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Geraldine DeRuiter is the latter. But she won’t let that stop her.
Hilarious, irreverent, and heartfelt, All Over the Place chronicles the years Geraldine spent traveling the world after getting laid off from a job she loved. Those years taught her a great number of things, though the ability to read a map was not one of them. She has only a vague idea of where Russia is, but she now understands her Russian father better than ever before. She learned that what she thought was her mother’s functional insanity was actually an equally incurable condition called “being Italian.” She learned what it’s like to travel the world with someone you already know and love — how that person can help you make sense of things and make far-off places feel like home. She learned about unemployment and brain tumors, lost luggage and lost opportunities, and just getting lost in countless terminals and cabs and hotel lobbies across the globe. And she learned that sometimes you can find yourself exactly where you need to be — even if you aren’t quite sure where you are.
THE PROBLEM WITH WRITING A book ostensibly about travel is that people automatically assume it falls into one of two categories:
1. It is somehow informative.
2. It involves a button-nosed protagonist nursing a broken heart who, rather than watching The Princess Bride while eating an entire five-gallon vat of ice cream directly out of the container while weeping (like a normal person), instead decides to travel the world, inevitably falling for some chiseled stranger with bulging pectoral muscles and a disdain for wearing clothing above the waist.
Let me disabuse you of each of these notions immediately.
First, this book will likely teach you very little about the places mentioned herein. Despite having spent the last half decade in the state of transient unemployment known as travel blogging, I am woefully unqualified to provide any useful information in that regard.
I cannot tell you how to find the best restaurant in Rome or where to get the best rate on plane tickets, nor can I provide any historical context for a single geographic location without wandering into the fictional and oddly perverse. (Did you know that the Washington Monument was built to subtly ridicule our first president's shockingly angular wang? I have never been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is probably for the best.)
There are plenty of travel writers and personalities who have covered all those important topics in the travel realm far better than I could (even if I were sober, and not drunk on sugar and the intoxicating power of having one's own blog, as I usually am). They even cite reputable sources beyond "the Internet" and "I think I saw it on Jeopardy one time" and "Shut up, dickface, it's totally true."
If that is what you are seeking, I recommend the work of the inimitable Rick Steves, the apotheosis of all travel writers.
Steves has made a career of helping the hapless travel the world, and his guides are useful if you actually want to know something about planning a trip or finding your way through a foreign country.
I feel that I must take a moment here to say that while I respect him for his travel prowess and will begrudgingly admit to even having benefited from it on occasion, I am automatically disdainful of people who know what they are talking about (mostly because I so rarely do). Consequently, I have described Steves as "a human turnip," "John Denver minus the sex appeal," and "a toe with glasses." (I know these are unkind things to say, and insulting someone based on their appearance is wrong. By way of explanation, I'm kind of a horrible person.) I might also be slightly jealous of his sheer popularity. Not to mention, this is a man who named his book series Europe Through the Back Door and then didn't even have the decency to make them the least bit pornographic. I just can't condone that sort of wasted opportunity.
Second, while most travel memoirs would dictate that I find love somewhere along the way, that was not the case for me. I met the love of my life long before this story began, on the bastion of romance that is King County Metro's 43 bus, under flickering fluorescent lights, surrounded by drunk college kids. As one does.
And I do not think one could call the love of my life chiseled. But he has twinkly eyes and puts up with my insufferable jokes, and he makes a good schnitzel. (That's not a euphemism or anything. He really makes a good schnitzel.)
Also, my nose would never, ever be described as button-like.
So if this book by a travel writer is not about travel or about finding romance somewhere along the road, then where does that leave us? These last six years have taught me a great number of things, though being able to read a map is not one of them. I still have only a vague understanding of where Russia is, but I understand my Russian father better now than I ever have before. I have learned that at least half of what I thought was my mother's functional insanity was actually an equally incurable condition called "being Italian." I have learned about my family and myself, about brain tumors and lost jobs and lost luggage and lost opportunities and just getting lost, in countless terminals and cabs and hotel lobbies across the globe.
And I've learned what it's like to travel the world with someone you already know and love. How they help you make sense of things and can, by some sort of alchemy I still don't quite understand, make foreign cities and far-off places feel like home. How days roll into weeks and months and years, and during that time you will fight and scream and laugh and cry with them, possibly all at once. That you can see so much of the world, and realize it is far bigger than the two of you, and still somehow feel that your love, squishy and imperfect and mortal, might be a story worth telling.
So, if there is any advice I could dispense, it would be this: it's absolutely incredible, the things you can learn from not having a clue about where you're going—lessons that emerge after making a wrong turn, or saying the wrong thing, or even after accidentally doing something right. And in my case, this was all undertaken not in the company of a new love, but one that has enough miles on it to circle the earth three, maybe four times, is now sufficiently jet lagged, and lost its pants somewhere over Greenland.
I offer these minor epiphanies to you with the caveat that you shouldn't try to replicate the circumstances that led to them. Learn from my mistakes, but do not repeat them. Doing the latter will almost certainly result in unintended consequences, in particular petty theft, destruction of private property, low-blood-sugar-induced screaming, and flooding a boutique hotel room in New York City with a deluge of putrescence so heinous you will consider crafting a new identity to escape it.
But most notably, if you follow my lead, you will get hopelessly, miserably lost. As in, "I may have just crossed over an international border without realizing it" lost, or "I have never seen any of this before and supposedly this is my hometown" lost, or that panicky "I think I accidentally entered a magic realm via a portal in the back of a wardrobe" sort of lost.
That said, as I've learned, getting lost isn't the worst thing in the world. If you are trying to find yourself, it's a great place to start.
GELATO IS AN EXCELLENT SUBSTANCE IN WHICH TO DROWN YOUR SORROWS
IF THE MANY TIMES THAT I'd been dumped were any indication, I was not going to handle losing my job well.
Blessed with this knowledge, and that of the many red flags signaling the impending end to my employment, I preemptively went into breakup mode. I figured I needed plenty of alcohol, sugar, and carbohydrates at close proximity. So, in a shocking display of fiscal irresponsibility from someone for whom unemployment was imminent, I decided to go to Italy. I reasoned the country had seen its share of ugly endings: that whole mess with Caesar in the Senate, the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, the final scene of The Godfather, Part III—so it could handle mine. Plus, I wasn't sure if they would pay me for the vacation time I still had left.
It was early 2008. America was about to enter its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression: 2.6 million people lost their jobs that year, and I was about to become one of them.
MINE WAS A DEVIATION FROM how most travel stories begin. The path for the modern wanderer always seems to follow the same course—one that traces through Southeast Asia, involves at least three life-changing epiphanies vaguely invoking Buddhism, and necessitates wearing those pants with the zip-off legs. And the starting point is invariably this: they quit. They voluntarily cast off those miserable shackles of stable employment; they spin the globe and pick a spot at random. There. I shall go there.
And to their credit, this tactic works if you are young, debt-free, and willing to accept Anthony Bourdain as your lord and savior.
Personally, I've never understood quitting a stable job in order to see the world. I'd put it in the same mental file in which I've placed "eating cake for every meal" and "sex with Jeff Goldblum circa Jurassic Park." That is, things that are fun to think about but impossible or irresponsible in practice, due to the constraints of space-time, existing restraining orders, and the limitations of the human pancreas.
"Life is too short to spend behind a desk," says every damn job-quitting travel writer, ever. But I'd argue that, statistically speaking, life gets a hell of a lot shorter without health insurance or a steady income.
Not to mention, whenever I've spun a globe and tried to pinpoint a destination, my finger always ends up in the middle of the Pacific, adrift, surrounded by thousands of miles of blue enamel paint in every direction. (I try not to extract too much symbolism from this.)
I am not impulsive. I do not like spontaneity. I like order and predictability, and I want to immediately know whether or not the protagonist lives until the end of the story.
Whenever people ask about how all this started, I am very clear about one thing: I did not quit.
I was laid off.
I AM A RARE BREED—like morning people or children who enjoy visiting the dentist or vegans who aren't self-righteous—I liked my job. My coworkers were funny and brilliant and caring, the sort who could make a deadline with time to spare and drive you home in rush hour traffic that one time you got food poisoning, simultaneously screaming at someone for cutting them off while patting your back as you threw up.
In the years since the small board game company I worked for folded, my former colleagues have gone on to do amazing things. They've started their own successful, award-winning companies. They've served as musical directors for nationally renowned productions. The driver who deftly navigated Seattle traffic while I barfed repeatedly into a bag went on to write and illustrate numerous award-winning children's books. And to this day, he's never, ever held that vomitous afternoon against me, though I hold hope it will one day be fodder for a rather amazing pop-up picture book.
They would fan out across the country and the world, lighting up dark offices and stale conference rooms with their talent. But for a little while we'd been together, shining in one place—chasing one another around the office in absurd Halloween costumes. Taking trips to toy stores in the name of research. Working on a product for so many hours straight that we were rendered tired and giggly.
"Someone give me a tagline for this game in under five words!" I once yelled to no one in particular.
"CHOKE SAFE!" someone shouted in reply.
We felt invincible and suffered the obligatory punishment for our hubris. Ultimately, we were powerless in the matter—as editors, designers, and marketers, we had no control over the swift expansion into other media that caused the company to lose millions within the span of a few months.
We knew it was a fire sale, regardless of all the interviews our charismatic CEO had given about how this was his triumph. The spring of 2007 had already brought one round of lay-offs, and the rest of us felt like we were on borrowed time. Christmas was marked by a lack of end-of-the-year bonuses, and soon after we got the news that our stock was worthless.
THE TRIP TO ITALY HAD been my friend Kati's idea, discussed the previous summer as a means of breaking up the months of steady rain and gray skies that characterized every month in Seattle that wasn't August. It began purely as a joke over Gchat, one that grew and caught us up in it so that there was no turning back. We simply had to nod and go with it, like the sartorial rise of trucker hats or the return of the mustache. By the time you realize what's going on, it's too late: you've already decided to book round-trip tickets to Rome, and every guy at your local bar looks like Ashton Kutcher, circa 2005.
Kati, like me, had Italian ancestry and a decent understanding of the language (her grammar was significantly better than mine, but I grew up screaming it fluently at my relatives over a kitchen table). She'd spent a semester in Italy years ago and wanted to go back.
I teased her about leaving the next afternoon, she countered with the following week, and by the end of it we'd decided to leave in a few months, at the tail end of winter, because utterly abandoning all your obligations seems more reasonable when you schedule it farther out.
This was going to be the first trip Kati and I took together, though we'd known one another for years. We first met during our freshman year of high school, thrown together by honors classes and extracurricular activities targeting awkward, intelligent girls who had yet to grow into their features. We would share notes and edit one another's English papers, and she would try to dissuade me from having a crush on a guy who would, years later, pick as his social media profile picture an image of him wearing a giant diaper and bonnet while chugging a beer.
The point is, Kati always had better judgment than I.
While my brain has mercifully blocked out most of my memories from the early years of our relationship, one remains clear in my mind and serves as a good microcosm for my and Kati's friendship.
The film Titanic came out our senior year of high school, and the student officers decided to make this the theme for our prom. Presumably because they figured the only way to make a room full of dry-humping teenagers in rented tuxedos and ill-fitting Jessica McClintock dresses more romantic is pairing it with the tragic, icy deaths of 1,500 people.
The pre-prom assembly involved students acting out selected scenes from the historically dubious film in front of their peers. At one point, a massive paper iceberg crashed into the front of the stage, which had been decorated to look like the ill-fated ocean liner, and a bunch of students spilled out on the floor of the gym, writhing and dying. This understandably took precedence over our classes.
At the dance itself, which was held at the Seattle Aquarium (a small detail that I find both perverse and delightful, considering the circumstances), the backdrop for our formal portraits featured a giant iceberg and the doomed Titanic heading straight for it. It was in front of this that we smiled brightly—myself included—with our dates, documenting forever our youthful callousness and the ability of time to not only temper a tragedy but to adapt it into a great motif for high school dances.
But Kati's pose for her photo was this: she, making a face of poorly feigned horror, pointing to the iceberg while her friends smiled sweetly and obliviously in front of her. The caption could have read, "Oopsies! They're all going to die!"
When someone is able to rise above the absurdity of teenage life, to point it out for all its ridiculousness, it's best to befriend them immediately. I needed Kati. Even after so many years, this remains true.
BY JANUARY 2008, IT HAD become clear that my coworkers and I weren't going to have jobs for much longer. Weeks went by, projects wrapped up, and no new ones replaced them. Then one morning, we learned that the company was getting bought out by a massive conglomerate on the East Coast. Ownership would officially change hands at the beginning of March, and the very next day they'd scheduled a company-wide meeting. In the intervening weeks, my coworkers and I did what reasonable people do when faced with the inevitable: we took two-hour-long lunches, we polished up our résumés, and we stole whatever wasn't tied down.
There was nothing on the calendar after that meeting—not a single thing for all the days and weeks and months afterward.
And there was nothing to hold me back when Kati said, "Let's do it. Let's go to Italy now."
So, rather than watch the bitter end unfold, I left the country on a chilly February morning, knowing that I would likely not have a job when I returned. My boss Angela wrote me a send-off email that said, simply, "Take care. HAVE FUN FOR ALL OF US."
And though the eight-hour time change between Seattle and Italy proved advantageous (by the time I received the email from my coworker Philip informing me that nearly everyone at the company was out of a job, I'd already had the presence of mind to get drunk), having fun proved elusive. It soon occurred to me that I was losing more than camaraderie and a self-aggrandizing belief that we were making the world a happier place. I was losing all the stability and independence that came with a steady income, along with access to that rarely used bathroom on the tenth floor where I could poop in peace. How many places had that?
I had plenty of time to think far too long about all this on the flight over. Unlike normal humans who do not suffer from motion sickness so severe that they get nauseated while checking their watch (please, never ask me the time), I can do very little on flights that won't render me a puking, sweaty heap by the time we land.
Reading a book or familiarizing myself with Vin Diesel's extensive theatrical canon is out of the question. I'm also unable to sleep, which I think is probably a biological safeguard against me asphyxiating on my own vomit at thirty-six thousand feet.
Instead, I sit in my seat for hours, thinking about all the things that happened on the ground that I am presently unable to change. When other people have problems, they meditate, or see a therapist, or try a fad diet in which the only sustenance is words of affirmation from Gwyneth Paltrow. I, instead, save all my introspection and regret for the friendly skies. Mostly this involves me sipping ginger ale while scowling.
Snuggled up close to Kati in the temporal limbo that accompanies international flights, I thought back to when I first started at the game company. Rand and I were living together in a small apartment in North Seattle. He was an entrepreneur, which meant that he'd spent his early twenties wearing hoodies and going into serious debt starting his own company. Unable to find steady work, I had been stringing together as many temp jobs as possible, hoping that if I mashed them together they would sort of resemble a Frankenstein's monster of a career, minus the health insurance.
This job had changed all that. I was able to pay the rent and spend money on frivolities like new shoes and root canals.
When I got home, it would all be over. And so I crisscrossed all over Italy, heavyhearted and trying to enjoy a vacation that was as fiscally reckless as the company's last few months had been.
I CANNOT DEFINITIVELY SAY WHEN it was that Kati and I first fell ill. A safe estimate puts it at somewhere between five and ten minutes after landing, that upon breathing the sweet citrus-scented Italian air and realizing that the only obligation we had for the next two weeks was to eat copious amounts of carbs and to enjoy ourselves, our immune systems collectively said, "Fuck it."
Whatever the case, it felt instantaneous: upon landing, Kati and I were struck by a virus that, had we been heroines in a Victorian novel, would have killed us. By the time we reached her cousin's home in Genoa several hours later, she was already rationing out the few doses of NyQuil that we found at the bottom of her toiletry bag with a frugality usually found in someone who had been through the Great Depression.
Over the next few days, she and I would take turns sneaking into the bathroom to down water by the cupful so as not to alarm her relatives. When they learned of our illness, they shared with us the rather confounding wisdom that too much water would make us sicker. Kati and I didn't argue, which is the best course of action when dealing with full-blooded, native Italians (never debate people whose ancestors conquered most of the known world while wearing mini-skirts and sandals). Instead, we simply smiled and excused ourselves to suck on the bathroom tap while trying not to aspirate a lung.
We'd been staying with Kati's cousin Silvio and his parents in Genoa. After several days of watching Kati and I lying around, emitting low, miserable moans, Silvio decided that he needed to show us around, rather than have us squander our vacation watching House, MD dubbed into Italian.
I had mixed feelings about this plan. We were very close to Cinque Terre, supposedly one of the most beautiful parts of Italy, and arguably the world, but listen: the dubbed version of House in Italy is a masterpiece. Since MD doesn't mean anything in Italian, the announcers called the show House, MEDICAL DIVISION. They practically shouted that last bit, in heavily accented Italian.
I'm not sure if the soundtrack is actually different, or if it's simply because they are now speaking the language of Tosca, but the show feels infinitely more dramatic.
Every few minutes someone would look off camera and ask, accompanied by a thundering musical crescendo, "Que facciamo, House?"
And then House would reply, in equally dramatic fashion, "Non lo so." Cue deafening piano accompaniment.
In the haze of my illness, I was enthralled. Plus, I was learning all sorts of critical Italian vocabulary, like the words for chlamydia, lupus, and one-night stand. (The last one being a conoscente di una notte—literally, "an acquaintance of one night." It's profoundly poetic and nonjudgmental, which makes sense from a country that reelected Berlusconi.)
Despite my claims that sitting around watching any one of Italy's three television channels while simultaneously eating green pasta was a viable way to appreciate the country and its culture, Kati was hell-bent on actually seeing Italy. Since she was sicker than I was, I relented; when Silvio generously offered to take us to the Cinque Terre on one of his days off, we agreed.
The three of us took the train to Monterosso from Genoa. Slowly, as we rolled south along the coast, the sun began to burn off the marine layer, and I could see the Ligurian Sea, calm and shimmering and blue green. I'd never seen the Italian Riviera.
The Cinque Terre are a cluster of five small towns that sit on the northern Italian coast, built precariously into the cliffside and right up to the water's edge. Our train arrived in the northernmost village of Monterosso. The town is a long crescent that mimics the curve of the turquoise bay it looks out upon. The shoreline is flanked with sun-bleached buildings the same creamy color as the beach. It was too early in the year for sunbathers, who would overrun Monterosso in the coming months, but there were people clustered along the shore, sipping coffees as they enjoyed the view. We walked around, taking in the sunshine, snapping a few photos, and doing what I thought was an admirable job of not collapsing into a feverish heap on the piazza.
The specifics of what happened next will likely remain up for debate in Kati's family for many years. But as she and I remember it, her cousin casually asked us if we wanted to go for a little walk.
That is what we both, specifically, recall him saying. Una piccola passeggiata.
In his defense, there is no word in Italian for "hike." Certainly no phrase for a "two-hour-long-journey-that-you-may-not-survive."
You can see why we readily agreed to una piccola passeggiata.
In hindsight, I suppose most things that go awry do so incrementally, and I should have realized that. The bowl cut that I somehow elected to have just as I went into the sixth grade (I still do not know how this happened, but my mother, to her credit, did try to stop me) was not a matter of one swift cut but many calculated snips. The demise of the game company where I had been employed had not been the result of any one act. Instead, it was a series of small decisions, each one mostly innocuous on its own, but together resulting in the financial mess that meant the company was selling pennies on the dollar.
And likewise, the "little" hike from Monterosso to Vernazza happened slowly, one feverish step at a time.
It was a long while before Kati and I actually realized what was going on. Silvio was a good stretch ahead of us, and we followed, dutifully, not wanting to seem ungrateful to Kati's cousin, who had selflessly given up his day off to lead us to our deaths on a picturesque mountain.
The sun we'd been basking in back in Monterosso was now beating down upon us. The trail was steep, rocky, and dry. With each step we kicked up a little bit of dust that fell on our newly washed hair and stuck to the backs of our already parched throats. I realized that none of us had thought to bring water. I'd figured that if I needed hydration, I'd just down a couple of frozen confections. But there was nothing—no people, no signs, and certainly no gelato stands—in sight.
It was Kati who finally spoke up.
"Silvio," she said, pausing to wheeze and release a well-timed but nevertheless genuine cough, "how much longer until?…"
She let her question trail off there, realizing that she didn't know how to finish. Neither of us knew where we were going.
He looked around noncommittally, as though the landscape—rocky, unwelcoming, and covered in bramble—might provide a reply.
"I'm not sure," he said. "If we pass anyone, I'll ask them."
For another ten treacherous minutes, we encountered no one save for a few feral dogs that lived high up on the mountains. We would eventually come across two hikers who stared at Kati and me with looks usually reserved for three-legged kittens or children who'd cut their own hair.
Silvio chatted with them while Kati and I drifted in and out of consciousness.
"Good news," he said, as the hikers skipped down the hill, flaunting their hydration and appropriate footwear. "It's only another hour or so to Vernazza."
Kati and I let this horrifying information sink in. Somehow, we, feverish and sick, had inadvertently agreed to a nearly two-hour-long dusty hike under the searing Italian sun between two of the five towns of the Cinque Terre.
It was around that time that my dear friend, the voice of reason and moral compass for my teen years, turned to me and whispered, "I'm going to kill him."
"You can't," I replied. "He's the only one who knows where we're going."
I don't remember much of the rest of that trek. It is lost to illness, to the sun, to the dust and heat of that mountainside. I only remember when we rounded a corner, breaking through the prickly, dry shrubs, and saw Vernazza for the first time below us.
Perhaps it was the sacrifice of the time and what was left of our immune systems that made it look as it did. There is a distinct chance that I may have been hallucinating. Or perhaps it really was that beautiful. Whatever the reason, Vernazza was, at that moment, the loveliest place I had ever seen.
- "Geraldine DeRuiter's All Over the Place is a travel memoir of sorts, but I'd enjoy reading pretty much any topic she wanted to cover. Her voice is funny, witty and warm, and her stories sparkle. This book is a travel companion you'll be happy you brought along."—Lauren Graham, star of Gilmore Girls and New York Times bestselling author of Talking as Fast as I Can
"I laughed so hard during the book's 'disclaimer' that I woke up my baby, and then actively ignored him to continue reading. Geraldine is at turns laugh-out-loud hilarious and grab-me-some-tissues tender, and all I could think of after reading this was 'can we take a trip together please?'"
—Nora McInerny Purmort, author of It's Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)
"DeRuiter's funny, honest portrayal of life's small and large adventures will convince any hesitant would-be traveler that you don't need bravery or even an above average sense of direction to venture out into the world-all you need is a plane ticket and a sense of humor (and maybe a plunger)."
—Rachel Friedman, author of The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost
- "All Over the Place is a hilarious, authentic travel guide through the most mysterious and wonderful territory of all: the human heart."—Martha Brockenbrough, author of the award-winning novel The Game of Love and Death
"Getting laid off from a job she adored opened the door to the blogosphere for DeRuiter, as she explains this irreverent, yet warm-hearted memoir. Readers of her blog the Everywhereist will be familiar with the author's style of using her personality quirks and health issues as the foundation for her conversation with the reader and revelations on life. "I hail from a long, nervous line of hypochondriacs," DeRuiter explains. Being afraid of travel and lacking a sense of direction haven't hindered her but rather helped her explore the world. "So, if there is any advice I could dispense, it would be this: it's absolutely incredible the things you can learn from not having a clue about where you're going." Her intimate memoir chronicles her adventures during the seven years she spent crisscrossing the globe, learning to understand and accept quirky family members. The author delves into her relationship with a workaholic-but-loving husband and a serious health crisis. DeRuiter's memoir is a light-hearted look at travel and learning to live life to the fullest each day, even if you not quite sure where you are going."
- On Sale
- May 2, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages