Former New York Times columnist settles down to write a travel memoir
By Angela Barbuti
You know you’re a frugal traveler if you’ve eaten fried spiders in Cambodia, slept in a Roman convent, and booked a flight with Ryan Air. Matt Gross has done all of the above while penning the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times from 2006-2010. Now, the man who arguably had “the best job in the world,” is sharing his over 30 years of travel in one book, The Turk Who Loved Apples. At the moment, his longest journey is from the Times Square office of Bon Appetit, where he serves as their web editor, to the Brooklyn home he shares with his wife and two children. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. When asked about his future plans, he said, “Right now, I have a great job, two kids, and a wife to see all the time. Most people want to be on vacation forever. That’s what it feels like right now.”
How did you organize 30 years of travel into one book?
[Laughs] That was the tricky part. I have very broad experiences of travel, but not necessarily very deep. That is, I’ve been lots of places, but never anywhere for more than about two weeks at a time. And I had to figure out some kind of way to tie everything together. I looked at everything I’d done and everything I’d been through and decided that crappy travel [laughs] was the organizing principle. A lot of getting sick, getting lost, being alone, scared, poor and naïve. I started out very innocent to the world and wound up capable of getting dropped off anywhere and getting along.
At the start of your book, you make a bold statement, telling readers that this is the last travel book they will ever need.
Yeah, I would hope so. [Laughs] I like the idea that if someone like me can become a fairly independent traveler and learn to break free of the guide books and the newspaper and magazine articles that tell you how to travel, then anybody should be able to do it. It’s a very personal book, but if it has an effect, I would love for it to give travelers the confidence to do things on their own.
In your book, you mention websites like couchsurfing.com and chowhound.com. In your opinion, what is the best travel site?
Roadsandkingdoms.com is fantastic. It’s full of the quirky and fascinating moments that mean something to travelers. I read it and it makes me want to go places.
At one point, you were spending three to six months a year away from your wife. How does she cope with that?
Pretty well. [Laughs] When I met her, we dated for six weeks and then she moved to France for a year. That sort of set up the pattern of our relationship from the very beginning – that we were going to be together and apart all the time. We don’t have the energy to get worked up about issues like that, so we just deal with it. It makes it so that every time you’re together it’s either a happy reunion or you want to make the most of it because you’re going to be going away again.
Last August, after I finished writing the book, I was about to have a second child and realized that it was no longer fair to my wife or me to wonder off for a couple of weeks at a time and leave her in charge of the kids. And I wasn’t making all that much money doing what I was doing. I sent an email out to everyone saying I was looking. Six weeks later I got an email back from a friend in Portland, Oregon, who had put on a big food event with Bon Appetit, saying they were looking for an editor.
Most would be surprised to learn that you were a freelancer when you worked at the Times.
All freelance. You’d have to ask them why that is. [Laughs] But there was never held out the possibility that I’d become a staffer. My last big story, “Lost in Jerusalem,” came out for them in January of 2012. Then I sort of hunkered down to write the book and stopped traveling as much. That’s how most of their travel writers are. From an economic perspective, it makes sense. Travel stories take a lot of time to research and cost a lot of money to produce. And you can’t get that many big stories out of a person per year.
As the Frugal Traveler, you spent 100 dollars per day.
Long summer trips I would try to keep below 100 dollars a day. A hundred dollars a day was my cap, and I would try to shoot for as far under that as I could. Some people would get mad because I said 100 dollars a day and say, “That’s not frugal!”
You got that comment a lot, that you weren’t frugal enough.
Oh, yeah. People would say that all the time. It just depends on your perspective. Some people see “frugal,” and think that’s supposed to mean you’re backpacking and sleeping in a tent and buying loaves of cheap white bread at the supermarket. But then there are people who are on the other side who think that the kind of travel I was doing was hopelessly impoverished. [Laughs] “How can anyone even find a place to sleep for under 300 dollars a night?”
One interesting story you did involved traveling to Tokyo to write about Ramen. What’s one of your favorite articles?
Oh yeah, that was a great story. A lot of the food stuff I did for the Times was good. I did a story with the headline, “Mangia, Mangia!” about eating in Abruzzo with this program called Home Food, which brings you into regular families’ dining rooms. That was amazing.
Where is one place you still haven’t visited that you’d like to someday?
Hmmm. I’d really like to go to New Zealand, but not for any really specific reason. I just think I would like it a lot there. [Laughs]
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