A Note from Barrie Kerper on Her Inspiration for the Collected Traveler Series
The inspiration for my Collected Traveler series can be summed up in a quotation I particularly like: "A traveler without knowledge is a bird without wings," from a 1258 work entitled Gulistan (The Rose Garden), attributed to Sa'di, a medieval Persian poet. I have always believed that learning about a place is part of the excitement of travel and I wouldn't dream of venturing anywhere without first poring over a mountain of maps and research material and online sources. I include cookbooks in my reading, because some of them contain much historical detail as well as prepare you for the food and drink you will most likely encounter, and before I leave I also like to read novels and watch movies that have something to do with where I'm going. Additionally, I buy a blank journal and begin filling it with all sorts of notes, reminders, and entire passages from books I'm not bringing along (if I may recommend a good one, it's En Route: A Journal and Touring Companion for Inspired Travelers that I created in 2007). In other words, I completely immerse myself in my destination before I leave. It's homework, though I assign it to myself, and it's incredibly satisfying.
I didn't encounter Sa'di's words until I was an adult, but even in my youth I was already an obsessive clipper, a sort of modern-day hunter-gatherer. I established files for nearly every place in the world and filled each file folder with as much information as I could find: articles in periodicals and journals, maps, postcards, stamps, and brochures from tourist offices. I actually carted these files to college, and even though I didn't do much with them on campus, it somehow seemed important that they accompany me. Friends, family members, and colleagues teased me over the years for lavishing such attention on these files, but I took it all in good humor. I felt somewhat vindicated when, in 1997, Random House published a reference work entitled the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and I read that the author of this two-volume work (which only covered letters A through O), Jonathan E. Lighter, had since 1971 been recording thousands of words on index cards and storing them in shoe boxes! I adored him from afar, happy to learn there was at least one other person who had the same kind of passion for collecting information.
After I was married, my husband and I fulfilled a dream we'd had since we first met: we put all our belongings in storage and traveled around the countries bordering the Mediterranean for a year. In preparation for this journey, I did what I always do in advance of a trip, which is to consult my home archives and library of books and periodicals. I had by this time amassed quite a lot of information, and after a year of reviewing and organizing all of this material, I created packages of articles and notes for each destination and mailed them ahead to friends we'd be staying with as well as various American Express offices (we had no precise schedule to speak of, but we knew we would spend no fewer than six weeks in each place). While we were traveling that year, we would occasionally meet other Americans and I was continually amazed at how ill prepared some of them were. Even though this was before the Internet, information, in so many different forms, was in such abundance and so easily obtained that it was nearly inconceivable to me that people had not taken advantage of the resources available to them. Some travelers didn't even seem to be having a very good time; they appeared to be ignorant of local customs and culture and were generally unimpressed with their experiences because they'd missed the significance of what they were seeing and doing. Therefore I was surprised again when some of these same people—and they were of varying ages with varying wallet sizes—were genuinely interested in my little packages. Some even offered to pay me for them, and I began to realize that my collected research might have broad appeal. My packages were of interest not only to people like me—people who enjoy reading and planning for a trip—but also to those who do little or no planning and to those who are overwhelmed by the details of organizing a trip or just don't have the time. I started putting together packages for friends and colleagues, and everyone appreciated them and asked for more. The logical next step was publication, and the very first Collected Traveler books—editions on Paris and Tuscany and Umbria—were published simultaneously in 2000, followed by six other volumes. My new book, Istanbul, is the first in a revised and updated version of the Collected Traveler series that Vintage has begun publishing in Fall 2009.
Occasionally I meet people who are more interested in how many countries I've visited than in those I might know well or particularly like. If well-traveled is defined only by the number of places one has been, then I suppose I'm not. But I feel I really know and have really seen the places I've visited, which is how I define well-traveled. Acquiring this knowledge requires immediately adapting to the local pace and rhythm and (hopefully) sticking around for more than a few days. In the words of a favorite quotation of mine, by English writer Juliette de Bairacli Levy: "Every land has its own special rhythm, and unless the traveler takes the time to learn the rhythm, he or she will remain an outsider there always." Certainly any place you decide is worthy of your time and effort is worthy of more than a day, but you don't always need an indefinite period of time to immerse yourself in the local culture or establish a routine that allows for getting to know the merchants and residents or your adopted neighborhood or village.
One of the fastest ways to adjust to daily life anywhere is to abandon whatever schedule you observe at home and eat when the locals eat. Adjust your schedule and you'll automatically be on local time, doing things when the locals do them, eliminating possible disappointment and frustration. And adapting to local meal times isn't the only adjustment I recommend travelers make. About twenty years ago, the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, John Vinocur, wrote a piece for the travel section entitled "Discovering the Hidden Paris." The French, he noted, have a word, dépaysement, that is not easily translated into English but that he defined as "the feeling of not being assaulted by the familiarity of things, a change in surroundings where there is no immediate point of reference." He went on to quote a French journalist who once said, "Americans don't travel to be dépaysés, but to find a home away from home." I understand that the journalist did not mean this as a compliment, and it is unfortunate that some people can travel around the world and yet their unwillingness to adapt ensures they will never really leave home; but I also understand that when we land in a new place we all want to become as familiar with it as quickly as we can. We are all in a way looking for that "home away from home," and the best way to feel that comfortable in a new place is to arrive as a knowledgeable visitor.
I feel that the spirit of the Collected Traveler series is captured particularly well by two well-worn statements by Mark Twain that still bear repeating: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness" and "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Saint Augustine, too, inspires me with his maxim: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." I believe that travel is an essential part of a well-lived life and that people who travel with an open mind and are receptive to the ways of others cannot help but return with more tolerance of people and situations at home, at work, and in their communities. James Ferguson, a nineteenth-century Scottish architect, expressed this perfectly when he wrote, "Travel is more than a visitor seeing sights; it is the profound changing—the deep and permanent changing—of that visitor's perspective of the world, and of his own place in it." I find that travel also ensures I will not be quite the same person I was before I left. "Travel teaches toleration," as Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) said, and after a trip I typically have a lot of renewed energy and bring new perspectives to my job. At home I ask myself how I can incorporate traits or practices I observed abroad into my own life and share them with my husband and daughter. I am also eager to explore my hometown more fully (when was the last time you visited your local historical society or the best-known tourist site in your part of the country?), and in appreciation of the great kindnesses shown to me by people from other nations, I always go out of my way to help tourists who are visiting New York City by giving directions, explaining the subway, or sharing the name of a favorite museum or place to eat. Ultimately, despite cultural differences between us and our hosts—in any country where we happen to be guests—we have much more in common than not.
I believe that every place in the world offers something of interest, even a place as "ordinary" as one's own street or neighborhood. Alain de Botton, in his wonderfully quirky book The Art of Travel, perhaps exaggerates this when he relates how a Frenchman named Xavier de Maistre, born in 1763 and a lover of books, paintings, and aeronautics, pioneered a mode of travel called "room travel." In Journey Around My Bedroom, de Maistre stated that "millions of people who, until now, have never dared to travel, others who have not been able to travel and still more who have not even thought of traveling will be able to follow my example." Unfortunately, de Maistre rambled and digressed from his original project, but de Botton is correct in noting that "de Maistre's work sprang from a profound and suggestive insight: the notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a traveling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt's South America."
In her magnificent book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, Rebecca West recounted how in the 1930s she passed through Skopje in what was then part of Yugoslavia (and is now the Republic of Macedonia) by train twice, without stopping, because friends had told her the town wasn't worth visiting. A third time through she did stop, and she met two wonderful people who became lasting friends. "Now, when I go through a town of which I know nothing," she wrote, "a town which appears to be a wasteland of uniform streets wholly without quality, I look on it in wonder and hope, since it may hold a Mehmed, a Militsa." I, too, have been richly rewarded by pausing in places (Skopje included) that at first appeared quite limited. I believe that my books are great sources for discovering places in depth, both places that are already widely known and those that are less so, whether you plan to travel independently or with a like-minded tour organization. The articles and essays in each of my Collected Traveler books, together with the annotated bibliographies and my personal recommendations, will lead travelers on and off the beaten path, on journeys that I sincerely hope will be rewarding.