Travels with Epicurus: Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age
by Daniel Klein
While I was reading this satisfying short book, Mick Jagger, just short of 70, was cavorting over the stages of the Glastonbury and Hyde Park Festivals in England. Daniel Klein, three years older, has plumped for a different approach. Using as his guides both the philosophers to whom he was introduced as a student at Harvard and the Greek villagers amongst whom he decides to live for a time, he has written entertainingly on the best way to pursue happiness in your advancing years.
Epicureanism has come to be mistaken for hedonism, i.e. the pursuit of pleasure. For the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, pleasure was indeed the highest good, but he believed pleasure could be achieved by living modestly and limiting one's desires. The first desire that the author limits, is a desire to have perfect dentition. He has decided to opt out of the cult of eternal youth, as practiced so enthusiastically in the USA. Instead of spending a fortune on dental implants, he has used the money to rent a house on Hydra, an island about 40 miles from Athens. The steep and rocky paths and roads of the island mean that getting round is slow for the islanders. The author has a eureka moment when he realizes that this is analogous to the necessary slowing up in old age, and both allow him to appreciate his surroundings more.
While his philosophical reflections are of interest, it is his interactions with Dimitri, the sailor who has returned home, and Tasso the retired judge, that are most illuminating. Epicurus placed a high value on friendship, saying that the people with whom you dine are far more important than the menu. At the end of the book, Daniel Klein is invited to join his Greek neighbors for their traditional Easter feast. Although not at all religious, the author sees the fellowship of family and friends as verging on the holy. The concluding sentence sums up the contentment and wisdom he has achieved during his sojourn on Hydra. He utters the conventional thanks to a host, "It is a great privilege to be here", which he follows up with "In fact it is a great privilege simply to be". Perhaps when Mick Jagger is as old as Daniel, he will come to appreciate a more contemplative, slower way of life.
Growing Old Outrageously: A Memoir of travel, food and friendship
by Hilary Linstead and Elisabeth Davies
It is hard to imagine either of these eccentric travelers curling up with an improving tome of philosophy. Both fizz with energy and invention as they roam the world. With apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert, this book could be subtitled: "Eat, Make Hay, Laugh".
Now in their 70s, the authors' appetite for travel and novelty seems more voracious than ever: Liz rivals George Clooney's character in the film Up in the Air for spending a minimal number of days at home, while Hilary “Money-no-object” Linstead has chocked up an enormous number of exotic destinations. She relishes working out what she calls "Huge Fantastical Holidays" with the help of upmarket specialist travel agents.
They join upscale opera tours in Italy, take epic train journeys, stay at luxury eco-resorts in Patagonia and pamper themselves at spa hotels. Both ladies seem to be able to handle quantities of alcohol that would fell an ox, and an amazing variety of drink is itemized over the course of this book from the Camparis in Ravello to the grappa they drain on the train through the Australian Outback. Despite all this hedonism, the protagonists are engaging and mischievous. On occasion their behavior is genuinely outrageous: they crash a party for the free drink (Prague); impersonate a mayor to gain access to a VIP car park (Sydney), and contemplate tripping up young children running in the aisles of a plane.
After decades of not seeing each other—Liz has made her career in London, Hilary in Sydney— the pair of one-time school friends happen to intersect and are soon hatching a plan to take a trip to Morocco. Much of the pleasure of the book resides in seeing how these two "old bats" (their description), ill-matched travel companions in so many ways, overcome their differences and learn to tolerate each other's maddening habits. Liz is a culture-vulture and fact-junky with the hide of a rhino, whereas Hilary is a bon vivant who loves connecting with other people. Liz irritates by jumping to snap judgments—"Darwin's a dump" she says on stepping out of the plane. Hilary's sedentary ways and devotion to good eating have Liz straining at the leash.
In any pair of travelers there are always some discrepancies, but not usually as extreme as here. For example Hilary tends to romanticize the lives of the people they meet, while Liz looks on with a skeptical eye. On a visit to Lake Titicaca, Hilary prefers the guide's explanation for the people filing through the moonlight, to worship the Inca god of the earth, rather than Liz's certainty that they were coming back from toiling in the barren fields. "Poor Lizzie was always trying to unearth some ghastly reality and shove it up people's noses... I was more than happy with my own experience on Sun Island, even if it was a fantasy."
Yet the authors are not merely self-indulgent and "epicurean" in the populist sense. They are alert to the perils of searching for authenticity when visiting a tribal village in Namibia or watching a display of whirling Dervishes in Turkey. They are not blind to injustice and come away reeling from a day spent in the poor township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town. Hilary in particular can be as generous-hearted as her physical dimensions.
Choices matter more when time is getting shorter, and gourmand Hilary has far less tolerance of a bad choice of restaurant than breezy Liz. According to Liz, traveling means "taking the rough with the smooth, experiencing all of life's rich tapestry" to which Hilary retorts "I'm not certain that at our age and with so little time left we shouldn't be trying to eliminate as much of the rough as possible".
Cornish Feasts and Festivals
by Liz Woods, illustrated by Freya Laughton
Just as the food-loving Hilary includes a sprinkling of recipes for memorable dishes encountered on her travels, the author of this charming little book about the most westerly county of England is interested in cookery and its associations with folklore. She has produced a pleasingly designed book of folk celebrations and associated recipes tied to particular places in Cornwall, a distinctive Celtic region of England, with maritime traditions (including plenty of smuggling) and a history of non-conformism.
Many seasonal festivals live on, either practiced continuously over the centuries or more often revived, having lapsed perhaps after being banned by the Victorians for being too raucous. Some are tied to places you might be tempted to visit at any time of year, like the cliffside hut built by an opium-smoking vicar in the 19th century at Morwenstow or the restored church in the village of St. Hilary which was attacked by an angry mob in 1932 because of its avant-garde paintings. Some traditions may ring bells (literally): the day before Shrove Tuesday used to be called "nicky nan-night" in Cornwall when youngsters roamed the streets rattling doorknobs and running away, which sounds very like the naughty game known as Nicky Nicky Nine Doors of my childhood.
This cheap and cheerful little book is illustrated with cartoon-like drawings and photos taken by the author of the traditional English dishes she has made herself like wild herb tart and Cornish tea bread. The author started (of course) as a blogger, and the colored pictures contribute to its desirability as an object to put on your shelf. Unfortunately the book lacks a map.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.