Travel writer brings readers the world

Raphael Kadushin sure knows how to wear out a passport. The award-winning food and travel writer’s work appears regularly in publications like Bon Appétit, National Geographic Traveler and Condé Nast Traveler. He is also the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press and his fiction and essays have appeared in collections like “Men on Men 5,” “Best Food Writing 2001” and “National Geographic’s Through the Lens.” His latest project, “Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing,” a follow up to 2004’s “Wonderlands” anthology, finds the out writer contributing to and editing the anthology of fiction and nonfiction essays, stories and a short play from a range of accomplished travel writers with the purpose of tempting the reader to find adventure — and whatever comes along with it. PGN caught up with Kadushin while he was in Germany to discuss the current state of world travel. PGN: Making a living writing about traveling and food seems like something everybody would want to do. How did you become so successful? RK: Well, I think it was just luck starting with my parents. They always had this real sense of adventure and my dad was a professor doing a global study of welfare systems in different countries, so we traveled a lot when I was a kid. We lived in Israel and Holland and England. So that set a sort of pattern for me, and a kind of openness to the world. Plus, all I could ever do was read and write. I was hopeless at anything involving math or science. But it never occurred to me to combine the travel and writing. I started out as a journalist writing film and book reviews until I met an editor for a food magazine and she encouraged me. And that was dumb luck and good timing because the magazines were looking for people who had a voice and could turn a trip into a narrative story. And who could suggest how food is a metaphor for a place, the way a Midwestern fish fry and English pudding are part of the tradition and soul of a place. And I think I always saw that connection. But, of course, if I consciously set out to do food and travel writing it probably wouldn’t have happened, and starting a career in journalism now is tough because the field is in such drastic transition. PGN: You fully admit that many of the stories in “Big Trips” are fiction. Doesn’t that undermine the idea behind travel writing? RK: No. I think most travel writing is a form of fiction, unless you are doing a just-the-facts consumer piece. Because you don’t really know a place well after a week or two so you’re always projecting your own fiction or expectations onto the place. Or you’re forming a sensual kind of impression. And fiction gives you the freedom to evoke that impression of a place, the feeling or sensibility of a place, the way it sounds and smells to you and the way it impacts you. And that has its own kind of truth. PGN: Do you find that most American travelers are more concerned about finding all the comforts of home when traveling abroad than actually experiencing foreign culture? RK: No, a lot of American travelers I meet are much braver than I am. I think anyone just looking for the comforts of home isn’t a committed traveler. They’re just waiting to get back home. But most committed travelers, people who really travel regularly, driven by wanderlust, are sincerely interested in finding something new and unexpected and a lot of people I talk to travel with a purpose. They’re visiting a yoga center in India or doing volunteer work as part of their trip or researching their family roots. And even if they just want to experience a different culture in passing it helps put their own culture in perspective. You get a sense of distance when you travel so it clarifies, sometimes, what you appreciate or don’t like about your own culture. PGN: Do you think people, especially LGBT travelers, are better off making their own travel plans or going through a travel agent? RK: I’m a big fan of agents and I think it’s criminal the way the airlines just dissolved their commission and tried to put the agents out of business. A good agent can save you a lot of time planning the logistics of traveling; finding the right hotel, train schedules, restaurants and tickets is like a full-time job. But I think most people can do that themselves if they have the time and I always like the freedom of planning my own trips. It’s really a matter of talking to people you trust and reading the most reliable magazines, books — especially books — and sites, and knowing how to identify bogus information. An awful lot of travel and food Web sites in particular can be really misleading because an amazing percentage of those supposedly independent Internet reviews are posted by the hotels and restaurants themselves. PGN: How has the recent world economic crisis changed how and where you travel? RK: It’s having a drastic impact on travel because we’re all hurting now and it’s harder to make the case for more ambitious trips. So I think people are looking to more domestic trips and discovering their own backyards, and that’s fine. But the one and maybe only good thing to come out of the crisis is the fact that some international travel is cheaper now. I was in Amsterdam this last week and the dollar was 20-percent stronger than it was a year ago, and you could find lots of discounted room rates, even at some surprisingly posh hotels. And there are some great winter airline deals because the planes are emptier than they’ve been in a long time, even though the airlines keep cutting flights. Maybe the best international deal right now is England, which was unaffordable the last few years. But the pound has plummeted so much in recent months and weeks that suddenly even London looks like a relative bargain, at least compared to what it was last year. PGN: What are some of your favorite travel destinations? RK: I love Amsterdam partly because we lived in Holland briefly when I was a kid and it was the first place I had a sense of place. People have a funny impression of the city; they still have this idea that it’s a sort of crack house, a sleazy weekend place where you just go for the dope and cruising. And you can do that. But if you get away from Dam Square and walk along the western arc of canals, past the 17th-century canal houses, crossing the hump-backed bridges, it’s like walking through a Vermeer painting. It’s one of the most physically beautiful cities in Europe, and it isn’t self-conscious about it the way Venice or some overrated beauty spots are. I also like Scandinavia, especially Stockholm, because it has its own understated beauty and, like Holland, the Scandinavians are really post-gay. They aren’t just tolerant of gays. It just isn’t an issue for them. For something sunnier, I like Majorca [Spain], especially the northern tip around Deia, where there are these wonderful villages perched between mountain and sea. And we were just in Santorini [Greece], which I thought would be one big block of tourist hotels. But it was beautiful — the white cube villages and the caldera and the Aegean sunset, which lasts like two hours. And in the States, I love Santa Fe because it’s like taking a foreign trip without the jet lag. The mix of Hispanic and Native American and frontier cultures give it this incredibly ethereal feel, and it’s one of those very urban small towns, so the best of both worlds. PGN: Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you are dying to visit? RK: I haven’t seen much of Africa, just Morocco, which I liked a lot. It has this almost Biblical feel to it and, on a totally superficial level, the best shopping. I bought so many tchotchkes in the medina that I had to buy two literal carpetbags to haul all the stuff home. And I’ve always wanted to go to Sicily, because it’s supposed to be like Italy squared, a still-authentic Mediterranean culture. Duncan Fallowell, a great British travel writer, has a piece in “Big Trips” on Taormina, Sicily, which used to be this louche gay resort in the 19th century when Germans would go down and photograph the boys striking mock classical poses, wearing togas. Fallowell’s piece has this understated sensuality to it and it’s a kind of romance because it partly focuses on his flirtation with a Sicilian waiter described as having the dark curls of a Greek statue. And I want to go to India but I think you have to prepare, and be ready for the rush of colors and crowds. PGN: Do you limit your travels to places that are LGBT-friendly? And if not, what measures to you take to ensure a safe trip? RK: No, not at all because that would be too limiting. A lot of the U.S. isn’t particularly gay friendly. It is a lot easier going to gay-friendly places like Holland or Sweden or England because traveling is always partly tense and having to worry about your personal safety adds to it. But gays grow up knowing how to read cultural signs, for their own protection, so we’re born anthropologists and I think we have a sense of when we have to be cautious. That means in places like Morocco, or any place you’re not sure of, you don’t check into a hotel as a gay couple unless you know the owner of the riad, and you don’t express affection in public; making a political statement isn’t worth putting yourself at risk. PGN: Are there any places you never ever want to visit again? RK: I think every place has something to recommend it, though I found South Africa really depressing because you can still feel the impact of apartheid. And I know a lot of people who aren’t big on Las Vegas but it’s fun for a weekend if you want a really manic vacation. PGN: How important is a project like “Big Trips” to the livelihood of the “Living Out” series? RK: All the profits from “Big Trips” go back into funding future UW [University of Wisconsin] Press gay titles, so every sale helps. “Living Out” is the only series in the world devoted to gay and lesbian autobiography. We’ve published more than 60 titles in the series or related to it. We do gay fiction, travel writing, history, biographies, and film and performance art-related gay titles as well. And the books cover all kinds of lives, from the lives of gay farm boys to one of the first gay Holocaust memoirs to a Latino gay memoir that won an American Book Award last year to the a book called “Sex Talks to Girls” on our current list, a very funny, beautifully written lesbian coming-of-age memoir by the poet Maureen Seaton. And in the spring we’re doing an important anthology by David Bergman that covers 150 years of extracts from American gay memoirs, by everyone from writers like David Sedaris and Whitman to tattoo artists. So the whole list is important to recovering the full range of queer voices. Both the “Living Out” series titles and our related gay titles are listed on our Web site, Raphael Kadushin hosts a reading at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. For more information, call (215) 923-2960.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected]