Last fall, I spent almost a month backpacking by myself around Eastern Europe. I hit seven cities in seven countries, and as a reader, my natural inclination was to try to read as much as I could in advance. I picked out a book for each country: Prague by Arthur Philips (which is actually set in Budapest), The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (about Prague), Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (set in Vienna in 1913), and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (about a fictional town outside Munich), to name a few.
In the rush, leading up to the trip, I hardly had a chance to crack any of them.
And, unexpectedly, my trip was better for it. Much better.
Many of the books I’d picked out – indeed, most books in general – paint a picture of their setting that is both better and worse than the reality. In the interest of being interesting, authors choose to convey a certain environment in the interest of the story. Most cities contain these ideal versions of themselves, but also the mundane, everyday, people-living-their-lives version.
And each story is written by the person who experienced that city. And just as each book is different for every person that reads it, every city is different for each person who visits it. My experience of Vienna is mine alone, and having someone else’s experience in my head mutes the things I might enjoy in favor of some fictionalized experience.
Take for example, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Set during the Prague Spring in 1968, this postmodern novel is great for providing historical context about the Soviet Union’s invasion and the world of Communist Czechoslovakia. And while this is valuable for a reader, for a traveler, it does – in some regards – set unrealistic expectations.
I liken this phenomenon to the same thing that happens when people watch a movie adaptation of a book they love; too often, the reaction to the movie is that they hated it “because it was so different from the book.” What has happened is that the book has set unrealistic expectations for a version that, at its fundamental core, cannot possibly live up to the original format. But with a bit of distance from the book, the movie – or in this case, the city or the country – can be appreciated for the beautiful, unique thing that it is.
There is actually a psychological phenomenon that describes this problem. Paris Syndrome describes a thing that happens to tourists who visit the City of Lights, wherein they are so overwhelmed by the idealized version of the city they see in pop culture and advertising that it causes anxiety, delusional states, hallucinations, dizziness and sweating.
You probably won’t hallucinate if you read a book about a place before you travel there, but one of my favorite things about most of the cities I traveled to was what the residents probably considered boring and mundane: buying cheese for lunch at the markets in Budapest, wandering the winding streets in Prague, drinking Turkish coffee while watching the sunset over the bay in Istanbul. These are moments I might have poo-poo’d or dismissed as boring with some pre-conceived notion of what these cities are “supposed” to be, based on some author’s interpretation. The only interpretation, the only experience I cared about, was my own.
Have you had this kind of experience, where you read a book before travel and it colored (either fairly or unfairly) your visit to that place? Do you think that reading about a place before you go is an essential part of traveling?