Around the World in Fifty Years
by Elayne Clift
Narrative, Art & Poetry, 304 pages
Publisher: Braughler Books LLC., Springboro, Ohio
To Order: Amazon
email@example.com or at 937-58 BOOKS
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
In his seminal book, “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, It is not
worthwhile to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Thoreau’s dictum is
emphatically denied (tongue-in-cheek) by the peripatetic Elayne Clift. Indeed, for fifty
years Clift and her husband have been counting cats in more than 90 countries and all 50
states. Canadian-born, the poet was bitten by the travel bug in childhood as she and her
sister made frequent trips with their parents visiting relatives in Toronto.
The book is designed in a friendly “walkabout” fashion. I took a pick-and-choose
approach, visiting those countries that appealed to me in the moment. She groups them
conveniently according to region: Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Central and South America,
Europe, Middle East and North America. Clift is equally comfortable writing both
narrative and poetry. She writes in an interesting, accessible style. I felt like she and I
were sipping coffee outdoors sitting at table under an umbrella. The book closes out with
six well-crafted poems which serve as an emotional summary, a kind of catharsis to a life
rich in purpose and accomplishment.
Clift’s life of travel is contextualized by her career as a public health educator and
advocate and by her husband’s parallel career as an international civil servant. Over time
she wrote meticulous journals, diaries, and poems which provided a wealth of source
material from which to draw for “Around the World in Fifty Years.”
We begin our odyssey on the African continent in Khartoum. This exotic-sounding place
features overwhelming heat. I think of scenes in the movie “Casablanca” where
Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Ingrid Bergman swelter in a smoke-filled bar. In
the midst of conditions that made “transients” uncomfortable, Clift notices a woman,
cool, unperturbed, obviously a resident. Clift describes her in unforgettable terms,
Wandering the lobby for what seemed an eternity in her black polka-dot dress, felt
slippers, nylons knotted at the knees, and tattered plastic purse, carried in knurled
hands which retained the elegance of earlier days.
Empathizing with this mystery woman, Clift develops the lady’s story in a way that
reveals her concern for people and their needs.
Leaving Africa, we move into Vietnam. As a service member deployed on Navy ships
during the Vietnam war, I was especially interested in Clift’s perceptions. The author
tailors her writing style to the nuanced life of each country. Of Vietnam, now a jewel of
Southeast Asia, she writes,
"Driving in Vietnam is a hoot. Millions of motorbikes crowd the road and there
are no rules, no lights, no cops. Right-of-way doesn’t exist. Neither does taking
turns. It’s everyone for themselves in a free-for-all that exceeds the chaos of
Athens, Boston, Chiang Mai combined. Crossing the street is one of the world’s
Clift’s compelling description of post-war Vietnam, especially that nation’s self-concept
in the decades following the war, has caused me to add a visit there to my personal
Thinking of Clift as my personal world-tour guide, she announces, Stockholm, city of
surprises by the sea. With its narrow, winding medieval streets, Royal Palace, 17th
century church, antique shops and unique restaurants, Stockholm is a city to be savored.
Of special note is a 17th century warship famous for sinking within twenty minutes of its
inaugural voyage. It was raised some 333 years after its sinking (1960) and is perhaps the
world’s foremost maritime work of art. If I go, and I hope I do, one of my priorities will
be coffee and Swedish cinnamon rolls on the square that once hosted the Nobel Prize
Museum. This city of surprises cannot be contained within a paragraph—that should come
as no surprise.
Other than crossing the Pacific twice aboard U.S. Navy ships during the Vietnam War, I
have never savored the pleasures of an ocean crossing on a cruise ship. Clift devotes four
delightful pages to Culinary Crossings. If you’re a food lover like me, this will be for you
like shrimp cocktail before a steak dinner, finished by a glass of fine French wine.
Let’s pretend that France is our cruise ship’s destination. We join Clift as she recounts
her first visit there in the mid-1960s. She fell in love with a beautiful young man, a Turk
with a finely chiseled face who asked if the seat next to me was free. Like a Hallmark
Channel romance, the author recalls the two of them cruising the Seine, strolling the
Champs Elysee, strolling through the Louve and dining on the Left Bank. This journey-
leg is about love in its many dimensions and in itself is well worth the price of the book.
You could close your eyes, open “Around the World in Fifty Years,” put your finger on
any page and locate yourself within a city, island or nation and feel as if you are actually
there! No need to update your passport; no need to schedule airline tickets, no need to
fight jet-lag or get the required inoculations for overseas travel. Just buy a copy of Elayne
Clift’s book for $21.95.