Q&A with Gary Lee Kraut, An American Writer in Paris
Gary Lee Kraut is an American writer and travel specialist who has lived in Paris since 1988: he is the author of five travel guides, as well as numerous articles, essays, short stories, and op-ed pieces concerning travel, culture, cross-culture, and expatriate life. He is also the founder and editor of an award-winning online magazine, France Revisited. He has lectured extensively in the United States and France, has won numerous awards for his writing, and in 2012 became the first foreign journalist to be elected to the board of the Association des Journalistes du Patrimoine, France’s Heritage Journalists Association. In addition to his work as a writer, Gary creates and leads customized tours of Paris and various other parts of France. I first got to know Gary when he published a profile I wrote of the American poet James A. Emanuel on the occasion of his 90th birthday. I am very pleased that he recently took the time to answer my questions about his work as a writer, editor, and travel guide via e-mail.
JH: When and why did you first come to France? And why did you decide to stay here?
GLK: I traveled in France several times in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1988 I left my job as a cub reporter for weekly newspapers in suburban New York City for a prolonged stay in Paris. I was visiting my sister, who was on a work assignment here. After she left I stayed “a bit” longer and soon learned that an American publisher was looking to create a guidebook to France. I sent a proposal, got the contract, and one thing led to the next as I made Paris my home base and became a writer and journalist specialized on travel, touring, and culture in France.
JH: You’re a writer, journalist and editor on the one hand, and a travel consultant and guide on the other. You also give lectures when in the U.S. and teach various forms of writing in France. How do all these different activities fit together? And what do you like best about each of these quite different types of roles–some rather solitary, the others by definition social?
GLK: I’ve been writing about France for more than 25 years now, and I’ve been working directly with tourists and consulting for top-notch travel agencies for about half of that time. It may seem that I wear many different hats, something that the French system and the French themselves find unusual and confusing, even disturbing, but in fact all of my work fits comfortably for me under the umbrella of an expertise about France.
I’d guess that about two-thirds of my work time is devoted to researching, writing, and editing and one-third is devoted to the rest, though the research time also serves the rest. But I don’t actually put my time onto a spreadsheet because it all works together for me; each activity feeds the others. Tour clients trust my expertise and my approach because they read my articles. I learn much about writing and the nature of travel itself by speaking with tour clients. And getting specific requests from tour clients inspires me to do more research, which may then evolve into an article or a lecture. So it’s all part of a whole.
What I like best about solitary pursuits in general is that they’re solitary, and what I like best about social pursuits is that they’re social.
JH: As a writer, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to have published several articles in France Revisited. They happen to be among the articles I am most proud of having published. Can you tell us a little bit about this publication? How and when did it begin, and what does it offer readers?
GLK: France Revisited is a web magazine exploring and examining travel, tourism, and life in France. It was created in 2009, and it evolved from the site Paris Revisited, which was originally a companion site to my 2003 guidebook “Paris Revisited: The Guide for the Return Traveler.”
It’s the only web magazine I know of that approaches people, places, things, and events in France through such a wide variety of forms: travel narrative, interview, road-trip, review, round-up, commentary, photo-log, vignette, video, poetry. The reason for that variety is that France Revisited’s mission is to offer readers the opportunity to approach France not as mere consumers, which is what most travel publications about Paris or France do, but as curious travelers, and armchair travelers.
I write about 60% of the material. The other 40% comes from contributing writers. As editor I look for contributors who are passionate about their subject and able to write informatively and beyond the clichés. That might explain why you’re proud—and rightfully so—of your articles published on the site. For my part I’m proud of taking part in the development of such quality work and knowing that there’s an audience for it.
JH: I’m curious about your walking tours of Paris, which help visitors “explore the will-loves rather than the must-sees.” Can you tell us what you mean by this?
GLK: Visitors naturally come to Paris with a list of things that they want to see and do and even eat and drink. They would feel remiss or disappointed if they missed out on something on their list. Many visitors arrive with lists that are far too long.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from living their must-see dreams. But to follow nothing but a pre-trip must-see list is to fail to take advantage of the great opportunity you’ve given yourself by traveling to Paris in the first place: the opportunity to also follow your nose and your curiosity, to meet people, to have courage, to question or understand your place in the world, to take pleasure in the company of your spouse or friends or family, to personally connect with something or someone. The most rewarding moment when traveling is finding your interest unexpectedly sparked by a sight, an encounter, a period of history, a glimpse of culture or a taste of something, and somehow connecting with it. And, when traveling with a spouse, family or friends, sharing that moment with them.
My tours help people find that magic. By keeping lists short and itineraries flexible and, above all, by staying attuned to my clients’ interests and sense of enjoyment–and sometimes the family dynamic–I’m able to lead them not only to the must-sees on their list but to the people, places, tastes, and experiences where they’ll find those sparks and those personal connections. That’s when and where they find their “will-loves,” whether these are also “must-sees,” “must-dos,” “must-eats,” or not.
JH: What is your favorite tour outside of Paris?
GLK: I don’t have favorite tours. I have favorite clients, many of them. My favorite clients are curious travelers. Their level of knowledge about art or history or architecture or culture or gastronomy or France before they arrive doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that they’re curious enough about their surroundings to want to engage. I also like it when they have a good sense of humor.
JH: Do you have anything to say, particularly to Americans, about why they should be sure to see some parts of France other than Paris?
GLK: I don’t have one list for my American clients and another for my Canadian clients and yet another for my Mexican clients. The nature of my work is not to “sell” a destination or to create one-size-fits-all itineraries, but rather to be attuned to clients’ interests so that I can provide personalized advice, and allow them to feel that we’re following their interests rather than my itinerary.
Having said that, I’ve written about and given many lectures about war touring, so I frequently receive questions and requests from Americans wishing to visit the American D-Day landing zones in Normandy. Even then I try to impress upon my clients the interest of exploring beyond sights and battles associated with Americans. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of that portion of Normandy is the opportunity for travelers to gain insights into the relationship that other nationalities and the French themselves have with the war and the war sights. There is also a small but growing number of Americans interested in visiting WWI sights. For that I like to take people to the area around Chateau-Thierry because a unique day trip can be created that includes American war sights and a visit to champagne producers in the area.
JH: What is one of the most rewarding experiences you have had leading tours? What was one of the most challenging?
GLK: The most challenging and the most rewarding are intergenerational groups, whether two generations or three. Parents with minor children or adults and their adult children is already fascinating and challenging. I especially love working with the dynamic of a grandparent taking his or her teenage or young adult grandchildren overseas. But the most challenging and therefore the most rewarding is working with three generations: grandparents, parents, children. Each family is different, so there’s no single “trick” to making such a tour work. But if I have any talent as a guide and organizer it’s the ability to get individuals with diverse interests and temperaments engaged in something together, if only for a brief period. I may just be the facilitator, but when I see it, the joy of the unified family is something beautiful to behold, as all parents know. It can happen during a chocolate tasting that I’ve hastily arranged when I sense that everyone’s energy has dropped, or on a trip to a war cemetery that the family thought was only for dad and grandpa, or during game of pétanque in a historic garden at the end of a touring day. I mention the pétanque because that was especially rewarding to me, considering that I’d been lugging around a set of heavy metal balls all day in the hope that we would find the occasion to use them.
JH: I am also intrigued by your phrase “travel therapy.” What do you mean by that, and how does it relate to the tours you give?
GLK: Travel therapy is precisely what I was just speaking about, though it needn’t necessarily refer to families.
I’ll explain: If therapy is intended to make you a healthier version of yourself, and if the therapeutic process enables one to share feelings and experiences, then it’s got much in common with those wonderful moments when you feel joyfully in tune with the place and the people you’re with, or simply with yourself–and perhaps your guide.
That joyful moment may last an hour or for days; it may be transformative in the long run or simply lead you to want to take a picture to capture the moment, or to take the hand of the person you’re traveling with. In any case, that travel moment is a form of enlightenment or self-awareness. That may sound theoretical, and I use the term “travel therapy” slightly tongue in cheek since I’m not a psychotherapist. But think about it: what could be healthier, more meaningful and more potentially transformative when traveling abroad than for a woman and her 13-year-old daughter to find a shared interest in Monet’s Water Lilies? Or to return to the hotel after a day of touring and want to make passionate love to your wife? Or to realize that that despite your reluctance you’re ever so glad to have traveled to France with your 85-year-old parent? Or simply to sense that in this place and time you are happy?
JH: One of my favorite quotes about travel is by Jack Kerouac, who wrote in his book “Satori in Paris” that “No matter how ‘successful’ your tour, or how foreshortened, you always learn something and learn to change your thoughts…” Kerouac said this in the context of a trip that was not going all that well. What is the best way for travelers to deal with disappointment, or travel plans gone awry? And how often does that happen?
GLK: Disappointment implies having expectations. “Plans gone awry” implies having plans. So the obvious way to avoid disappointment and plans going awry is to expect minimally and plan less. If someone tells you that they spent a week in France and their trip was just as they planned and exactly as they expected, I think you should avoid traveling with that person like the plague. You deserve a few insights, surprises and laughs on your route.
As long as you stay healthy and safe and have no need to go to a police station or a hospital, the only true disappointment you’ll encounter would come from your realization that you’re a bad traveler, or that you don’t like your travel companion–and even the latter isn’t too bad unless that travel companion is also your spouse.
Of course, things may not always be to your liking: your hotel may be less appealing than you’d imagined, the food not as good, the guide boring, the weather unexpectedly cold or rainy, the museum closed due to a strike, the car broken down. You didn’t plan for that, you didn’t expect that. I’ve had great evenings in bad restaurants; I got into biking because of a metro strike; I was inspired to write an essay when stuck on a delayed train; I made a friend when we were both standing under an awning during a downpour. If you think of it as a test of your mettle and laugh about if possible, mishap and misadventure can become integral aspects of travel that can lead to great rewards.
JH: How often do you get back to the States? What do you miss about living there (if anything), and what do you love being able to do when you’re back there?
GLK: I return to the States two or three times a year. I have four major activities when I’m there: I visit family and friends; I give lectures at universities, libraries and Alliances Françaises; I meet with clients and potential clients; I travel to places I don’t know. I enjoy tremendously the time I spend in the U.S. But if I were to start missing living there I’d never be able to enjoy my life in France, which I do very much.
JH: What would you say to Americans who are hesitant to travel to France currently, because of events in 2015?
GLK: I would say…
- Read this: http://francerevisited.com/2015/11/to-those-reconsidering-coming-to-paris/
- If you feel a bout of Francophilia coming on, then contact me for travel therapy
- Be curious, and enjoy wherever you may go.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing, and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers Writing from the Heart workshops several times a year in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.