Category Archives: EURASIA

Travel Writing Highlight: George Borrow

wandsworthBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Here’s a pithy note on a guy who’s maybe not as well known as he should be: George Borrow, born in 1803. (The Gutenberg Project offers a picture of his birth home.) These words are from Thomas Swick, whose blog observed Borrow’s birthday not long ago:

Wild Wales is the account of a trip he took in the summer of 1854 with his wife and stepdaughter. He of course had learned Welsh, and read the national poets in the original, and rambling around the place…he talked to everybody, an antecedent of Paul Theroux who once used the verb “buttonhole” to describe the travel writer’s modus operandi.

Thomas Swick, by the way, is former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World. He’s lived in Washington, D.C., France, Alsace, London, Poland, and Greece, and he’s a very funny guy. We know this because of his list of “Seventy Ways Travel Magazines Address the Economic Crisis” at WorldHum. In a depleted publishing arena, Swick imagines such articles as “The 12 Best City Parks to Sleep In” and “Forget Exotic Places – Visit Exotic Dancers” and “Two Places to See Before You Die.”

But we were talking about George Borrow who, as a young Englishman, began his travel career by walking around in France and Germany. Later, via other means of transportation, he went to Portugal, Russia, Morocco and Spain. He was an incomparable linguist, speaking many tongues and translating, for instance, the works of Alexander Pushkin from the Russian.

As a Protestant, a proselytizer, and a demonizer of the Pope, Borrow was thought by some to be a fanatic. It’s true he did most of his wider traveling under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But he also knew how to have a good time. He liked his Burgundy wine, saying, “It puts fire into your veins,” and he was known to be a practical joker, though the example we unearthed is too complicated to go into here. Borrow was a gentleman and a scholar, but not as well socialized as some. He tended to be blunt and tactless in the name of resisting baloney, but he never cussed. There may not have been a Polar Bear Club back then, but when Borrow was 70, he’d still plunge into an iced-over pond.

In Borrow’s day, his powers of description were recognized as second to none. He not only loved Wales and the Welsh, which was a lowbrow taste, like admitting that you loved hillbillies, but specialized in the despised nomads of Europe and the British Isles, the Gypsies. Indeed a contemporary detractor said Gypsies were “nine-tenths of his stock in trade.”

It was all very well for a British subject to learn Greek or translate Russian, but this oddball took things too far, for heaven’s sake. Oh yes, he was looked down on for hanging out with the riff-raff. Four of his published books are about Gypsies, starting with The Zincali: The Gypsies of Spain. Then a pair of volumes called Lavengro and Romany Rye were published in the mid-1800s, about Borrow’s travels with the Gypsies. Even today, scholars are unable to agree on their fact/fiction ratio. But there’s no doubt he knew the language; Romano Lavo-Lil is a dictionary of Romany terms. The photo on this page was taken in Wandsworth, near London, one of the places where Borrow visited the Gypsies long ago.

As a tourist on foreign soil, Borrow was most impressed by St. Petersburg, writing:

Notwithstanding I have previously heard and read much of the beauty and magnificence of the Russian capital……There can be no doubt that it is the finest City in Europe, being pre-eminent for the grandeur of its public edifices and the length and regularity of its streets.

A page at Peter Greenberg’s comprehensive travel website gives you a pretty good idea of why visitors are so impressed with the city. It was put together by Karen Elowitt, who collected tips from savvy locals who recommended the best places to visit. Greenberg is a multi-media personality who has served as travel correspondent for Good Morning America and travel editor for Today.

And what of The Third Tower Up From the Road? You’ll find St. Petersburg in Kevin’s book, for sure. He checked out the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya Place and the Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoyed the city very much. But we’re waiting for his report on traveling with the Gypsies.

photo courtesy of Ewan-M, used under this Creative Commons license

You May Already Be a Literary Travel Writer!

durhamBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

If you’ve ever visited a place with literary associations and written about it — and, of course, taken pictures — this fabulous online resource wants you as one of its fabulous resources. Literary Locales is a directory that has already compiled more than 1,350 links to places associated with the lives and/or work of well-known authors. Here’s the invitation:

If you think that a deserving writer has been overlooked or treated inadequately, fetch your camera and set matters to right. We are constantly open to new additions. This site abounds with examples upon which you can model your own page. Or you can submit gifs or jpegs to us and we will construct a page for you.

You can’t ask for fairer than that! Literary Locales is sponsored by San Jose State University; specifically, by the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Its participatory nature guarantees a wide range of interests. Want to see Danielle Steel’s mansion in San Francisco? Or the village of Umuofia from Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart? Present and accounted for. Dante’s birthplace in Florence, Italy? Check. The Greenwich Village apartment of John Dos Passos? It’s here. The birthplace of Gustave Flaubert or Helen Keller? No problem. Louveciennes, where Anais Nin hung out; Trieste, as experienced by Rilke; the Corfu of Gerald Durrell; Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage; Robinson Crusoe’s island. The world is just one big theme park of places inhabited or depicted by writers.

“Ah love, let us be true to one another…” Yes, that’s Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, and here’s a nice website all about Dover Beach. Remember The Prophet? Here’s Bsharri, the part of Lebanon where Kahlil Gibran lived. It’s official: when it comes to plotting serious literary travel adventures, this site is the go-to guy.

Of course, Durham Cathedral (see picture) is represented. Travel writer Bill Bryson, being the Chancellor of nearby Durham University and President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has a particular fondness for the old pile. Its most salient literary feature is the tomb of the historian known as the Venerable Bede. He died in 735 and no, there isn’t a numeral missing from that year. One of the folks interred there is Cyril Argentine Alington, headmaster of Eton College and author of more than 50 books. Sir Walter Scott said of the edifice, “This view is unsurpassed in England”

Grand old Durham Cathedral has made the news, we learn from Mark Tallentire, staff writer for The Northern Echo, by quickly acquiring more Facebook fans than any other cathedral in England. The people who made it so are justifiably proud, but there is one little thing… This piece doesn’t mention that cathedral’s current vogue just might be due to its presence in the Harry Potter movies, in the guise of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

A bit of bad news in the literary tourism realm is the threat to the Muromtsev Dacha, part of the Tsaritsyno park complex in Moscow. This big old house was taken over by the national government when Russia had a revolution, but four years ago ownership was transferred to the city, and what’s been happening since then is not pretty. Ksenia Galouchko reveals what and why in The Moscow Times.

The building is threatened with demolition, which is no good for the six families in residence, some of whom have been there for decades. That’s bad enough, but there are literary associations with Ivan Bunin, a Nobel Prize winning writer, and with the poet Venedikt Yerofeyev who hung out there a lot in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of his notes are available for viewing. A cultural heritage organization has installed a memorial plaque honoring Yerofeyev and suggested turning the place into a museum, but that hasn’t seemed to help.

Here’s what we hope: that the Muromtsev Dacha will be preserved, and show up in the pages of Literary Locales, along with all the other places frequented by the literary greats.

Durham, aka Hogwarts photo courtesy of Glen Bowman , used under this Creative Commons license

Literary Tourism: Moscow and Beyond

reading
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Vit Wagner engages in the purest kind of literary tourism. He travels to another place and, while there, reads a novel set in that place. His essay in The Star, “Journalist’s novel way of exploring the literary landscape,” goes into more detail:

If memory serves, reading The Sun Also Rises in Spain was pretty much the entire purpose of the trip – never mind that I had already devoured the Hemingway masterpiece at least three previous times. As luck would have it, the same adventure later took me to Paris where – since an important part of the novel is also set there – I read it again. Bonus!

In Havana, Cuba, Wagner stayed at the Hotel Sevilla, a place where both Graham Green and his fictional Our Man in Havana character used to hang out. He interviews a fellow named Ben Walsh, of Nicholas Hoare Books, which is in Toronto, Canada. Here’s the thing: the store hosts a book club of a very special type. For six months, the people read books about, for instance, India. Then, they go together on a trip to India.

The theory, and we’re quoting Ben Walsh here, is that literary preparation equips a person with “tools and skills” for a richer travel experience. The mental background “enhances acclimation.” He gives the example of Moscow, where literary tourists will look for a certain narrow alley that hides the entrance to a brothel. This is because they have read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, described here as a “devilishly sly satire” of Stalinist Russia. One of Walsh’s friends told him the novel is “a key that opens doors to so many conversations in Russia. People are excited that you’ve read books that they value so highly.” Kind of like how, in the Sixties, counterculture people bonded over their shared appreciation of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Master and Margarita, incidentally, is a work taken very seriously by a lot of very serious people. Aside from being funny, that is. It just might leap to the top of your must-read list, if it hasn’t already. We don’t have space here to explain why, but check out Jan Vanhellemont’s captivating multimedia website about it.

Naturally, we consulted the pages of The Third Tower Up From the Road, by our favorite travel oracle, Kevin Dolgin. He’s been to Moscow, too, and describes such spots as Manezh Square, where young folks like to congregate. “Between the trees are expanses of grass, upon which sit or lie couples in various stages of relationship-building, ranging from stilted conversation to sucking on each other’s tongues.” This is the in-depth, quality reportage for which we have come to count on him. He also takes us to New Arbat Street, which continues to be the same kind of “in crowd” part of town as it was in the Soviet days.

Which brings up another novel… Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Rybakov. That would be a terrific one to read before going to Russia, or while there, or any time at all, actually.

But why should we have all the fun, matching up novels with destinations? This conjunction of fiction and actual travel interests us so much, we’d like to hear of some more examples. So please share your literary tourism memories…or fantasies.

photo courtesy of Photocapy , used under this Creative Commons license