Introducing "'s Wanderlust"

It's time to put the unconquerable longing back into travel writing.

Published December 1, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

You probably have your own definition of wanderlust. My trusty Webster's defines it as "strong or unconquerable longing for or impulse toward wandering," and that pretty well sums it up for me.

It also sums up the fundamental inspiration for "'s Wanderlust": a collection dedicated to putting the romance and the passion -- the "unconquerable longing" -- back into travel writing.

Remember the first time you traveled to a foreign place? If you are like me, you were overwhelmed and exhilarated. Every moment seemed unbearably precious, every outing an extraordinary lesson in a new culture and a new people -- full of thrilling sights and smells, tastes and textures, thoughts and values, encounters and connections: a whole new world!

The stories in the anthology recapture and celebrate that feeling. Isabel Allende discovers inspiration in the green depths of the Amazon; Simon Winchester is surprised by romance in rural Romania. Jan Morris explores the hallucinatory power of Gdansk; Carlos Fuentes conjures an unforgettable conjunction of the imagined and the real in Zurich.

Yet it is not only famous writers who enliven its pages. I think readers will long remember Amanda Jones's erotically entangled encounter with a stranger on a crumbling island; David Kohn's mind-marinating, tastebud-tantalizing tour of the Memphis World Barbecue Cooking Contest; Susan Hack's all-too-true tales of desperately seeking Tampax in far-flung pharmacies; Jeffrey Tayler's detour toward death on a spontaneous Sahara sidetrip; and Edith Perlman's richly rejuvenating "junior year abroad" at the tender age of 60 -- to mention just some of the adventures therein.

What unites all the accounts in this collection is writing of the highest order combined with a sense of courage, passion and wonder: courage to explore and confront the larger worlds outside and within, passion to pay deep attention to and care profoundly about what those worlds reveal and wonder at their illuminating intersections -- and at the mundane marvels that make up our planet.

The epiphany at the heart of my own wanderlust goes back a quarter-century to one sunny June morning in Paris, where I had gone to work for the summer as a brief interlude, I thought, between undergraduate and graduate schools. As I did every morning, I took the rickety old filigreed elevator from my apartment -- right on the rue de Rivoli, looking onto the Tuileries -- and stepped into the street: into a sea of French. Everyone around me was speaking French, wearing French, looking French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafes cremes, calling out "Bonjour, monsieur-dame,'" and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.

Until that time I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. Not the musty, shadowed, oak-paneled, ivy-draped buildings in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and fire-eaters on street corners and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.

"'s Wanderlust" is for anyone who has been touched by that spirit: travelers who understand that the true grit and gift of travel is encountering alien landscapes, peoples, values and rites, finding yourself in a situation where you have absolutely no idea what to do, navigating and embracing worlds of newness day after day after day, not knowing how the story is going to end.

Because the story never ends. There's always a new corner, a new chapter -- and who knows what wonders await there?

Enjoy the journey!

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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