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Empty Spaces On A Map
by Patricia Misiuk

Joseph Conrad said the most interesting places are the empty spaces on a map. Many of us have plodded through rehashed histories about the Louvre's art treasures. Remember those ho-hum long-winded narratives about the movers and shakers buried in Westminster Abbey? While we're at it, let's lose the tour guide spiel about a Dublin restaurant's nightclub act.

Time to switch gears. What if I told you I tripped on a cobblestone in that restaurant, gashed my chin and ended up in stitches (literally) after visiting a time-warped Dublin hospital? Got your attention, didn't I?

Isn't my story about an unscheduled visit to an emergency room more interesting than, say, a write-up about a crooner's rendition of "Danny Boy"? You betcha. And wouldn't you rather read about my night in a New Zealand jail rather than someone else's stay in a four-star hotel? Of course.

Writing about the detours and unscheduled stops Conrad refers to often results in a byline AND your name on a royalty check.

Most of us have mishandled luggage, breakdown in communication, and overbooked flight episodes to share. Adding a smidgen of tourist board information to personal experiences provides the recipe for a travel article that editors buy. Commit Conrad's mantra to memory, focus on your unique adventures, and write.

When concentrating on the uncharted destination, it helps to view the incident from all angles. Now, a little background about my night in jail. I was tapped out: no money, no place to stay, and no prospects of a job. A police officer sympathized with my plight, let me sleep in a jail cell, perused the want ads, made a phone call and bingo, I rejoined the ranks of the gainfully employed. My resume now included tomato picker. And a few of my coworkers, incidentally, were expatriates and prisoners.

The contract labor exemplified the "toughest job you'll ever love" motto of the Peace Corps. I lived in a work camp, bounced around in a paddy wagon en route to the farm and fine-tuned my harvesting techniques by imitating Maori women.

Compacting all the facets of those two weeks into a single article would be like eating my way into oblivion at a cruise ship's midnight buffet and then gorging on an entire cheesecake. Make the meal and your article more palatable by dividing them into bite-size hors d'oeuvres.

I parlayed the memories of my brief career into several pieces. One concentrated on the no-frills communal living in the labor camp. Another spelled out permits necessary for work and job sources. A day in the life of... article enlightened the reader about the backbreaking work and how I tempered the torture by emulating Maori harvesters. One could also trace a tomato's life cycle from seed to salad.

As with any writing, empty-space-on-a-map pieces warrant descriptions involving all senses.

* The sooty exhaust from our convoy of vans smelled like New York's Holland Tunnel during rush hour.

* With pickers hailing from Australia, Asia and Germany, verbal exchanges sounded like a United Nations General Assembly session, but without the headsets and simultaneous translations.

* The bed sheets rubbed against my aching body like coarse sandpaper.

* The tomato tasted as if it has been seasoned with a dash of sugar and a pinch of salt from Mother Nature's spice rack.

Detailing more than the visual elements of the experience adds depth to the piece.

Other been-to-one, been-to-them-all empty spaces on a map most of us inevitably pass through are airports. Chances are, we've logged countless hours staring at flight postings and scarfing down concession stand hot dogs. And who hasn't encountered a concourse vendor, the kind that seems to sprout from the Tarmac like a phoenix from the ashes? These merchants hawk yo-yos or model planes that fly magically during the demonstration but crash once we test-drive them at home.

Zoom in on that airport scene and an article takes shape. The next time your flight is delayed, redeem your airline meal voucher and invite the vendor for coffee. Interview him. What attracted him to his work? How much does he earn on a good day? An off day? Met anyone famous? What off-the-wall scenarios has he witnessed? His turf, albeit small and unmapped, is yet another of Conrad's spaces that deserves a visit.

Try as we may to structure and control itineraries, no trip would be complete without an empty-space-on-a-map incident or two. I'll cite a few personal ones that evoke a been-there, done-that nod.

* I lost my way to the Eiffel Tower and discovered my year of high school "parlez-vous francais" was totally useless in the real world of the French-speaking populace.

* On another continent, I inadvertently grabbed the wrong suitcase from the luggage carousel and failed to realize my error until I arrived at the hotel. The bureaucratic red tape to recover my valise was frustrating, time consuming and, fortunately, grist for the article mill.

* In Rome, I boarded the wrong bus, ended up marooned on an empty space on a map until a local escorted me to the proper station and then insisted on paying my fare.

The next time you travel, take a guidebook and map. Reserve an entire day to marvel at the Louvre's art treasures. In London, ride the tube and visit the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Then book passage on the ferry across the Irish Sea. When you land in the Emerald Isle, sample an Irish coffee and listen to the familiar refrains of "Danny Boy."

But soon, you'll be fed up with the if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium regimen. Break free for an hour, a day, a week. Rent a car, ditch the road map, and let your adventure evolve. Chances are excellent you'll land in an unnamed area, an empty space on a map, a place you will write about and share with the world.

© Copyright 2000, Patricia Misiuk

Patricia Misiuk could have been the sole interviewee for Studs Terkel's "Working." Her jobs have ranged from migrant work in New Zealand to the replenishment of sanitary products in the "Big Apple's" restrooms. When she grows up (she is 61) she wants to be a columnist. She still works at "McJobs" but "writing is what she does."

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