The Magazine


Europe on Five Dollars a Day

Nov 16, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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.