Interview with Doug Mack, author of ‘Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide’

Disclosure: That even on my best day, my book reviewing skills are amateurish notwithstanding, I am good friends with Doug and have therefore opted to skip doing a book review in favor of an only sporadically serious interview on his travels and scoring his first book, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

With the impressive thoroughness of Doug’s replies, I’ll elaborate no further on our tumultuous history, filled with grudges, scars and tinted-windowed van abductions, and launch straight into the far more illuminating interview itself. (NOTE: This is the Collector’s Edition of the shorter, less goofball interview that appeared on World Hum last week. Go there if you’re pressed for time or hate mirth.)

Killing Batteries: What came first, the Five Wrong Turns hook or the resolve to pursue a book deal?
Doug Mack: The hook. I mean, I’ve always liked the idea of writing a book (or, more accurately, to have somehow written a book without actually putting in the effort), but, truthfully, I had never thought about it in tangible terms—it was sort of an idle, unpursued dream rather than a burning ambition. But when I discovered that 1963 of Europe on Five Dollars a Day and first looked through my mother’s letters from her days as a hippie Grand Tourist, that changed in approximately 2.4 seconds—it was one of those light bulb-over-the-head moments that happens in movies but not in real life. BOOK. MUST WRITE.

KB: How old were you when you landed this book deal?  
DM: I was 29 years old. Younger than Mozart when he got his first book deal, younger than Hemingway when he wrote his first symphony.

KB: How much ass did that kick?
DM: Honest answer? Okay: it kicked major ass. I still have a stupid grin affixed to my face (embarrassing as it is to admit). And that’s because I still kind of can’t believe it happened and I’m well aware of how lucky I am—I’m waiting for someone to jump out from behind a bush and point and laugh and say it’s all an epic prank and how could I not notice all the cameras this whole time … but until then, I’m just going to keep this dopey, delighted look on my face.

KB: Having seen so much of Europe now, I have to ask, are you now or have you ever been a dirty socialist?
DM: Yes. Spending time in Europe brainwashed me into believing in the central tenets of dirty socialism, namely, universal health care and widespread availability of gourmet pastries.

KB: These days, it’s tough to get an agent, never mind a publisher, to give you a second glance without an already impressive platform and readymade audience. So, how the Bachmann did you do it?
DM: It’s amazing how far your can get with a little blackmai—I mean, with an interesting hook and a lot of stubborn persistence.

Part one of that: The book has an obvious gimmick (touring Europe with a 1963 guidebook), but it  uses that quirky hook as an entry point into in something larger and more earnest—namely, a big-picture discussion of the social history of tourism in the last generation. Plus, there’s the personal-history element of following in my mother’s footsteps. So there are a number of different angles, but they all tie together—which, I hope, adds up to an interesting hook and, therefore, and interesting book.

The book is also a bit of a spoof of classic travel-memoir tropes: I’m not trekking across a desert, I’m not learning tradition crafts in a forgotten village, I’m not seeking enlightenment or the wisdom of the ancients. This is manifestly not My Year In a Quirky Sun-Dappled Village With Eccentric Locals. Instead, I’m a clichéd tourist through and through (and, in the process, attaining my own skewed version of enlightenment-or-something). And I think that for once, being  absurdist and contrarian actually helped by setting me apart and creating what I hope is an amusing, insightful remix of the standard travel-memoir formula.

So the hook helped. And then there’s Part Two: becoming a workaholic, stubborn, asocial hermit. Just kidding. Mostly. I researched and hustled—that is to say, read wearying numbers of web sites and books with titles like How to Write a Book Proposal in 972 Simple Steps!!—and wrote a proposal and got rejected by a dozen agents and kept polishing and pitching and failing and failing (repeat another dozen times), but trying to, as Samuel Beckett so wonderfully put it, “fail better.” I can’t pretend that I have some magical formula for any of this, but, eventually, after all those months of fail-tweak-fail-tweak, an agent gave me a chance and took me on. The whole process was a combination of lucky breaks and just struggling through, putting in the hours.

KB: Best place for doughnuts in Europe?
DM: Not Amsterdam, I’ll tell you that much.

KB: When you’re famous will you remember the little people that, say, proofed an early draft of your book, let you sleep on their hotel room floor one time in Vancouver and interviewed you just before the book came out to help spark promotion?
DM: The who? Just kidding. Yes, of course, of course. But I thought we agreed not to tell anyone else about that tanker of Strongbow you demanded as remuneration.

KB: [Toweling off from Strongbow bath] What with your love of aerograms and postcards, you appear to be an old school travel aficionado. What three things would you change about modern travel or the travel industry?
1.  End checked-bag fees. I don’t really mind some of the other additional charges that have popped up. For example, lack of free meals on shorter flights—okay, fine, charge extra for that. Besides, I’m just going to bring something from fresher and tastier from one of the terminal restaurants or from home. But baggage fees? Come on. That’s asinine. Nearly everyone travels with some sort of luggage, and it’s all getting on the plane somehow. So don’t encourage people to carry on even the biggest bags and hold up departure while they try to shove their taxidermy elephant into the overhead bin.

Incidentally, guidebook author Temple Fielding, one of Arthur Frommer’s foremost predecessors and competitors, had his own method for gaming the baggage-fee system. In addition to his two regular suitcases and oversized briefcase, he also traveled with a large raffia basket (full of his luxury-booze stash and a portable record player, among other things). The airlines didn’t know how to categorize the basket (“Well, sir, I don’t even know what raffia is, so we’ll just pretend we don’t see it”) so they didn’t charge him an extra-bag fee. But you’ll have to read the book for the rest of that story.

2. Make digital devices not work abroad. Consider this a modest proposal to help those of us want to be fully immersed in place but can’t seem to find the off button on our electronics: mandate that all phones and computers not work—at all—when transported out of their home countries. Force me to pay for time on an Apple IIE with a mangled keyboard at an internet cafe or to make calls on a tinny pay phone or, God forbid, to talk to a local if I want information.

Not really, of course. I want people in any given place to have the same access to digital communication, and all the benefits it brings, that I do in my home. And I want all of those benefits for myself, the visitor, as well. But there’s a point at which communication-addiction is detrimental to the travel experience—I know, I’ve been there, I’ve wasted (and that is the word) countless hours on mindless internet-hopping and status-updating, pulled away from the people and sights and sounds and culture and language of the place I’m visiting. This even happened during my trip (I talk about it in the book), a trip that was in large part a rebellion against information-overload and an embrace of old-school ignorance and reliance on wits and serendipity. Yet I still got the internet-withdrawal shakes. So maybe I need some help.

3. End the snobbery. Last winter, here in Minneapolis, there was a light rail train wrapped in a huge ad for package tours—golf, shopping, the usual—to Mexico. The main slogan, in foot-high letters: “Mazatlan for travelers not tourists.” Does that expression mean anything anymore? On the first page of my 1963 guidebook, Frommer says that it’s a book “for tourists”; he doesn’t use the word with irony or as an insult, he’s just calling them precisely what they are. There should be no shame in that (as Evelyn Waugh quipped in 1934, “The tourist is the other fellow”–someone else,  not you).

Tourism has always been, to some degree, an act of status, a statement that you have the time, money, and ability to go abroad. With the budget travel boom of the 1960s, though, it exploded and fragmented, open to more people and more ways of showing off, including not just conspicuous consumption but conspicuous frugality. Today, specific travel attitudes and methodologies are as carefully calibrated as attire worn on a first date. Which is absurd. It’s absurd when it means visiting only the most famous cities and landmarks, strictly hewing to the instructions of the latest Frommer’s or Lonely Planet. It’s equally absurd when it means avoiding cities or landmarks for the sole reason that they’re popular. The net effect is the same, an attitude that views travel as a collection of merit badges to be earned, then flaunted: Saw This, Did That, Stayed at the Four Seasons, Slept in a Ditch.
But each attitude completely misses Frommer’s essential underlying point: what matters is not finding something your friends haven’t found but appreciating and understanding that thing—that culture, that place, that food—on your own terms. You can be close-minded even off the beaten path; you can discover all kinds of interesting and wonderful things even on the most tourist-swarmed landmark.

4. Bonus demand: Free. Public. Restrooms. This isn’t specific to modern travel, but it’s still something that I’d change, if only anyone asked me. Especially in places like train stations and restaurants. Everyone, at some point during the day, will need to use a toilet. As a matter of public health and basic human decency, do not make us pay for them. It is a scientifically proven fact that a full bladder is all it takes for even the most staunchly anti-globalization, anti-capitalism individual to rejoice at the sight of a McDonald’s –and its free, clean washrooms—abroad.

KB: At their respective physical peaks, who’d win in a fight between Arthur Frommer and Tony Wheeler?
DM: Rick Steves.

KB: How many guidebook authors does it take to change a light bulb?
DM: Just one, but only after hours of exhaustive research. And all the internet commenters will complain that it was done incorrectly—and that, really, you can just use Twitter for that now.

KB: If you were going to do this trip all over again using modern resources, what would you rely on most?
DM: I would at least glance through a modern guideboook and phrasebook so that I could have a better understanding of the basics of how to understand and get by in a given place and culture. I would also use Twitter or other social media to try to make connections with locals before I left (and those people could also have helped me understand more about the culture and the background). Mind you, I enjoyed having to make the extra effort on all of those fronts—understanding the culture, meeting new people. I had to be very attuned to my surroundings, and I enjoyed that sense that my brain was always working on overdrive to figure things out. Being out of your element has its benefits. But there can and should be a balance, and sometimes I found that being ignorant and out of touch led not to lessons learned or serendipitous discoveries but merely to frustration and fatigue. See: my entire time in Venice, where I was eternally lost and where every restaurant I found seemed to have Maestro Boyardee  running the kitchen.

KB: What country am I thinking of right now?
DM: Italy. Because everyone is always thinking of Italy.

KB: Of the destinations you visited, which one best stood up to the test of time based on Frommer’s 1963 descriptions?
DM: Probably Rome. You turn any given corner there and it’s all but given that you’ll suddenly be in front of some ancient and important and impressive landmark—the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps. The same places that have been drawing delighted tourists for hundreds of years. There was a deli there, Il Delfino, that was almost exactly as Frommer had described it, and where all the patrons seemed to be older, like the could have been there since 1963. From the built environment to the general culture to the relatively high number of Frommer-recommended hotels and restaurants that were still open today, Rome was more or less what I expected based on Frommer’s (and my mother’s) descriptions.

KB: And which was the most unrecognizable?
DM: It’s a toss-up between Berlin and Madrid, since both of those cities and countries had decidedly complicated political situations back then (Iron Curtain, Franco …). Obviously, Berlin is twice the city it once was, for tourist purposes. In my guidebook, Frommer notes that you can go to East Berlin as a tourist—the wall was there to keep Easterners in, not visitors out, per se—but that it was bleak and not really worth the trip. If you did go, Frommer recommended that you “register your name with the American MPs at Checkpoint Charlie, tell them the time at which you plan to return, and if you’re not there, they’ll take action. (Let us pause to give thanks that World War III was not inadvertently started by a tardy tourist.) Today, Checkpoint Charlie is a quintessential tourist trap, where you can pay to get your picture taken with guys dressed as American and East German soldiers and then pop across the street for some Subway at the food court called Snackpoint Charlie. (Once again, I am not making any of this up.)

Also, the former East Berlin is the new tourist center of town, in part because that’s where many of the flashiest bars and restaurants are located, and in part because that’s where you can go to get your Cold War kitsch fix, an important part of the modern tourist itinerary. Take a ride in a clunky Soviet-era car; look at some Eastern Bloc architecture; buy some old Soviet military uniforms from one of the many sidewalk vendors. It’s … pretty jarring to see the Cold War themed and packaged as a tourist commodity.

KB: As a fun comparison, in each destination you visited, what would $5 buy you today?

  •     Florence: Some crappy knockoff designer sunglasses from an unofficial vendor by the Arno (but only after you bargained down from the original price and the salesman, with a practiced sigh/grin, says that he’s never, EVER made an offer this low, but …).
  •     Paris: A pain au chocolat and maybe a macaron from Gerard Mulot on the Left Bank, along with eternal, wistful memories of same, an enduring, bittersweet nostalgia for that transcendent instant when you first tasted the pastry rapture and for a shining, buttery blink of the eyes, all seemed right with the world. This is all true. Or a couple of condoms from the Eiffel Tower gift shop. Also true.
  •     Amsterdam: Aw, bro, I know this kinda shady place down a back alley, you gotta bang on this steel door, but for five bucks they’ll hook you up with a little bag of this, like, super-primo … Gouda.
  •     Brussels: A couple of chocolate bars in the shape of Manneken-Pis.
  •     Berlin: Two fake East German stamps in your passport at Checkpoint Charlie.
  •     Munich: Beer! Or a prostate cancer test from a vending machine at Oktoberfest. I promise this is a real thing. Unfortunately (or not), it does not involve a little robot hand cranking out of the machine, finger extended. In fact, it’s a little stick; you pee on it, like a pregnancy test, which you can also procure from the same machine.
  •     Zurich: Ha! Good one. Right, like you can get something for $5 in Zurich. You take a single breath of that crisp Alpine air and it sets you back 8.35 CHF, which is, like, $210.04 at the current exchange rate, though that does include VAT.
  •     Vienna:  Your choice of all manner of Mozart-themed tchotchkes. A Mozart wig, alas, will set you back quite a bit more than five dollars, but such is the price of timeless fashion.
  •     Venice:  A map, so you can figure out where the *%$@!! you are in that enchanted labyrinth-land. Or a shoddy plastic version of those famous Venetian masks.
  •     Rome:  Gelato. Gelatogelatogelato. Go to Gelateria del Teatro, near the Piazza Navona. Five bucks (or, you know, the equivalent in euros) will get you two scoops of creamy transcendence that rivals the Sistine Chapel for literal awesomeness.  (Hyperbole? Of course not.) Try the lemon. Or the chocolate-wine. Thank me later.
  •     Madrid: A ticket in the highest, most sun-blasted seats at a novillada con picadores bullfight. Available online through a Ticketmaster subsidiary. (Again, I am not making this up.)

KB: Now what country am I thinking of?
DM: Suriname.  Just to be tricky. Because that’s one country NO ONE can locate on a map (Africa? South America? South Pacific? Jupiter?).

KB: Rate the following on a scale of 1 to 10, with ‘1’ being despondent and ’10’ being unbridled euphoria:

  •     Getting a book deal:  10
  •     Realizing that you had to write the book: 3
  •     Writing a book while maintaining a semblance of a personal life:  3
  •     Finishing the manuscript: 9
  •     Having to cut 18,000 words from the manuscript: 1
  •     Checking edits by some 20 year old that’s never left the Northeast and couldn’t find Zurich on a map if someone dangled a million dollar bill in front of their face: 5(th Amendment)
  •     Final proofing of the manuscript, being that it’s the 12947th time you’ve read the damn thing and you just wish you could get on with your life: 3
  •     Rating random experiences proffered by people with ADD: 0
  •     Holding your book: 7
  •     Holding your book up to your nose and snorting deeply: 8
  •     Using a pile of your books as a snuggle pillow: 9
  •     Going to work, standing in the middle of the office, holding your book above your head and yelling “Hey cubicle monkeys! While you were naysaying my dreams and toiling at your jobs, look what I did! So, you can all just suck it!!”:  11
  •     Realizing that this is the last question: -2

DM impersonating KB: Bonus question: Where can I purchase a copy or several of this fine work of literature?
DM: Why, that’s a splendid question. The book is—

KB: Uh, I didn’t ask that question—you put in this part.
DM: Sure, if you say so. It’s now available at IndieBound or Amazon or your friendly local bookseller for a mere fifteen dollars. Mozart wig sold separately.