For some travelers, there’s no place like home

The author resisted her childhood vacations in the Catskills. The author resisted her childhood vacations in the Catskills.
(New York Times/File 2000
By Dan Wakefield
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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This is the perfect travel book for these economic times; it will make you feel relieved if you can’t afford to go anywhere. Lynne Sharon Schwartz is not the customary kind of travel writer who paints sunny scenes of blissful beaches, majestic mountains, and romantic villages, nor does she decorate her narrative with snapshots of charming local characters, dancing, fishing, or basket weaving. Schwartz is a distinguished novelist (“Leaving Brooklyn’’), short-story writer (“Referred Pain’’), and essayist (“Ruined by Reading’’), and this book is a kind of meditation on travel, weaving personal experience with insights from sources ranging from Cyril Connolly and Václav Havel to the Tao Te Ching. A fairly frequent but often reluctant traveler, Schwartz makes us think more deeply than the tempting guidebooks and glamorizing memoirs of far-off places.

Schwartz reminds us of the kind of disorientation and panic that can come when we find ourselves in a place we don’t know and don’t speak the language. Waking abruptly in the darkness of a Greek hotel room where the lights aren’t working, she vows, “If I outlive this darkness I’ll never leave home again.’’ She quotes Camus: “There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing.”

While Camus believed that travel “brings us back to ourselves,’’ Schwartz feels more in possession of herself at home, at her desk, writing, and it’s “while traveling that I feel bereft.’’ She is not alone, and quotes in support such varied writers as Sinclair Lewis in “Dodsworth’’ (“the irritation of getting tickets, packing, finding trains . . . digging out passports, and fighting through customs’’) and W.G. Sebald in “The Emigrants’’ (“sitting in the train, the country passing by . . . the looks of fellow passengers - all of it is torture to me’’).

Schwartz is “aware of the many reasons why travel is a good and desirable thing, reasons so obvious they hardly need enumerating.’’ She knows “so many people . . . [who] live from trip to trip, in a state of eager anticipation or radiant afterglow. They come home ruddy, renewed, exhilarated.’’ But when she listens to the stories of her friends’ adventures she is just as glad that “I was spared all that exertion, the assault of so much novelty.’’

Like all good writers, Schwartz dares to speak the unspeakable, to dig below surface feelings and accepted wisdom. “Preferring to stay put is practically disreputable,’’ she observes, “in a cultural climate that prizes mobility, haste, multitasking and optimum consumption of sights, sounds, and experiences. An economy rooted in the culture of greed must place a premium on consuming rather than producing anything, even experience. . . . To keep the whole machinery running and growing, we need to consume other cultures at the great mall of travel, and we grow bloated on them.’’

Schwartz’s ambivalence toward travel dates to her childhood, when she “resisted the Catskills from a tender age,’’ finding her parents’ favorite vacation destination a place of social conformity and “crushing mountain greenery.’’ Despite its lakes and swimming holes the Catskills were far from “real water, an ocean,’’ which Schwartz finds essential as “it is the edge, the place of escape . . . the place of no artificial boundaries, no gates or fences or official border crossings set up as they are on land.’’ Yet even on ocean-side vacations the author seems edgy, uncomfortable; a Sicilian beach resort “masking as a simple fishing village’’ seems so “excessively picturesque . . . it was almost a parody.’’ On vacation in Jamaica she watches the other tourists “conscientiously applying tanning lotions to their bodies, even to their eyelids, and the soles of their feet . . . as if offering themselves extreme unction. Forgive us for being who we are, white, well-off, and for provoking and accepting the barely-veiled hostility of our hosts.’’

Schwartz admits, “For a person who is reluctant to move, I’ve been around. . . . I usually go when the opportunity arises, torn as I am between curiosity and inertia, desire and fear.’’ She has been to Bologna, Paris, Orkos, Athens, Kingston, Miami Beach - and, of course, upstate New York. She takes it all in with a keen eye for the inner as well as the outer landscapes of her travels, and seems to have enjoyed the writing most of all, since “I didn’t have to move physically, but I had been far afield and then circled back.’’ This is not a “beach book’’ but a “home by the fireside book.’’ If you are tempted to take off on some impulsive journey, the author even offers justification of “non-doing’’ from the Tao Te Ching: “Do you have the patience to wait/ till your mud settles and the water is clear?/ Can you remain unmoving/ till the right action arises by itself?’’

Dan Wakefield’s memoir “New York in the Fifties’’ was recently republished.

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Counterpoint, 175 pp., $23

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