How many travel writers, elegant and tortured expatriates, wander the world in order to find themselves? For the first-time backpacker as much as for the dedicated émigré, travel is about losing that old familiar self, that grind in the suit who scowls into the rearview mirror during a Bay Bridge gridlock -- and finding instead a freer, wilder, more carefree version. The minute this new person is released, it seems, he or she comes back eager to write about it all. Whether they recount a walk across Norway or a sojourn in Cuba, to cite two of Lonely Planet's latest guides, armchair-travel books spin swashbuckling tales of adventure, discovery, and personal transformation. This is the shining potential of leaving home.
Unless you do it for a living.
Like fabric, travel has a reverse side that the outside world seldom sees and travelers themselves hardly notice. Who stamps these adventurers' train tickets to Tashkent? Who pours their orange juice and makes their beds? Three new books offer some answers.
During the early Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims started descending on Christian holy sites from all over Europe. A 12th-century guide to Santiago de Compostela highlighted points of interest en route to that Spanish town where St. James' relics lay, gave cultural tips, and even rated various roads for safety and convenience. This guide was a hot item among pilgrims, many of whom hit the holy trail in all piety, though many others did it to escape the routine of work and family and the social rules that so constrained their lives back home. To serve those disoriented hordes -- drinking, flirting, and unbending à la The Canterbury Tales -- inns were hastily established. Souvenir hawkers set up shop near cathedrals. Touts offered their services. An industry was born.
Little has changed. Like those pilgrims, travelers today act in a manner they might never consider at home. Eager to lose themselves, they lose their manners, too.
Ask Rene Foss, whose Around the World in a Bad Mood! Confessions of a Flight Attendant is the print version of a musical revue she wrote after spending sixteen years, more or less, in the air. Or ask Elliott Hester, whose syndicated travel column appears regularly in the San Francisco Chronicle and whose Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet has plenty of horror stories.
As travel professionals, Foss and Hester set out to expose that other side, to speak for those who make travel possible. And while you might consider a flight attendant's life glamorous -- free air travel, exotic layovers -- these two make it clear that this is like any other service-industry job: exhausting, demeaning, and ridiculous. Airsick children. Come-ons from slimeballs in business class. Passengers who must be asked to leave the aircraft pre-flight because their body odor offends ticketholders in the surrounding seats. These are not the sorts of stories usually committed to the page.
And Foss and Hester are not the sort of people who usually write memoirs. Going out of their way to demystify travel, these two manage to demystify travel writing in the process. Folksy and funny in the gently observational style of Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck, Foss and Hester are a far cry from Paul Theroux. In Around the World in a Bad Mood!, Foss laments her early failures as an aspiring actress -- and ends some chapters with song lyrics from her revue. Other chapters begin with ranting pretend monologues from enraged passengers and burned-out attendants. Nor is Foss above writing lines like "Coming in from London one day and then going off to Tokyo (which is geographically on the other side of the world)" and littering her prose with giddy exclamation points.
Hester, who credits Corte Madera's annual Book Passage Travel Writers' Conference with igniting his writing career, is quick to poke fun at himself as a man in what is commonly considered a "feminine" line of work. He, too, employs some standard comedy material in his stories, including plenty of emphasis on bodily fluids: think airsickness and the proverbial Mile High Club. He's more daring than Foss is (though as far as that goes, you have to wonder why her title is identical to the subtitle of Berkeley travel writer John Krich's 1988 book, Music in Every Room: Around the World in a Bad Mood). Hester sticks to flight-attendant tales, while Foss wisely weaves in autobiographical details.
Unnervingly, several of the same stories appear in both books. One of these, in which a wisecracking flight attendant embarrasses an overbearing passenger, had been making the mass e-mail rounds weeks before this article was begun. The three versions vary slightly, but the punch line is the same. The angry passenger demands, "Do you know who I am?" only to have the attendant send an announcement throughout the airplane asking, "This man has lost his identity. Does anyone know who he is?"
This bodes ill for both books' authenticity. But criticizing books like these on their literary merits is almost like shooting fish in a barrel. While the typical travel writer strives to be expansive and philosophical, Foss and Hester strive only to be concise and comedic, though their efforts do raise the wistful hope that weightier works by other travel-industry insiders will follow.
One of the most stressful parts of being a flight attendant, as Foss and Hester would have it, is spending night after night in hotel rooms. And the last words of traveler and playwright Eugene O'Neill were "Knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room -- and, goddamn it, died in a hotel room." But hotels might not be such bad places in which to be born or die. A hotel is a sort of stopping point, a place of arrested motion, of pause between two destinations and two worlds. As a literal and metaphorical threshold, it is the perfect setting for a novel about life and death and the gray areas in between.
In Ali Smith's Hotel World, shortlisted for Britain's Orange Prize and Booker Prize and just out in paperback, a recently deceased young woman haunts the Global Hotel, where she worked and where, not so long ago, she fell to her death. Now a ghost, she hovers at the edges of that life which draws farther and farther away from her with every page: forgetting words, drifting in and out of sensations, fading out.
While the overall arch of her existence begins to disintegrate, she fixates on the minute details she remembers of that world, longing even for "beautiful dirt, grey and vintage, the grime left by life." Poignantly nostalgic for the life-affirming sensation of having a stone in her shoe, the ghost recalls "the inside curve of the foot, or the heel, or the small ball of muscle that keeps a body upright and balanced and moving." Meanwhile, quietly alive, Lise works at the hotel as a front-desk receptionist until she becomes mysteriously ill. The two young women, quick and dead, are joined by various other characters, each with her own degree of illness and disintegration.
If travel is about simultaneously losing oneself and finding oneself, then a hotel is a perfect microcosm for the travel experience. In a hotel, you are more yourself than ever. Just you, without your belongings, your friends, your coworkers, your reputation, your obligations, or your past. In this isolation, Smith's novel finds time to unfold solitary characters and forge the tiny beginnings of relationships. The novel is certainly not perfect: its last chapter's stream-of-consciousness sequence, thirty-six pages of unpunctuated chatter, is wearying and largely unproductive. But its uneven and fitful prose, while sometimes distracting, is the literary equivalent of restless hotel sleep. And Smith's sometimes overecstatic exclamations (with ghostly monologues that bear more than a passing resemblance to the last scene of Our Town, Emily's hymn to sunflowers and newly ironed dresses) manage to make the reader, too, get lost in the breathless wonder of discovery. The book loses itself to find itself again, just as a traveler does.
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