Old Guidebook, New Life
Travel Stories: In an excerpt from "Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day," Doug Mack envisions a new future for himself in a vintage guidebook
04.02.12 | 10:52 AM ET
It began as most things in my life do: awkwardly.
It was an October morning and I was at a book festival in downtown Minneapolis, killing time before meeting my mother, Patricia, with whom I was going to attend one of the readings. As I browsed through a table of musty secondhand volumes, I chuckled at all the ridiculous titles, things like The Tao of Tea Cozies and How to Get Rich in 2,451 Easy Steps. My eyes landed on one called “Europe on Five Dollars a Day.” Right, I thought. Good luck with that.
I’d heard of the book before, of course, and I knew, in the abstract, that the promise of its title was once feasible. Now, though? Now it seemed about as laughably outdated as those medieval maps with the areas outside of Europe unmarked but for the warning “here be dragons.” I thought of its potential as a conversation piece on my coffee table. I’d show it to friends, and we’d share a good laugh before resuming our usual conversation about how much our jobs sucked and how we never did anything cool anymore—too old for college shenanigans but, in our midtwenties, far too young for midlife crises. The book would sit unopened, like most coffee table tomes, its brightly colored cover serving as a piece of found art, a cheesy relic of retro design and the long-lost innocence of a bygone era. At 10 cents, it was a cheap punch line. So I bought it.
A few minutes later, I spotted Mom.
“Look what I found,” I said, waving the book and snickering. “‘Europe on Five Dollars a Day!’ Pretty funny, huh?”
But she didn’t get the joke. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t even roll her eyes, which is her usual response when I try a bit too hard to be a hip, ironic smart aleck.
Instead, her face lit up with manic glee—you’d think I was showing her a winning lottery ticket. She danced, she hugged me, she squealed, she shrieked, “Is that for me? Where did you find it?!”
As I struggled to make sense of her giddiness, my face cycled through a Grand Canyon’s worth of reds. I mean, far be it from me to confess to being one of those horrible people who’s still embarrassed by his mother even when he’s an adult. But the excited babbling, the jumping up and down, the frantic hugging: These were not the signs of a sane person. Heads turned to gawk at us. The late morning sun slanted through the windows and sought us out across the cavernous room, spreading past the aisles of book vendors, past the literary magazine booths with their hip young staffers, past the book-signing tables where melancholy authors sat fidgeting with their uncapped pens, and casting a spotlight on us, the Weirdo Duo disrupting the literary quietude. A bookseller cast us an irritated glare and let out a sigh that threatened to progress to a full-on librarian shush.
I laughed nervously and scanned the table for “Invisibility for Dummies.” I waited for Mom to calm down a bit, then stammered, “No, I . . . What?! It’s for me.”
“Bob didn’t put you up to this?” she asked, still out of breath. Bob’s my father; her husband; the man with whom she had just spent a year in Scotland, the culmination of a lifelong dream and the logical result of their shared incurable wanderlust, which turns out to be a hereditary trait.
“I’ve been looking for that,” she said. “It’s the book I used with Ann.”
Ah. Finally things were starting to make sense.
Mom was one of the original hippie travelers, touring Europe with her friend Ann for 10 weeks in 1967, when she was 21, shortly before my parents got married. That much I already knew, because she still talks about it—rather a lot, actually, and often with a wistful tone and a slight smirk on her face, as though remembering details that she never intends to tell. It was a seminal event in her life, the catalyst for her peripatetic ways and the underlying reason why my childhood story times were heavy on the travel writing, as likely to include Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” or a Calvin Trillin essay on street food as any of the classics of the children’s lit canon.
So this was her guide, the key to that famous trip, the cornerstone of her life as a traveler. The book seemed to acquire new weight in my hand. I looked down at its cover, somehow expecting that, as happens when Indiana Jones finds such relics, it would suddenly begin exhibiting supernatural powers—glowing or humming or conjuring spirits.
Mom took the book from my hand and gazed at it admiringly. “I’ve been looking for this,” she repeated.
“Yeah, apparently,” I said.
“I still have all my postcards to Bob, you know.”
“All the postcards, all the letters—they’re still around somewhere. I’m sure they’re very romantic. Or boring.” She paused, then added, brightly, “I think there’s even a letter I wrote on toilet paper! We were really on a budget.”
The fact that she still had them wasn’t particularly surprising, given that my parents seem averse to throwing out anything with words on it. This, I suppose, is the dream of all pack rats: that someday, your children will want to examine some aspect of your past, and you will be able to crow triumphantly that this—this!—is precisely why you have spent the last 40-plus years saving every scrap of paper that has come into your possession, and which you have sort-of-kind-of archived in assorted Leaning Towers of Clutter that fill your house, creating both a sense of sprawling intellectualism—so much to read, so little time!—and a more tangible feeling of fire hazard.
Actually finding a particular piece of paper was, of course, an entirely different matter. Unlikely, probably impossible.
But somehow she did it—almost immediately. I went over to my parents’ house to observe this miracle and discovered that, sure enough, she and my father—who had been back home in Minneapolis, in architecture school—had kept every last letter, postcard, and aerogram (remember those?) to each other. Most had been in the living room all along, throughout my entire childhood, crammed into shoeboxes and stashed under a coffee table along with stray kindling for the fireplace, a creepy antique duck decoy, and an impressive collection of spider webs (which is why I’d never looked under there before).
I sat on their living room floor and sifted through the contents of the boxes, taking care not to get them mixed in with the rest of the clutter scattered about the room.
From one-sentence postcards to meandering, multipage letters, they were treasure troves of observations on the profound joy of travel, the disappointing nature of certain “must-see” destinations (Louvre, this means you), the constant torments of French plumbing and lecherous Italian men, and, of course, gooshy comments about how much they missed each other. They evoked, as images of the past often do, a sense of innocence and wonder, a free-spirited peace with the world that was far removed from my own existence.
Every few minutes, after reading Mom’s description of an exotic place or thrilling adventure, I paused and ruminated in frustration, wondering once again why I’d never done anything remotely this interesting, why I’d never acted on my passed-down wanderlust. I’d done a bit of travel writing, but always felt like a phony, culling from family trips abroad and a few solo excursions to the wilds of . . . Chicago, Key West, or Seattle. I’d never been anywhere more exotic on my own.
After an adolescence and college years of résumé-padding achievement, I had found myself stagnant in life and stuck in a dead-end job as a marketing assistant. I was so exhausted and frustrated at the end of each day that I didn’t have the energy to do much other than lie on my futon and find comfort and escape in those travel books on which I’d been raised. It was, I’ll confess, the stereotypical ennui of the overeducated, underachieving middle-class kid who suddenly finds himself, much to his confusion and dismay, in adulthood.
I also had never experienced anything like the love my parents had for each other—and still have today, I’m happy to report. Each letter bore testament to their mutual heartache of separation and ended with what is still their typical sign-off, IDLY. I Do Love You. I wanted some of that for myself. My sister had gotten married over the summer, as had my college roommate. All of my friends were pairing off, getting hitched, like normal people do. I, however, seemed to be the master of awkward dates and relationships with the life span of a fruit fly.
Well, no more, I decided. If Europe could help launch my mother’s life, perhaps it could relaunch mine. And why not use this old guidebook? Even if it didn’t have the supernatural powers of an Indiana Jones relic, maybe it still had some of that old magic—maybe, like a divining rod, it could lead me to Truth, Enlightenment, Bliss, my own love story, my own gooshy letters. This would be my shortcut to Happily Ever After.
Related: Interview with Doug Mack
Reprinted from Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Mack.