There’s no substitute for time

Harry Middleton, who wrote books and essays mostly about fly fishing before dying too young, gave me an important lens through which I view travel. On the Spine of Time chronicled his numerous trips to western North Carolina rivers. He lost more trout than he caught, ruminated on the history of his surrounding, was forced into a tree by a rising river, and met a gallery of quirky characters who populate his book.

Each time I picked it up I had a vivid image of the world speeding past an oblivious Middleton who was focused on one small, fascinating corner of the world. The things he wrote about weren’t obvious; he needed time to tease out details. Middleton taught me that If you want to dive into a place as deeply as he did, there’s no substitute for time.

New places overwhelm and ask questions: Where are you going to go? What do you need to see? Is there time for all of it? Any of it? Do you understand?

Understanding a place only comes with time. Time spent watching, time spent asking questions, time spent thinking. That’s why even when I feel the need to experience something new, I love to return to places I’ve been before. So I can watch, ask and think. That where I find value in travel – getting to know places in ways that a quick stop can’t allow.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Middleton, from The Earth is Enough:

“It’s been said that we pass through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasms. My problem is having had so many to start out with. Now, at the age of fifty-six, I have painting, my four beautiful children, fly casting, writing, friends, wing shooting, printing, family and extended family, cooking, and Marusia, the light of my life, not at all necessarily in that order. The problem, if you want to call it that, is there is no time left for things that don’t matter. Years ago, after watching someone waste endless hours on some pointless project, Tom McGuane observed that the fellow obviously believed the average human lifetime to be ten thousand years. I’m treating it as if there were less than a minute to go.”

Here’s to using time wisely.

Turin, Eataly, and catching a ride with a stranger

I had only a vague idea where we were, which wasn’t comforting since we were sitting in the backseat of a stranger’s car. After getting in the car 30 minutes earlier we had gone in what seemed like the right direction, but with all the u-turns and backtracking I was a bit nervous. Not to mention that our apartment was only a 10 minute drive. While we chatted with the driver I surreptitiously checked the map on my phone.

Our strange “cab” ride started at Eataly. You may have visited one of their five outposts in the US. Earlier this year I walked into the one in Chicago. It was…okay. Maybe that’s a contrarian opinion because lots of people swoon over the place, but I’m happy to stand by it.

Eataly in Turin was completely different.

It’s the original, and is next door to 8 Gallery, a former FIAT factory that’s home to hotels, restaurants and a shopping mall. 8 Gallery has a rooftop test track that was a minor setting in the original Italian Job.

After visiting the gallery and walking a lap of the track, we were ready for lunch and went next door to Eataly where we were greeted by a woman sampling sparkling wines. She wanted our opinion about two wines–which did we prefer? We agreed that we liked a more complex, bolder wine she had offered us. “Bene!” she cried, and let us know that we were absolutely right. She might be selling two different wines, but only one was worth our time and she wanted us to know the difference.

Okay, if you haven’t experienced Eataly, it’s important to know that each store includes several restaurants that serve specific types of food–fish, meat, pasta, pizza, and so on. We opted for pasta. In my case, a giant bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella. Everything, including the cheese, had been produced within a hundred feet of our table. I washed it down with a bottle of acqua frizzante and a glass of red wine.

This was our first of two trips to Eataly that day. After lunch we visited the Museo dell’Automobile and saw a biennial exhibition that had just opened. Then we walked back to Eataly to shop and have a drink.

Our second stop was much longer. We bought risotto and olive oil for the local charity drive, lavender dog biscuits for Ben and Rox, and other odds and ends. We paused at an enoteca (wine bar) while making plans for that evening.

It was time to get a cab.

We exited Eataly and were met by a young, well-dressed guy who asked, “Can I give you a ride anywhere in the city?” He pointed us toward a line of new Renault SUVs, and explained that Renault and Eataly had teamed up for a promotion. The ride was on them.

Ten euros (the cost of cab fare) is ten euros, so we hopped in.

And so a few minutes later I was consulting online maps and looking for landmarks I recognized. “This is my first time doing this job,” said our driver. “I know your address. My girlfriend lives two blocks from there.”

I wondered about that, but after one more u-turn I caught a glimpse of our street off to the right. Our driver turned left.

I was about to point out the missed turn when our driver said, “Ah, these streets are so confusing. I need to go around the block.” Two minutes later we were parked in front of our apartment, and I was signing documents that freed me of any obligations if the driver killed a pedestrian or wrecked his shiny new vehicle. We turned toward our apartment and he shouted, “Wait!” and opened the boot of the car. “I have a present.”

He handed us a small bag from Eataly, filled with food samples. “This is my last one,” he said, “and I’m nearly done for the night.”

We said our goodbyes, and before driving off he said with a smirk, “Maybe I can go to my girlfriend’s and get a quick kiss!”

Turin restaurant notes: While in Turin we stayed in a quiet section of town near the Po River, a few minutes walk from Centro, where many of the famous palazzos are located. A’Livella, located on Corso Belgio around the corner from our apartment, serves fresh, tasty Neopolitan pizza. Expect crowds. Restaurant Tefy, also on Corso Belgio, is operated by a hospitable couple who focus on Piemontese cuisine. We ate a traditional multi-course meal that started with two antipasto courses totaling seven dishes, then featured pasta, a meat course and dessert. We did not leave hungry. Ask for advice about wine–they offer several local, inexpensive choices. The bottle of Nebbiolo we drank was a bargain at 20 euros.

Go when you want, see what you like

Whenever I run across the question, “What should I see when I visit [blank]?” I can guess most of the answers. Helpful folks will respond with a list of the usual landmarks, often with tips about avoiding crowds.

There are a lot of people who want nothing more than to shoot a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower. There’s not anything necessarily wrong with that. But Greatest Hits tours of places, particularly major cities, can lead travelers to miss a lot. A lot.
Fiat 500
So here’s a tip: Throw out the guidebooks and steer clear of TripAdvisor, travel when you want and see what you like.

Years ago, my wife Beth and I traveled to Ireland in early October. We booked flights to Shannon and had a rental car waiting. We had a map, but no plans. We had a rough idea of places we wanted to visit, but no hard and fast itinerary for the ten days we would be there. The best experiences we had weren’t in a guidebook–they came from asking a lot of questions and turning down a lot of two track trails. We picked up student hitchhikers, bought drinks for locals in pubs and always asked, “Where should we go next?”

That led us to castles that perhaps one to two people a week visited. We stood five feet away from Chieftain’s flautist Matt Molloy while he played a set with friends in his pub in Westport. We had an impromptu meet up at dinner with acquaintances from the trip including some innkeepers, a Welsh couple and a retired CIA agent. And, we had tea at a house where Charles de Gaulle spent part of his retirement.

Since then, we’ve traveled mostly during the fall and winter. We miss the crowds (well, we don’t really miss them), and we have opportunities to experience things that don’t take place in the crush of summer. Like Nuit Blanche in Paris, where we traveled around the city at night, playing in the fog sculpture at Place de République and running into marching bands that took over city streets.

In the same way, we focus on what we want to see. Like the morning I hung out at Cycles Alex Singer, talking shop in a place that shaped bicycle culture in France since 1938. It’s not in the guidebooks, but to me it’s a bucket list item. There’s a connection, however small, between that shop and my life around bicycles. I can’t say that many of the monuments make the same connection.

In the same way, our visit to Italy this year was guided by one thing: To see as many of Bernini’s works as possible. That’s been Beth’s longtime dream, and though it didn’t rule out visiting the major landmarks–and in fact, many Bernini sculptures are in famous monuments–it took precedence over them.

Everyone’s list of places that matter is different. What stokes your imagination?

Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in architecture or automobiles look at this album of my photos from the Museo dell’Automobile di Torino. Cars and car culture are interests of mine, and if they’re yours this is a must-see place. Beth, who is more into Bernini than cars, admitted that it was far more interesting than she expected.