Aug 15, 2013
03:12 PMArts & Entertainment
Rwanda and Actress Connie Britton's Hair? Literary Weave Buoys Connecticut Travel Writer
“I find I’m very afraid of spiders in my home, I’m very afraid of noises in the basement, but I’m afraid of almost nothing when I travel,” says Marcia DeSanctis of Bethlehem, whose travel writing has been anthologized most recently in the 2013 edition of The Best Women’s Travel Writing.
Travel has always been part of DeSanctis’ life. Growing up, she accompanied her mother and father, a doctor, to conferences in various cities around the world, and her 15-year career as a network television news producer with Barbara Walters, “60 Minutes,” “Dateline” and Dow Jones brought her to even more destinations.
After leaving New York City and her television career for rural Connecticut, DeSanctis pursued writing full time and has continued to travel for stories, to places such as Haiti and Rwanda. She has traveled throughout Europe, having lived in Paris for four years, as well as South America, Africa and the Middle East.
Writing has long been a fixture in DeSanctis’ life, and though she came to it as a career later in life, it was always her goal to be a writer. While her travels are frequently the subject of her work, DeSanctis doesn’t consider herself a travel writer. “I consider myself a writer who finds my best stories elsewhere,” she says.
However you parse it, DeSanctis’ talent and success are undeniable. Her writing, which focuses on topics such as marriage and midlife in addition to travel, has appeared in such magazines as Vogue, The New York Times Magazine and Town & Country, and has been anthologized in The Best Travel Writing 2011 and 2012 and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, 2012 and now 2013. “Masha,” a piece in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011 about a missed connection in Moscow, earned DeSanctis the 2011 Solas Grand Prize Silver Award for Best Travel Story of the Year. In addition, in 2012, she received three Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel writing, including the Silver award for Travel Journalist of the Year.
DeSanctis’ work is at once thoughtful and buoyant, balancing gravity and honest reflection with humorous moments and beautiful description. Her piece appearing in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013 takes place on a mountain in Rwanda and ruminates on both humans’ drive to conquer fear and actress Connie Britton’s hair. DeSanctis is principally an observer who chronicles without judging, assessing her own strengths and weaknesses, and in doing so holds up a two-way mirror for the reader. But ultimately her writing is an exploration of the imperfect joy of life, conveying how the reluctance we all feel can give way to moments of great insight and self-revelation.
When Connecticut Magazine met with DeSanctis at Green Well Organic Tea & Coffee in New Haven to discuss her work and travels, she spoke just as she writes: articulately, pensively, lightly. An edited version of the conversation follows:
Are there memorable locations you can think of—for either good or bad reasons?
I’m very attached to Russia, which when I started going was the Soviet Union. I was a Russian major and the first time I went there I could speak the language, and that was a revelation. I love a good beach; I loved Bali. I love abandoned places—I went on a trip once with my kids to work in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. We were at this area very close to the Haitian border, it was a little town called Monte Cristi. I just love those old forgotten colonial towns—always one hotel, the bar’s kind of al fresco, the beer is very cold, and you don’t know who the people are. I love those abandoned places and finding your way to the coffee shop, finding your way to the Internet place, finding your way to a nice bakery.
Have you always been a traveler?
I’ve traveled my whole life. I’ve always been very independent, and I definitely always had more of a tendency to travel alone. Of course, I like traveling with my husband (sculptor Mark Mennin) and my kids, but sometimes I prefer the solitary voyage. I love the idea of leaving your world behind and immersing yourself in something unfamiliar. I find that whatever was dragging you down at home disappears almost the second you get on the airplane, sit down and have that first very bad snack.
What compels you to travel?
Well, I think it’s different now than it used to be. It used to be just experience. When I was younger, I wanted to go somewhere because I wanted to see somewhere. I wanted to experience whatever it was—the Parthenon at night, the weeks when the mimosas blossom in Marrakesh. Now, it’s much more a way of coping with time that’s passing. For me it’s almost survival—travel is almost a way to really, really love what you have at home.
How has travel altered your perceptions of home and conceptions of what home is? For me, when I travel, every single time I go to a new place I walk around and think to myself, “I could live here,” and it’s always hard to leave.
That’s very accurate—I agree! You get to thinking, “What am I doing at home, doing the same old thing, being at my same old corner grocery store, in my same old little life?” I never want to go back! I used to be like that. But these days there are very few places I really want to stay. Except maybe Stockholm. I was in Stockholm this past winter and that was just fascinating. I loved Sweden. My friend has been living there all of her adult life, and I just kept saying, “I want to come live here. For like, a month.” And my friend kept saying, “Two weeks. Two weeks is all you can take.” It was interesting to feel like I had that connection with a place. I loved my hotel, I found my coffee place, my little café for lunch. I was sad to leave Stockholm. But in general, I’m very happy to walk back in the door [of home].
Along with what compels you to travel, what compels you to write about your travels?
Travel writing is so much about the meaning of life. Any good story is really about characters. This is super cliché, but we really are all more similar than we are different, and your powers of observation are much more sharp when you travel. The smallest thing has meaning. You hear a song at a bar in Haiti, and you remember what that song might’ve meant to you 20 years ago, and how far you’ve come, and what’s brought you here today versus who were you then. Travel is a way to make sense of your life. Where you are, who you are and what you’ve done. And where you’re going. I’m a big fan of going back to places. A trip to Dubrovnik with your girlfriends in college is not the same as going on your honeymoon there, and it’s not the same going back as a mature woman with grown kids. It’s [travelling] always a point of reflection.
I also think—I think this is important—travel gives you an instant lesson in bringing out your best self. You may not be in the market to meet people, but you do recognize that you need others, and you need to appreciate their kindness. Even if you’re not wanting to make friends or exchange emails and be connected for life on Facebook, you still really need to be kind and you really appreciate the inherent generosity of others.
Travel writing ostensibly is exclusively about the place you are and reporting on that place, but your travel writing, and some of the best travel writing I’ve read, is extremely personal as well.
Often there’s a story I want to tell, and travel is the way to frame it. Like my piece about Lapland is really about how I need to be alone sometimes, and how the winter is the perfect time to do it. The place becomes a vehicle to tell that story. The place becomes almost a character. It’s more interesting telling that story 50 miles from the Arctic Circle than it is in Bethlehem. The Connie Britton story is really about, why do we feel so compelled to conquer our fears? I set out to write that story and said to myself, “I am going to climb a mountain.” And I got there and I thought, “This is terrible. I can enjoy Rwanda and I don’t have to climb a mountain. This is not me; there’re other things to find in Rwanda.” Why do we have to conquer our fears? Does it make us live fuller? Does it make us more fulfilled people? Does it make us carpe the diem? So that was sort of an excuse to tell a story; it could have been told many other ways. But I used the location [of Rwanda] as a frame.
How do you approach rendering a place a character? How do you think about that and how do you transfer that to the page?
Place is a way into the story. I’m a big believer in descriptive detail although it’s not very popular. People want sparse writing but I like the small things in the background: I like describing the airport, the bathtub in your room, the bulb that flickers. I think those things set up the atmospherics—where is this person, what is this person surrounded by at this moment? It’s descriptive detail and knowing that the lights at night move as distinctly as a human being. The sky changes, the air changes, the wind changes, the smells change. And so sometimes place can take on very human characteristics. In Rwanda, all I could think of was, “This is a tragedy.” This is a place that has endured such incomprehensible horror and it will never be okay. And I realized that that wasn’t the case. It’s like any victim of a violent crime—they’re making their way back, and doing a pretty good job of it. That’s how Rwanda is a character.
What’s your writing process like?
I’ve always written, I’ve always been a writer, but I had 25 years of jobs. I really didn’t have the courage to do it for a living; I really felt like I had to go get a job and make a lot of money, or at least some money—have a regular paycheck and health insurance. But since I’ve become a writer full time in the past couple of years, I tend to be very project oriented. It’s almost like cooking a meal. It’s getting all the ingredients, getting all the parts together, and then being overwhelmed with all this stuff. And then you start saying, “Okay, you need to start with this part of the trip, you need to describe your dinner with this person.” So, it does kind of end up organizing itself. I find writing extremely difficult. You have to be okay with the fact that getting your seventh cup of tea, pouring out the previous cold cup of tea that you didn’t even drink, is really part of it. It’s just getting the electrons moving.
How did you transition from being a producer to writing full time?
I moved to the countryside! That was 11 years ago. I could finally do it—I sort of didn’t have any excuses anymore. I couldn’t continue my television career anymore. It was, “Here I am, it’s now or never.” Coming to it later in life is hard and I regret that I wasted so much time not writing. I lost a lot of years. Now, I have no time to waste. But I also think it’s made me very good at handling rejection. And there’s a lot of rejection. Twenty years ago I could not have taken it. So that’s sort of how I transitioned—I had a lot of things I needed to write about. And I think that’s what it was. The time was right.
Was it always your goal to be a writer?
Yes. Always. I always, always wanted to tell stories. I just really love words. I’m playing around with some of my old essays and putting together a travel memoir. I think the through line of this travel memoir will be: What is it that I like to escape when I travel? What is it, when I get there, that I will discover that brings me home?
What is something you’ve learned through travel? What is to be gained through travel?
It just has to be said: travel, for the most part these days, is hideous. Airports, security lines, the barbarian check-in. You have to pay for those lousy pretzels. Basically your knees are nailed to your face when you finally sit down on the plane. It’s very hard to glamorize that. As for other lessons, and what is to be gained … Human interaction is the same, and it doesn’t matter where you are. Joy and compassion register the same everywhere. Children are loved the same everywhere. There really is nothing to be wary about beyond common sense. I also think it’s really, really important to explore, to stay in the less popular neighborhoods—they’re usually cheaper anyway—to find your own little community. Like I said, you find your breakfast place, you find your pharmacy a person to greet in the morning. It’s not so much a sense of adventure to be gained, but just a sense of realizing that nothing should really keep you confined. The best things are going to be off the path.
Do you think that’s the best way to experience places authentically? What’s your advice on going somewhere and gaining an authentic understanding of that location?
I think again: solitude, or one adventurous companion. And just leaping a little bit. You go to Florence, the Duomo in wintertime or spring break, and there are a million American kids in North Face jackets. Yeah, you have to see the Duomo—but I would say, the best way to experience a place authentically (and save your money) is to just duck off the map and get lost. Try to find the restaurant that doesn’t have an English translation in the window. And realize that wherever you go, there will be people wanting to help you. You can ask anyone anything.
Is traveling alone something you had to get used to? What was your first solo trip like?
Now, I love being sort of disembodied from my life. I love discovering what I’m capable of, and it’s a relief to know how much you’re capable of when you’re a grown-up. It’s so easy to find your way around the world. It was different when I was younger —now kids travel alone all the time. But I think the first trip I took alone, I was flying from Moscow to Paris, the summer I graduated from college. That was fantastic. Back then there were no apps, you couldn’t just book a place online. I remember standing in the airport with one of those huge phonebooks, calling and calling and calling, and I couldn’t find anywhere [to stay]. I ended up staying in one of the most expensive hotels in Paris and paying for it with graduation money. [she laughs]. You do what you have to do; I couldn’t find room in a hostel or a hotel. I loved that feeling of independence. I still do.
How do you think technology has impacted the way you, and people in general, travel?
I think it’s affected it a lot. You can get directions. I think it’s making me a little stupider. Technology does a lot of your thinking for you. It can translate for you, it can orient you. But, it can keep you out of danger—you can always have a flashlight. Not to mention changing flights, checking in. I think that’s all really good. But for me, I don’t tend to post pictures when I travel. As a travel writer, I like to keep it to myself. If I’m posting where I am, I’m not letting the story sit with me. I like to come home and look at my notes—I take millions of notes—and that to me is always better than technology.
Also technology keeps you in constant contact with people. There’s the expectation that you’ll be tethered to your device and the people with whom you connect through it. And if you’re trying to escape your day-to-day …
I got a text when I was driving through Rwanda, and I just thought, “How can you really be immersed when your head is elsewhere?” I think that’s something we grapple with: how to be in the moment, the art of conversation, how to keep our distance.
If you had to recommend three places everyone should travel to, what would they be?
The Grand Canyon—there’s nowhere that compares to it in the world. I haven’t been everywhere, but for me, the best is right here at home. It’s transcendent. Everybody should experience Paris for a long period of time. It is the most magical city in the world: wide open space, such beauty, history, the river flowing through it, and so many of the greatest cultural landmarks in the world. And something more exotic … Machu Picchu. That’s pretty close to a place everyone should see. It really connects you with a very different layer of humankind. There’s such ingenuity there. It’s really a testament to man’s genius.
Where are some places you’ve never been that you’d like to go?
I’m trying to go to Mozambique this fall. I’d like to spend a little time in India. I’d like to make a story for myself on chocolate production in West Africa, the Ivory Coast. I may go back to Haiti.
How many times have you been to Haiti?
I’ve been to Haiti twice, first to do a story right after the earthquake. I was there for a week. It was devastating. Talk about the resilience of the human spirit. The utter degradation of the refugee camps, people living under scraps of fabric. I find it very hard to see those things. I don’t know that I’d go see them if I weren’t doing a story. It doesn’t seem right.
Where are some other places you’ve seen similar poverty?
A lot of places. South Africa, Senegal. Haiti was by far the worst; there’s no infrastructure even. There is hardship everywhere. And that’s very hard to see and then say, “Ok, off we go.”
That’s certainly another important part of traveling.
Learn more about Marcia DeSanctis on her website, marciadesanctis.com. The book containing her piece, The Best Women's Travel Writing: True Stories from Around the World, is available at bookstores and online at amazon.com and other outlets.Rwanda and Actress Connie Britton's Hair? Literary Weave Buoys Connecticut Travel Writer