Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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.

Handout

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Handout

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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Courtesy of RBC Taylor Prize.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies