What’s the back story to your book?
A few years ago, I was at a book festival in downtown Minneapolis with my mom, and we were looking at a table of secondhand books. I found one called “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” that I thought was particularly absurd and hilarious. I bought it for 10 cents, initially out of ironic hilarity, a cheap conversation piece. I showed it to my mom, who thought that I’d bought it for her because she had used that guidebook in 1957. She also mentioned that she had all the letters that she and my father had exchanged while she was on that trip. I hadn’t heard about the book or the letters before.
How did the idea of your book take shape?
At first I was interested in the personal history, but as I started to look at my mother’s letters and the book, I got really intrigued by the broader social history of tourism — how things had changed, how they hadn’t changed. I wondered if I could go back to Europe with these materials and see how far I could get.
Did you use Frommer’s book to plan your trips [two weeks in 2008 and six weeks in 2009]?
I tried to use the guidebook as much as possible. Obviously, things like the train tables are going to be out of date. I wasn’t going to take a ship across, as he recommended. I made some concessions to modernity. But for the most part, that was my primary planning manual in terms of day-to-day activities and where I was going to stay, what I was going to do and where I was going to eat. When I got lost, I would rely on serendipity to be my guide.
How did people react to the book?
I usually got looks of confusion or incredulity. But there were times when I showed the book and someone said, “Oh, I remember this.” A prime example was at the Hotel Texas in Rome. The clerk’s eyes lit up. He pulled out a brochure from that era with quotes from all kinds of publications. The quotes from “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” talked about what a magnificent, grand place this was, yet still very affordable. Now the hotel is an example of deteriorated grandeur. It’s a shadow of its former self. But the clerk was more than happy to reminisce about the past.
Could you find anything close to $5 (about $37 today)?
There was a hostel in Vienna that Frommer describes as a fourth-class category. You can read between the lines. The gist of it is: If you’re really desperate, this is the place of last resort. I stayed at that same hostel and it was still affordable. I think it was about 25 euros [about $31] a day. The conditions were about the same, too. It was sort of miserable.