Over Thanksgiving week in 1998 my mother flew to visit me in Norwich, England where I was studying at the University of East Anglia. She came to a few of my classes with me and I cooked us a horrible pasta with canned tuna in the shared kitchen of my campus flat. We visited the Norman castle in the city center, took in a play, shopped in the market by the old guild hall.
And one day that week we took a train to Cambridge.
We spotted the fudge shop tucked around the corner from Kings College chapel. But we decided not to go in.
That type of establishment is for dumb Americans, not cultured ones like us, we scoffed. Anyway, there was a perfectly good Cadbury Flake to be had at the newsagents just a few blocks away. Right? Right.
Giggling and rolling our eyes at each other, we got in line for fudge.
It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago. I think mom and I are due for another trip! Maybe we could even take my daughter (now 10), for a three-generation adventure.
Yes, the time is ripe for a girls’ trip in some shape or form…and that was my main takeaway from two mother-daughter travel memoirs I read recently. I’m reviewing them here back-to-back so you can compare.
Get Inspired for Girl Time
So without further ado, here are today’s travel reading picks: Have Mother, Will Travel by Claire and Mia Fontaine (William Morrow, 2012) and We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn (Sourcebooks, 2014).
Mother and daughter travel first to Asia on a whirlwind scavenger hunt-style trip. There they learn, among other things, the true meaning of the word hangry (hungry + angry).
A few months later the pair land in Avignon, France, where they spend a leisurely month covering huge tracts of emotional ground.
Daughter Mia is having what you might call a quarter life crisis. She’s got a good job, sweet NYC apartment, etc etc but is hoping to define and go after her life’s dream, or at least something more substantial than what she’s doing now. Claire, Mia’s mom, has just moved across the country to buy a fixer upper she’ll probably never fix up. Vacationing together will kick-start the process of their learning how to be mom and daughter to each other in their respective new life stages.
The story alternates between mother Claire and 25-year-old daughter Mia’s point of view. Both narrators bring in backstory as needed to explain emotions and actions that might seem extreme or non sequitur. Descriptions of outings to see elephants or visit a cathedral veer off frequently into more of an essay or rant. I actually thought those sections were artfully handled, but they will likely be boring or frustrating to readers who thought they were in for more of a straight-up travelogue.
I loved reading about the little routines and rituals Claire and Mia created for themselves during their stay in Avignon. They fall into a pattern of watching the sunset from the same spot every night. And they go on a jag of having avocados and lemon ice while they binge watch TV series and movies in their flat. No problem is too big to hash out over avocados and lemon ice! Those small details really rang true for me, as they are sometimes the most memorable part of a vacation.
This book was a lot of work to read, if for no other reason than the italic font used for the sections that Mia narrates. It is really hard on the eyes! Ugh!
I would have appreciated more detail about the Asia scavenger hunt trip. That really could have been a short, funny book on its own. Then again, the slower paced part about France might not have stood alone without the contrast with the more action oriented travel.
Personally, I don’t mind being taken along on a long-winded relationship journey. But I will admit, when I realized that’s what the book was really about, I kind of sighed like, Ok, here we go. I’m in, but this wasn’t what I was expecting. (Hmm, maybe I should’ve read the subtitle on the cover??)
I did like the commentary on motherhood and child care in France and the social systems that support it.
Read it if:
You like literary nonfiction; you like analyzing relationships; you liked the authors’ first duo book Come Back (about teen Mia’s boot camp drug rehab and healing from sexual abuse). There are lots of details about Avignon, France that would be helpful if you are planning a trip there.
Mother and 8-year-old daughter travel to Paris because mom, Jennifer, is afraid she will die before sharing the experience with daughter Katie. (Jennifer is not ill.) The pair return to Paris and more European sites on two other occasions when Katie is a middle schooler and high school age. Cities visited include Rome, Salermo, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and others.
Jennifer narrates the story, alternating between travelogue accounts and flashbacks of her childhood with her father in 1970s New York City.
Jennifer’s father, a musician, drank and smoked and was almost always high, but nonetheless loved his little girl. He was the best dad he could be. When cancer sapped his strength and ultimately took him, Jennifer didn’t process her grief well. Choosing to fight her own anxiety about death by showing Katie the wonders of Europe, Jennifer gradually learns to “enjoy the experience now and stop searching for life’s doggie bags.”
Jennifer buys a space cake in Amsterdam and soon finds herself wondering, Why are my lips on fire…and what are lips anyway?
I’m glad I read this one after finishing Have Mother, Will Travel because it was refreshing and fun. Thoughtful and warm, but not too obsessive or cerebral. Jennifer Coburn portrays her earlier self as an over-planner whose skills are rendered useless when it comes to iffy stomachs and other hard realities of travel. By bumbling along, accepting surprises and hospitality, even making mistakes in front of daughter Katie, Jennifer starts to adopt a less fearful, more forgiving attitude towards herself.
Read it if:
You like Europe; you want to work up your courage to travel with a school-age companion; you are looking for a good beach read.
Not Your Mother’s Cruise Ship?
So, maybe whirlwind scavenger hunt isn’t quite your speed. Maybe you don’t have a month off or a personal connection in France to hook you up with a flat for a month of soul-searching awkwardness. Maybe you don’t care overmuch for the art masterpieces of Europe. That’s ok. I think there are still good lessons to be learned from these two books.
One, use people you know to help inform your trip planning. If you don’t know any locals in your destination, ask others who’ve gone for their recommendations (the Coburns of We’ll Always Have Paris find themselves in beautiful Salermo, Italy when friends suggest a felicitous itinerary change).
Two, if you’re used to one mode of travel–say, the classic road trip or camping–why not mix it up and try something else? Take the plunge and go overseas if you can. Or, take a package tour and, while you’re out, eyeball places you’d like to come back to on a more DIY-style trip. Look for theme trips such as foodie tours or yoga retreats, if those activities match your interests and budget.
Three, consider a trip back to the old stomping grounds, or any place you or your travel partner have spent a significant amount of time. Talk about what’s changed, what stayed the same. Ask each other, how much have you changed since you were last here?