Sunday, October 14, 2012

Week 42 - The Magic of Travel

14 Oct - 20 Oct:
I've been around the world a couple of times or maybe more, I've seen the sights, I've had delights on every foreign shore.  Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees by Wally Johnson and Bob Brown

Château d'Ussé in the Loire Valley is the birthplace of Charles Perrault's (and Walt Disney's) Sleeping Beauty. You know the one: the princess pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and dozes off for a hundred years?
Okay, so that story's taken.

How about this one? A deformed bell-ringer of this stain-glassed cathedral gets into all sorts of strife with a woman named Esme.

Also done?

Yes, I have travelled recently, and I am determined to add the experience to my writer's toolbox, but when I was sitting in a cafe along the Champs-Elysées, trying to see something interesting about Paris besides what I can read in Fodors or Lonely Planet, I realised that I knew nothing about France. I will probably never know anything about France, about what it's like to grow up there, about national pride, about how the driver of a Ferrari can zoom past a beggar without faltering in her conversation on her cell phone. And so I sat back and enjoyed the wine. I didn't not write - I just didn't write about France. How could this be? I was confused.
But still, I am determined....
Upon arriving home, I was heartened when I read William Zinsser's On Writing Well. He warns us about succumbing to platitudes when writing about places. "Half the sights seen in today's sightseeing are quaint, especially windmills and covered bridges; they are certified for quaintness. Towns are nestled - I hardly ever read about an unnestled town in the hills."
And although Zinsser is focused on non-fiction, I think his advice is valid wherever setting is showcased in a story: "If travel is broadening, it should broaden more than just our knowledge of how a Gothic cathedral looks or how the French make wine. It should generate a constellation of ideas about how men and women work and play, raise their children, worship their gods, live and die."
Aha, so I was right. My tourist experience was far too shallow. But was it?
Zinsser suggests: "So when you write about a place, try to draw the best out of it. But if the process should work in reverse, let it draw the best out of you."
The Cats of Château Villerambert-Julien

The cats watched our rentals pull into Château Villerambert-Julien with the indifference that only cats have, but when the children bounded up the path to pat them, the cats disappeared into blackberry bushes and over stone walls.

The owner greeted us cordially and led us to the Old Chapel, the interior stonework painted white, barrels propped in the corners, the arched ceiling framing a modern chandelier. A long, black table, adorned with wine glasses awaiting the next tasting of the day, dominated the centre of the room.

Monsieur Julien tactfully suggested that the children play outside. "Zay weel get bored," he said, his smile as honed as the wines that bear his name. I volunteered to amuse the children, and to drive - a double blessing on any wine-tasting outing - and so the five youngsters, aged between three and ten, accompanied me in a self-guided tour of the estate.

The day was clear and warm, the children were bursting with spirit, and I was in a writer's daze. Our lively group marched past the processing shed where vats as tall as the roof loomed like thunder clouds. We surveyed the rows of vines from the bank behind the shed, an old, orange plough resting in the foreground the only sign of modern times. And when we had run out of places to explore, we turned onto the track behind the château that would lead us back to our starting point.

I glanced back the way we had come and saw a ginger cat dart across the track and bend itself under a wooden door. Returning my attention to the scenery, I scouted the horizon for an end to the vineyard, but the rows kept on going, around the earth to Australia perhaps. The children sprinted onward and the distant flicker of a brindle tail disappearing over the rise told me that the children were not interesting in grapes, or wine, or France for that matter - they wanted to meet the cats of Château Villerambert-Julien.

A pitiful meow tinkled through the country quiet. The children were huddled around a back door of the château, tapping the glass and laughing. A cat was stuck inside. Poor thing. When I reached the excited youngsters, I cupped by hands over my eyes and peered through the dirty glass. "Oh my God." The small room was flooded with cats. The startled eyes of fifty felines fixed on me from pet boxes stacked ceiling high against one wall, from litter boxes, and from atop a cupboard close to the door. But it was the table in the centre of the room, overflowing with cats like it was a life-raft and the tiles were the sea, that struck me. So many cats.

I nursed my fascination back to my taller travelling companions. "So how was the wine?" I later asked my brother.

"Very nice," he replied. "His reds have a distinctive taste that I can't quite place."

"Is that right?" I say.

Exercise 83. "Practice writing [a] travel piece, and just because I call it a travel piece I don't mean you have to go to the Mojave Desert or Mombasa. Go to your local mall, or bowling alley, or day-care center." "Find [the] distinctive traits." (From On Writing Well by William Zinsser.)

Exercise 84. For those not keen or not able to travel abroad, consider this: "What could be luckier for a nonfiction writer than to live in America? The country is unendingly various and surprising. Whether the locale you write about is urban or rural, east or west, every place has a look, a cast of characters and a set of cultural assumptions that make it unlike any other place." (On Writing Well, William Zinsser.) Write a story that takes the reader somewhere.


  1. It's been many years since I've read Zinsser's On Writing Well; now I have a reason to give it the once-over again.

    Your travels are enviable. They make me want to leave this little burg and experience the cats nestled in that quaint little town. :o)

    The story was an excellent example of describing your trip without overdescribing it and being focused on the scenery. You wrote about cats and wine, and in the meantime gave me a spectacular glimpse of the French countryside, complete with an air of haughtiness for which the French are famous. And I could almost taste the wine. Distinctive...I can't quite place it.

    Oh...and the dialect was perfect. Your use of that simple, four-word sentence really put me at the table in the Château.

    Thanks for the great article reminding me that so much can be said about one thing while writing about another.

  2. Thanks, Mike. Zinsser sounds like such a funny guy. He almost had me wanting to be a journalist... and then I came to my senses.