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Rant #7: In Which the Author Returns Briefly From Mysterious, Faraway Lands

Those of you who know me, or who read my livejournal, or who work for American Airlines or Ubisoft, know that I do a great deal of traveling. In all honesty, this almost entirely professional in nature. Ubisoft has me on the road so much that when I do get home, the absolute last thing I want to do is bundle up my belongings, hit up a friend for catsitting, and venture off to points unknown again. Besides, at this point I've gotten adept at doing all my sightseeing between 8 PM and 2 AM, leaving me spending the daylight hours vainly searching for an Ubisoft studio and a dialogue deliverable. This gets really awkward, I might add, when I'm out visiting my wife's family in central Missouri farm country, though they've learned to put up with my eccentricities as long as I bring enough free games along.

Travel is a mixed blessing for the writer who works, as opposed to the working writer. The writer who is in Provence (or Shanghai, or Outer Kyrgyzstan) to write is there working, but is working on their writing. If you doubt me, read the New York Times Book Review one of these days. I'll put the over-under at nine pages (and take the under) before you run into a review that talks about an author who spent five years in southern France among the thirteen-toed lute players of the northwest suburbs of Marseilles. There's certainly nothing wrong with this - it means more books on thirteen toed French lutists than their might have been otherwise - but the practical segment of my brain always explodes when I hear about it. The one time I actually contemplated taking extended time off from work to write, the Universe was replaced by a searing blast of white-hot heat and the voices of the Elder Gods thundered in my brain, pronouncing unspeakable secrets from before the dawn of time that have haunted my waking nightmares and made me glance nervously around at any potential loose threads in the fabric of space-time, at least during core working hours.

Nope, when I go, it's to work, and any local knowledge and/or color I acquire I do so strictly off the clock. ( Well, either that or over lunch. That's the one major advantage of working for a French-owned company - there are some truly titanic lunch breaks that rear their heads on occasion.) So I spend my evenings out, exploring, always with a voice whispering in my head. It says, quite sensibly, "You might never have another chance." And it's probably right. When am I going to get another chance to walk the streets of Old Shanghai at midnight, or engage in debate with the maitre d' of a Lyonnais bouchon about whether or not I really do want to eat in his restaurant? It could be tomorrow, it could be never. So the sensible thing to do is to get out there and grab the experience with both hands, take the long walks and the odd menu recommendations (excusing, of course, the elegantly presented fromage tete at Aux Trois Cochons. But that's another story) and whatever else I can get my hands on.

This is not entirely easy for me, mind you. I'm a bit of a stay-at-home. Venturing forth into the foreign night brings with it a fear, not of being mugged/kidnapped/pickpocketed/whatever, but of not knowing what to do. It's foolish, of course, but it's real. There are a million small social customs that don't make it into the guidebooks or corporate handouts, things that are natural as air to residents but which I unfortunately end up deconstructing with every step. My first night solo in Paris, I spent half an hour standing in front of a restaurant in Bercy, unaware that most French restaurants are of the seat yourself variety. I like the whiskey bar I've found in the Marais because I can simply point to what I want without risking the faux pas that will stick me with a dozen angry Frenchmen howling for my scalp and, worse, two fingers of Johnny Walker Red on the rocks. It's comfortable back at the hotel. Safe. I know the ground rules.

But when am I going to have another chance?

The real loser in this is writing time. If I'm on the streets soaking up ambience, I'm not at my desk scribbling (apart from the occasional travelogues that allow me to remember what happened once the whiskey wears off). QED and all that good stuff. But I think it's worth it, simply in terms of the material that I garner and the experience I have in those late night wanderjahrs. They'll all make it into the stories some day, I'm sure. The man who hissed at me, twice, as I crossed the Loire. The stenciled images of Baron Samedi on the white stone walls of five hundred year old buildings. The hubbub of the late-night Shanghai street market, and the whispered hush of the women gliding back and forth through the candlelit back corners of the massage parlor to which my coworkers guided me. Peeking through a fence in downtown Bucharest to see a field of marijuana growing wild, with one stalk growing up easy as you please through the middle of the sidewalk. Someone trying to pick my pocket after midnight in the Pigalle and little kids pissing into the street in Montmartre at high noon.

Someday they'll let me tell their stories, at least if I'm off the road long enough to keep from adding to them for a while. But there's always another place to go. Next week it's Los Angeles for a voice shoot. Bright lights, big city, being there as my words get themselves turned into dialogue - how could I not go?

After all, I might never be there again.

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