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Trains, Planes, and What I Read
When I travel, once I’ve rounded up my documents and stuffed the carry-on to bursting, the last thing I pack is a book. I slip whatever I have chosen between my change of clothes and my blanket, and close the zipper. I appreciate that e-books have, for some people, erased the need to make an absolute decision on what single piece of literature will accompany them on a journey. But on the road, I prefer a tactile, 3D, lick-my-finger-and-turn-the-page hard copy, the kind I’ve toted around for decades, stealing sentences in cafes, train stations and hotel beds all across the planet. For me, a book is a well-considered traveling companion, and in this realm I always travel light.
There is no math in the mystical equation of what to bring where, but it always resolves itself neatly, and logically. It depends on where I’m going–on assignment, on vacation, a beach or a city. Whether I’ll really–really–have time to read. Sometimes, I’ll bring literature about the place I’m headed, to bring depth and dimension to my trip. Others, I’ll grab something enticing I’d yet to crack from the bookshelf. Or, I’ll bring a classic that I want to cross off my list. If I’m in a rush, I’ll poke around the airport bookstore and pick up a blockbuster that excites me. Either way, the nexus of books and travel has the remarkable effect of strengthening both the reading and the voyage.
On a recent morning, I experienced this double sweep of context and memory. While cleaning out my library to make some much-needed space, I found snippets from my travels preserved inside many of the volumes. It seems I’ll use anything as a bookmark. Boarding passes and cocktail napkins were wedged between the pages, allowing me to recall the parallel story to the one in the actual book: where I was on earth when I read it. I continued to riffle through rows of paperbacks and hardcovers. When I found some relic, the discovery cracked – then blew – open a door into my past. These scraps unearthed the narratives of my own forgotten history. As if we need a new reason to love real books, I found the spaces between the pages to be another one, to remind us in the most tactile way of who we were and therefore who we are. We know that books contain stories, and sometimes even our own. I uncovered lots of treasures in my library, so I asked my photographer friend Kate Uhry to document some of what I found.
1. Many of my books have a price tag from W. H. Smith, the English bookstore on the rue de Rivoli in Paris, where I was a journalist from 1989 to 1993. Scoop is a novel every international reporter knows well, so I brought it along to my first assignment, a story about Prague’s samizdat press. I left Paris on November 6, 1989 – the Velvet Revolution began ten days later. Obviously my story had to be updated many times before it was published. Within two months, I returned to Prague with Barbara Walters, who had been my boss at ABC, to interview the new president, Vaclav Havel. The korunas are made of thin paper, and were folded flat.
2. When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who went to school in Boston. Most weekends, we were bunked up in one or the other’s dorm, so we decided to splurge on a night of privacy in New York City. Since I was a Russian Studies major, I pretty much always had one of these Penguin Classics in my homework bag. This one contained the room confirmation for April 11, 1981 at the rate of $75.00. I recall our reunion in the lobby of the Plaza, our lazy Saturday in Central Park, and the tears (mine) when we said goodbye at Penn Station.
3. The clue to this boarding pass was on the last page of the book, a scrawl of hotel phone numbers. It was 1985. During a two-week hiatus between jobs at ABC News, I visited Morocco, then Germany and Belgium to see friends. I loved Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun, and thought a new book of his short stories would suit my fragmented voyage. At the last minute I decided to fly home through Paris. I don’t know which leg of the journey this boarding pass represents, but I do remember the weighty pages jaunes attached to the airport payphone and calling around to find a hotel. They were scarce – I think it was fashion week. Eventually I found a room near La Madeleine. That night, I walked around the corner to Fauchon and bought a leek tart for dinner.
4. I was aware of the cliché: a Hemingway title for sale at a bouquiniste on the Quai des Grands Augustins. Still, English books were expensive in Paris, so I scooped this one up when I saw it. In early August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and I flew to Dubai to help with news coverage. The guy who ran the makeshift bureau at a suite in the Hyatt had these cards made up. They were busy days and late, bleary nights and though I hauled the book everywhere – I can still see the bright green cover in my canvas carry-all – there was never time to read it until the flight back, a month later.
5. We’ve all done it. Brought a letter to the airport with the intention to find a stamp and mail it. I’d had dinner at Boqueria in Stockholm the prior night, and written a note to my son on the restaurant’s postcard. I was flying the next morning to Vilhelmina, a remote town in southern Lapland, then driving north to a hotel where I’d hoped to see the northern lights. When I did, I was too excited to sleep, so I stayed up reading The Known World.
6. I’m a bit embarrassed to think of myself reading this book on a Manhattan bus, but apparently I did. I love the old bus transfers. It’s been a while, but I believe the M10 ran down Seventh Ave. and up 8th to Amsterdam. I worked at the ABC newsroom in 1984, and I remember Peter Jennings in the elevator commented on the book in my hand. He said something like, “Bruno Bettleheim, huh?”
7. In 1990, I ventured alone to Kurdistan. I was writing a story on Kurds in western Turkey, and visiting the squalid camps full of refugees from Halabja after Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds in Iraq using poison gas. It was January, very cold and snowy, and absolutely tragic. Through the usual means of finding local contacts, I ended up meeting a Kurdish man in Diyarbakir, who helped me greatly as a guide and source. He was also the scholar who translated Pablo Neruda into Turkish. He took out a piece of paper and wrote out “The Queen” in English, from memory, and gave me The Captain’s Verses – his Turkish translation.
8. When I left New York and moved to rural New England, my friend Betsy gave me the ultimate Manhattan novel, A Time to be Born, as a going-away gift. She also provided the bookmark, the postcard from Pastis, a restaurant in my neighborhood. It seemed appropriate to bring it along when Betsy and I went to Spain together and a good one to read when I was far from New York. I missed the city terribly, but reading this book in Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao reminded me the world was a very big place.
9. I read Suite Française over Christmas in 2007. My husband, two kids and I stayed in a hotel in New York for a couple of days – crammed, as we usually were, into one room with two double beds. I was in graduate school, and I was exhausted. So while they went to museums and got Cuban sandwiches at Casa Havana on 8th Avenue, I hung back, stayed warm and read. I don’t know how my son Ray’s Paul Pierce card came into my possession, but we are all Celtics fans and Pierce was the favorite, along with Kevin Garnett.
10. It was ambitious to pack The Poisonwood Bible on a trip to Italy with our children. We had no business taking such a costly trip together that year, but my husband had work in Rome and so the rest of us decided to meet him there for a week during spring break. I organized a grueling schedule: from Venice to Florence to Rome in six days. In Venice, we took our children – 10 and 13 at the time – to Harry’s Bar, where our round of drinks (two of them non-alcoholic) cost a staggering 57 Euros – almost $80.00. We still talk about it. I read The Poisonwood Bible on the two long train rides, and to this day I still find it to be one of the most shattering novels I’ve ever read.
11. My husband and had never taken a trip alone like this, and we haven’t really since, but that year, it was urgent. I had recently finished graduate school and the experience had depleted me, while testing our marriage to near collapse. So we dropped the children at a friend’s house, and took off for a Thursday-Monday weekend in Barcelona. Vox had been sitting on my shelf for years, and its compact size made it perfect to slip into my wheelie bag – three nights, I wasn’t checking luggage. What I didn’t know – how on earth had I missed this? – was that Vox was an erotic masterpiece. I became aware of this shortly after I got comfy beside my husband on the plane and began reading. A man walked by and I swear he raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Well, good for you!” The book was originally sold in a brown paper wrapper.
12. Everyone was reading The Mists of Avalon in 1984, so I did too. At 900 pages, it was heavy as a brick but utterly engrossing. I carried it to Morocco where I met my parents for a spell, and the pages are still puckered from pool water that dripped off my hair as I read. It didn’t surprise me to discover the stationery from the magical, pre-renovated Hotel Mamounia, where the grounds were ablaze with oranges and mimosa blossoms. Each time my eye lands upon the spine of The Mists of Avalon, I picture myself in Morocco, with the book always in hand.
13. I had my second assignment in Haiti in 2012, and this time I brought Graham Greene’s classic novel about the rise of the murderous Papa Doc Duvalier. I was obsessed with visiting Hotel Oloffson, on which Greene based the fictional Hotel Trianon. The property was crumbling but still noble, with intricate woodwork that was intact after the earthquake, and an enormous tree dripping ripe mangoes. I had breakfast on the terrace and chatted with the owner. It was a shimmering day in Port-au-Prince, but The Comedians is so haunting, I still felt to be in the presence of ghosts.
14. Lit was published about the same time someone close to me was being treated for alcoholism, but even with its brilliant reviews, I refused to read it. I was hardly in the mood to crawl through more wreckage. I was traveling to Los Angeles to work and visit friends, and my first two days were free and solo contemplative time. So I bought a copy at JFK, plunged in and finished it on the flight. I love driving out of LAX in a rental car, and this time I bolted right to the beach. The book had absolutely seared me and I didn’t know what else to do.
15. Aeroflot was pretty scary back in the Soviet era, and I used to fly it a lot when I was a translator/guide for a travel company. I’m not sure on which trip I packed this book, but it was definitely 1983. I traveled via Helsinki to Moscow, as the baggage tag indicates, where I bought the postcard of a soulful painting in the Tretyakov Gallery. What is certain is that I passed through Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, where so many of Gogol’s stories, including “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat,” are set. The city where his twisted characters roam is gleaming, tense and dark, and when I visit, I love to wander the same streets and embankments they did.
16. As I prepared for a two-week graduate school residency in Singapore, I decided to pack Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I was studying for my masters in International Relations, and so hyper-focused on schoolwork that an escape into a novel seemed almost impossible. But the language in this book is so fluid and the story so engaging (I couldn’t put it down, even while horrified by U.S.’s hubris in Iraq) that oddly enough, it was a bit of a respite from all the academic treatises and Pentagon reports on the syllabus. Sometimes I ordered coffee on the balcony that overlooked the pool of the Copthorne Hotel and simply read to quiet all the noise.
Marcia DeSanctis is the New York Times bestselling author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales, 2014). She is a former television news producer who has worked for Barbara Walters, ABC, CBS, and NBC News. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, More, Tin House, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year for her essays from Rwanda, Haiti, France, and Russia.
Kate Uhry is an award-winning lifestyle and wedding photographer based in Connecticut. Her personal work has been displayed in galleries throughout the Northeast. To view her portfolio visit www.kateuhryphoto.com.