Travels in Europe: Reading on the Road


This is the second in a series of posts about how travel, reading, writing and communicating intersected during my recent five month European backpacking trip. I’ll start each post with questions about the topic. Please share your own ideas and experiences below.

Topic Two: Reading on the Road

Questions: What do you like to read when you travel? Do you bring along an anthology of short stories about the country you are touring? Or read a novel set in the city you visit? Maybe you’ve used Salon’s Literary Guide to choose a memoir or historical fiction about the place? Do you buy as you go, pack a few library books..or leave them all at home? Maybe you find it distracting to read on the road? Maybe your days are too full or your nights too wild to fit in reading time…and maybe it’s better that way?

My Experience:

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“Birth and death are the ultimate bookends, and between them a muddied narrative unfolds. In the course of it there crop up moments, experiences or places which in retrospect, rather like faces in an identification parade, we recognize as markers: the experience of first love, perhaps, a song or a book, the dread moment when we first needed spectacles, the impact of some particular corner of the world.” — Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Trieste is a marker for Morris, and her book about the city is one for me. I finished her great tribute to Trieste only days before arriving there in late May. Her poetic and personal look at the historic port city was a perfect introduction to my visit. If I hadn’t been so busy wandering in awe among the fabulous streets and piazzas, I might have sat on the Molo Audace and read it again.

Morris’s book was the most touching and memorable, but all the books I read while roaming Europe (whether or not I liked them or even finished them!) now hold special meaning because of where and when I read each of them: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman helped me survive a sleepless night in a dreadful Prague hostel, Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There cracked me up during dreary days in Warsaw and Fever Pitch put me in a football frame of mind just a few weeks before the World Cup. I was halfway through Freya Stark’s biography Passionate Nomad when I made a visit to her Asolo home, and I devoured the Letters of Vincent Van Gogh in the days before and after my visit to his Amsterdam museum.

I left Van Gogh’s book at a hostel in Berlin, donated The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to another in Ljubljana and gave The Sun Also Rises to a traveler on his way to Spain. But I did break down and ship a few books home, explaining in packages to various family members that they should read and enjoy — and then please save for me! I’m very glad I did this because I find myself flipping through the worn pages often, returning to a place or a memory from my trip. I didn’t buy many gifts for myself while traveling, so these books have become special keepsakes from my journey.

There were times when I was happy not be reading. I was glad that I was bookless (besides my guidebook, of course) during the first week of my journey. It took awhile to transition to alert-female-solo-traveler and adjust to the time zone, language and budget backpack mentality. It was easiest, and quite comfortable, to read my first book, Driving Over Lemons, while visiting a peaceful Andalucian farm north of Seville a few weeks into my trip. And my second, South from Granada, while snug at another farmstay in the Alpujarras.

I found it harder to concentrate on a book when I was moving every few days, so most of my reading was done when I spent a week or more in the same place. But as I settled into my new nomadic lifestyle, I did identify ideal reading times –- during a marathon train ride, in the hostel lounge on a rainy afternoon, over a picnic lunch in the city park. Bookstores were also excellent read-n-relax locations when I craved a low-key day. And just as the books I read held special meaning for me, so too did the shops where I bought them. Later this week I’ll reminisce about my favorite European bookstores.