I've discovered that reading travel writing is especially exhilarating and interesting while you, yourself are travelling. You get to compare and contrast your experiences with the experiences of someone who has done all the same things, and seen the same sites, but who has the added benefit of also being extremely funny, witty, and interesting. Here are a few of my favorite books that I've been reading over my last few months abroad:
The nonfiction account of a woman who moves to Paris after her husband dies, and "the dizzying delights and maddening frustrations in learning to be Parisian." Nightmares finding an apartment? I hear ya. Tips on flea markets, the best cafe and bakery finds in Paris? Yes, please. The tale of how completely impossible it is to get a fax machine abroad and the lurid details dating a French count? Tell me more.
One of my favorite passages, about her new dog, Sam:
"Sam's personality began to emerge. She had bad eyesight which made her fearful of curbs; she stepped down gingerly. She was afraid of grates. And sometimes she just got stubborn and sat down, refusing to budge. One day during one of these sieges, I tried and tried to get her moving-- without luck. A Frenchwoman passed by, looked at Sam, saw me tugging away and commented 'Hmmph, that's France for you. Now even the dogs are on strike.'"
I love all "nonfiction," by Twain, with quotation marks because his nonfiction is usually liberally flavored with exaggeration and embellishment, all for awesome comedic effect. For example, in his nonfiction work Roughing It, about traveling to the Wild West, Twain manages to almost freeze to death in a blizzard 15 feet from a comfortable inn, set Lake Tahoe on fire, and become a millionaire for only one day because of fluctuations in the gold rush. Innocents Abroad is the equivalent crazy yet fact-based journey of him and a group of American tourists who go on a cruise to travel the world. They visit nearly all of Europe, Egypt, and the Holy land, and he alternately mocks and praises where ridicule and praise is due.
One of my favorite passages:
With our travel guide we have played that game which has vanquished so many guides for us--imbecility and idiotic questions. These creatures never suspect--they have no idea of a sarcasm. Our guide walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in any thing. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last--a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him:
"See, genteelmen!--Mummy! Mummy!"
The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
"Ah,--Ferguson--what did I understand you to say the gentleman's name was?"
"Name?--he got no name!--Mummy!--'Gyptian mummy!"
"Yes, yes. Born here?"
"No! 'Gyptian mummy!"
"Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?"
"No!--not Frenchman, not Roman!--born in Egypta!"
"Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy--mummy. How calm he is--how self-possessed. Is, ah--is he dead?"
This is the one remark which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes--as long as we can hold out, in fact--and then ask:
"Is--is he dead?"
That conquers the serenest of them.