Measuring my advance through life

Owl flight

I’m deep in the Scottish countryside, sitting in a caravan surrounded by thick stone walls, listening to rain tapping the thin metal roof.  I’ve got a stockpile of local cheeses, some freshly brewed coffee, and an intermittent internet connection. It should be a perfect day for working on my book, but it’s always on these relaxed writing days that I end up provoking myself with disturbing thoughts. Today I realised just how much time I’ve spent over the past couple of years trying to figure out if I’m actually achieving anything.

Measuring our progress through life is an interesting if occasionally frustrating pastime. As we pass through our first two to three decades of life we set ourselves targets and goals. Often these are also influenced by our society, our family and our peers. My own personal milestones have been a mixed bag. Some have been somewhat reckless and accidental, like the Hemmingway-esque ‘first loss of a piece of tooth lost in a fight’. Some were dead romantic, I flew from Wellington to Paris to try to rekindle what had been a beautiful relationship with an amazing woman. Sigh. And some were genuinely pitiful, some of you may have read my article about my unicorn tattoo (April 2013, ‘On being the boy with the unicorn tattoo) But they were all significant to me, even I often only realised this after the event.

I’m sure you have all ticked your share of entertaining ‘milestone’ boxes as you’ve thundered through your twenties and thirties. Eventually a range of conditioning tools, from biological to societal, direct us towards a new way to continue measuring our progress through life. Children. These offspring become a sort of living advent calendar, minus the chocolate treat behind each door. The ticking of our clocks becomes synchronised with the beating of their hearts. Their public triumphs become our secret successes. Their transitions through the stages of life become our default method of gauging our worth, our way of determining our position on the path between womb and grave. But what about those of us who don’t have kids? How are we meant to know if we’re getting anywhere?

I never made a definitive choice not to have children, I have just never made a choice to have them. And I guess I’ve never been put in a position where I had no choice, but that’s an article for another day. There’s a willingness in some parts of societies to brand those of us who don’t have children as ‘selfish’, as if there is no other way to contribute to the world. Is this fair though? But as I gallop past my thirties I have to ask myself how I might measure my value to the world, if it’s not through the successes of my offspring. Without the child side of the equation, I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out ‘why am I here?’, but that would indeed be selfish. Instead I want to kick some positivity back into the universe. If I’m not going to dedicate twenty years (or no doubt more if you ask my Mum and Dad…) to making my children my life’s focus, then I think I should be working towards contributing something else. Otherwise it’s like turning up to a barbeque with just a bottle opener and an eye on the beer fridge.

I hope I have an answer. I think what I need to do as a member of the ‘child free’ is to continually set myself worthy goals. And by worthy, I mean I want each goal to contribute not only to my own growth, but to create something positive for others. When I left New Zealand six months ago, I had two primary goals. Walk five hundred miles across the top of Spain, and write a book. I ended up replacing walking the El Camino de Santiago with a series of other adventures. But the other goal, the writing, that’s the way I can see myself creating something unique. I’m hoping my stories will inspire, entertain and educate. I need to focus on that goal for the moment, the less selfish one. I’ve learnt a lot about myself over the past eighteen months, and just occasionally I’ve been able to use my experiences to offer help others to understand their own problems. I’m hoping to reach a larger audience with my blog, and then eventually more people still with my books.

So if I never end up having children to pass my goals onto, I believe that if I continue to use my talents to contribute to other people’s lives then I am still valuable. And I’ll get to play the eccentric Uncle who’s always returning from strange foreign lands with barely believable stories, and creepy souvenirs.

Oh, and I will walk that damn pilgrims’ road one day. Maybe next year, before I start the next book.


Eating and cooking my way through and into Europe


It took me a while to realise that like music, food is a great way to integrate with other people when you’re travelling. I’d always been envious of those talented musicians that can bind a group of strangers through memorising a couple of dozen universally loved songs. My guitar playing though, was woeful. I once hosted a dozen Finnish music students in the hostel in Northern Ireland. The delightful elvish musicians would play traditional folk songs, interspersed with heavy metal classics. I was smitten. I used to join them at gigs, then we’d all head back to the hostel basement and play acoustic versions of Metallica and Skid Row classics. As we passed around a bottle of Bushmill’s after their last gig the drummer put his arm around me. ‘Karhu, (Finnish for bear)’ he said,  ‘you are very very bad with the guitar. But we love your enthusiasm.’ Ouch, another rock and roll dream trampled.

A couple of years after my musical defeat I was struggling to find work in Cambridge, England. My girlfriend and I had picked a city to live in based on a half day of lying beneath the trees along Jesus Green, eating cheese and onion sandwiches in the sun. Perhaps checking rent prices or employment opportunities would have made more sense, but I’ve always leaned more towards romance than practicality. I soon found that most job opportunities in the city involved teaching students at the university or tending to patients at the hospital. I decided hospitality work might be a safer option. I’d learnt a few culinary tricks from my father, I liked the idea of free coffee, and I found a cafe that didn’t need me to work evenings.

I’ve never worked so hard in my life. From the minute I put on an apron to the moment I peeled it off, I didn’t stop grafting. But along the way I learnt the formula behind a good dressing, the importance of a sharp knife, and the joy of creating a beautiful dish from obscure ingredients. I spent time with Steph, a gorgeous Costa Rican who introduced us to her grandmother’s tendency to cook almost anything with a bottle of coke. The last I heard, she was working in one of Jamie Oliver’s kitchens, hopefully he’s had a chance to sample her specialities before he found out the principal ingredient. I also got to work alongside Welshmen, Aussies, Canadians, Polish and Mexicans, and we all shared stories and samples of foods we grew up with and missed. So I received not just free lattes, but many new recipes,  and an understanding of the degree to which food can eliminate cultural barriers.

I’m now able to draw even more from my travels, by learning from everything I eat. I’m in Holland at the moment, a country that isn’t know for its cuisine. But unknown cuisines are often the most fun, you have no pre-conceptions and there’s something special about unexpected treats. I loved sharing ‘new herring’ and palling (smoked eel) with Francoise’ ruddy cheeked Uncle Han at a mobile fishmonger. As I licked the smokey oils from my fingers I imagined how great the eel would be blended with cream cheese and a little smoked paprika. I got to experience a traditional treat, and I had another inspiration for future dishes.

The Dutch have been all too happy to introduce me to foods ranging from traditional childhood treats, to deep-fried pub grub. I got to sample bitterballen (deep-fried gravy balls) in darkened pubs, and poffertjes (mini pancakes with stewed fruit and cream) at an antique-crammed farmhouse restaurant. The best Dutch meal so far though (in terms of both flavour and sheer effort) was a sweet and sour meaty treat called zuurvlees. Ivo (one of our Maastricht hosts) made us this well known southern dish from his mother’s recipe. Preparation began with marinating beef for 24 hours, and eventually ended with the addition of appelstroop (a sweet apple sauce) and ontbijtkoek (breakfast bread), which are stirred into the thickening stew. The enjoyment was as much about the stories around the dish, as it was about the deep, rich flavours.

Autumn has set in here in Northern Europe. Ripened apples and pears weigh down the branches of the trees we cycle under, as we coast between windmills and canals. My hosts have provided beds, bikes, and entertaining conversations. I can’t pay them for their kindness, but I can cook this fresh seasonal fruit with thyme and honey, and roll fresh sweet pastry over the top. The appreciative sounds that escape between mouthfuls later in the evening don’t need much translation. None of us needs to learn a new language to draw pleasure from sharing a meal. That being said I’m sure at least half my Dutch vocabulary is names for pastries and condiments. Much of the rest is made up of words I can use to communicate my appreciation for each new delicacy. Mooi (nice) isn’t usually enough, I have to stretch to prima (terrific) or even lekker (luscious).

Six years ago I sold my last guitar to help pay for a ticket to England, a trip which saw me end up working in kitchens. I like the idea that my failure to spread joy through music so easily leant itself towards learning a new way to bind people together.