A Travel Writer Tells All
Sometimes you uncover exciting stories in foreign capitals. Sometimes you sit at home and eat Top Ramen.
narrative history "An Irreverent Curiosity." He writes for The New
York Times, Afar and Conde Nast Traveler, among other
publications, and teaches writing at New York University.
"Your father is dead."
There is never a good time to hear these four words. But fortunately for me (and especially my father), the person who delivered this news inside a bar in Madrid was only struggling with his English possessive adjectives. The native Spaniard was actually referring to the bar owner's father, who had owned the place since the late 1950s when Ernest Hemingway was a frequent customer.
It was just another day at the proverbial office for me, a travel writer. I began the M.A. program in history at SF State mainly to stall deciding what to do with my life. And when I picked up my diploma two years later, in 2000, I was still clueless, though I had an excellent understanding of how Baroque architecture was used as an instrument of propaganda in the 17th-century Counter Reformation. Somehow, though, I fell into a writing career and felt most compelled to write about my experiences from the road. And so here I was standing at the bar of a restaurant in Madrid asking questions about Hemingway in bad Spanish and getting responses in even worse English.
The story that brought me here, which I was writing for The New York Times, was that July 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Papa Hemingway. "Don Ernesto," as the Spanish endearingly called him, loved Madrid. He was also a prodigious drinker, a devotee to debauchery and a voracious traveler. The bar where I was chatting up my possessive-adjective challenged new friend was a dead end, but there were plenty of other places in Madrid where Hemingway had put his absinthe-laced stamp. There were bars where they let him make his own martinis while awaiting a plus-sized portion of suckling pig to hit his table, bars where he may or may not have done more than talk to prostitutes (according to one of my sources), and restaurants where he could acquire scalped bullfighting tickets. Bulls and beer, swine and wine, my goal as I sit here 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on a New York-bound jet is to make some sense of my time in Madrid, to tell a good story, making it both entertaining and informative.
After filing my Madrid story, I'll be heading off on other assignments to pen features on a unique noodle dish in Vietnam and on hiking across Catalonia, and who knows where else.
Sounds like fun, right? A dream job? Let's not jump to conclusions. Every spring, I teach a travel writing class at New York University. Within the first five minutes of the first class, I tell my students the bubble-bursting secret: that travel writing is almost as over-romanticized as Italy. Sure, sometimes on the road, we can experience glimpses of a decadent life of Hemingwayan proportions, but when we get back home, the cash-strapped reality sinks in as quickly as it takes to boil a packet of Top Ramen. Travel we most certainly do; money we most certainly do not make.
I'm often asked if my job takes the joy out of travel. I think back to the epic flights sitting behind guys who unforgivingly recline their seats into my lap, watching mediocre romantic comedies (which always seem to be set in San Francisco for some reason), and eating microwave-baked gruel all to chase a story somewhere on the planet. Travel, after all, comes from the word travail, which comes from tripalium, a Roman instrument of torture.
My answer is no, it actually makes travel richer. I'm forced to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist, so I can attempt to unearth a location's secrets. I end up in restaurant kitchens talking to Michelin starred chefs, in the passenger seat of other people's cars going God knows where, and sometimes stalking the ghosts of legendary American writers in foreign capitals. When I finally do get home, it makes the quotidian pleasures of the familiar that much sweeter.
And, best of all, even on the worst days, I always have a good story to tell. Several of them. The only question remains, as I take a break from writing up my latest travel experience on this long Madrid-to-New York flight, is this: do I want the reconstituted chicken or the soggy beef?
Share this story: