Far from the tree

Rebecca Garcia Moreno

September 06, 2016

Getting paid to travel, eat, and write seems like nothing short of the perfect job. Matt Gross, a foodie and born adventurer, held this job for years, immersing himself repeatedly in cultures all over the globe. Having written the Frugal Traveler column in the New York Times for several years, he has perfected the art of conveying a sense of place. The premise of his column was simple: travel somewhere, stick to a budget, and give readers tips on how to best experience the destination while living frugally. Considering the chaos of the ensuing round-the-world travels and cross-country road trips, Gross organized his new travel memoir — The Turk Who Loved Apples — rather spectacularly. With his post-grad year in Vietnam as the trunk, the rest of his tales branch out into a fascinating canopy of unique experiences and travel wisdom.

His basic philosophy as a traveler (not a tourist, not a backpacker; a traveler) is to get lost — more psychologically than physically — wherever you are and to let the experiences of your location envelop you. He describes places vividly, including just the right details, and so I traveled with him repeatedly to Southeast Asia and various other countries of the world, each page a plane ticket to someplace new. He manages to articulate the excitement in travel, the adventure of uncertainty, and the bravery in going blindly to a new place.

As I followed his story, I oscillated between liking and disliking Gross. Admittedly, part of the dislike stems from envy of his job as a travel writer and the opportunities that crossed his path. But he also often adopts a somewhat haughty tone, only to redeem himself a few pages later. In discussing his preferred label, he clarifies, “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler,” criticizing those who flock to the popular sights. He follows this disdain with an observation that the Taj Mahal is very symmetrical — and “that’s about all I have to say about it.” A few paragraphs of self-reflection later, Gross realizes, “Tourists had earned their right to travel as they wish,” and my annoyance subsides. Regardless of the tone, sharing his thoughts so openly and molding his narrative with such honesty is an admirable feat. Not everyone likes discussing their fear of failure or their sibling relationship issues. I went from expressing frustration to respecting the sincerity binding the pages, the unabashed sense of self found serendipitously in cheap hostels and long road trips.

He laces this sense of self and a narrative of personal growth into his travel tales, reminding us that growth isn’t a perfect arc. We follow how he went from an oblivious postgrad in Vietnam seeking a role in life (or reveling in a lack of one) to a husband and father of two with a passport full of stamps. Starting off as a travel writer and living with the aim of being frugal, he eventually transcends the desire to save money, and frugality becomes not the goal but a means to an end: a way to make friends over street food and be a part of daily life, to become completely immersed in the place and time. By making the book personal enough for readers to get a sense of who he was and is, following Gross’ journey is easy and rewarding. He shares his specific travel ailments, like the ebb and flow of his giardiasis, but the wisdom is general enough that it compels any reader to pick up and go in the name of new experiences. Writing so personally makes his words exceptionally impactful, each thought and point more genuine for having roots in experience. The reader gets to know Gross, but with the sense that it’s only like a layover visit to a city.

This guidebook denouncing guidebooks instilled an enormous restlessness in me, as I expect it would for everyone. Even as I read it in a tent by the Columbia River, and just a few weeks from embarking on my own study abroad adventure, I wanted to do more, see more, travel more; I wanted to meet weird people and eat something new. But as I sat there, globetrotting vicariously through this book, it occurred to me that unlike Michelin guides and Zagat suggestions, Gross’s travels are not replicable for everyone.

Gross went to restaurants “frequented by eye-patch-wearing locals” and set out to get lost in the “maze of ochre alleyways” in Tangier. In Chongqing, he recounts, “Luck delivered me a schoolboy who directed me down an alley to a good bowl of noodle soup.” What would luck deliver me, a twenty-something solo female traveler? Would I make the same friends at bars and meet the same people in labyrinthine alleyways? Though aware of poverty, inequality, and his perpetuating of the prostitution industry in Vietnam, there is seemingly no recognition of the ultimate gift luck delivered him: white male privilege.

Gross tells certain stories as manifestations of his philosophy, a philosophy of shunning the conventional and not knowing where you'll end up. And while that sounds like a good method for adventure, it is not a travel philosophy everyone can emulate without some sort of privilege. As far as I know, Gross did not concern himself with pepper spray, nor did he have to worry about his cab driver's chauvinistic behavior or about drinking too much in a crowded bar. He is not at fault for winning the genetic lottery, but I wish that he recognized his special kind of luck, that perhaps the world was even more his oyster than it is for others.

Nevertheless, his tales intensified my own drive for adventure as I read them — a sign of a compelling storyteller. Between his pretentious lines he shared beautiful insights, like how people are "shackled by checklist tourism" and that “friendship is not diminished by its ephemerality.” Gross is a modern Little Prince — world-hopping, people-meeting, and reconciling adventure and solitude. He even finds some happiness retroactively, processing the tangles of experiences and laying them out on the page for himself as much as for us readers. These chronicles show not just his happiness but also that of the people he meets, such as the title’s apple farmer. Kemal, an engineer-turned-farmer, found fulfillment in an orchard: “Kemal tapped his heart, smiled and said, ‘Apples.’ Translation: Don’t worry — I’m finally doing what makes me happy.” This story deserves more emphasis than the few pages it spans. After all, whether we travel the world or go a different route, in the end we all just hope to be apple farmers.

Books in this review:
  • The Turk Who Loved Apples
    by Matt Gross
    Da Capo
    April 24, 2013
    288 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

English major at American University, soon to be studying abroad in London. Corgi & coffee enthusiast. First intern at Seattle Review of Books.

Follow Rebecca Garcia Moreno on Twitter: @The_Bexican

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