Unlike my luckier friends and colleagues, I’ve had no opportunity to indulge in travel this summer. Consequently, I’ve been feeling pretty burned out lately, weary of the Missouri heat and humidity, and more than a little envious of people’s vacation photos and stories on Facebook. Then, last week I read my way through a handful of books by illustrator and writer Lucy Knisley and found myself transported.
This charming graphic novel, peppered with actual photographs, details Knisley and her mother’s sojourn in Paris. Using their rented apartment as a home base, the duo indulge in leisurely sight-seeing, tasty French food and vintage flea-market shopping. Imagine six weeks of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to enjoy buskers as you stroll the streets of Paris, exploring the exquisite grounds of Versailles or taking in priceless works of art in the city’s many museums.
Food plays a starring role in this French adventure. Mother and daughter linger in cafes for meals of French onion soup, oysters and wine, or throw together simple yet tasty repasts of croissants, cheese and pickles. Knisley becomes obsessed with decadent hot chocolate and can’t seem to stop drinking the rich, creamy French milk – hence the book’s title. When their time in Paris comes to an end, she loads up on good mustard and condensed milk, both sold in tubes, and cans of foie gras to tote home. (As someone who hoards Kinder Bueno candy bars when she travels overseas, I get it.)
But “French Milk” is about much more than getting to know a foreign city. It’s about the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the uncertainty Knisley faces as she nears the end of her college career and must officially enter adulthood.
An Age of License: A Travelogue
“Some trips are more than distance traveled in miles,” Knisley writes on the first page of “An Age of License.” “Sometimes travel can show us how our life is … or give us a glimpse of how it can be …”
Reeling from a break-up, Knisley fortuitously finds opportunities to travel – a comics convention in Norway; a side trip to Sweden to visit a new lover; a stopover in Berlin to congratulate newlywed friends; and a return to France to see her vacationing mother.
As she hopscotches across Europe, Knisley maintains a leisurely, spontaneous pace, truly exploring her surroundings, from local French wineries to relics from Cold War Berlin. “An Age of License” is a joyful experience as Knisley luxuriates in the freedom that travel, youth and her unattached status bring.
Curious about the title? In France, the author encounters an American who claims that “the French have a saying for the time when people are young and experimenting with their lives and careers. They call it: l’age license. As in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do … whatever, before you’re settled.”
Displacement: A Travelogue
Although “Displacement” is a travelogue like “An Age of License,” it’s a much more poignant one. The book depicts a trip that Knisley takes with her aging grandparents, when she accompanies them on a Caribbean cruise as their caregiver. The journey becomes an exercise in patience and compassion, as well as in coming to terms with her elders’ mortality.
The cruise is no vacation for Knisley, as she deals with everything from her grandmother’s dementia to her grandfather’s incontinence, and all the resulting complications. She dispenses medications, seeks out lost items, and spends nights laundering her grandfather’s pants. There is little time for shore excursions or walks on the beach.
Interspersed with the daily travel diary are excerpts from a memoir that Knisley’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, wrote about his war-time experiences. Every night she reads further, seeing her now-frail grandfather in a new light. The contrast between his older and younger self is bittersweet.
On a side note, the sometimes unpleasant realities of cruise vacation that Knisley highlights are spot-on: goofy entertainment, rude passengers, the constant cleaning and sanitizing to avoid the spread of norovirus, a gastro-intestinal illness. As a veteran passenger, I can admit that, while fun, cruises do have elements of the absurd.
So if you haven’t been able to travel this summer, don’t despair. Journeys – of a sort – await you at the Joplin Public Library.