On Reading While Traveling

How do books and places shape each other?

Welcome to the official first issue of Place! We’re so happy that you’re here. At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world.  Place is a newsletter about movement, travel and our experience of spaces, both new and old. Think of it as a travel journal, not only about new places we visit, but the places we come from: where we go, where we stay, where we make lives and leave them. The aim is to transport you, the reader, somewhere new. Or just make you think about how you exist where you already are. Today, we’re talking about reading while travelling - how both books and places become richer when taken together, like two scoops of gelato or an extra strong espresso. Do you have a special memory of a book you read in a place? Send it to us at placeletter@protonmail.com. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our inaugural pitch guide here. And be sure to follow us on Instagram @placenewsletter for a daily visual feast. 

Yours, The Place editorial team

Where We Read Books

When packing for an upcoming trip, I stack a selection of books on my dresser and consider their coloured spines. 

Selecting a book before a trip is something I take seriously. I refuse to buy a Kindle — I am very material-oriented and deeply believe that the cover, weight and shape of a book in your hand is an integral part to its fullness. As the allowed space for carry-ons incessantly shrinks I’ve willingly sacrificed many a pair of shoes or an extra sweater for the sake of bringing a book. I feel quite empty without the assurance that one lays nestled in my bag. 

The proper book choice requires consideration. There is a finality in the decision that I cannot change my mind once I’m on the plane. It’s an expectant practice that encourages a mood but also fulfills a service - which book deserves to be read there. What story is a destination calling for? 

In my experience, both the place and the book I read become richer in their union. They end up shaping each other, words and food and people and vistas converging at each ellipses or check-in counter. 

If traveling is an exploration of other lives to in some way make your own more full, a book must be a similar immersion - every step along a new street and every turn of the page becoming a meditation on parts of you - or the world - that you did not know of before. 

In some cases, the book that you take on holiday feels so preordained that you save it for that specific trip. There is no question about the proper setting for its pages. 

Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary”came with me to an Easter spent in Gallipoli, on the heel of the boot of Italy. For nearly a week my husband and I stayed in a cheap beach rental in the small fishing town, eating salami and mortadella sandwiches, and taking long runs down the quiet coast. 

On Good Friday, we took an umbrella and a bottle of cheap wine to the beach and spent the day behind a cleft of rock, sheltered from the cool wind of a summer not yet arrived. By Italian standards it was still too cold to swim, so we had the beach to ourselves. It was then that I opened the book and only put it down to take periodic dips in the sea. 

The story is written from the perspective of Jesus’ mother, starting after her son has been crucified. It recounts the story of his childhood and later life in a series of flashbacks. At the end of the book the disciples are at the safe house in which Mary has been ushered away. “You will see someday,” they say to her. “His death saved the world.” 

“It wasn’t worth it,” she responds. I underlined the words with my pencil, as the late afternoon cast a shadow in its wake. 

Later on, we walked to the edge of the city, along the wall that held pistachio coloured buildings from falling into the sea. On the western-most facade, a yellow church faced the setting sun. People began to congregate across the street in front of it, bellying up to the flimsy red police tape attempting crowd control. A brass band assembled on the church steps. Despite the growing crowd, the evening air was quiet. “It’s Good Friday,” our server said to us as we finished warm glasses of wine. “The L’Urnia will begin soon.”

The L’Urnia, or The Procession of Mysteries is what the via crucis is called in Gallipoli. Outside of Italy, the via crucis is commonly known as the Stations of the Cross, a depiction of Jesus’ final moments before he was crucified. 

Until the L'Urnia, all of the Stations of the Cross processions that I had witnessed culminated in the death of Jesus, triumphantly followed by the risen Christ. But in Gallipoli, the focus shifts. The crescendo of the procession is in a black-veiled statue of the Madonna, who, when carried past, causes people to kneel to the ground. The horns stop and tears drip down the rosaries in old ladies’ hands. 

There on the edge of the sea is a moment for collective mourning. On Good Friday in Gallipoli, people hear the lament of a mother - there is a place for grief. 

Walking amid families who dispersed through the cracks in the city after the procession, I felt comforted being among people who acknowledged that sometimes the pain didn’t feel worth it. I cried tears of my own as we sat down to dinner in an empty restaurant near the train station.  

We plunged our forks deep into seafood linguini. Hope rekindled. 

Sometimes, the relationship between a book and a place only reveals itself once your time with both of them has come to an end. 

I was in the desert in Morocco staying in a small kasbah, a traditional building made of mud and straw baked to a crisp in the desert sun. In the mornings I drank coffee and stared at the purple hues of the Atlas Mountains between bites of beghrir soaked in wild honey. 

The kasbah was on the grounds of what used to be a family farm, where grape vines and vegetable plots were tended over generations. In the afternoons shepherds brought their sheep down from the hills to the edge of the lake in the valley, which had receded in the heat of the dry season. 

Over the course of several days, shifting between towels under lemon trees and a reclined chair at the pool I plowed through the pages of “How Green was My Valley,” by Richard Lewellyn, a book I had started in London but could not leave behind. I did not expect to find many similarities between the story of a small Welsh mining town and a kasbah in the Moroccan desert, but the two valleys bagan to overlap. 

In one, a slag heap, material waste from mining operations, grew from a mountain devoured by industrialization. In the other, a lake receded as the dry season lasted longer and more water was drawn for irrigation to grow the vegetables for the couscous I ate for lunch. 

In both, each pause in the day was filled with a cup of tea. In the Welsh valley, it was milky and served in big tea cups made of china. In Morocco, it was steaming steeped mint, poured high from silver kettles.

Both worlds were also punctuated by the intense smells of food. I lifted the lid off of a pungent tagine of chicken and olives as I arrived at the bottom of a page-long description about the making of a Welsh cawl, a stew made from lard, potatoes, beef and leeks.

The mountains on the page and those front of me looked impenetrable, yet the valleys that they guarded were changing. Was part of this because of the encroachment of people like me? Had the shepherd always had to walk so far for water? 

The protagonist of the novel, Huw, asks the same question of his changed environment, as the mountains disappear to the mines and as village life is eroded by outside forces: “How green was my valley then, and the valley of them that have gone?” 

If you fail to pack a book before you go somewhere, fate will ensure that you stumble upon one anyway. It was an early afternoon in Kolkata and my friend Alex and I were relishing in the full powered AC of a Costa Coffee sipping ice cold lattes. 

It was April, and the air was becoming heavier by the day as the monsoons approached. The heat was unbearable in the afternoon — we would lie on the cool floor of our Airbnb, dozing in air perfumed by the marigolds in bowls of rosewater our housekeeper Juma left scattered around the apartment. 

This particular morning we had been ducking in and out of bookstores on Park Street, picking up and putting down titles penned by authors of whom we were just beginning to feel the influence. We knew a bit about the literary history of Kolkata, but had not yet grasped that the act of pen to paper was woven into the very fibres of the city. 

I asked a shopkeeper’s advice on which author to read and the look on his face indicated that I had a long education ahead of me. I ended up walking out of the shop with a collection of poems by Rabindrath Tagore,“Gitanjali.”

I opened the book in the cafe that day, and from then on carried it with me in a cloth bag as we walked around the city. It was there with me in the South Park Street cemetery, where gothic tombs marked the place of sailors killed by cholera. When we bought some scalped tickets to a Kolkata Knights crickets match, the book sat on my seat as we cheered at the wrong moments. It even found its way back to where its life had started, stuck under my sweaty arm as we walked through the silent halls of Tagore’s ancestral home, a red brick mansion with green slatted shutters. 

In poem #21, Tagore speaks of being on the brink of launching his boat into somewhere new. 

“Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far away song floating from the other shore?” 

Here were words that explained a city not only as I saw it. The overwhelming stimulations of an ancient place were made palpable in Tagore, becoming something that I too could connect with. 

The many years of people who had stood next to the Hoogli River before setting sail, it’s poetic name whirling from mouths as if they were saying goodbye to someone beloved, piled on top of me in the space of a stanza.

Tagore introduced me to Bengal, crystallizing the aroma of something so much bigger than myself into the honest lines of someone who knew he was being shaped by the city too, even as he took part in defining it for generations to come.

In a forward to my dog-eared edition of “Gitanjali,” W.B. Yates writes: 

“As the generations pass, travellers will hum [Tagore’s verses] on the highway and men rowing upon rivers. Lovers, while they await one another, shall find, in murmuring them, this love of God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth. At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward to these without derogation or condescension, for it has known that they will understand; and it has filled itself with the circumstances of their lives.” 

Maybe that's the simplest way of saying it: that the lines in books were meant to travel with us and that places were meant to be written about. That together they find new life in us as we look for the same thing in them. 

- Words and illustrations by Kylee Pedersen. Usually based in London, Kylee writes about food, the environment and travel, among other things.

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