I had thought I'd press on to a book review this week, but I realized I hadn't given my most comprehensive look at travelers' reading habits last time. So a bit more on the trip.
The only places in which reading seemed to remain a significant traveling sport were in airports. In those places, one can eat or drink, one can shop, rest, or read. What with flying conditions being what they are, most debarking or transferring passengers seemed too out of sorts to shop, some too tense for casual conversation. And by that time (early November, remember?), I'm sure everyone was worn thin by U.S. election reporting on TV. In such instances, newspapers carry the most abiding interest. I should have asked a few people with news rags what was catching their attention, but my grasp of secondary languages is thin at best. My interest in papers from afar has to do with local news, but most that I noted during my people-watching seemed too absorbed in regional news stories to be intrigued by foreign exotica.
Some of the most seasoned readers read books. Surprisingly, hardbacks. These are heavier, of course, and if one plucks a book from a newsstand, paperbacks are always the better bargain.
On the river boat, the nice folks from Viking Trips stocked shelves in the boat's lobby with hardbacks one could take, borrow, or exchange – at least that's what was happening. Some were coffee table books – on Eastern European travel. During my sick days, when I wanted to escape cabin fever, I shouldered a couple of these, but I was too ill to enjoy the usual superlative photography.
One curiosity of ours on board was the boat's daily news bulletin, which distilled news from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia-the boat's travelers being mostly English-speaking. We were offered one slipped under our doors at wake-up, and the missus and I took them up on the offer, always enjoying brief connections to home while traveling. I don't know what others did in that regard, but the little piles of each in the lobby seemed to go untouched.
My summation? Reading is still king while traveling, unless trumped by fatigue, connection anxiety, TV, sickness, or drinking in various available lounges. That's a lot of competition. But it's good to know that travel and reading are still at least distant cousins.
Maybe former Texas Senator Phil Gramm was right – we are a nation of whiners. If so, let me add a riff to the chorus. It’s been five years since the missus and I last flew the Atlantic, and I’m sad to report: the airborne cattle cars are still an abysmal way to travel. Yes, they tend to your needs to a certain degree – they do feed you, saturate you with a la carte booze or an occasional bottle of water, a splash of cola in a plastic mini-glass. But then the fun begins.
The pilot notes a patch of turbulent air ahead, and the tourist class compartment enters lockdown, which largely means no bathroom break. Which in turn means one is subjected to a bladder sorely in need of de-pressurizing, or the gassiness of the person sitting next to you. But even without the lockdown, the lines portioning four restroom cubicles among some three hundred passengers makes such human necessities enter the realm of the drastic.
And the seats. I’m mildly claustrophobic – first noticed after hours of traffic lockdown on Atlanta’s oxymoronic expressways – and cramped conditions on ten-hour flights hardly helps. I admit I’m a bit wider in the beam than I used to be, but the seats are smaller – as is the legroom. I accept only aisle seats, but there you’re liable to have a protruding foot run over by flight attendant carts. Which brings me, indirectly, to reading.
Used to—when the planes weren’t so crowded, and when here was a bit more elbow room, one whiled away these air hours by reading. And that might even lead to conversation:
“I see you’re reading Crichton’s latest.”
“I thought the ending was contrived, didn’t you?”
And I’ve heard tales of such communion even leading to post-flight romances. Sigh. Those were the days.
Today, electronics is king on long flights, via the visual medium. The airlines no longer provide magazines (except their own dull organ); instead one can expect to watch movies, or now a menu of sitcom or TV drama episodes, maybe a few travel shorts.
Looking around as we left Atlanta, I saw a few brave souls drag out their books and magazines. The most interesting? The man sitting across from me began a book on understanding Islam in the modern world.
Still, after the meal is eaten, the gas passed, the bathroom lines endured, the lack of creature comfort leads one desperately to the more passive visual medium. From Atlanta to Munich (picture above) – as always, I couldn’t sleep the “night” away, so I had a couple of good movies to divert my attention from increasing leg and back pain. Returning, I bought a paperback (reviewed next week) by Michael Chabon (a good one), before leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (picture below), but once on board I quickly realized a certain measure of creature comfort is necessary for retention. So I had to resolve to read it again once at home and turned to the wee TV before me. This one worked only partially, and I was reduced to watching the same episode of Friends some eight times.
Once home, I still had physical kinks to work out, a book to re-read. And I resolved loudly to the missus that as much as I enjoy the perspectives of travel in strange lands, the pull of history, I would opt for crossing the pond no longer.