My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why.
Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil.
They read from Rumi in study groups and pointed out that this archway or this winding street was pre-Ottoman. I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.
It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syrian lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam. I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me and the truly hardcore.
In 2007, David Zoby bluffed his way into a slot on — what — it’s not exactly clear. An academic tour of Syria, complete with lectures and visits to the requisite historic sites, Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, of course. He remembers the journey in “Some Vague Stars to the South” on Nowhere.
Zoby’s memories aren’t an idealized view of the past.They’re a tangle of displacement created by his status on the trip, denial of his Syrian heritage, and that feeling of being in a place so far from home. It’s hard to read this piece without wondering when Syria will again be the kind of place travelers can go to get away from themselves.
Rafia Zakaria᾿s essay in The Baffler on flying while Muslim is an important read that exposes a long list of things that most white, non-Muslim Americans never have to think about while traveling — what language they’re speaking, what books they’re reading, or who’s sending them text messages.
After landing in Boston, I put away my book and took out my customs form and my passport, my courage and my patience. As our herd of hopeful entrants was separated—as it always is between U.S. passport holders and Legal Permanent Residents, and the lesser “everyone else”—I reminded myself that I was the less vulnerable. The white and real American couple in front of me considered their dinner options. I sweated and deleted all the texts from my family members, every one of them having a Muslim name.
You know the drill — your city is included on some top ten destinations list and you can’t resist. You click through and the Space Needle is touted as a can’t miss site as opposed to home to a dated museum with a view that might be worth it if the day is clear, but you could just go to …
Plus, the character is all wrong.
In Pittsburgh’s City Paper, Alex Gordon surveys 150 years of writing about his city and whether or not this type of boosterish frivolity helps the city’s residents — specifically people of color.
In 2014, Damon Young, editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Very Smart Brothas, penned an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, “Oblivious: Black people love Pittsburgh, too, but can’t help but wonder how much Pittsburgh loves them.” In it, Young expressed his ambivalence about the growing trend of Pittsburgh praise.
“Even as we boast about living in America’s ‘Most Livable’ or ‘Most Welcoming’ city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us,” he wrote. “This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex.”
There’s also mention of a WPA project that ended up on the cutting room floor:
“The Negro in Pittsburgh” is not travel writing, but it includes one component that is routinely omitted from travel writing: the perspective of residents in their own words. The final chapter, “The People Speak,” offers a fascinating insight into what life was like for black Pittsburghers in the 1930s.
While it wasn’t published at the time — the FWP was shut down before the piece was completed — it’s pretty remarkable to consider a government project that documents the brazen inequality of an American city.
I still kind of want to go to Pittsburgh, preferably with a thoughtful local guide.
The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.
The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”
The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.
After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.
These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.
One day, about 12 weeks after blowing up my whole life and moving my family to what seemed like a very hostile environment, my son and I decided we would go to the cinema and see The Great Gatsby to cheer ourselves up and feel less homesick. We did what we sometimes did at home — skipped dinner to have popcorn for dinner instead. Already flummoxed by having to preorder our tickets for assigned seats on a Dutch website (none of these were cinema-hurdles back home where you’d just walk up and buy a ticket), we arrived at the cinema. We bought the largest popcorn (which is in fact a product they sold — we didn’t bring our own trash barrel and ask to have it filled) and settled in to enjoy our treat. I felt a tap on my shoulder, which was strange since I knew a total of three people in the entire country. I spun around, startled, and the Dutch man sitting behind me said, “Are you going to eat all of that? I see why you are so fat.”
Politics at the Kafeneíon. The table started with three voices and grew to fourteen, a loose confederation of Greek, French, Australian, German, and American. We discussed the world’s backslide into panicky jingoism rather than tackling the lunatic mythology of late-stage capitalism. As an American, I felt an acute strain of the familiar sensation of being mortified by my country, the urge to apologize to everybody in advance. Some said this rise in nationalism was a blip, a minor rip in the fabric of democracy which could be easily mended. I stayed quiet and envied their optimism.
I spent a good deal of the 80s and 90s wandering the globe. A left coast American, I was continually asked about Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. I heard less of this during the Clinton years though I do remember a nice Austrian woman asking me if we did not have dry cleaning in the US.
It’s that time abroad answering for Republican politics — a topic I was utterly unqualified to comment upon — that made this piece resonate for me. It wasn’t my job. And yet.
Yet this was no mere matter of poor design: It was always in airports’ very nature to welcome, shepherd, and display such collective action — passengers routinely clump up and board together, linger around baggage carousels in masses, and cluster and fume together when there’s a hiccup in the system. The protests were like a major wave of airline delays or cancellations, but instead of domestic flights in question, people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold.
Travel writing is where I cut my teeth as a blogger and how I found my way as a writer. An early adopter of blogging, I benefited directly from the shift to a focus on independent voices. I never quite made the leap to full on commercial blogger, though — my heart lies elsewhere and I figure we’ve all got enough marketing in our lives. That’s just the context behind why the wonky part of my brain loves this piece at Nieman Storyboard about what travel writing is:
It wasn’t until I discovered the notion of writing about “place” during my early years as an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Missouri that I realized that perhaps travel writing isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to travel, but I also want to tell stories. I want to get to know people – what brought them to their spot on the map, how they shaped that spot and were shaped by it.
What makes a work a piece of “travel writing”? Where do we draw the line between writing about “travel” and writing about “place”? I turned to a few writers who have straddled this line to find an answer.
Ten-plus years in the field makes me think there’s:
Marketing: projects underwritten by travel brands who what to promote themselves via content.
Vacation writing: Guide books and how-to articles that help travelers plan.
Travel narrative: Stories that aren’t just “What I did on my summer vacation” style reporting.
Journalism: Reporting and deep dives about place, regional food, history, culture… the definer “travel” is optional here.
The writers interviewed here — Lauren Quinn, Paul Salopek, and the new to me Mark Johanson — don’t need “travel” appended to their work to make it sing of places that are not home. That’s the stuff I like best.
I stood on a corner under my $11 umbrella, glad it wasn’t a $5 umbrella. I laughed out loud. What else could I do? After about five minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the mist. She was wearing headphones and a surgical mask. Surgical masks are very popular in Japan. They are supposed to be all about protecting yourself and other people from disease, but they’re also worn to indicate a lack of sociability, with which I theoretically sympathize but at this particular moment found inconvenient. No fool, the girl started to cross the street before she reached me, and I shouted “Excuse me, excuse me” and then even ran after her. She did not break stride. She did not even move her eyes.
If you have utterly humiliated yourself but no one is around to witness your humiliation, is it possible it has indeed not taken place? Asking for a friend.