Born in Dayton, Ohio, Melissa Rossi’s first words were, “Get me outta here!” She’s been moving around since she was 17 — living in Seattle, Portland and assorted other parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as in New York, Vermont, and Florida (let’s not talk about Iowa and Kentucky). After writing a book about Courtney Love (Courtney Love: Queen of Noise), which Courtney didn’t like, Rossi decided to become a world traveler, and has visited most European countries. She has also lived in assorted parts of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Fluent in “Spitalnishsian” — an Italian, Spanish blend with a dash of Russian thrown in — Rossi has written for such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Newsweek, MSNBC and George, and is the author of What Every American Should Know about the Rest of the World (Plume/Penguin, 2003). A chronic sufferer of “Urban Deficit Disorder” — she can’t focus on one city for long — Rossi probably will never settle down long enough to call one place her home.
How did you get started traveling?
Although my parents forced me to grow up in Ohio — every night over dinner, I suggested a new exotic destination to move to, which they ignored — they were great about taking us on vacations. I’d been all over the US by the time I was eight. They were especially fond of resorts in the woods or the mountains, including one in Indiana with the racy name of French Lick. My parents loved to drive at night and would throw my sister and I into the back seat when we were sleeping and roar off. My Dad whiled away the hours by singing on road trips, but he only knew two lines from one song: “Hallelujah I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again.” Then he’d start again from the top. He was compelled to stop at every fruit stand we passed, so during the day, it was a slow-motion process traveling even thirty miles. Seems like it took days for us to cross the Indiana state line.
How did you get started writing?
Like talking, writing came easily to me, so of course I thought that was boring and wanted to be an artist. Alas, I have no talent in painting, sculpting, ceramics, jewelry making, decoupage or even macrame. My college profs always raved about my papers — apparently I could make topics like “coal gasification” really come alive. Upon graduating, I was hideously depressed and was about to drive over a cliff. I had an epiphany and decided I would try being a writer first. Usually I think I made the right decision.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
When Keith Bellows at National Geographic Traveler called me. I’d been pitching ideas to him for weeks and not hearing back, so I started sending him my travel zine Wining Across Italy and I didn’t hear back about that either. I emailed him one day saying, “Well guess my ideas are boring and my clips put you to sleep, so how about at least subscribing to my wine ‘zine?” I didn’t hear back from him that day either. A few weeks later, it was one of those screaming at the universe days, with me hissing up at the heavens, “I guess I’m going to have to get a job at McDonalds, if you don’t give me a sign!” And right then, Keith Bellows called. Totally magical moment. He gave me the most amazing gig: NG Traveler sent me all over Europe — Romania, Sicily, Northern Ireland, Austria, Provence, Croatia. I wouldn’t know my destination until I was at the airport, so my pieces had a certain frenzied feel to them, which definitely reflects how I live my life.
In Romania, I called up a journalist — Marius Dragomir — and took him to dinner. He told me about life under Ceausescu, and how the Romanians were waiting for the US to save them, and we didn’t come. And how the Romanians had waited for the US to save them from Communism after World War II and we didn’t come then either. That dinner rattled my worldview, and made me thirst for more history and geopolitics. The next day Marius took me to a gypsy camp: I was expecting people who looked like Cher to be dancing around reading tarot cards and dancing to balalaikas. Instead I saw excruciating poverty: 20 people living in a room with rain dripping through a leaky roof, flies everywhere, kids sick with TB. Everything about Romania blasted open my brain — including the incredible beauty of Transylvania. And how kind most of the people were. And how many of them loved the US: they saw the United States as a cross between Superman and God, or at least they did back then.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Trying to convince people I’m not a prostitute! I actually love to travel alone (which is handy, since most of my friends are broke and/or wimps) and in some countries — Croatia comes to mind — they figure if you’re by yourself, you’re looking for “fun.” One of the first things I learn in a foreign country is how to say, “I am not a prostitute — I am a writer.” Another useful phrase is “Gee, thanks for the offer, but please go away now!” I don’t know why they regard me in that way — what harlot goes around reading the Economist, writing in her journal and wearing turtle neck sweaters and long skirts? I also am known to quote HIV rates and describe exotic diseases: that can sure kill a mood. It’s really a hassle how people just come onto you. Sometimes I wish I lived in another era when men weren’t quite so bold.
Another challenge: trying to meet the right people who will open the doors and very quickly give you a true glimpse of that place. Sometimes if you only have two or three days in a town, you only get to the first level: the waiters, the taxi drivers, the people who you meet in a restaurant or bar. If I have five days, I can meet somebody — or a few locals — who will really peel back the glossy coating, and show me something much closer to the reality. I’m pretty gutsy, but it’s hard for me to arrive in a city and that first night find a baker who will show me how to make their special centuries old kind of bread, or a castle guard who will hang out with me after hours telling me about his life. But when the clock is ticking, you’ve got to be really forward, while simultaneously being clear that you are not interested in amor.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Remembering that often readers want you to spin a fairy tale, not necessarily to tell the truth! I can be quite snippety and critical, and if I don’t think something lives up to the hype, I say it. I can’t lie about anything, except my age. It’s 84. (Ok that’s a lie). I also seem to attract shady sorts and misanthropes, which is great for reporting, but not necessarily for travel writing. You don’t want to hear about the Russian mob and the sex trade, when you’re reading a travel piece about Vienna, for instance.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
Editors and promotion I love, except when certain editors drag their feet about paying, and I am looking in the direction of Seattle as I say that. All areas of finances are definitely my weak-suit. I hate doing expenses and calculating all the exchange rates from the little bits of paper I have shoved in assorted pockets in my bag. Another problem: luggage! I need a camel caravan to lug all the clothes (I pack for all seasons) and books and magazines I carry around. I definitely cause scenes as I’m hauling stuff, looking like a hunchback, dropping my toothbrush, you’d think I’d never been out of my house before. And I always rely on the kindness of strangers, at least when it comes to those bags!
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I write about everything — everything — except sports. In Spain, I was editing for Salvador Dali’s manager. In Brussels, I wrote a statistical report about music for a 5-star hotel. I string for Newsweek. I write travel pieces for anybody. I write humor for in-flight magazines. And if that doesn’t work, I lean on the credit cards. At the moment, I am a bit of financial Argentina, even though I pulled a continuous all-nighter for most of the past year to keep up with my work.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I love everything by Jonathan Raban, including his articles in the New Yorker. Freya Stark. Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer of course. PJ O’Rourke I especially like, because like Bryson, he’s always throwing in some humor. Judith Miller’s God Has 99 Names isn’t really a travel book, but is tremendously insightful. Katherine Dunn for her style and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his. I used to review travel books for Amazon.com — now that was a great gig — and Driving Over Lemons stands out. I like those “Travelers’ Tales” collections; I like Rick Steves‘ quick-n-easy history books. There was another book about diamonds in India that I adored and one about pink dolphins in the Amazon. The horrible thing is that to lighten my load I always give away books, so I can’t recall the exact names, I just recall images those books planted in my head.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Except for National Geographic Traveler, who were great about paying promptly, almost every other writing gig has required huge expenditures on my part, and editors always say they’ll pay you in, oh, five days. Five months later, Visa is paging you from airport phones, your credit rating’s shot, you’ve hawked your heirloom jewelry, and in a few more months, maybe the check will eventually show up. It’s probably best to have a rich spouse who can help tide you over. But all the rich guys I’ve known haven’t wanted me to travel, so forget them.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
You’re always learning. And you always have an excuse to talk to strangers. You can live in a constant state of wonder and excitement. Nothing ever gets boring, you’re not eating the same food or seeing the same view or sleeping in the same bed. The hazard — besides the financial one — is that you can become addicted to travel and constant change, and find that you just can’t stop in any one place for too long. Also, all your friends are jealous and your boyfriends get mad, so it can wreck havoc on your social life, which of course is yet another reason to move on. Your dreams get wacky too: Lately, I’ve been dreaming that I’m a travel writer on assignment, covering distant planets. Well, it could happen.