Writing for a living means spending a lot of time in the lives of other people. If you can’t talk to someone for a half hour and come away with a meaningful sense of who they are and what they do, this isn’t the right job for you. The same goes for a city. Travel writers need to land, tour a few neighborhoods, grab a meal and then write like they’ve got a summer house and family in all the trendiest areas.
But here’s the catch: it can’t be bullshit. To understand a place that quickly you have to fall in love just a little bit. Find what’s redeeming, unforgivable, irascible or special and put it on paper. When you write about how there’s nowhere else quite like this, it has to be true. Then its time to blow town.
The system generally works, but some spots do stick longer than others. Here are a few of the cities that I still haven’t quite fallen out of love with, and probably never will.
The first time I visited Athens here’s how I described it:
“Athens is a two day city. Maybe even an overnighter. The Parthenon and Plaka are great, but don’t schedule more time than you need to tour them, then grab a ferry to the islands.”
It’s the kind of smart-sounding foolishness you get from someone who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Then I went back again. Then again. And again.
Why do I love Athens so much? Honestly, I still don’t know. I love the kitschy tavernas dolled up for tourists and the bored-looking bakers who sell some of the world’s best best savory pies (and don’t seem to care if anyone’s buying). Maybe it’s because I love Greece to its sandy, filo-covered toes and Athens is the gateway to the country. Maybe it’s the rambling streets and old men sipping frappes in the afternoon sun. Maybe it’s Parthenon’s imposing presence. Whatever it is, I always feel a little bit better when I get there.
I spent a while working at a hostel in Oxford back in the day. (Every hardship junky who loves complaining about retail should spend a shift behind the front desk of a hostel sometime.) The City of Dreaming Spires is simply livable in the greatest tradition of university towns. Old pubs, creaky rental houses, crowded British streets that were laid long before the space-gobbling automobile came along, it all just feels like a place to unpack, do some chores and read your book over a pint.
Oxford isn’t a place where I want to go to all the restaurants, it’s the town where I want to go grocery shopping. The hostels are fine, but my best memory is of renting my own bit of a house. Sure, the college makes for great photography, but what I’d really like to do is go get a job and move in.
Oxford isn’t a snappy suit or date night lingerie. It’s your favorite pair of jeans and a good place to call home, even for a little bit.
The White City and I have a rough history… After missing our bus out of town last year Laura and I discovered that this town is next to impossible to leave without prior arrangements. Trains? None. Flights? Booked, and partially reserved for locals. Buses? Full. Cars? For $350. Then, if you decide not to take that exorbitant ride, you discover that it was to be driven by the travel agent’s buddy and he sells you a pair of fake bus tickets in revenge.
Welcome to the Hotel Califorrrrrrnia…
Enough of the griping. I like it there. More than that, I love it there. So much so that getting stuck just wasn’t that big a deal. Sweeping mountain views, great coffee, shockingly good beer and a wide open plaza for festivals all make this town a wonderful place to spend a week or four. Notwithstanding the club across the street from my guesthouse last time I visited, I’ll be going back.
This Cambodian boom town is one of Southeast Asia’s expat hubs like Chiang Mai, Kuta and Bangkok. Throw in the raging tourist industry and your result is a glitzy playground, complete with neon, night markets and a jumbotron.
At the same time, there’s an undercurrent of community common. Many foreigners come to Siem Reap not to play, but to work.
Siem Reap hosts an enormous number of NGO’s. Down on Pub Street you’ll find plenty travelers in to see the monuments, but the right bars are packed with folks after work looking to blow off some steam before heading back to the office for another day at one of the world’s weirdest jobs. Hell, I’m a writer and even I consider NGO management one of the odder ways out there to make a living.
The upshot is a sense of purpose and community that you don’t find in more transient towns, set in the culture and cuisine of northern Cambodia.