Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: LE ROAD TRIP by Vivian Swift

le road trip cover

Are finances, family, or work preventing you from taking the vacation you so desperately need this summer? Then allow to me to humbly recommend this book.

In 2005, Vivian Swift went on a honeymoon to France. Le Road Trip is a memoir-slash-sketchbook of her trip through Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley. I don't usually go for travel memoirs, but this one included illustrations, so I figured it was worth a try. Plus: France.

map of france from le road trip

Le Road Trip immediately won me over, before the book even started, with the fronticepiece where Swift warns, "This is not a book with a lot of really useful information in it... what--do I look like Rick Steves?" Swift states the purpose of Le Road Trip is to inspire people to plan their own adventure or remember previous trips, and in that the book succeeds completely. Swift's stories and illustrations brought back my own experiences traveling in France, and soothed the escapist fantasies I get some all a lot of the time. It really does feel like a travel sketch diary, and because of that, it seems as if you're in a conversation with the author.

For example, packing--I am a bit obsessed with the elusive perfectly packed suitcase, so I was immediately taken in by Swift's packing advice. We're both proponents of the single carry-on bag. I lived in Europe for a whole semester with clothes from a single carry-on. Not that I wasn't sick of my wardrobe before a week had passed, or that there were times when I was woefully unprepared for certain weather conditions, but the woes created by a small selection of clothes pale in comparison to the misery of jumping onto a midnight sleeper train with a suitcase the size of a small dresser and discovering you can't even get to your seat because the isles are packed full of stowaways and it will barely fit in front of the bathrooms at the end of the train, let alone in the hallway (yes, this happened to the woman I was traveling with. Never have I been so glad I packed a small bag. Also, never have I been so glad dogs like me, because the stowaways had a lot of them. Most hellish train ride ever!).

vineyards of bordeaux

Aside from the lovely watercolor illustrations, Swift's writing is fun and irreverent, interspersed with a few quotes and facts, but mainly focusing on her interactions with other people. I loved her "travel tips"--e.g., have a bottle of champagne waiting for you when you get home--and how she approaches travel. A lot of travel memoirs like this might draw pseudo-meaningful connections between travel and life, but Swift deliberately avoids this. She makes it clear she's on vacation as a tourist, trying to have fun and relax, and her experiences are ones nearly any tourist can relate to.

Not that there weren't some things that bothered me, of course. Swift does her fair share of perpetuating stereotypes--Parisians are more rude than New Yorkers? Color me doubtful on that one. And I have never heard of anyone having so much trouble with train station ticketers as she does. But when she isn't making sweeping generalizations about French people--and the incidents of that are pretty isolated--Le Road Trip is delightful and interesting, and gorgeous to look at. Definitely something I'd recommend for Francophiles or armchair travelers.


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