Troubles in travel writing (feat. the Netherlands)

We (my partner, myself, and four of our friends) flew to the Netherlands for a short winter break at the start of December, and spent four days traipsing across one of the most incredible cities in Europe. As always, I wish I’d taken more photographs, but even so I’m not sure I could have accurately captured Amsterdam in its true gloom and beauty.

I’d like to be better at travel writing, and learn to translate a city into words in a way that doesn’t just reel off a list of hotspots and recommendations. That part is always the easiest. I could write about the ease of eating as a vegetarian, with our multiple stops at Bagel and Beans and the Foodhallen in Oud-Wes. Burning our lips on the stupid delicious Belgian fries at Mannekin Frites, the six of us huddled together in a doorway to take shelter from the rain. Devouring vegan dutch pancakes at The Happy Pig in the Red Light District.

Walking solemnly past the Anne Frank house, pausing for a quick look but continuing on our way because we weren’t organised enough to book tickets weeks in advance. Touring the Van Gogh Museum, consumed by a brilliant and sad life.

Cyclists, everywhere.

The double-decker train to The Hague; the walk from the station to Mauritshuis in pursuit of Fabritius’ (and Tartt’s) goldfinch. The stormy blues and gold flecks of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The rooms themselves - windows framed in deep mahogany, with shades of blue and olive green papered across the walls.

My literary companion of choice wasThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, so the flight and in-between parts of the trip were spent weaving through the canal-side passages of seventeenth century Amsterdam. The terrains of fiction became layers on top of my own experiences of the city. What I discovered was that good literature could capture a more pigmented, textured feeling of a place than any TripAdvisor listicle or city guide. It’s a different kind of accuracy - of sensation, of emotion, riddled with truths that align the text with verifiable geography.

Good travel writing can and should do just this, serving memory and communication in equal measure. It should give your reader the opportunity to recall and reflect on something they haven’t experienced, but feel as though they have.

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Jan Morris was asked why she is hesitant towards being called a travel writer. Her response? "I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual."

I remember the colours of Dutch paintings and the sweet, crisp December air far more clearly than the number of tram stops between the Rijksmuseum and our hotel. These are the things you can’t quite research, and won’t fully understand until you arrive. 

But good writing (fiction and non-fiction, equally) can offer a window into experience. And the view through a window is plenty - certainly enough for your imagination to run amok on undiscovered ground.

'Accuracy' and 'truth' are not necessarily synonymous with one other. Perhaps it is possible to communicate stronger and brighter truths if you are less bothered with trivial accuracies.