In the past days, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Allen. He is the traveler and writer behind the “the expat, gluten-free, photo-literary travel(b)logue” I Must Be Off. Let me make clear that when I say Chirstopher is a writer I really mean it. His fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in many places over the last few years. So, if you are looking for a blog full of interesting pieces written by a pro, I Must Be Off should be at the top of your list.
In this interview, Christopher shares a little bit of his personality and travels. Go ahead and read ’cause Christopher answered all my questions in an interesting and thoughtful way.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Hi, Ruth! I’m Christopher Allen, the nutty traveler behind the mask at the blog I Must Be Off! I’m a US-American, but for the last 17 years I’ve been living in Germany where I teach business English and write fiction. I’m working on a novel, but I also publish stories along the way as well.
Where have you been? Where do you want to go?
Second question first: the Earth. I want to see the entire planet, so my travel plans are bursting at the seams. This year is the craziest year ever. By the end of June I will have been to New York, Bilbao, Crete, Ibiza, Tuscany and Liguria, Rome, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo (a long-time dream of mine).
Since I started traveling in 1994, I’ve been to 40 countries on every continent except Antarctica. I got close in Punta Arenas, Chile. I have not been to China or Sub-Saharan Africa. I have not been to the Galapagos Islands or Tasmania. These are my Everests.
When did you get the travel bug?
I was born in Germany, so you might say my travel bug was a birth defect. I moved back to the States with my family when I was only a year old, but in 1994 I returned on a month-long trip to Europe and fell in love with Munich. In 1995 I moved to Germany and have never looked back. Munich is a perfect hub for exploring Europe and beyond.
How has travel changed your life?
I’m very fortunate to be able to travel—I know that, and knowing that has taught me to be grateful for everything that comes my way: the good and the bad. I’ve had beautiful experiences—the guys who invited us to have sushi at their home in Chile—and bad experiences—the restaurant employee who beat me up in Nice. Traveling has taught me to deal with problems as they come, to roll with the punches and keep, well, traveling.
Traveling has also taught me to read a map. I know that sounds crazy, but maps are cruel, heartless things full of squiggly lines and impossibly small writing. I can’t say that maps and I have become—or will ever become—the best of friends, but at least now I don’t rip them up and swear at them.
How would you inspire someone to travel?
Most people need little inspiration. All they need is more money. I think the best way to inspire someone to travel is to convince them that it won’t be as expensive as they think. There are so many blogs and web sites out there to help people travel on a shoestring. Close to home is a great place to start.
In Bavaria where I live most of the year “Urlaub” (holiday/vacation) is a natural and regular part of life. When you live 45 minutes away from Austria or three hours away from South Tyrol, Urlaub is always within driving distance. There’s always a trail to be hiked or a nordic skiing track to be carved in the winter. My suggestion to someone in need of Urlaub but lacking in funds: discover the travel opportunies within driving distance and support the tourism industry near you.
What are the most underrated and overrated places you have visited?
The readers of my blog already know the answers to these questions. I dislike Venice intensely. It’s a pigeon toilet packed to the rim with tired tourists and rude, jaded waiters who throw exorbitantly priced slop at people who’ve paid a month’s salary to be treated like a nuisance. The world should stop going to Venice until the Venetians understand how low they’ve sunken. I don’t mean to sound bitter about Venice. I go there at least once a year with friends visiting from the States who’ve never been. I suppose you have to go to Venice once, but be prepared for a sinking tourist trap with the worst food in Italy.
Ah, but then there’s Alsace, France. A multifaceted gem. Dozens of villages each quainter than the next. The round Roman village of Eguisheim near Colmar is my favorite. The blueberry tart, the onion tart, the macaroons. And I love the wines: Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Riesling—Alsace cultivates these wines like no other place on Earth. When it comes to wine regions, though, I’d say the South Steiermark in Austria is the most underrated. Not many people think of Austria as a wine-growing country, but the South Steiermark has a thriving wine culture—and world-class wines.
The most beautiful place on earth—and one of the farthest places for most people—is New Zealand. There’s no way you could overrate this extraordinary country, so regardless of how you rate it, you’ve already underrated it. Touring New Zealand in a motorhome was by far the most stress-free holiday I’ve ever had. I’m looking forward to returning in the next few years.
What is you travel pet peeve?
I can adjust to most situations, but I can’t stand the person on a flight who doesn’t understand what’s his space and what’s mine. It’s usually an enormous man whose arms stick 20 or 30 centimeters into my space or the teenager in front of me who wants to put things on top of my feet (and doesn’t understand why that’s really really wrong). It’s not a pet peeve, but I do hate to stand in queues. I’ll do almost anything to avoid them. In 2010 I counted down the top ten worst air passengers. http://www.imustbeoff.com/2010/12/top-ten-worst-air-passengers-of-2010.html
I love food. What is your favorite dish?
I’m a foodie too. My favorite dishes are anything Thai or Indian, but I also love Greek, Turkish and German food. Actually I love ALL food, but not all food likes me. I have Celiac Disease, so I have to be prepared when traveling to a country where English is not spoken. I occasionally post advice on traveling gluten-free on my blog. I recently traveled to Bilbao, Spain where I discovered the tortilla (like a potato quiche without the crust) is gluten-free. Indian food is usually no problem since chickpea flour is used in most of the dishes. I love spicy food—the spicier the better—so Indian is right up my tree.
Have you tried some exotic or weird foods (insects, organs or something like that)?
Not on my travels. My grandmother once slipped me calf brains when I was six or seven and told me they were scrambled eggs. A few years ago I had the chance to eat crickets in Thailand once, but I chose a Snickers instead.
What travel moment has made you laugh like there is no tomorrow?
So many of them. I’ve bellydanced for a raucous crowd in Istanbul. I got first runner-up in the Mr. Pacific Princess contest on a cruise to the Holy Land with my impromptu ballet routine. In Rio de Janeiro I once came up out of the surf on the Copacabana missing my thong. All of these moments made everyone else laugh more than me, but I’d like to think they were laughing with me and not at me.
What travel resources do you use?
To book hotels, I usually have a look at HRS (Hotel Reservation Service) because they have great deals and great conditions. For many of the hotels, you can cancel up to 18:00 on the day of expected arrival. For flights I compare prices using the usual suspects of web sites. I like Expedia when I’m booking flights to the US since they offer multiple-leg options. In Germany, Holiday Autos is a fair and respected rental car agency.
What is your blog about (and why did you start to blog)?
I Must Be Off! is “the expat, gluten-free, photo-literary travel blog of writer Christopher Allen—so you’ll know where his hands have been.” My blog is my life. One reason I started it in 2009 was so that my mother would stop telling me I should write about my travels before I started getting too old to remember them. The day I forgot where I’d just been was the day I started I Must Be Off! But that’s not the only reason. I’m a writer, so of course you can find links to my published stories on my blog as well.
I share photos on Friday and encourage my readers to steal them. They’re free. I write posts about how to eat gluten-free while on the road. Twice a month, I post an interview with another expat writer. If any of your readers are expat writers and want to be interviewed, I’m always open. I’m like 7/11.
How can we find more about you and you upcoming projects?
Thank you for asking, Ruth. I have my latest projects in the ABOUT section on my blog. On June 23 I’ll be reading some of my work at the KGB Bar in New York, so if you’re in New York, stop by I Must Be Off! closer to June for details. You can also follow me on Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Christopher-Allen/104635019617638 and Twitter @Christopher_All
Many thanks to Christopher for taking time to do this interview.