How Traveling Changes "Home"

The travel columnist would live in either Queens or Ho Chi Minh City if he had to stay put for 10 years.
  • Transcript


Question: Did you grow up traveling? 

Matt Gross: I think my first big trip when I was little. I was almost eight years old and my father and I went to Denmark together, one summer, for maybe two or three weeks. And that was my first big adventure overseas. Soon after that, we had, my family moved to England for a year, moved back to Massachusetts, then we moved to a different house, then we moved down to Virginia. We moved around a lot and we traveled a lot, California, England, Italy, France, and when I was a teenager, I was a skateboarder and I had access to my parents's car, so I spent a lot of time driving all over Virginia, southeastern Virginia, just pulling into a new town, looking around, trying to figure out how the town is organized and constructed, looking for great places to skateboard. But that taught me a lot about how cities are organized, where are the sort of industrial, warehouse loading dock zones where we can find places to skate where nobody will see us. How do you find cities that have great, sort of marble granite plazas in the center? 

So, throughout my high school years, I was exploring and exploring and exploring. So, yeah, I’ve never really, never really stopped moving ever since I was about seven years old. 

Question: What’s the most compromising situation you’ve found yourself in while traveling? 

Matt Gross: It’s terrible when you’re traveling on your own and you get sick and you don’t speak the language, it’s terrible the first time that happens. And then you deal with it, and then the next time it happens, you say, “Oh, yeah, I know how to deal with this,” and then it becomes easier. And the next time, it becomes even easier. All of these things build on each other and you learn better how to travel by dealing with the really awful stuff that does happen to you a lot of the time when you travel. You stay in a bad hotel, you get sick, you’re alone, you get lost, these are all pretty traumatic things that can happen. But by dealing with them, by learning how to get un-lost, by learning how to talk to a doctor, how to go to a pharmacy and find the drugs you need to get better, makes it so much easier the next time. These things make you a stronger person and a stronger traveler. And you know, after a few years of that, you can go anywhere, any time, on your own, with friends, and be happy and comfortable and enjoy yourself in a way that you never used to be able to. 

Question: Is Brooklyn home to you? 

Matt Gross: I’ve lived in New York now for 12 years and that’s the longest I’ve lived really anywhere, since, yeah, my whole life, I don’t think I spent 12 years in any place as a child at all. And I love New York, it’s a very easy place to live for me, because you can do pretty much anything you want at any time of day or night. There’s no limits on the kind of life that you lead. 

But I guess I could leave it, I could go somewhere else, as long as I’m near an international airport, that would be great. My wife and I talk about moving back to Taiwan, where she’s from, maybe in a few years when our daughter is ready for school, but, yeah, we don’t know yet. I mean, that’s, my daughter is 16 months old, so that’s at least three or four years in the future and that’s just, I mean, that’s impossible to say what’s going to happen four years from now. I don’t know what’s going to happen in June. I have no idea, I have no idea what’s going to happen in June, in July and July is like the 23rd century! So, yeah, you talk about the future and I don’t really know. But New York, I love it, I don’t want to live anywhere else, but, hey, you know what? I could. 

Question: If you had to move somewhere for 10 years without leaving, where would you go? 

Matt Gross: Honestly, if I had to leave New York and go live somewhere else and just live there and not use it as a base for going to other places, I could probably go back to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, back to Saigon and spend quite a bit of time there. I loved it when I lived there, I loved every trip back to visit friends and it’s, it’s a big place and a complicated place and I know it well, but I don’t know it well enough. There’s a lot of corners I haven’t explored, a lot of people I haven’t yet met there. I could focus a bit of energy on that city. 10 more years? I don’t know, we’ll see. 

Question: As a frequent traveler, how do you stay in touch with your home base? 

Matt Gross: I feel like a fisherman or a soldier going off and making the money and then coming back, or maybe not coming back, things are unpredictable sometimes. When I’m off on a long trip, my wife and I talk just about every day. One of the nice things about having an unlocked cell phone is you get a SIM card for whatever country you’re in and outside the US, a lot of the time, receiving calls is free, so my wife can call me, it doesn’t cost me anything. We use Skype a lot, Skype is a great way to stay in touch, I have it on my computer, I have it on my iPhone and just talk for free all the time wherever I go. 

It’s more complicated though, with a kid. Not seeing my daughter for two weeks is really difficult. And a trip I took in March, when I went to Italy, I was there for less than two weeks and when I came back it was as if she had no idea who I was. She’d been sick a little bit, so she was just not in great shape overall, but when I came back, it was just, sort of lack of, not lack of recognition, but just a bit freaked out by me. But then I just came back from this two-week trip to central Europe and she was totally cool with me, very comfortable, very happy to see me. So, I don’t know if there’s really a key to it, to making it work. 

My wife now says, you know, two weeks is the most I can go away, you know, after two weeks, maybe I should think twice about coming back at all. But there’s no key, it’s just talk, make sure everybody knows that the ground rules are. Having my wife say, "Two weeks is what you can do makes it so that, okay, yes, now I know two weeks is what I can do," two weeks is the most I can ask for from her, two weeks is the most, is the biggest assignment I can accept from a magazine or a newspaper. Yeah, hey, two weeks, that’s good, that’s my limit. And if we left it sort of vague, who knows what kinds of arguments and tensions would’ve arisen. 

Question: What’s it like traveling with your daughter? 

Matt Gross: She comes with me whenever I can convince my wife that it’s a good idea. When Sasha, my daughter, was six weeks old, we all went off to Italy together, we went off to Venice and Milan for two weeks, I mean, she was just this little nugget, you know, fit inside your coat, but she had a pretty decent time, she ate, she slept, she stayed warm, she didn’t cry too much. And we were in Italy, and so people loved her, “Oh, the pico nina, que, cara bambina, oh so sweet,” everybody was so happy to see her. 

And then in January, when she was a year old, I took her alone to San Francisco for a week. It was a much more complicated endeavor. I mean, at a year old, all of a sudden you have this creature who walks, who was starting to talk, who eats things but not other things, who’s developing a sense of will and a sense of won’t. And that was tough, and that was just me and her on our own together. It was exhausting, I mean, just the physical effort to keep up with her and to take care of her. And to know that at the end of the night, at the end of the day, there’s not another parent to shift her off to. Yeah, man, I was asleep at 9:30 every night because there was no other way to do it. But, you know, in the end, it was fun, I mean, I had a good time, she had an interesting experience, who knows what she’ll remember of it, but I like to think that she’s getting accustomed to the idea and the experience of travel. It’s not an unusual thing for her to do. 

And those were just trips for stories. In the meantime, she’s been to Taiwan twice, she’s been to Germany, she’s been to Minneapolis, she’s got a well-stamped passport, you know. She knows the TSA drill pretty well at this point. You know, I think she’s got a bright future ahead of her as a traveler. Travel writer, I don’t know, I mean, she has trouble counting to three, so we may have to wait a little bit on that.

Recorded on April 15, 2010