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Minneapolis travel writer Doug Mack gets lost in Europe

He documented his experiences in a flurry of blog posts and the memoir “Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.”

Doug Mack
Doug Mack

A couple of years ago, Doug Mack was at the Twin Cities Book Festival with his mother. One of the best parts of the event is the used book sale. You can pick up everything from last year’s bestsellers to old literary magazines at garage sale prices.

Mack spotted a battered copy of Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on Five Dollars a Day,” circa 1963, and bought it on a lark, for 10 cents. As it turned out, his mother also bought the book — in 1967 — and used it on a long-ago adventure in Europe, which she documented in a flurry of letters home.

And that’s when, as they say, lightning struck.

The Minneapolis writer decided to go to Europe using that book and his mom’s letters as his guide, to see how things had changed in the past four decades. He documented the experience in a flurry of blog posts, and then wrote a memoir based on his travels, “Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.”

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Naturally, the book is a comedy. Guidebook in hand, Mack doggedly bumbles toward a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and the poor guy gets in some pickles. Population changes, inflation, the omnipresence of American media and corporate influence, and technology have vastly altered Europe. And also, they haven’t.

Mack finds the essence of each country’s identity just where his guide tells him to look, and ends up writing an oddball guide that pretty effectively transmits the travel bug.

He’ll do a book signing at 2 p.m. Saturday at Common Good Books, St. Paul.

Here’s an edited transcript of our session:

MinnPost: What if Frommer’s book hadn’t been at the fair? What would you be writing instead?

Doug Mack: I’ve always wondered about this. Dumb luck is a recurring theme in my book — when you travel with outdated information, you develop a deep-rooted reliance on what my traveling companion, Lee, called “The Goddess Serendipity.” But that initial find was certainly the luckiest; without it, I wouldn’t have written this book. I might have eventually read through my mother’s letters and perhaps written a short essay about them. I would probably still be dreaming of writing a book about something, someday, possibly on one of the approximately 3,491 book ideas (most of them decidedly awful) scattered across my various notebooks. 

MP: Were you a travel writer before this trip and book came about?

DM: Yes, I was. In the sense that I had traveled and written about it, if not in the sense that I had any sort of stable income from it. I grew up in a house full of books, especially travel memoirs — my book dedication reads, “For my parents, who taught me to love travel and books and travel books. Here’s one more for your collection.” In 2004, I signed up for a travel writing class at The Loft. I sent the travel website World Hum an essay I’d written for the class, and they published it, so I kept writing.

MP: You stayed “on the beaten path” and still had a personal, meaningful experience. If you went back, would you do it the same way?

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DM: My ideal journey is a mix of off and on the beaten path. The big sites and the forgotten backstreets each have their own things to offer the visitor, their own ways of making you feel awe-struck or uncomfortable. For example, I want to go back to Rome someday, and I will absolutely return to the tourist hotspots there — the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, and so on. Even with the crowds, there’s just something so captivating about the stories, the history, the timeless sense of grandeur. But I’d also like to venture into less touristy towns, where there’s nothing to do but just chat with the local residents and eat the local food and see everyday people doing everyday things.  

MP: How much, on average, did you actually spend a day?

DM: I spent about 100 euros, roughly $125 at the time, per day. You could do it for a lot less today, or a lot more, of course, but my guidebook kept me in the central neighborhoods, areas that have since become (in part because of Arthur Frommer and other early guidebook writers) much more popular with tourists and therefore more expensive. 

MP: Anti-Europeanism has permeated American politics, if not culture. Yet more than 12 million Americans visit Europe every year. Why doesn’t this have a bigger effect on us?

DM: The perceived romance of it is certainly still a big draw, isn’t it? I think part of the anti-Europeanism is this belief that our Continental friends are all effete socialist snobs, and we, out here in the land of manifest destiny, are all rugged individualists who could, if we wanted to, go build a log cabin with our bare hands tomorrow. But effete socialist snobs of the everyday variety, rather than the political-leader or EU-bureaucrat variety, make for ideal characters in our travel daydreams. They’re excellent chefs, they’re brilliant craftspeople, they speak with such charming accents. No matter what Angela Merkel or François Hollande do, American travelers will still view Germany through the lens of Oktoberfest and dream of walking along the Seine while eating a croissant. 

MP: Europe is less European than it was when your mother visited. How is immigration changing the tourist experience?

DM: Europe is somewhat less of that tourist-daydream version of itself, to be sure. But the thing is, authenticity isn’t static. If you’re in Italy eating pasta, is the sauce made with tomatoes (which came from the New World, after all) less European than the one made with a cream base? The unofficial national dish in Germany is currywurst — sausage with ketchup (an American innovation) and curry powder (India, by way of Britain). Which is to say: Immigration makes Europe more interesting, more vibrant. What’s really jarring is that many of the tourist industry roles are filled by immigrants. So you might go to Florence and be greeted at your pensione by a Russian behind the desk, and go out for a traditional Tuscan meal expertly prepared by a Bengali chef, and then go buy a poster of Michelangelo’s David from an Algerian vendor. 

MP: Another thing that’s changed is our communications. You encourage readers to send you postcards and real mail. Are people taking up the challenge?

DM: Amazingly, yes, people send me mail! Strangers, even, from every continent except Antarctica. I get about two or three pieces of mail per week, and it really is a thrill to pull them out of my mailbox. So much more delightful than email. Most are postcards, although I do occasionally get letters that go on for several pages, typically just chit-chatty, page-filling prose written just for the novelty of putting pen to paper.

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MP: You’re a champion of local tourism. Tell me about your work with Preserve Minneapolis?
DM: I serve on the board and I help with some of publicity. We run a series of summer walking and biking tours that explore various historic areas of the city, from the downtown riverfront to lesser-known landmarks like the historic North Side synagogues. It’s an interesting way to be a hometown tourist and learn new things about places you may have driven past a thousand times. And our Happy Hour With a Preservationist series runs year-round and offers behind-the-scenes access to various historic buildings.

MP: If you were hosting a European tourist in the Twin Cities, what would be on your itinerary?

DM: We have a world-class system of bike trails, and there’s some amazing food within just a few blocks of various paths. So we’ll get some bikes. See the lakes, the parkways. I’ll point out, gently, that European cities always have that one manicured park, but we have a whole system of parks; the city is filled with green space. We’ll pedal on to the Midtown Greenway, and grab some food on Eat Street, the Midtown Global Market, or Mercado Central. At some point during the European’s visit, there will also be pilgrimages to A Baker’s Wife’s Pastry Shop for American-style pastries that aren’t trying to be Parisian, and Matt’s Bar, because there is nothing so American as a Jucy Lucy. Also obligatory: a walk around Nicollet Island and the St. Anthony Falls area — maybe the Mill City Museum, if it’s open — followed by dinner and/or drinks nearby, like Nye’s, Aster, Ginger Hop or Brasa. If it’s summer, we’ll go to the Minnesota State Fair or whatever other festival is going on, because I love how the city just comes alive with energy once the temperatures warm up. And, if there’s time, maybe some theater. Maybe a drive to a small town like Northfield or Taylors Falls. Maybe the skyways. And I’d better stop there; my hypothetical visitor is probably feeling exhausted and overbooked.

MP: You have also led Segway tours. What was your most memorable experience doing one?

DM: On one of those early May days that feels like February, we had a corporate group from out of state; they were staying at one of the fancier hotels downtown. One of them came early, and as we were chatting, he mentioned that his colleagues hadn’t anticipated the frigid weather. I assured him that we had ponchos they could borrow, to which he replied, with a coy smirk, “It’s OK, they’ve taken their own measures.” A few minutes later, a chartered bus pulled up and out stepped a dozen people sporting self-aware grins and bright white terry cloth bathrobes. It looked like the Luke Skywalker convention had come to town. Out on the Stone Arch Bridge, people always stare at us — Segways are inherently goofy, it’s true — but that day, it was just nonstop gawking, and for good reason. We just shrugged and waved and embraced the attention.