I have to admit that when I first picked up Doug Mack’s book, I worried that it might be just another pop travel manifesto, more invested in “American wit” than in cultural immersion and completely unself-aware regarding its own assumptions.
Fortunately, Mack colors Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day with his own skepticism regarding this kind of hip “wanderlust,” which he admits that he inherited honestly by way of his parents. A warm anecdote reveals how his European trip connects the vintage guide book that is the other protagonist of this story— Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day—back to Mack’s own mother, who plumbed its pages earnestly back in 1967 on her own European jaunt. In fact, even when we first meet Mack, he is plucking the book from a street sale table, thinking it should sit ironically on his coffee table. He even chuckles as he shows it to his mother, which unexpectedly propels her into a fit of genuine nostalgic joy.
In our interview, he tells me,
“When I first started looking through my old guidebook and my mom’s letters from her own trip in the ’60s, I was intrigued by how European travel had changed in the last generation, and I wanted to tell that story, to explain how the beaten path got so beaten.”
Mack explains that he uses the gimmick of this old travel book as a sincere response to exploring the social history of the youth culture and American-European tourism.
The book delivers on this promise of approaching new travel narratives through the lens of the outdated Frommer method. Mack goes so far as to do some historical grounding of the British tradition of the Grand Tour and American political motives for sending young people abroad. Frommer’s book is also contextualized so that Mack’s readers will understand that tidbits like “’Amsterdam is a swinging town’” and “[In Berlin] ‘there’s a…drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die mood’” come from a man whose ambitious series was a true emblem of mid-century democratic capitalism.
In fact, one of the funniest disparities between Mack’s Europe and that of Arthur Frommer is the city of Berlin, which Frommer encourages travelers to explore freely but with caution. Frommer advises Americans at the Berlin Wall to “’register your name with the American MPs at Checkpoint Charlie, tell them the time at which you plan to return, and if you’re not there at that time, they’ll take action.’” Mack reflects,
“I looked over at the American soldier manning the re-created station now for our touristic benefit. He was munching a candy bar, holding an American flag, and casting a surly look at passersby.”
While most of the humor of Mack’s journey is built into shadowing Frommer in this way, there are tranquil moments as well, such as when Mack conjures Frommer himself to share a beer in Munich’s oldest beer gardens—“it seems like his kind of place: plenty of people, barrels of beer.”
When I ask Doug Mack what advice his guide book might offer to travelers, he, like Frommer, kept it simple: get lost, people-watch, and write postcards.