Misery makes for comic tales of grumpy travels

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Misery makes for comic tales of grumpy travels

I am probably the wrong person to review this book. I can’t help but identify with the author. Although we’re on completely different ends on the experience spectrum, both he and I are journalists. We’ve both lived in Miami and Washington, D.C. We’ve also got a bad case of wanderlust; Weiner is a long-time international correspondent for National Public Radio in the United States, and well, I’m kicking off adulthood by living abroad.
But the author and I are also very different in one way: Although my co-workers may beg to differ, I’d consider myself chipper; Weiner, on the other hand, likes to emphasize that his name is pronounced as “whiner.”
The title aptly sums up this travelogue-of-sorts: “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Place on Earth.” Even so, his tone throughout The Geography of Bliss is hardly Eeyore-esque.
To be quite frank, I’m not exactly convinced that Weiner is the grump he professes to be. To begin with, no true killjoy would set out on a quixotic quest for happiness. And he certainly wouldn’t be able to relate his findings with such a light, humorous touch.
I’d chalk this up to Weiner’s extensive international experience, but despite the missteps he falls into and the occasional miserable destination, he manages to endure and pick up some insight.
So why is Weiner in search of happiness? And how does he go about finding it?
The author explains himself in his introduction: As a correspondent “... I roamed the world telling the stories of gloomy, unhappy people. The truth is that unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for good stories.”
But in order to trace what makes people happy ― or specifically, what makes people happy in one country versus another ― Weiner visits a hodgepodge of different countries. He begins at the nexus of happiness research, Professor Ruut Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
By beginning here, where happiness is quantified into neat, sterile findings, it seems Weiner’s travels should end before they even begin. But on top of the data he finds, Weiner’s visits eight countries ― India, Qatar, Britain, among others ― his experiences lend a distinctly human touch to Veenhoven’s cold, hard data.
Take Weiner’s visit to Moldova, for example. According to Weiner ― and Veenhoven ― Moldova is the most miserable place on earth.
“Even the name sounds melancholy,” Weiner writes. “Moldoooova. Try it. Notice how your jaw drops reflexively and your shoulders slouch, Eeyore-like.”
But even by this description, Weiner takes on a distinct air of silliness. He even goes so far as comically imagining a conversation during which one would use “Moldova” as a substitute for despondent. Even better, he manages to find humor in his hostess, a dour old babushka named Luba, rendering her in affectionate terms.
It’s quite possible readers in Korea may chuckle as they read Weiner’s description of Luba, uncannily similar to that of an ajumma here: “Stocky, with a crown of reddish hair and a fierce expression that, frankly, scares me. This is offset, slightly, by the housecoat she is wearing, an unfortunate collage of bright colors and floral prints.”
Weiner’s findings are also surprising, and often counterintuitive. When he contrasts the United States, where failure is never an option, to Iceland, where failure is absolutely welcome, he explains how the latter perspective actually leads to a happier populace.
Despite their bitterly cold, dark Arctic environs, Icelanders are apparently happier than, say, Jamaicans in their Caribbean climes.
My main quibble is when Weiner bypasses entire regions of the world ― like Africa ― readers get an incomplete picture of global happiness. The Geography of Bliss fleetingly touches on East Asia ― usually lumping it all under a sentence or two on “Confucian cultures” or Japan in passing.
Then there’s the fact that all of Weiner’s experiences are colored by his journalistic skepticism and unmitigated Western world view ― seen best in the author’s insinuation that the Middle Eastern country of Qatar lacks culture altogether. Even so, as a whole, the book is utterly delightful, well written and nearly impossible to put down.


By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]

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