Bonjour! This interview with Boyd Lemon is all about travel! Boyd has spent much of his retirement travelling around the world. What would it be like to live in Paris? How would the weather in Tuscany suit you? I think we should find out from someone who really knows… Take us on a trip, Boyd!
How did you come up with the title of your travel book?
The book was going to be about what I did in Paris and, to a lesser extent, what I did in Tuscany. As I was thinking about what I did and reading over my journal, which I kept daily while I lived in Europe, it occurred to me that most of what I was doing was eating, walking and writing. It hadn’t been so long since Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” had come out, so that format was in my mind. So “Eat, Walk and Write” came to be. I liked the title, and it certainly says what the book is about.
Can you tell me about your experiences in France? What was it like to live in Paris?
I think of the movie title “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” except that the good far outweighed the bad and the ugly in this case. The good was like being in Disneyland 24/7—maybe I should say a child’s view of Disneyland. There was nothing like it in my experience. I had been to Paris twice before I lived there—once for two weeks and once for a week—but there was nothing like living there full time. Seeing the architecture, the art. It was mind blowing. Even after months of being there, it never ceased its magic in my mind. The bad and the ugly really revolved around the dealings I had with the French government in documenting my residency and obtaining the proper visa, and I was reminded almost daily about the difficulties of living day to day life in a foreign country as opposed to visiting as a tourist. My biggest problem was not speaking the language fluently. It made everyday life stressful, and the ordinary activities of life were very time consuming as a result. It took a long time and created a lot of stress to do things like renting a house or opening a bank account. Even mailing letters or receiving mail in the local post office all took a great deal of time because it was in a different language. The French bureaucracy is worse than that of the United States, in my opinion. So that was the difficulty; but all in all, the magic of Paris overcame that, and I have always been grateful that I had the experience of living in Paris and travelling within France.
How similar was Paris to your expectations?
I didn’t have a lot of expectations because I had been there before. So I thought that I knew what it was like, but I didn’t. As I have said before, living in a place and having to deal with day to day living is different from the experience of a tourist. Being able to be in a place that people all over the world dream of going and being there every day and not be rushed to see the sites because I wasn’t on vacation was wonderful. It’s a great feeling to know, for example, that if you go to visit the Louvre like I did in the summer, and there was a very long line, that I didn’t need to see it that day. I could come back in the fall oe winter when it wasn’t so crowded. To have that luxury is wonderful. I’ve already described the not so happy expectations. I did not expect the bureaucracy to be so difficult, and I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to learn the language.
How do you start to write a travel book? What is the first step?
I think the first step has to be that while you’re travelling, you need to write a journal on a daily or almost daily basis so you get the detail down. In a travel book, the detail is terribly important because usually people want to refer back to the travel book if they plan a trip to the place you wrote about. They need to know names and specific descriptions of places in order to first make a decision on whether they want to visit the site you wrote about, and if so, how to get there and what to expect. So I think it’s important to write down every day (or almost every day) what you have experienced. It also has the benefit of making your facts more accurate rather than trying to remember months later what you saw and heard.
What travel books have most influenced your life most?
I would say Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie.” That may have been the first travel book I read. At least it was the first that I remember reading. It made me fall in love with dogs for one thing and also the joys of travelling. Another book that influenced me is a much more recent one that many wouldn’t consider to be a travel book, but I think it is—Sheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” It’s about her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California up the west coast. It follows mostly the mountain ranges along the coast, so she was travelling by hiking. It’s a memoir, and the travel and the writing she did shows how travel can change one’s life and make one understand himself or herself as a person much better than being restrained by the routine of everyday life and having the time to contemplate. She, by the way, kept a journal as she travelled.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about your time in Europe?
I can really only think of one thing I would change. That would be to learn the language before I went. It was a mistake on my part—especially with the French language, which is difficult for English speakers to begin with—to go without knowing the language at all.
Do you recall how your interest in travelling originated?
Yes, I do. As a child, I did virtually no travelling because my parents couldn’t afford it and didn’t seem interested anyway. The only place outside of southern California, I had been before the age of 18 was one trip to Las Vegas. The first trip that I took after entering college was to New York City. I was a member of the competitive debate team at the university I attended, and there was a tournament at Harvard University. In 1958 we took a plane to New York City, and most of the passenger planes were not yet jet. I went on a DC-6, and it took ten hours to get from Los Angeles to New York. Those planes were unbelievably loud compared to today’s jets; to me it was a real adventure, the first time I’d ever been on an airplane. We then took the train from New York City to Boston. I have been hooked on travel ever since. The idea of being 3,000 miles away from home and in a different time zone was just amazing to me, and even though the time difference doesn’t seem so amazing anymore, it is still a thrill for me to think of the people back home and what’s going on back home and how different it is where I am. It leaves me in a state of constant amazement, especially if I am far away from home.
What is your overall opinion of the airlines of today?
I would say air travel is disappointing nowadays. I can remember back during the pre-9/11 days and even before there were any metal detectors. Metal detectors were placed as the result of plane hijackings during the 80s and 90s. That was the beginning of the security passengers had to go through, and then 9/11 made it a much more difficult experience. That’s part of the disappointment, even though it’s necessary. The other part of it is what the airlines themselves have done, for the most part, airlines in the United States—United, American, Delta—have pretty much cut out serving meals with a few exceptions, and the smaller airlines have cut meals out completely. They have also packed more seats into airplanes, and it makes travelling less comfortable than it used to be. I can remember flying from the east coast back to Los Angeles and sitting on the floor of a Boeing 747. They had some space between first class and coach, and there were several of us passengers sitting on the floor playing blackjack with flight attendants. Something like that could never happen today, and the old saying about “the joy being in getting there as much as reaching the destination” is certainly not true about air travel anymore. Flying today makes one want to get on and off the plane as quickly as possible, compared to flying in the 60s and 70s, when part of the fun was the flight.
Where will you be visiting this year?
I have two trips confirmed and a third that may be put off to 2016. I am going to Nova Scotia, which I understand is a relatively unspoiled beautiful place. I’ve never been there. I’ve been to several Canadian cities, but I’ve never experienced the natural landscapes of Canada, and as best I can tell from reading and watching travelogues, Nova Scotia is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I also understand that the trans-Canadian highway is a beautiful drive, so I plan to drive from Nova Scotia across Canada to the west coast ending in Vancouver. The second trip I plan is one that I’ve taken twice before and that is on the Caribbean in Mexico, which is another beautiful spot and very relaxing. I usually spend a couple of weeks, maybe longer this time, in a thatched hut on the beach. I always get a lot of writing done there—hopefully, I will this year too. The third possible trip is Greece and Turkey, and I may visit there in the fall, or I may put it off until next year.
Did you ever get homesick?
Yes, but not for a long time, and I don’t want to say any more about that because I don’t want to give away the ending of the book for those who haven’t read it yet.
What was the hardest part of leaving Europe?
The realization that at my age I probably would not have the opportunity again to live in Europe. I certainly expect to travel in Europe, but I doubt that I would have the opportunity again to live there. I would love to live in Italy or England, but I don’t expect to have the opportunity to do that for a variety of reasons, and that made it difficult to leave France, even though it felt good to be home again. It’s always good to be home again. I know some people think that because they’re happy to be home they shouldn’t travel anymore, but I don’t look at it that way. I’m always happy to leave on a trip and always happy to get home again. It’s a win-win situation, as they say.
Did you learn anything from your travels?
Yes, and I think that the most important thing I’ve learned from my travels is that, as my mother used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Although that sounds rather cruel—what it means to me is that there’s more than one way to live your life, and travelling really taught me that because people in different parts of the world live very differently, there is no one way that is right, or good, or bad, or wrong. It’s just different. People in different cultures see the world differently, and every culture has good and bad if you want to make a judgment about it. I think travel has made me a more tolerant and accepting person—more tolerant and accepting of people who are different to me—and I think that’s a very valuable lesson. If more people learned that lesson, we’d have a much better world.
Do you have any advice for other travelers? What should they expect from Europe?
My number one piece of advice is to expect when you travel: at your destination—especially if it’s outside of your home country—things will be different. Rather than think that things are the right way or best way at home and the way things are done where you have travelled are worse or better than home, think of them as being different. That goes a long way toward keeping you from being upset at those differences. As far as what should people expect from Europe—again, if you’re an American, people live differently in Europe. Although there are many prosperous and not so prosperous people, many of the luxuries we enjoy in America are not available in Europe. You won’t find clothes driers in Europe, for example—except for very wealthy people. Most people hang their washing on clothes lines to dry them. That’s a small difference, but multiply that by a thousand and you will appreciate the differences you will experience in Europe. I look at that as one of the joys of travel. To see a different way of life from the one we experience on a day-to-day basis.
Did you find language to be a barrier?
I have found that if you are a tourist in a country where the language is different from your native language, it is not a great barrier, especially if your native language is English. Nowadays, there are enough people who speak at least some English in the areas tourists frequent. The opposite is true of those who want to live in another country and will have to deal on a day-to-day basis with shopping, banks, landlords and utility companies. So my answer to this question is different depending on whether you will be a tourist or living in the foreign country. Unless you’re wealthy, the probabilities are that you are not going to be living in the tourist area. The probability is that the area you will live in will not have many English speakers. So life will be difficult if you don’t speak their language.
After a lifetime in southern California and three years in Boston, the author at age 69 retired from the practice of law and moved to Paris to eat, walk and write. He describes in vivid detail the challenges of learning French; dealing with the French bureaucracies, public and private; facing the charm and smugness of the Parisians; as well as the joys of experiencing the cuisine, neighborhoods, art and history of the world’s most beautiful, vibrant city. After nearly a year he travels to rural northern Tuscany and revels in its scenic beautify, food and serenity until a shocking experience send him home to California.
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