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1st May
2012
written by Steph

The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman

[Note: this review is also posted at travel blog, Twenty Years Hence. Sorry for the cross-post for those of you who are subscribed to both (but thanks for supporting all our endeavors!).]
For me, the very best books, regardless of genre, are the ones that whisk me away from my own life and allow me to see and understand the world in a way I hadn’t before. If there’s one type of book with an innate affinity to do this very thing, surely it is the travel memoir! The very best of their kind aren’t just about traveling around in strange lands, encountering odd social customs and nibbling on questionable foods—though those anecdotes are fascinating in their own ways)—but are about the personal transformation that occurs when we venture out of our homes and leave the safety and security of the familiar behind.

As my own big trip looms larger with each passing day, it’s no surprise that I’ve been increasingly drawn to travel writing these past few months. Maybe I’m hoping to pick up tips and tricks along the way to ensure my trip is more successful, or maybe I’m hoping for inspiration… deep down, I think I just want reassurance that Tony and I aren’t alone in this dream and that leaving our current life to travel will turn out ok. I know that even in the pages of books, happy endings aren’t guaranteed, but I still can’t help but search for them nevertheless. To this end, I’ve been really gratified to find that the Nashville Public Library system has an awesome digitial travel collection, the irony being that now I can travel the world without even leaving the comfort of my home, not even to get a book! If that’s not the best of both worlds, then I don’t know what is. Anyway, NPL has a pretty bitchin’ selection of titles, ranging from actual travel guides to help you plan your stay, to memoirs and pieces of writing to inspire you to get off your lazy butt and actually go somewhere. This is how I stumbled across The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost (known as TGGG henceforth).

TGGG begins by recounting author Rachel Friedman’s experience traveling to Ireland the summer between her junior and senior years of college and the subsequent wanderlust it triggered in her. As someone who has always been incredibly driven and subscribed to the notion of the five-year plan, Rachel has lived a relatively sheltered life. In Ireland, her eyes are opened to a whole host of possibilities when she encounters numerous individuals who have forsaken traditional career paths in order to just dwell in the world for a while. The seed of possibility is planted in Rachel’s mind and when she returns home to the States, graduates a year later and finds herself at a crossroad, that possibility suddenly bursts into bloom. Rather than following in her father’s footsteps and continuing down the well-trod road to graduate school, Rachel decides to pack her bags and head to Australia on a working holiday visa to visit her friend Carly, whom she met and lived with in Ireland. After six months in the land Down Under, the dynamic duo head off to South America, with nothing more than the packs on their backs and a plan to travel until their money runs out.

Superficially, it’s pretty clear why Rachel’s story would appeal to me, since I am currently planning to bow out of the rat race and spend at least a year traveling the world. But the more I read, the more I felt like in many fundamental ways, Rachel’s story was my own, just 7 years delayed. If you spend any amount of time poking around travel blogs, you’ll find that people travel and approach life in a variety of different ways. Even if we’re united under the common titular umbrella of “nomad”, world travlers are still a heterogenous bunch; personality, perspective and philosophy are not a one-size-fit all kind of thing, not even in the world of travel. So it was really wonderful to read about someone’s journey that so closely mirrors my own.  It’s weird to say this about a memoir, I know, but as I read about Rachel’s life and her worries and her struggles, I felt as though I could have easily been the one writing this story. As I read, I was constantly highlighting passages that I felt were plucked directly from my brain, which is unusual because I rarely annotate as I read. Some of these passages are so tightly tied up with my own identity that I would likely be hard-pressed to forget their sentiments, even if I tried, but I didn’t want to risk it!

I think there are two particular ways in which Rachel and I are identity twins:

1)   We’re both Type A overachievers who are obsessed with achievements, particularly of the academic variety (and a huge chunk of our identities are defined by school)

2)   We are people pleasers who thrive on approval, particularly from our parents

These two things are necessarily entwined to some extent, since I am sure that my need for approval is part of why I cling so tightly to academia, where hardwork is not only rewarded but quantified. Most people hate taking tests or writing papers, but I love them because I like knowing just how much I know, and consequently, just how smart I am. My parents put me in school when I was three, so I’ve now been a full-time student in some shape or form for 26 years! Of course I love to learn, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that part of why I love school is because at this point, it feels safe, and also, I it’s been a huge source of validation and gratification for me. With this in mind, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought some of the following passages were penned by me. I promise, all of these were written by Rachel, even though they pretty much exhume the very core of me:

I genuinely loved school, where the formula for success was straightforward. Study and you get good grades. Simple, safe. But no class has prepared me for the post-student leap I am facing now, and being an eternal over-achiever who bases her self-worth on her GPA, I am woefully ill-equipped to take on the unpredictable, unscheduled life awaiting me after college graduation. I am terrified of this unknown.

*   *   *

I’ve developed a complex about being branded a quitter. I have incorrectly concluded that quitting is not a choice of one thing over the other but rather a comment on one’s character, no matter how trivial the commitment or how great the opportunity on the other side of quitting is. I’m also a die-hard people pleaser, and the idea of disappointing a restaurant manager I’ve spent a grand total of five minutes with sends shivers through me.

*   *   *

It’s not that Carly’s life is entirely free of pressures. It’s just that she has a totally different relationship to her parents’ approval. She wants to please them, but it’ not the all-encompassing stressor it is for me, and she would never dream of giving up her own desires to make them happy… [Carly’s parents] often tell Carly, ‘We want you to do what makes you happy.’ Although my own parents provided me the best education, the highest-quality music lessons, and an abundance of financial support, I never heard them utter these exact words. It is in Australia that I realize I will have to garner the strength to speak them to myself.

Months of therapy would probably just scratch the surface of all the issues that lie seething beneath those quotes. Typing them out and sharing them with you, I feel vulnerable and scared, because I feel like they strip all artifice away and allow you to see me for who I really am. I like school because it reassures me that I am a good, worthwhile person. It gives my parents a tangible reason to be proud of me, and the thought of disappointing them makes me feel sick. To this end, I will keep at something well past the point of reason and even at the cost of my own sanity and happiness because people in my family don’t quit. Seven years spent in grad school is a testament to the fact that when it comes to making decisions, I put my own needs last, and I am very good at doing things that make me unhappy, and very bad at doing things simply because they do make me happy. Unlike Rachel, I didn’t have to face these truths when I was 22, because I jumped from one academic degree into another and it let me hide. In many ways, I should be past these things: I am 29, I am married, I am financially independent, I have two dogs, I own a car… and yet I sometimes feel like I am still a child who has no control over her life, knows nothing about the world, and worse, nothing about herself. This is tough stuff, and one of the many things I hope I will gain on our big trip is the courage to truly embrace the notion that choosing to be happy is valid, and the only person I really need to hold myself accountable to in this lifetime is me. Taking our big trip is just the first step on this journey, but it’s a vital one, I think.

For most people, TGGG will be a light, frothy travel read that sometimes entertains and sometimes annoys. Obviously, for me, this book hit a nerve. It may not be spectacular, objectively speaking, but it was exactly the right time for me to read it. Of course, for those of you not looking for existential angst, it is still a really inspiring read even just focusing on the travel-y bits. My dreams were filled with Incan ruins and sandy, Aussie beaches during the week that I read this, and even though Tony and I aren’t planning to hit up either Australia or South America on this trip, I loved getting to visit them through Rachel’s writing and flagged many places to see and experience when we do finally make it there. There were a few parts of TGGG that rubbed me the wrong way or that I flat-out disagreed with, but really, the only thing I took issue with was Rachel’s claims that this book wasn’t a love story. This was made in reference to a romance she had while in South America, but I would argue that TGGG is a love story, just not in the conventional sense. It is a story about falling in love with the world, travel, and with your own life.  Also, cheesy as it may be, it’s about discovering yourself and learning to love that person as well. For me, it was these elements that made this one of those travel reads that transcends its genre and makes its appeal broader.

If you’re at a crossroad, or just feeling restless, I can’t recommend TGGG highly enough. This wasn’t a book that just exposed my own foibles and insecurities, it also emboldened and inspired me as well. I still get scared when I think about how much my life will change in the coming months, and when I do, I turn to books and writing for comfort. Thankfully, Rachel’s got my back. I’ll leave you with three quotes that, in times of doubt and uncertainty, help me shore up my courage and keep me moving towards my goal:

The planet has not imploded because I, the girl who has always done what is expected of her, decided not to, just this once.

*   *   *

You can’t get lost when you have nowhere to be.

*   *   *

“But why are you traveling?” I want to pinpoint her goal, to figure out how she is justifying this diversion from her studies.

“Why? To travel. To see the world. What do you mean, why? Because I want to.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 05/01/2012

    One of the reliably awesome things about reading is how you sometimes happen upon the exact right book for how you feel in your life. Even a mediocre book can ring very very true when it’s the Right Book for that moment.

  2. 05/02/2012

    I commented on this post at the other site, but just wanted to say, I am so moved by this post. It’s beautiful.

  3. kay
    05/04/2012

    Oh! Oh this sounds like a must read! And with such a beautiful, personal review, too. By what you pointed out about Rachel, I think I could really relate to her as well.

  4. 05/08/2012

    Hi Steph,
    I haven’t visited for a while now, and hadn’t heard about your travel plans. Wow, how exciting! I’ve added 20 Years Hence to my RSS reader and will follow your trip with interest. My wife and I are planning a massive trip around Europe in a camper van for … well, as long as we can manage to keep going, but at least a year or two. But that pales in comparison with your plans. You really hit on the core of what works and doesn’t work in travel writing – it is about the personal transformation. I hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but it’s absolutely right. The anecdotes and customs just don’t mean much to people who aren’t there, but a story about people changing and dealing with fears and pressures is inevitably fascinating. This book sounds great, and I’m sure your travel blog will apply the same principles – look forward to reading!

  5. 05/08/2012

    @ zibilee: Thanks so much for the kind comment! As I said over at 20YH, this was a very personal post for me to write, so I’m glad that it touched you.
     
    @ kay: I think you’d really enjoy this one a lot. I know from your Paris pictures that you have a healthy dose of wanderlust, so I think you’d find this really inspiring!
     
    @ Andrew: Thanks so much for commenting. I’d love to be able to travel around Europe for a year or two, but it’s not exactly easy on the budget, is it? Thankfully Tony and I are just as happy to spend a good chunk of time in Asia, which is much more budget friendly, though we definitely plan to spend some time in Europe (as you saw).
    I suppose that different people may look for things in travel writing, but I think that if you think about why people tend to travel (above and beyond 1 and 2-week vacations to Florida or wherever), it’s because by experiencing a life outside of our own, we have the real potential for growth and change. People who want to stay the same don’t travel, and I suppose as much as I long to see exotic places, it’s that yearning to evolve that I’m really tapping into!

  6. 05/11/2012

    Hi Steph, you’re right, Asia is much more budget-friendly. We’re hoping to keep costs down in Europe though, by avoiding too many hotels etc – were inspired by http://www.europebycamper.com/ where they seemed to do it pretty cheaply. Anyway, I think you’re right about why people travel, or at least that’s why I travel too. I have come across people, though, who just want to use other places as a backdrop to their own hedonism, rather than really trying to learn or grow or let the place change them. Wouldn’t make for good travel writing though! You’re definitely on the right track, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the trip.

  7. 05/18/2012

    I kind of wish I’d come across this book when I finished my studies. It’s a scary time but it’s also exciting because you have a chance to leave behind what you know and start something new (even if you aren’t sure about it). For me, it was the idea that I didn’t know what was going to happen next that was so exciting and scary as like you I jumped from one degree to the next partly because I wasn’t ready for the real world. And I totally understand about the whole pleasing your parents business (especially if you are also the eldest child!) I’m definitely going to check this out. Lovely post, Steph!

  8. I really love travel books. I’ve read ones about families traveling the world by bike, traveling across Africa, Mongolia, etc.

    How exciting for you! I also can’t wait to hear more.

  9. Betty
    05/24/2012

    I absolutely LOVE travel memoirs too. I just finished an amazing one titled, “Drifting on a Headwind” by Jim Harlan, an extreme travel memoir about the author’s travels throughout some of the most remote and extreme corners of the world. It was so descriptive and well written, that I felt as though I was personally experiencing some of the places described in the book. I love travel memoirs that can do that to me!
    http://uncommonadventurespress.com/

  10. 05/27/2012

    @ Andrew: I love the idea of your campervan trip, which I think should let you enjoy Europe at a slower pace than many do. Love the idea, and I have to say, even without our current trip off the ground, Tony and I are already scheming about a South & Central American adventure, that is certainly similar in tone to your Europe trip. Please keep me posted on your plans!
     
    @ sakura: Yes, part of me certainly wonders what might have been if I had read this book 7 years ago, before starting graduate school as opposed to at the end of it. At the time, I thought I was rather worldly, but the notion of traveling for a year didn’t even cross my mind. Now I’m saying goodbye to a life of built-in summer vacations (though to be fair, we don’t really do those in grad school), but I’m preparing for the biggest trip of my life! I suppose we take these leaps when we’re ready and at 22, I definitely wasn’t ready!
     
    @ Jen: Hopefully you’ll enjoy this one if you do pick it up! I think that I was in the exact right place for this book, because it wasn’t just the travel aspect of it that spoke to me, but this notion of throwing off the confines of the life you’ve never questioned in order to discover there is more to yourself and more to your life than the traditional paths you thought were set in stone.
     
    @ Betty: Oooh, that sounds really intriguing! Obviously I’ve got wandering feet at the moment, so I’m finding it really inspiring to read about others who have ventured boldly into the world and discovered for themselves just how amazing life can be! I will absolutely have to check that out!

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