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Book Review: A Year in the World – Journeys of a Passionate Traveller by Frances Mayes

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After one brief, disastrous journey (to Bali as a green young Australian, with the sister of my boyfriend, who insisted I do the bargaining for her, then complained about the results), I’ve always travelled alone. Sure there are times when it is tough, but mostly it is wonderful – you talk to waiters, to people on buses, to passing strollers. You get enmeshed in the local world in the way that a couple — that self-contained unit — never do.

If I ever set out on a journey with the specific aim of writing a book, I’ll certainly do the same thing. That intention was only confirmed by reading Frances Mayes’ A Year in the World. The book is subtitled “Journeys of a Passionate Traveller”, yet the only passion she seems to feel is for the husband with whom she travels. As a self-contained unit they sweep (not around the world, as the title misleadingly proclaims), but around the Mediterranean, like a couple cuddling in their living room watching a video.

The result is a book that reads like a school report of “what I did on my holidays”. Well, that’s a little unfair; there is a reasonably sophisticated account of the culture of the destinations – although the sophisticated habit of tossing in local words when English would do perfectly well does become irritating. And it seems every meal, even every instance of window-shopping, is recounted in agonising detail:

“We stop to gaze at a window arranged with trays of candied fruits, gleaming like jewels. The prince perhaps partook of cedro candito, those huge gnarly lemons, almost all peel, as well as the whole candied oranges and lemons, and the array of marzipan fruits, and piles of torrone bianco con fighi secchi, white candy with nuts, and dried figs.”

The other irritating thing is the details of travels that we really don’t want, don’t need, to know. As the kids who gather at the youth club next to my house would say: “Duh. Too much information.”

“Three hours later Ed becomes violently ill. I am alarmed at his fever and clammy skin. He spends the night in the bathroom throwing up. His stomach feels ripped and turned inside out … he’s so weak he cannot lift his arm. I’m on the phone calling our doctor in Italy, who says this probably is simple food poisoning, not salmonella, since the heaving has stopped after only a few hours. I write names of medicines he recommends, hoping Hafid can help at the pharmacy… Hafid arrives and says Ed ate too much, it often happens when guests come to Fez because the food is so good.
By midmorning Hafid has found various pharmaceuticals, and Ed is sleeping as if in a coma. I try not to think of the man who dies in Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, leaving his neurotic wife to become a harem prisoner.”

To translate that, he got food poisoning. Everyone knows the symptoms. We can do without the description, and the hysteria. You feel absolutely lousy. Then you recover. With a bit of care you are about as likely to die as from a stubbed toe.

Mayes is well known for her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, which is a decent-enough read about restoring an old, abandoned house and living in a foreign country. But she’s someone who should obviously stay at home; the road really doesn’t suit her. If you’d like to really travel this part of the world, I’d recommend Tim Macintosh-Smith’s Travels With a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah, with a writer who embraces the cultures and lives he encounters. And he travels alone.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.