By the final episode of MTV's "Real World Paris," Ace, the all-American hunk of the seven strangers, is still immune to the city's charms. The shot of him scrawling "Going Back to Normalville" on his moving boxes says it all: Neither weeks of chateau living nor the sweet job writing a travel guidebook for Frommer's has mitigated Ace's homesickness. The sixth-year Georgia Southern University student, a former Zeta Tau Alpha big man on campus and MTV "King of Cancun" winner, says he misses Wal-Mart and Waffle House.
The rest of the cast shows scarcely more interest in the city or in their jobs, preferring to fulfill every facet of the "Ugly American" stereotype. The show was filmed in Paris at the height of Franco-American tensions over Iraq, which only adds political significance to the fact that these are a bunch of spoiled, whiny twentysomethings, all seemingly bereft of writing or researching talent.
That Frommer's hasn't published their insights on Paris beyond a website shouldn't surprise anyone who has watched the cast baldly lie to their editor about whether they actually visited their assigned sites, when video footage exists showing them copying information from other websites instead. The only surprise is that Frommer's signed on at all, particularly given Arthur Frommer's previously expressed skepticism at guides written by, in his own words, "an inexperienced student making his or her first trip to the city or country in question."
Frankly, I was indignant, especially since I have worked at exactly that job for Let's Go, which has been hiring college students since 1960 to put out what is now a series of more than 40 books. So I got together some Let's Go colleagues to sound off on the episodes. Two Paris researcher-writers, Neasa Coll and Will Adams, readily agreed, as did Jesse Andrews, who has been a researcher in Germany and an editor and managing editor in the office.
Over cheap red wine, we read aloud from official MTV episode guides. Sample passage, referring to a Frommer's associate publisher's frustration with Ace: "Suspecting the 'Real World' posse is feeding him lies, Brice [Gosnell] is all, what up with the Ace Train? . . . Master B gives the budding travel writers a stern warning not to do something like that again."
MTV set the cast up with a lushly furnished chateau, equipped with a hot tub and high-speed Internet. Meanwhile, Adams recalls saving money researching last summer by subletting a tiny ground-floor room of an upscale building. He shared the room with an ever-growing group of immigrants of uncertain legal status.
"I didn't have a fast Internet connection anywhere near my place," he says. "I didn't have AC during the worst heat wave France has ever seen. I had six Moroccans in a room, and I couldn't type my copy during Muslim prayer hours!"
As for Coll, she lived in a closet-size sixth-floor walkup with a bed that rolled out of the wall like a drawer. "I was looking for an apartment and still handed in my writing on time," she says, as we watch a videotape of the "Real World" gang missing yet another deadline and Ace freely admitting that instead of writing, he was watching TV at McDonald's.
The Let's Go crowd is more sympathetic to Ace's decision to turn to McDonald's than you might expect. Andrews, for one, describes breaking down on the job in Berlin and heading to Burger King. "Terrible things had been done to that burger, mostly involving mayonnaise," he recalled. "So I faced up to the fact that I would be eating bratwurst for eight weeks."
Adams offers another defense: "McDonald's is the only place in Paris that serves cold tap water for free."
They are less forgiving when it comes to the Frommer's editorial staff. "Brice sold out," says Andrews. "He sacrificed his integrity to give these kids a dream vacation they obviously didn't appreciate, reinforcing the stereotype that 40-year-old oafs with glasses and binoculars are the only competent travel writers."
After watching the "Real World" crowd fumble and lie through their job, what could possibly convince anyone that mere college students could write travel guides? The Let's Go researchers count off adjectives: Motivated. Uninhibited. Cheap.
The "Real World" cast, meanwhile, seemed to be none of those things. They insulated themselves in their chateau, instead of getting out and having real adventures with real Parisians, and they missed out on the element of struggle, which is not merely inherent to research and writing, but is inherent to the experience of travel itself.
Irin Carmon, a student at Harvard University, is a researcher-writer for Let's Go Travel Guides. Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears the third Sunday of the month. She can be reached through www.irincarmon.com.