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Travels with Erma Bombeck.

Erma Bombeck admits she agonizes over book titles. The woman who gave us such classics as I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; and Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession recalls her panic as Book #3, nearing completion, lacked one tiny detail: a name. She was down to the wire--"We're talking days until the thing was due at the printer's," she says, gasping--when genius struck on a Sunday afternoon. She phone her agent and proposed The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.

"He loved it. He said it was absolutely perfect," she gloats. "Then, about ten minutes later, he called back and said, 'Hey, wait a minute. Is it true? Does the grass really grow greener over the septic tank?' I told him, 'You never want to eat salad at my house again.' Of course it's true!"

The title of her current bestseller, Whe You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home, presented no such problem. To boost its bite she agreed to scrub off her makeup, concentrate on her trip to the Bering Sea, and not at the photographer when she was sufficiently depressed to assure a woebegone portrait for the cover. She concedes that she could have saved time by using her real passport picture, but "then someone might have thrown me a telethon."

Passport breaks new ground for Bombeck. She claims she outgrew domestic drollery years ago in her syndicated newspaper column ("At Wit's End") and now includes occasional dust-bunny jokes only to appease fans who cling to Early Erma. Her passion for globetrotting, hilariously documented in Passport, may set her apart from readers who want to bond over carpool stories, but her humor makes her sophistication forgivable. Even when fans can't relate, they can laugh. Since the book tracks decades of family adventures, familiar elements are present. The three Bombeck kids (now in their 30s) duck in and out at various ages and stages to create havoc or deliver punchlines. When her sons and daughter aren't part of the action, Erma hints that they're collaborating on their memoirs. Like mom, the kids appreciate a good title. Theirs: Parents Dearest.

Although some of Bombeck's travel destinations are predictable--the 21-day European getaway, the romantic Club Bed cruise--she prefers obscure corners of the world. She's at her funniest on Papua New Guinea, where she is caught in the crossfire of a tribal war, and on Easter Island, where natives refuse her cash but accept her husband's wardrobe as barter for woodcarvings. She covets the anonymity of such out-of-way territory. By comparison, she recalls being recognized and nearly trampled by fans in Ireland.

"We were looking at some ruins with my parents--I love to see anything older than I am--when all of a sudden this tour bus stopped," she reminisces. Pandemonium broke out when the group from California spotted her.

"They were sweet people, but suddenly I had to such in my stomach and smile all the time," she says. "I was public again. Maybe that's why I like places where I can really be comfortable. Let me tell you, they sure don't know me in New Guinea."

Her idea of a dream vacation varies with her mood. Her flip answer has something to do with entering Bloomingdale's at 10 a.m. and not coming out until she's ready. A more serious response describes putting down roots and staying in one place for weeks at a time with members of her family.

"Cruise ships make me antsy, and I don't do beaches," she explains. "My dream vacation is fast becoming a rented villa where I can relax, be part of a community, visit with the people, practice their language, and share their struggles. When I'm away from home I never think about what I do for a living. I don't take notes and I don't look for ideas. I absolutely shut down. I've heard people say they won't go vacation without their portable phones. Who needs that? I don't want to be reminded of who I am or what I am. I prefer to blend into humanity and be a part of somebody else's life for a while."

She's learned the value of flexibility. She admits that years ago she and husband Bill would hover over their children as they tried to transfer their home life to life on the road. When they lowered their expectations, they began to have more fun.

"I can remember going into the boys' tent in Africa and saying, 'Clean up this dump! Get that spear off the bed before someone drops in!' When we went to New Guinea my husband kept saying, 'Have you seen the boys? Where are they now?' About the time the plane was ready to take off we dedicated to stop worrying and give the kids their boarding passes. If they wrapped their gum in the passes and threw them away, well, so be it. They'd catch up with us later. We lightened up and had a really good time."

If Passport has a message, it's to ease up, slow down, take off, and enjoy. She advises: "If you want to leave your kids something special, leave them a part of the world." And she means it.

"I'm telling my readers not to have such high expectations for travel. Go with an open mind; leave your politics, worries, and comforts at home. The luggage will get lost--count on it. The camera won't advance for two weeks. Go with a sense of humor, a feeling of discovery, and a different set of rules. So what if you're traveling with a kid who goes into a restaurant, orders everything on the menu, and then only eats the pickle! Get smart and order just the pickle. Use common sense and don't be so rigid!"

Family trips--Costa Rica and Belize are next on the itinerary--are Erma's legacy to her children. She informed them of their inheritance one day as they sat on top of a Land Rover in Africa and watched a herd of 100 elephants.

"'Drink this in,' I told them. 'Look at all this, because so much of what we see today will disappear of change tomorrow. We may never have this chance again. Enjoy it.'"
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on Erma's travel tips
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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