The Turk, His Beans, and Me

ImageA little over six years ago, when I was taking a round-the-world trip as the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler,” I happened to spend several days working at an organic apple orchard in the undulating hills of Turkey’s Anatolia region. The experience was both weird and wonderful: There was no one on the farm but the farmer, a 55-year-old former engineer named Kemal Görgün, his cat, Simi, and me, and Kemal spoke no English but the words yes, no, okay, and wow.

Over the course of my stay, Kemal and I grew unexpectedly close—or as close as two people can who have almost no way of communicating. Our days were full of tending to the apple trees, driving through the area’s hills, having sweet tea with his farmer friends, and playing backgammon on his terrace in the evenings. The story I produced out of my time there was one of the most popular I’d ever written. (Go on, read it here.)

One of the things that stayed with me ever since, besides Kemal’s generous nature, was his approach to cooking. Essentially, he’d chop up a lot of vegetables, put them in a pot over very low heat, and leave them slowly stewing while we were working in the fields. By the time we returned for lunch, the dish would be done, and we’d eat it with loads of fresh, crusty bread and thick local yogurt with a mineral tang.

My favorite of these rural “set it and forget it” dishes involved cranberry beans, also known as borlotti, and at summer’s end here in New York, when the runner beans show up at farmers’ markets in their long green, white, and red pods, I make it as often as possible. Even my wife, Jean, who won’t eat beans unless they’re sweet red beans served over crushed ice, loves them. Here’s the recipe (serves 4):

Apple Orchard Cranberry Beans

  • 2 cups freshly shelled cranberry beans
  • 1 large red or white onion, chopped
  • 3 (or more) cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon roughly ground dried Turkish chili (optional)
  • 1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (American, Turkish, or Greek)

To prepare: Put everything but the parsley and yogurt in a saucepan, along with 1/4 to 1/2 cup water. Set over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low. Cook at least an hour, stirring if you remember to, until beans are soft. Then stir in the chopped parsley.

To serve: Divide the beans evenly among four bowls, along with all of the cooking liquid. Garnish each with a big dollop of yogurt, and serve with fresh, crusty bread to sop up the juices.

Wolf-Boy Seeks Job

So, yesterday I sent out the following e-mail to a ton of people, and today I realized I should probably post it here as well:

This is a weird position for me to be in, but here it is: After nearly eight years of freelancing as a writer—for the New York Times, Saveur, Afar, and many other publications—and just three days after I sent my book manuscript in to my publisher, I’m looking for a job. Yes, a real, regular full-time job with a salary, and maybe even benefits.

Ideally, this would be a writing gig focused on travel and food, with freedom to tackle the other weird subjects I get obsessed with: maps, running, television, skateboarding, the Internet, parenting, the small, confounding aspects of life in this city. But I would also like to have a unicorn and, if it’s not too much trouble, universal health care. Which is to say I’m also quite interested in editing (in relation to any of the above-named subjects), and making use of both my experience and my network of talented writer friends.

I don’t necessarily expect that you have a job to offer. I’m not so presumptuous. But you may very well know someone (who knows someone) who is looking for someone to develop a travel section, or oversee food coverage, or just generally edit a broad variety of features, in print or online (or both). And that’s the kind of thing I’d like to get involved in. 

There’s also the possibility, I guess, of getting a job outside of journalism, though what that might be I can’t exactly imagine. What could the author of stories like this and this do besides write more, similar stories? Whatever it ends up being, I’d even be willing to relocate outside of New York if the prospect is intriguing enough.

Also: I don’t want you to think I’m making this decision because I need a job. No, I want one. I’ve loved writing as a freelancer—freelancing has allowed me to travel the world and, almost as important, write what I want to write about. But lately, I’ve felt the pull of civilization, of routine, of participating in activities and projects with larger groups of talented people, and I want in. After so many years in the wilderness, office life seems almost exotic. Do I belong there? I don’t know. I feel a little like a boy raised by wolves who suddenly wants a seat at the table for Sunday dinner. I may eat with my hands at first, and fight you for a chance to gnaw the leg bones, but pretty soon I will learn your ways.

So, that’s about it. I suppose now I’ll have to put together a résumé and organize links to my stories; you should be able to find those things here: <http://about.me/worldmatt>. 

TL;DR: Matt wants a real job, writing or editing (or “other”), print or online, in NYC or elsewhere.

Getting Lost: International High School Edition

“They say getting lost is easy to do. However, trying to get lost seems even harder.”

Well, yes! Those words—written by Henrietta Steventon, a participant in the Oxbridge Academic Programs, a summer course for international high school students—were exactly the point I’ve been trying to make ever since I began writing the “Getting Lost” series for the New York Times travel section. In the last year, I’ve traveled to Tangier, Ireland, Chongqing, Las Vegas, Java, and, most recently, the Greek Islands with neither map nor guidebook, without hotel reservations or contacts, with no access to the Internet, and with no real idea of what I’m going to do when I arrive, all in the hope that I’ll get lost, either geographically (unlikely) or psychologically (possible, but tricky).

Still, people keep asking why I’d want to get lost, as if it’s not simply a bad idea but a nonsensical one, a surrealist response to a perfectly normal question. Which it kind of is. Travel on its most basic level involves orienting oneself in unfamiliar places—to do the opposite of that is almost not to travel at all.

But for me, after decades of fairly intensive travel, orientation has become easy, too easy. In June of 2010, for example, I showed up in San Jose, Costa Rica, to film a video segment with a friend who’d been living there for years. Within 24 hours of arriving, I’d crisscrossed the city multiple times in a rental car, ID’d the “cool” neighborhoods, found the seedy zones, and basically understood the city’s psychogeography better than my friend. It was a feeling of accomplishment, but also of disappointment. My window of discovery lasted a single day—darn.

Now, to extend that window, I want to get lost, because it’s hard to get lost. And, in getting lost, I am opening myself up to finding new things, places and people and experiences I could never have predicted I’d find. Also, it’s pretty fun.

And so, a little over a month ago, I had the chance to explain all of this to these Oxbridge students, one of whose classes was being taught by my old friend, Wah-Ming Chang, who invited me to join in one day. For about 30 minutes, the kids—who hailed from Istanbul, Rome, Mexico City and beyond—asked me good questions, and then the fun began. Wah-Ming, her colleague Colin McDonald, and I led them all down from Barnard, where classes are held, to Central Park, and told them to get lost, or try to, with the idea that they’d be writing about their experiences afterward.

Today I have the joy of presenting you with my favorite pieces of writing to emerge from that class. First up, a little more of Ms. Steventon’s prose:

Then all of a sudden, we find ourselves surrounded by foliage. We push through. Our hearts pound with the anticipation of exploration. A single bead of sweat trickles down from my hairline. We struggle through the plant life like Moses parting the Red Sea, the wood chips crunching under our feet. We can almost feel what we have been attempting to feel for approximately 18 minutes now: that lost feeling is just reachable. We push past a trunk of a tree stretching to the sky, and are now lost in the jungles of… the fantasy has been lost. The dream destroyed. We are now standing on the side of the main road, on the border of the central park. We might as well be tourists hailing a cab. Our idea of ‘Jurassic Park’ has become the reality of Central Park.

Man, how well I know that feeling of being right on the cusp of discovery, only to watch the unfamiliar terrain coalesce into something you know all too well. But it’s instructive nonetheless, and you keep hoping that next time the discovery will be true.

As the generation of futuristic technology we often find ourselves lost in our own virtual perceptions. Lost in our own Facebook profiles while singing “Rolling in the Deep” and answering a text message. In most cases, “getting lost” in Central Park means “I’m looking at Google maps while figuring out the way.” I have a blackberry, an Itouch, and a computer; you know what I don’t have? A compass, a survival kit, and a Victorinox pocket knife. Despite the obvious details- yes, I’m a city girl. I believe that technology for all its grandeur will never surpass nature; the sun’s first bundle of light, the sound of the first leaf to descend in fall, the immensity of the ocean, and the smell of wet grass. Thus, setting off to this slightly unconventional task (has a teacher ever asked you to get lost? Exactly.) I was not surprised as to what I realized.

—Alejandrina Alvarez

While I’m pretty sure every generation since mine (or before) has defined itself as that of “futuristic technology,” Alvarez nails how our tools not only make getting lost more difficult but also get in the way of really seeing and experiencing where we are. I say this as a deep lover of Google Maps (and all maps), one who’s often walked digital paths while ignoring the gravel ones beneath my feet. Sometimes it’s necessary, but if we can survive when left to our own devices (and not the electronic kind), we’re in trouble.

One student, Hannah Silsby, took this “get lost to observe better” approach extremely far, and produced a wonderful, multiple-point-of-view narrative:

The heat sunk in past our skin as we wandered. In a state of longing for lostness, we reared left up the hill. Like a line of ants returning home, each person followed the one in front of them. The only difference was that we were not going home; we were attempting to lose our individual distinction and explore as faceless, colorless, genderless beings. We were attempting to meld with the background and observe ourselves.

The group lingered through the forest, once uninvaded by humankind, now harnessed. Searching for an unfamiliar place, barren of recognition, we funneled past peaks and curves. We stumbled upon an affectionate couple, lost in their own way.

***

Our embrace became like being one single solitary creature, daunted by an extra body. Still my legs blanketed his, my smile lingered over his. For minutes only the sun intruded on us, blazing jealously [zealously?]. A group of adventure teens wander near, seeking something besides intrusiveness. They take a perch nearby, they see us, don’t seem to mind. But we mind.

They soak themselves in the sun like black cats, wordless. A girl stands and circles the ruin of a building behind her.

***

I twist my way around the mangled birch building, peering into the windows and shaking the cracking rusted locks. Finding nothing, I circle back to the sunning stone where my classmates tan and pant. I pass a black man wearing an aging red shirt, he smiles. I wave.

***

Harry bent down towards the empty soda can hidden in the long grass and placed it in his shopping cart. The half-full cart made noises like church bells as he navigated it through the rough terrain of Central Park. His red shirt collected films of perspiration beneath the arms. He smiled at a passerby, a young blond girl.

***

Henrietta lay sprawled out on the hot stone among the other students. The dress she had recently been sent by her mother resonated in the wind, skating puffs of breath. Her eyes wandered to the couple only a few feet away: once so affectionate, now cautious. She thought it sad, that the gay couple had changed their positions so drastically from affectionate to friendship. Would they have kept their holds of each other if they had been a straight couple? She prayed that they were only shy expressing affection, and not with their identities.

Henrietta followed the school of students exiting the scene, her vibrant pink dress still respirating in competition with the wind.

***

Once we returned to the meeting place, we planted our supple, sweating bodies on the benches. Just beyond the boundaries of the railing sat an open valley of heaving hills. A pair of sparrows chased each other, tail to beak, about the pathway before taking leisure on the railings behind a bench. I observed them. They flirted and bobbed together, stealing my attention. I removed my notebook from my bag and attempted to sketch the moving companions. They flittered lovingly between excited rotations and gentle smooches. They were bothered not by the wind nor by my peering eye or flickering pen, and were distracted only by each other’s actions.

The slow exhale of the wind leapt about my forearms and giving life to a newspaper sheet rolling by. The birds took no notice of the sighing earth, and simply continued flirting.

Of all the students, the fedora-wearing flâneur Felipe de la Hoz—who I came to think of as Mr. Hat—perhaps got the “getting lost” point the best:

I believe getting lost is a beautiful thing. There are really very few experiences as freeing as finding yourself in unknown territory. We are so used to knowing exactly where we are and where we are going at every moment of the day that once we actually look around and are struck suddenly by the cold splash of reality, by the realization that we are, surprisingly, not in control and indeed completely helpless, it immediately turns off all of that static in your mind, all the white noise, the chores, the petty problems are wiped, the hard drive rebooted and you are left floored. Everything else is gone, and now there is only you and this place, this alien place, wonderful and terrifying, removed from everything and everyone; and you are left in nirvana. Time stretches out, it becomes irrelevant and distant; seconds blend into minutes and hours. There is no purpose. There is no destination. Walking goes from being a method of transportation to an almost meditative state; it is a trance, as deeply introspective as any religious service. It is the experience of exploration that we all had yet have forgotten about with the passing of years; it is the same exploration as that of a child, a child bewildered by the fresh and new world around him, experiencing all the sights and sensations individually, each tree on each leaf fascinating, hungrily studied and absorbed and loved and appreciated. There is no why; why is not necessary in this place. Getting lost is like spending day after day after day living in generic stock photographs, and then, one day, tripping into an impressionist painting. All the things you didn’t notice could be there if you simply look at the world a different way. Every element of the landscape is now a finely crafted work of art. Who knew the branches were such a sight? Who knew buildings were not just places you went to pay your bills, but each has a life and a personality to be observed? The warped lens has been removed, and you can see things as they are. Don’t ignore the world; the world is here for you to see and experience and appreciate. The next time you look around and what you see is not what you expected, consider yourself lucky; each sight and person and experience is a gift, and it is up to you to find it.

Finally, I’d be remiss in not quoting Julia Fonteles, who didn’t quite get lost but who did get right to the heart of the weirdness of travel writing:

It was an interesting idea, and it’s hard to imagine someone making money out of this job which is really an adventure. I guess people make money doing all kinds of things today.

Well, yes!

Where I Been

Business cards advertising escort services litter the Strip.

Twitter is a funny thing. It seems so inconsequential on many levels—all those 140-character blurbs about breakfast, hahaha!—but then it spurs random events. A friend of mine, for instance, just got a four-article assignment because a friend of his tweeted something. Weird.

And then my friend Newley Purnell goes and mentions me as “always an inspiration.” Sheesh. But then he reminded me of something else—I have a blog! Long neglected though it is, I do like to write here, and since it’s been a while, I figured I’d give you an update on my comings, goings, and writings.

First, there was that article in last week’s Sunday Styles section, about the Ace Hotel and its (co-)founder, Alex Calderwood. What can I tell you about that? Well, it was enjoyable to report, but it also made me nervous. What if the subjects of the story hated it? Would I be able to go back to the Ace for drinks now and then? But of course, I couldn’t write it solely to please Alex et al. Anyway, I was there last night, to meet up with a visiting editor, and no one kicked me out. In fact, I ran into Alex and he told me he liked the piece. “I didn’t write it to make you happy,” I told him.

Oh, also, the Village Voice and Gawker had some wonderfully snarky comments about the story. I enjoyed them immensely.

At the same time, my “Voyager” column on GetCurrency.com has been getting more and better attention. If you haven’t read it yet, check out my recent columns on which countries I hate (and why) and which countries I love (and how I came, mathematically, to those conclusions).

Next up is this weekend! If you’re a radio person, you should check out the Splendid Table, where I’ll be talking about my recent schnaps story in Saveur magazine. A fun, short interview. Click this link for local listings.

Also this weekend is the next installment of the “Getting Lost” series: Las Vegas! Woo-hoo! I won’t spoil what happens in the piece, except to say two things: 1) the photo in this post is one the Times wasn’t able, for various reasons, to use; and 2) I met Lady Luck—in the flesh. Check it out online starting tomorrow.

Resolved!

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a Frugal Traveler column about my New Year’s resolutions for 2010. Now, resolutions are not really my thing. Mostly it’s because I’m a self-satisfied jerk who doesn’t see any need to change or adapt as the years go by. In this case, though, I had an assignment and a deadline, so I had to come up with something: I resolved to travel lighter, put down my iPhone, learn to like buses and hostels, and learn Spanish and Chinese.

Of all of these, only the last held out any real appeal for me, and yet somehow I actually managed to fulfill my other resolutions, thanks to this new “Getting Lost” series, which has required me to put aside my iPhone entirely and to lighten my load in general. And, in a weird twist of fate, my recent “Lost in China” trip to Chongqing led me to embrace both buses and hostels (though I wasn’t consciously trying to). Here are the relevant lines on buses:

So one day, just before lunch, I rode the light rail 45 minutes to the end of the line and walked to a bus stop, where, after studying the route map (another breach of my rules, but it was in Chinese, hence unreadable), I boarded a bus that passers-by assured me would not go anywhere I’d been before.

Never have I been so relaxed on a bus. With no destination in mind and no timetable to keep, I simply rode and looked out the window at the gray sky and the towers topped with Italianate domes or mansard roofs (and sometimes, I think, with both).

And on hostels:

I found Tina’s Hostel, a warren of rooms an easy cab ride away, at the edge of the 18 Steps, an old, central neighborhood whose every building (I believe) bore the character “chai,” which means destined for demolition. My private room was acceptable, if small; there was a roof deck with a pool table, and an enclosed cafe space. Most important, there was the spunky crew of young Chinese men and women who operated the hostel, showed a genuine interest in its guests and invited me to join them that evening for what I’d been wanting to eat ever since I arrived: hot pot.

Funny how things work out, eh? Now, however, I must face 2011 and consider crafting New Year’s resolutions once again. If I follow the same strategy—that is, fulfill the resolutions by not even trying to fulfill them—then I should make them more ambitious. So, this year I resolve to sell a book for $1 million, launch a travel TV empire, and, I don’t know, sail around the world? Sure, why not?

How to Get Around New York City: Some Very Simple Instructions

Hello, tourists! Also: Hello, residents! Please allow me to be the first, and possible the last, person to welcome you to New York City. It is, you have probably noticed, a very big city. The buildings are tall. There are lots of people. The transit systems seem to have been designed by sadistic mental patients formerly consigned to Roosevelt Island. (Fun fact: They were!) Simply getting from place to place can be terrifying. Why, you might bump into someone! Or offend a native! Or be run down like a fixed-gear bicyclist by a garbage truck!

Unless, of course, you follow these two principles for Getting Around New York City™. I will tell you now: One of these principles is self-centered and rude, while the other is broad-minded and conscientious. I will leave it to you to decide which is which.

Principle no. 1: Get the hell outta my way!

The first thing you should remember when it comes to Principle no. 1 is that you should get the hell outta my way! I don’t care who you are—tourist or native or ex-resident returning to the once-forlorn neighborhood of Brooklyn where you lived 30 years ago—but you just need to get the hell outta my way. I might be walking, or biking, or driving; it doesn’t matter which. I might be moving fast or slowly, toward you or away from you. There might be other people around into whose way you must move in order to get the hell outta my way. That doesn’t matter! What I need for you is to anticipate MY NEEDS, where I’M GOING, and get the hell outta my way. I could be going up or down subway stairs; you should move aside. I could be trying to browse B&H for camera gear I can’t afford; you should let me through. All that matters, in the end, is that you get the hell outta my way.

What happens if you don’t get the hell outta my way? I may bump into you, perhaps roughly, perhaps not. I may give you a dirty look, and you’ll be both cowed and angry. I may suck it up and walk around you. I may call you a jerk, or whisper “Jerk!” under my breath, or think about what a jerk you are later, when I’m home and enjoying a nice glass or whiskey. Good luck recovering from that, jerk!

Principle no. 2: No sudden movements, please

This one is simple. Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it. If you’re walking, keep walking. Don’t suddenly stop. Don’t suddenly turn to the right. Or to the left. Don’t break into a sprint. Or drastically reduce your walking speed. Just maintain a steady pace … and ignore what everyone else is doing around you. Yes, I know that requires you to violate Principle no. 1 (a.k.a. “Get the hell outta my way!”), but it will work. In fact, it will work so well that you can even walk slowly—we New Yorkers won’t mind, just so long as you don’t suddenly halt to sip your Starbucks or pause in a crosswalk to read a map.

Look, we just don’t want surprises. Surprises surprise us, and then we have to jump, swerve and stumble to avoid them, whether it’s a tourist flipping open a map on the subway steps or a cyclist running some red lights but not others, or a suburban sedan that can’t decide whether it wants to keep looking for on-street parking or should just go back around to that overpriced parking garage. If that’s how you behave, we’re liable to maybe bump into you, call/mouth/think you a jerk, and fume for hours afterward. And you really don’t want that! So, be consistent. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits used to say.

Okay, you say, but what then should an ambulatory person do when said person needs to stop, to answer the phone or put on a pair of Marc Jacobs fingerless gloves or whatever? Think of the sidewalk (and the subway and streets and everywhere else) like a highway. If you need to stop, you don’t just stop. You find a place on the side where you can pause, and you decelerate as you pull over. Then you take care of your business—iPhone Google maps, nose-picking, wet-wipe-showering, whatever—and gradually accelerate back into human traffic. It’s very simple, jerk.

Corollaries

I’m not going to get into the corollaries here. Suffice to say that, in combination, these two principles lead to a host of other sub-principles that guide ideal maneuvering around New York City. But I’ll leave it to other writers to deal with those issues. I’m late already to bike into the city and pick up my daughter from preschool, and there’s bound to be all kinds of jerks in my way.

Why I Love Vietnam

During the Tet holiday, Ho Chi Minh City, 2005.

The last time I was in Vietnam, a strange thing happened. I was walking down a typical alleyway between two buildings near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. There was a small vegetable market spread on one side, and a few fold-up tables that constituted another side. Some teenagers sat on parked mopeds, and off to the side a guy squatted on the ground, welding a piece of metal, sparks flying at his unprotected face.

Then, out of nowhere, a girl—maybe 18 years old—ran up to me, grabbed my right nipple through my shirt, and twisted it. Then she grinned and jogged off, looking back at me as she did so. It didn’t hurt, but man, that was weird. Except that it wasn’t weird at all. And it wasn’t sexual—she wasn’t a hooker. She just… thought it was funny. And it was. From a certain point of view.

When I tell people this story, a lot of them don’t get it. If they’ve been to Vietnam, they see it as further evidence of how difficult it is to do something that should be simple, like walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, buying fruit, or taking a taxi. Those people will freely admit they don’t much like Vietnam. Who would, with such constant hassles?

To me, however, the nipple-twister is exactly why I love the place. The people there are outgoing and exuberant, not only fascinated by foreigners but unafraid to confront them. And they are original—where else can you get your nipples playfully twisted by a stranger as merely the prelude to a increasingly strange day?

Yes, there is hassle, but key to managing it is understanding that it is a game. Now, the game may be called “How Badly Can We Rip Off the Foreigner?” But it is still a game that you can play. You might not win—actually, you can’t win, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate your losses. It helps, of course, to be able to speak some Vietnamese, so that when your taxi driver or the dragonfruit vendor quotes an outrageous figure you can squeal with derision, “Oh my God!” And from there you begin the bargaining/arguing procedure.

Now, look. If you want your travel experiences to be seamlessly pleasant, then Vietnam may not be for you, unless you are very rich. But me, I like travel to be challenging. Not difficult, exactly, but the kind of thing that tests me, tests my language abilities, my wits, my patience—all the assorted skills I’ve accumulated over the years. And Vietnam does this every second of every day, from the moment I step out the door in search of coffee or pho. And it rewards persistence and creative thinking.

Once, I remember, I stepped into a taxi and asked the driver to bring me to the best pho in the city. There began a long conversation about where and when and how to find such a thing. It was early afternoon—not prime pho-finding time—and the best places, in the cabbie’s opinion, lay on the wrong side of town. But the enthusiasm with which he matched my own was wonderful, and prompted me to declare, in shaky Vietnamese, “Ai co thich an pho, day la ban toi.” (Roughly, “he who likes pho is a friend of mine.”)

But it wasn’t just the fact of his enthusiasm—it was the purity of his spirit. There was, at least as far as I could tell, nothing but enthusiasm there, no irony or condescension or even game-playing. For 15 minutes in cross-town traffic, it was just two guys talking (through a minor language barrier) about their love of noodles. And implied by that, I think, was a love of the country that made them.