Sinking into the oval wicker chair, I took the first sip of Kir Royal, the Champagne and Crème de Cassis cocktail famously known as the welcome drink in France. Amidst the rolling tones of Edith Piaf, pearls of pink bubbles danced on my tongue tickling the throat so much that I could easily swallow my French r’s. The tangy tannins, icy and crisp, gave way to the saccharine black currants, and immediately I was back. Back in my quirky Parisian apartment in the 12th arrondissement, laughing with my sister around a rickety wooden kitchen table that glowed with candlelight – the power out and a booming rainstorm pelleting the metal roof.
How wonderful it is that the sense of smell and taste can transport us to another time, another place, another self. It’s not just that we remember it, it’s as if we become it, alive in the present, feeling it in every cell of our body.
I, of course, was not in Paris, but a San Francisco café, meeting a friend before a reading for Litquake, the eleven-day literary festival every October that celebrates authors and books across the city. Litquake in a word is overwhelming. Appropriately named, the hundreds of readings, performances, and tours over hundreds of pubs, cafes, libraries, and auditoriums feels like an 8.2 magnitude on the Richter scale of writerly undertakings. Looking at the online schedule, all I could think was I need a drink.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Not only was the idea for Litquake conceived over pints in a pub, but each of the events I saw were all connected to some form of libation – wine, coffee, milk, tea. Why was this? If the sense of taste and smell is most closely linked to memory, do drinks help fuel mental acuity and trigger stories and feeling in us long since forgotten? Why do we come up with our best ideas over a clinking communal cup? The quest to understand the connection of drinking and thinking began my progressive Litquake bar crawl.
Settling into my Kir Royal, I saw Matthew rush in the café door out of breath, “Did I make it in time for happy hour?” Double bisous, an order of Bordeaux, and a simultaneous “Salut” began a lengthy conversation on the history of the Litquake festival. Fortunately for me, Matthew, an author and the host of two literary podcast shows (Words & Images and Matthew Felix On Air), had just interviewed the founders of Litquake, and I was getting a personal tutorial.
“The festival has had 7100 authors since its inception in 1999, and in 2017 had 14000 attendees!” Matthews face lit up.
He continued, “Two journalists, Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware were having beers in the Edinburgh Castle pub when they realized there was a hunger for more meaningful literary events in the midst of the ‘dot bomb’ of Silcon Valley.” Matthew went on, “They had planned one day in Golden Gate Park for a day of free readings. Expecting ten people, they got 400!”
I couldn’t help but get excited over the possibility of two writers like ourselves, sharing cocktails, and creating something meaningful on the planet with nothing more than a conversation and an idea.
“I love that the motto of the Festival is ‘Words Matter,’ ” I said.
“Yes, that is actually recent. Jane said with the recent political landscape, they wanted to remind attendees of the power of language, to comfort, challenge, clarify and help us rise above the destructive communication style of some of our current leaders.”
“Why do words matter to you? Why do you write?” I asked, ordering two more Cote Du Rhone’s.
“Well, my first book A Voice Beyond Reason helped me tap into my intuition. But my new book Porcelain Travels is about hilarious things that have happened in bathrooms on the road, so part of my goal is to help people laugh and be ok with vulnerability. What about you?” Matthew asked.
“Connection, I think. I write to connect to a deeper part of myself and to connect with the greater humanity that connects us all. I was surprised to see that my last story about not being able to have children touched so many people who have had similar experiences. After reading my piece, a woman from Argentina came up to me teary eyed and said she shared the same pain.”
We sipped the inky wine thick with fertile fruit flavor and full of the energy of our conversation. As if our words infused the drink with complexity and depth, I felt a lightness, an intoxicating expansiveness that made me savor each taste, wanting to bask in this feeling of inspiration and connection.
The Mechanics Institute Library smelled of weathered books and Arabica beans. Taking our seats in front of a gold coffee roaster and a table of pour-over glass beakers, tasting cups, and gooseneck kettle, we inhaled the rich earthy mocha warming our insides. Dave Eggers was there to talk about his new book, The Monk of Mokha, a true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali who traveled deep into his ancestral and war torn homeland of Yemen in order to bring the original tradition of coffee back to San Francisco. Eggers sat in a chair on stage with a hipster felt sport coat, curly tousled hair, legs crossed.
“Coffee is an incredible thing that crosses borders and cultures and political hardships to find its way to our cup,” he said. “And I hope that, when people look at coffee, they know that they have so much more power as consumers, that they have the power to uplift someone, specifically the coffee workers around the world.”
Eggers continued to show photographs of farmers in Yemen, of coffee bean crops, of the intense labor that goes into making a cup of coffee. “Mokhtar’s story represents how immigrants dream the American dream a lot harder and lot better than anyone else.”
Mokhtar couldn’t be on the panel that night, so instead Eggers introduced Willem Boot to the stage. Boot taught everything Mokhtar needed to know about coffee at the Boot Coffee Campus in San Rafael, California, and was an integral character in the book. With an endearing Dutch accident and a Bob Hope look, he captivated the audience with his passion for coffee, born from his parents’ roaster in the Netherlands.
“For some of the best quality beans and perfect roasting and preparation, a great cup of coffee should sell for as much as a glass of wine” Boot said.
Three volunteers tasted the different coffees his assistant just poured and the attendees all stood up, moving in closer to see the process of cupping. Boot and Eggers continued to talk about the story of coffee politically and personally and by the end, the audience was scooping up hard-covered books and sipping samples of the strong brew.
Words and stories and smells and smiles infused the air that evening co-mingling in a swirling steam of inspiration. Robert Holden, the British philosopher jokes that coffee is a direct line to God. Perhaps we were all allowed to take a sip that night.
MILK AND COOKIES
The last night of Litquake ended in Litcrawl, an all day celebration of performances and readings in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. With over sixty venues hosting back-to-back events, one could taste a sampling of hundreds of authors.
But after having seen Dave Eggers, I made sure to attend the readings at 826 Valencia, Egger’s non-profit writing program for under-resourced kids from six to eighteen years old. This place could make the most cynical curmudgeon a giddy kid again. Crossing the threshold into the Pirate Store, I squealed with seven-year-old excitement over the eye patches, peg legs, and scurvey begone. Picture a playland of pirate’s booty and you’ll be growling “Shiver me timbers” before too long. After recklessly losing myself in the front of the house, I found a seat in the portal-windowed, net-ceilinged back room for the upcoming readings. And there they were. Trays and trays of glorious black and white Oreos alongside pitchers of milk. I had to. Twisting and dunking and crunching my way back to childhood, I practically swung my legs in anticipation of the ten kids who were about to read their stories in front of a room of over seventy-five people.
First up was Dolly, an eight year old in red ribbons who regaled us with her desire for everything to cost twenty-five cents. Then shy Jorge read from his poem “Taco Time,” a barely audible but delightfully delicious homage to his favorite food. And fifteen year old Max who had a ribald sense of humor as the microphone kept sinking lower while he read from his robot overthrow sci-fi piece. In between the words and the stories, kids would reach up to the cookie bar and grab a chocolaty treat, washing the sweetness down with a cup of creamy milk.
How wonderful it was to see these kids begin to associate their own creativity, courage, and confidence with a taste that could forever remind them of this moment. The viscous white drink could perennially pull them back to innocence and imagination just like it had me. With every swallow they would be part of this community, this support, this loving space that wanted to encourage the writers inside of them.
I adore tea. Ever since I studied in Cambridge England in graduate school, I’ve been hooked on PG Tips with a cube of sugar and milk every morning. Made with the proper electric kettle, tea becomes a ritual of pure Englishness that almost makes me hear an Oxbridge accent. So it was no surprise that I found myself with a soothing pot of chamomile at Haus Café for the last event of the entire Litquake/Litcrawl brawl.
Walking through the door, I felt like I was home. A familial tribe of travel writers were all there to read from their great adventures and I was anxious to lap up their words.
“Sabine and Sivani! How are you still standing from your jet lag and fifteen day hike through Scotland?” I embraced the two friends who I’d met in travel writing workshops and conferences.
Sivani replied, “I’ve been back for a couple of days but Sabine just returned from a tacked on trip to Istanbul.”
“Have you ever been?” Sabine asked her face lighting up with pure exhilaration.
“Only briefly and not in a long time, so I hope you write about it soon,” I said wanting to ask more. These were the kinds of conversation that sent my spirit soaring. “Where have you been? Where are you going?” always elicited an enthusiastic conversation among this crowd who shared a love of the world and all its exciting adventures.
After a few more rounds of hugs and hellos, I snagged one of the last front row tables and poured a cup of piping hot herbal tea just as the readings began.
Larry Habegger, the master of ceremonies and publisher of Traveler’s Tales introduced the event entitled, “Encounters in Faraway Places: Traveling Writers Explore the Wide World.” Larry reminded us that “traveling out of our comfort zones creates opportunities for discovery, transformation, and illumination, whether in far-flung places or unfamiliar neighborhoods close to home.” As a travel narrative junkie, I’d also argue that reading and hearing travel stories has a similar opportunity for discovery, transformation, and illumination as well, and I couldn’t wait to begin the journey.
Over the next hour, the audience was transported to a rural Indiana road trip, a Turkish bus ride, an Amazonian classroom, war-torn Vietnam, Nero’s Roman Empire, and a Nepalese Village. The beauty of this live reading was that everyone in the room was collectively on the same sojourn in the same places stewing and steeping in the same brew, laughing together at Matthew’s urine angst, gasping at Sabine’s Amazonian beetle, and tearing up at Larry’s Vietnamese friend’s gratitude. The sounds of espresso machines faded away and our imaginations join together to hear the sounds of the jungle and feel the bumps of the truck ride.
As I took another sip of my tea, I thought about how our imaginations created our present reality. I remembered the book The Hidden Message in Water by Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese scientist who theorized that human consciousness and specifically words have an effect on water molecules – positive words form balanced, beautiful structures, while negative words formed inharmonious jagged structures.
Feeling the warm tea down my chest, I wondered, could my tea be taking on the properties of the words and thoughts surrounding it? Could I be drinking in these stories, these travels, these writer’s experiences? So many sacred rituals around the globe use some form of drink as a symbol of ingesting the spiritual, the imaginary, the mystical. Holy water, water into wine, the blood of Christ.
Perhaps words matter in a more powerful way than even we can comprehend. Perhaps we are connected to each other and all things around us with everything we drink and think.
I cupped my tea, raising it slowly, reverently like some ancient tradition and took a long, deliberate sip.