Saturday, May 05, 2007

George Kennan and Travel Notebooks

I've been planning for our trip to Italy, which begins in a week, in various ways. I've made reservations for each night of our trip except the final few days in Rome. I figure we can take care of that when we get to Rome at first. I've also ordered train passes good for any 7 days of first class train travel in Italy. We get a slight break for traveling together. Cost: about $300 each. Also, I've been reading the guidebooks, esp. Lonely Planet. And I've been boning up on Italian history--now, Robert Payne's Horizon Guide to Ancient Rome.

For a couple months, I've been listening in the car to Italian tapes--a conversational series specifically designed for use in the car, so there's no need to refer constantly to a printed book, though there is a text for each lesson. I'm not sure how much I'm absorbing, but it's helpful that there are so many cognates with French, of which I have a fair working knowledge, and Spanish, of which I know a smattering. For the word "but," for example, you can say "ma"(like the French "mais") or "pero" (as in Spanish).

I also prepare for any extended trip by reading accounts of trips taken by others. I have my favorites, such as John Steinbeck's amiable Travels with Charley and Henry Miller's wonderfully biting 1939 The Air Conditioned Nightmare. I'll read anything Bruce Chatwin wrote about his travels, especially The Songlines. But my favorite traveling journal-keeper is George Kennan, whose Sketches from a Life is a selections from journals he kept during his travels as a statesman from 1927-1988. Unlike his many other brilliant books, which are mostly about diplomacy, this one recounts his observations as a traveler. Most of his observations center on Russia, Germany, and other northern European countries--not locations that I feel the strongest attraction to. But he brings the places he visits to life with a sharp eye and a scrupulous curiosity, a constant probing beneath the seemingly ordinary events of everyday life. Here, he's writing in 1984 about Ischia, an Italian island:
I thought, on the way back, of the qualities of this very Italian place: the incongruous mixture of tolerance, naivete, overcrowding, sociability, family solidarity, localism, acceptance of modernism in its most hideous forms and yet with some sort of an inner self-defense against it--life led, in short, in the small dimension, full of pettiness, no doubt, and not without its small cruelties and injustices, but borne along by the broad, wise, disillusioned charity of the Catholic Church, by the comforting familiarities of family life, and by the unvarying, reassuring support of the Christian sacraments. (327)

Often, he begins his entries with a matter-of-fact statement telling where he is or has been, with maybe a quick note on the weather thrown in. But then, he effortlessly takes us deeper. Here, he begins an account of a 1940 walk in The Hague with a startling juxtaposition.

I took another long walk this morning, only to hear a German military band playing on a square to a sizable audience of placid, politely applauding Dutchmen, and to see a place, only a block or two from the legation, where bombs had wiped out most of the inside of a city block.
When you read Kennan, you know he's a thoughtful traveler, not just a close observer, but also a ponderer, a thinker about what he sees. It's the attitude I'd like to bring to my own travels.


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