I’m gonna level with you. I’ve got nothing to write about. I’ve been in Minneapolis for a week and I’ve been so exhausted and distracted that I haven’t even thought about work until a few minutes ago. So, I’m gonna do what all over-extended writers do and recycle material. At least I’m up front about it, unlike the Pope.
So, I’m posting a excerpt from my interview for my fan club in Bangalore. That’s right, I have a fan club in Bangalore, India. Don’t you? They haven’t sent me any membership figures, but it’s a really huge city, so I’m gonna guess it’s in the tens of thousands. Back me up on this Siri.
So without further effort on my part, here’s this week’s moment of travel writing weirdness…
Tell us about the funniest and scariest incidents that happened while on your journeys.
Funniest: One time, I was stuck in Bologna airport’s ‘express parking lot’ for 20 minutes because I couldn’t figure out how to use the auto-pay machine, which had one button, one slot and no directions. And it wasn’t just me, I was with a Lonely Planet colleague – between the two of us we’d been traveling for, oh, 100 years and been to something like 1,435 countries, yet these two hardened travel professionals could not figure out how to get out of this damn parking lot. We sat there in the car for a while, then backed out and looked for an exit manned by a human. Struck out. Then walked back to the machine to puzzle over it some more and then suddenly this disembodied voice croaks out of the machine in Italian “Can I help you with something?” I imagined that this guy and his buddies had been monitoring our actions for a good ten minutes on some camera. So, my colleague meekly bleats in English, “Um, can you tell us how to get out of here?” at which point we both disintegrated into exhaustion-fueled hysterical laughter. I was in tears. It was 20 minutes before I could safely drive again. We finally sorted the machine out and promised each other we’d never speak of that embarrassing incident again (oops).
Scariest: A freak series of unlikely events and schedule changes in 2004 caused me to miss being a part of both the Asian tsunami and a violent train derailment in Australia, all within the same week. I lost my travel nerve for several weeks after that.
Ok, nice and simple, what does it really take to be a travel writer?
Freakish work ethic, boundless travel endurance, the constitution of an ox, wine and a good thesaurus.
If you were to construct a city of your own, assembled from the places and sites taken from all the cities you’ve visited, what would the city have?
It’d have to be a really big city. Norway’s mountains (backdrop), Australia’s food, Bagan’s temples, Luxembourg City’s valley and ramparts, Salzburg’s Hohensalzburg Fortress, Hong Kong’s skyline, New York’s Central Park, Singapore’s metro, Rome’s ruins, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral, London’s museums, Moldova’s wine cellars, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Venice’s canals, Granada’s Alhambra, Irish pubs on every other block, Bergen’s harbor, Romania’s monasteries, women from Spain, Romania, Germany, Norway and Japan (I like a good range) and Italian public fountains flowing with Strongbow cider. Oh hell, throw in an Icelandic glacier too.
Some lessons you’ve learnt from all your journeys-personal and professional.
• Never take a taxi in Bucharest.
• Learn the following phrases in every language you encounter: ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’, ‘delicious!’, ‘you are beautiful’, ‘I broke the toilet again’, ‘that was like that when I got here’, ‘yes, I am David Beckham’s brother’.
• Walk a new city as much as possible.
• Check to make sure that your very expensive digital camera with numerous delicate moving parts is not in your day-bag before you go to the beach.
• Never eat at a restaurant that has pictures of its dishes out in front or that is located within two blocks of any major tourist site.
• In Italy “five minutes” means an hour.
• Never take directions from a drunk person.
• No matter what terrible thing has just happened, if your mom asks you how you are doing, just say “fine.”
• If you buy and wear a t-shirt printed with the name of the city that you’re visiting before you have returned home you are a geek.
• Amsterdam prostitutes do not like to have their pictures taken.
• There’s always room for wine.
Your personal favorites.
The best places for:
• Food – Australia
• Partying – Spain
• Solitude and introspection – Myanmar
• Natural beauty – Norway
• Nice People – Ireland
• Art and architectural beauty – Italy
• Shopping – France
• Good looking people – My house
Of all the stereotypes about people of most countries- The French and love, Italian erotica, Chinese secrecy etc etc, could you bust some myths for us? What are the common features of peoples of different countries?
I’ve thought about this at great length and I can only come up with a single commonality of the people from all the places I’ve visited: All bus drivers are assholes.
But seriously, don’t you ever get tired of traveling all the time?
Yes. Even if you’re not working, it’s exhausting to be on the move constantly and in unfamiliar surroundings. I find that three months is my optimum length of non-stop travel. After that, fatigue and Travel Apathy take hold and I start fantasizing about mundane stuff like sleeping in the same bed for a couple weeks in a row and having a good long conversation with a native English speaker.
After getting into travel writing and exploring the world, does home look different?
In my case, yes. I’ve belatedly realized that Minneapolis (my home town) is one of my favorite places on Earth. Not just because I know it like the back of my hand (because I don’t anymore), but because it has an exquisite mix of food, culture and outdoors options, it’s relatively small, affordable, the museums are top notch, the theatre scene is second only to New York, people are (mostly) nice and I don’t need to make miracles happen to get high speed internet. Unfortunately, our public transportation stinks and in January, February and March, you’d rather be anywhere else in the world. Even Berlin.
Paradoxical issues. If work is all about touring places, what do you do for a vacation?
Sleep late and watch movies.
What would be the most interesting chapters in Leif Pettersen’s biography? Oh and just in case, what would it be called?
My voluminous and poignant romantic episodes aside, I think the most interesting chapter in my life won’t be written until 2008. Yes, I’m predicting the future. I can get away with it because if I’m wrong, this interview will be so buried by then that no one will be the wiser anyway. Hey, it works for the Bush administration. Also 2003, the year I started this odyssey, was a doosie…
Titles aren’t my strength, but if I had to pick one I’d say “Greatest Travel Writer in History and Really Good Kisser – The Leif Pettersen Story
One more conventional question(the last one, we promise). What would you say to all the enthusiastic kids that want to jump in to travel writing? (Please feel free to be politically incorrect).
Overall, it’s fantastic, but just like any job there’s facets that really suck. Travel can be exhausting on its own, but then trying to be productive while battling culture shock and negotiating an unfamiliar city to procure information from people that usually have better things to do can be downright dispiriting. There’s also a loneliness factor that varies depending on how long you’re on the road (incessantly in my case) and how amenable your groupies are to meeting you in foreign cities and lending a hand. In other words, perversely, travel writing often takes the fun out of travel. On the flip side, the potential for creativity, variety and unique experiences is hard to beat.
It’s really a sadistic, constantly swinging mood pendulum. A good example was two weeks ago: I’d just turned in my Lonely Planet Tuscany work to general acclaim, I had a couple exciting new job opportunities staring me in the face and I actually started to feel like I was really getting somewhere in this nutty career. One week later I spent half a day trying and failing to get someone from the Spanish Tourism Bureau on the phone (they’d ignored my advance emails) and when I arrived at their offices, I was loudly accused of being a con artist in search of freebies (which I had never requested) by a knee-jerk, self-important official even before I could say ‘hello’. After I was allowed to present some credentials they calmed down and actually helped me (including lavishing me with the aforementioned free stuff that I didn’t need), but I was still pretty bitter and demoralized about the whole thing, as you can see.
I’ve got the indomitable perseverance, nuclear meltdown prolificacy and dangerous caffeine addiction parts of this job whipped. It’s the thick skin part that I’m still working on.