Writer David Downie regales New York City with tales of the French countryside
By Angela Barbuti
David Downie embarked on a journey most would only dream about — he walked across France, and wrote a book about it. Downie and his wife, photographer Alison Harris, took the 750-mile walk together, Downie armed with a notebook and Harris, a camera. What resulted is the memoir Paris to the Pyreenes: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James, which will be released on April 15th.
Although the route the couple followed is usually associated with a desire for spiritual awakening, Downie attributes it to a possible midlife crisis. Later this month, Downie and Harris will leave their home in France to begin their New York City book tour, with stops at McNally Jackson and La Boite en Bois restaurant.
You were born and raised in San Francisco, but you’ve lived in Paris for 27 years. Why did you relocate?
I had the typical romantic notions that a young, aspiring writer has about living in Paris. I quit my day job and rented a maid’s room on the seventh floor. I moved in there and wrote a novel. Luckily it was not published. I think it’s a good thing for a young writer to have two or three novels rejected. I was very fortunate; I had all my early work rejected.
You make it clear that this pilgrimage across France was not a religious journey. How would you describe your religious beliefs?
I’m a skeptical skeptic.
And your wife’s?
She’s an agnostic. Her father was a Catholic; her mother’s a Protestant. She’s not an atheist.
Explain why you took this journey.
There were so many reasons. I think something happens at a certain point in your life and you have this irrepressible need to walk or do whatever it is that you do. In my case, I’m a walk-aholic. I had this crazy drive to walk across France. I’m not sure where it came from. I’m still not sure, but I suspect that I just needed to think, unplug, regenerate, and feel better. I had some serious health issues. I was very fat and had liver failure. I also really needed to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. When you approach 50, this kind of thing can happen. I suppose you would call it a midlife crisis.
Did you feel fulfilled after it?
I realized that your whole life is a pilgrimage. It’s not any different from getting up, getting ready, and commuting to work, or studying, or whatever it is that you happen to do. It is different in that you’re not working, you’re walking, thinking, and meditating. It’s really like walking meditation. When I finished my pilgrimage, I realized it was just life and that it was going to go on until I died. I feel, in many ways, I’m still on the pilgrimage. Writing the book was part of it, and now going on book tours. Talking to you is part of it.
What was the hardest part of this experience?
Finding time to do it and breaking away from all the usual obligations — work, family, and friends. I think that was the biggest challenge.
Did you keep a journal along the way?
I’m a pathological note taker. I have a notebook with me at all times and am always jotting things down.
You’re also a food writer.
I wrote about food for many years. I wrote cookbooks, food and wine articles, and guidebooks. I do it a lot less now, in part because if I look at a donut I put on 10 pounds. I try to do other things. I do travel writing and other kinds of writing.
What food memory stayed with you from your trip across France?
During this pilgrimage, I think I had the best meal I ever had in France at Ferme la Chassagne. It was not at a fancy restaurant, but a farmhouse bed and breakfast — a place where you spend the night and have breakfast and dinner. Everything was grown or raised on the farm. Totally authentic, classic French country cooking. We had veal cooked in milk with mushrooms.
Before living in Paris, you lived in Milan. Now, you and your wife divide your time between France and Italy.
We spend two-thirds of the year in France and one-third in Italy at this point.
What are the similarities and differences between France and Italy?
Well they both have good food, good wine, beautiful landscapes, and wonderful cities. My favorite foreign cities are Rome, Genoa, and Paris. The difference is what Sophia Loren said, which may be apocryphal, “The French are Italians in a bad mood.”
You and Alison give walking tours in Europe. How long have you been hosting these?
This will be the eighth year. Paris, Rome, Burgundy, and the Italian Riviera.
You also just created an app on Paris.
It’s a timeline of Paris. It’s the history of Paris from 8,000 B.C. to the present. All the key dates, people, places, and events.
What are plans for your future?
I’m working on another book about Paris — about romanticism and Paris today being the world’s most romantic city. It appears that most people believe it is. Whether they’re right or not, I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. In terms of walking, we’re still trying to figure out where we’re going to walk next. We might walk to Rome.
To learn more about David’s work and New York book tour, visit www.davidddownie.com
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