be optimistic or megalomaniac or depressed. You can be all of the above.

But you’ve got to have a place to stand. And, with a long enough lever, you can move the world.

Tobias Buckell March 31, 2007 at 6:40 am

Emily and I caught Anthony Bourdain (sp?) on a marathon the other weekend and were completely entranced, he really does get those out of the way places, and his Puerto Rico trip was rocking… I like his show b/c I could see myself actually hunting down some of the places he gets to 🙂

S.M. Stirling March 31, 2007 at 10:39 am

Ah, A TIME OF GIFTS! I love those books!

Have you got to the point where Fermor and the Hungarian aristocrat are caught skinny-dipping by the two Rumanian Gypsy farm-girls and told they couldn’t chase them, “even as far as that haystack”?

rootlesscosmo March 31, 2007 at 7:54 pm

a grumpy old English guy, mad at foreigners for being foreign and mad at the English because they weren’t Catholic and mad at the Catholics because they weren’t his kind of Catholic.

For a catchy musical setting of this attitude, Flanders & Swann’s “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice” offers this:

It’s not that they’re wicked, or naturally bad–
It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad!”

Full text at


PureDoxyk April 2, 2007 at 4:44 pm

That was beautiful. I went from knowing absolutely nothing about travel journalism to being a complete snob about it in less than two minutes. 😉

Maureen McHugh April 2, 2007 at 6:02 pm

Anthony Bourdain and Paul Theroux share a characteristic I love in my travel journalists–I don’t think I’d want to travel with either one of them, but damn, because they are so different than me, they see and do things I never would.

Myles Lobdell April 2, 2007 at 10:40 pm

I’m still waiting for Fermor to release his third volume in the trilogy, I hope we get it before it becomes a posthumous publication.

Foxessa April 4, 2007 at 12:52 am

Fermor’s book of traveling the Antilles right after WWII is still very interesting, if only because things have changed so much.

But you know, those people you described as the pov from which Venice was shown? That’s exactly like what almost every damned U.S. tourist is like. I’m surrounded by them right here, at home, in my own neighborhood. The most interesting question you could possibly be asked is, “Is this where Carrie from “Sex and the City” lives? (No. She lives far, far, far away from here, on the upper East Side. Even though the Brownstone they used for her place is in the West Village — which is also rather far from here. I could walk it, but I’m sure you can’t.)

Love, C.

dubjay April 4, 2007 at 4:17 am

I used to be really embarrassed about American tourists.

Then I met German tourists.

Oh my.

dubjay April 6, 2007 at 9:31 pm

I haven’t got to the section with the Romanian gypsy girls yet, but I read the section where Fermor gets picked up by the two German girls, who take him home. He teaches them a game called “Heads-Bodies-and-Legs,” which they play feverishly all afternoon.

I thought this was a euphemism until I learned it was an actual game.

leniuch102 March 30, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Couldn’t agree more.
I’ve just seen those Albin and Melanie visiting Peru.
It was sooo painful to watch.
I kind of feel sorry for them.

Have a look at “Around the World in 80 Treasures, Peru to Brazil” from BBC. It is so much better.

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