When one looks for a book at an airport bookstore, one is likely looking for entertainment or self-help and not necessarily literature. I once bought a Marie Kondo book at an airport (because I needed a lot of help), but I went to a Fully Booked to purchase Jessica Zafra’s latest book on a day when I’d finally done away with things that didn’t bring me joy. I’ll admit my expectations were high—I’d entered early adulthood reading her books, inheriting the Twisted series from my older sisters whose clothes and books I coveted whilst they were still in their closets and on their shelves (allow me this one ‘whilst,’ I won’t do it again). For good or ill, Zafra was the voice of their generation, and mine by influence. She was clever and snarky and funny, and put pretenders to the craft to shame. No one I knew could write like Jessica Zafra. Except Jessica Zafra.
In Twisted Travels—Rambles in Central Europe—not to be confused with the earlier Twisted Travels, published by Anvil Publishing in 2008—Zafra details her trips through key destinations in said continent; often they’re running commentaries of the day as she lives them: rambles and ramblings through the Czech Republic, Italy, Vienna, Budapest, France and Poland. She also revisits favorite cities (Venice thrice, Paris twice) where she moves about without the bedraggled haste of tourists catching and missing flights and trains, or trying to catch a museum before closing time after visiting 10 monuments and 15 churches.
The main strength of the book lies in its gems of observation. Prague, remarks the writer, is a great city to get depressed in—“so much indifferent splendor to taunt your neurosis,” she writes. Or while eavesdropping on a conversation between North American ladies in Rome, Zafra comments on the American tendency to over-express: “There is altogether too much self-expression going on in the world, and ninety percent of it is noise pollution. For education to be truly enlightened, crashing bores must be made to recognize that they are, and trained in the Victorian art of oral repression.”
This is the Zafra of my coming-of-age, the star of the cocktail party—if the star attended cocktail parties at all. On a night train to Venice, Zafra notes her companions on the train: “The expressive Italian and African with too much luggage were joined by loud Americans next door and argumentative Indians on the other side, plus a weeping French girl having a discussion on her mobile phone. We were on the Train of Clichés.”
The best essays in the book cash in on Zafra’s talent as a fiction writer, and employ tricks of the trade as in a crime story set in Paris (which—spoiler alert!—is really a tongue-in-cheek account of trying to recover a friend’s stolen bag). Either that, or they’re set in Poland and tell you a brief history of the place in bite-size and easy to consume bits of information. Again, the astute powers of observation: “I’ve been in Warsaw just 24 hours but the central role that culture plays in the lives of the Polish people is obvious. The Royal Castle is not merely a building with impressive objects, it is who they are. Those thrones, that sceptre, the broken astronomical clock contain some essence of Poland, and during the most tumultuous periods of their history, when the very nation did not exist, these symbols kept them going. Dismembered, partitioned, annexed, they never let go of their idea of Poland.”
Other essays are like being ghosted—the relationship is over before you know it. They’re blow-by-blow accounts of days where nothing really happens. There is no sense of journey in them in the high sense where one is talking about a place but is also talking about a frame of mind or a state of being. If traditional travel stories begin with a quest or a question, leaving the reader to stay on until the end to see if either one or both have been fulfilled, this book doesn’t do that.
It’s a quiet book where the author makes the case for the traveler, and not the airport tourist (to paraphrase Bourdain)—there’s a sense of finding one’s place wherever one is in the world; Bourdain found it in the neighborhoods he explored for their particular flavors and accents, Zafra finds it in cafes, flaneuring, and cats: “I recommend travel as the best way to get to know yourself. One of the first things I discovered is that I do not like ‘must see’ and ‘must do’ lists. Initially I made detailed plans and itineraries that would cover the major tourist spots, but now the mere thought of sticking to a schedule makes me tired. Now I prefer to hang around a neighborhood, sit in cafes, take aimless walks and pretend that I live there. When the stray cats in the area start to recognize me, I consider my trip a success.”
It’s a way of living that’s almost a meme: This is Bill. Bill skips the tourist spots and sips a café latte beneath a fresco in Budapest. Bill is cool. Be like Bill. It’s counter-intuitive advice, but the only one worth giving to any traveler.