Writer’s Note: This is a Q&A piece that I did for a writing class. I figured that since I spent a good chunk of time on this and my professor helped me edit it that I should post it. If you’re an agent from ICM who is interested in hiring me, I’ll think about it because I’m too busy editing Jay Carney’s work. And I’m not vain.
As the Frugal Travel columnist for The New York Times, Seth Kugel has lost his passport a few times. He’s slept in his car in a foreign country because he couldn’t locate his hotel. He’s rented an apartment in London but later discovered that it was a scam and lost $600. I spoke to Kugel on how he managed to survive while keeping his editor happy.
TY: As a budget travel writer, sometimes you spend less than a week researching a piece on a big city. For instance, you were in Paris for one weekend on a $100 budget. How did you do it?
SK: By being stressed out. I stayed at a friend’s house and only ate one meal in a restaurant, and everything else was discounted with something. I was told that if I get to Comedie Francaise early enough, I could get tickets to see a play for 5 Euros instead of 60 Euros. I didn’t know how early to go. So, I went three hours before the play started. Before that, I went to the discounted hours at an art museum and sprinted around for half an hour, looking for clever things to write. Then, I ran across the bridge from the museum to Comedie Francaise to get the discounted play tickets.
TY: Did you make it in time?
SK: Yes. In fact, nobody was in line when I got there. So, I was there for an hour before the second person even came.
TY: You had to be the first guinea pig…
SK: Yep! It’s my job!
TY: How do you write while you’re on the run like that?
SK: I use three systems. First, I always have a tiny, durable notebook so it can sit in my pocket without falling apart. I travel anonymously so I don’t want to use reporter notebooks that are long and rectangular shaped because then people would know that I’m a reporter. Second, I also take a lot of visual notes with my camera. I take pictures of every page of a restaurant’s menu. For instance, when I can’t remember what was in my salad, I can zoom in on my photos to find the answers. Third, when I come home each night I pretend that I’m writing a story just about that day. I don’t look at my notes or my pictures. I almost just vomit my notes into my computer.
TY: Vomit! Nice! Maybe you can open an international buffet restaurant with all those photos of menu pages.
SK: Perhaps! But, my photos helped me when my editors want details and sometimes I can’t remember them. One time I wrote that a famous tea shop in London was “beautiful.” But my editor said I had to describe it. There was no way I could remember what the store was like since I had been there two months prior. So I looked back at my photos to find the shop and described it as having chandeliers hanging all over and rock wrought iron banister.
TY: You have traveled to numerous countries. How is the United States different from them?
SK: In the States, I always hear people screaming and being rude. For instance, I had gone to Brazil for a month and just came back to the States. The second day, I walked into a McDonald’s to get a drink. I stepped to the front of the line and someone turned to me and sarcastically screamed, “Oh! Is that what you ALWAYS do, you ALWAYS just cut in front of people?”
TY: We can really be that rude huh…
SK: I seriously got off the plane a day before and this was the attitude that I was faced with. So I told him “I just got back from Brazil, people don’t talk like this. I’m sorry I cut in front of you. Whatever. But you shouldn’t have yelled in public.”