Not too long ago, I was at a party with a number of people who have successful careers in lifestyle journalism. I was chatting with a beautiful, sexy friend who writes for a magazine that covers luxury spa vacations. She got that job, in part, because she wrote a wonderful travel book about bathing culture which one critic claimed “bred a new publishing hybrid, the beauty-travel memoir, Bruce Chatwin by way of Allure magazine.”
As we chatted, I shared some good news with her: I had just been hired to write a newspaper column about spirits and cocktails.
“You should really meet my friend,” she told me. “He’s the perfume critic at the Times.”
“Really?” I said. “Let me just see if I’m hearing this correctly. The luxury spa columnist would like the spirits columnist to meet the perfume columnist.”
“Yes,” she said, with a beautiful, sexy smile.
“Wait,” I said. “Did you just hear that?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “I just thought for a second that I heard the sound of the Apocalypse happening.”
When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming Ernest Hemingway. Now, I travel and drink and tell people where to travel and what to drink. Close enough, I guess, though likely closer to the paunchy, boozy, crazy late Hemingway than the younger, dashing one who ran with bulls, drove ambulances in the Great War, and wrote good novels. It’s sort of like dreaming of becoming Elvis when you’re young, and then actually becoming Elvis years later — but you’ve become the wrong one, the Elvis who performed sweaty and overweight in rhinestone jumpsuits.
Anyway, when I’m working, I often think of that poor woman, Jig, in “Hills Like White Elephants,” the one whom the narrator is trying to convince to have an abortion as they travel through Spain. To avoid another quarrel in the hot afternoon, she orders glasses of anise at the railway station bar. “I wanted to try this new drink,” she says to her companion. “That’s all we do, isn’t it — look at things and try new drinks?”
If Jig had been lucky enough to live 80 years later — during an era of more reliable birth control — and shaken free of her loser boyfriend, she might have had a promising career in lifestyle journalism.
The slippery notion of authenticity — The Authentic Experience — is something that people in lifestyle journalism endlessly wring their hands over.
Just pick up any magazine on food or travel and you’ll find alliterative boasts of authenticity on the cover: “Insider’s Istanbul”; “In Search of the Real Romania”; “The True Taste of Tashkent.” The message seems clear: If you’re not traveling to see our “hidden gems” or dining on our “local secrets,” well, you’re hopeless. Worse than hopeless. You’re a tourist.
Travel Weekly, the national newspaper of the travel industry, hosted a round-table discussion a couple of years ago and invited top editors from seven of the nation’s leading travel publications. They gathered in the Ed Sullivan Room at the Friar’s Club in New York and discussed a variety of pressing issues, such as: “What are the ingredients that create buzz for a destination?”
The issue of authentic travel experience was quickly raised. The editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s largest travel magazines explained: “That new adventure traveler is the person who wants to fly to India first class or business class. They want to stay in a great hotel. Then they want to be taken to a small village where they meet the rug dealer. Then they want to buy the rug. But the thing is, they want the genuine, authentic experience, and they’re willing to pay to get there.”
“That doesn’t sound authentic at all, to have someone take you to a rug dealer,” said the editor of a more budget-conscious magazine.
“I don’t agree,” the first editor persisted. “You can go there and find someone who can take you into the mountains. I have a story in the works on just this thing. They will take you to the guy who will sell you the rug. And it is real, and when they return, it is what they’re going to talk about when people come over for dinner.”
This assertion was pushed into the realm of the absurd by the editor-in-chief of another big travel magazine, who said, “The adventure traveler is not necessarily the one out there climbing rocks. There’s also the adventurous traveler who’s Donna Karan’s friend, searching for a new experience.”
“A new Nirvana?” someone else hopefully suggested.
“A new Nirvana — or a new thing to buy.”
A few years ago, after my wife Jennifer and I returned from one of our trips to Iceland, I wrote a travel story about the experience for a men’s magazine that was popular at the time, but now no longer exists. I won’t name names, but let’s just say that this magazine, on the cover, proclaimed itself both “The Guy’s Survival Guide” and “The Men’s Magazine With The Smart Point Of View.” This editor assigned me to write with special emphasis on Reykjavík’s crazy nightlife scene and also about the natural phenomena, as well as things a tourist could do on a visit. Simple enough.
Days later, the editor emailed my story back, with a stern note. As I scrolled down, I saw that the story had been completely reworked. I was horrified to see that this editor had given the story the new headline “Chilling In Iceland” and the subhead “Awesome nature, awesome nightlife.” In the second paragraph, the editor had added this priceless line: “During the summer, it stays light outside almost continuously…giving new meaning to the phrase ‘party all day.’” And this: “Iceland is filled with enough natural wonders to keep the Audubon Society busy for decades.”
But this was the most surprising fix of all: The editor, in his rewrite, had removed all references to my wife. It was as if she never existed.
I called the editor to ask why he’d made that change. The editor referred to his readers as Our Guys. “Our Guys,” he said. “Our Guys don’t want to hear a story about some guy and his wife in Iceland. Remember, Our Guys are guys in the 25 to 30 demographic. Our Guys are single guys, most of them anyway.”
“But I am a guy between the ages of 25 and 30,” I protested. “And I happen to be married.”
“Yeah, but you’re not normal,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, you live in the suburbs.”
I began to protest again, but the editor sighed and cut me off. “Look,” he said. “I’m not flexible on this. Your wife has to go.”
Flavor trends seem to work somewhat like high school. One day, the cool kids — usually people with suspicious job titles like “cool hunter” or “flavorist” or “cocktail columnist” — wake up and decide that, say, pomegranates will be the next big thing. There’s usually talk of antioxidants or benefits to the urinary tract, but everyone knows the popularity is really all about the crimson-purple color. Suddenly, everywhere you turn, they’re putting pomegranates into everything. How did we ever live without the sweet-and-sour nectar of the pomegranate?
Well, allow me to inform you: Pomegranates are so, like, 2006. Pears are the new pomegranates. Or at least they were. Hadn’t you heard?
Yeah, me neither. Until I received this e-mail last year from the Pear Bureau Northwest: “Pears Make a Splash as Fresh Drink Trend for 2007.” Which makes total sense if you ignore the fact that pears have been cultivated and enjoyed by humans since about 5000 B.C.
In this breathless news release, a spokesperson for Absolut vodka declared pears to be “the next big flavor.” Said he, “We constantly have flavorists on the hunt for all the new scents, flavors and tastes, and pear was ‘ripe’ for us.” Not surprisingly, Absolut was at the same time launching a new flavor-infused vodka, Absolut Pears. Within weeks, Grey Goose unveiled its own pear vodka, La Poire.
Anyone who understands lifestyle journalism knows that three of anything is a certifiable trend, and so it was getting dangerously close to the tipping point on pear vodka.
“They’re running out of flavors, so I wouldn’t be surprised if another company comes out with one soon,” said Jack Robertiello, an editor at Adams Beverage Group, which monitors the spirits industry.
A few words about the explosion of flavored vodkas. Well, maybe just one word: ridiculous. Perhaps this is too ungenerous. I mean, I can understand the basic impulse behind citrus vodka, and perhaps even vanilla. But blueberry vodka? Espresso vodka? Black cherry vodka? Kaffir lime vodka? Litchi vodka? Coconut vodka? “Mojito Mint” vodka?
I’ve even developed a theory on the whole flavored-vodka thing: It’s a European conspiracy foisted upon unwitting American consumers to see how far they’ll go. I imagine a distiller (wearing a beret, lederhosen or wooden shoes) snickering: “They drank mojito mint? Really? Well, then, let’s send them over açai-blueberry and see what happens.”
When I tasted the two new pear vodkas, what struck me immediately was how differently each company interpreted pear flavor. Absolut Pears had a strong candy scent and an assertive fruity taste that no pear in nature could possibly convey. Grey Goose, on the other hand, had a delicate, natural pear bouquet. But the mild flavor is so subtle as to be nearly lost.
So what does one do with pear vodka? That is a very good question, one that I ask myself every time I see those two half-filled bottles in the back of my liquor cabinet.
Here’s a recent post on the bar-and-restaurant industry site, Webtender: “I work at a rather nice upscale restaurant in Manhattan and our bartender recently ordered Absolute [sic] Pear. After we all tasted it in several drinks we decided to make a few drinks based around it for our signature drink list. We aren’t having much luck.”
A few summers ago, there was a shark attack at the Jersey Shore. A teenage surfer had his foot bitten by what experts believed was a baby great white shark. Luckily, even though he received 60 stitches, the boy survived and made a full recovery.
Now, shark attacks in New Jersey are rare. Exceedingly rare. This was actually the first attack in decades. I live near the Jersey Shore and so, of course, our local newspaper ran a front-page article about the incident. The headline: “For some, ocean loses appeal after shark attack.” The subhead: “But others not as concerned and take the plunge into Atlantic.” The reporter quoted a mother with small children who was now afraid to let them go into the water. The reporter quoted other people who said they were not afraid of sharks and would indeed go back into the water.
Alongside that article ran a box of helpful tips under the title “WHAT TO DO: If you come near a shark.” Tip #1: “Don’t try to touch it.” Tip #2: “Get out of the water as quickly as possible.” Tip #5: “If a shark attacks you, the general rule is do whatever it takes to get away.”
Helpful tips such as these convince me that we have reached a gilded, Rococo age of service journalism. The sheer volume of helpful-tip-giving that exists in the world of publishing constantly amazes me. Nowhere is this more evident than in the magazines and newspaper travel sections that I read through every year. Pack light! Use Ziploc bags! Wear a money belt! Stay hydrated on your flight! Be wary of tap water! Watch out for pickpockets!
Not that all of this advice is bad, though much of it is self-evident or common sense or unnecessary. It’s helpful in the same way that, when you lose your keys, someone always ask, “Now, where did you last leave them?”
That said, one never knows what sort of advice a person might seek.
Once, in Managua, I found myself in the bar of the Hotel Inter-Continental. All around me, businessmen — some in bad suits, some in flower-print shirts trying to look tropical casual — talked in hushed tones. They had been warned by their waiters not to walk the streets, to take only specific taxis, to visit only the fashionable bars guarded by men with shotguns and AK-47s.
I was approached by a man who was either an Ernest Hemingway wannabe or a Jimmy Buffett wannabe (it’s often difficult to spot the difference). This guy wore a bushy mustache, shorts, sandals, a beaded necklace, and a Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball hat.
Without so much as a hello, the man asked me: “Do you know any good strip clubs?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, what the hell are you doing here in this country, then?” he asked.
“Just visiting,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Whatever the hell I want to.
Iceland is a land of fire and ice.
Whoever first used this infamous, less-than-inspiring sentence in print can breathe easy — his identity will remain anonymous here. But only because I cannot finger the culprit. In my imagination, however, I can clearly picture this wordsmith. He’s sitting in a hotel bar in Reykjavík, scribbling away in his black leather-bound journal, probably with a fountain pen, as the deadline nears. He is wearing a fedora and one of those tan vests with lots of pockets and he’s smoking a pipe or a skinny, pungent cigar. He scratches his thick Hemingway-esque beard, musing over all the wonders he has witnessed during his weeklong tour of Iceland. Suddenly, just as the barmaid delivers the afternoon’s third cocktail, a eureka moment occurs. He thinks: Volcanoes! He thinks: Glaciers! Fire. Ice. Egads, man. Iceland is indeed a land of fire and ice! Innkeeper, I must wire my editor in New York at once!
However it happened, the original composition of the line “Iceland is a land of fire and ice” has proved to be a seminal moment in the travel literature of Iceland. From that time on, the description has proved irresistible to travel writers — it has found its way into countless articles, guidebooks, and television documentaries.
During one recent evening when I couldn’t sleep, I was flipping through late-night television and came upon a program about Iceland on a channel devoted to golf. In the show, a group of middle-aged American men had been brought to Iceland to play in a summer golf tournament in the midnight sun near the Arctic Circle. Their tee-time was 1 a.m.
Sandwiched between footage of the men shooting a rather mediocre round of golf, there was documentary footage of Iceland’s sights — steaming hot springs, pastoral sheep farms, idyllic fishing villages, and the discos of Reykjavik — narrated by a perky young female host. Soon enough came the requisite shots of volcanoes and glaciers. And even in my half-sleep, I knew what was coming next.
“Iceland is truly a land of fire and ice,” cooed the host — as if she were the first person in the world to ever utter such profundity.
I love the corporate storytelling that accompanies the launch of so much booze into the marketplace. The genre is well established: miraculous tales of rustic peasants gathering some obscure ingredient (Sorrento lemons for limoncello); secret recipes zealously guarded by monks who’ve taken a vow of silence (Chartreuse); black-and-white photos of the stern family patriarch carefully inspecting the goods (just about every Kentucky bourbon).
“Quintessential liquor industry puffery” is what Robert Cooper called these stories. “I guess you could say it’s romantic and that it allows the consumer to dream. Or whatever. But it’s just a lie. They need to have a compelling story of some sort. A lot of companies probably feel that pressure.”
Said Cooper, “I’m over the whole puffery thing.”
Based on these observations, it may surprise you that Cooper — whose family owns Charles Jacquin et Cie distillery in Philadelphia — launched a brand new liqueur last year, called St-Germain, that is allegedly made of Alpine elderflowers.
What may not surprise you is that St-Germain elderflower liqueur launched with a romantic story. And it is a doozy. A classic of the genre.
According to the lavish marketing material, St-Germain only uses fresh, wild elderflowers picked in the French Alps. The flowers then undergo a “highly secret” maceration process that extracts flavor “without bruising the flowers.” It is “a carefully orchestrated sequence of events, which must be completed during the short three to four day span when the blossoms peak.”
So, with only a few fleeting days to gather all the elderflowers needed for an entire year’s production, how on earth do they harvest the crop?
According to the company’s tale, bohemien farmers handpick the elderflowers. “After gently ushering the wild blooms into sacks and descending the hillside, the man who gathers blossoms for your cocktail will then mount a bicycle and carefully ride the umbels of starry white flowers to the market,” reads the marketing material, which includes photos of a man in a beret, his bicycle loaded down with satchels of flowers.
Says St-Germain: “You could not write a better story if you were François Truffault.” Indeed.
Some spirits industry insiders, on the other hand, remain a little more skeptical. When I recounted the St-Germain story to Frank Coleman, lobbyist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, he rolled his eyes and said, “Guys on bikes? Yeah, right.”
Maybe I’m naïve, or a complete fool, but I was willing to allow Cooper the chance to produce the evidence, to show me his bohemiens on bicycles. The harvest was happening in early May and I offered to drive down from Geneva into the Haute Savoie region to check on the elderflower harvest.
Cooper flatly rejected the idea. “I will not divulge the name of the town where the elderflowers are grown,” he said. “I want to protect this brand.” And as far as his maceration process, he said, “I’m not going to show you. I’m not going to show anyone. Ever.”
The elderflowers are on public land, Cooper said, and he worried that a multinational liquor company would swoop in on the action if it learned the location. I questioned that business model. What if the elderflowers didn’t bloom one year, or what if he lost availability? People in the Alps may pick elderflowers and use them in cooking and making drinks. You might even be able to find some kind of elderflower spirit made in someone’s barn. But that’s a long way from using fresh elderflowers, picked by local guys on bikes, for a liqueur that’s having an expensive, PR-driven U.S. rollout.
I pressed further. I offered to keep the town anonymous. I told him that in the past I’d visited many distilleries with secrets, and had never once figured out their method or recipes. Still, Cooper would not budge.
He instead offered to send a man named Yves to meet me at my hotel in Geneva. From there, I would be driven into the Haute Savoie, to a destination he would not disclose. “Are you going to blindfold me and throw a sack over my head, too?” I asked.
Cooper chuckled. “Maybe we should!”
Even then, I would still be forbidden from seeing his team of guys on bicycles, and he would not show me his production facility. Yves and I would apparently drive around the mountains, have lunch, and then return to Geneva. I declined.
And so, for now, the story of men handpicking fresh elderflowers in the French Alps for St-Germain liqueur remains a good story.
The Importance of Niche
I traveled to Helsinki for the first time several Novembers ago. It probably won’t surprise anyone to report that Helsinki in November was brutally cold with a wind that whipped across the half-frozen harbor, that the sun didn’t rise until mid-morning and quickly set by early afternoon, or that it snowed part of every day.
I wandered the city’s snowy, quiet streets without purpose, following signs I could not read. I haggled with a Russian fur vendor over a muskrat hat in the Market Square. I drank coffee while sitting on boxes inside a tent near the fish vendors. I whiled away a dark afternoon at a tiny table in Café Engel, looking out across the stark Senate Square, warmed by sun lamps which the barista told me had been set up to counteract “the winter blahs.” I ate reindeer served with cloudberries and lingonberries, dropped markkas into the cup of a blind accordion player, and listened to people ice skating in the park across the street as I lay in my hotel bed.
The trip seems rather uneventful in the retelling, I know. And it surprises me a little to say that this trip has become a meaningful part of my personal history — more than I ever could have imagined when I bought my plane ticket. The reason has as much, or more, to do with context as with the destination.
If you remember back to the mid-to-late 1990s, you may recall those years as the zenith of America’s sudden, red-hot love affair with gourmet coffee and its accoutrements. It also happened to be the zenith for a certain genre of niche, connoisseur magazine. During those years, I wrote for — and later improbably became the editor of — an attractively designed magazine called Coffee Journal that covered what it termed the “Coffee & Tea Lifestyle.” The magazine dutifully tasted and compared coffee roasts, reviewed the newest espresso machines and grinders, provided biscotti recipes, and profiled cafes all over the world. Travel was a major part of this so-called “Coffee & Tea Lifestyle” and I wrote stories about visiting coffee farms in Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as an article entitled “The Best Coffeehouses Coast to Coast.” By the time I took the reins, the magazine’s demise was imminent. America’s love affair with gourmet coffee had cooled considerably.
Following an argument with the publisher over whether our next issue’s cover would be a photo of a coffee mug with doughnuts, or simply a photo of a solitary coffee mug, I decided to assign myself a travel story on the coffeehouse culture of Helsinki. The clever Coffee Journal angle for this travel article, I am embarrassed to admit, would go as follows: A widely-circulated statistic asserted that nine cups of coffee was what the average Finn drank each day, the highest per capita consumption in the world. Taking that bit of information as my cue, I would sit in Helsinki’s finest cafes, drink nine cups of coffee each day just like the Finns, make notes on the interiors of cafes and those sitting in cafes, and soak in just enough local color on which to hang an itinerary our readers could clip out and follow. It was basically the type of story one writes for a connoisseur magazine that has long ago exhausted its niche.
Well, I made my Finnair reservations, and two days later Coffee Journal ceased publication. I was now unemployed, but since it was November and flights were as cheap as they would ever be, I decided to fly to Helsinki anyway. Free of artifice or gimmick or even the need to do any particular sightseeing at all, I chose to wander in the cold and do just about nothing that would be of interest to the average lifestyle editor.
I met a number of Finns who were tremendously amused that I had come to visit their city in November — a month that the Finns themselves consider to be the worst and most unpopular time of year. So amused was one man, a journalist, that he wrote a story about my visit and published it in the Helsingin Sanomat, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, under the headline “Silence of November as a Souvenir.” The journalist quoted me as saying, “I enjoyed the silence when walking the streets.” Instead of my writing a travel story, one was written about me.
That newspaper clipping in its original Finnish hangs on my bulletin board. When I look at the article, it does indeed make think of the strange silent beauty of Helsinki’s streets that I’d enjoyed, and of the snow-coated gargoyles and statues, including the two giant stone men who hold ball-shaped lights in front of the railway station. But soon enough, I find myself thinking of being unemployed, of how worried I was that I had made bad decisions, of loneliness and melancholy, and of how callow and absurd my thinking often tends to be. Now that some time has passed, I find that Helsinki also marks the end of things — things such as the end of my 20s, and in many ways the end of the 1990s, too.
I have spent what most would consider an eccentric amount of time in Iceland. For years, I have been trying to write a book about my time there.
Before I sat down to do this, I turned to L. Peat O’Neal’s informative book, Travel Writing: A Guide to Research, Writing, and Selling. O’Neal, who teaches workshops in travel writing, provides a wealth of information about how one might make it big. Sections include: “Spotting Travel Trends,” “Responsibilities of A Travel Writer,” “Networking In The Travel Industry,” and “Why Check Facts?”
It was all compelling reading, but the nugget of advice that struck me most came under “The Writer As Player In The Story.” O’Neal explains that “the writer’s ‘I’ has one specific place to appear after the reader is grounded and give the ‘why I went’ signal for the trip’s purpose. Then the writer almost disappears, although occasional reappearances that don’t intrude are allowed…Explaining why you are there may give readers their own motivations to travel to the same place and certainly a reason to continue reading. Share your travel motivation to heighten identification and gain reader sympathy.”
The Why-I-Went which O’Neal describes is a well-established travel writing convention, strictly enforced within the publishing community. At its heart, the Why-I-Went is supposed to be a wonderfully organic reason, both personal and universal, for the journey or quest at hand. Think about famous Why-I-Wents from travel books both past and recent, such as: “Since I have been nomadic my whole life, I decided to go on my very own Australian walkabout.” Or: “I’ve always loved trains, so I decided to take trains from Massachusetts to Patagonia.” Or: “My marriage ended, so I bought a farmhouse in Tuscany.” Or: “The Olympics will be in Sydney in 2000 and my publisher kindly offered me a lot of money to write about Australia prior to the event.” Most loyal readers of travel books know the drill.
Ever since I spent the summer in Iceland several years ago, I’ve been thinking hard about my own Why-I-Went. “Why did I go to Iceland?” I’ve asked myself. Other people have asked similar questions. One publisher suggested — without irony — that I go buy some real estate in Iceland and write “Under the Icelandic Sun.” Sometimes I sit at my desk, in front of a blank computer screen, and think so hard about Why-I-Wents that my head begins to hurt and I have to take an antacid to calm my stomach. And then I lie down. Sometimes I pick up a shiny travel magazine that’s just come in the mail and gaze at its lovely, lush, sensuous photo spreads. I thumb through the articles and read the bolded sections that say interesting things about destinations like, “Vancouver is a water nymph floating on her back.” It’s like pornography.
I’ve spent a decade in this way, trying to put into words some purpose for my travels in Iceland that would take my own breath away. I’ve toyed around with a number of Why-I-Wents. Here’s an example: “I went to Iceland that fateful summer to look for elves, the huldufolk or ‘hidden people’ of Icelandic legend. On a whim, my wife Jennifer and I made a short stop-over in Iceland the year before. We fell in love with the fact that, according to a newspaper survey, a large majority of Icelanders believe in elves. We tried to find an elf on that first visit, but didn’t. So I returned the next summer to try again. Why? Because things like elves are something we are sadly lacking in the United States. I went to Iceland because I wanted to find something special that cannot be found at home. I went off in search of an elf, and it changed my whole life.” Now that would be a pretty good Why-I-Went. The problem, however, is that it is simply not true.
Here’s another: “A few years ago, a widely publicized poll by the Gallup Organization revealed that Icelanders were the happiest people on earth. For some time, I saw Iceland as a personal utopia. I wanted to know what it was that the Icelanders had to be so happy about. Most Americans consider Iceland to be a harsh, unforgiving place, a place your average American will guess was bleak and desolate. Yet the Icelanders are happy anyway. They’re happy in a place that most of us wouldn’t think of as a happy place. Since happiness is something we are sadly lacking in the United States, I went to Iceland because I want to find something special that cannot be found at home.” Now that would be a pretty good Why-I-Went, as well. The problem with this one is that, though it is partially true, it is also a case of wild overstatement.
So around and around I’ve chased the elusive Why-I-Went, trying to craft some grand purpose to explain my fascination with Iceland, attempting to design the inspirational motivation behind it all. Finally, I’ve just decided to come clean and offer the following.
On a cold, snowy March night in Philadelphia, Jennifer and I were hanging out with our friend Kenny at a bar, underneath a huge television screen playing a Björk video with the sound turned off. As soon as the Björk video (let’s just say it was “Hyperballad” for our purposes here) popped on, Kenny began talking about Iceland, again.
“You can’t believe what it’s like to have the sun rise in June, and not set until August,” he said. “I wake up late every day. I play soccer in the afternoons. Then I frolic with blond Icelandic nymphs in the midnight sun.”
Kenny, like Jennifer and I, was fast approaching 30. From September through May, he worked as an English teacher at a local private high school, as well as its head soccer coach. But for the past three summers, he’d also played soccer professionally for a second-division club in a small northern Iceland town. For playing, and for doing some odd jobs around town, he received a small stipend and a place to live.
“It’s like love,” he said. “I’m in love all summer long. I swear, I’m a completely different person when I’m in Iceland.”
Jennifer and I laughed, because in Philadelphia, in the middle of winter, Kenny was a completely miserable person. He was an attractive guy, with a square jaw and blue eyes, and despite his overinsistence on hair products, Jennifer thought he looked good in the tight T-shirts that were popular at the time. But Kenny lived alone, with his books and his papers to grade, and was depressed because he never had a girlfriend. Every time we met him for dinner or drinks, it was always the same incessant question to Jennifer, “When are you going to hook me up with one of your single girlfriends?” During that winter alone, we’d attempted to play matchmaker, on three different occasions, between Kenny and single women our age whom we knew. Nothing worked out.
“You can’t imagine how unbelievable it is,” Kenny said that night as Björk danced silently on the TV screen, drowned out by the music the bar was playing. “It’s like I’m living every young American males’ erotic fantasy.”
He told us of his Icelandic girlfriend, Rakel, and how they drove out with friends to a natural hot spring, on a point above the roaring sea, with a view of a mountain where trolls supposedly lived. And how they stripped down as the wind ripped across the fjörd from the Arctic, and relaxed as bubbles of hot water floated up from between the moss-covered rocks on the bottom, and how, as steam rose around their heads, they passed around a bottle of vodka and watched the stunning midnight sun never set. Kenny’s Icelandic friends made fun of him because he and the blond, blue-eyed, and charming Rakel could not communicate very well — she spoke little English and he no Icelandic. “I think I love her,” Kenny said.
That cold winter night in Philadelphia, after a few more beers Kenny said to me: “You should come stay with me in Iceland for the summer.”
Afterward, Jennifer and I made the long drive home, back across the bridge to our nice, safe, suburban neighborhood, where we had recently moved after our city apartment was robbed. After the move, our friends relished the chance to ask, “Will you be coming into the city this weekend?” Our new neighbors suggested that we should prune the tree branches in our front yard.
As we got ready for bed on that March night, I knew right then that I wanted to visit Kenny in Iceland during the coming summer. I was in a fine position to do so. A small travel magazine that I’d published and edited for the past two years had recently “suspended publication” and I found myself pretty much unemployed in the middle of the greatest boom economy in the history of the United States. Getting out of the country sounded like a nice idea. I said to Jennifer as we climbed into bed that night, “I think it could be very interesting to go visit Kenny in Iceland this summer, and observe the single American man, at age 30, in a foreign place.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Jennifer said.
“I think it would be make an interesting study. Perhaps traveling abroad will give us a clear picture of the incredible ennui felt by young men of our generation.”
“Sure, whatever,” Jennifer said.
“Maybe something like The Sun Also Rises, but set in Iceland?”
“Look,” Jennifer said, “if you want to go to Iceland and visit Kenny for a few weeks, and you want to go alone, and leave me at home, that would be fine. I don’t need you to come up with a reason why you want to go. Just go.”
So there we go. I’m not certain that I’ve gained “reader sympathy” as L. Peat O’Neal instructs. Or that I’ve supplied readers with sufficient “travel motivation” or “heighten[ed] identification.” I’m not even sure I’ve given readers a reason to keep reading.
But, for better or for worse, this is my Why-I-Went. And it’s the truth.
“Do you know the singer Moby?” Miguel asked. “He came once to this restaurant, and said this was the best vegetarian restaurant in the world.”
On the day I arrived in Lisbon for a recent assignment, I had lunch with a young Portuguese couple, Rita and Miguel, who worked as anti-bullfighting activists. We ate at what they called “the best vegetarian restaurant in Lisbon.”
During lunch, Rita and Miguel discussed their efforts to ban bullfighting in Portugal. “From the outside, you would think that bullfights are important to the Portuguese. But that is not true,” Miguel said. “Relativism is not an acceptable argument for the bullfight.”
I gingerly brought Ernest Hemingway into the discussion. “People like Hemingway, Almodóvar, Madonna…a lot of this is their fault,” said Rita. “They romanticized the bullfight!”
Neither Rita or Miguel drank at lunch, so I just had a glass of red wine. But afterward I felt like I needed a little something stronger. I was in the middle of writing a separate article on Brazilian cachaça, and so few hours later, I found myself sipping some of the best capirinhas I’d ever had at a bar in the Bairro Alto. When I asked the old Brazilian bartender what his secret was, he showed me how he crushed the ice, and showed me a bag of what he called “yellow” sugar.
I stepped out into the cobblestone streets, took out my cell phone and dialed my editor back home to talk about my cocktail article — mainly to say it might be late again, but also to say I was in Lisbon and I’d stumbled upon the secret to a perfect caipirinha. “Yellow sugar,” I said.
“Wait a second,” my editor said. “Did you just slur your words? Are you drunk?”
“What do you mean, am I drunk? Didn’t I just explain that I’ve been drinking capirinhas for the last three hours. It’s 9:00 at night over here.”
“So, you are drunk.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it that,” I said. “Here’s how I’d think of it: You just know that I’m actually working.”
“Well, I guess that’s true. I do appreciate knowing you’re working hard.” • 18 July 2008