The Edmond Sun

September 16, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Former travel writer’s tales make pit stop in Oklahoma

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

OKLA. CITY — Matt Gross formerly served as “the Frugal Traveler” columnist for the Sunday New York Times and in that capacity visited more than 60 nations. About four years ago, he wrote for that publication an account of a trip he took through the United States that took him through Oklahoma City.  

Gross, who had lived in Vietnam for several years before he joined the New York Times, wrote of how he was surprised to find a sizable Asian community in Oklahoma City, and reported that the Vietnamese foods he ate at restaurants in Oklahoma’s capital city were as good as the dishes that he had developed a fondness for in Ho Chi Minh City.

Gross recently has written a book about his travels titled “The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World.” And in that work Gross recalls his time in Oklahoma City and tells us that he wrote “about the vibrant Vietnamese community, and, in particular, about their  restaurants.” Shortly after he graduated from Johns Hopkins University, Gross relocated to Vietnam where he worked as a freelance journalist and hung out with a variety of twentysomething expatriates from around the world. His writings eventually attracted the attention of the editors of the New York Times where he was hired to write a weekly column about how he spent as little money as possible in his journeys to distant places. He was also told to  convey a sense of place in his column as well as give readers several tips on how to travel frugally.  

Like most people who have traveled, the author has fond memories of the people he encountered while on the road, and laments the fact that he has not maintained contact with them.

The author went to a rural town in Lithuania and uncovered his family’s origins in the early Nineteenth Century as Berko and Freyda Grosmutz in old records of the Orthodox Jewish community that once resided there. But when Gross went to the local Jewish cemetery to find the final resting place of some of his ancestors he found that almost all of the tombstones there had been destroyed by the Nazis when they occupied Lithuania during the Second World War.

He also sought to experience life as the locals do, and he avoided tour guides and expensive hotels with their concierge services that serve to insulate guests from the natives.

Gross was also somewhat of a culinary Indiana Jones, and fearlessly ate local fare on his journeys. He tells us how he acquired an intestinal parasite as a result of street food he ate in Vietnam, and in perhaps to much detail how sick he became as a result. Several years ago, the author grew tired of being on the road, and left the New York Times.

At the end of his book, Gross tells us of the domesticity that he has found in recent years with his wife, who is a native of Taiwan, and two daughters in a renovated neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the friendships that he has developed with some of his urban hipster neighbors. But it is possible that that urge to travel will grip him again and his insightful writings on foreign locales will make their way into print at some future date.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.