The ‘worst travel article ever’ isn’t as bad as people say
An NYU student has gone viral for all the wrong reasons. Stacia Datskovska this week came under fire for her article entitled: “I’m an NYU student who studied abroad in Florence. I hated every aspect of my semester abroad.”
In the article, published on insider.com, Datskovska complains about her semester spent in Italy.
“I imagined fun potluck dinners with my roommates, summer flings with people who called me ‘bella’, gelato that dripped down my fingers in the heat, and natural wine that paired effortlessly with good conversation and better prosciutto,” she wrote. Safe to say, her fantasies did not come true.
She writes how she grew bored of the sights of Florence and found the locals “hostile” and “inconsiderate”. While her seven housemates were having fun travelling Europe, she felt increasingly alone and like she was missing out on work experience opportunities back in New York.
These sorts of rabble-rousing first-person features are published across the internet every day, so there was a fair chance this one would have slipped under the radar. But after Amanda Knox tweeted the article, Twitter dutifully bared its teeth.
Girl, what are you talking about? Studying abroad is awesome!https://t.co/xlEgCKTzqg
— Amanda Knox (@amandaknox) March 15, 2023
“Good, we don’t want you here,” wrote one Italian Twitter user. “BREAKING: Citizens of the United States of America realise the world is not their property,” wrote another. And the #BeKind faction of Twitter did its bit, too, arguing that her editor should never have published the article knowing full well the onslaught of abuse she might receive. Thankfully, Datskovska appears to have thick skin on the matter, writing in the Independent that she “laughed off” the comments as they kept rolling in.
But everyone seems to have missed something here. While Stacia Datskovska is in the infancy of her career as a journalist, she has hit upon a travel writing principle that separates the good from the timeless. Candour. Specifically about the fact that, sometimes, the places we visit aren’t what we had hoped.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote of Chicago: “I grew to despise the sights, hated the people, and couldn’t wait to get back home.”
Only John Steinbeck didn’t write that. That’s what Stacia Datskovska wrote about Florence, but you probably believed me, didn’t you? When it comes from the mouth of one of America’s great authors it holds some kind of cigarette-stained, whisky-swigging gravitas. When it comes from a Gen Z NYU student, it seems attention-grabbing and vapid.
All of the best literary travel writers speak with an openness that doesn’t necessarily seek to inspire (which is, of course, a craft in itself), but rather to transport, and speak about the human experience in a way that resonates. Good or bad.
Paul Theroux, one of the most respected travel writers of all time, wrote how he hated holidays (all real quotes from now on): “I hate vacations. I hate them. I have no fun on them. I get nothing done. People sit and relax, but I don’t want to relax. I want to see something.”
Irish travel writing legend Dervla Murphy slurred the billions who live in cities: “To me, city-dwellers are The Dispossessed, unfortunates who have been deprived of every creature’s right to territory.” Bruce Chatwin belittled tourism in general, saying: “Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.” I am currently reading David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, which contains bruising, warts-and-all accounts of the cities he has visited over the years. It’s a brilliant read.
Eight centuries ago, the original world chronicler Marco Polo didn’t pull any punches either: “Here people once used to be honourable: now they are all bad; they have kept one goodness: that they are the greatest boozers,” he said of one of the civilizations he encountered on his travels.
I’m being facetious, of course. Stacia Datskovska doesn’t belong in the same breath as the travel writing greats listed above. Her article is reductive and lacking in substance, and certainly any self-awareness. On occasion it is downright obnoxious – “I started to protest by presenting myself to the public in a way I knew they’d hate,” she wrote, describing how she wore baggy “American athleisure” just to wind up the locals. Or perhaps we, the reader, are the ones being deliberately wound up here.
Whatever her motivations, the piece is the antithesis of the sycophantic, over-saturated brand of influencer content that we tend to associate with this generation. And it is important that those who are compelled to travel, and write, speak about destinations in an open and fearless way. Because travels don’t always go to plan. We’ve all had nightmares abroad. In fact, the more difficult elements of travel – the mishaps, misadventures, the misunderstandings – are universal, and these are often the experiences that we end up recalling with the most fondness, having lived to tell the tale.
As a travel writer, people often ask about my experiences abroad, and my mind turns to my night escaping police in Cuba, the tropical hookworm that entered my buttock in Malaysia, my fortnight stranded in Melbourne during the Icelandic ash cloud crisis. Nobody wants to hear about the delicious set of macarons I found on arrival in my Shangri-La hotel room.
Travelling overseas can be challenging and destinations can fail to meet expectations, but that is the truth, and speaking the truth is interesting. This, if nothing else, is something Stacia Datskovska can take home from her otherwise disappointing semester in Florence.