From bicycling across Burma, to shopping for donkeys in the Libyan Desert, to being drugged and robbed in Istanbul, to traversing Israel on foot... Rolf has had his fair share of epic adventures and has dedicated most of his life to writing about experiences that communicate the glorious complexity and possibility of being alive. In his books, Rolf shares the spirit and philosophy of independent travel. Through the wonderfully voyeuristic "Marco Polo Didn't Go There" and the Zeitgeist defining "Vagabonding", Rolf has inspired an entire generation (including us) to go out and see the world.
Rolf is one of the most thoughtful and eloquent writers of our generation, and we are honoured to have him here on the Latitude Series. In between his travelling stints, Rolf is also a lecturer at Yale University, and conducts writing workshops at the Paris American Academy.
We enjoyed chatting with Rolf about the flâneurs of Paris and his various vagabonding adventures! Later on in the interview you can also peruse the typographic poster we have created - inspired by Rolf's penchant for Walt Whitman's rousing poetry.
Hi Rolf. Wow, we’re thrilled to include you on our Latitude Series, so let’s get the ball rolling. You once confessed that after visiting places like Bangkok and Beijing (and Athens, and Jerusalem, and Damascus and Bombay), you were concerned that Paris might feel dull in comparison. Yet you now consider it to be the most beautiful city in the world. What was it about Paris that proved you so gloriously mistaken and captured your imagination, and was it a relationship that grew over time?
I think this was a classic case of misplaced expectations. This is something that happens to travelers time and again -- and in fact one of the core challenges of travel is reconciling your expectations with what you really experience (and what is possible to experience) at a given place. I grew up with the impression that Paris was supposed to be this amazing, beautiful city, and I think there was a point at which I expected its reality to be less than its reputation. Unlike most American travelers, I didn't begin my overseas travel career in Europe; instead I wandered (and lived in) Asia for three years before I crossed into Europe from the east, over the Ural Mountains. And even then I spent most of my time hitching around the eastern part of the continent; it was three more years until I'd made it west of Venice. By this time I was smitten by the splendor of big, chaotic eastern cities like Cairo and Bangkok and Varanasi. I expected Paris to be quaint and clean and faintly dull.
This was an anti-expectation -- a reaction to prescribed notions of Paris -- but it was still an expectation that, in the end, needed to be overturned. One day of walking through the city into the late July evening and I was in love with Paris. It was a city that matched its grand reputation for beauty, but in a quiet and unexpected and completely accessible way. It really is a city that needs to be experienced at a walking, wandering pace, and that is how I've deepened by relationship with the city over the years. I've walked hundreds of miles inside the city, rarely the same route twice. I always stay in an apartment at the edge of the 5th arrondissement, and I'm amazed by how I can stumble upon new things, even in my own corner of the city. I've always enjoyed the city as a flâneur, as a naïvist without a map, and I hope to continue to do so for years to come.