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Clara Bensen

by Andrew DeCanniere

Recently, I stumbled upon Clara Bensen’s well-written, engaging memoir, No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love & Wandering (Running Press, 2016), in which she chronicles the 21-day trip that she and her boyfriend, Jeff — who she had just recently met — set off on with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Clara regarding how their experiences became a book, their trip, the benefits of couchsurfing and more. Read on to see what she had to say.

UR Chicago Magazine: To begin at the beginning, how did the book come about?

Clara Bensen: When I set out on this trip with Jeff, it was very much a personal challenge and an experiment between the two of us. We had no intention of turning it into anything or sharing it beyond our small group of friends. We took notes when we were traveling. We both had little notebooks, which ended up being helpful, but we came back to Austin — where we live — and after the trip was finished, that was it. It wasn’t until six months later, on a whim, that Jeff and I were talking and we were like ‘It’s kind of a good story. It’s kind of fun.’

So, I just wrote it up and submitted it to an editor at Salon.com. It was the first time I’d ever submitted any of my writing. It was accepted and a couple of weeks later they published it on their homepage. I had no idea the story would resonate with people the way it did. I had agents and film people calling and emailing within the next day or so. One of the agents asked if I thought about turning it into a book or a longer story. I had not but that kind of opportunity was really exciting. I treated it like I treated the original experiment, a kind of jumping into the unknown, so I said ‘yes’ and got a book deal a couple of months later. Learning how to tell the story was a whole new adventure.

UR: In traveling the way that the two of you did, it seems there is this sort of element of the unknown, as opposed to doing it the way so many other travelers seem to go about it. You know, so often people take the ‘conventional’ route, where you have a lot of luggage with you and you stay in hotels and practically have every minute of every day planned out. It really seems as though there is something to be gained from going about it the way that you went about it instead.

CB: There definitely was. It’s a very different way of traveling. The way we thought about what we were about to do — before we left — was not so much as a holiday or vacation. We were thinking of it as more of a psychological experiment that we were setting up for ourselves. The goal was to take away — within a certain time period and a couple of caveats, such as safety and well-being — a lot of the structure that you would normally have and test how you react in the moment to whatever is happening in an unfamiliar environment. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know where you are, you’re lost, you don’t know where you’re going to stay at night. So, it’s kind of like an improv exercise with two people who don’t really know each other all that well. Then there’s also the element of not having much stuff, either. All of that together was this cloud of uncertainty and we wanted to see how it would go, with the understanding that it might not go well. We might decide we don’t like each other or that it’s really hard not having any stuff or that it’s really uncomfortable not knowing where you are going to stay at night. We were prepared to potentially be miserable.

UR: Speaking of which, you really seem to have gotten to know each other better and gotten to know yourselves better as well.

CB: Yeah. I mean the thing about traveling with someone you just met is it’s like pressing fast-forward on a relationship. Travel can be so stressful and intense. If it’s somebody you’ve known forever and you know each other well, it can still be really hard. So, like I said, we were open to the fact that we were going to be seeing the raw, unfiltered versions of each other quickly. Especially with one pair of underwear each. We were OK with that. And, like you said, you learn a lot about yourself where you’re kind of under fire.

UR: It sounds like you really got to see things from a local perspective and to know some of the people who live in those places in a way that I don’t think tourists usually get to do.

CB: Couchsurfing — staying with people who actually live in the cities we visited — was one of our experimental guidelines. We wanted to stay in a hostel or a hotel as a very last resort. I think that out of the 21 days, we stayed in a hostel for two — maybe three — nights at most. The rest was of the time we stayed with local people wherever we were traveling. It’s a completely different way of experiencing a place. You get the daily life, you get the history, you get the slang that people use. It can be quieter, less flashy, but you come away with a sense that you’ve seen something real — even if it is just for a few days. We were moving through a lot of countries very quickly.

UR: One of the things I found interesting is that you said that, as time went on, you found the experiment to be less and less of this radical act.

CB: It’s totally true. In terms of telling the story, the big hook — of course — is “No Baggage” and “The Craziest Date Ever.” Before I went on the trip, that was the most frightening aspect to me as well. Within a few days, it was kind of anticlimactic. You wash your clothes and you hang them to dry. You know, it’s not this huge, crazy, scary thing. Then also, there are all kinds of ways to travel on-the-fly and find a place to stay and connect with locals who have a couch they want to share. So, that also became like not this huge crazy, scary thing. Another interesting thing is that the route we took from Istanbul to Greece, up through the Balkans, is a route that a lot of refugees are taking now. A lot of them have very little-to-no baggage, either. So, I try to keep some perspective on what we did. It was a choice and it was a temporary thing. We had homes and possessions to go back to. It really wasn’t this huge big deal compared to what a lot of other people are experiencing.

UR: As you say, I can’t imagine having to uproot yourself like these refugees are doing — and for them it is, at best, a long-term situation if not a permanent one.

CB: Right. It’s not this three-week social experiment you want to do just for fun, because your lives are pretty structured. That’s something I’m very conscious of when I’m talking about the story. When you’re walking across Europe or on a boat crossing the Mediterranean, you can bring almost nothing.

UR: You also are open about dealing with anxiety and that whole aspect of things, which I thought was just so important — especially since there does seem to be this stigma surrounding that, which makes no sense to me.

CB: I completely agree. The things I get email from readers about most is related to anxiety and learning to come to terms with that. There are a lot of questions around mental illness. So, that’s something that definitely resonates. There is a stigma, but at the same time it’s so common and that’s something that I realized over time. I feel more open to talking about it because I do realize that it is so common, and people want to feel like they are not alone in their experiences. I also just wanted to tell the story of how I became the sort of person who would say ‘yes’ to a crazy invitation to do what we did. It didn’t happen overnight. I had to come to terms with a lot of fear and anxiety to get to the point where I could do that.

UR: You also talk a bit about the pros and cons of having what was, at the time, more of this label-free, perhaps ‘unconventional’ relationship.

CB: The relationship was another dimension of the travel experiment. We decided to treat our relationship with each other similar to the way we were treating our trip — which was no planning, no definition, no idea of where we were headed. We just wanted to see what happens and be in the moment. It was kind of this very bohemian ideal, which had its moments which were really great, but it was actually way harder than I expected. I go into that in the book. Again, we had just met each other. We had only known each other a few weeks, so I think trying this bohemian way of relating to each other is fine when you’ve known each other for a few weeks — and maybe some people can manage to do it over the long-term — but after we got back, and over the next few months, we shifted towards a little bit more definition. Now we’ve been together for more than three years. I think that with where we are now, what’s different is that, for us, monogamy and being with only each other is a choice among lots of other acceptable choices. We don’t necessarily assume it’s the default or that it’s how we’re always going to be. It’s one choice among many ways of being in a relationship. I think that’s something that’s a little bit different than how a monogamous relationship has been viewed in the past.

UR: From my point of view, I say that whatever works for the people in a relationship works. That’s what is important, after all. It needs to work for them.

CB: I completely agree and it can take some time to figure out what does work for you. I think that can take some practice and experimentation. It can change over your life, too. What you need in one phase of your life may not be what you need at a later phase, and I think just being open to trying whatever works is good.

UR: Not to put words in your mouth, but you really seem to balance each other out as well.

CB: Yeah. We’re totally opposite personalities, which can create tension at times, but it’s also a really healthy thing. We tone down the extremes of both of ourselves, certainly in traveling as well. I think that works for us because we are also really, really respectful of our differences and we don’t try to force the other person to be like us. So, I think that was good and it’s still great.

Clara Bensen is a writer in Austin, Texas. Her first book No Baggage, a travel memoir, is based on a 2013 Salon.com article entitled “The Craziest OKCupid Date Ever” that was read by more than half a million people. The story of her luggage-less adventure attracted major national and international attention and is being translated into a dozen languages.

She's currently breaking ground on a series of wild social experiments that play with the intersection between madness and society.

You can find out more about Clara and her book by visiting her website, www.clarabensen.com. You can also find her on Twitter @ClaraBensen, on Instagram at www.instagram.com/clarabensen, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/claralbensen, and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/clarabensen.

This article originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.

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