A sure sign of quarantine wanderlust is the desire to visit Lyon. It’s one thing to miss travel in these cooped-up times, but I’d have to be really desperate to go back there.
The French city is famously insular and hostile to outsiders. But even that can’t account for how often my college girlfriend was snubbed and sexually harassed when she spent a semester at one of its universities. The aggressive catcalling barely let up when I visited. We both came away hating the so-called Ville des Lumières, which was actually dimly lit and abandoned at night, like a vast alleyway.
It is a testament to Bill Buford’s patient eye in Dirt, his new book about learning to be a French cook in Lyon, that after reading it I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the place.
Buford’s experience was similar to mine when he arrived in town looking for a restaurant that would take him as an apprentice. Among his first impressions of Lyon were a “vibrantly raw” plate of quail served by a spiteful restaurant and a playground in his neighbourhood that was “sparkly with bits of broken glass.”
But Lyon finally drew him in with the thing it’s most famous for: traditional French food. The city is considered France’s culinary capital, and really good baguette can make up for a lot. Or rather, transcendent baguette, made by Bob, his neighbourhood boulanger – a loaf apparently so goldenly perfect that, when it’s served in bistros, diners stash slices in their purses.
I was also an easy mark for nostalgie of the boue that is France’s third-largest and first-worst city. For the past two months, I’ve been reading almost nothing but travel writing.
“Wanderlust” doesn’t begin to describe my longing for other places during this pandemic confinement. I was supposed to move to Montreal at the beginning of April, and had planned a summer of driving up and down the St. Lawrence Valley – seeing whales, honing my French, visiting farms and churches. Today, going grocery shopping is my most reliable adventure.
There are worse fates to suffer than temporary claustrophobia. But the places I’ve chosen to read about suggest how alluring sheer space has become. Vast, open and intensely different seem to be the criteria. I’ve ended up devouring books about Siberia, the Himalayas and Emergency-era India.
None of these are vacation getaways, exactly. They’re just places where you can really travel – places where getting from Point A to Point B is going to be eventful and where strange things will happen.
The best accounts of these journeys, such as Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, are simple and vivid, hitting you in the face with sensory input. When the Soviet Union was crumbling, Frazier was stricken with an inexplicable bout of “Russia-love,” and to get a handle on the big, vexing country, he describes its smell: “There’s a lot of diesel fuel in it,” he writes, “and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness – currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle treads of heavy boots – and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement.”
That’s the good stuff, and the promise of travel-writing: to suggest an idea of the essence of Russia, in a few lines of almost hallucinogenic detail, about the memory of a smell. It may be a false promise – do countries have essences? Can visitors capture them? – but it’s a tempting one, when otherwise your daily vista is whatever’s visible from the couch.
Of course, on long trips, things are always going wrong, and misadventure is another hallmark of the genre. Frazier offers a recurring joke about problems with his van – one day its radiator sprang a leak and billowed steam clouds as if showing a "new command of special effects” – and another one about uncomfortable camp sites. It may be part of why travel writers are so often homesick and finding reminders of home in their exotic surroundings. Amid the cold and deprivation and dizzying altitude of the Tibetan plateau, the French writer Sylvain Tesson, author of La panthère des neiges, looks at mountain lichen and sees a resemblance to certain dermatological specimens in his mother’s medical books.
In any case, the miniature disasters of guys such as Frazier and Tesson are usually just that: miniature. Small and manageable, recognized as material and milked for comedy. It’s comforting to inhabit a world like this, where, when things go wrong, they have a zany lilt to them, rather than being, say, a crushing global public health event. This cartoonish holiday from consequences is as much a part of the escape as the sights and smells of faraway countries.
Another comfort in travel writing is the guide figure. For the sake of laughs, the authors of these books often cast themselves as bumbling rubes, shepherded from place to place by no-nonsense custodians who try to keep a handle on the chaos. On Tesson’s quest to find the famously skittish snow leopard, for instance, he admits that his only job was “not to sneeze.” His guide, the wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, on the other hand, is adept and stoic; he responds to a wolf racing in their direction on one occasion with the unruffled manner of an Air France flight attendant during turbulence.
Recently it occurred to me that we could all use a Munier or a Sergei (Frazier’s mechanically gifted Russian fixer) as we try to navigate the novel landscape of this pandemic, with its strange rules and emotional shocks. Even so, we could hardly be more out of our depth, or more in need of guidance, than a foreigner like Buford in the world of serious Lyonnaise cuisine. Fortunately, he is skilled at finding mentors. (In his previous book, Heat, about learning to cook Italian food, one of his teachers was the superstar chef Mario Batali, who has since been accused of serial sexual abuse.)
Buford’s most memorable straight man in France is Bob the breadmaker. Bob is atypical for the role in that he is massively dishevelled himself, always covered in flour and underslept. But as a guide to the inaccessible city of Lyon, he is steady and generous. The key is in the baguette, delivered to restaurants every day at hectic speed in a beat-up tank of a Citroën (what is it about French vans?), giving Buford an entrée to the cooking scene and teaching him about the primacy of place or terroir in good French food.
What makes Bob’s baguette special, it turns out, is nothing more sophisticated than the flour. So Buford goes off on another journey – without Bob – to discover something similar to the miraculous white dust forever coating his friend like a second skin.
Dirt contains a few of the tics and blind spots that seem endemic to its genre. The world it depicts is very male and often involves buddies leaving behind their wives to embark on a boyish lark. The habit of attributing everyone’s personality to some local tendency (the stiff French bureaucrat!) is always hard for travellers to break.
But there is so much heart, open air and flavourful misadventure in Buford’s tale that it seems churlish to complain, especially now. The book seemed to open a little rip in the space-time fabric and take me – enjoyably, despite myself – to the ancient, bready, inward-looking streets of Lyon.
The city still won’t be my first destination when travel comes back on the menu. It might actually be my last. But for now, it feels good to go somewhere – anywhere.
Five more books that offer vicarious adventures
Venice Observed by Mary McCarthy
In this erudite tour through the art history of Europe’s most famous tourist trap, McCarthy makes the point that Venice has always been clogged with visitors – even in its glory days.
India: A Wounded Civilization by V.S. Naipaul
The title gives away the game: Naipaul, born in Trinidad of Indian ancestry, is horrified by the country he finds during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, which quashed civil liberties for nearly two years. The relentless contempt can be hard to swallow, but the Nobel laureate’s writing is lucid and powerful.
Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
A bike trip along Central Asia’s historic trading route – award-winning and Canadian.
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford
There’s a fair amount of Dante in here, but the most interesting circle of hell Buford discovers is the kitchen of a Mario Batali restaurant. Melting skin, brutal hazing and sexual harassment all get thrown into the pot. Somehow the ragù that comes out is a serious meditation on tradition, time and taste.
Hong Kong by Jan Morris
The great Welsh historian and travel writer went to Hong Kong near the end of British rule. As China threatens to end the polity’s unique “one country, two systems” experiment, which has prevailed since 1997, now is a good time to explore what makes the place unique.
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