Julie Schumacher on How We Travel Now
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
As summer draws to an end, Thurber Prize-winning novelist Julie Schumacher joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about the state of the American vacation and how holidays are portrayed in literature. Schumacher discusses her new comic novel, The English Experience, a sequel to Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement that focuses on university professor Jay Fitger leading a study abroad trip to England. She reflects on favorite travel narratives, how technology has changed the way we vacation, and the ethics of tourism in relation to colonialism and climate change.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So one of the things I noticed about spending a chunk of the summer in Italy was that I wasn’t nearly as remote as I would have been even five or six years ago. And you know, we taped a bunch of podcast episodes while I was in Italy. I remember, Whit, doing the podcast with you when I was in Germany in 2017, our first fall, but we didn’t have Zoom. I didn’t see you. My phone didn’t work nearly as well. Julie, I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the way that technology has changed the way we conceive of what is or is not a vacation. This appears, actually, in interesting ways in your novel.
Julie Schumacher: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I was one of the last people in the world, I think, to get a cell phone. I just resisted and didn’t want one. And so my spouse and I would go on vacation, and I would be on vacation. I would be on the beach happily disconnected, and he would say, “Hey, so and so’s trying to reach you.” I had actually once written a piece in The New York Times about a frightening or difficult student. And I published it and then merrily went off on vacation. And my spouse said, “Hey, the provost’s office is trying to reach you. They’re not happy.” And I thought, “I’m on vacation, you know, I’ll talk to them when I get back.” But he insisted that I call people back and I thought, “I should be on vacation. This is not part of the rule.”
But of course, then I had to get a cell phone because the rest of the world had one. And so it does, yeah, it does create a different kind of trip. It’s very hard to disconnect. I guess if you go to Alaska, and you’re in a tent, and you can’t get cell service, then that’s wonderful. But those things are rare. You can get cell service everywhere now. Which is disappointing to me. I kind of yearn still for the days when people had answering machines, and you would call them and leave a message and maybe they’d get back to you in a couple of days. You wouldn’t sit there staring at your screen saying, “Why, now that nine seconds have elapsed, has this person not called me back?” Time and vacation interacted differently back then.
VVG: I’m realizing, now, Julie, that you and I once met up when we were—I’m not sure, were we on vacation? We were traveling.
JS: In Oxford.
VVG: We were in Oxford. And we went to a museum and—
JS: One of my favorite museums!
VVG: It was a great museum. But I have sometimes been too cheap to pay for international phone service or just, my phone hasn’t worked. And I have a terrible sense of direction. So I just get lost without my cell phone.
JS: Oh, totally.
VVG: And that used to feel okay. I don’t know, at least if I was in an English-speaking country or a country where I spoke the language, I could kind of get around. And then when I was in Italy, I downloaded Italian Google Translate, so I could use it even when I was offline. And I would do things like go to the post office and mail a parcel in Italian, with atrocious pronunciation, no doubt. Or when we were in Japan, we had a little portable Wi-Fi hotspot, which was the first thing we got when we got off the plane. So I had Wi-Fi, but I didn’t have a cell phone, didn’t have phone service. Then someone stole my identity in the middle of the trip, and I couldn’t do much about it, because I didn’t have phone service. And I was like, “Oh, I wish I had done things the old-fashioned way.” Now I’m attempting to argue with Experian, or whoever, in this really awkward manner.
So, Whit, when you were in Ketchikan, I know sometimes in parts of Alaska that are more remote, when I’ve been there sometimes the phone service hasn’t been great. Do you disconnect? Or what do you do?
Whitney Terrell: Well, I mean, the last time I was there was probably 1994 or 1995, summer, fishing. So no cell phones, you know, I worked on a boat, we would literally go out to sea among these islands in the Inside Passage. And so you could be out there for a week or two. And there’s a radio that you could call in to shore and ask them to fly your groceries out in a plane. But otherwise, you actually literally have to come back to shore and mail a letter to someone and then go in and use a phone card and make a pay call to someone from the phone. I was very remote and now… not. There’s my cell phone, I can listen to the radio station in Kansas City that talks about the Chiefs if I want to while I’m jogging along the same road that I used to walk up and down totally isolated when I was there in the ’90s. So yeah, it’s very different.
I also remember… My wife teaches in Lyon in the summers. And so the first thing we would do when we would go over there is get a little map of the whole city, right? And I’d fold that up and put it in my pocket so when I went jogging, I wouldn’t get lost, right? And now I don’t need that anymore.
And I also noticed in The English Experience, there were scenes where Fitger is talking to his ex-wife while dealing with problems in England. And she’s just as present, even though she’s on another continent, as the people who are around him. That also is part of how technology has changed what a vacation is, I think.
So early in the novel, you have this very funny section that includes the statements of interest from students who are going on the study abroad trip. I’ve read a few statements of interest in my time, so I was amused by this. One of the students, Lin Jen Snow, says, “Tourism is a consumerist industry that wastes resources, contributes to climate crisis, and reinforces colonialist tropes.” You’re being tongue-in-cheek here, but this is still a pretty succinct summary of the two ways our thinking about vacations has changed. So let’s start with the politics. Do vacations reinforce colonialist tropes, as Lin Jen Snow is suggesting?
JS: I think they can. I think it’s tricky. It’s very tricky. I’ve been taking undergrads to Spain the last couple of years. It’s a travel writing class that I teach—we go to Spain in that context. And one of the books that I have assigned to them is Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, about Antigua, and about the white tourists, Europeans and Americans, coming to Antigua, and it’s a very bitter portrait of tourism, and what it is to be a tourist in a country when you are in fact often ignoring the people who live there all the time, their history, their culture, their language, and just sitting on their beaches and eating their food and walking away with the items that are sold in their country.
The students, when I’ve taught that book, are often kind of ticked off about it. They think, “Hey, you know, this, this instructor is spoiling our fun right off the bat, we want to go have fun. That’s what travel is about. It’s adventure. It’s a good time, we’re gonna go there, we’re able to drink in Spain, legally and here she is trying to make us feel bad.” And no, I want to stress the point that it’s a real double-edged sword. On the one hand, I really want students, many of them who haven’t been out of the U.S. before, to see another culture, to go somewhere and not just read about it, to walk around in a city where people are speaking a language they may not speak, and to know what that is. But on the other hand, yeah, tourism involves climate problems, it involves cultural moments of looking down possibly at other people because you are consuming them rather than vice versa. It’s very tricky, I think.
VVG: I feel like it’s pretty predictable of me that Lin Jen Snow is basically one of my favorite characters. The second she showed up, I was like, “YES, HER.” So yeah, I was thinking about, maybe back in 2010, The New York Times put Sri Lanka at the top of its list of places to visit in the world. This was right after the Sri Lankan civil war had ended. And there was like a lot of kind of disgusting—
JS: War’s over! Let’s go! Hit the beach! Well, that’s even happening now with Maui, you know, they still need the tourist dollars and money is going to be desperately needed there. But on the other hand, there’s something very crass about people still checking into a hotel to hang out on the beach where all these people died, or nearby.
VVG: Basically. They were like, “Oh, and now we can go to the beach. The beach is unspoiled.” I was like, excellent! Now I’m going to become a critic of travel writing! So I wrote a bunch of very ranty things about this, and then got into some discussions, even with Sri Lankans, who said, “Sugi, don’t criticize this, we need the income. We need the business, we need the tourism.” And, I think some of those people who are [in Maui] are probably about to try to acquire that land, in the same way that in Sri Lanka post-tsunami, sometimes there were developers or what have you trying to prey on folks who had lost their homes closer to shore.
But rewinding a second—we were talking about the climate crisis, and I have to admit that this is one of the parts that has really been getting to me lately, yes, the part of the podcast episode where I have a quiet panic attack—I did fly all over the world this summer. And I was aware that I was leaving behind a huge carbon footprint. I was obviously not alone in doing that; the airports were full, the airlines were understaffed. The planes themselves are dealing with different weather than they used to. And now seeing the climate devastation in places like Florida and Maui and Alaska, which are all huge tourist sites, I’m wondering if maybe the reason so many people traveled this year is that they’re afraid that this kind of travel is coming to an end.
JS: Yeah, you read about the glaciers melting—let’s go to Alaska and see them before they’re totally gone! That countries are going to disappear in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… Let’s go. Let’s hit that island before it’s underwater. It’s, again, it’s a real conundrum, I think. You want to be able to support an economy that relies on tourism, but you have to do so with your eyes open and know the pros and cons of everything you’re doing. There are all those programs with the airline—I’m going to pay extra, and Delta will plant nine trees once I get on that flight. But I don’t think they’re really doing a whole lot other than making travelers not feel bad about traveling.
WT: I always just assume those are complete and utter bullshit.
JS: Maybe they’re not planting those trees at all.
VVG: Yeah, I mean, what they should actually be doing is handing out A Small Place to every passenger.
JS: That’s true. That’s true.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan.
The Parent Trap (1961) • Henry James • The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton • Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre • Baby-sitters on Board! by Ann M. Martin • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott • The British Museum • Rich in Love by Josephine Humphreys • A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid • The 31 Places to Go in 2010 – The New York Times