Out of Philadelphia

My journey to become a travel writer


in Features


Returning to the States after two years in Poland – during which I had married, taught English, and witnessed the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law – I suggested to my wife that we live in Philadelphia.

I had always liked the city, not least because I owed my existence to it. Somewhere in its folds in 1941, my father, a student at Penn Law School, met my mother, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. As parents, upriver in New Jersey, they introduced my brothers and me to the zoo, the Franklin Institute, Connie Mack Stadium, Elfreth’s Alley. Years later, as a student at Villanova, I took the Paoli Local in to watch Big Five basketball at the Palestra and, one memorable evening, strippers at the Trocadero Theater. In my junior year I bought my first pair of round tortoiseshell glasses – the same style I wear today – at Limeburner Opticians on Chestnut Street.

Hania and I found a second-floor studio apartment on Catharine Street, between Front and Second. Queen Village, while cheaper than Society Hill, had a lot of its features: tree-lined sidewalks, redbrick row houses, streets that in newer cities would have been alleys. After Warsaw, Philadelphia – at least this part of it – resembled a miniature village, a rebuke to the idea that everything in America was bigger. We had moved from the monumental to the homey, and from the slipshod to the tidy.

Adding to Queen Village’s charm was the fact that it contained vestiges from its days as a Polish neighborhood. St. Stanislaus Church still stood on Fitzwater Street, Rachubinski Funeral Home on Front. And across I-95 there was a view of the Delaware and its superannuated fleet, which included the Moshulu, the four-masted barque made famous by Eric Newby in The Last Grain Race.

My dream was to become a travel writer like Newby. It was the reason, after love, that I had gone to Poland.

On South Street, a short walk from our new apartment, stood a used bookstore called The Book Trader. On the second floor – the travel section is never centrally located – I found George Borrow, Gerald Brenan, Peter Fleming, Laurie Lee, A.J. Liebling, Jan Morris. I acquired the works of Freya Stark – one of which, Beyond Euphrates, carried a replica of the author’s signature in gold on the Philadelphia-Eagles-green cloth – and landed a beautiful, faded, dust-jacketed copy of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Kate Simon was well represented with her “uncommon guidebooks,” which I also scooped up. They combined practical tips with lyrical essays and had relieved travelers in the ’70s – at least the ones headed to Mexico, London, Paris, and Rome – of the necessity of packing any other books, for their helpful information and pleasurable reading were folded into one. Now her write-ups of hotels and restaurants were mostly outdated, but the prose was fresher and more illuminating than that found in the latest issue of Travel & Leisure. Paul Fussell’s Abroad – a learned and entertaining study of British travel writing between the wars – had introduced me to Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, and I now added Old Calabria and The Road to Oxiana to my growing travel library. Here and elsewhere, I acquired more classics – The Innocents Abroad, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Down and Out in Paris and London – as well as the works of other novelists-cum-travel writers: George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea, D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico, Aldous Huxley’s Along the Road, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads. On my shelves at home, I placed Stendhal’s Travels in the South of France next to Goethe’s Italian Journey, Karel Čapek’s Letters from England beside Georges Mikes’s Little Cabbages. The writers were more important to me than the places they wrote about; geographically, I had no real biases apart from an impatience with tales of exploration. In books as in life, I needed people, craved civilization. But the whole point of the exercise was to learn how to write; learning about the world was a concomitant benefit. And one that didn’t always come from reading fiction.

Summer arrived in earnest, giving Hania her first real taste of heat and humidity. My Datsun had no air-conditioning so I drove with the windows down, arriving at job interviews in pants wet with sweat. After a few days they developed white salt marks in the back.

Physically, I was a sight, but emotionally I felt I was back with my people. I’d look at them on the street and see no mysteries: I knew where they had gone to school (I had gone to school with them), what they ate for lunch (hoagies and cheesesteaks), where they went at the shore, which cities’ teams they hated the most passionately. It was a pleasant feeling after four years of living abroad, though it wasn’t the same as a sense of belonging. I was still a newcomer in a place where most families had lived for generations.

My freelancing, mostly articles about Poland, was going no better than my job hunting. At the Inquirer I was told I needed five years’ experience to be considered for a job (I had worked for a year and a half at the Trenton Times). The fact that I had spent two years living through the upheavals in Poland – and learning Polish – seemed to make no impression on the editors.

We joined the local Solidarity chapter, which gave assistance to new Polish immigrants. I started holding evening English classes in Richmond, the still thriving Polish neighborhood. The instant gratification of teaching was the ideal antidote to the delayed rejection of writing.

At the beginning of October, it was announced that Lech Wałęsa would be the recipient of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Three days later, my letter to the editor appeared on the Inquirer’s editorial page:

Here are seven reasons why I agree with the Inquirer’s decision to devote four columns of its front page to the Philadelphia Phillies’ Oct. 5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and two columns to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Wałęsa.

The playoffs to the World Series are, as the title suggests, of a universal scale, including all nations of our earth in their influence, while the Nobel Peace Prize is not much more than personal approbation from a few anonymous men in Norway.

Reason #6 was: “World peace may be, indeed, a noble striving, but baseball combines, as no other human endeavor, the dual dynamics of hitting and pitching.”

I was still seeing things with a Polish mindset. When Hania and her new compatriot friends complained about Americans, which they did occasionally, I’d put up a half-hearted defense, only to be told: “You’re not American.” I didn’t protest; I knew what they meant: I wasn’t the kind of American – typical, in their eyes – who watched sports and drank beer and knew nothing about the world outside the United States (actually, I did watch sports and drink beer, though usually not simultaneously). And their assessment struck me as flattering, for it seemed to place me in the cosmopolitan ranks of Europeans, where I wanted to be. Though I wondered if this desire, as it manifested itself in my writing, was holding me back professionally. I had long been attracted to, which meant I was heavily influenced by, British writers, not just in the field of travel, where they excelled, but in the realm of succinct, subtle, dryly humorous prose. And this put me at odds with the American penchant for rambling, word-drunk, often overly earnest texts. The British tendency was to hold things back, while the American one – beginning long before the ’60s – was to let it all out. I much preferred the Latinate sentences of Evelyn Waugh to the overstuffed ones of Thomas – and now Tom – Wolfe. Of course, Fitzgerald had written beautifully measured lines, and Hemingway’s had had a revolutionary leanness, but our contemporary writers – from Mailer to Styron to Bellow to Irving – were all enamored of the sound of their own typing. In travel, Bruce Chatwin had a lapidary crispness that Paul Theroux, for all his Anglophilia, lacked. Instead of understatement, the Americans gave me gonzo.

Yes, the editors at the Inquirer published my letter, but they didn’t offer me a job out of admiration for it.

One day reading the paper’s want ads, I saw that the American College of Physicians was looking for a writer. If journalists wouldn’t have me, perhaps doctors would.

The ACP, I learned during the interview, put out a monthly magazine, The Observer, that provided members with news and feature stories. Writing for it was a job that had the potential to teach me a lot while getting me nowhere. The only people who read The Observer were doctors of internal medicine, and they didn’t read it – I soon discovered after joining the staff – because they were too busy keeping up with the medical literature. I found this more disheartening as a staff writer than as a future patient.

Fall is an excellent time to start a new job, at least in the States, as Thanksgiving is quickly followed by Christmas. The ACP office party was held in a hotel just off the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. When “Ave Maria” played, one of the women who worked in the finance office challenged one of the doctors who was on the board of regents to name the composer. “Schubert,” he said, without hesitation. A few minutes later, Frank Sinatra came on, singing “New York, New York,” and the young people got up and sang along with him. I stayed seated. The song was in close competition with My Way as my least favorite in the Sinatra repertoire – most of which I loved. But more depressing than the music was the sight of Philadelphians exuberantly singing a hymn to the city in whose shadow they dwelled. It seemed to reveal an inferiority complex that – unlike most – was happily acknowledged, and shamelessly demonstrated.

New Year’s night, looking out the windows of our studio, I saw two silvery mummers staggering down Second Street as if through a dream.

In February we moved to a one-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia, where Hania was now a graduate student at Penn. Through the wood floor we sometimes heard our downstairs neighbor playing the piano. Lesley was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music and her cat, Mieczyslaw, was named for her favorite teacher.

I soon tried the Inquirer again, this time the travel editor, with a story I’d written about Easter in Greece (I had spent time there between sojourns in Poland). After a few weeks, a letter arrived in our mailbox:

“Dear Tom,” it began, “Someday when you write your first successful book you will remember me and chuckle and say, ‘Take that, asshole.’ Meanwhile . . . ”

After years of “We appreciate your interest, but unfortunately your story is not right for us at this time,” this stood out. It perfectly captured my thought process, minus the obscenity. But it was also confusing. It suggested I had the talent to write a book – but not a newspaper article, at least not one for the Inquirer’s Travel section. What kind of talent was that?

The letter went on to explain the editor’s main objection to the piece, which was that it lacked a theme. He had a point, which I probably didn’t admit at the time, so convinced was I that stories should be judged on their writing alone.

Evenings and weekends, I worked on my Polish book, excerpts from which I was shopping around. On days when I received rejections I’d curl atop the bed – our bedroom was my office – in a sad pile of listless self-pity. Hania showed no sympathy; on the contrary, she’d come in and her face would register disapproval, tinged with disappointment. It’s hard to convince a Pole, even a loved one, of your bleak circumstances. And if they are truly bleak, you need to show your resolve and overcome them.

Happily, I didn’t mind going to my dead-end job. At Penn, I interviewed Renée Fox, the brilliant sociologist of medicine who wrote on the ethics and implications of organ transplants. I took the train to New York City to interview Victor Herbert, the doctor named for the famous composer (his father’s cousin) who, in his fight against quackery, had obtained a medical degree for his cat. I returned to the city, got the Hampton Jitney to Amagansett, and interviewed The New Yorker’s medical writer Berton Rouché in the house where, years later, he would take a shotgun and shoot himself in the head.

In the fall of ’85, Hania and I made our first trip back to Poland, which I wrote about in a long essay (working vacations are the only kind the budding travel writer knows). I gave it the title “Private Lives,” reflecting the theme I had dutifully found for it. I sent the essay to the usual places – The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s – as well as to The American Scholar.

I had been introduced to The Scholar by Vernon Young, an occasional contributor who had come to Philadelphia to escape the high rents of New York. He had written a review of a travel book for the Inquirer and I had sent him a fan letter, care of the newspaper. When he responded, I invited him for tea.

I met him on the stairs, where he had paused to catch his breath. His tall, thin frame seemed ready to collapse under the weight of his herringbone overcoat. Watery blue eyes topped a veined Roman nose, and wisps of grey hair sailed back from a high forehead. His plush British accent reinforced my impression that he had stepped out of New Grub Street.

Vernon was a critic, primarily of film. His reviews appeared regularly in The Hudson Review and he was the author of Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethics. But he also wrote about literature, and was as comfortable pronouncing on poetry as he was on fiction. His broad knowledge and deep intellect impressed me, and Hania, though she found his precarious life – living from review to review – depressing. While to me he was an old-fashioned man of letters, an almost romantic figure – he had even written a novel, Spider in the Cup – to her he was a cautionary tale. I couldn’t even hint about quitting my job without Hania asking, “Do you want to end up like Vernon?”

He lived in a one-room apartment on Spruce Street that I could only imagine. He had a few writer friends in town, including Jerre Mangione, who wrote about the Italian-American experience and had been active, in the ’30s, in the Federal Writers’ Project. Jerre was in much better financial straits than Vernon, and I wondered if this was partly because he had a wife. We’d all meet sometimes for simple dinners out; once, I watched Jerre polish off a plate of spaghetti without touching his bread. When I asked him why, he said: “It would be redundant.” I have not eaten bread with pasta since that night. And I still have my copy of The World Around Danilo Dolci: A Passion for Sicilians, with the inscription: “To Tom Swick – With a toast to his travel writing future.”

It is dated Aug. 10, 1986. A few months earlier, my essay on Poland had appeared in the summer issue of The American Scholar. Not only were my words inside it, but my name joined six others on the pale green cover.

The previous year, Paul Theroux had published a collection of essays, Sunrise with Seamonsters, which included one on V.S. Naipaul. The two had met at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where Theroux was a lecturer and Naipaul a guest writer. Theroux showed him something he’d written, and Naipaul, after offering a few editing suggestions, said he should publish it. “Send it to a good magazine – forget those little magazines,” Naipaul instructed him, “Don’t be a ‘little-magazine’ person.”

I was becoming a “little-magazine person,” which was fine with me. At least I was appearing somewhere. And “little-magazine person” sounded better than “ACP Observer staff writer.” Or at least “contributor to The American Scholar” did.

The very existence of Sunrise with Seamonsters – a collection of mostly travel essays – was an encouraging sign that negated any possible slight I might have felt from something written inside it. Books about travel were now filling American bookstores the way they had always populated English ones; the great British traditions of writing, and reading, about the world had come to the United States. This was in large part due to Theroux, and the commercial and critical success of The Great Railway Bazaar, and also Bruce Chatwin, whose In Patagonia had been hailed as a literary masterpiece by people who worked in more “serious” genres. All of a sudden, publishers couldn’t get enough of travel books; some – Random House, Atlantic Monthly Press, Prentice Hall – started imprints devoted solely to them. M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence was reprinted, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water came out, delighting fans of A Time of Gifts, the radiant first volume of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Jan Morris’s idiosyncratic essays on place were appearing regularly in Rolling Stone. All of this was delightful to someone whose goal was to become a travel writer, who was at that moment writing a travel book. But it also made sense: Travel writing’s long appeal in England had grown out of that country’s history of empire, and now the United States was the dominant world power. It seemed natural that Americans would want to learn about the places over which we wielded influence.

Brits like Chatwin were showing us the way. On a visit to New Jersey, where Hania’s cousin had recently moved, I entered a bookstore and discovered Granta. It looked more like a widened paperback book than a magazine, especially with the familiar logo of the penguin standing attentively in its orange oval. A tribesman with an extended lower lip graced the cover, above the words “IN TROUBLE AGAIN: A Special Issue of Travel Writing.”

The table of contents contained a mix of the familiar and the unknown, the old and the new: Salman Rushdie, Colin Thubron, Timothy Garton Ash, Amitav Ghosh, Martha Gellhorn, Hanif Kureishi, Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuściński. The cover story was by a man named Redmond O’Hanlon whose gift for comedy, especially when describing the pain various creatures in the Amazon can inflict, won me over to adventure tales.

I tracked down earlier issues in used bookstores. Even when they weren’t themed to travel, they usually featured a few travel writers. Granta had begun life as a student magazine at Cambridge University and now, under the editorship of the American Bill Buford, it had become travel writing’s unofficial house organ. This late 20th Century flowering of the genre was reminiscent of the between-the-wars period that Fussell had examined in Abroad – O’Hanlon, Thubron, and Kapuściński replacing Fleming, Byron, and Greene – and a rebuke to his pronouncement, at the end of that book, on the death of travel writing, which, he claimed, could no longer exist now that the age of travel had given way to the age of tourism.

The new age was ushering in a new kind of travel writing. People had been penning tales of dangerous expeditions for centuries, but not from such mock-heroic stances. In his 19th century classic Eothen, Alexander Kinglake had shown sangfroid arriving in Cairo during the plague, but he hadn’t been self-deprecating like O’Hanlon. And he took a literary term for his book title, reflecting a more literate time, not the half-boasting, half-bemoaning In Trouble Again, which befit our more exhibitionist era.

Travel writers were no longer retreating from the scene in their books, letting the locals and their environs speak for themselves; they were the main characters in nonfictional picaresques. They took Evelyn Waugh’s first-person junkets to a higher, more plot-driven level. In Old Glory, published in 1981, the British writer Jonathan Raban sailed the length of the Mississippi River, capturing memorable people and moments but also telling of his personal journey – an adult, solitary, immigrant Huck Finn whose downriver progress was momentarily halted by an affair in St. Louis. Like Theroux, he was infusing and enriching the travel book with elements from the novel, not the least of which were narrative arc and engaging protagonist. Readers could eagerly follow the account of the author’s passage while, almost subliminally, learning about the lands he passed through.

Unlike Theroux, Raban brought a foreign eye to familiar places, which was also a feature of some of the new travel writing. In a world that was increasingly being visited by tourists, he went where the tourists lived, in this case, the small towns and prosaic cities along the Mississippi. And using his deft analytical skills – aided by a formidable knowledge of history and literature, geography and religion – he was able to make his readers see them anew. Interpreting a landscape, wresting out its meanings as opposed to simply describing its features, was another aspect of the new travel writing, one that was essential with the growing ubiquity of the camera.

Shoppers who walked into Banana Republic stores found, back beyond the racks of safari-style clothing, a faux-rustic bookshop filled with guidebooks as well as a fresh crop of travel narratives. In the spring of 1988, the books were joined by a new magazine published by the clothing company. With its evocative stories – a memoir by Richard Ford on growing up in his grandfather’s hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas – and whimsical illustrations, Trips resembled a smaller version of Holiday, the great mid-20th Century travel magazine that had been produced by the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia.

It was an exciting time for travel writers, just as the start of the decade had been an exhilarating one for Poles. Sadly, the former were headed for a letdown similar to that experienced by the latter. •

All illustrations by Isabella Akhtarshenas.