Our book today is Pleasure by the Busload, a brimmingly delightful work of travel-writing done by Emily Kimbrough in 1961, with whimsical line-drawings by Mircea Vasilu. Kimbrough was famous at the time as one-half of the writing team (along with Cornelia Otis Skinner) of the best-selling 1942 book Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and in this book Kimbrough recounts – in her typically gimlet-witted and raucous style – a trip to Portugal, and she starts things off in her inimitable way:
It had not been my intention to fly to Lisbon. It is never my intention to include flying when planning a trip. Flight is a last-minute expedient thrust upon me as a faute de mieux, and in my opinion travel by air is all faute and nothing mieux about it. Up above the world so high is the last place I would choose for twinkling like a diamond. Therefore, a travel agency, under my merciless prodding, had found a boat with an itinerary made to order for me and other cravens.
Kimbrough undertakes her journey with four other people: the redoubtable Sophy, reader of maps and itineraries, Gina Bachauer, her husband Alec Sherman, and her brother Theodore, and in the best Mark Twain tradition of travel-writing, her account of the marvels and curiosities of Portugal is decidedly secondary to her account of the people sharing the trip (this reflects the reality for a great many travelers who prize the company over the destination, and it’s even occasionally been true for me, although the huge majority of my own traveling has been done solely in non-human company). She lavishes most of her attention on Sophy, and Pleasure by the Busload is at least as much a chronicle of their friendship (varying moods, similar background, similar handbags, a shared affection for the wine-guzzling they refer to as “shoebag hour”) as anything else:
I have made considerable number of trips with Sophy; the pattern has always been that we go our separate ways for the hours when we are in transit confined within a car, train, boat or plane. She is a will-o’-the-wisp. She likes to set off early in the morning, guidebook and maps under the arm. She may agree to a meeting place for lunch. Frequently she is not seen again until the “shoebag hour.” This pattern is mutually satisfactory. I am pokier than she. I am a dawdling, not a brisk sight-seer. My attention is caught by trivia that do not attract her eye. Therefore, at the end of the day over our shoebag refreshment we exchange travel notes, discovering that except for basic landmarks we might have been exploring separate cities.
(Sometimes this can lead to disarmingly intimate moments that, while no doubt intended to be read with a note of sarcasm, nevertheless come across as the kinds of moments that only happen between best friends. At one point the two of them are watching the cool evening unfold: “The day had been overcast, we had even gone through some rain, but by the time we had finished dinner, the clouds had scattered and the moon was brushing them to either side as she swam across the sky” … and Kimbrough adds, “The way your mother used to do the breast stroke,” I said to Sophy. “Such dignity.”)
Like so much of the best travel writing, Pleasure by the Busload has also become, over time, a museum exhibit; prices are radically less or nonexistent, regulations are radically more relaxed or nonexistent, buildings, cars, dress fashions, even food fashions … these and a dozen other things captured in Kimbrough’s prose – and in Vasilu’s carefree drawings – have changed enormously in the last half-century. But as is likewise the case with the best travel writing, this time-lapse quality only adds to the charm. Gone are the days when I could recommend this book to customers planning a trip to Lisbon, since a) those customers can now click on house-by-house video tours from the comfort of their beds, and b) Pleasure by the Busload is out of print and will almost certainly stay that way forever. But if you should spot a copy at your own version of my beloved Brattle Bookshop, you should grab it – and prepare to embark, armchair-style, on a wonderful adventure with some very memorable new friends.
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