Pleasure by the Busload

Emily Kimbrough

Read April-May 2007

It may be difficult for contemporaries to imagine travel before the its democratization in the late 1970s. It may also be difficult for contemporaries to imagine travel with Zelda. This time-capsule of a book will deliver both experiences in one package (though this Zelda is a bit aged, Kimbrough being a grandmother at the time of writing), with some humor (sometimes inadvertent) and a distinct yet subtle intelligence. Perhaps for reasons of cost the book uses line-drawings instead of photographs, but these actually heighten the reading experience. (However, the drawing of the tower of Belém (p. 22–23) is wrong, or at least not contemporary: the tower was once surrounded by water but is now essentially at the edge of the river, so it couldn't have boats on either side of it.)

Amusingly, even in that era of plush travel, Kimbrough prefers ship to air. Curiously she does not appear to have suffered any jet-lag at all, which makes me wish I could see her flight schedule; this is all the more surprising given that she essentially drugs herself to sleep on the flight with alcohol. Her account of toting 200 lbs of luggage is enough to frighten the hardiest of today's travelers. Consistent with that, the hotel she stayed at in Coimbra (the Astoria) is the same one we used; excellent as it was, its sense of faded grandeur suggests it must have been at the top of the charts in Kimbrough's time. She has a fine eye for architecture (perhaps even some training in it), and her praise for the garth and cloisters of the Jerónimos monastery are pitch-perfect. The understated humor is once even bawrdy, when narrating a companion's exclamation (p. 169) of the Portuguese word for a knife; but once is definitely many more times than one would expect from a managing editor for Ladies Home Journal. And just in case the reader wonders about the, uh, dictatorship in force in 1961, Kimbrough delicately dismisses of this with a Foreword that is a classic of understatement, surely one of the very best one-page send-ups of the mighty.

Despite these highlights, this would not today be considered great travel writing. Kimbrough has a good eye but demonstrates little depth: her observations tend to be limited to finding the Portuguese fast eaters; the womenfolk well-poised; noting the distinctive clothing of Coimbra students (p. 232), a phenomenon we found hasn't changed; or the portage of live animals—chickens, in this case—on buses (p. 184), yet more ways in which Portugal resembles the poorer world less than it does Europe. The author and her companions manage to “see” the Estoril in a mere hour. And finally, what may have been humorous in its time—the repeated quotation of her friend Gina, who combines a domineering personality with a certain cluelessness about practicalities, and delivers all this in broken English—is merely irritating today.

Ultimately, my sole reason for reading this book was as a comparative study, and perhaps its most startling aspect is how little Portugal has changed since the early 1960s. Tourism had not then flooded Portugal, and relatively speaking it hasn't now either, save for the Algarve. Comparing then with now confirms the sense Portugal conveys of being stuck in time: this book could equally well be read as an account of a recent trip. (In other ways, though, perhaps Portugal has regressed: Kimbrough notes a “determination to learn English” (p. 262) that does not seem to have sustained itself.) Fortunately, it is perfectly readable in the process.