At best, travel writing is a commercial that advertises a trip you could never have because they leave out the diarrhea, the hangovers, and the loneliness. At worst, the genre stinks of charity as so many writers praise opportunities to get their hands dirty, either by participating in some highly choreographed public service—which they would never participate in stateside—or by literally holding the hands of an impoverished local for a photo-op.
The Humorless Ladies of Border Patrol is a travel book of sorts, but one written by a musician whose banjo and accordion tumble from one dive to another in a land of improvisational train schedules and apocalyptic Soviet architecture. The book gets its name from author Franz Nicolay’s idea for a pinup calendar. It would feature border police grimacing into the camera in the same way they scowl at Nicolay as he crosses from Hungary to Ukraine, Ukraine to Russia, or any of the jittery borders in post-Soviet Europe. One of the cheerier guards asks for a CD: “It’s the kind of music you can listen to in the gym?” he asks, doubtfully. Well sure, if you’re gym is a cabaret bar with beer-slicked treadmills.
So the question—why tour deeply in here, of all places? Surely, Japan and Mexico and Spain and Australia are easier to book, more trodden and routed with popular venues. But as it is, Nicolay’s great-grandmother hailed from near Transylvania, he knows a handful of the languages, and he’s a bit of a Slavophile when it comes to literature. In fact, I’ve never read a travel book with more complementary literature about the region. We’re treated to snippets from historian granddaddy Herodotus, all the big Russian lit names, and a bucket of scholars to follow. It doesn’t seem showy, either. It’s as if Nicolay expected me to ask, Why Bulgaria? Why Mongolia? In reply, he asks us, Why not?
Nicolay prefers “Slavs and their neighbors [for] their pessimistic humor [and] preference for the possible over the admitted,” for their belief “that it is only natural and rational to cross the street if it’s empty, to park on the sidewalk or median, to have a drink if having one will not adversely affect your neighbor, to pull the car into a river for a bath […], to free domestic animals to graze and fornicate and excrete in the commons.” After all, “us being children of nature, and nature famously harder to tame than to indulge,” wouldn’t these people be the most receptive to folksy, foot-stomping punk?
The author has played in loads of successful groups, notably with indie superstars The Hold Steady. But I thank the pagan god of Nicolay’s choosing that he didn’t publish some boring-ass Pitchfork memoir about his latter group and instead gave us this researched, charming, and sharp account of touring eastern Europe during the days of Ukraine’s revolution, Pussy Riot’s arrest, and a hundred other memorable moments from a wandering musician’s perspective. —Jim Joyce (The New Press, 120 Wall St., 31st Floor, NY, NY 10005, thenewpress.com)