Ramblings of a traveller (not a tourist)

Today, seven weeks ago, we arrived in Amsterdam, the first stop on our trip. Another six weeks, to the day, lie ahead. It’s a long time on the road, when you look at it like that!

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s different being a long-term traveller than a tourist for two or three weeks. It is especially true on this trip where we are spending significant chunks of time in one place, staying not in hotels or guesthouses but in suburban homes.

Yesterday, for instance, on my morning walk to the cookery school, I encountered refuse removal day in Blackrock. The green truck trundled up the street and a man jumped off and on as he emptied the wheelie bins lined up outside people’s homes. This was Dublin going about its business, being a place where people led ordinary lives, I thought. This was not what tourists came to see (obviously!), but it was one of the thousands of jobs that had to be done in order for a city to be a destination.

Much as you get to see the mundaneness beneath the glamour of places, on a long trip you don’t escape domestic drudgery. You simply cannot bring enough clothes to avoid doing laundry. And if you’re staying in a self-catering place, you have to sweep the floors and do the shopping. Fortunately the difference in products, prices and the shopping process is significant enough to make going to SuperValue or Marks & Spencer or Lidl feel like an adventure. To me it all adds to the flavour of being here, of getting to know a place a little beyond the first-date stage.

A pleasure of spending time is that one begins to understand the lay of the land. Spatial orientation and sense of direction are not my superpowers. It takes a while before I know where I am. You can see how not moving on to a different city every three days is useful to me! We have been to Dublin twice before, but the greater Dublin Bay never featured on our radar on those visits. We were focused on the attractions in the city itself. This time round, we stay in one of the towns on the Bay and have the opportunity to explore several others. A whole new picture is unfolding in my head. I’d still get lost if I didn’t pay attention, but at least I now understand enough of the area’s geography that I can get on a train or a bus and know which direction to go. (You’ve no idea how relieved Rob is, knowing I can find my way home on my own!)

To me the greatest luxury of not being a “tourist”, is that I don’t feel so rushed. The panic of having to get through a list of must-sees and must-dos disappears almost completely when you know you have time. I’m also discovering that as the experience of being in a place becomes richer, the need to tick a top-10 list of attractions diminishes.

The weather doesn’t matter so much either! The first two weeks in Dublin were rather grey and wet and cool – not cold, mind you. Soft weather, I think is the right description. The last four days were summer in all its glory, with mostly not a cloud in the sky. This morning, however, the soft weather was back. None of it matters too much, though, because we are here for long enough to simply enjoy what every day brings and adapt to it.

A marvellous surprise is that I’ve stopped keeping track of how long we’ve been away from home, and that I don’t really fret about time running out and the trip coming to an end. I’m getting better at being in the moment. Sometimes my mind wanders to what lies ahead (France again, then Italy), but it is as if my head and heart are too filled with the richness of this day to have space to dwell on it. Of course I look forward to it, but I feel grounded where I am now. Such a precious feeling, and one I am consciously aware of and holding on to.

Is there anything I struggle with? Yes. There are times when I feel isolated. Not lonely or homesick as such, but I miss getting together with the special people in my life for lunch or just a chat over coffee. I’m meeting interesting characters over here and am having delightful encounters, but none of them know the backstory. There’s no way I could explain the layers of my world so that they can understand why i find something funny or amazing or sad. The sheer weight of the effort it would entail to build that connection often silences me. Technology is a saviour (thank you WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype) but Rob is the real hero at these times. He knows the stories of the past and discovers with me the ones we will be telling in future.

For now, however, we just revel in the wonders of every day – even days when nothing special happens – because that’s what travellers do.

Cooking in leprechaun land

I am an unlikely candidate to be spending a month at a professional cooking school. Nobody in my family expected me to be much good in the kitchen (they similarly doubted that my powers of coordination would ever extend to keeping a car safely on the road. But that’s a story for a different day). In all fairness to them, I also never expected even culinary competence from myself. I was the one who used to phone my mother for exact instructions on how to cook green beans, down to the settings on the stove plate. Admittedly I was at school at the time, but you can see how I was not born with a feel for food.

Over the years my abilities developed and, unexpectedly, so did my interest in food. The fact that I have a husband who thinks my cooking is wonderful is a great motivator for which I’m truly grateful. But despite an expanding repertoire and skills set, I’ve always doubted myself in the kitchen. Unlike my older sister who cooks from instinct and with flair, I need a recipe when I try something new (and even when I return to old favourites). The desire to learn about and get more comfortable with tastes and combinations was part of what motivated me to enroll for the 4-week course. Another factor was that I knew there had to be an easier way to get jobs such as chopping herbs done. And then there was the question of how to deal with fresh fish and whole chickens, and let’s not even get started on the mysteries of baking.

So here I am, halfway through the course. Not quite a transformed woman, but certainly one who feels far more able. I have a sheaf of recipes, most of them covered in notes lest I forget the tips and tricks the tutors give us – and the mistakes I made and learned from. I am acquiring a new vocabulary. I’ve struck up a close relationship with the beautiful Würsthof chef’s knife I bought more than a year ago and only ever used to carefully cut up chicken breasts. In fact, in the 10 days I’ve been in the Dublin Cookery School’s kitchen I have not once used the trusted little utility knife that was my go-to tool at home. I’ve learned to sprinkle salt from a rather dramatic height, and the same with flour when dusting the counter top. In fact, the theatre of food is one of the most delicious discoveries.

Is it like Masterchef, people ask me. The answer is yes and no. No because one of the greatest gifts of the school is the completely noncompetitive environment in which we learn. The tutors never highlight a student’s success or failure. Their praise is lavish yet discreet, and when things go wrong they rush to the rescue without making a fuss. This allows the students to compare results with a sense of curiosity rather than competition.

Where it is like Masterchef is the exposure we get. The three senior tutors have all worked in fine-dining establishments, including Michelin-star restaurants. Tara, who is revealing to us the dark arts of choux pastry, jells, emulsions and foams, trained and worked in restaurants in France. Richard spent several years in the kitchen of Ottolenghi in London. Eric learned the art of Italian food in the kitchen of an American chef who would be flown to Italy to cook for guests at national cultural events.

Not only do we learn from some of the best in the business; we also get to eat gourmet food every day when these chefs demonstrate the dishes we get to recreate (or murder!) the following day. And then, while we cook, they are there all the time to guide, correct and encourage. Best of all, is the atmosphere they create. When Reggie turns on the music while we clean down the kitchen at the end of the day people sing along and do the odd little jig as they rush to and from the sinks. And it’s not all fun and games. The tutors instill in us the work ethic of a professional kitchen: work stations have to be clean; service has to be punctual; and each team is assigned a specific job for the day, such as setting the table for lunch or cleaning out the rubbish bins.

I could carry on and on, but let me conclude with a few thoughts on the other students on the course. Most of them are Irish, and their hospitality and friendliness add a huge amount to my experience here. I love listening to their accent, the quirky turn of phrase they bring to the English language, the skill and irreverence of their repartee. They take such an interest in each other, and in the five of us who have come from other corners of the globe: Mao from Taiwan; Merve from Turkey; Roberta from Brazil; Amy from America; and me. Two of them have invited me to their homes already, and they are quick with suggestions of places to visit and things to do. They represent an interesting cross section of society, which makes me think about people’s motivations and what they are willing to do in pursuit of their dreams. There is Vanessa who stopped working following the birth of her son a year ago, whose husband is hugely successful, and who can forget about the dough in her hands when she gets chatting. Donal is the executive director of a company that owns two restaurants at Dublin Airport; he’s doing the course because he loves cooking, wants to better understand the workings of a commercial kitchen, and has a bucket list to get through. Katie is a school teacher, as is Brenda. Caitríona (pronounced Katrina) is a professional waitress in one of Dublin’s top restaurants who wants to explore the option of opening her own place. Suzanne is a veterinarian and Alaidh (pronounced Alli) a vegan who brings her own lunch on most days.

I can’t yet say what the outcome of this experience will be, but I do know that I will carry its impact with me forever. A desire to share with others the food I’m learning to cook is unfolding within me and I’ll be fascinated to see where it leads. What is certain, is that the Dublin Cookery School is adding flavour to my life in the way a chunk of butter enriches a sauce.

Open the shutters wide

 

Shutters
Claude’s house in Saint Michel de Fronsac.

We’re all probably a bit sick of Brexit by now. Speaking for myself, fretting* about the economic implications has lost its lustre. What hasn’t, is the continuing realisation of just how interconnected the world is, and how utterly foolish and misguided any attempts to drive people into camps that can be labelled and then fenced off neatly.

There’s nothing neat about societies and who “belongs” where. The incredible richness of the world we live in strikes me every day on this trip, and is a continuous source of fun, wonder and inspiration.

For an example (to borrow a phrase from David, the Spanish estate agent we met, whose surname is Janssen, courtesy of a Belgian grandfather, and who has taught himself to read, write and speak Russian):

Yesterday was the first day of the 4-week cooking course I’ll be doing at the Dublin Cookery School this July. With Ireland not famous for its cuisine, Dublin not generally regarded as one of the great European cities (I disagree, just so you know) and the Irish summer not known for its sunny days, you’d think that the class would consist of mostly Irish students. You’d be right, as it happens, but the exceptions are wonderful. There is Roberta, the gorgeous Brazilian who packed in her tutu after 24 years of being a ballerina and ballet teacher in Brazil and came to Ireland as an au pair. Now she’s hunting down her food dream with a sharp carving knife. There is also Suzanne, an Irish vet who lived in the States for 9 years and in Dubai for a year – where she tended the racehorses of that country’s richest and most powerful sheikh. Now she’s home. Then there is the Turkish girl (whose name won’t stick in my head) who lived in Düsseldorf in Germany before coming to Dublin. There is a young Asian man who never said a word yesterday and about whose story I’m hugely curious. Fortunately we get to cook with different partners every day, so I know it’s only a matter of time before I meet him. So right there, in a training kitchen in a small suburb of Dublin, you have a mini UN.

For another example (says David): our Airbnb host in Saint Michel de Fronsac, a tiny village in Bordeaux, was a lovely French gentleman called Claude. His wife is Juliet, a British woman (who was so upset about Brexit that she could barely talk). Around a generous breakfast in his kitchen-straight-from-a-Country-Life-article, Claude confessed that he was managing the comings and goings of guests in the two guestrooms and one cottage to prevent him from simply closing the shutters and living in his own world, now that he has retired. That resonated deeply with me; as an introvert I understand that impulse. Yet here was a man who consciously and actively opened himself up to the world by inviting strangers from the four corners into his home.

And another example: in Barcelona our Airbnb hosts were a woman who used to be a contortionist with Cirque du Soleil, and her boyfriend, a man composed of muscles. To pay the bills, Dasha teaches stretch classes and Ljubomir English classes. Together they work out twice a day and are now perfecting a routine they hope will get them onto the cruise ships for a season or two. Dasha left Russia when she was 7 and joined the circus at the age of 15. Ljubomir comes from Macedonia. Between them they speak about 7 languages. I don’t think I’ve ever met people less concerned with putting down roots than these two.

For a last example: the couple who live next door to the house where we stayed in Royan are Armand and Lucia. After 26 years in the USA, Armand moved his extremely American wife and their four daughters to his native France just more than two years ago. This less-than-cosmopolitan corner of France appears to find Lucia a bit overwhelming and it saddened us to hear that the family feels quite isolated. Circumstances brought us into their orbit a few times and, the evening before we left, Armand and Lucia brought us freshly baked cookies for the road. Such a heartfelt gesture from people who could do with a little more kindness themselves was a precious gift to receive.

The notion of countries belonging exclusively to a specific group of people is ludicrous. Even more so the notion that we should put up fences to keep some in and others out. If the Brexits and Trumps of the world win out, every one of us would be personally the poorer for it.

*Trivia time: “fret” comes from the Old English word freton, which means to devour like an animal. When you fret over something, it consumes your thoughts.