“Instead of killing himself, he travelled and wrote.”
-Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene
It began with Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, a deep dive into the “culinary underbelly.” And for all its rats and dripping garbage bags, it made me want to watch--which I never had--No Reservations.
I plowed through every Southeast Asian, Central and South American country. No Finland or Vienna. No Boston. I wanted red, plastic stools in dark alleys. Rumbling tuk tuks and toothy grins. Fish sauce, dusty streets, and pregnant, three-legged dogs languishing in the heat. I watched Tony throw his back out in the Amazon and win big gambling in Macau. I accompanied him to Cuba, over to Penang, and back to the DR. But what most left an impression was the Hotel Oloffson in Port Au Prince, Haiti.
The episode begins as Tony recites part of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in the hotel. The creaky, gigantic, gingerbread dollhouse has suites named for John Barrymore and Mick Jagger. At the time of filming, Hurricane Jonathan was set to strike. Buckets pinged with rain as Tony sipped his rum punch. "Ya hope it goes someplace else," the hotel owner repeated. Would the storm come? It did not.
I became obsessed with Hotel Oloffson. Had to go. But with a Level 4 travel advisory, the closest I could get was a Graham Greene documentary and listening to Greene podcasts while walking in the Seattle mist. I noticed every flower. Gazed at every balcony. Watched the distant sea rip and churn into an ominous decline.
For three days I was way gone: contemplating showering, not answering texts. “What’s your schedule for the next few days?” “How’s it going?” These jolted me out of whatever third-world nation I was in. I looked at my phone and threw it across the sofa. All I needed was some portal (streaming or paperback) to transport me to a time of fading colonialism.
I searched the internet for Oloffson’s rum punch. Then remembered I had a pre-mixed rum cocktail, added a splash of lime juice, grenadine, and Grand Marnier, and cranked up Gilberto. I wondered when/if my stimulus money would come. I was down to cans of beans and corn I’d ordered from Target with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (I’d tossed my college version) to get the free shipping. I ate it (not the Elements) with flour tortillas and mango salsa. Then added plums from my friend’s tree and turned it into plum salsa. When Tony and I were in Macau, I--always on-theme--mixed the corn with garlic, chili paste, and served it with five fleshy gyoza.
After I’d soaked myself in Greene, still marinating in last month’s Didion, I wondered if the two were connected. I Googled “Joan Didion and Graham Greene.” Bourdain had included both in “36 Books to Unfuck Yourself.” His Didion? The White Album.
Good stories take us to Haitian hotels and Hawaiian balconies. California in the 60s and New York in the 80s. Around the world and right back where we began.