What to Read Next (No. 179): Mediterranean travels
Many of you know that I wrote a piece on a handful of my favorite travel books written by novelists. This week I’m sharing one of the books that didn’t quite make the cut for that article (though I certainly enjoyed it), as well as an expanded review of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (which was featured in that piece).
As summer gets into full bloom—and full heat—I of course still have the itch to get out of dodge and see the world a bit. The Mediterranean is high on my list, so I figured I’d feature a couple books that I’m traveling vicariously through.
As always, let me know what you’re reading! I love to hear.
A Few Bookish Questions With Benjamin Spall
Benjamin Spall is the co-author of a wonderful little book called My Morning Routine. It features the routines and habits of successful people, as well as plenty of tips for creating a morning routine that works for you. The website, mymorningroutine.com, carries ongoing interviews with folks, myself included! Benjamin, a writer and thinker, spends a lot of time reading and it was my pleasure to interview him for this newsletter.
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Published: 2007 | Pages: 202
“Maybe being a new parent is like moving to a foreign country. There is a Before and an After, an Old Life and a New Life. Sometimes we wonder who we were before. Sometimes we wonder who we are now. Sometimes our feet get tired. Sometimes we find ourselves reaching for guidebooks.”
Anthony Doerr is most famous for his Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. He did a lot of writing before that, though, including a small little book about the year he spent in Rome on a writing fellowship with his wife and two young twins.
He found out about this fellowship the day he and his wife came home from the hospital with their newborn sons. Quite a shock, to say the least. But they didn’t turn the opportunity down—they embraced it. The result is a deeply personal account of the young family’s challenging year aboard in one of the world’s great cities.
Anthony writes; his wife wrangles children; they both embark on not only touristy adventures but those daily excursions of going to an unfamiliar grocery store, grabbing something the babies need, trying to fix the A/C. While the Doerrs are there, Pope John Paul II passed away, which made them present for the largest spectacle in Italy’s recent history.
When it comes to the travel piece, Doerr chronicles not only the splendor of Rome, but his experience as an American in a foreign place. There are plenty of sentences that seem familiar in the best travel writing: “the world includes things far greater than yourself,” “You find your way through a place by getting lost in it,” and “Every place has its own beauty.” A bit cliche, really.
But then he probes a little deeper:
“Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience—buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello—become new all over again.”
“The world is not a pageant: beauty is as unquantifiable as love. Geography is not something that can be ranked.”
“Look closely and the picturesque inevitably cracks apart and becomes more interesting.”
Lovely ideas, I think.
Mixed in throughout are his musings on parenting in the midst of this grand exploration. They’re some of the most relatable passages on being a new parent that I’ve ever read:
“By summer, after they were three or four months old, the boys started sleeping better at night. Four hours. Sometimes five. There were even one or two rare and terrifying times when both would sleep six hours without waking. But by then it was too late. So many nights of sleeplessness had broken some flimsy little gyroscope inside my skull, and the rested world had left me behind.”
Even though this portrait of parenthood + foreign living is certainly not always rosy, it does give plenty of hope to adventure-seekers with kids—it is indeed possible to travel, even abroad, with children! Yes, it might be a bit harder, but its worth should not be questioned, even if the little ones won’t remember it.
Four Seasons in Rome is not perfect—the style was occasionally a little bit grating—but it was quite enjoyable overall and often quite inspiring. When life throws an adventure your way, it’s likely best to grab on and see where it takes you.
Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Published: 1869 | Pages: 483
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Young Mark Twain was intrigued by the notice in the newspaper which advertised the very first vacation cruise in American history. For a couple months, it would tour the Mediterranean, with numerous inland excursions along the way. Twain responded to the ad, put his reporting chops to good use, and the result became one of the most popular 19th century books in any genre, and one of the bestselling travel books of all-time.
Though Twain’s influence infuses nearly every bit of American culture and literature, I hadn’t read him much before buying a collection of his non-fiction travelogues. I was sucked in right away by Twain’s wry humor and almost reckless approach to being a traveler—there’s American arrogance in spades. (Who knows how arrogant he really was or if the writing is a bit of a ruse; either way, he knew it made for rather entertaining reading.)
In Innocents Abroad, his first published book, Twain chronicles the group’s journeys through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Holy Land (Palestine, Syria, Jordan, etc.). The book is quite often laugh-out-loud funny, ignorantly self-centered and ethnocentric (which comes across as ironic in tone), and, every once in a while, genuinely heartfelt on the beauties and pleasures of exploring new places.
Twain is both an absurdist and a realist in this book. Some of the anecdotes he shares are surely tall tales (one of his specialties), but he’s also delightfully honest about the travails of traveling—the frustration of navigating different languages, how every European cathedral looks the same, the boring monotony of the desert.
We have a tendency to try to turn every poor experience on a vacation into a positive, or claim later that it wasn’t so bad. It makes sense—you want to remember vacations as fully wonderful. But after reading this, you’ll never again be afraid to speak the truth about the parts that were boring, difficult, and generally just not so fun. Just like life itself, vacations are often made up of both the good and the bad, with the simple hope that there’s more of one and less of the other.
I have a hard time with much of Twain’s fiction, but his non-fiction is top-notch and remains readable 150 years later. If you can read beyond the “arrogant American tourist” bit, I think you’ll rather enjoy it. I sure did.
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