Writer, journalist, wanderer. "Gnashing," a blog about stuff — cultural, personal, important and frivolous. Lots about wanderlust and books and movies and memories. Much about travel and social observations. Hopefully entertaining, a little insightful, forever random and rambling.
I never liked horses. I have my reasons: The massive height and rippling musculature. The crazed eight-ball eyes, rubbery mouths and domino choppers. The lurching giraffe necks and screeching neighs. The rearing, kangaroo-punching hooves and kicking hind legs. The feral obstinacy. The abundant, free-falling poop.
Frankly, horses scare me. I’ve rode horses. It’s like riding a displeased minotaur.
For all that, I don’t hate horses. But I know someone who does. That’s the person behind the website I Hate Horses, which is now, sadly, just a lowly Facebook page. The writer launches with “I hate horses. They are stupid, fat, nasty, brainless wasted space in this world.” It doesn’t get much more erudite than that, I’m afraid, though some of the rants are funny despite the inescapable barnyard humor.
What spurs this little blog post is a line by journalist extraordinaire Susan Orlean in her new essay collection “On Animals.” She writes that as a child she experienced “that golden moment when I, like millions of young girls throughout human history, fell into an adolescent swoon over horses.”
Why is this? It’s a fact that many young girls become smitten with those glossy, galloping pasture pets. Growing up I knew girls who collected pricey model horsies that stood in regal poses and, if lucky (or rich), actually owned one or two of the animals. I, who was busy burning model airplanes and catching snakes and listening to KISS records, never grasped the fascination with the big snorting beasts. Dogs, yes; horses, nay.
And yet horses exude an undeniable majesty, a strange, ravishing nobility that can only be summed up in the fancy word equine. They are shiny, demonstrably wise (watch them buck dimwit riders), tough, fast, strong, with billowing manes and dancing tails, despite an overwhelming perfume of hay and horsiness.
I’ve ridden these gorgeous monsters, these mythological creatures that might have sprung from Homer or Ovid. It was not pleasant. In Egypt I rode a dumb, galumphing camel that gave me more delight. I found the horses disobedient and nearly uncontrollable. I cursed them and dug my sneakers into their ribs. I am surprised they didn’t hurl me off onto the dusty plain and stomp me to death.
I’m no cowboy, and farms are as foreign to me as, say, the opera stage, or a Lamaze class. Horses may not be my thing — there are horsey people and sane people — but I appreciate them for their might and mystery. They are wondrous but weird, and they definitely have a demonic streak, but I kind of like them for that, too. Giddyup.
On a frigid fall weekday, I strolled to the library, determined to slow down my crazed buying of books by borrowing some instead, and I suddenly tripped and fell, all but face-planting on the cracked concrete. The wind swirled. Snowflakes fluttered, constellations of falling stars. I clutched my knee and whined like a baby infant. God wept.
Everything okay, I rose, did the ritual dust-off, and walked on, wearing a pinched wince on my unscathed puss. I casually looked around, praying no one saw.
At the library, I had work to do, books to seize. Recently, I had the throbbing urge to re-read “Beloved,” the Toni Morrison classic enshrined as one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Slavery, infanticide and malevolent ghosts — fine holiday reading. Found it, grabbed it.
Oscar chatter circles Jane Campion’s new film, the spare, unsparing western “The Power of the Dog,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. For that, the 1967 book it’s based on, by the unsung Thomas Savage, is receiving renewed attention. So I also got it. (And I read it. It’s terrific — all searing psychological grit with a blindsiding twist that will snuff your dreams of ever becoming a cowboy.)
I’m hot and tepid with novelist Lauren Groff — I quite liked her novel about a utopian commune “Arcadia,” but found the acclaimed marital dissection “Fates and Furies” ordinary and wildly overrated. Still, I’m going to give her latest super-hyped novel, “Matrix,” a shot. So I got that, too. It’s a character study about a young woman who discovers love and feminist agency in an impoverished abbey in 12th century England. Sounds … intriguing?
Heading to Portugal soon, I picked up Portuguese literary eminence and Nobel Prizer José Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.” This isn’t Saramago’s most famous novel — that would be “Blindness” — but it’s kind of better. It’s a mash-up of the four Gospels with Saramago slyly, ironically and contempletively (and controversially) filling in the mysterious, nettling voids of those holy books. He presumes and vamps on what Jesus did in his childhood and adolescence, up to his grisly demise on the cross with a skeptic’s impish wit. I loved the book. I loved the shivery last line: “But what Jesus did not see, on the ground, was the black bowl into which his blood was dripping.” Human, all too human.
Elizabeth Strout knows humans. Author of such intimate, character-driven novels as “Olive Kitteridge” and “My Name is Lucy Barton,” her prose is lean, literary and deeply felt, homing in on individuals, real people, with an empathic laser beam. She banishes cynicism for a rare authenticity that invites organic joy and pain. Her latest is “Oh William!” (oh, that title!), a continued riff on characters from “Lucy Barton.” Lucy and her ex-husband William reunite platonically for what’s inescapably called a journey of discovery, one with neat, homey zigzags that ring hard and true. Its humanity is unassailable, its humor wry, its imprint lasting. That’s another book I got.
I scored that day among the teeming stacks, under the florescent mists. Five books essentially for free is nothing to smirk at, and my luck seemed boundless, until it wasn’t. I couldn’t find Franzen’s latest family blockbuster “Crossroads” or John Gardner’s cult classic “Grendel” — an ironic tale told from the point of view of the aggrieved monster in “Beowulf” — or Elizabeth Samet’s “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” and, gee, doesn’t that sound like festive holiday reading, not unlike “Beloved”?
I have a cold, all the pumpkin pie is gone, and my pants are dirty. Still, Thanksgiving was fine, just grand, as we did all the gathering, eating and digesting (Macy’s has the floats, we have the bloat) called for on this most misunderstood and head-smacking of holidays, in which hysterical myth supersedes historical fact.
Massacres, disease, the galling absence of quality cranberry sauce — I won’t get into the lowlights of the so-called First Thanksgiving. Think rather turkey, stuffing and pie obtained in an annual pilgrimage to Whole Foods, pun most sincerely intended.
It’s a whitewashed affair, with thoughts totally not on the brutal realities of 1621 and more on unabashed gluttony, soggy family movies and, for the yahoos, grunts from the gridiron. Put the guy carving the turkey in suspenders and a bow tie and you’ve got a Norman Rockwell painting.
Sounds unbearably wholesome. More like ho-hum-some. Which is how I like it. Give me low-key and low-pressure — you know, Covid-sized shindigs — over the flustered festivities of my childhood. That’s when long-lost relatives converged in fragrant farm towns for queasy parties featuring a veritable rogue’s gallery of relations, from fawning, darling grandparents to scofflaw second cousins. (I’m looking at you, Billy, the toothless terror.)
Those were the days, until they weren’t, and I am glad. Though I’m not pleased about the pesky cold I somehow caught out of thin, albeit chilly, air. I’m all snot and snorts, hacks and honks. It’s hardly incapacitating — if someone said let’s hit the slopes or jet to Spain, I’d pack in five minutes flat — but it is annoying. Waking each morning I feel mummified, rising from a death slumber, swaddled in phlegm.
Thanksgiving has always been entrée to the big kahuna of holidays, Christmas, much as, say, Harry Potter’s been a gateway drug to genre realms for an entire generation (and for many stunted adults), be it to fantasy, sci-fi, Marvel or manga.
But I digress. Thanksgiving kicks open the wreathy door for the even more brazen fantasies of Christmas, which has also lost its historical meaning, drowned in an ocean of twinkly, tinseled fabulism animated by sardonic elves and sexless singing snowmen. Look closely, waaay in the background, and you might spot a slight bearded fellow whose birthday this supposedly is. He’s the one waving meekly.
The power of myth prevails on some of our biggest holidays. (Easter. Sigh.) But that’s what we’re there for — entertainment, merriment, community, ritual (not the deep, religious kind, but the fun, Chardonnay kind), and the weird random fairy tale that will keep the kiddies hyperactively interested.
But here’s the truth: there is no Santa Claus, there is no Easter Bunny, there is no Great Pumpkin and there is no utopian First Thanksgiving sit-down. We all know this. Nobody cares.
What we do care about isn’t trivial, it’s familial. It’s a little indulgent and, well, a lot ignorant. Yet it’s merry and nourishing. And, no matter a cold and some carping, it counts.
As I’ve mentioned about 32 times, I’m going to Portugal in January, another far-flung journey, a big bite of exoticism and edification, of soul nourishment and reckless indulgence in the name of peripatetic pleasure. I’m absolutely thrilled about it. It’s going to be terrible.
I’m riding the old seesaw of doubt and delight I always teeter on once I’ve bought my ticket and committed to swanning to someplace faraway, a jaunt that could be brilliant or a bust. I’m giddy. I’m aghast.
After a two-week flurry of excited planning for Portugal — I booked neat boutique hotels, cheap tours, acclaimed restaurants and compiled a list of things to do and see — here’s what I wrote in my journal the other day:
“I don’t think Portugal is going to be that great. The giant swell of energy I had for the trip has fizzled. And yet I’m still all about it and I kind of can’t wait.”
Three sentences oscillating with exquisite ambivalence.
The initial bloom of enthusiasm wilts into a kind of premature burnout. I’m two months away from the actual trip and already I’ve invested too much time, energy and money on a mirage. Waiting, I stew.
It’s not about this particular destination. It’s about all destinations, be it Japan, New Orleans or my recent trip to Paris. I get loopy, worried that all my anticipatory energies are for naught. What if it’s disappointing? What if I get in an accident? What if, god forbid, it rains? What am I doing? Refund!
This worry-wart-ism, this privileged angst mixed with delirium, has me up at all hours researching and reserving and sometimes, in fits of bleary-eyed buyer’s remorse, canceling flights only to rebook them the next morning when I’m a mite more sane.
Portugal ain’t Paris, and its comparatively modest offerings — a smattering of churches, a few museums, breath-stealing views, spicy sausage and smoky sardines — distress me. I’m going to the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, and both seem a little sleepy, more scenic than interactive, more walk-y than do-y.
Still, I look forward to a long tour of labyrinthine Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest, most atmospheric neighborhood, and hopping classic Tram 28, rattling up city slopes the color of Easter candies (see below).
In Porto I’m doing a fancy port tasting and taking a celebrated food tour. I’ll hear fado in a cavern-esque club. (How much fado singing I can take is a whole other matter.) And Portugal’s famed chocolate chain Chocolataria Equador — I’m there. (I’ll have the Dark Chocolate with Gin, por favor.)
Then there’s the people, always the people. I’m sure I’ll be saying obrigado (thank you) profusely.
The juices flow again just typing those words. I’ll always feel a churn of emotions about each journey — I’m a stubborn realist — so it’s about harnessing the positive and running with it. I have a good feeling about this. I think.
No matter. It’s happening. I’ve done my homework and charted the trip in almost granular detail. Everything’s in place. (I think.)
Now I stand back, sit down, and wait patiently, with or without a hearty supply of Xanax.
There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.
Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks).
Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …
Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.
Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.
Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”
What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich.
Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.
Once long ago, I was plopped on the sofa watching TV’s campy “Battlestar Galactica” — the one with Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict that face-planted as a “Star Wars” wannabe — crosslegged in my bedtime uniform of briefs and oversized T, when my pet rat Rhonda scampered over and bit me on the scrotum.
I yowled like a wounded caribou dying in the wilderness. Tears welled. My brother folded over laughing. He guffawed. Indeed, he chortled.
Rhonda, a sleek black and white beauty, just sat there amid the commotion, blinking, wondering: What in the blankety-blank is this all about? Her boyfriend, the big brown bristly Ralph the rat, with the pendulous pink gonads, was probably cowering behind the bookcase, thinking: me next?
With blind curiosity and razor-sharp incisors, rats will bite anything — computer cords to concrete, earrings to ear lobes — so the question of why she did this is not up for discussion. She’s a rat. She came. She saw. She chomped.
Still: Did it look delicious? Was stuff hanging out of my underwear? No, the rodent bit straight through the cotton fabric to nip my nards. Excuse the unseemly imagery. Hey, I was, like, 10.
That’s what rats do. I once tried to kiss a later pet rat, Becky, on the head and she took a piece out of my upper lip. Like Great White sharks, rats bite first just to see if it’s edible and ask questions later. My nether regions apparently weren’t tasty; Rocky Mountain oysters were not on the menu this evening. I was both offended and relieved.
So, yes, anything. Rats will bite it, if not necessarily eat it. My many pet rats over time have enjoyed such delicacies as: shirts, expensive jeans, shoes, books, fingers, pens, a tube of Super Glue (which was miraculously empty), drum sticks, plumbing (thanks, Tammy, for the kitchen flood), plants, watches, cockroaches, geckos, toothbrushes, remote controls, and so on.
Food-wise, they will eat everything, from broccoli and beer to garbanzos and garden snails. The rat’s promiscuous palate is boundless. They have the diet of the gods, or Elvis.
Does this make rats demonic? Or just ravenous? Or really dumb? I say all three, particularly when I recall how Becky bit into the Super Glue tube, which again was somehow empty. (If not, it would have killed her quickly, yet with maximum agony.)
And still my adoration for pet rats — so-called fancy rats, or Rattus norvegicus domestica — is limitless. Despite the odd attack on my innocent childhood flesh and their unsettling Darwinian rapacity, pet rats are cuddly love bugs — clean, clever, clingy and sociable. They eat like Caligula, but still.
Long ago I wrote a gushy paean to the pet rat, noting how: “They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back.”
It’s all true, though I skimmed the creature’s staggering insatiability. Here I include a photo of Becky sharing pizza with my pal Nicole. She is clearly trying to carry off the entire wedge.
The rat had free rein, skittering right up Nicole’s leg and onto her shoulder for a big bite of pie. Rats are fun like that, looping about the house, exploring, finding mysteries and mischief, always returning to you for warm companionship. Just be sure to rinse any chicken grease from your fingers, unless you want a nasty manicure. And gents — well, you know.
“There was a point while writing when I felt the kind of self-loathing that I haven’t felt since middle school. I texted a bunch of my writer friends, and they all either said, ‘Yeah, buddy, welcome to being an author,’ or ‘Why do you think so many of us drink so much Scotch?’ ” — actor/writer Kal Penn
Sometimes writing, the very act of it, makes me sick. It’s not uncommon after a productive session, the kind when time flies in a flurry of unblocked industry, words and ideas popping, that I’m left with a residue of inexplicable malaise. I am drained, depressed, deflated. I dread returning to the page to see the massacre I have committed, and I dread facing the hard work it will require to repair it.
Writing is an out-of-proportion existential crisis for me, because too often it’s an unsparing referendum on my talent. If I write OK then I can, at best, momentarily relax. If I write badly then it’s a fiasco and I am a failure and a fraud and scrambling for a horse pill of strychnine.
Self-flagellation is as twinned with writing as the tip-tap of the keyboard. Rarely will I re-read an article once it is published or posted. When I do, invariably it’s a letdown. What I thought was good, sometimes better than good, is without fail crushingly mediocre, a lance through the writer’s rice-paper soul.
Dramatic? You bet. Most writing is performative, for the reader and the writer. So you are on, and the show had better be good. Unless you’re a hack and I can’t even think about that option. That’s worse than anything.
During an interview for my second newspaper job, I told the managing editor that writing was a physical act for me, not just a mental one. I meant that I invest so much of myself into crafting a story, taxing my brain, getting the blood flowing, almost squirming in my seat, that I actually exhaust myself if I’m doing things right. Nuts. I know.
I wish I was a kinder self-critic. Life would be easier. I would wince less. The ulcer might stop screaming. But I’m not. I’m a dick to myself.
I know writers who fa-la-la through the process, whipping out ribbons of words they’re proud of in a sliver of the time it takes me, a real bleeder. They float on air, eluding the bruising hangover I experience upon a project’s completion. Their confidence has buoyancy, like a big fat dumb balloon. (The upshot: their stuff is usually crap.)
They lack — lucky dogs — the perfectionist’s curse, knowing that whatever you have just sweat over is anything but pristine. In his quote at the top of this post, Kal Penn is learning the pain of prose that comes with a passion for craft, the “self-loathing” that leads so many writers, me included, to pour a Scotch or three.
And yet, really, come now, writing is fantastic, even when it’s excruciating — just like human love. Scotch? I get drunk on words, mostly others’ and, on that very rare occasion, my own. It’s true. And it’s an unmatchable high. I can like what I type. It’s happened. It happens. It will happen. So I keep going, the burn be damned.
I just got back from Paris. I’m ready for the next adventure.
And so, greedily, I’m off to Portugal in January. The trip hasn’t even happened. Already I’m itching for the next one, wherever that might be.
Where next? is the question pressing me — assaulting me — always. Travel is more than a bug; it’s a lifeblood. It’s what makes things worth it. Thus, with unquenchable wanderlust and heedless folly, I hopscotch the globe. Stop me before I go completely and abjectly broke.
The slightest trigger can catapult me ten time zones away. Last night I’m watching “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” on CNN. I’ve been to Italy — Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan, Cinque Terre — but Tucci, his burnished dome gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, is touring Sicily in this episode. He investigates the grungy-charming capital Palermo and eats celestial cuisine and gabs with cartoonish locals. His commentary is both wry and effusive.
Immediately I’m on the laptop researching travel to Sicily, while in the background the impossibly fit Tucci strolls alleyways, noshes pasta and relishes the job of a lifetime. Bastard.
Sicily sags. I’m not big on heat, for starters, and nothing in my reportage quite grabs me, except that Sicily is where the Cyclops is from. I love monocles.
Fixed on Italy, I look to Rome. I’ve been there twice, but have I really been there? I was so young and all. Everyone’s always going on how great Rome is, but I’m not evangelical about it. I like it enough to ponder another visit, but then, like that, I recall the conversation I had earlier in the evening with a friend in which he extolled the virtues of Vienna.
(He was over, incidentally, to watch the Icelandic folk-horror film “Lamb,” an absurdist fable about, that’s right, a half-child, half-lamb who is huggably creepy if inadvertently risible. Any Halloween tie-ins are strictly coincidental.)
So Vienna … My friend mentions Vienna’s excellence and I agree with him as I was there years ago, though I don’t remember it being mind-blowing, except for the absolutely idyllic day we spent on rented bicycles, one of the neatest things I’ve done in my travels.
Dropping Rome, I start researching Vienna, and it becomes quickly clear that the draw is not powerful enough. It’s a three-day destination at best, so I’d have to piggyback it with another nearish locale and … I’ll pass for now.
Well before I tumbled down this European rabbit hole, and before I settled on Portugal, I was considering domestic and Canadian destinations for my next journey, including Nashville, Asheville, N.C., Toronto and Quebec City. I even, for a blink, mulled Santa Fe (which I chalk up to momentary insanity).
The research is rigorous. I’ve been to Nashville, but it has since morphed into the bachelorette party capital of the world, a colossal drawback. Asheville is, like, a couple historical sites, cafes and craft breweries and lovely mountains. And so on.
As I write this, I’ve looked harder at Sicily and it’s earned points in barnacled history and fantastic food. We’ll see.
Travel’s importance in my life can’t be overestimated. I recently tallied that I’ve been to 29 countries over the years. Not bad. But that’s hardly the point. As travel guru Rick Steves says so beautifully:
“Is it a contest? Anybody who brags about how many countries they’ve been to — that’s no basis for the value of the travel they’ve done. You could have been to 100 countries and learned nothing, or you can go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there’s no correlation between people who count their countries and people who open their heart and their soul to the cultures they’re in.”
Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping.
Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides.
Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)
Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees.
I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.
The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked.
I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster.
Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)
It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:
Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common.
We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.
And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.
This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece).
Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.
With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.
At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.
The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.
When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art.
Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.
I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand.
The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people.
I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.)
Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.
The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.
It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet.
I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.
I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.
But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished.
Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic.
As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.
But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary.
Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town.
Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)
Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.
The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.
For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death.
As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.
She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop.
The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right.