The Importance of Being Different

A travel writer’s education

Sergiy Galyonkin/Flickr
Sergiy Galyonkin/Flickr

One day in the winter of 1975, on a lunch break from my boring, first-year-out-of-college job, I read an article in Esquire magazine on how to live cheaply in France for a year. The trick, the author wrote, was to become a student. Tuition was inexpensive, and it entitled you to room and board. And, if you were serious about it, you could learn another language, something I thought would be helpful to me as a travel writer, which is what I wanted to be.

I spent the following school year living in a dorm and studying at a language institute in Aix-en-Provence. When it ended in June, I packed my big leather suitcase (in the Age of the Backpacker) and traveled to Alsace, as far as I could get from Provence—culturally if not geographically—and still be in France. And there I found a job on a farm, with a family whose son was the same age I was. For the next two months I spent every waking hour with Dany, who didn’t speak a word of English but spoke French, Alsatian, and German like a native. It was a humbling experience, after months of struggling to learn a second language, to find myself among trilingual farmers.

Dany was well-read, a student of history, and a lover of music. He thought Germany far surpassed France when it came to composers—the dynamism of Bach and Beethoven versus the airiness of Ravel and Debussy—but he was fond of the contemporary chanteurs. Afternoons in the cherry orchard, he would belt out the songs of Georges Brassens and Yves Montand, teaching me not only the lyrics to Le Temps des Cerises but also their significance. His father, picking in a neighboring tree, begged me to chime in with some Negro spirituals.

Before leaving for France, I had read a fair amount about Provence—Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, M. F. K. Fisher—and nothing about Alsace, and it seemed instructive that my summer in the latter was proving more noteworthy than my nine months in the former. Being out of the classroom contributed, of course, but there was also something I was discovering for the first time: the absorbing, generous surprise of the unsung.

Back home in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, I looked around for a newspaper job. At The Trenton Times, which then was owned by The Washington Post, I was perfunctorily handed a job application. When asked to list the duties my last employment had entailed, I wrote, flippantly if accurately, “picking cherries, baling hay, milking cows.” When asked my reason for leaving my last employment, I scribbled: “I got tired of stepping in cow shit.” In response to the “May we contact your last employer?” prompt, I wrote, “Sure, if you speak Alsatian.”

Two days later, I got a call from the features editor asking me to come in for an interview. The editor-in-chief, she told me, had been so impressed by my application that he had posted it on a wall in the newsroom.

There are two fail-safe ways to stand out: By being brilliant or by being different. I chose the one that was available to me.

After a three-month trial, I was given a job as a feature writer. This suited me fine, because I had never wanted to be a reporter. I wrote about a lumberjack, a tobacconist, a harness racing driver, simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations, a sociology professor at a local college who had researched the cultural and linguistic history of the hoagie. Feature writing was giving me the perfect training to be a travel writer, getting me out into the world—in this case, New Jersey and its environs—to meet some of the interesting people in it.

After a year and a half, I left the paper and moved to Poland. A woman—met on my way home from France—was behind my decision. That, and my unquenched desire for foreign experience. But leaving a promising career in journalism to pursue a woman behind the Iron Curtain was, for some in the newsroom, the most remarkable thing I had done since filling out my job application.

I ended up spending two and a half years in Warsaw, where I married, taught English, learned Polish, witnessed the rise of Solidarity and, in December 1981, the imposition of martial law. Walking around the deadened city, seeing Polish tanks in the streets, watching soldiers rounding up students—including one I recognized as my own—I thought, for the first time in my life: I must tell the world what I’m witnessing.

Returning home to Phillipsburg, I eagerly began work on my first book. I wrote it in longhand, on yellow legal pads. When it was finished, I typed it up in my father’s law office on South Main Street. Then I made a few Xerox copies. When the rare, positive response to a query arrived, I placed rubber bands around the manuscript—one vertical, one horizontal—placed it in a box, wrapped the box in plain brown paper, wrote the name of the publisher, or agent, on the paper, and took the box to the post office, where it was weighed and pushed to the side while I searched for money to cover the postage.

Rejections trickled in, and at first they didn’t bother me. I’d always heard that as a writer you have to get used to rejection. It is one of the natural laws of writing. Rejections are to writers what flies are to cows—a constant annoyance that we somehow attract but never really get used to.

Still, I remained hopeful. This was the ’80s, when travel writing was enjoying a heyday. It had started in 1975, with Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, and been given literary legitimacy a few years later by Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. All of a sudden, travel writing was hot. Some publishers created imprints devoted solely to travel books. Jan Morris’s travel essays appeared regularly in Rolling Stone magazine. Banana Republic put little book coves inside its clothing stores and filled them with guidebooks and travel narratives and, for one brief period, the company’s own travel magazine. Instead of glossy photographs and “10 Best” lists, Trips featured whimsical illustrations and a reminiscence by Richard Ford on growing up in his grandfather’s hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

It was a heady time to be a travel writer—just not a travel writer who wrote about Poland. Books about Poland were being published, but they were about the political situation. My book touched on it, naturally, but its real focus was on the people, the culture, the everyday life. “He came to believe,” Ian Hunter wrote in his biography of Malcolm Muggeridge, “that the machinations of power, how it was organized and wielded, who governed whom and by what means, all this was less important than a nation’s soul; its character; its religion; its humour and art and music and literature.” The longest chapter was about the pilgrimage I had taken on foot, along with thousands of Poles, to the shrine of the Black Madonna in Częstochowa, in the first summer of martial law.

Also not helping my cause was the fact that travel books were becoming enamored of the good life. 1989 saw the publication of A Year in Provence, which would be followed a few years later by Under the Tuscan Sun. These two bestsellers created a cottage industry of books set in France (though not Alsace) and Italy that continues today. You could write about Spain, but preferably the sunny south. If you wanted to write about the north, where it rains a lot, you pretty much had to walk the pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago. And that was the only pilgrimage you were allowed to write about. As economic realities hit the publishing industry, it became depressingly conservative and conformist in its tastes. I began to seriously question my belief in the value of being different.

Yet I eventually found an agent, a woman in Philadelphia who was new to the business but brought to it determination and an unsinkable spirit. After 41 publishers rejected the book, she placed it with an imprint of Houghton Mifflin. In this game, all you need is one editor to say yes, and then all the rejections become immaterial and fade from memory. Writing is that rare profession that allows you not only to overcome failure, but also to erase it.

In the meantime, I had become the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. My goal was to bring some of the elements of the travel writing that was appearing in books into the Sunday Travel section, which had been viewed primarily as an advertising vehicle dressed up with articles and information, a bland compendium of clichés and tips. Working in my favor was the fact that the travel section was one of the lowest priorities at a newspaper and I was allowed, for the most part, to do what I wished with it.

My ambitions got me in trouble in 1991, a few weeks after the start of the Gulf War, when I ran a cover story about Baghdad. It had been sent to me by a local woman who had returned home from a teaching job in the city shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. My thinking was: Baghdad is on everyone’s mind right now, and here is an account of the city written by someone who had been living and working there. Not surprisingly, I loved getting stories from expats that, while often in need of editing, contained insights unavailable to professional travel writers.

The editor-in-chief’s words on Monday morning, and I remember them distinctly, were: “Goddammit, nobody’s going to Baghdad now!” The travel section received increased scrutiny for a while, but full attention eventually returned to news and sports. After The Best American Travel Writing debuted in 2000 (a woefully belated birth for the anthology), the Sun-Sentinel’s name appeared—either with selected stories or under “Notables” in the back—in the first nine editions.

In 2008, I became one of the first people in the history of the Sun-Sentinel to be laid off. I was a victim of newspaper downsizing, not my story-centric approach to travel, though it probably contributed to my being in the first wave.

The advantage of being a writer—as opposed to, say, a banker or an auto worker—is that you can continue doing what you do at home. I dearly missed the weekly paycheck, and the travel budget, and being an editor – especially being my own editor. But, deprived of a job, I still had a profession.

I freelanced, and wrote a book, and then started work on a memoir. I was now in my 60s—a little old, oddly, for the memoir business—but I was giving mine a focus greater than myself, braiding the story of my quest to become a travel writer with that of Poland’s struggle to regain its independence. Readers would learn not just about me but also the Cold War.

After it was completed, I discovered that publishers had become even more conservative and conformist than before. Memoirs, judging by the reviews I read, were invariably about one of a small number of seemingly approved themes: abuse, addiction, dysfunction, illness, or grief. Sometimes a memoir combined two or three. These are all important topics, and great books have been written about them: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Mary Karr’s Lit, to name just two. But why, I wondered, were they the only subjects now allowed? Why were Americans being fed a steady diet of misery, with no reprieve, no glittering outliers to brighten the gloom?

And why this unrelenting focus on the self? The United States was the most powerful country in the world and, instead of learning about the world, its citizens—its readers!—were massively turning inward. This didn’t bode well for our nation’s future.

Nor, to be honest, for my memoir, half of which took place abroad. And although it contained its share of hardship, the tone was optimistic and frequently humorous. Making it even more of a pariah in the current climate of despair, it contained not one but two happy endings: I became a travel writer and Poland regained its independence. My penchant for being different seemed to have gone from quaint to professionally suicidal.

And yet, unfashionable, atypical, idiosyncratic books were still sneaking through publishing’s mill of uniformity. If you knew where to look, you could still find signs of richness, variety, diversity—an idea all publishers now bow down before while giving it, in many houses, a sadly limited application. And, I reminded myself, rejection after rejection: all you need is one maverick editor to say yes.

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Thomas Swick's latest book is the memoir Falling into Place: A Story of Love, Poland, and the Making of a Travel Writer.


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