I have a confession to make: I’m falling in love with Anthony Bourdain.
After twelve years without a television to share my life with I discovered his shows when we were wandering in New Zealand. The food. The locations. His sass. I was smitten. Then, I began to read, you know he’s a writer, don’t you? Swoon. He writes about food. He writes about travel. He will awaken your lust for both:
The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.
— Anthony Bourdain
“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”
― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
― Anthony Bourdain
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and whats happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”
― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Why do we go away? An interesting question to ponder.
And what Terry says is very true as well: we travel so that we can come back.
Homecoming is an integral part of journeying. Almost everyone does it at some point. It’s a surprise when we first discover that home did not wait quietly for us, preserved like an exhibit in the museum of our minds. It is sometimes a shock to find that, although we have returned, we are not, in fact, home in the same sense as when we left it. When we take off to travel, we are, in many senses, the place we leave. Indiana is taken to Borneo, Borneo is seen through Indiana’s eyes. When we return, we bring Borneo with us, and he points out things in Indiana we never noticed before he shared his lenses with us. To me, that is the single most important function of travel: the ability to see home through new eyes, to evaluate the common from an angle we’d never considered. Instead of looking at the world through our cultural telescope, we begin to see the world like a marble at the end of a kaleidoscope. Same place. Entirely different view.
What about you? Why do you travel? What have you noticed upon coming home?
by Don Blanding
West of the sunset stands my house,
There… and east of the dawn;
North to the Arctic runs my yard;
South to the Pole, my lawn;
Seven seas are to sail my ships
To the ends of the earth… beyond;
Drifters’ gold is for me to spend
For I am a vagabond.
Fabulous cities are mine to loot;
Queens of the earth to wed;
Fruits of the world are mine to eat;
The couch of a king, my bed;
All that I see is mine to keep;
Foolish, the fancy seems
But I am rich with the wealth of Sight
The coin of the realm of dreams.
I found the book, Vagabond’s House laying on my friend Powell’s coffee table and couldn’t resist curling into her big white sofa for a read while the relentless rain washed the memories from Kailua Beach’s sands with yesterday’s footprints, leaving a blank canvas for tomorrow.
I read the dedication and smiled:
To the restless ones
To all the gallant frantic fools
Who follow the path of the sun
Across blue waters
To distant mountains
I dedicate my book.
He wrote this book for me. In 1928.
I love that about books, the transcendence of space and time, how the words, the thoughts, the very heart of a man can reach through lifetimes and touch mine. That’s a miracle, if there ever was one.
Don Blanding is well known as The Vagabond Poet; in his day, he traveled to all of the places I’ve come to love best, across Europe and Central America before settling in Hawaii, where he kindly left one of his books for me to find.
His poetry sings to my soul. The simple line drawings he penned to accompany them captivate me. I’ve fallen in love with a man who was gone a decade and a half before I arrived. I love that about books.
Looking for a poet to inspire your vagabonding? This is your guy.
I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.
You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!
As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.
At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)
In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
I spent some time talking with local residents of Monteverde, asking about the history and traditions associated with their Christmas holiday celebrations. Everyone got so excited that they started talking over one another, but I had a translator, so I think we captured everything they wanted to share with me. Here is some unique insight on Costa Rican traditions, and more specifically, traditions of Monteverde.
Festival de la Luz is a holiday festival held in San Jose every year. The people of Monteverde view the big city as a bit intimidating, especially with young children, so seven years ago, they adapted their own version of Festival de la Luz, naming it Monteverde Brilla, translated as “Monteverde Shines”. On the first Thursday of December, the community celebrates culture, art, and healthy recreation for the whole family, with a parade made up of bands, floats, and performing groups. They hope every year to teach their children the history of Costa Rica, and form healthy traditions among children, families, and the local community. I heard school bands practicing everywhere I walked last month, as they prepared to play during this festival, and it is something Monte Verde is very proud of.
Costa Ricans have adopted a lot of American traditions, such as giving gifts to children from “Santa Claus,” and singing Christmas carols. But because this area is largely influenced by Quakers, who first settled in Monteverde during the Korean War, there are alternative traditions offered as well. The Monteverde Friends School recently built a new meeting hall where they hosted a beautiful holiday presentation by the children who attend the school. This meeting hall doubles as a place of silent worship. Quakers in the community hold a special yearly service where the whole community gathers, shares food, and trades cookies, after singing traditional carols.
Some Quakers and others in the community keep Jesus’ birth at the forefront of the holiday and teach children that Jesus wasn’t given gifts until days later when the Wise Men brought him Frankincense and myrrh. For this reason, some people do not give gifts to children until a week or two after Christmas.
At the beginning of December, families decorate Christmas trees and put out their nativity scenes. They do not place Jesus in the scene until Christmas Eve at midnight.
Families gather on December 22 and 23 to make tamales, which is a long-lasting tradition for them. During Christmas, they include various types and cuts of meat, rice, and vegetables. Tamales are also popular during Holy Week at the end of April, but meat is traditionally not included. In December, families cook and trade tamales, while drinking Rompope (their version of egg nog WITH alcohol).
At midnight on Christmas Eve, when families introduce baby Jesus into the nativity scene, they each eat a grape (I am told that some families eat a total of only 12 grapes, while others don’t have a particular number), and make a wish for the new year and the new season. They hug, and celebrate good things they are expecting in the coming season.
On Christmas Day, families gather with neighbors and friends, share food, drinks, songs, and gifts. I was told to look forward to eating tamales while drinking fresh coffee with them on Christmas Day. Tamales and coffee? I honestly cannot wait.
“One strike against travel writing, though, is that many writers who describe familiar places without making shallow or trite observations suddenly run into trouble when they go on the road. They seem to lose their inhibitions when they find themselves in exotic surroundings, and start telling us how red-cheeked and healthy the children look, how much more in touch with nature Third World farmers appear, or how dull-witted the natives look because they stare at foreigners with their mouths hanging open. Part of the fun of being a traveler is making broad generalizations from what little you see and hear, or discovering that there is a grain of truth in many cultural stereotypes, but those sorts of insights don’t necessarily belong in a book.”
–Mark Salzman, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)
One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.
This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.
Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.
In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).
Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.