Unexpected Offerings On A Return To Bali

Last month, I spent a week on the Indonesian island of Bali as a guest of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This was my first visit to that blessed place since I’d fallen in love with it 34 years ago.

Like me, the island had lost some of its innocence in the intervening years. Unlike my earlier trip, when the Balinese I met had simply welcomed me with wide eyes and hearts, this time most immediately asked me if I’d been there before. When I answered, “Yes, 34 years ago,” their eyes opened wide for a different reason and they smiled and shook their heads. “Oh, Bali has changed much since then!” they’d laugh, though many of them couldn’t say exactly how because they hadn’t even been born 34 years before.

Of course, to my eyes too, Bali had changed. The streets were much busier, clogged with trucks and motor scooters, than I remembered, and the towns were more built up; the road from Denpasar to Ubud was lined with many more buildings and fewer rice paddies than I recalled.

But in a deeper sense, the spirit of the place seemed hardly changed at all. During a few free days of wandering, I passed a number of festival processions flowing through the streets. Every day I was enchanted as I had been three decades before by the sweet, simple canangsari offerings – hand-sized compositions of colorful flowers on green coconut leaves, some graced with a cracker – that were meticulously placed outside my door and on bustling sidewalks, off-the-beaten-path foot trails, temple thresholds and business entrances alike. And while I realize I know nothing about the difficulties of being Balinese – the need to scrupulously follow rigorous traditions, for example, or the unpredictabilities of relying on a tourism economy – the people I met exuded a gentleness, tranquility, contentment and sense of sanctity in the everyday that was as exemplary, expanding and restorative for me as it was 34 years before.

But it wasn’t until my last day in Ubud that Bali’s soul-binding offerings really came to life for me.

%Gallery-171375%I began the day with a mini-pilgrimage to a paradisiacal place I had visited earlier in my stay. I had been introduced to it by a local expat named Liza who had taken my all-day writing workshop. During the workshop lunch break, she had described a beatific organic restaurant perched among the rice paddies, a short walk from central Ubud. She kindly offered to take me there, and the following day we met at Tjamphuhan bridge, walked a few minutes uphill along Jalan Raya Campuhan, then turned left up a wide paved driveway. At the top of this driveway was a sign neatly hand-lettered: TO RICE FIELDS SARI ORGANIK.

After a few minutes following this narrow path, and frequently having to step aside for a seemingly endless succession of motor scooters, we entered what seemed an enchanted land of rice paddies, palm trees and, here and there, one-story “villas” with red tile roofs. As we threaded through the paddies on this narrow path, we passed a spa, an art gallery, a couple of “house for rent” signs-of-the-times and a fledgling neighborhood of new homes called Dragonfly Villas. After about 20 minutes, we came to a sign and a stone pathway that led to Sari Organik.

An open-to-the-breezes restaurant of some two-dozen tables blossoming in the middle of verdant rice paddies, Sari Organik has one of the most exquisite settings of any restaurant I’ve ever visited. We sat in this tranquil place sipping juice from fresh-cut coconuts, and as sunset slowly gilded the paddies, the centuries seemed to slip away.

I went back on my last day to pay homage to Sari Organik and to see if it could possibly be as magical in the harsh light of midday. Happily, it was equally lush and glorious and vibrant at noon, pulsing with the peaceful energy of the land around it. I savored an omelet of organic mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious strong coffee, and struck up a conversation with a smiling, energetic woman who turned out to be the restaurant’s extraordinary founder and owner, Nila, who told me that her goal is to help the local farmers grow a diversity of crops organically, so that they can preserve the environment and become economically self-sustaining. (You can read more about her amazing story here.)

After that serendipitous encounter, I walked back through the rice fields, feeling singularly content. I had gotten to do just about everything I had been hoping to do on Bali, I was thinking. There was just one exception – I hadn’t heard a gamelan orchestra. I’d caught snatches of gamelan music at a couple of different performances during the festival, but I hadn’t had that soul-transporting immersion in the music that I remembered vividly from my first trip to Indonesia.

Just as I was having these thoughts, approaching the end/beginning of the path, the sounds of a gamelan orchestra drifted on the air! I could hardly believe it – it was as if my thoughts had conjured those notes.

I reached the sign for Sari Organik. To my right was the wide, paved driveway that led to the main street, but then I noticed to my left a narrow, hard-packed dirt path that paralleled a rock wall twice my height. The sounds of the gamelan were coming from somewhere beyond that wall. The wall disappeared into a densely vegetated interior, with a couple of red-tiled roofs visible in the distance. I figured that if I followed the path, eventually it would lead to a break in the wall where I could enter and discover the source of the gamelan music. I wanted to see the orchestra with my own eyes.

So I set off down this winding path, following the sinuous curve of the wall and the music’s tantalizing rise and fall.

I startled two workers who were on their way to restore a magnificent old house set among the paddies on the other side of a stream that paralleled the trail. They laughed and welcomed me to the forest. A few minutes later, a lone and lanky Western woman with a backpack passed me and pressed on into the green. After 15 minutes of ambling, I came to a lush setting where palm trees, twining vines, giant ferns and slick bushes with propeller-like leaves tangled the air. Still there was no break in the wall, and the gamelan music was sounding fainter and fainter.

I stood in the shade of that jungly patch, puzzling over what to do, wondering if I would ever find the break in the wall, when suddenly it hit me: I had already found the break in the wall; it was in my mind. Listen! I didn’t need to see the orchestra – my wish had been to hear the gamelan. And there it was, all around me. What more did I want?

I walked back down the path and the sounds of the music swelled in the shadowed air. When I reached a point where it seemed loudest of all, I stopped and closed my eyes. Gongs, flutes and drums gonged and trilled and boomed in layered patterns, lapidary high notes skipped like diamonds across a pond, bong-gong-gong-booming low notes reverberated in my ribs, rising and falling and rising, staccato and slow, each note like a drop of water from heaven, submerging me in a pool of otherworldly harmony. Time stopped.

After a while – ten minutes? twenty? – the music ceased, and the forest echoed with its silence.

Then the harmonies flowed anew, and suddenly I felt released. It was time to move on; I had a taxi to catch, a plane to board.

I realized that all day I had been regretting my imminent departure, despairing at having to lose this blessed place. Now Ubud had answered that need, bestowing one last canangsari-lesson that would allow me to leave: I didn’t need to see the gamelan to hear its music, and I didn’t need to be in Bali to have Bali in me. It was already there, gonging and trilling and booming, rice paddy blooming, and it always would be.

[Photo Credits: Don George]

Being And Nothingness: Questing For Indolence In Ubud

OCTOBER 5, 10:30 a.m. — I’m sitting by my private villa’s footprint-shaped infinity pool at the Royal Pita Maha resort in northern Ubud, Bali. I’ve been on Bali for five days now as an invited guest at the gloriously cornucopic and chaotic Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, a five-day literary love-fest that brings together 130 writers from more than 20 countries with hundreds of literature enthusiasts to celebrate words and humanity. We’re in day three of the festival and I’m totally loving it. I’ve already had stimulating conversations with dozens of wonderful worldly people and I feel that my personal planet is broadening and broadening with each encounter.

And that’s in addition to the sublime joy of being in Ubud itself, which – once you get away from the main drag, which is clogged with motor scooters, taxis, touts, trucks and tourists – bestows still a little piece, and peace, of heaven.

I taught an all-day travel writing workshop (with students from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, England and the U.S. – we were a world-girdling odyssey without going anywhere!) two days ago and pontificated on a panel about travel writing yesterday. Tomorrow I have a full day of back-to-back panels on travel writing, the intersection of food and culture, and the future of publishing – but today, my schedule is enticingly, exhilaratingly, panel-free.

I have been thinking that I should spend the day exploring the less-touristed northern and western corners of Bali, or paying homage to some of the island’s renowned temples, or re-visiting the villages I wrote about on my first journey here 34 years before….

But sometimes as a travel writer you have to do things that just don’t come naturally, that take you way out of your comfort zone. And today, I’ve just impetuously decided, is one of those days. Sitting on my terrace under the batik blue sky, contemplating a day that stretches as infinite as the pool before me, I’ve resolved to try to do something that I haven’t done in a very, very long time: nothing.

That’s right, I’m immersing myself in indolence.This is a challenge. I haven’t been indolent in so long that I can’t even remember what it feels like. But I suspect it’s kind of like riding a bike. Or not riding a bike …

Indolence is the inspiration for innumerable vacations every year, but as a travel writer, I’ve always taken a gritty pride in never being indolent. Perhaps because most people assume that all travel writers ever do is lie under palm trees doing nothing, for most of my professional life I’ve sneered at the notion of lying under a palm tree doing nothing. I’ve pitied the poor salarymen and women who spend their holidays basting on beaches and call it travel.

But after two of the most hassled, harrowing, hectic, pushing-me-to-my-limits-and-beyond weeks of my life just before I galumphed onto a plane for the 24-hour passage to Hong Kong and Denpasar, I’m having a mini-epiphany about indolence: it’s time to embrace it.

11:30 a.m. — Indolence isn’t easy. I let my guard down for a moment and before I realized it, I’d swum a dozen laps in my private villa’s oh-so-private pool.

I swam naked, if you must know. I started to ease myself into the pool in my bathing suit, and then I realized that no one could see me and that normal patrons probably pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of jettisoning their swimsuits and surrendering themselves to the bath-warm, arak-clear liquid in all their newborn glory, and it seemed heresy for me not to do the same. And now I’m lying (naked, if you must know) on a very comfortably padded chaise longue, on a soft towel striped in shades of sand and brick under a wide green sun umbrella, worshipping the gods and writing in my weathered and oh-so-understanding journal …

I’ve got my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Bali by my side, and I just thought that I could write a brilliant meta-postmodern-deconstructionist-neo-existentialist story about a travel writer exploring Bali by lying poolside in Ubud for an entire day reading the Lonely Planet guide to Bali – and then that seemed so entirely not indolent that I dropped the idea like a hot corn fritter.

Vigilance is all …

1:00 — I just went for another quick swim – the water was calling me — and now I’m lying on my chaise longue and the thousand shades of green on the hillsides around are massaging my mind and the sun is a heated compress on my back and the palm fronds rustling in the wind and the intricately thatched roofs and the artistically arranged rocks are all gamelan-ing in hypnotic synesthesia, and I’m thinking the truest way to achieve indolence would simply be to be, to be here now, and I’m realizing there is really only one way to do this, and that is to simply put down my pen and do nothing at a

[Photo credit: Don George]

Appreciating Arab Cuisine: A Conversation With May Bsisu

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of hosting an event at National Geographic Auditorium in Washington, DC, with the lovely, learned and gracious cuisine expert May Bsisu. Our event focused on the tastes and traditions of cuisine throughout the Arab world, based on Bsisu’s exquisite book, The Arab Table. As part of my preparation, I spoke with Bsisu about her book and about the role of food in her life and in Arab culture. Like her life and work, our conversation proved a fascinating introduction to a rich and complex culinary tradition about which I knew almost nothing. I heartily recommend her book, and as a small sample of its riches, present here some excerpts from our talk.

DG: You started your book with the word “Tafadalo.” What does that mean?

MB: Tafadalo is one of my favorite words.

It is used in many different ways: When you open your home door to receive a guest, you say, “Tafadalo.” When you offer a guest a cup of coffee or juice, you say, “Tafadalo.” Tafadalo means welcome and indicates a long tradition of Arab hospitality. For many it particularly means delicious food is on the table and it is time to eat!

In Arabic, Tafadalo also means “do me the honor.” It is an offering and an invitation. In Arab and Arab-American homes, welcoming others, especially guests, is an essential courtesy and an expression of hospitality.

Why did you write The Arab Table?I always believed that food is much more than what is on a plate. The Arab Tableoffers my vision of the food of the Arab world as well as how the food is connected to the soil and soul of the people in that region. I also wrote this book to preserve the culture and food traditions for my children and grandchildren.

When you first moved to the United States and started thinking about writing The Arab Table, I am sure that there were many reasons that influenced your decision. Can you tell me about this?

I will tell you the story of my family, and how food helped us become part of a new community where we were strangers. We came to the United States in 1991 after the Gulf War. At that time we were living in Kuwait, and my husband decided that we should move to a stable country where we could raise our three boys without worries of wars and uncertainty, so we moved to Northern Kentucky. Why Northern Kentucky? Well, my husband had invested in a company there and he thought that Northern Kentucky would be a good base to start our new life.

Our three boys attended Beechwood School, in Fort Mitchell. As you can imagine, it was a difficult transition for them and us. Northern Kentucky is a small and tightly knit community and it is very difficult for a new family not originally from there, and who speak with an accent, to be easily accepted. The boys joined the school’s football team, and we started meeting other parents.

I soon found out that there was one thing in common among all of us: food. So I started joining with the football mothers to take food to football gatherings, picnics, bus trips and other school activities. I started with meat pies, which are basically dough and ground beef, and are the closest thing to pizza. I prepared hummus as a dip with pita chips, then one time I took fried kebbehand the boys on the football team loved them and called them mini-footballs. I also prepared and shared baklawa,making the filling with pecans rather than walnuts so they would have a familiar flavor.

Food broke the barrier between us and the community we were living in, people started asking us questions about the food, and mothers started asking about my recipes. Our house became the place where kids would come and know that they would always find something good to eat… We became part of the community and made some wonderful friends.

What part of the world does The Arab Tablecover?

The Arab world consists of 22 different countries and covers a great geographic span of different terrains and climates. In square miles, it is around 1.4 times the area of the United States.

It was the Arab lands of the eastern Mediterranean where humans first organized into a settled form of society, cultivating grain, domesticating many varieties of livestock, and beginning a non-nomadic lifestyle, establishing villages, towns and cities across the region that promoted diverse skills and occupations. In such a setting, rich and complex societies were established. It was in this same area that the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, originated and in time spread to all the corners of the world.

Your book illustrates the remarkable range of Arab cuisine. Can you tell us about this aspect of your work?

Yes, my book covers the cuisine and food, customs and traditions of many countries in the Arab world. In most cases, you will find that the cuisine of one particular country reflects the produce of that land as well as many years of food development particular to that location. However, all of the countries that are covered in my book are influenced by the foods of neighboring regions, so there is a process of “food exchange” continuously going on.

Common to all Arab cooking is the use of ingredients such as lamb, rice, olive oil and bread. But there are certain ingredients and cooking methods that are more strongly present in one region than another. For example, in Iraq there is a wider use of sesame oil and in Morocco, a greater use of mint and fruits in their cooking; in Egypt, they make extensive use of legumes and grains, while in Lebanon they use fresh vegetables and raw meat as in the preparation of kubeh neyeh(steak tartare). Yemen is one of the most geographically varied of the Arab countries. A long coastal plane lies alongside its southern rim, while its highlands mark the interior and the desert stretches across the eastern region towards the Arabian Peninsula. So, a typical Yemeni meal will be reflective of the varied geography of the country and will typically include a variety of fish, meat, chicken, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage.

As far as the variety of cooking methods, in Lebanon, for example, it is mostly quick cooking reflective of the abundance of fresh ingredients, including vegetables and meats. This reminds me of a recent visit toLebanon. A friend of mine invited me with other friends to her hometown, Zahleh, which is about 55 miles west of Beirut. On our way we stopped by the small city of Chtura in the Bikaa valley. Chtura is well known in Lebanon for its fresh and abundant dairy products. So we stopped there for a breakfast of fresh baked bread, labneh(strained yogurt) with olives, olive oil, fresh white cheese and locally grown cucumbers.

After breakfast we continued on our way to Zahleh. When we arrived there, our host first took us to a butcher shop to pick the meat she needed to make kibbehas well as meat for the safiha(meat pies). After adding fresh spices, we sent the safiha fresh meat directly to the baker. We then stopped at the vegetable market and bought some eggplants and these were also sent to the baker for roasting. We took the kibbeh meat to my friend’s home and started making the kibbeh. Lunch was soon ready. We all sat down and enjoyed a lunch of freshly made kibbeh, salads, roasted eggplant dip, and oven-hot meat pies. That is the traditional preparation of a meal in Lebanon. Fresh ingredients are readily available and food preparation is geared towards that fact.

In the Arab Gulf countries, slow cooking and the extensive use of spices is more common. In Syria, the cooking is labor intensive as most of their food includes the coring and stuffing of vegetables and elaborate meat dishes. In Palestine they have similar foods to Syria and Lebanon, but with an extensive range of savory pastries and sweets. In Tunisia and Morocco, their cooking methods rely on the tajin(earthenware pot) method of cooking.

In your book you link food to the occasions in which it is served. Can you elaborate on this?

Food is what brings people together, love is revealed over food, families gather at the food table. Important events are marked by the food served on that occasion. A wedding table will have a huge selection of food including 4 or 5 large trays of different meats and rice.

The arrival of a baby is marked by the preparation of a caraway and anise seed pudding called mugli that is also beneficial for the health of the new mother.

Nowhere is food more significant than in the observance of religious traditions. I will talk in detail about one of those events: the celebration of the Eid al Adha at the end of pilgrimage. On this occasion, the extended family gets together over a feast of many plates. The first day of the Eid starts with visiting relatives from both sides of the family to exchange holiday wishes and partake in the delicious sweets they always offer. In large families this takes some detailed planning. During the second day it is your turn to receive visitors and offer sweets. However the big event is the feast that is usually offered by the head of the family, and as many family members as the home can accommodate are invited.

On the table, appetizers and salads are presented first, followed by selections of stews. Normally a whole lamb is roasted and presented in the middle of the table on a large tray on top of rice colored with saffron and mixed with delicious spices and ground meat and roasted nuts. Then after drinking mint tea or Arabic coffee, the guests mingle and talk, waiting for the sweets. This normally comes in the form of kunafa, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup that has its origins from the town of Nablus in Palestine. Other sweets and fresh fruits are also presented.

The food served at Eid, as on other Islamic occasions, depends on the time of the year (for the Islamic holidays, the lunar year is observed, so the timing of the celebration varies from year to year) and on the region. But for the most part the above ritual is followed.

Some of the 188 recipes in your book come from family members. Who had the most influence on your cooking, and how did you learn to cook?

My family is the primary source of the recipes and the traditions that I present in The Arab Table. The family members who most influenced me were my grandmother, who allowed me to be with her in the kitchen at a very young age, and my father, who loved food and took me with him during family vacations to many different restaurants and introduced me to a great variety of tastes and ingredients.

When I got married, I was unprepared for cooking and did not know how or where to begin. My husband, Aref, had no idea that I did not know how to cook, and I certainly was not about to tell him. So, together with my grandmother, we hatched a plot. Every day she sent to our home some food she had prepared for us. I actually got away with this for several weeks, but ultimately my husband uncovered our little plot, so my grandmother started to tutor me over the phone. I was terribly unsure of myself, but I was willing to learn.

Then a wonderful thing started to happen. I began to discover an enormous sense of self-satisfaction in making food that other people liked. I found that I was looking forward to entertaining. I even started on my own to experiment with recipes others gave me.

Later, as my skills and interest grew, I sought training from professionals, first in Arab cuisine and later in classical French cookery. This broad education allowed me to re-examine traditional Arab foods with a fresh outlook. I felt freer to experiment with unconventional combinations of food, honoring the rich traditions of the Arab cuisine while not being encumbered by them.

What would you most like readers to take away from your book?

To my mind, above all, food is a cultural experience. There is a large social good to be derived from the study of a different culture. I would like to inspire people to cook recipes from different countries and while they are doing that to imagine the geography of that country, because that tells us how the people live their lives.

We grow in understanding and tolerance when we experience another culture. And what better door to step through than in the most pleasant social experience of eating together?

I would also like to give people a reason to gather more around the table. This is the time when people connect, share, work through their problems, get to know their kids. Food is the essence of our lives.

So if my book gives people one more reason to do that, then I’ve dome some good in the world.

And finally, I truly believe that food is love. Food brings us together. When we eat together we learn more about each other. When we eat the food of a culture we take in the history of the people, their geography, their climate, their stories, their world-view – and we do this in such a pleasurable way that it’s impossible not to deepen our appreciation of each other.

Tafadalo!

For more information about The Arab Table, and to order a copy, click here.

Book Passage 2012: How I Lost My Voice And Found My Vision

It’s 4 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-August. I’m standing in a Northern California bookstore surrounded by about 100 people ranging in age from 20 to 70, drinking champagne, downing brownies, and hugging and crying and laughing all at the same time. It’s the fourth and final day of the annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference, and while the conference has officially ended, no one wants to leave. The room crackles with emotional electricity, expands with newfound dreams.

As the chairman and co-founder of this conference-cum-summer camp, I look on this scene with a mixture of wonder, exhilaration, exhaustion and gratitude. Somehow, four days at a benevolent bookstore in a San Francisco suburb have infused me, have infused us, with the belief that everything we do, as travelers and travel creators, matters, that we go into the world with a joyful duty to live as fully and deeply as we can and the accompanying joyful potential to truly transform the planet.

Here’s how I lost my voice and found my vision at Book Passage this year.

It all began for me on Wednesday, Aug. 14, when I gathered at the Marin County bookstore with 11 intrepid adventurers for an all-day pre-conference workshop: a day in the life of a travel writer exploring San Francisco‘s North Beach neighborhood. We took the ferry from Larkspur to the Ferry Building – a glorious way to begin any day – and then wandered through San Francisco’s old Italian neighborhood, now Italy-meets-China-meets-Vietnam, past cathedrals and cafes, parks and pastry shops.

As we walked, I talked about what a travel story tries to do and how as a travel writer I try to get a place, paying attention to defining details – see that shop sign written in Italian, Chinese and Vietnamese; inhale the Old World essence of Molinari’s deli – and asking myself what are the glimpses, sensual details and encounters that matter the most to me, that begin to compose my portrait of North Beach. Then we separated so that everyone could try to find their own scenes, the first pieces in their portraits.By this time, having talked over the engines of the ferry and the noise of the streets for an hour and a half, I had already begun to lose my voice – but it didn’t matter. A special magic was seeding; tendril connections were intertwining.

We reconvened for lunch and talked about the challenges and triumphs of trying to apprehend a place this way, then after lunch everyone went their own ways again to write a short description of their chosen scene, while I sipped a latte at a sidewalk table and savored the theater of the street.

We met again, walked to the ferry, and then back at the bookstore each participant read what he/she had written. By this time my voice had turned into a sandpapery whisper, husky, dusky, but I’d gained something even more precious: the power of a collective passion. Each of us had seen, experienced, a different North Beach, but all with a common enthusiasm. And hearing that enthusiasm infuse and impel their writings, whatever direction and focus each took, was profoundly inspiring. My fellow travelers’ raw passion for the world and for the challenge of conveying that passion in words was an enormous gift. I came away viewing North Beach – and travel writing – with a renewed appreciation.

The conference kicked off officially the following day with an introduction of the faculty, twenty-some travel writers, editors, photographers and agents sitting in a semi-circle in front of about 85 students. As these self-introductions were concluding, for a moment I was simply smacked with astonishment realizing the extraordinary talent that was assembled in that room. Even more astonishing, and humbling, was the realization that they were there because they really wanted to be there, because they care so deeply about what they do and because they knew what was coming – three intensely compressed days of questioning and striving and sharing.

Over these days I was inspired time and again seeing, and hearing, how unassumedly, generously and open-heartedly these masters of their craft were sharing their expertise and wisdom, the secrets of their successes and their failures, challenges and triumphs – and equally, how the students, who spanned the spectrum from absolute beginner to well-published pro, were opening their hearts, minds and souls so wholly and hungrily, sharing their own stories and yearnings, tips and dreams. And I watched in awe as the amazing staff at Book Passage coddled this impromptu community with respect, grace and good humor. The feeling flowed through me and through the conference that this is the way to be in the world, open, vulnerable, trusting and sharing, exultant. It reaffirmed a deeply held belief of mine, that I had expressed in my opening remarks when I was advising participants how to get the most out of the conference: “The more you put into the conference, the more you get out of it – it’s a lot like travel, and life.”

* * * * *

This year multi-talented writer-actor-director Andrew McCarthy insisted on turning the tables and interviewing me Friday night. He was a great and gracious interviewer, and I found myself telling tales I hadn’t mentioned in 20 previous years at the conference.

The story of my own life is a “ridiculous” (to use Andrew’s word) succession of serendipities that led from Princeton to a summer job in Paris, to teaching on a fellowship in Athens, to graduate school in creative writing at Hollins College in Virginia, to teaching and talk show hosting in Tokyo, and then to working as a travel writer at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, my first real job and the (official) beginning of my career as a travel writer/editor. I’d never connected the dots of that implausible career path in public and doing so revealed some important truths for me: I had always followed my heart, but I had also always involved my head, continually scouting for possibilities, keeping alive to the potentials life presents us, and then when the right potential appeared, taking an unreasonable leap because I felt in my core that it was the right thing to do, that it could lead where I wanted to go.

So one message I took away from my own tale was that you have to be alive to serendipity and willing to take risks, that Serendipity + Risk = Reward. We are always encountering doors in life and we always have the choice to open them or walk by. I’ve often chosen to open them, and I’ve usually been blessed that opening the door has led to something good. But partly this is because I carry a sense of my passion with me and I’m not afraid to pursue it, to focus on what I really want to do and be. The downside of this, of course, is that you open yourself up to the possibility of failure. But isn’t a life lived without taking any risks – without saying “Yes!” to a passion – a kind of failure too? The concomitant challenge is that once the door has opened and you suddenly have the opportunity you sought, you have to put 120% of yourself into it and do it better than you ever imagined you could.


* * * * *

One of the many highlights of the conference for me was Saturday night, when I was privileged to interview the great Susan Orlean. I was already grateful to Susan because despite having had extensive and painful spine surgery six weeks earlier, she had steadfastly kept her commitment to come to Book Passage. I was 100 times more grateful as she brilliantly talked about the winding path of her own career, some of the most challenging subjects she’d covered, and how she attempts to get the essence of a place, in life and on the page. For my last question, I asked her essentially what life is all about, and she graciously and eloquently responded that for her, the ultimate quest of her work and of the lives she encounters is to answer two questions: “What is the meaning of being alive and how do we make sense of it?”

That perfectly summed up the quest of my work and life too, a fact that a succession of unexpected convergences at the conference had been making me re-realize. I was remembering, re-living – discovering still very much alive inside me – the teenager who scribbled late into the night in his journals, always asking, “Where does it come together? What does it mean?” Enrapt in the wonder of this re-connection, I realized that over the years it had woven into one threading goal for me: travel stories that not only convey a place and an experience in that place, but that also put the experience in some larger context, tie the particular to the greater whole, illuminating something profound and abiding about life. Where does it come together? What does it mean? That, for me, is the essence of truly great travel writing.

But while I was re-understanding this core quest, the conference was also illuminating so many other things: the richness of soul-friends, some known for 30 years and others met three days before; the astonishing exhilaration of exchanging shared passions with another person; the life-changing confluences, convergences, synchronicities and serendipities with which the universe graces us, when we’re ready; the sheer wonder that surrounds us, every day; and the midnight magic of five ukuleles rendering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as sweetly and naturally as a frangipani-scented breeze.

I met people at the conference for the first time whom I absolutely knew I had somehow known before – people who seemed to understand me so deeply, and to share so many fundamental philosophies, goals and values, that it was almost as if we were halves of the same soul.

Over five days I found a tribe of such travelers, who share my passion and wonder for the image and the encounter, the word and the world, and who made me realize that our tribe bears a precious duty: to honor our craft and the planet that is the subject of that craft, to fully explore the journey outside and within, to walk the everyday pilgrim’s path with open mind and heart, and to celebrate it all.

On the last day, when I was addressing the conference one final time, I lost my voice again, but this time it was because I was too choked up to speak. What I wanted to say was that through the passionately open-hearted, open-minded, inspired people in that room – their eyes shining, their bodies electric with the wonder of the past days – I had re-discovered a fundamental lesson that had gotten buried in the layers of my life: All you need is love. The love you pour into the world – as a teacher and a student, as a traveler and a writer and a photographer, as an interviewer and an interviewee – transforms you and the world at the same time. It deepens you, enriches you, and it deepens and enriches the people and places you meet. It’s a sacred, unending, synergy of connection and transformation. By doing what we love, with love, we make ourselves and the world better.

On that final day, our tears flowed into the stream of the Book Passage epiphany. And that stream is flowing still, wherever we may be.

[photos via Candace Rose Rardon]

Postcard From France: Now And Then In Nice

June 27, Cours Saleya, Nice, France:

It’s my last day in Nice, this vibrant capital of pleasure and art and ease on the Cote d’Azur, and I’m sitting in the Cours Saleya, site of the fruit and flower market where I was 11 days ago, at the start of this glorious re-immersion in the riches of the Riviera. There’s a cold glass of vin rosé du Provence on my table, the sand-colored awning of La Storia restaurant on my left, the mustard-colored house where Matisse lived in front of me, and an archway framing palm fronds and the incomparably blue Mediterranean on my right.

This is the same centuries-old square where I sat and wrote 20 years before, on my second visit to the Cote d’Azur, and I am thinking about how things change and how they stay the same.

Back then I wrote:

I’m having a café crème and a croissant at a Cours Saleya cafe that looks right onto stalls selling a colorful collage of flowers, fruits and vegetables. As I sip and scribble in my journal, elegant older women with well-coiffed dogs smell melons and prod glistening red and yellow peppers. A trio of breezy, baguette-bearing beauties in floppy T-shirts and espadrilles buys peaches and peonies; housewives in sun hats and long-sleeved dresses stuff garlic and grapes and guavas into woven baskets. ‘Bonjour!’ and ‘Merci!’ peal through the morning air, past the graceful shutters and grillwork balconies on the salmon- and peach- and wheat-colored apartments that overlook the stony square.

I could have penned those same words today.

%Gallery-161308%Last night, I strolled for an hour along the broad, seafront Promenade des Anglais. The air was moist and warm, the palm trees rustled in a light breeze, and the whole city seemed to be out in easeful embrace of the balming night. Kids rattled by on skateboards; teenagers smoked and joked and simulated the French version of cool; American parents pushed strollers and exclaimed at the softness of the air; young couples kissed in passionate oblivion, and silver-haired couples strolled hand-in-hand, lost – or rather found – in their own reveries. And the moonlight flickered on the scraping sea, proffering a little piece of destiny, a midnight lesson for them and for me – the moonlight flickering on the ceaseless sea.

I wrote that too 20 years before.

From the Promenade des Anglais I wandered here last night, and the scene was amazingly vibrant: the square crammed with tiny tables showered with lamplight from the surrounding cafes, and resonant with excited conversation and leisurely laughter – the music of people with no morning duties or deadlines, of people wrapped, rapt, in the endless enjoyment of the moment.

The night oozed sensuality – the wine and the lamplight, the caressing air and the laughing, lilting patrons in T-shirts and sandals, shorts and short dresses. Later, when I returned to my room in the storied Hotel Negresco, about to celebrate its own buoyant 100th birthday, I reread what I had written about the residents of the Riviera on my first visit in 1976:

If they were blessed enough to grow up here, they have it in their bones, but if they have come here from elsewhere, they have knowingly abandoned whatever they have abandoned because they want what this region cultivates: a reasoned abandonment to sensual pleasures.

This spirit has stayed the same: The essential sensuality of Nice grows lush in the sunlight that illumines things to their core and the soft air that swaddles the skin like a benediction. It has plucked my heart and soul again as it did 36 years before.

What makes this place so seductive for me? The sunlight and the air and the colors certainly, the Mediterranean palette of beach and sea, the ochre, mustard, wheat, and terracotta walls; the bobbing boats and Belle Epoque facades; the fresh-grilled fish and succulent gumes farcis; the bubbly-beaded glasses of vin rosé; the stony plazas, stylish shops and splendored musées; the labyrinth of winding cobbled alleys, by night a magical medieval moonlit maze; the centuries-old cathedrals and just-opened galleries; the swish of the salt-tinged breeze; the terracotta roof tiles and green hillsides sloping to the sea; the legacy of art and history …

I sip and slip back in time. Oh to have been here in the 1920s with Gerald and Sara Murphy on Cap d’Antibes, partying on La Garoupe beach with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, dos Passos, Cocteau, and Man Ray. Or to have sipped and supped with Picasso and Matisse, Chagall, Braque and Léger …

On my first two visits here, I was filled with a sense of soaring potential: The possibility of a life of sensual celebration and artful appreciation stretched before me like the glinting sea.

I know that feeling – and yet, and yet … Somehow today I don’t feel transported in quite the same way … Perhaps I have become too old, or la vie est devenue trop compliquée? “Life has become too complicated,” is what I meant to say. (Do I dare to eat one of those peaches? What would Monsieur Prufrock say?)

Now I have become the age I innocently imagined back then. I am the map, know the route I tread. Am I straining too hard for epiphany?

Sigh. Scribble. Take another sip of rosé.

Around me people lick gelatos, smile for photos, exclaim over hot slices of socca. Beauties in bikinis bike breezily by. Elegant older women with well-coiffed dogs smell melons and prod glistening red and yellow peppers, and housewives in sun hats and long-sleeved dresses gather garlic and grapes and bushels of lavender and thyme.

I think of the surprise feast I savored on a country terrace three nights before, the almost deserted beach on St Tropez where I impetuously plunged into the crystalline sea, the kindly gallery owner who closed his shop for an hour to sip coffee and talk art with me. I think of the stories still to write, the places still to be seen. And something stirs inside me; a fragile tendril greens.

It’s evident all around me, if I just open my eyes, my heart, my mind. The gift of Nice is this sense of celebration that infuses every day, celebration of sun and cypress, plane tree and plage, lavender and olive and pungent fromage; celebration of art, celebration of sea, celebration of cobble and tile and tranquillity.

It’s a lesson to cherish on this lamentably last day.

And a souvenir I’ll nurture as I move away.