Talking travel with Arthur Frommer

Travel Perspectives, Travel Writers & Books — By on July 18, 2008 at 2:14 pm

Everyone knows about the Frommer’s series of travel guidebooks, but what about the man behind the guides? Arthur Frommer just did an online interview for Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding site and talked about his life as a traveler and a writer. Some highlights:

How did you get started traveling?

By accident, and at the expense of Uncle Sam. I was drafted into the army when I graduated from the Yale University Law School. The Korea War was going on at that time, and I was trained to be an infantryman in Korea when someone in the Pentagon must have discovered some of my linguistic abilities. I was assigned instead to Berlin. I wanted to pinch myself for my good luck. I had never dreamed that I would ever be able to see Europe, as I came from a family of very modest income.

And there I was smack in the heart of Europe with a strong US dollar and I utilized every opportunity I could find, every weekend and three-day pass, to simply travel throughout Europe regardless of how little money I had. I was living on a PFC’s salary. And in the course of doing that it occurred to me that I should write a book about the experience.

I discovered that the fact that I had very little money had transformed the quality of my vacation and travels and made them far more rewarding and far more pleasant. I discovered that the less you spend the more you enjoy — the more authentic is the experience you have.

As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?

My biggest challenge is to keep my own eyes and consciousness fresh. I’ve realized that there was such a thing as too much travel, which causes you to be jaded.

There was a moment when my plane landed at the airport of Amsterdam one day and I didn’t even take my eyes away from the book that I was reading because I was as familiar with Amsterdam as I was with my own home city. And I suddenly realized that that’s not the mood with which travelers approach a new destination — travel is exciting and novel and somewhat bewildering. And it’s very important, even for an experienced travel writer: not to become jaded and not to relax, but to keep in mind the tingling excitement that most tourists feel when they encounter a foreign destination for the first time.

That has led to a style of writing in which nothing is left out — in which you don’t assume anything, in which you take the reader by the hand and lead him through the steps he will need to absorb in order to enjoy a particular destination.

What travel authors have influenced you?

I don’t think I was influenced by any other authors of travel guides per se, but I loved reading general travel memoirs about trips that people have taken. I remember that Richard Halliburton had an immense impact on me earlier in my life when I read him as a young boy.

But I find that general reading, both novels as well as nonfiction books about different aras of the world, has had a great impact on my writing. I’ve been fascinated in recent months to read the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian Nobel Prize winner. I have also been influenced by the wonderful books written by Rory Stewart, who in the immediate weeks after 9/11 walked from one end of Afghanistan to the other and wrote a book, The Places In Between, that gives you a better picture of what’s going on in Afghanistan than any other deeper, more political tome could possibly bring to you.

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