Europe on Five Dollars a Day
Nov 16, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
In 1936, Eugene Fodor published On the Continent, the first book-length travel guide to bear his name. Subtitled "the entertaining travel annual," On the Continent covered Europe from Portugal to Turkey, offering neither pictures nor maps, just relaxed advice and lively prose.
The book remains a delight to read, a charming look at decorum and diversion in a world now largely gone. In Holland, we learn, courtesy "demands that men should greet each other by raising their hats." In Sweden, a gentleman "always walks on the lady's left." In Spain, foreigners are urged not to be "too enterprising with the exquisitely graceful and alluring daughters of Spain," for "there may be a stiletto lurking in the background." And for that "vast mass of people who are in need of real change but must watch the cost," On the Continent offered this emphatic advice: "Jugoslavia." Here, notes the guidebook (quoting George Bernard Shaw), "the people are everything you imagine yourself to be, and are not. They are hospitable, good humored, and very good looking. Every town is a picture and every girl a movie star."
Of course, nowadays -- thirty years after the jumbo jet -- world tourism is not what it used to be. For ever-growing numbers of Americans, Europe isn't a romantically far-flung locale; it's where you go to conduct business or to spend your junior year abroad. During summer's high season, the continent is lined with tourists from the Costa del Sol to the Amalfi Coast. "We are," as Arthur Frommer proclaims, "the first generation in human history to be able to travel to other continents as easily as we once took a trolley to the next town."
Frommer himself entered the travel-handbook market in the mid-1950s with Europe on Five Dollars a Day -- in its way, one of the most influential books of the postwar years. Hugely popular and widely imitated, Frommer's first tourbooks helped convince a new generation of honeymooners and holiday-makers that they needn't settle for Yellowstone or Niagara Falls when -- for relatively little more -- they could cross the ocean and tour the world. And as tourism boomed, so did the guidebook industry. In 1996, the New York Times estimated the domestic market for such publications at $ 200 million a year.
Of course, in some ways, guidebooks to Europe haven't changed all that much since the dawning of the jet age. They still list the same grand sights and many of the same hotels. But the current versions are glossier than they used to be, bigger as a rule, and over-packed with advice. The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Planning Your Trip to Europe is, for example, as hefty as the Boston Yellow Pages, and could double as a dumbbell for those wishing to work their biceps while strolling the Champs Elysees. But then, in the Information Age, less is rarely taken to be more.
Fodor's On the Continent assumed a certain resourcefulness in its readers, urging them to drop their tourbooks occasionally, allowing "chance and the mood of the moment to direct you." The aptly named Idiot's Guide, however, promises a "nobrainer" approach, and "easy to follow advice that guides you every step of the way." Its author, Reid Bramblett, even supplies detailed itineraries covering virtually every hour of a two-or three-week stay. Bramblett is a self-described "advance man" who, while "cris-crossing the continent" pen in hand, has "already made mistakes -- and learned from them -- so that you don't have to." "Heck," he crows, "I'll even help you pack!"
Bramblett has already endured what he calls the greatest "culture shock" facing Americans visiting Europe -- the bathroom. "It all starts in your first cheap pension," he warns, "when you discover that the only bathroom is down the hall, coed, and shared by everyone on the floor." There's more: European hoteliers can be pretty miserly when it comes to filling the hot water tank; and, as Bramblett warns, "hot water may be available only once a day and not on demand." The shrewd Yank thus asks -- presumably in a booming voice -- "When hot water?" as soon as he checks in.
There are other jolts, as well. Europeans, Bramblett advises, "don't make a habit of wearing their regional traditional costume": alas, no lederhosen or kilts. Still, "most European males, especially those in southern countries," do "act like peacocks around women, parading around to win admiration." Bramblett's research has prompted him to conclude that "a single woman or a group made up of women only will get approached more often than a man or mixed group." So what's a girl to do? "Dress modestly to avoid unwanted attention," he counsels. "And wear shades."
Like Bramblett, the tourbook writer Rick Steves assumes a chatty but knowing scoutmaster's tone and seems similarly prepared to take your trip for you. With his "sixth sense of what tickles a reader's fancy," Steves has already sifted "through mountains of time-sapping alternatives" in order to "present you with only the best." With Rick Steves' Best of Europe, a trip to the continent can be as adventurous as punching the buttons on the remote control. See Dublin, for instance, the Steves way: "10:30, Trinity College walk; 11:00, Book of Kells and Old Library; 12:00, Browse Grafton Street, lunch there or picnic on St. Steven's Green; 13:30, National Museum" -- and so on, through every minute of something like a European holiday programmed by Martha Stewart.
Indeed, like Martha Stewart, Steves now presides over a thriving industry of products bearing his name. He hosts the PBS series Travels in Europe with Rick Steves. He publishes a newsletter offering "fresh-from-the-rucksack travel tips." He also produces a series of pocket-size phrase books and dictionaries that "cover every situation a traveler is likely to encounter" -- including, in the German version, the always handy Glauben Sie an Leben in Weltall? ("Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?) and Darf ich dir den massieren? ("Would you like a massage?") -- the modern equivalent, perhaps, of the much-mocked eighteenth-century phrasebook that included a translation for "My postillion has been struck by lightning." Steves assumes the air of having no airs, the persona of a regular guy who, despite his extensive knowledge of castles and strudel, still remains an American innocent abroad. When he first visited that "living, breathing organism," London, Steves humbly admits, "I felt very, very small."
But he's returned many times since and acquired some piercing insights into culture and art. ("Medieval art was OK if it embellished the house of God and told Bible stories.") He's also grasped the finer points of European convention and thus helpfully suggests that while in Venice ("worth at least a day") men should, literally, "keep their shirts on."
He's discovered, too, that in many cities pigeon guano poses a threat to unsuspecting excursionists. But when the birds do make their mark, you should "resist the initial response to wipe it off immediately -- it'll just smear into your hair. Wait until it dries and flake it off cleanly." Don't make a habit of waiting, however: "Your trip," Steves computes, "costs at least $ 10 per waking hour."
To his credit, Steves also commends two much better guidebooks, Let's Go: Europe 1998 and the Michelin Green Guide Europe. As it has been since 1961, Let's Go is still aimed primarily at the legions of backpacking students who haunt Europe's train stations and town squares during the summer months. Its tone is informal, but not condescending. Its contributors, students themselves, don't start by assuming that their readers are half-wits who wouldn't know a museum from a mausoleum.
Let's Go, indeed, has many virtues. It lists useful phone numbers: hotels, consulates, embassies. And it's impressively inclusive, giving space to both Iceland and Ireland, Slovenia as well as Spain. The entertainment tips are fairly reliable and complete: Let's Go is the best guide to use when, for example, you find yourself in Helsinki looking for a place to tango. Moreover, its hotel tips have improved much in recent years. About ten years ago, as I discovered in London, following the Let's Go hotel guide could land the traveler in a creaking firetrap where, through flimsy walls, assorted clanks and shouts and the sounds of the Pet Shop Boys could be heard long into the night. Let's Go still stresses cheapness and convenience. But its housing recommendations now show more consideration of readers with varying interests and tastes.
The Michelin Green Guide focuses on the continent's "most important attractions and sights"; a separate Red Guide ranks restaurants and hotels, most of them very fine and many world-class. At over five hundred pages, Michelin Green Guide is fatter than Michelin's other guides to individual countries and cities. But it's nonetheless quite portable and beautifully illustrated -- a model of thoughtful design. And like other Michelin guides, it cuts the clutter from its commentaries by passing judgment through the simple bestowal of stars. Thus, in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate merits two stars ("worth a detour") and the Pergamon Museum three ("worth a journey").
Dependable and intelligently condensed, Michelin Europe is the only tourbook a reasonably resourceful visitor is likely to need. But then, perhaps most Americans bound for Europe want just the sort of handholding and effusive tip-giving Bramblett and Steves provide. They're tourists, after all, not travelers.
Of course, these are slippery terms, as Paul Fussell points out in his Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. Both touring and traveling involve what D. H. Lawrence once termed "an absolute necessity to move," a yearning for the new and unknown. But tourists, understandably, seek comfort and refreshment brightened by a touch of edification. They want adventure -- just not too much and without risk. They want to see the world and flee it, too.
Travelers -- or at least travel writers -- have other aims. Travel suggests a more leisurely use of time, a keener desire for exploration. It's less obsessed with seeing the sights than with uncovering the secrets of cultures and terrains. It courts discomfort and risk. "Your true traveler," observed the novelist and occasional travel writer Lawrence Durrell, "will not feel that he has had his money's worth unless he brings back a few scars." Travel writers tend to be loners and brooders convinced they've understood the world more fully when their ears are filled with languages not their own. They're forever running away from home. Think of V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux. Think of Graham Greene.
Guidebooks for tourists are a rather modern invention; it was Karl Baedeker who first made them popular in the early, Edwardian decades of the twentieth century. But travel writing is old, stretching back to Herodotus' histories and including over the centuries famous works by Marco Polo, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Laurence Sterne. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson all added notably to the genre, mixing personal observations with more or less straight reportage.
Travel writing has always been done particularly well in Britain, and, according to Paul Fussell, some of the best British travel writing came in this century, between the wars. He points to works by Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, and Peter Fleming, all of whom wrote in the 1920s and '30s, several decades before the fact of mass tourism, and just as the high sun of the British empire was starting to fade. Fleming's Brazilian Adventure, for example, is a classic of a certain sub-genre of British travel writing: the wry, self-mocking observations of the unflappable Englishman abroad.
Fussell offers several reasons for travel writing's popularity in Britain -- including a desire to escape, if only through the pages of a book, the nation's "soot-caked" cities and rain-soaked landscape. "The geographical and linguistic insularity of the English," Fussell suggests, is "one cause of their unique attraction-repulsion" to traveling abroad. "Another reason they make such interesting travelers is the national snobbery engendered by two centuries of wildly successful imperialism." "It is the British of the '20s and '30s," Fussell points out, "who devised the term Dagoland to embrace everything from Genoa to the Orient."
But then, snobbery of a sort informs much modern travel writing, whatever its country of origin. Many travel writers are like the contributors to "alternative" free weeklies -- those Village Voice imitators that thrive on futon ads in most major American cities. For them the world is an absurd but basically diverting place, filled with quaintly unhip shopkeepers and oddballs who've been planted in funky old neighborhoods for the bemusement of very hip contributors to alternative free weeklies.
Paul Theroux shows something of this in such bestselling travel works as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and The Old Patagonian Express (1979). Theroux's writing is lively, amusing, and often a sheer pleasure to read. But it also leaves the impression that the places Theroux visits are essentially painted backdrops for his own travails and self-revelations. Theroux's work nearly always suggests that, East or West, the most interesting thing in the world is Paul Theroux.
Fortunately, there are other travel writers -- notably Norman Lewis, perhaps the best travel writer of our times -- who are neither snobbish nor self-absorbed. Throughout his nearly six-decade career, Lewis has won his share of literary prizes, good sales, and critical acclaim. Indeed, Graham Greene called him "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century." Lewis never sought celebrity status; his photograph appears on none of his twentyeight books, nearly half of them novels set in exotic locales. Lewis has long been drawn to places that until fairly recently have been far off the beaten tourist track: Thailand, Burma, remote villages in India, the jungles of Brazil. He's also shown a special fondness for the more "unspoiled" parts of Europe, including Farol, a fishing village on the Spanish coast. When Lewis first visited Farol in the 1950s, he found "what a gifted child with a paintbox would make of such a fishing village," including "a scattering of black goats, a church tower with a stork's nest, yellow boats pulled up on the beach, and pairs of women in bright frocks mending nets."
In The World, The World, a memoir published last year, Lewis shows how decades of mass tourism have changed many of his most cherished places. Farol, once "strenuous and calm," has suffered a "sudden tourist influx" that has prompted not only the construction of many new restaurants and hotels, but a heightened demand for waiters and other caterers to the tourist trade. As a result, the "self-sufficient and custom-bound" culture that Lewis found forty years ago is fading, and -- slowly but inevitably -- "proud men who like their ancestors had gained their living from the sea, learned the correct and inconspicuous way of holding out their hands for tips."
In Thailand, such changes are even more striking. When Lewis first visited in the 1950s, "the only tourists were a handful of foreigners who did the rounds of the pagodas in a maximum of two days before catching the train back to Bangkok." But now, one finds "a social and aesthetic climate in which fake peasants are paid to be photographed by foreigners in fake villages." Worse, "this once most charming of lands," has been "tarnished by the sex-tourism for which it has become notorious." As a result, in Bangkok particularly, "it is hard to find a place of entertainment where strangeness does not pervade the atmosphere," or to avoid Americans and Europeans "arriving in droves in search of pleasures banned elsewhere by law."
Like many such memoirs of times now lost, The World, The World is bittersweet. But it amply illustrates Lewis's key virtues: his wonderfully clean prose, his clear-headed stance. It also features enjoyably sharp assessments of some of his literary contemporaries, including Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming (the travel writer Peter Fleming's more famous brother). Lewis rather liked the famously unlikable creator of James Bond, while "perceiving inexplicable weaknesses in the smooth facade." Lewis also agreed with Ian Fleming's "own view of himself as a writer: that he was mediocre."
Lewis is not. He has written many superb books and led an admirable and adventurous life. "It's an enviable life, too. From the dust jacket of The World, The World we learn that -- after years of traveling to many of the world's most distant and dangerous places -- Lewis now "lives with his family in introspective, almost monastic, calm, in the depths of Essex, England."
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore.