Number of meals eaten: ~60
Number of hours driven: roughly 75
Impulse gelatos/coffees consumed: 27
Number of truly special, unique moments: 12
Sounds like a fun, little adventure, doesn't it? Unfortunately, all of those experiences happened while I was alone. Wretchedly alone, in fact, on a few occasions.
Your average LP research trip is a protracted exercise in loneliness management. Sure, I have friends and acquaintances scattered here and there, whose sporadic, cherished company helps to break up the otherwise unremitting isolation. But, in general, I’m logging enough hours of solitude to earn a spot on my country’s Zen Monk Olympic Team (we always lose to the Japanese).
As I write this, I am the only solo diner on the breezy terrace of a pizza joint in the photogenic historic centre of Sibiu, Romania. All around me friends are chatting, lovers are canoodling, and families are laughing. Even the homely stray dog has a buddy.
People often note that I come home every year with hundreds of research photos and I'm in none of them. That’s because there’s rarely anyone around to snap pictures of me. I gave up long ago on holding the camera at arm's length for self-shots, as it rarely results in a fetching picture of me or whatever is behind me. My 'author in action' photo that appears in the current Lonely Planet Romania was an agonisingly staged, multi-attempt, cartoonish ordeal with my camera's 10-second timer.
'But Leif, you thankless crybaby,' you may be thinking, 'I work in the third sub-basement of a sulfur processing plant. You have my dream job! What are you complaining about?'
Well, I’m not exactly complaining. OK, some days I most definitely complain. In any case, I’m merely highlighting just one of several little known unsexy parts of guidebook research. Excellent meals are often bookended by terrible meals or, on long drives, a hastily devoured Snickers with a Red Bull chaser outside a gas station. For every lazy beer or glass of wine, several hours of beleaguered slogging up and down hectic city streets under a scorching sun (or pouring rain) must be logged. For every fleeting, stolen session of beach time, there’s a half dozen dizzying bus station schedules to translate – frequently in plain sight of joyous, drunken people arriving for their holidays. For every rewarding conversation with a fellow hostel guest, there are several hours, tens of hours in some cases, of quick, insubstantial interactions with cadaverous, one-star hotel clerks. Or worse yet, there’s no speaking at all, unless it’s to yourself, which is really only a matter of time with this job.
Leif Pettersen is currently on the road, researching Romania and Moldova for the upcoming Eastern Europe multi-country guidebook.