Book Research by the Numbers

I recently travelled to Newfoundland to research resettlement communities—places the government moved between the 1950s and 1970s. I’d been studying people who chose to leave home for my book about modern nomads, mobility and alternative communities. Now I wanted to meet people who couldn’t bear to leave.

Boats in the harbour of the Fogo Island Co-op in Joe Batt’s Arm, Newfoundland.

I’m going through fifteen hours of interviews, thousands of words of notes, and a bunch of amateur pictures. More to come, but first a tallying up of numbers (alas, no Nicholas Felton treatment, I’m afraid):

One generous research grant.

12 days

1,800 kilometres driven

Two caribou and minke whales sighted (each)

70% rain, 20% wind, 10%fog

12 interviews with fishers

Four islands visited

Two boat trips

Now … writing.

A tilting fishing stage where fish are stored in the community of Tilting, on Fogo Island, Newfoundland.

This research was completed with assistance from Access Copyright Foundation, which supports publishers, writers and visual arts organisations through its grant programme.

This is What a Ghost Town Looks Like


The photo on the top is of Joseph and Elizabeth Hodder on their cod flakes in Ireland’s Eye, Newfoundland, circa 1950. The photo on the bottom is Llewellyn Toopes’ abandoned twine shop and house in 1989, more than twenty years after most people on Ireland’s Eye were relocated under the Newfoundland government’s resettlement program.

Source: Maritime History Museum’s “Resettlement Photos” collection.

A Word for Newfoundland

In early June I’ll head to Newfoundland to research communities that were resettled between the 1950s and 1960s. Curious about outsider perspectives on “The Rock,” a nickname that gives you a sense of the landscape, I’ve been wading through articles from the mid to late 19th century. The description below made me smile, though I can’t say I agree.

This is from an 1878 issue of Chambers’s Journal.

You know there’s this kind of belief that you can’t go home. I was quite surprised to find out that you darn well can go home, for two reasons: my work is here, and I really love being here. I find that it’s just a nourishing place to be. And given the choice, this is where I’d rather be. And now I have a choice.–Zita Cobb, Shorefast Foundation

First World problems:

'Tom picked me up at the tiny airport in a taxi and brought me up to date. “I was living in Saigon,” he said, “and after a year I had to leave be­cause my life was spinning out of control. Then I was living in Rome, and I had to leave after six months because my life was spinning out of con­trol. Then I moved to Las Vegas, and I had to leave there, too, very quickly, because my life was definitely once again spinning out of control.”

"You were having trouble keeping yourself together in Rome, so you moved to Vegas?"’

— Gideon Lewis-Kraus, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimmage for the Restless and the Hopeful

The Art of Packing


More fun with travel: artist Adolf Konrad’s 1963 “packing list!” Via

The Hobo Code

1. The Hobo Code circ 1889. See Web Urbanist for more about hobo culture in America.

2. The Hobo Code circa 2012, in Good magazine’s Migration issue. Also, apparently, the name of an episode of Mad Men.

Packing Notes, or Meditations on Travelling Solo

[Adolf Konrad’s illustrated 1963 packing list from the exhibit “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations.” Via The New York Times.]

I pack:

Passports (Canadian and European)

Photocopy of my citizenship papers (Britain)

Photocopy of my birth certificate (Canada)

One or two or three books (paperback, not eReader)

Laptop, fully charged

iPod shuffle filled with podcasts

Running shoes

Notebook & pens (ballpoint, as I’ve had countless of my favourite liquid pens explode on planes)


Clothes—one week’s worth

Camera and digital recorder

Toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush

Ear plugs

Sometimes I pack my camera but not the charger, or I pack the wrong charger and the battery expires on the first day of my trip. Or I change the settings without realizing it and, as happened in Scandinavia, come home with only a photo of a small bird trapped on a cruise ship and a pretty yellow flower.

Sometimes I forget my pajamas. Sometimes I forget my trousers. I almost always bring one pair of shoes too many.

Sometimes the airport security guards question the legality of knitting needles on planes. (Once, on a flight from Denmark to Canada a starched flight attendant stopped by my seat when we were halfway across the ocean and said, incredulous,“You can’t have those on here!” But I already did, I told her, and kept on knitting.)

I must take off my shoes at La Guardia, in New York, and Dulles, in Washington, but am allowed to keep them on in Toronto and London. In Vancouver, the American customs agent smiles and he does not seem to be trying to trick me with friendliness into admitting some immigration error. (Tip: Never joke with customs agents.) In Toronto, an agent interrogates me when I arrive, sleepless, on a red-eye from Paris. “You mean you went alone? Why would you travel alone?” It is a judgment presented as a question. She waves me through.

Every airport looks the same but different, like a brightly lit, too-clean shopping mall. The terminal in Zurich is bright and spacious and the one in Copenhagen is small and intimate. I spend five hours in an almost-deserted section of O’Hare Airport, in Chicago, and do my daily stretches. A man in a uniform sleeps on the other side of the room. Up the hallway, a queue forms in front of a flight to Guadelajara. A stream of Mexicans going home for a visit or for good. In Edmonton, I negotiate for two hours with the airline sales attendant about the matter of a refund for a cancelled flight and then walk to a competing airline to buy a ticket. Deprived of sleep, fresh off a flight from London, I begin to cry and she says, calmly, “Don’t worry. We’re going to sort this out.” I half expect her to offer me cookies and a glass of warm milk.

I have already mapped out my directions from the airport to the city I am visiting. The city is still fresh and new in those first few hours. When I arrive in a new place, I walk the streets, poke in shops, right myself. I am trying to place myself within its geography. I want to map the space, wrap my head around the city. For a long time I would immediately begin to imagine where I would live, what my flat or house would be like. I tried to picture myself living there. I don’t do that so much anymore.

But soon, after a few days, some strange emptiness gnaws at me. Even after all these years I rarely sit in a bar alone, even if I bring a book. I circle cafés in Paris unable to take a table. It takes many trips and moves to overcome what is not quite shyness but some inarticulate discomfort. The only reason I ended up chatting with a stranger from France and a few locals at a “ruin pub,” or kert in Budapest is because I was on assignment for a travel magazine and my editor would have been angry if I simply stood, like a wallflower. I needed quotes.

That emptiness is a temporary dislocation. I could probe it further, but blogs are not the place for deep psychoanalysis. And anyway, part of the beauty of a new place is that you are invisible. This is also the peril.

I rarely leave anything behind when I leave a place. Except perhaps a person I have grown fond of, or a memory. Sometimes I shed books. In a guesthouse in Prince Edward Island, on the east coast of Canada, I left a Michael Ondaatje novel, its spine uncracked, hoping that the next person along would find more in it than I did. On that trip I scraped the red Prince Edward Island sand off my shoes. But it didn’t quite come off and was the only souvenir I took home.

Further Reading

+ “Lost and Found" is a short personal essay by philosopher Mark Kingwell that I commissioned when I worked at enRoute magazine. Getting lost in a city, he writes, might be the best way to discover who you are. “Becoming strange to ourselves is the gateway to seeing how dependent on strangers we are for our own identities.”

+ “Why We Travel,” a classic think-piece by Pico Iyer, who writes “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

+ Which brings up Rebecca Solnit’s non-fiction book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a plotless, meditative book on all kinds of ways of being lost: abandon, transformation, and self realization. (From The Guardian's review: “reading her prose is like spending time in the company of an earnest, determined hiker who disdains maps but nevertheless knows some unexpected and fascinating fact about every house, hill or tree that you pass.”)

+ Do you, like my mother, proofread your packing list? Do you illustrate it, like Adolf Konrad, above? Do you even make one? See more lists from the 2010 exhibit on lists from the Smithsonian’s archives here on the Archive of American Art’s website.

Wanderlusting through Eastern Europe

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, American author Rebecca Solnit writes that walking is “a mode of making the world as well as being in it.” I have just spent ten days driving and walking through Eastern Europe. I started in Budapest, stopped in Zagreb, a plain city whose Communist-era buildings are scarred with graffiti, and headed south. In all, I visited Hungary, Croatia, a sliver of Bosnia on the way to Montenegro and, briefly, Slovenia.

[The wreckage of war, south of Zagreb, Croatia.]

Did I “make” the world? I can’t say, but I was very much in it. One windy afternoon, I walked along the wall that bounds the stari grad, or old city, of Dubrovnik. I could see the old city, the cobblestone streets polished by pedestrians, its alleys and squares, and I could see the new city spreading around it like ink spilled from a jar. The Adriatic’s foaming waves hit the shore. A few days later, we drove north through a suburb where the houses are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Croatian War of Independence. Sometimes I walked for hours through the nooks and crannies of a village, sometimes I walked only briefly before driving on. I was in a world I had read about in the news but never seemed quite real. In that sense, I suppose this wandering was a way of making the world.

It is not only the mode of travel but the length that defines the experience. It was only after day seven, when my daily routine was set and I saw one foreign landscape after another–the rock cliffs along the Adriatic, the green mountains of Montenegro, the full moon viewed from a boat on the sea–that I began to disconnect from life back in London. Sometime after we reached Dubrovnik, a kind of upscale Disney World version of an ancient city, another traveller asked, confused, “What day is it?” First world problems, I suppose. But that time was critical. You are gone long enough to relax, to ease into new daily routines, to open yourself to the new places you visit.

And the 28-degree days full of sun and fresh air didn’t hurt.

[The path ahead. A ramble through Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.]

When I returned, after meeting strangers, peering up at ancient buildings, taking photos, and walking, I found myself looking around my neighbourhood with fresh eyes. I wasn’t shoe gazing, as most of us typically do as we walk the well-worn paths of our lives. I was looking up.

NB: To hear about the other side of Croatia, read Lauren Collins’ entertaining story on YDB (Young Drunk Brits) on spring break in The New Yorker's “Journeys" issue.