A Hobbit's Baedeker

In these days of liberation it is fashionable in some circles to admit to vices and weaknesses the very mention of which would send our grandmothers (and mothers, probably) off for the smelling salts. In all this confessional surfeit , however, I have yet to hear of a person who has come out of my particular closet to admit that he hates to travel.

Let's face it: Travel means carefree, footloose, sophisticated, suave, urbane. Those of us who prefer to stay home are, by extension, the converse -- unadventurous, parochial, and -- dare I say it? -- dull. The only people I can count in my camp so far are Emily Dickinson and Bilbo Baggins. Not a lot of company, and even Mr. Baggins was subject to a notable lapse.

Travel literature is a most appealing sort of reading. But for those of us who are better off at home it is the purest sort of fantasy, one hundred percent in the speculative realm, and never, God forbid, to be an inspiration to action.

It's not total ignorance that keeps me close to home. After all, I've traveled widely in the best of company: Florence and Venice with Mary McCarthy, a first-class compartment to Paris with Ludwig Bemelmans, China with Emily Hahn.And then there are those sometimes elegant, sometimes disastrous meals I've shared abroad with M. F. K. Fisher.

What is it that makes a person a poor traveler? In my case, it's not that I am unusually poor sport or that I can't handle inconvenience. I can put up with any amount of petty annoyance around home. Erratic appliances, windows that won't open, doors that won't shut, bother me not a whit. But take me away from my familiar annoyances and present me with a new set, and I'm unglued.

It's not that I don't do my howework before venturing out -- I read guidebooks and consult with friends -- yet, even so, 90 percent of the time that quaint little inn at the end of 10 miles of bad road has gone out of business just before my arrival. The case of the four-star eatery is a bit more mysterious. Was it that the chef became suddenly indisposed the night we were there and the guy from the local fast foods franchise was filling in? Could it be that the guidebook writer is afflicted with Styrofoam taste buds, or worse yet, that he allowed his judgment to be swayed by the waitresses dressed as 19 th-century wenches?

Actually, my chief frustration with travel is that one is a bystander in the life of a place visited. Everyone else is going about his useful everyday life, and I left mine at home! And worse yet, hidden behind those inscrutable faces are secrets that I, in my brief stay, will probably never discover. Theym know where to go to buy a decent piece of cheese and where the good bakery is. And they, lucky folk, probably have their own stoves to cook upon, whose every chip and bit of grease is as familiar to them as the backs of their hands. (Not that I'm on such good terms with my household's grease when I'm home, but I grow quite nostalgic about such things when I'm away.)

Upon return to my own turf after a trip, I am prone to experiences of a quasi-religious nature in the supermarket, wherein I realize with a flash of insight that I can fix anything, anythingm for dinner. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, I wander up and down the aisles: No more congealed coleslaw! Good-bye to the ubiquitous rice pilaf!

Now that I have admitted to this strange flaw in my character, perhaps one or two of my soulmates cowering, as I have done, in the fear that someday unhappy circumstances might cause them to have leisure and money at the same time -- can face the pressure of their peers who might otherwise force them to travel. To those few I say, be bold and resolute: Tell them that you'd reallym rather tend your garden. Adventures do, after all, make one late for dinner.

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