Most books of travel state that you should give three months to Florence, for example, but map out a three weeks’ program in that city, in case you are in a hurry. Such works are valuable to the student but they slam the door in the face of the man of business who is fortunate to have three weeks in which to see the whole of Italy. Our country is filled with busy men who appreciate the advantage and pleasures of travel but are kept at home by its fancied difficulties.
It seems frankly surreal to the modern sensibility, of course. Higinbotham prides himself on adopting what he views as a new and very up-to-date view of the grand enterprise of Continental travel; he assures his overworked readers that he and his wife and their party took six weeks of vacation, 19 days of which were spent on the ocean, simply getting there and getting back, and got every bit as much out of the experience as any more leisurely traveler from, say, the previous generation. “A glance at our itinerary,” Higinbotham says, “will show how small Europe really is and how much of it can be covered in a short time by energetic travelers.”
Our group leaves New York on the 18th of July on a steamer bound for Gibraltar, and as you might expect, considering that the means of travel takes up such a big percentage of the total time away from home, Higinbotham expends quite a few of his pages on the ship-board experience itself, with its deck-chairs and its captain’s table and its steerage-class hordes of Italians and the utterly enchanting way it abstracted its well-to-do passengers from the normal rhythms of the world. Higinbotham lived his life according to those rhythms and was very grateful to have them suspended. He called it “indescribably sweet”:
To know that getting up does not mean work – at least it means nothing more arduous than breakfast. Or to lie and look across your stateroom and out the porthole at the white caps and the rocking horizon line, with never a care nor a responsibility, is restful beyond description.
After a smooth crossing (he takes pictures – “kodak snaps” – of hanging lifeboats and we feel a momentary clench of anxiety, but the world had yet to hear of Titanic), he and his party arrive at Gibraltar on the 27th of July. Keeping an eye always on train stations and travel-schedules, they go to Naples, visit Pompeii, go to Rome, then Florence, stopping briefly at whichever in-between stations appeal to them. Higinbotham’s lovely young wife is something of a perfectionist with her camera, and the book is filled with crisp, beautiful black-and-white “snaps” of the various sights they took in, all accompanied by Higinbotham’s wry, somewhat heavy-handed humor. You get the strong impression that like most people who travel with an agenda in mind, he might occasionally have become tiresome company, but he tells a good story.
They quickly reach Venice, and, as it’s done for a thousand years and reliably still continues to do, it slips right past Higinbotham’s assumed American business hauteur and turns him into a gushing tourist:
We were rowed from the depot to our hotel in a gondola, and under the full moon and the lights of the Grand Canal we gasped “It’s all true – and more.” It is more than our fancy pictured it. It is so utterly unique, so different, so inadequately depicted, that we hardly had the basis for an idea. It is a dream from which no amount of pinching will awaken you – for it is all real!
The two Venice chapters sit in the center of Three Weeks in Europe and act as its focal point, clearly the highlight of the trip. Higinbotham and his group see all the sights, marvel at all the beauty, and, in classic Chicago fashion, smile over their daily receipts – often in contemplating sums that would stagger the imagination of tourists in Venice today: “Gondoliers are cheap,” he writes, “twenty cents an hour or $1.20 per day of ten hours for two people and twenty-six cents an hour after dark, is the tariff, to which must be added the universal pourboire of a few cents.”
They travel on to Milan, Lucerne, Berne, and Zurich, sampling the local cuisine along the way, although one staple of that cuisine distinctly underwhelms our author:
There is one thing in Europe that does not appeal to a hearty eater. The continental breakfast is a continental fraud. As a young woman from Kansas City remarked at a pension in Florence, “A bun and a cup of coffee are an awfully slim foundation for visiting a dozen cathedrals.”
They raise Paris on the 14th of August – a ghastly time of year to be in the City of Light, but the book has virtually no complaints about the heat. They stay until the 19th and then make their way to London, which likewise gets just a few days. By noon on the 22nd, they’re taking ship at Southampton bound for the open ocean and home. They arrive in New York at 8 in the morning on the 29th, having spent less time than they’d been told they’d want and less money than they’d been warned they’d need, and it opened Higinbotham’s eyes to what was possible with a little good old-fashioned American efficiency:
So ends our first trip to Europe. It has been a glorious success. Its fancied difficulties vanished as we approached them. Its expense was less than we expected. Its novelties and delights of people and scenery will fill memory’s gallery with pictures while life shall last. Its courtesy and hospitality, although all paid for, are lessons to the jaded and hurried American. Its repose is indescribable. It is rest, recuperation and rejuvenation, with every association of bustle and business blotted out as completely as if you were on Mars. We liked it and want to go again.
And go again they did. Somewhat to its author’s surprise, Three Weeks in Europe was a modest but genuine success for its publisher, selling well enough despite a couple of carping reactions from the critics (one Boston book reviewer spoke for the quorum by wailing, “Who would want to travel this way? Ruled by timetables like so many Phileas Foggs?”). Higinbotham followed it up with Three Weeks in Holland and Belgium, Three Weeks in France, and Three Weeks in the British Isles, and the books fed the increasingly worldly view of would-be travelers in the States, making Continental leisure-travel seem well within the reach of even the earner of comparatively modest wages. The fact that Higinbotham’s wages were not comparatively modest – the fact that he himself wouldn’t have consented for a second to travel in steerage with all those Italians – isn’t even alluded to; this founding hypocrisy of most travel-writing hadn’t changed since the days of Herodotus, and it still hasn’t changed.
It’s all a portrait of a long-vanished world, a travel-guide not to Europe but to the past. Higinbotham never mentions passports – he didn’t need one. He never mentions border-tensions – he was writing a full decade before all of Europe would become a series of armed camps. And he takes for granted an interval of transit – 19 days – that’s in itself longer than most 21st century tourists spend trying to cover the exact same ground he did. The modern world has taken the concept of fast tourism to levels undreamt of by our author – and lost even more of the immersion-sense he scoffed at from his deck chair.
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