French Impressions: Catherine Watson on literary travel writing and memoir
22 Wednesday Aug 2012
Baby Boomers, Catherine Watson, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, France, Hemingway, Home on the Road by Catherine Watson, Mark Twain, memoir writing, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Book Awards, Napoleon Bonaparte, Paris, Richard Halliburton, Roads Less Traveled by Catherine Watson, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Society of American Travel Writers, The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year, travel writing and photography, women and travel
Catherine Watson is a travel writer, photographer and writing coach who teaches literary travel writing and memoir in university-level workshops in the United States and abroad.
She was the first Travel Editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and remained its chief travel writer and photographer from 1978 to 2004.
Her travel essays have appeared in 14 anthologies and two of her own collections, “Home on the Road’’ (Syren, 2007) and “Roads Less Traveled,” (Syren, 2005). Both were Minnesota Book Awards finalists.
Watson’s national awards include the top two in her field—The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Photographer of the Year. Catherine Watson is the 2012 Distinguished Educator in the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education.
She divides her at-home time between a 1926 cottage in Minneapolis and an 1869 farmhouse that she restored in historic Galena, Illinois. Visit Catherine’s Web site at: www.catherinewatsontravel.com
AWP: What is it about women and travel?
CW: Why is it so important to so many of us? I think a lot has to do, at least historically, with the more sheltered role women traditionally have played or been required to play in Western culture. Women of past generations, including my mother and grandmother, grew up wanting to travel but couldn’t—whether the reasons were propriety or poverty or perceived priorities.
But now those restraints have loosened, and international travel isn’t a distant dream anymore. Now, even with high air fares, it’s within reach for anyone in the middle class, male or, happily, female alike.
You know that old pop song with this refrain—“Go where you wanna, wanna go… Do what you wanna, wanna do….’’ ? I heard it on the radio this week, while I was driving back to Minneapolis from northern Minnesota, and I reacted the way I have every time I’ve heard it for what must be 30 years. It made me want to step on the gas, shoot right past my own exit, and keep on going to Somewhere Else. In this case, I chose to go home, but it was MY choice, not anyone else’s.
AWP: Some women are predisposed, each in her own way, toward the passion for travel—through fantasy, family or a cultural context. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. What do you think?
CW: All of the above, especially the predisposition. I’d even be tempted to say it’s genetic. Some people—not just women—want to see the world. And some want to stay home.
Oddly, this difference gets more pronounced—and, I think, more gender-related—as people age: Many women, after their children are grown and launched, seem to reinvent themselves. Fewer men, in my experience, do that—perhaps because their roles change less as they age.
But for women, especially in their 50s and beyond, the impulse to travel may be something they had to put on hold while their home and family roles were top priorities. Now they can take advantage of the free time, good health and financial independence that so many Baby Boomers share. Never before in history have so many women—or men—been granted this amazing coincidence
AWP: What sparked your interest in other cultures?
CW: It was a long combination of things: Fantasy, family and something I can’t label—fate, for lack of a better word. I truly don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to travel.
My mother was Canadian. Her mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants and didn’t speak English till she was five. My father came from Montana, which sounded about as exotic to a little girl in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as Canada did.
My father was stationed in Europe during WWII, and his stories are some of my earliest memories. I loved hearing about London blackouts and pea-soup fogs, about the elegant women in Paris (“you’d never know there had been a war,’’ he told me once), and about the small chateau near Chartres where he and fellow officers lived after the Invasion of Europe. I knew what the Eiffel Tower looked like before I’d ever seen a picture of the Washington Monument.
I spent my childhood reading my father’s collection of Tarzan books with my best friend, Karen, then inventing and acting out our own Tarzan adventures, which made “Little Women’’ and playing “bride’’ seem pretty pale. When I was a little older, I started reading archaeology books, and that stayed a passion until I was in college and worked on a dig in Lebanon in 1963.
But what really did it is what my four younger siblings and I regard as the best part of our childhoods: Classic family road trips, in spades. My father saved his vacation all year so we could take off for 5 or 6 weeks at a time each summer and drive around the country. We did it for 15 summers, most of it with a silver travel trailer (an Avion, not an Airstream), on trips that ranged from the Arctic Circle to the Yucatan, all Canadian provinces and all U.S. states.
We kids didn’t exactly take these trips for granted, but we took them in stride—that is, we took them as a given. Trips were something we just DID. I don’t remember that we kids discussed how different our summers were from our friends’—they just WERE.
My parents were gone before the enormity of those trips hit me—thousands of miles a year, before there were KOA campgrounds or RV parks, and they brought us all home safe every time. Now I understand the preparation that took, and it amazes me. Before our first trip into Mexico, for example, they both took 2 years’ of night-school Spanish.
AWP: Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French and reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does this hold true with your experience living abroad? How do we understand this statement today?
CW: Napoleon, of course, thought Paris was the center of civilization, but he had a point. Whether it’s Paris or some other foreign city or just a village in some other country, I think it is important for all Americans—not just women—to see life from a different culture’s viewpoint. And to see ourselves.
As a nation, we still act as if we live on a giant island. That keeps us, as individuals, from feeling interconnected with the rest of the world. The world is changing faster than we are, and too many of us don’t understand that. But spend some time outside our borders, with your eyes and ears open, and you will never again think we are law unto ourselves.
AWP: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned?
CW: That the people you meet will touch your heart far more than the famous sights you see.
AWP: Can you share experiences from your personal diaries?
CW: I shared the best of my experiences with Star Tribune readers over the years and then put my favorites into my two books. There’s still a lot to work with, though I can’t tackle that here. I got a diary for Christmas when I was 9—the same year I got a Brownie Hawkeye box camera—and I’ve kept a journal ever since. The early entries were pretty sporadic, but I’ve done it steadily (not daily, but steadily) since I was 13. That’s about three bookshelves worth of journals, so it’s better if I just try to answer further questions from memory!
AWP: Your student exchange programs—American Field Service to Germany in high school and the Minnesota SPAN Project to Lebanon in college—were your early experiences living in a culture not your own. How has the idea of living and study abroad changed since you went? Do the Internet and other new technologies make a true living or travel abroad experience obsolete?
CW: On the plus side, social media make it a lot easier to connect with people in other cultures BEFORE you go and to stay in touch with them after the trip.
For proof, just look at the role that new communication technologies played in the events of the Arab Spring. It’s another first-time-in-history thing: Everyone in the world can be connected now. And anyone, anywhere, who can get his/her hands on a cellphone is instantly a citizen journalist.
I wouldn’t say the idea of a “true’’ travel experience is obsolete, but it’s certainly less intimidating—although a first-time traveler doesn’t know (or really care) what someone else’s experience USED to be. I mean, we can’t go live in Paris in the 1920s, anymore than we can hang out with Hemingway and F. Scott while we’re there. Our Paris will be different, but it will still be valid, because it is uniquely OURs.
That said, I think a young student or first-time-on-your-own traveler doesn’t get to feel as independent as travelers used to be, simply because it’s so easy to stay in touch with “home,’’ whatever you perceive that to be.
My youngest sister, who was an AFS exchange student in Central America in the early 1970s, agrees. A couple of years ago, I emailed her from Kathmandu, when I’d just come off a raft trip in Nepal and wanted her to know I was okay.
That’s good, she wrote back, “but I liked it better when it took all day to call home from Costa Rica.’’
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad or have worked in France, Francophone countries and countries around the world. Many followers are preparing to study or live abroad. What would you say to them?
CW: Do it. Stay as long as you can. Then do it again, somewhere else.
AWP: Trained as a journalist, you’ve been a pioneer in voice travel writing for American newspapers. You were the first travel editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and its chief travel writer and photographer from 1978 to 2004. What is the most significant change you have witnessed in travel writing for news organizations?
CW: The Internet means there are a lot more ways to get published—but not as many ways to get paid.
AWP: Your career has taken you around the world three times, to all seven continents and into 115 countries. How would you describe your life, on assignment, traveling alone?
CW: The old adage, “He travels fastest who travels alone,’’ turns out to be true. Going alone means you have to turn outward, you talk to more strangers, you ask more questions, and you learn more about where you are than if you’re traveling with someone else. I think of it as the “throw yourself on the mercy of strangers’’ approach.
Plus, I needed to travel alone, most of the time, because I was working. Travel writing is NOT a vacation. (Anyone who says it is just isn’t working hard enough.) I worked harder on trips than I ever had to work at home, and it paid off with more stories and more depth.
AWP: Your work has won many awards, including the top two in the field: Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the Society of American Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. Your writings appear in a dozen anthologies, including Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012, Best Travel Writing 2010 and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009 from Travelers’ Tales Books and Best American Travel Writing 2008 from Houghton Mifflin Books. How has this experience changed your world?
CW: Actually, it didn’t. All those honors came AFTER—after I’d taken a trip, after I’d written a story. I am humbled by the awards, and deeply, deeply grateful for them, but what changed me was the travel itself and the work—the discoveries that come when you try to analyze an experience, pull out its essence and pass that on to readers.
AWP: Your own collections of travel essays, Road Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth and Home on the Road: Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth. Both were Minnesota Book Award finalists and won Best Books awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Central States. How has the idea of women and travel writing changed since you began? What do you think today’s women writers and photographers bring to the travelers’ experience?
CW: I think women are generally less intimidating than men. I mean, we look harmless, which makes it easier for us to approach a stranger with questions. I also think— know I’m generalizing—but I really do think that we are more comfortable with emotion.
Which is an advantage: If you’re trying to connect your readers with another culture, empathy is crucial, and you have to be able to project it honestly. As I tell my travel writing students, approach people as if you care—and then CARE. If you ask a question, you stick around for the answer—all of the answer.
If I had to sum up what I’ve learned from being a travel writer, it boils down to this: Never walk away from someone else’s life story. And always put your readers first—you’re doing all this FOR them.
AWP: You teach intensive university-level workshops in travel writing and memoir in the U.S. and abroad. In 2012 these included workshops for the Madeline Island School of the Arts, Hamline University and the University of Minnesota’s LearningLife Program. What is the aim of your workshops? Who participates?
CW: I teach travel writing and personal narrative writing together because they are both forms of memoir and use very similar techniques. I promise all my participants that I will help them make their writing better. I can’t promise they’ll get published, but I can pretty much guarantee improvement. I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years, and so far, I’ve been able to keep that promise.
As with all the continuing education programs and arts workshops I know, the participants are overwhelmingly female and usually over 45. They are all people who like writing—whether it’s “something for my grandchildren’’ or a full-blown, well-crafted, published book—like my student Jane Congdon’s brave coming-of-age memoir, “It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother and Me’’ (Betty Youngs Books, 2011).
AWP: You are an authority on the history of travel literature. Who is considered the most important of the earlier writers in this genre? Why?
CW: The traveler’s tale goes back as far as human stories have been recorded, which means the oral tradition goes back eons farther. And in its essence, travel literature hasn’t changed very much over those eons:
It is still A TALE TOLD BY AN OUTSIDER—someone who goes away, has experiences in a foreign place, AND COMES BACK TO TELL THE FOLKS AT HOME ABOUT IT.
Early examples? Well, there’s the Bible’s account of Noah and the Flood. And Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s “The Conquest of New Spain.’’ And thousands and thousands of others.
It’s hard to pull out classics, though, because travel writing is always tied to a particular place and time. That means it gets dated in a way that classic fiction doesn’t. I mean, if I write about life in Yorkshire NOW, it’ll be out of date in a couple of years. “Wuthering Heights,’’ on the other hand….
AWP: You also lecture on the genres masters, including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson and Richard Halliburton, who is largely forgotten today. What sparked your interest in these writers?
CW: Mark Twain because he basically invented modern American travel writing—the use of the natural, “American’’ voice to talk directly to his readers. And because he’s so incredibly prolific and varied and just plain GOOD. He wrote 5 travel books and became a national hit with his first, “The Innocents Abroad,’’ about the first-ever international pleasure cruise, from the U.S. to Europe and the Near East and back. After it came out in 1867, he was never again—ever—out of print.
Hemingway because I like his clean journalistic style—he too altered American literature for the better with that style—and because I am fascinated by his life, especially in his youthful years in Paris.
Stevenson because he chose to spend the last of his short life sailing the South Seas. He settled in Samoa, was buried on a mountaintop there—I climbed up to see his grave a few years ago—and is still known by the name Samoans called him, The Teller of Tales.
Halliburton was flat-out the most exuberant traveler—and travel writer—I’ve ever read. Gushy, if you want to be harsh, even superficial.
But in 1920s and ‘30s America, he was as well-known as any celeb today. Just wildly popular.
In an age when pleasure travel mostly still belonged to the rich, he showed ordinary Americans that they could do it too. Both my parents had read his books—starting with his first, “The Royal Road to Romance’—and loved them, so I did too.
AWP: What modern trend do you think each would love most?
CW: I think Mark Twain would have loved Post-It Notes. And he’d have hated email.
AWP: In the description of your book: Road Less Traveled: Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth, you describe it as “vivid, lyrical, sometimes humorous, always sensitive, leading readers beyond exotic geography and into the rich terrain of the human heart.” What is that image, rich terrain of the human heart, like?
CW: There isn’t room to answer that fully, but I’m talking about the human soul—mine and other people’s. When something touched me, I tried to pass it on so it would touch others.
AWP: In your second collection of essays: “Home on the Road: Further Dispatches from the Ends of the Earth,” you state that “you take readers to the far corners of the globe, sharing rich encounters with other lives, insights into the human spirit, and the bittersweet tension between home and away.” How do you capture that tension?
CW: It’s the first words of the title that I need to explain. I have always felt more “at home’’ when I’m traveling, because I grew up shy and insecure and, predictably, I never felt I “fit’’ where home was supposed to be. More accurately, I felt like a tourist AT HOME.
I am more comfortable on the road. I am my best self then. And I like being that person a lot more than the habit-bound one I turn into at home.
The struggle, for me, is about wanting to be in two places at the same time. Wanting to be home and wanting to be away. I have always alternated—my reality is wherever I am at the time, and I always feel that home freezes in place when I’m not there, and the same thing happens in reverse. If I go back to a place I’ve been, no matter where, I’m always surprised that other people’s lives went on without me.
AWP: Coming in 2013 Open Road, your third collection of essays, will be issued as an E-book. Why is now the right time to publish your book? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place for travelers in the style of today?
CW: I think the right time to publish is whenever you can. Meaning when you’ve finished a book, or article, or even a letter—and you’ve done your best—then you seek publication. Publishing experts and literary critics may say something else, but on a personal level, what matters is your life and your story. And you can’t time those things, anymore than you can pick the era you wanted to be born.
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why?
CW: “Early Candlelight,’’ by Maud Hart Lovelace. It’s about my hometown, Fort Snelling, the birthplace of modern Minnesota. I just finished a short piece about early Fort Snelling for the Los Angeles Times, and I re-read this charming historical romance before I turned to the heavier histories.
I’d rather tell you what I’m reading now: “Along With Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years,” by Peter Griffin and Jack Hemingway.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up?
CW: Not as much as it was for most other girls, I think. I wasn’t exactly in-the-moment growing up. I was always focused on being somewhere else, someday. But I had a beautiful mother, who was also intelligent and kind, and she was a good role model—always managing to be well-dressed on a shoe-string.
In college in the ‘60s, I dressed in style and was once briefly ahead of it: I was the first person I knew to have her hair cut like Ringo Starr, which made me briefly popular at parties.
And then I became a journalist. I never felt powerful in a dress at work, and they weren’t really practical: You can’t cover a fire or a Civil War reenactment in one. Besides, newspaper offices are notoriously casual—a colleague at the Star Tribune once suggested we have “dress-up Fridays’’—so I mostly wore tailored slacks, shirts and sweaters.
Now that I work from home, I dress up only when I’m teaching a class, going to a wedding or giving a talk. Otherwise, I’m in yoga clothes. I am, however, kind of addicted to watching “What Not To Wear.’’
AWP: How do you express your own style or fashion? What style advice would you give women traveling today?
CW: Pack light, of course. The airlines have actually done more to get travelers to do that than any newspaper advice column, mine or otherwise. Now packing heavy really costs you money.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
CW: I should have known we’d get to this! I don’t cook, unless you count toasted cheese sandwiches and chili omelets. Happily, my significant other is Al Sicherman, a former food writer for the Star Tribune, who is an excellent cook. He feeds me. Which means he also protects me. I am allergic to peanuts—deathly so—and that makes experimenting with food something I cannot do. So Al runs interference for me when we go out to eat, keeps a “peanut-free kitchen’’ the way some people keep kosher, and reads the complete ingredient lists on any packaged foods I might touch.
I carry pre-loaded epinephrine syringes at all times, even at home. In places like East Africa and SE Asia, where peanuts are ubiquitous, I live on bananas, plain rice and tea. I never told my bosses about this for fear they wouldn’t let me travel, but fortunately, they never asked me to write about food in other countries.
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
CW: Uh….yogurt, Jell-O cups, pomegranate juice, sparkling water and a couple of frozen pizzas. Sorry.
Book Recommendations: by Catherine Watson
I put individual recommendations on my website, www.catherinewatsontravel.com. But in a nutshell, any of the Travelers’ Tales collections would be a good place to start.
The Best Travel Writing 2010, Travelers’ Tales Books
The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009, Traveler’s Tales
2008 Best American Travel Writing, Houghton Mifflin
Best Travel Writing 2008, Traveler’s Tales
Encounters with the Middle East, Traveler’s Tales, 2007
A Woman’s World Again, Traveler’s Tales, 2007
Traveler’s Tales Turkey, Traveler’s Tales, 2002
A Woman’s Passion for Travel, Traveler’s Tales, 1999
Tuesdays in Tanzania, Three Rivers Press, 1997
A Woman’s World, Traveler’s Tales,1995
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® blog, The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents and into 115 countries. Writing about the giant stones that linger at this prehistoric site in northwestern France. Giant stones that march in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong.
Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte, who was born in Rennes, asks us to take out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included for Far Breton (with prunes), a crêpe for your sweet tooth!
D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
French Impressions: Christine Loÿs and her passion for travel and modern exploration. Christine Loÿs, documentary filmmaker and author, writing about her work as an independent journalist and contributor to many kinds of media, including television. She played an important role in communications during the Transantarctica expedition let by Will Steger and Dr. Jean-Louis Etienne.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.