This post was contributed by Tilly Nevin.
When I travel, I always have a book on me. Now, I associate the books I take with me not just with where they’re set, but where I read it. On a six-hour train trip from London to Edinburgh and back again, I reread The Poisonwood Bible and felt like I was lost in the Congo while I watched the Scottish border slip past. On a flight to Portugal, I devoured Jessica Fox’s Three Things to Know about Rockets, a (true) love story between an American woman who works for NASA and a man who owns a tiny bookshop in an even tinier town in Scotland. I opened Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan sitting eating Schoko Boller and drinking Fritz Kola in a city in Germany and loved that it started in Berlin, only an hour away. When I went later that month, I noticed places I wouldn’t have without reading that novel. Books are what, in the first place, made me want to travel. I’ve only really started this year, but I feel like I’ve road tripped around the USA after reading Miriam Toew’s The Flying Troutmans, in which a young woman and her niece and nephew head to the South to try and find their long-lost father, and fled to New York with Marin from Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay, staying in a dingy motel where the woman next door howls like a wolf. Elena Ferrante’s novels remind me now not only of meandering Neapolitan streets but rural French rues. I read Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, about a woman on holiday in Paris missing her childhood best friend, at home in Wales before I got on a train for Paris Gard de Nord and felt like I was already there. If you’re travelling, get a taste of being in two places at once with these books. If you’re planning your next trip, or missing travelling, remember what it felt like: the heat of the Portuguese sun, the lights of LA, and long, hard winters in lonely cities.
“Everywhere I was received with spontaneous friendliness and if any Secret Police had me under surveillance they were very discreet indeed.” – Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt
Solo travel can be scary sometimes: when you’re walking around some unfamiliar city late at night, your phone low on charge and the hostel you’re meant to be staying at hard to find, or when you meet some creepy guy on the train (why is there always one), or even just when you’re having a bad day and still have to communicate in a language that’s not your first and it all gets a bit overwhelming. At least, that’s what I’d always thought. Then I read Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt. When she was ten, Murphy was given an atlas and a bicycle and, without telling anyone, she planned a solo trip from Ireland to India – on that bike of course. At twenty one, in 1963, she begins said trip and Full Tilt is the diary she kept when she was travelling. She gets stung by a scorpion, keeps going on her bike even when she has broken ribs, fights off wolves, nearly dies of heatstroke and eats handfuls of salt for her meals, argues her way into countries in which she’s explicitly told the probability of her getting murdered is quite high and has to pretend she’s a man when being a woman can be very dangerous. Oh, and she gets offered a farm and decides she quite likes the idea of communism. Yet she a) never stops and only gets annoyed when events put her off her original plan or when people offer her a more comfortable ride to her next stop when all she wants is to ride her bike (which she names Roz) in peace, goddamnit, and b) she just finds it all highly amusing. Which means even when you’re reading half in horror at the latest injury she’s got, you’re also laughing at every other page. Plus, if you want to make friends while travelling, take some tips from Dervla, who has been solo travelling ever since (and is now in her seventies). Really, the original Shut Up and Go gal.
“I could say the night felt magical, but that would be an embellishment. That would be romanticization.
What it actually felt like was life” – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I wasn’t sure whether to include this book because it’s not technically about travelling, but if a move from California to New York isn’t momentous, then I’m not sure what is. For anyone who’s homesick for a home that doesn’t exist anymore, and who wants reassuring that even the most frightening change can bring unexpected greatness – new friends and futures. It’s so gorgeously written that it left me breathless (like the best views in a new city do).
“Loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality” – Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City
If you like art, this one’s for you. Laing explores the idea of loneliness, but if that sounds a little dry, just try reading the first chapter. It’s the most beautiful, engaging book I’ve read all year. Laing uses the examples of four main artists Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Woknarowicz and Henry Darger (plus loads of others like Nan Goldin and Zoe Leonard), to explore how actually loneliness can lead to these intense bursts of creativity and satisfaction. So if you’re travelling by yourself, staying in a city where you feel pretty isolated, now might be the time to get those paints out …
“‘Cetaceans are women’s allies in the war against patriarchy because patriarchy holds the cetaceans down with us” – The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews
This book is hilarious. Erin’s nineteen and decides she’s going to take a solo trip from England to a cabin in Denali, traversing Iceland, Greenland and Canada to get there, realising along the way that moon cups and dog sledding don’t really go that well together, and trying to understand what travelling means for women or for men, what a privilege it is to be able to do it and why it changes her so deeply.
“Language, as much as land, is a place. To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless” – When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins
I love the whole genre of travel writing slash language learning memoir genre – how Jhumpa Lahiri learns Italian when she’s living in Rome in In Other Words and afterwards refuses to write in English, how Elena Lappin speaks five languages as a result of travelling as a kid – and this book doesn’t disappoint. Collins, a writer at the New Yorker, falls in love with a French man (the dream) and, worried if she has kids she won’t speak their language, begins to learn. Along the way she discovers the strange rules of the French Academy and questions whether ‘Je t’aime’ even means ‘I love you’. In this book, I also discovered that French has the perfect word for me: la frileuse, which means a woman who is always cold (ME. Right now I am wearing a dressing gown over a woollen jumper and my brother’s tracksuits which I stole from home and could keep even the Alaskan cold out). If you want to read a book by someone who’s actually French, I also really liked The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, which is the memoir of a young man who looks back at his childhood in rural France discovering his sexuality.
And, finally, the bible for the solo traveller:
“That was what the city offered, a sharp antidote, the possibility of being awake” – Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Another one for the art lovers, with its exploration of Yves Klein and the colour blue, this book talks about films, books, music, dreams, friends and love, all about how great it really is to get lost in the unknown. I wish I could say freak out less when I get lost now, but that’s probably never going to happen. But it does mean I stop more and take streets that I’m only half sure lead in the right direction, so I can get a glimpse of a sprawling French cemetery or that I sometimes do just wander, aimlessly, finding the best, hidden places in cities. As Solnit says so beautifully, ‘the people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle’. Throwing yourself into a good book is just like throwing yourself into another culture, and throwing yourself into both at the same time? Magic.
(Also, one final tip for the traveller-reader: a Kindle (or even the Kindle app on your phone) is your new best friend, no matter what you once thought about physical copies. Admittedly, I still bring too many paperbacks with me, but my Kindle (like Roz) now has a name (Helly) and comes with me literally everywhere because I can always download books in English when I want them. Don’t get me wrong, one of my favourite things about travelling is finding the best bookshops, but Helly just sits contentedly next to my latest purchases. She doesn’t look as good in artsy Instagram posts, but, shh, don’t tell her.)
Meet Tilly: I’m Tilly, a recent English lit grad who is working abroad for a year (and hopefully longer), in Germany and France, teaching kids as tiny as three to eleven, and trying desperately to improve my French pronunciation! I’m obsessive about books and love finding the green spots in new cities to sit and read in as well as hunting down local pools, the best chocolate and any art I can. Keep up with me on IG.