Book Review: The Plane to Lisbon

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Here at Wandering Educators, I am lucky enough to read MANY, many travel books. Each one can take me to a different place in this world, and I always enjoy it. However, few are full of both humor and humility, and able to teach me many things about both different cultures and the nature of humanity. One such book I've recently finished is The Plane to Lisbon: A Travel Memoir, by Nicholas Dan Richie. A book full of good-humored stories of his travels, it is also both a travel guide and a detailed account of his experiences abroad. I delighted in his word-play, and had fun reading of his many celebrity encounters. In The Plane to Lisbon, Nicholas also shares the power of travel to change lives, as well as the power of the people you meet to also change you. At once humble and generous, Nicholas travels the world and takes us along with him. I'm grateful!

We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Nicholas about his book, traveling, humor, and more. Here's what he had to say...



WE:  Please tell us about your book, The Plane to Lisbon: A Travel Memoir...

NDR:  When I retired from thirty years of university-level teaching, I was in the midst of finishing my last textbook (Innovation and Change in the Human Services, Second Edition.  Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 2002).  It took another year after retirement to finish the manuscript and when I was done, I began to look around for another writing project.  I realized one day that I had a file box full of travel journals going back almost thirty-five years, and a number of scrapbooks and photo albums which also chronicled my trips. It occurred to me that they might provide material for a book, but I had no interest in writing a travel guide because I felt that as useful as such volumes are (and I have used them many times over the years), travelers did not need another author telling them to be sure to see the Eiffel Tower when they went to Paris, or Big Ben in London.  Because I had worked with people all my life -- in social work, health care and teaching, I realized when reviewing my journals that I had the basic material for an honest travel memoir at  hand – a book that would relate how my attitudes, feelings, and life in general were affected by the places I visited, people I met.  And so I set out to write that kind of book -- and happily, the readers’ reviews on appear to indicate I achieved my goal.  I devoted the first chapter of the book to an explanation of how I was seized as a young child by the urge to travel -- a desire precipitated by spending hours at the movies and being fascinated by films set in exotic locations. It was only many years later, when I took film courses in college, that I realized most of those films had been shot on sound stages and studio back lots in Hollywood, rather than on location.  The specific moment when I realized the impact of film upon my chronic wanderlust is detailed at the beginning of my book, and both the title of the book and the artwork on the cover are a clue to the very famous classic film I was viewing when I had that epiphany.



WE:  Are first impressions of travels abroad (places, meals, markets) often lasting ones?

NDR:  If one is to accept the argument Malcolm Gladwell makes in his current bestseller, Blink, one would likely assume that.  However, as a lifelong academic, it is alien to my nature to make quick judgments.  People I know who operate on that level can get quite annoyed with me in social situations because of the time I spend analyzing a situation rather than make a rash judgment.  Many look for simplistic answers to complicated questions in this world and I, for one, can’t reduce a whole society, country, citizenry to a thumbnail sketch in a few words. Related to this is the fact that the most-frequent question I am asked is: What is your favorite country? My response is, “I can’t answer that.”  I then go on to explain that I don’t compare countries.  I accept each one as a discrete entity and try to evaluate it for itself – looking at both the positive and negative experiences I have had there, based on my own admittedly-biased perspective. I liken the process to having several children and not comparing them, but letting each one grow and develop with whatever strengths and weaknesses he or she might have.  As a result, all the places I have visited are “favorites” on some level or another.  I usually add at this point in my answer that I am willing to identify the countries in which I have traveled the most – England and Italy, because I suspect my frequent trips to those nations have much to do with the amount of time devoted to their histories in school, college, films and books while I was growing up – whetting my appetite to experience them directly.  As a result, The Plane to Lisbon has a fair amount of material on my trips to those locations (ironically, despite the title of my book, only 2 pages of 320 deal with an incident that happened in Lisbon).



WE:  You often use humor to diffuse cultural or group tensions.  Can you share a story or two about that?

NDR:  In my personal life, I use humor all the time – it is part of my nature, likely due to my late father who was a very witty individual, and as a result, my brother and I share his approach to humor. Rather than give specific examples, which I’d prefer readers to encounter in the book, let me explain why I think humor is vital when traveling in foreign cultures or with diverse groups: because it is universal.  Nothing will say “I want to be your friend” or “I come in peace” faster than a smile, in every nation and place I’ve visited. I currently live in an apartment complex with a very ethnically-mixed tenant population from all over the world because of the kinds of educational, commercial and scientific establishments in my South Florida community.  My foreign-born neighbors readily respond to a smile when I encounter them as we exercise by walking around the lake in our complex – even on the first encounter after they move in. And the same is true abroad.  Good manners, a respectful nod, smiles, and making polite gestures can open all kinds of doors. And the universality of humor is a good starting point for putting oneself in a frame of mind to recognize the other universals evident in travel – namely that everyone wants a peaceful life, a comfortable and safe life, and a life for their children that will be better than what they had.  It’s true we often take different routes to those goals, but the goals are the same.  That is probably one of the most important things I’ve learned in my travels.



WE:  How have your travels and experiences abroad influenced the course of your life?

NDR:  They have influenced me mostly in the political arena.  I have little patience with jingoistic knee-jerk ethnocentric nationalism after viewing up close the commonality of mankind.  As I indicated earlier, everyone basically wants the same fundamental things out of our all-too-short existence on this planet.  They have also enriched my life – I remain entranced by the natural and man-made wonders of the world, and the ever-fascinating variations among individuals. I have also been able to learn life-lessons, which sometimes don’t become obvious until years later.  There is a chapter in my book entitled Oxbridge Days, which details several short summer vacation courses I took at Oxford and Cambridge and as a result of my experience of living and studying in those hallowed halls, I made a life-changing decision years later.  And it is a decision I have never regretted.



WE:  Is travel a true equalizer, in that all travelers are new to something?

NDR:  Only if one is willing to “go with the flow”.  In other words, I have traveled in groups where some of the members complain constantly about how “different” the food, customs, manners, and sleeping accommodations are, compared to “back home”.  Such persons would be happier staying at home.  They are not receptive to what travel has to offer them. By accepting that one is a stranger in a strange land, and allowing oneself to become part of that new world, one opens oneself to new experiences and ideas – and maybe even new friends.  For me, that has been one of the great advantages of a life well-traveled -- as opposed to knowing nothing of the world beyond one’s neighborhood block (and I do know people who have lived their lives in that manner, and their conversations are far from scintillating).  You can recognize the traveler who did not take advantage of the many opportunities to be “the new kid on the block” during his/her travels: he/she will mostly complain about the various aspects of the trip upon arrival back home, repeatedly telling one “it’s not like here”, and further giving evidence of having learned nothing of consequence from the experience – except that they would probably be happier conserving their money and sitting in their own back yards the rest of their lives.    I personally think that is a tragic attitude toward life and all it has to offer, but everyone is free to make that choice.



WE:  Where are you headed next?

NDR:  Actually, I still haven’t fully unpacked from my most recent trip – I attended the annual Fiesta in San Antonio.  It was my first trip to that fair city and I marveled at the incredibly successful urban redevelopment they achieved with the Riverwalk concept.  In addition to all the cultural, historic, artistic and culinary pleasures of the city and its Fiesta, we also spent a day in the Texas Hill Country of LBJ and Ladybird Johnson, which was glorious in terms of scenery, history and friendly people.  A decade or so ago, I realized I had concentrated so much on foreign travel over the years that I had seen relatively little of the vast Untied States of America. And so I vowed to take at least one domestic trip each year, and this year it was to San Antonio. My next trip will likely be in the Fall, but because I have medical issues to deal with each summer, I won’t plan it this far in advance. However, I am considering locations both in Central America and Canada at this time.



WE:  Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

NDR:  One final thought: there is a chapter toward the end of my book entitled, GO NOW! -- which lists reasons for not putting off travel as long as one still has the good health, time and funds to do it.  I can’t argue the point any more clearly than I have there and offer those pages to be read by the curious, hearty, life-loving wandering educators of the world!



WE: Thanks so very much, Nicholas. I have truly enjoyed reading your book - and am happy to recommend and share it with our readers!


For more information, and to purchase The Plane to Lisbon, please see:

Inkwater Books  - The Plane to Lisbon