11Q: Intrepid traveler Doug Mack

Posted on: Friday, June 17th, 2011
Posted in: Work/Life Hacking, Blog | 2 comments

“Wouldn’t have regretted a single penny.”  “Overthinking it.”  “Things went downhill quickly.”  “The city of lights earned its title.”

In 11 quick questions, Doug Mack serves up just a taste of his bold trip through Europe with no guidebook—except a dated (as in 1960s!) gem he found at a book festival.  His idea was so clever, and his trip so epic, that a publisher picked it up immediately.  (But you’ll have to wait until 2012 to buy your copy.)

To hear more—live and in person—please join Mr. Mack and me next Thursday, 6/23, for a MeetUp at Ginger Hop in Nordeast Minneapolis.  Meantime, read on to learn more about the bottom line of his big idea:  “Travel is more fun when you’re a bit ignorant.”


  • Biggest getaway challenge.

Well, I suppose money and vacation time are always the biggest hurdles, and they were for me, too. I had a small  travel fund built up, but also put a fair amount on a credit card, considering it an investment that would, I hoped, pay off in the long term in the form a of a book deal. I’m very lucky that things really did work out that way, but even if they hadn’t, I’m a big believer that experiences are more valuable than stuff, and I wouldn’t have regretted a single penny.

I also didn’t have much vacation time built up at my day jobs (yes, jobs plural), but I was fortunate to have accommodating bosses who were willing to let me take a fair amount of time without pay.

I’d been thinking about a big trip for years. Over-thinking it, actually—trying to find just the right time, just the right circumstances. Worrying about the details of the journey and wondering who would fill in for me at work. There came a point, though, when I decided to just do it. I traveled to Europe for a couple of weeks in 2008, and then came back and thought about how badly I wanted to return … and then, the July, I just decided I was going back for six weeks, in August. Just told myself I was going to do it with minimal preparation. Possibly the best decision I’ve ever made.

  • Grandest arrival.

Venice. Seriously, the sense of arrival there is without peer: you step out of the train station and you are on. The Grand. Canal. And it looks exactly like you think it looks: the water teeming with gondolas and dinghies and delivery boats; the elaborate stone bridge leading to the other side; the elaborate and slightly crumbling historic buildings. I got there just after sunrise, when the soft amber light and long shadows made everything seem all the more dramatic and impossibly picturesque.

Unfortunately . . . that was the best part of my time in Venice—things went downhill quickly (a long story in itself). But the arrival. My God. Amazing.

  • Favorite place.

Hmm . . . I hate this question, to be honest, because I have a hard time answering it. (Actually, I just blogged about this problem.) Depends on the day. Lately, I’ve been craving gelato and on a historic-building kick, so right now I’ll say Rome. If you’re ever there, go to Gelateria del Teatro. Thank me later

  • Logistical nightmare.

Well, when you travel with a 45-year-old guidebook, every day is full of minor annoyances—logistical headaches if not nightmares. Beyond that, though, there was a train ride from Munich to Zurich. Should be simple: You get on in the first city, then off in the second. But if the person at the ticket desk in Munich gives you specific instructions that turn out to be wrong, the journey is a bit more complicated. My friend Lee and I ended up riding five different trains, with a brief detour through Austria (which was not included on Lee’s Eurail pass, although the attendants never noticed when the checked our tickets). There were a few moments of minor panic and several long hours of unnecessary train-riding.

But I really can’t complain. I mean, we were riding a European train (safe and comfortable) through the Alps, so we had a front-row view of countless chateau-lined villages and towering peaks and sparkling lakes with crumbling castles on the distant shores. Not bad scenery to stare at, slack-jawed, for a few hours.

  • Most meaningful moment.

Sunset at Montmartre in Paris. My outdated guidebook said I should go there at dusk, but didn’t explain why or what you’d see—so I went without any expectations.      Now, apparently most people already know this, but it turns out the reason you go there is that it’s a hill with a view of the whole city. So I get to the top and I there it is: Paris laid out below me, sprawling to the horizon, the street lamps just switching on as the City of Lights earned its title. It wasn’t meaningful for the amazing view, though (at least not per se) but for the fact that it was such a powerful example of the (occasional!) benefit of a bit of lowered expectations and willful ignorance. I’m certain that if I’d known what was up there, I would have looked for photos on Flickr beforehand and built my day around getting there at precisely the right time for the ideal light, and generally built it up in my mind such that it could never live up to the hype. Instead, I saw it without that filter of expectations, and it was all the more enchanting and revelatory, a discovery rather than just something to check off my list.

  • Worst disaster.

I almost feel guilty saying this, but I really didn’t have one. I could stretch the definition and talk about some frustrating experiences getting lost or having hilariously awkward conversations with restaurant workers and hotel desk clerks who couldn’t understand why I was toting around this old guidebook. But no real disasters. They make for good stories, I realize, but I’m content to avoid them.

  • Serendipitous experience.

So many, starting from the moment back in Minneapolis when I happened upon this old guidebook at a book festival. That night in Montmartre might not have been truly serendipitous, but it definitely had an element of accidental discovery. And in Zurich, which is by far the most expensive city I’ve ever visited, Lee and I were feeling broke and exhausted one afternoon, when we stumbled upon a long line of locals outside a hole-in-the-wall cafe. It turned out to be a genuinely cheap (and not just by Zurich standards) takeout joint with excellent food.

  • Strangest encounter.

In Paris, there was this one restaurant that my guidebook (have I mentioned it was a bit outdated?) described for a good half-page—it’s incredibly cheap, it’s a hidden gem with no other tourists, the décor is classic Parisian bistro, all tile floors and wooden booths and plants in massive urns.

So after several frustrating days of bumbling around Paris, I go there, thinking, sweet, a cheap, quiet meal—finally! The first thing I noticed upon arrival was a huge poster in the window, advertising the Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton romantic comedy “Something’s Gotta Give.” There’s an article with the poster, noting that part of the movie was filmed there. Meaning it’s now a huge tourist magnet. And not at all cheap. I walked in and the maitre d’ gave me this horrified look that basically said, “Ah, merde, another one of those Diane Keaton groupies.”

You’ll have to read the book for the full story (sorry!), but it was a spectacularly strange and awkward meal.

  • Requisite health dilemma.

I had a really bad cold in Vienna and wandered around the city in a haze of sinus pain and cold medicine. Add this to the fact that this was about two-thirds of the way through my trip and I was getting jaded and tired, and you have a recipe for some serious grumpiness and ennui. I moped and sniffled my way through Vienna, although I did at least try to cough in 4-4 time, in keeping with the musical spirit of the city.

  • Profound take-away.

Travel is more fun when you’re a bit ignorant. By that, I don’t mean culturally unaware or ill-equipped to travel but rather trying to do as much as possible relying simply on your own wits and common sense. I’m typically a control freak and a technology-addicted over-planner, but traveling without much research or planning forced me to just go with the flow and also to learn constantly, to be forced to be tuned into the place/culture and try to soak it up quickly because it was the only way I could survive.

I doubt I’ll travel abroad again without a modern guidebook and some internet research, but I’ll also try to remind myself not to be constrained by all of that information, either, and to get lost and rely on good old-fashioned serendipity as much as possible. There’s nothing wrong with being a bit confused—in fact, I think it makes travel all the more delightful and rewarding.

  • Re-entry vibe.

Jarring, particularly since a week after I got back from Europe, I went on a cruise with my parents, my sister, her husband, and their year-old twins. After solo backpacking around Europe, being on a cruise ship was like mainlining American culture in all its excess: Endless buffets! Cheesy comedians! Cabin attendants! Duty-free shopping at every turn! It was refreshing to see familiar faces and hear a familiar language and sleep without being woken up by the students in the hostel room next door . . . but still: deeply, inexpressibly jarring. My own country felt entirely foreign.

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2 Responses to “11Q: Intrepid traveler Doug Mack”

  1. Angelene Says:

    I went to high school with Doug, small world!

  2. BreakAway » Blog Archive » Countdown @ 19: Measured Panic Says:

    […] for me, a copy of Doug Mack’s Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day graces my bedside.  He’s a friend and a heckuva funny writer.  And during last night’s […]

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