Where Words Can Take You

This time of year, when the spring is a little too timid to shove winter along its way, I yearn to take off, to pack a bag and go somewhere warmer, more colourful, different. Unfortunately, time and money—especially lack of money—prevent me from just picking up and going. I have to find another way to escape. And my favourite way to do this is by diving into travel books. I don’t mean guidebooks; I mean a genre sometimes called “literary travel”, books written by people who have explored the world, had adventures, or sometimes found new homes. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, I think a thousand words (or more) can be worth a week or two of escape. Well-written tales about journeys to far-off places can draw a reader into the adventure. Your body may not be able to make the trip but your imagination can travel far. The words can take you to anywhere you want to go.

Literary travel books are not a new genre. They have been around not just for decades, but for centuries, and fulfilled the same needs they do today; the authors wanted to tell of the wonders they had seen, and the readers wanted to know about them. In the prologue to The Travels of Marco Polo, an invitation is extended to “…all people who wish to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world, take this book and have it read to you.”[1] Marco Polo made his expeditions in the 13th century, and his descriptions of what he saw are still interesting to readers today. They speak to a longing many of us have to go beyond what we know, away from our ordinary or even dull lives. Many years later, W. Somerset Maugham echoed this feeling as he began his essay on travelling in Spain with a description with which many of us can identify:

In London now, as I write, the rain of an English April pours down; the sky is leaden and cold, the houses in front of me are almost terrible in their monotonous greyness, the slate roofs are shining with the wet…. And I think of Andalusia. My mind is suddenly ablaze with its sunshine….[2]

Now my mind is ablaze as well, and for a brief time I can shut out the browns and greys of an early Canadian spring and be somewhere brighter.

The first book of this genre that I ever read was Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun. She wrote about her experience buying and renovating a house in Tuscany in such a captivating way, with detail, humour and affection, that I devoured this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. Every spare moment in which I could so safely, I read. I loved being drawn into the Italian countryside, lingering over lunch at a stone table under giant trees, and feeling the hot mistral winds as I looked out a window over the olive grove. But my favourite episode, which I found so beautiful it almost made me cry, was when Mayes described a Christmas spent in Tuscany. She wrote of simple, magical moments, fully enjoyed:

Ed calls from downstairs, “Look out the window.” Snow fell in the night, just enough to dust the fronds of the palm tree and glaze the terraces with a sheen of white.

[…] We take our coffee to the wall, brush it off, and watch the fog below us moving like an opalescent sea. Snow on Christmas!

Is this much happiness allowed?[3]

Later Mayes and her family go on a Christmas Day walk in the Tuscan hills.

We see mountains in the distance we’ve never seen, and the hilltowns of Sinalunga, Montepulciano, and Monte San Savino rise sharply like three ships sailing against the sky…. I start to hum “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day in the morning.” A red fox leaps down onto the path ahead of us. He sweeps his plumy tail back and forth, regards us for a moment, then darts into the woods.[4]

She told of a Christmas that was very different from a North American one, less focussed on gifts and more focussed on family, food and the outdoors. At that time of my life I felt chained to the obligations of big family celebrations at great expense. Mayes’s description of a much calmer holiday gave me a momentary escape and hope for a possible reprieve, someday.

Another of my favourite writers is Adam Gopnik, who has written books about his time living with his family in Paris and New York City—two cities I especially wanted to visit but had yet to get to when I first read his words. Much like with the words of Frances Mayes, I was captivated by the descriptions Gopnik gave of the places he saw every day, and appreciative of the fact that he obviously realized how special these cities were and how unique his experience was. In Through the Children’s Gate, he tells of returning to New York City with his young family and preparing to see it anew through the eyes of his son and daughter.

We came back to New York in 2000, after years away, to go through the Children’s Gate…. The Children’s Gate exists, and you really can go through it. It’s the name for the entrance to Central Park at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. The names of the gates—hardly more than openings in the low stone wall describing the park—are among its more poetic, less familiar monuments…. There was, and is, the Miners’ Gate, and the Scholars’ Gate, and—for a long time this was my favorite—the Strangers’ Gate, high on the West Side. The Children’s Gate is one of the lesser known, though the most inviting of all.[5]

I was enchanted by the idea of these gates, something I never would have known about without reading Gopnik’s book. I eventually made my way to New York City and sought out the Children’s Gate. It is a very inviting entrance, and leads you to the sailing pond and the delightful statue of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling. This was a rare occasion when I got to live out what I had held in my mind for so long; those words actually did take me somewhere wonderful.

Another book that held me spell-bound for several days was The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester, about his journey up the Yangtze River, from its mouth in Shanghai to one of its presumed sources in Tibet. He told of a journey through what was to me a very foreign and fascinating country, all inspired by an ancient scroll painting of the great river by one of the most revered artists of ancient China, Wang Hui, that Winchester first saw in the living room of a home in New Hampshire.[6] That part of the book was more familiar to me at least—being cozy in a darkened living room on a winter’s evening, dreaming of a trip.

In her book, A Year in the World, Frances Mayes talks about the push-pull of wanting home and wanting away: “…my profound desire for home…the sense of this is my place—all that has been at the mercy of an equal force, the desire to shut the door, turn the key, and go. Go. The domestic and the opposite.”[7] That is a common feeling for many of us, wanting so much to go away and then missing home when we’ve left it. Reading about travel gives us the opportunity to journey without leaving the comforts of our home, to learn of new things while being surrounded by the familiar.

As well, it gives us the chance to understand and appreciate cultures different from our own, something that is becoming very important in our increasingly globalized society. When we can communicate so easily and quickly with people from around the world, it is essential that we understand each other. While it would be wonderful if all of us could travel everywhere and learn from experience, that is an unrealistic dream. But we can learn from those who are able to travel. The journalist Andrew Solomon’s book, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World, is a collection of his writing about the different countries he has visited as part of his job over the past 30 years. In the Afterword, he stresses the importance of traveling:

Witnessing a global world is a way to make a global world. Openness makes us safe…. We must take action as citizens of our own countries yet embrace a larger whole. As soon as we believe that we cannot be citizens of the world, we lose the world of which we might have been citizens.[8]

Earlier, he writes, “This is a book about boundaries: about both the beauty in our differences and the surprising symmetries among us that persist despite those differences.”[9]  As I read that, I was struck by the similarity to the preface of the Marco Polo book quoted at the beginning of this post; how if you “want to know the various races of men and the peculiarities of the various regions of the world,” a book can show you that. To me, it’s a demonstration of the power and importance of language, and where words can take you—to different places, new knowledge and deeper understanding.

[1] Marco Polo, The Travels (London: Penguin Books, 1958), 33.

[2] W. Somerset Maugham, The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing, ed. Pico Iyer (New York: Vintage Classics, 2009), 3.

[3] Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (New York: Broadway Books, 1996), 218.

[4] Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, 220.

[5] Adam Gopnik, Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007), 8.

[6] Simon Winchester, The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (New York: Picador, 2004).

[7] Frances Mayes, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 412.

[8] Andrew Solomon, Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World (New York: Scribner, 2016), 520.

[9] Solomon, Far & Away, 512.

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