Getting where?

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Category: Bits of genius (page 1 of 2)

‘very knowledgable, but never a snob’

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but Getting Where owes a lot to Anthony Bourdain.

Five years ago, I went to eat at The Kitchin in Leith – my first, and so far only, Michelin starred restaurant experience. As we were seated I looked up to find that I was put directly under a photo of the chef with Anthony Bourdain. I was happy about this, and I know at the time I definitely commented on it. It’s as though he was there to remind me that, while eating in such a lauded restaurant was an incredibly tasty and amazing experience, the really good stuff was elsewhere, and much more accessible.

Would I have jumped onto the back of someone’s motorbike in rainy Hanoi, zoomed to the outskirts of the city in some of the most incredible traffic I’ve ever seen wearing a borrowed helmet that didn’t really fit my massive western head, half terrified, half amazed as I watched my host buy ingredients from a local market without ever leaving the bike? Would I have sat on the floor of a stranger’s one-room apartment with a group of friends who didn’t speak my language, laughing, eating fried frogs legs, being shown how to wrap my own spring rolls? Would I have ignored my mother’s cautions in my head and put myself in for such an amazing, home-cooked meal if not for Anthony Bourdain’s influence?

I think it’s unlikely.

Bourdain was on my mind quite a lot when I was travelling, but particularly in Vietnam. I ate in a small handful of restaurants, but none of them were anywhere near as good as what I got walking in the street or sitting on tiny plastic stools. Not by a long way. Anthony Bourdain was the first person to put the idea in my head that that sort of thing was worth seeking out.

And thank god. There’s the kind of food you make at home, and the kind of food you get in a fancy place with a sommelier, and all manner of things in between. But what I really want when I go away from home is the kind of food other people make at home.

It’s weird to tell people you’re sad about someone famous dying. Particularly when that’s not the sort of thing you usually get affected by. No one really knows what to say to you. Not unlike when anyone else dies you’re sad about I guess. But there’s no point of reference when people don’t know what someone might mean to you.

I didn’t watch him much on TV, but Bourdain’s writing and opinions on food and travel had a tremendous influence on me. That influence continues to lead me to some of the best experiences and flavours in my life.

But the thing about this that tears me up even more is how our brains can sometimes win against us. And that we still haven’t worked out what to do about the more sinister parts of our inner chemistry.

The drive to create and explore makes you better, but in my experience, it also often comes with crippling self-doubt and all manner of other hard stuff to fight through. And my experience doesn’t even include addiction, so I can only imagine how that amplifies and twists a challenge.

You can be smart and honest and creative and prolific and kind and thoughtful, but you can also be disintegrating from the inside. I try as hard as I can to remember this about people, particularly when I’m feeling awful myself. But it’s very hard to remember the inner lives of others when your own is so loud.

I went to see Anthony Bourdain read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival when he was touring on Medium Raw. (I took a vegetarian with me. She loved it!) He was insightful and amusing and did a great job putting the snobbery of some question-askers right where it belonged. It was fantastic.

I did not wait in the ages-long queue to get my book signed. I never know what to say in those situations, and I also decided my time would be better spent in a pub with a beer and some good food talking shit with my friend. So I skipped the signing and went for the pint. I like to think he’d have preferred to do the same.

For me, it’s ok that I never got to say hello or thanks. The best I can do is keep eating everything I can try without discrimination, and encouraging others to do the same. And the next time I sit on a plastic stool with a hot bowl of something delicious, I know who I’ll be thinking of.

The places that have chosen me have already done so

I could have written about the crazy camping kit I just bought this week, or my friend’s annual BBQ in Selkirk where I rocked up in a home-made Joan of Arc costume, but all I really want to do is continue devouring the hell out of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And as this is my 100th post, I decided I’m allowed to do whatever I want. Including not write a proper post this week.

So next week I’ll be back with wonderful stories of my first ever Scottish camping/hiking trip, which starts Friday. But for now, I leave you with this:

You write that tourism is a search for a place that will embrace you. Is that partly what you’re doing with your walks?

No, not really. I’m an unrepentant Londoner, and the places that have chosen me (because I think it’s that way round: places choose you, rather than vice versa), have already done so. I think you only have room for two or three serious affairs of place in a lifetime, just as you only have emotional space for two or three serious love affairs.

Will Self

Psychogeography is next on the list then.

One of my favourites

Corner Seat

Suspended in a moving night
The face in the reflected train
Looks at first sight as self-assured
As your own face– But look again:

Windows between you and the world
Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;
Then why does your reflection seem
So lonely in the moving night?

-Louis MacNeice

I’m not super big on poetry, especially for an English major, but I have always loved this.

Nearly everything is really interesting

Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.

Richard Feynman (If you’re not familiar with him, you should be.)

The wasted energy of being a girl

The world is a dangerous place for little girls. Besides, little girls are more fragile, more delicate, more brittle than little boys. ‘Watch out, be careful, watch,’ ‘Don’t climb trees, don’t dirty your dress, don’t accept lifts from strange men. Listen but don’t learn, you won’t need it.’ And so the snail’s antennae grow, watching for this, looking for that, the underneath of things. The threat. And so she wastes so much of her energy, seeking to break those circuits, to push up the millions of tiny thumbs that have tried to quelch energy and creativity and strength and self-confidence; that have so effectively caused her to build fences against possibility, daring; that have so effectively kept her imprisoned inside her notions of self-worthlessness.

-Robyn Davidson, Tracks

Eff it after all

Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

-Douglas Adams

If we can get to the moon…

Dream the impossible, go make it happen. And sooner or later you’re going to surprise yourself. Just go out and do your best.

Captain Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, on what it’s like up there and what he hopes it teaches humanity.


I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

Knowledge without mileage = BS

My friend Dan brought this bit of Henry Rollins to my attention when we were talking about my travel plans, and it’s fantastic. He’s right. You gotta go out and get some stories (even if you don’t end up quite as good at telling them as he is).

Granted if you watch through the whole 4 parts of this you’ll find it’s at least 50% about gastrointestinal gymnastics, but the first and second parts are, in the main, about booking and embarking on a Trans-Siberian adventure. Well worth watching.

Henry Rollins clearly doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the food adventures of, well, adventuring, but I still love him anyway. I do aim to have more than just a story of vomit when I return, but if ever there was an entertaining take on being ill on a train, this is probably it.

The bit about running through Frankfurt airport is also hilariously accurate. It’s always as though you’ve been dropped on a friggin’ Möbius strip and your connection can’t be anywhere but the furthest point possible from where you start.

Tough question

If we are the guardians of the environment, obligated to do our very best to protect the natural world—if that natural world, increasingly, exists only at our pleasure and as the result of much hard work and vigilance, are we not also our brothers’ keepers? Where is that line, that balance between the needs of man and that of the incredible, graceful, terrible, gorgeous creatures who still manage to survive in what passes for the wild?

I sure as Hell don’t know.

-Anthony Bourdain
from a great post on uncomfortable questions raised in the course of travel