“Travelers’ Tales books luxuriate in that complicated, beautiful, shadowy place where the best stories begin, and the most compelling characters roam free.”
Since the publication of A Woman’s World in 1995, Travelers’ Tales has been publishing award-winning books by and for women. We continue this tradition with The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007, the third collection in our annual series guaranteed to inspire women to take their first trip—or to continue exploring the world with wit, soul, and verve, as so many adventurous women do each and every day. These 32 stories cover the globe, from wandering the Sinai desert with small children, learning to salsa in Cuba to climbing a volcano in Ecuador. The perspectives are global and themes encompass spiritual growth, high adventure, romance, and encounters with exotic cuisine.
In The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 readers will:
- Learn to flirt in Paris with Kayla Allen
- Track down an errant Thanksgiving turkey in China with Nicole Clausing
- Go on a spirit quest in Arizona with Jennifer Carol Cook
- Encounter life and death in Mali with Tanya Shaffer
- Live on Venetian Time with Francesca De Stefano in Venice
- Survive a New Zealand rip tide with Kari J. Bodnarchuk
- Discover what can’t be spoken in Morocco with K. Gregg Elliott
- See how the world is changing one chicken at a time with Barbara Kingsolver in Peru
- Fall in love in Nepal with Laurie Weed…and much more.
by Lucy McCauley
Why do we return to places where we’ve been before? What propels us to move away from our familiar orbits to revisit the landscape of memory? Is it that we hope to recapture a previous experience from an earlier time? Do we return out of a lingering sense of incompletion or to rewrite the past somehow, hoping to uncover a hidden layer that might enable us to craft a new ending to our story? Or do we return simply to know a place more deeply and fully?
I was thinking about that idea of return last spring when my husband and I revisited the place where we’d honeymooned six years before, in Tübingen, southern Germany. This time we’d added a new travel companion—our young daughter, Hannah—and as we walked the streets of that medieval university town, I felt acutely attuned to the layers of experience conjured like specters by our act of return. I was aware of how we inevitably return to a place as different people from who we’d been before, and how that in turn changes the place for us even as the place itself has undergone its own transformations. How that palimpsest of experience alters the way a place shows itself to us.
My husband’s own return held several such layers: long before our honeymoon, he had spent four years in Germany as a student. His return, this time with Hannah and me, was through the lens of a youth grown to adult middle age; single young man to family man. I had first come to Germany as a bride, and now I was a mother. Yet for both of us there was the added layer of a particular period in between, when my husband and I had separated when Hannah was a year old. This trip marked our return not just to Germany but to each other as well. And the occasion was appropriately laden with another mantle of significance: the couple with whom we’d stayed during our honeymoon (the man a friend from Charles’s student days) was at last getting married after many years together. My husband would be best man. Layer upon layer of return.
We walked the stone streets of Tübingen, viewing the same sites we’d seen on our honeymoon. Much remained physically the same: the medieval castle that crowned the old part of the city; the Neckar River edged with lilacs and chrysanthemums; the geraniums that burst forth in fuchsia and orange from window boxes; the solitary tower where the poet Friedrich Hölderlin had lived after he went mad, in a round room overlooking the roiling river. On the Neckar bridge we posed for a photo, as we had on our last trip, and this time we lifted our daughter high between us like a prize.
Yet time, even a short six years, had changed our experience of the place—and not just because we’d added an extra (small) pair of legs to our excursions. We walked again up the wide expanse of hill that stood at the edge of town, every inch covered by yellow buttercups through which Hannah ran, laughing; through which my husband and I walked hand-in-hand, just as we had on our earlier visit. But this time, walking up that slope, our daughter galloping ahead, I felt our fingers fitting together differently somehow, nestled into a deeper understanding—the hard-won kind, like the centuries of experience etched into the stone and mortar of the town itself. To regain our footing together as a couple, we’d had to excavate and re-lay the foundation of who we were to one another and of who we wished to be ourselves, as individuals. On this return to Germany, our hands fit together differently because we fit together differently.
As we walked up the hill, I thought about part of the reading we had chosen for our wedding years before, from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Perhaps that captures one reason why we return to the places we’ve been before. Not simply to know the past or our past selves again, but out of a deep and impossibly complex desire to know the place—and ourselves—anew. That is how it felt to return to the place of our honeymoon. That is how it felt to return to each other. We had begun our life together only to end it a few years later. And now we had begun again.
In the accounts of journeys in this volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing we are confronted, through a diverse range of voices, with this enigma of return. Many of these authors do this through memoir—Diana Cohen, Laurie Covens, Suzanne Kratzig, and Lonia Winchester all write about travel through the lens of their personal pasts, in places as far-flung as Israel, Thailand, Africa, and Poland, respectively. Other writers—such as Francesca DeStefano, Diane Johnson, Tehila Lieberman, and Carmen Semler—write about a physical revisitation to a place, recapturing it through older, more experienced eyes, bodies, and interpretations. Other selections in this book recount returns of writers to places and experiences through the simple yet profound act of retelling the journey in prose.
I hope that as you turn the pages of this volume, you’ll find again places that had been lost to the realm of memory-even as you discover here new places for the first time. As T.S. Eliot wrote (again in the Four Quartets): “The end is where we start from.” May you find in these stories an ending that lifts a veil onto some new beginning, opening a doorway to your own return.
Flirting in Paris
Cupolas of Alghero
A.K. Phone Home
Changing the World: One Chicken at a Time
Carmen J. Semler
In Hot Water
Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Living on Venetian Time
Francesca De Stefano
Victoria Q. Legg
Jennifer Carol Cook
Getting Clean in Chiang Mai
What Can’t Be Spoken
K. Gregg Elliott
The View from Below
The Silent and the Loud
Where Silence Is Never Golden
Thelma Louise Stiles
Friends Like These
H. Susan Freireich
A Methodist Prayer Rug
My Visa to Spanish Territory
The Time of the Three Musketeers
Learning to Dance
From the Window
Climbing Back to Childhood
The CUY of Cooking
The Truth About Eyes
Migration and the Sinai Desert
A Tale of Two Turkeys
10,000 Miles, 24 Water Parks, 10 Stitches to the Head, and 3 Bathing Suits Later
Up Close and Personal in Frankfurt
Sample Chapter: Flirting in Paris
by Kayla Allen
She found the ultimate cure for existential despair.
Rain shrouds the Bastille Farmers Market in Paris and I’m flirting with a tall, chain-smoking ruffian who looks like he hasn’t slept in a week. He broods over asparagus while making smoldering eye contact. Even though he’s a stranger, his glances imply intimacy. Something along the lines of “I have a magnifying glass into your soul. I wish to nibble your ear.”
His rumpled profile appeals to me. I telegraph my thoughts to him while considering cauliflower. “We share a beautiful, tortured existence. I’ll trifle with your arm hair.”
I’m not a brazen hussy, just an average Sunday shopper enjoying the frisson of flirtation. The art of coquetry is integral to everyday life in France. In fact, flirting is as much a part of the culture as eating stinky cheese after dinner.
My late twenties brought a meltdown of cosmic proportions. Despondency pervaded every corner of my being. Occasional acting gigs in my adopted hometown of Hollywood worsened my despair. I was too old to be a starlet and too cynical to lie about my age.
In a supposedly near-breakthrough role, I played a stewardess with a speech impediment opposite Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. My part consisted of one word. “Peanuts?” I said, dropping the “t” and lisping the “s” as I offered the snack. I booked a ticket to Paris the day the royalty payment arrived.
I traded Los Angeles strip malls for the esthetic pleasure of the Place Saint Sulpice. Strolling aimlessly along the Seine, I struggled to recover my identity. I lingered at cafes and strayed deeper into nothingness. Poodle adoption became a consideration. Albert Camus’s quote perfectly illustrated my state of mind: “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
Normalcy in Paris would mean learning the language. I enrolled in a free French course at the Sorbonne. On day one, a handsome, affable guy, Jean David, introduced himself as my teacher. The program used cultural references, rather than traditional grammar lessons, as tools. Jean David would screen an extract from a Truffaut film, then have the class interpret the dialogue. In the darkened room his attention turned to me. He shot playful looks that said, “There are many vineyards in my family. I have homes scattered across France, Switzerland, and Spain. I could have done anything I wanted in life, but I chose to enlighten others. I want to make love to you on this desk.”
After a few days I warmed to the game. Feeling genuinely coquettish, I reciprocated Jean David’s gazes: “I have angel’s breath and a willing mouth. I cook a mean shrimp gumbo. You are a naughty boy and I like it.”
Immersion in Parisian life helped erase the humiliating auditions that were the fabric of my former existence. The promise of connection fueled my bicycle rides to class. Jean David and I flirted every day for six weeks. I naturally expected he would ask me on a date when the course ended. For our class party, I prepared an apricot tart, hoping to impress him with my culinary skills.
The fête was in full swing when a beautiful curly-haired girl appeared and Jean David presented her as “ma petite amie, Isabelle.” My French was honed enough to understand this meant girlfriend. I was dismayed. How could he have led me on? Did he lead me on? He’d only provoked me with his eyes.
As he left, he offered me a long, expressive stare, one that said, “It is such a pity we won’t make love, but I will always long for you.” Meantime, Isabelle threw me a look that said, “I am skinnier than you and wear much nicer underwear.” I slunk out of the party, empty tart pan in tow.
The secret glances that Jean David and I shared flashed before me as I lugubriously pedaled away from the Sorbonne. Something illusory, yet very real, had happened. Our ocular encounters weren’t meaningless, they roused and inspired. I rode by a baguette-toting businessman who was exiting a boulangerie. With utmost formality, he electrified me with a sincere “I’d like to be a bicycle seat in my next life” look. My face reddened as I biked on. Then a cultural epiphany struck. American men flirt as a means to an end: to get laid. The French flirt because it is part of “la vie,” a chance to transform an ordinary moment into a profound acknowledgment of elusive potential. Wow. Being anonymously objectified could be fun.
Armed with my new understanding, I cultivated the thrill of locking eyes across the sidewalk with a stranger and wallowing in the unknown. Such communication suited me more than one-sided conversations with preening, wannabe actors.
An unexpected exchange occurred at a hospital emergency room where I’d accompanied a friend with a broken ankle. As she waited to receive treatment, a disheveled paramedic entered, wheeling a bloodied body on a gurney. He turned to me and slowed his pace. His drawn out look said, “I am worn, battered, and need attention. Love me.”
I returned with “I want to give you a warm bath and a foot massage. I get your needs. I’m wearing pink lacy culottes.” The healing power of random connection outweighed my nihilistic tendencies and I actually started to feel happy. But I feared relinquishing my mask of angst, worried I might not attract as much flirt potential.
On an overcast afternoon when the Parisian clouds hung dramatically low, I hopped a bus along the Boulevard Saint Germain. The sandy-haired driver established eye contact with a frisky ogle in his rear-view mirror. One that said, “My Ile St. Louis apartment is lined with books by obscure architects.”
Clinging to my damaged persona, I demurely responded with “the Ile St. Louis is too touristy.” But he was persistent. He penetrated me with “my place is next to Bertillon and the view, magnificent.” Always a sucker for good ice cream and a stunning panorama, I cracked a smile and sent a “chocolate is my flavor, what’s yours?” look. I decided to flirt with abandon. My stop was next: I’d never see him again.
His return grin sent me reeling with such intensity that my internal dialogue was hushed. Of the many memories I have of Paris, this one remains in the forefront. As I descended the bus, I whirled around and for that moment, enjoyed the sheer connection: the two of us strangers, radiating intangible delight in the other.
As the doors closed I was tempted to write down his bus number, or run ahead to the next stop and board again. But the actress Anouk Aimee’s words were a reminder to love and lose: “It’s so much better to desire than to have.” I felt immense joy as he drove away, marveling at how my mediocre day changed into one of pure elation.
Kayla Allen, a PEN USA Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow, lives with her family in Nice, France and Shreveport, Louisiana. She is at work on her first novel, Rapture Dummy, a fictional account of her years as a child evangelist ventriloquist.
Lucy McCauley’s travel essays have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, Fast Company Magazine, Harvard Review, Science & Spirit, and Salon.com. She is series editor of the annual Best Women’s Travel Writing, and editor of three other Travelers’ Tales anthologies—Spain (1995), Women in the Wild (1998), and A Woman’s Path (2000), all of which have been reissued in the last few years. In addition, she has written case studies in Latin America for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and now works as a developmental editor for publishers such as Harvard Business School Press.