Foreword I have been sent many odd promotional items by wrongheaded public relations people desperate for me to write about their clients. Nothing, however, has been more misguided than the Kwikpoint® International Translator that I received a few years ago.
The Kwikpoint® International Translator is a laminated, legal- sized card, folded three times, with full-color illustrations inside and out. On the front cover, the Kwikpoint® International Translator proclaims: “Say It with Pictures!”; “Point to Pictures and Make Yourself Understood Anywhere in the World!” Above those proclamations is a cartoon drawing of a tourist, a man with a camera strapped around his neck, seated at a restaurant table. His ignored menu sits beside him on the table and in his hands is a trusty Kwikpoint® International Translator. The man points at a simple illustration of a cup of coffee, while above him, inside his cartoon dialogue bubble, the same image of a cup of coffee is rendered. Meanwhile, the smiling waitress stands before him and dutifully writes down his order. In her cartoon thought bubble is the exact same image of a cup of coffee. The cartoon’s message is clear: An international crisis has just been averted. Without ever having to learn that pesky foreign word for coffee, our tourist friend has successfully conveyed his beverage choice to the smiling waitress, who has understood him — even though she’s made it very difficult for our friend by not speaking his language.
But coffee isn’t the only image that the Kwikpoint® International Translator provides. Open the thing up and there are hundreds of tiny pictures for the tourist to point at, and presumably resolve any situation that might arise. There are, of course, images for police, fire, hospital, pharmacy, currency exchange, hotel, train station, toothpaste, and the red-circle-with-a-slash international sign for “No.” But there are also more advanced images for specific needs — massage, diving equipment, casino games, squat toilet, male and female contraceptives, jumper cables, pipe-smoking supplies, poached egg, frog legs, life preserver. By following the guide at the bottom of the page, you can create compound ideas. Pointing at a glass of ice cubes plus a cup of coffee would equal iced coffee, for instance. Pointing to the red-circle-with-a-slash plus a jar of mustard equals “No Mustard.” Almost as an afterthought, in tiny letters, at the very bottom of the back page, the following advice is printed: “Learn a few key words in the local language: Yes, No, Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, Please, Love, Peace.” I believe that we have reached a very strange place in the evolution of travel when a product like the Kwikpoint® International Translator appears. And I can’t help but feel sorry for the person who feels compelled to tuck one of these into his fanny pack, next to his electronic currency converter, just in case he finds himself separated from the tour bus and suddenly in a place where no English is spoken.
I don’t want to suggest that everyone who plans to travel should learn to speak a new language in order to do so. Nor do I want to get into another silly debate about what separates a “real traveler” from someone who’s “simply a tourist” — I happen to agree with Paul Fussell, who, in his seminal book Abroad, wrote: “We are all tourists now, and there is no escape.” I bring up the Kwikpoint® International Translator here because it strikes me as the antithesis of what travel is supposed to be. The person who uses this item is a person who, at worst, has an absolute, almost colonial, need to exert control over any people, place, or situation he encounters. The message: I can’t understand a word you’re saying, but it doesn’t matter, because I can point to a picture of pancakes and syrup, and you will fetch it for me. At best, the person who uses the Kwikpoint® International Translator is sadly incapable of leaving any part of his trip to serendipity. He deprives himself of the full experience that travel offers. “Strolling through the marketplace of travel opportunities, one cannot help but recognize that preparedness has become an obsession,” writes Edwin Dobbs, observing the proliferation of travel guides and packaged tours in “Where the Good Begins,” an essay published several years ago in Harper’s. This obsession with preparedness is perhaps part of a larger obsession in our society: to eradicate fear, from every situation and at all costs. But fear and travel nearly always go hand in hand.
“Without fear, travel has no meaning,” writes Keath Fraser in the introduction to the anthology Bad Trips. “In the finest travel writing the storyteller resolves his fears through the ccatharsis of narrative.” Dobbs, in his essay, says that to travel well, “one must court difference.” While certainly far from the only barometersssss of great travel writing, these are very good places to start. Most often, the fear is simply of the unknown. And since the unknown differs so wildly from person to person, it’s one of the reasons why travel writing is a rich genre. An experienced adventurer like Scott Anderson may be at home in war zones and, as his humorous and poignant memoir in this collection shows, it may take the odd brush with a land mine for fear finally to rush in. But your bookish relative from a small town in Minnesota who has never been to Europe may also travel well — if he courts difference and embraces fear and allows the world to work its magic while observing intently.
Over thirty years ago, that relative — my father’s cousin Bob, in this case — arrived in Lisbon without speaking any Portuguese. On his first night in town, he found himself in a restaurant, unable to read the menu. The waiter, finally exasperated with Bob’s linguistic attempts, sat him at a table with a young, well- dressed Portuguese man, who spoke just enough English to help Bob order his dinner. Though the two men could barely communicate, they struck up a friendship, and continued to dine together for the next three nights. The young man took Bob to wonderful, hidden, traditional restaurants in the gothic streets of the Bairro Alto, where they both ate heartily and the young man never let Bob pay for his meals. The dinner conversation never got beyond the basics, but over several evenings Bob learned that the young man had once lived in Lisbon, but no longer did, and that these restaurants had once been his family’s favorites. On their last night together, the man became very serious and teary, and tried to explain something important to Bob. But in the end, the language gap was too great.
Several months later, after Bob had returned home from his European tour, he received a letter, in Portuguese. He presumed it was from the young man he’d met, but the postmark was from South America. Unable to read the letter, he threw it in a drawer, and didn’t pick it up again until many years later, when he found it and asked a Brazilian friend to translate.
The translation was heartbreaking. The letter had not, in fact, come from the young man, but instead from his wife. She explained that the young man had died soon after their dinners together. His wife went on to write that the young man had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, with only a few months to live. The man’s family had been aristocrats of some kind, and lived in exile for many years. He had longed to return to Portugal once again before he died, above all to taste the food of his homela...