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Travel Blog  •  Tom Swick  •  01.13.06 | 8:52 AM ET

imageKey West is a hard place to leave. (All of the people I talked to—Americans as well as Eastern Europeans—said they stayed during the hurricanes.) Yet I drove away happy to be returning to work. All weekend I envied the authors up on stage, but on Monday I felt blessed, thinking that while many of them would be retreating back into their studies to work on books, I was heading toward a newsroom where calls, e-mails, colleagues awaited. Sunday my story on Bardonecchia, Italy, had run; I wondered how it had been received; by afternoon I’d have the proof of next Sunday’s column. All weekend the speakers had felt important and in demand; now it was my turn. For the more solitary ones, the weekend must have been like a brief foray into the real world—greeting people, making conversation, being sociable—while for me it was an escape from it.

Of course the return is rarely what we make it out to be. I had 284 e-mail messages, only about 20 of which were of any interest. One was from my godson in Bangkok, thanking me for my birthday wishes. His birthday is in November. It takes a long time for e-mail to get from Thailand to Florida. There were a few submissions from freelancers. There was a letter from a freelancer politely asking about the status of a story I’ve been holding for a year. How does it happen that I reject the majority of stories I receive yet struggle to find space for the ones I accept? A longtime freelancer in San Francisco, who always closes his letters with “peregrinations,” (how can you not publish a writer like that?) said his finances are so bad he’ll probably have to leave the city. An American in Japan wrote to say that he was interested in writing for me. I replied to him with another paradox: that budgets are tight, local stories in demand, yet he’s doing exactly what an aspiring travel writer should do: living abroad, learning another language, getting to know a foreign culture. An e-pal in Perm said she was getting ready to defend her dissertation on Russian travelers to America in the 19th Century. A reader wrote asking me for information about someone gone missing from a cruise ship.
There was one letter about Bardonecchia. It was from Margaret, the middle school teacher whose classes I sometimes visit. I like talking to middle school students because they’re still enthusiastic, most of them, not yet concerned about being cool. And here, in South Florida, they’ve had more international experience at 12 than I had at 20. Most were born in other countries, and most speak a language other than English. It’s a generation that is giving a lie to the image of the monolingual American.

In December I spoke to Margaret’s classes about writing, stressing the importance of originality, surprise, using the unexpected word or phrase, avoiding clichés. It’s hard enough to recognize clichés at 12, let alone to do so in a second language. Two weeks after my visit I received a large envelope in the mail. Opening it up I found dozens of what turned out to be funny, handwritten letters. Margaret had told the students to write me thank you notes without using the words “thank you.”

About the Bardonecchia story, she said she had asked the students to pick out sentences and then write their own using the same structure. On that note I could go home content.

But first I picked up the pamphlet I keep atop my books, “Travel and the Sense of Wonder,” by John Malcolm Brinnin. I had told Pico I’d send him a copy of the keynote address from the 1991 seminar. Opening it up, I read a sentence with him in mind. “From Marco Polo’s pictures of a brutish territory not yet called Siberia to Jan Morris’s descriptions of the terraced promenades of Simla, we have seen how imagination can turn a location into an event and fix it permanently into consciousness. In that process, the carelessness of time is brought to account, arrested for moments the sum of which we call history.”

Then I turned to the passage I read to travel writing students. It is about a man “whose meek address and mute pathos gave him the air of a reference looking for a subject.” Year after year Brinnin would see him, in Scotland, Trieste, Odessa. In Taormina, sitting in a piazza where a wedding party was gathered, Brinnin looked up and there he was again. He asked the man if he was a relative of the bride or groom. No. A friend perhaps? No. “A long pause. ‘Oh, I go to everything,’ he said, ‘christenings, funerals, weddings. I love to see life happening.’”

I made the copy and sent it to Pico.

—South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick has been guest blogging this week. Previously: Monday’s post, Tuesday’s post, Wednesday’s post and Thursday’s post.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

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