As A Woman, I Never Feel Safe Traveling Alone
Jami Attenberg’s new memoir “I Came All This Way to Meet You” brings travel writing into the 21st century
When I was driving from Pennsylvania to Atlanta with all of my earthly belongings in my trunk, I stopped overnight in a North Carolina mountain town to split up the trip. Someone told me Boone was beautiful and underrated and it landed about halfway between where I was coming from and where I was going. I booked an Airbnb that was an attachment to a woman’s home, someone who looked friendly, and was smiling in her host picture. That she’d be present on the grounds during my stay offered me the illusion of safety.
Of course, my mom was still concerned. I booked the Airbnb without telling her, rightly assuming that she’d prefer me to stay in a hotel. “Why would you stay somewhere all by yourself?
“I’m not all by myself,” I told her, and mentioned the host living upstairs. I told her about the glowing reviews. She told me that it didn’t matter, it wasn’t safe. I argued with her, but deep down I agreed. As a woman, I never feel safe traveling alone. When we travel solo, we do so with our well-grounded fears in tow. We learn how to cope with the weight of their presence.
In her new memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, Jami Attenberg rarely stays put. She sleeps on friends’ couches and travels cross-country in her van and flies to Lithuania and China and Italy. In a chapter titled “Track Changes,” Attenberg writes of the time she spent backpacking in Europe and passing as a man to avoid harassment by other men, especially on night trains, where she planned to sleep to save money.
“My first evening alone,” she writes, “outside of Paris, I found a cabin where an elderly gentleman sat. We spoke for a while in Spanish and in French, and then he took one side of the cabin and I took the other. I woke up to find him standing over me, fondling my breasts.” After that she chose to disguise her femininity in favor of safety.
At one point on a trip from Hamburg to Stockholm, now disguised as a man, Attenberg found herself sharing a night train cabin with a “young blonde man who smelled of booze” and “an older woman who smelled of perfume.” The young man asked the older woman, after winking at Attenberg, why she was going home so late. The older woman said she had been visiting her uncle in Hamburg. The young man replied to the woman “roughly” in German, while Attenberg tried, unsuccessfully, to make “sympathetic eye contact” with the woman. “I did the only thing I could: I took off my hat and jacket,” Attenberg writes. “I didn’t know if it would embarrass him or shock him; I just hoped it would change the conversation. And it did.”
Once the young man was without his sympathetic audience, he lost his gusto. When the older woman exited the train, the young blonde man told Attenberg she was a prostitute because “no one travels from Hamburg this late at night because they’re visiting their uncle.” Attenberg listened. She had to—this cabin was the only empty one on the train. In the morning, when the young man had sobered up, he transformed into a perfect gentleman. Attenberg writes, “I thought, with a bit of envy, how easy for him to become that kind of man. How easy for him to be whatever he liked.”
I wasn’t as clever as Attenberg when I traveled to Ireland alone while studying abroad in college. On both nights I stayed in Dublin, I returned to my accommodations by 6 p.m. I didn’t feel safe staying out any later alone. I wanted so badly to drink Guinness in a pub shoulder-to-shoulder with Dubliners and listen to a live band singing Irish shanties. I wanted to live, for the night, like a local. But would I get home safely if I stayed out late? Perhaps if I had worn my hair tucked into a beanie and worn a sports bra under my baggy sweatshirt; perhaps if I’d bought pants with a looser fit, I’d be able to disguise my attention-attracting features, the way Attenberg had on the train. Still, I can’t imagine feeling really and truly unwatched and at ease on my own at night. Not as a woman. That sort of freedom has never been within my reach.
Nor has it been in the reach, it would seem, of most women travelers. When one Googles “travelogue,” less than one-fifth of the resulting 50 books are written by women. When thinking of the more well-known travel shows—No Reservations, Parts Unknown, Somebody Feed Phil, Man Vs. Wild, Dark Tourist, to name a few—one is hard-pressed to identify one hosted by a woman. Regarding travel, almost all of the books written and shows hosted by men take the perspective of an outsider looking to become an insider. They’re indifferent to how the customs of the place they visit might conflict with their own. In other words, the world is theirs for the taking, no consideration given to the dangers they might face, or might perpetrate. For those of us whose lives are marked by danger because of our mere existence, this sort of risk is something we must constantly negotiate, moving ourselves farther away, as opposed to closer to. Most of the time, white cis men have the freedom to opt in or out of safety, the freedom to be whatever they like, as Attenberg puts it. As I was unable to even imagine an instance in which I’d feel carefree and insouciant alone in a pub in Dublin, Attenberg was writing about feeling haunted in Vilnius, Lithuania by the specter of danger in the dark, while walking with a female friend on the cobblestone streets at night: “Nothing happened, but I pictured it anyway: the possibility in the darkness. Even when no one was around, there was a chance of danger. I saw something in the empty space.”
We should consider that another reason we lack examples of women in travel media, specifically in literature, is that we’re calling their writing something different when they do write about travel. Jami Attenberg’s new book belongs to a growing collection of women writing about navigating the world, theirs and ours, alone. Books like Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah, and The Long Field by Pamela Petro feature a female protagonist contemplating the contours of her life while traveling to new places. Instead of travel writing, though, we call them memoirs. Perhaps, because they are portraits of their authors as well as their authors’ travels. But lots of travel writing is like this, by men and women alike. In Granta 10, which was published in 1983 and focused on travel writing during the genre’s peak, Saul Bellow and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are two featured writers who incorporated personal details into their pieces, “Old Paris” and “Watching the Rain in Galicia.” Why then, do we call it memoir, when women do the same?
It wouldn’t really be a big deal what we call this hybrid memoir-travel writing thing if not for the fact that critics writing on the fate of the genre have identified memoir as antagonistic of travel writing, rather than a boon for it. In November 2021, Thomas Swick wrote about the discontinuation of The Best American Travel Writing series, crediting the beginning of the end of the genre to the growing and then surging popularity of memoir in the late 80s and early 90s. Similarly, Tom Chesshyre argued earlier this year in an op-ed titled “Too woke to travel write?” that the genre has declined because we’re all too preoccupied with the perceived and real negative impact of traveling and writing about it, i.e. contributing to carbon emissions and othering those whose cultures differ from the author’s. His point, paraphrased, is that our thinking too hard about what it means (individually, globally) to travel today comes at the cost of telling a good story from a perspective that otherwise is erased.
But what if it’s the other way around? What if more introspection led to a renaissance in travel writing, if only we reframe our idea of what the genre should be? Maybe it’s less about making our subjects places that are far from, and alien to us, and instead about making our subject place in general, especially during this prolonged moment when we’re all supposed to be staying put. What details of our own blocks, our own communities could we examine and interrogate? What stories might arise from time spent on our daily strolls? To someone who doesn’t live where you live, your account of your home is travel writing.
Living like a local and becoming totally, unselfconsciously immersed in one’s surroundings is an exercise in arrogance available only to cishet white men who can move throughout the world without a sexualized or racialized gaze tracking them. To survive, travel writing needs to withstand the legitimate criticism that any form of cultural reporting by outsiders is appropriation. Embracing what it means to be an outsider could revolutionize travel writing.
What does it look like to travel in our own skin? Recent work by Anne Morea, Bryan Washington, and Abeni Jones highlights the nuances of occupying sometimes unfamiliar space in non-white or gender non-conforming bodies. For Morea, a Kenyan writer, traveling anywhere means having to go through a lengthy visa application process because as someone from the “global south,” she has a “not-good” passport. For Washington, a trip to Japan meant googling “Black in Japan,” “Black Japan expat,” and “Black Japan living” in order to prepare for what to expect. For Jones, an outdoor recreation enthusiast and a Trans, Black woman, even routine domestic travel means looking up which states have legislation permitting anti-Trans discrimination because if she gets injured, she can be denied care. What if travel writing, more broadly, actively confronted these kinds of conundrums, which so many individuals must navigate?
Attenberg writes about what it means to travel as a woman and feel unsafe, but she also writes about what it means to travel as a writer whose willingness to spend money on self-funded book tours will determine her failure or success. During one point in her travels, her periods “began to destroy” her. She often bled through her clothes in flight if forced to sit for too long. Her anxiety was so severe that she had to take Xanax every time she stepped on a plane. She didn’t feel she could stop because if she did, she’d have to face “all the days of making art [she’d] lost to the business side of things, all the friendships that had fallen by the wayside.”
Making uninformed conclusions based on our biased observations has been, in many ways, a tenet of travel writing for far too long. Where Attenberg deviates from this norm is in her observations of how she occupies a place. I Came All This Way to Meet You asks how does it feel in this body, at this age, with this loneliness, this joy, this fear, this hunger, this desire, these sore feet, these tight jeans, this clingy dress, under this sun, that moon, to be a stranger in a strange land? What does it look like to not feel at home, at home? Attenberg answers these questions, and then she invites her reader-writers to do the same: “[…] we receive so much from other writers when they show us how it’s done … We learn from them, but also, they tell us we can. Without even knowing it. Enter here. Start here. Begin now.”
Attenberg has written a guidebook, in more than one sense, for the resurgence of the genre. I Came All This Way to Meet You instructs us on writing about navigating our own, particular worlds through the lens of our own experiences. If travel writing is to persist, writers must turn their gaze equally inward, and outward.