My best friend and I met on a boat. On a lake. In Siberia. It was the summer before our junior year of college, and we were gliding through the icy waters of Lake Baikal on a 60-foot Soviet cutter with a group of ecologists, a gaggle of other research assistants and 15 Russian sailors. When we survived a month of close quarters, salted fish and no real showers without wanting to kill one another, we knew it was meant to be. Since then we've been besties, and, more importantly, travel companions-- rambling from Paris to Prague to the Balkans and through the woods of Maine, Pennsylvania and Utah together, laughing, adventuring, eating lots of pastries and meeting amazing people along the way-- without a single fight or argument. She's dragged me to gypsy bars, raced me through the hall of Italian art at the Louvre, made me drink salty yogurt, blown up my stove in Paris, and chased me down some pretty intense ski runs. She's basically the best thing since quinoa.
Now that we are living semi-boring, semi-responsible, more than semi-budgeted lives in New York, we have to do a lot more armchair traveling. Luckily, she happens to work for a publishing house, which means free books galore! Tonight she handed me Paris To The Moon, a new book by Adam Gopnik for me to take with me on my trip to Paris this week. Thumbing its pages got me thinking about my favorite places and the books that describe them oh-so-well. I cannot take a vacation without at least one slim volume in my bag to keep me company on the plane and in cafes or laundromats or train platforms, and I started making a list of my favorites. So whether you're planning a trip to one of these destinations any time soon, or just looking to do a little armchair traveling yourself, I'd highly recommend these wonderful traveling companions...
For a trip to Eastern Europe, be sure to pack along Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Set in Soviet-era Prague, it is a gorgeously-crafted story of love, loss and art. As the characters lives intertwine with the civil unrest and politics of the time and place, life loses its sense of grounding and beautiful heartbreak ensues.
If you're heading south of the border, take along Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, a gorgeous work of magical realism that will have you glued to your beach chair reading all day, hungry for love AND some good home-cooked Mexican food.
Going North? Norwegian author Erland Loe's little Naive, Super has been one of my favorites since I bought it at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris and did not get off the metro until I had finished reading it on my way home. It has passed from traveler to traveler in my life for years. A good one for a wanderer in search of an elusive something.
If you're heading to my home base, NYC, pick up the slim little book Here Is New York by EB White (of Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style fame). It perfectly captures the energy and excitement of the city, even several decades on.
A trip to Turkey would be incomplete without the literary stylings of Orhan Pamuk. I loved My Name Is Red, which deals with 14th century illuminations in the sultan's workshops, but his novels is set in contemporary Turkey, such as Snow and The Museum of Innocence are marvelous, too.
Since I can't bring my bestie along with me, Paris To The Moon will have to do. But tell me, what are YOUR favorite travel-worthy books?