I WROTE FOR Time magazine for 22 years, interviewed Fidel Castro four times, traveled with the pope, disco danced with the Italian foreign minister, and was shot at and shelled upon in Lebanon. Now I’m a stepmom. Need I say more? I am a means of transportation, an irritating interruption of all-important cellphone communication, and the person who can’t help with precalculus or even English. (Um, preterit verb, anyone?) As a result, I have been finding solace lately in reminiscing about my once-glamorous globe-trotting existence and the travel scams pulled on my bosses.
My first gig overseas was in London with United Press International, where I spent my days sitting beside a bank of aging Teletypes (yeah, I’m that old) banging out Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood music features while I was turning two-line telexes from Africa into bell-ringing stories for delivery back home. Thanks to low pay, I subsisted on scones, chip buddies (sandwiches made of French fries), and Indian food.
The payoff? Vacations in France: roaming romantic châteaus in the Loire Valley, strolling in medieval Eze and the hilltop village Vézelay … Who am I kidding? It was all about the food: sweetbreads and saddle of venison, fried frog legs and foie gras, Champagne and grand crus. Arriving late for dinner one evening in a village north of Carcassonne, we were told by the kitchen staff (who were ready to close for the night) that they had only liver left. We persisted, and the liver arrived with grapes in a mysterious red sauce. It was the best meal I’d ever eaten. That’s when I began to understand the old adage “Travel isn’t about the destination.” It’s the journey, getting outside your comfort zone.
That was certainly true of my experience in Lebanon in the 1980s. My favorite getaway there -- a stop on the daily drive to cover Yasser Arafat’s last stand in Tripoli -- was Byblos, a great place for lunch. In the old town, once inhabited by the Crusaders, you could dine on an ancient stone terrace overlooking a Mediterranean port dating to Phoenician times. The real world receded with each bottle of Ksara wine.
Sitting there one day, I understood the idyllic life the Lebanese had lost. Here I had been writing about the marines at the Beirut airport while the real story lay in the lives of the staffers (one Christian, one Muslim, one Armenian) at the office -- how hard it was to cook and wash and, yeah, watch TV with only a few hours of electricity a day. They survived on a shockingly large consumption of sedatives. After that, my stories home took on more nuance. (Today, the harbor at Byblos is full of tourist boats!)
My first overseas posting for Time was Rome, but my favorite scam during those years took place in Turkey. We had a model-turned-photographer named Rudi Frey, who was the best “fixer.” We did regular runs to Ankara for political coverage, but since there was no direct flight to the Turkish capital, Rudi would book us on the early flight to Istanbul. The first time, I thought we would sit at the airport and I’d nurse my notes until the afternoon connection. Instead, Rudi whisked us off to the Istanbul Hilton, which overlooks the Bosporus, and booked a poolside cabana. We ordered meze (hummus and tabbouleh) and luxuriated by the pool for three hours or so, chatting with locals and fellow travelers.
I fell in love with Turkey this way and came to understand its split personality of the poor in the tense border region north of Iraq, where we were headed, and also the European-centric businessmen (and businesswomen) of Istanbul. My clichéd view of Turkey as the land of Midnight Express prisons fell away as my fascination with the Turkish bourse grew.
I’ve had bad moments on supposed boondoggles. After Hurricane Katrina, I thought I would report the revival of New Orleans while hunting down the best shrimp rémoulade. I hadn’t counted on caring so much about the city’s people. At one point, I was so depressed, I didn’t leave my hotel for four days. It hurt too much to see the place still ripped up, doctors operating in a department store, lives put on hold.
The last time I was there to report, I met with relatives who’d lost their home in Lakeview. We met at the Rib Room. I was shocked; Friday lunch was packed. People were downing crab bisque and cocktails. It was a lesson in survival, a hopeful note, and a reminder that when traveling, you must get out of your hotel room, even if disaster and disappointment loom outside the door.
My mother once had a friend who asked her whether she should buy new drapes or go to England for the summer. My mother, God bless her, didn’t hesitate. She said, “Travel. Travel. Travel.” Thanks for the lesson, Mom. Now I just need some advice about the stepdaughter.