How come you’ve got children?

How do you mean?

 

Well, if you’re set on being an English travel writer in the high style, what you clearly don’t do – like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark or Colin Thubron – is have children. You’ve got two, I see from your biography.

And a dog.  I suppose travel’s become such a commonplace that we naturally fit it into our lives rather than make it its glorious focus, which might fairly describe, say, Freya Stark’s approach.  You’re right that it makes a difference, one that’s largely to do with compromise; while preparing my latest book, Meander, a lot of negotiation was involved before I felt I had my family’s blessing to travel for a full month at a time when my girls were just 7 and 11. The question is whether the book would have better one if I had travelled without such time constraints.

 

Wish You Ate Here

By Dan Coxon

Travel

Imagine an island. A perfect desert island, a sandy coral atoll with a grove of palm trees at its leafy hub. Imagine sitting on the fine golden sands, a palm frond spread beneath you, dipping your fingers unashamedly into a plate of food. The fish was caught only minutes earlier by three young boys in a leaky boat, one of them bailing out the bottom while the others swam with shortened spears; the yams were pulled from the ground that morning, baked on an open fire that still smolders at your back. You close your eyes as you work the meal over your tongue. The warm island breeze caresses your eyelids.

Ask me for my abiding memories of the time I’ve spent on the road, from the extended trips to Australasia to the weekend breaks in San Francisco, and you may be surprised. While the sights would undoubtedly make an appearance – Alcatraz, San Diego Zoo, the reefs in Fiji, the monoliths of the Australian outback – it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the topic of food.

It’s curious that culinary experiences should form such a large part of travel’s appeal, but I know I’m not alone in this. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme famously said “When I travel I normally eat club sandwiches, or I bring my own food”, but for those of us without our own restaurant kitchen the lure of exotic cuisine is part of what draws us to pastures new. What we see, or hear, or smell while away from home undoubtedly imprints itself on our memories, as do the people we meet when we get there (or, indeed, while we’re still en route) – but the tastes of the unfamiliar are often what come back strongest, like the lingering tingle of a perfectly-spiced taco.

I can’t tell you what I ate two days ago, and I may struggle to recollect last week’s meals, despite the fact that I cooked most of them myself. And yet I can recall in precise detail the calf’s liver and polenta eaten at a hotel restaurant off a small square in Venice, the smoky patatas bravas in a standing-room-only tapas bar in Madrid – even the cheap bento box bought from a tiny convenience store in downtown Tokyo. (That meal was eaten in a nearby park, while local teens chowed down on Big Macs across the path.) It’s not just the quality of the food that remains in the mind, either. Food bought on the road will never earn Michelin stars, but somehow its memory still dallies on your tastebuds long after you return home. Anyone who’s eaten a gristly, gravy-sodden Australian pie will confirm this. Clearly it’s the travel itself that lends an extra spice to the dish.

This may not have always been the case. Sir Francis Drake returned to England bearing the potato, and early visitors to India marveled at the exotic array of spices, but it’s hard to imagine every historical traveler being won over by the food they encountered. As recently as the 1980s, touring sports teams would often eat bland Westernized dishes in their hotel’s restaurant when on the subcontinent, for fear of contracting food poisoning before an important game. It’s only in recent years that the tourism industry has fully accepted our hunger for culinary adventures – perhaps due to the improved efficacy of anti-diarrhea medication. Or maybe we’ve all genuinely embraced the global melting pot that has accompanied worldwide migration.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that food and travel are now the perfect pairing. A brief glance at the Travel Channel’s schedule reveals Food Wars, Bizarre Foods, Man V. Food Nation and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations at the top of the menu. We travel to indulge ourselves and to sample new experiences – and nowhere do these two blend as perfectly as in the food we eat.

Of course, when one talks about international cuisine there’s always the risk of pretension, the ghost of the amateur galloping gourmand. You can spot these when they insist that one absolutely must try the steak at the Four Seasons in Sydney, or they wax lyrical on the wine lists in Bangkok’s boutique hotels. For these culinary explorers the travel is secondary to the food, and they’ll happily bunker down in a hotel for their entire stay – as long as the chef has imported those miraculous truffles from Italy again. It’s all about the cuisine, and before long the travel gets buried beneath a heavy cream sauce and shavings of caramelized parsnip.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – we don’t want to tread our own path of traveler’s pretension. But part of the joy of food is its endless variety, and nowhere else do we experience this quite as forcefully as we do on the road. There are those of us who like to experiment with our weekly diet even when we’re at home, but it is travel that truly encourages us to challenge our palates. Sometimes the menu itself is indecipherable – sometimes there’s no menu at all. But as long as we can point and politely ask please, there’s a pure pleasure in sampling new tastes, in broadening our sensory horizons with a plate of steaming hot… whatever. It’s an experience that takes us back to our first explorations of the world, and the reason so many children bite, lick and suck their way through their formative years. We grew up learning to taste our surroundings – when we’re traveling we fall back on old habits.

Maybe this helps explain the rise of street food through the culinary ranks, for anyone who has enjoyed the unique pleasures of the vendor’s cart across the globe will tell you that it’s one of the most visceral experiences any culture can offer. Walk through a market in Asia and you’ll encounter a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, colors and tastes, a chaotic patchwork of the senses that can range from the sublime to the overwhelming. Here there are no menus, no waiters – no table, even. Just you and the food, a sampling board of new experience that’s as varied as it is foreign, taking you back to a time when every taste was unique, every texture exotic and new.

And it explains why the flavors of different cultures stick with us long after we’ve returned home, too. Most cities are gradually modernizing their way towards anonymity, most fields look like every other field you’ve seen, but in a simple forkful of food you can discover tastes, combinations, and entire worlds that have never been open to you before. It’s why I can still recall eating jellyfish in Hong Kong six years ago, when I can’t remember the burger I ate last week. Or the fried pig’s ear crackling on my tongue in Barcelona, while the turkey we ate last Thanksgiving has passed from memory. When we travel, we do so in search of novelty – and nothing is as fresh, or as new, as a previously undiscovered flavor bursting on your palate.

It’s why I can still recall that grilled reef fish my wife and I ate on a tiny tropical island in Fiji, the flesh succulent and spiked with red chilies picked from a local bush. Why I can remember the sweet yams that went with it, scooping the flesh from the skins as we went; the coconut milk sipped from fruit that had been cut from the tree only minutes earlier. Nothing brings back the memory of the brilliant, clear ocean and unspoiled sands quite like those flavors, the flavors imprinted on my tastebuds like a unique barcode to a place and time. In my mouth they become a time machine, transporting me back to the sun, and the sand, and the soft whisperings of the sea. Another world on the end of my fork.

How come so much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, takes place in Brooklyn? And in Manhattan too, for that matter. Your newest book, Not Now, Voyager, has a lot of both places.

Maybe I should be called a regional writer. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though I moved away at seventeen, it left its claws deep inside me. So much of what I’ve seen and done since is measured against my early memories, the house, the street, the school, the neighborhood. Not that they’re all great memories. The truth is that when I was living there, all I could think of was escape. I thought Brooklyn was boring. It was boring. And yet now, I seem to find it fascinating, in retrospect. It was a kind of closed community, with its own ways and habits, and those kinds of places are always intriguing to look at. (Today Brooklyn is completely different, of course, no longer boring. When I go back there, sometimes to look at the ocean or walk on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, it feels exotic.) As far as Manhattan, I’ve lived in the same neighorhood for many years now, and it feels like its own little enclave. I’m not so aware of place when it comes to architecture, stores, and so on. It’s more the feel of a place that grips me, the look of the sky at certain hours, where the sun sets, the sounds and smells, the general aura. I’ve written about other places I lived in—Rome, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis. But I always return to New York. It’s the place that feels right for me.

 

How come you’ve traveled so much, especially when you say in Now Now, Voyager that you don’t like it?

Some of it was for pleasure—visiting European countries for the first time as a young person. My husband and I lived in Rome long ago when he had a year-long Fulbright grant, and that was great. It wasn’t traveling—it was living. I had a grocery store, a bakery, all the things you need for a life and don’t get as a tourist. A lot of my traveling has been for work. I never had a permanent teaching job because I wanted my time for writing, so for years I lived like a nomad, taking one-semester jobs here and there, all over the country. But I was always a bit of the outsider, and I liked it that way. I didn’t want to be part of a large institution and have to obey its rules.

 

How did you manage to write so many books and teach and raise a family?

I really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess because I didn’t do much else. I don’t really like vacations that much. I like working. Those early books—I loved writing them. When I could sit at my desk and dream—that was what I liked best.

 

You have two grown daughters, I’ve heard. How did having and raising children affect your work?

Oh, what a question. I could write a book about it, and maybe someday I will. It’s very hard, as everyone knows. Almost impossible. Many contemporary women writers have families, but if you think about it historically, the writers we remember today, the very best ones, say Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen—they didn’t raise children. Still, I don’t think I would have been a better writer without children. I probably would have been worse: loving and raising children taught me about life, and gave me so much to write about. When my kids were young, I would swear to myself that I’d put my work first; I thought a serious writer had to do that. But whenever the kids needed me or even wanted me, I dropped everything to be with them. Sometimes I wanted their company as a relief from writing. And I was very lucky: I had daughters who loved reading and writing, so I could spend hours reading to them and with them, which was part of the world of books that I loved. They entered into that world with me. The hard part, of course, is dividing your attention and your emotional energies, because both activities are so intense and demanding.

 

Do you ever think of what you might have done if you hadn’t become a writer?

All the time. I think I would have been good at running an organization or program of some kind—not a corporation, maybe a non-profit. I like to make order out of chaos and to tell people what to do. But I never got the chance to boss anyone around, except when my kids were very young, and that didn’t last long. I always wanted to play old popular tunes in a piano bar and have people drop bills into a wine glass on top of the piano. I wanted to sing and dance in musical comedy. But I think those things are pretty much beyond me now.

 

Do you think you’ll keep writing forever?

Probably. I used to write because I loved it, and it was an escape from daily life. Now I think I write more out of habit. It’s simply what I do once I’m up and dressed. I like translating—I’ve translated several books from Italian. Maybe I should have been a translator, I mean full-time. Translating has all the pleasures of writing, finding the right words, the right phrases and rhythms, except you don’t have to make the stuff up. That’s the hardest part.

 

Are you glad you started publishing when you did, in the 1980s?

I certainly am. I feel like I got in under the wire, before publishing started selling out to the conglomerates and the whole industry began disintegrating. I was at the tail end of a long and wonderful tradition of honorable book publishing that’s pretty much history now—or exists only in pockets here and there–which is very unfortunate. And I was lucky in having a terrific editor, Ted Solotaroff, who was loyal through my first six books and became a close friend. It’s much harder for younger writers now.

 

Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Nothing about how to get published. Business was never my strong suit. My main advice is, Read. Read great books carefully and learn from them. Don’t read only your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from the dead—remember they were once alive and struggling too.

 

 

Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to a big fat person for thinking Jesus, I hope I don’t have to sit next to a big fat person on this flight.

Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to the biggest, fattest person on the flight after watching this person in particular walk down the aisle and thinking Jesus. Like that one right there.