I can’t exactly recall how New York writer David Farley and I first made contact, but I do remember that at the time of our email exchange Terence and I were firmly ensconced in the library of my uncle and aunt’s house in Bendigo, Australia, for a few months, gazing out at their English cottage garden occasionally as we wrote a guidebook to the Italian Lakes.
Farley offered to send a review copy of his book, and although we weren’t travelling for another month, just the name of the thing — An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town — inspired a flight of the imagination. (Isn’t it the most intriguing name for a book?) It may not have been far to travel in my mind from the genteel shores of Lake Como to the medieval village of Calcata where Farley’s book is set, but it was certainly a long haul from rural Australia.
Arriving in New York a year or so later after a 30-hour trip from Bali via Hong Kong and Vancouver, I scribbled down a few names of New Yorkers we ‘knew’, including friends of friends and email and Twitter acquaintances we’d never met, so we could start the process of connecting with locals.
When I spotted the launch of Farley’s paperback version of his book promoted in the Village Voice, I added him to the list and emailed to see if he wanted to have a drink to talk travel and share some local tips. Nobody knows a city better than a travel writer, right? Surely Farley would be the perfect guy to share some local tips to experiencing his hometown? Let’s see…
Q. How do you like to travel?
A. I’m not really into luxury travel. Nor am I a so-called ‘backpacker’. So I guess that puts me somewhere in between. I don’t dress for traveling; instead I dress the same way I’m in New York, which is generally quite flexible: not out of place in a casual setting yet I could probably pass muster in an upscale restaurant.
Q. Are you a travel writer, historian or both?
A. None of the above!* Well, I don’t know how I should label myself. I write about travel a lot and often those articles have a deep history element to them or, increasingly, a focus on food. So what does that make me? I’m not sure.
Q. How can travellers make their experiences of places more enriching?
A. I’ve always been a big advocate of pre-trip research—mostly because I love knowing as much about the place when I encounter it for the first time. Plus, I get a bigger rush when I finally encounter a monument, tourist site, building, restaurant, or whatever that I’ve read a lot about. It enlivens my travel experience.
Q. You lived in Calcata to research and write your book. I find I get so much more out of a place when I visit with a purpose rather than just a holiday.
A. I officially agree. Putting yourself on a quest forces you to get out, talk to people, go to off-the-radar parts of a town or a country that you wouldn’t have normally had an excuse to go to.
Q. Did you see New York with fresh eyes after returning from Italy?
A. Calcata is made from the same stone — a tan volcanic stone called tuff — from which it sits. So whenever I return to New York from there, I’ll come up on the subway in the West Village where I live and will be amazed by all the colors here in New York. But less literally, when I return to New York from Italy, I’m always a bit shocked by how little New Yorkers interact with each other on the street. People will go far out of their way in the supermarket, for example, so they don’t have to say “excuse me” to get passed you. In Italy there’s a constant interaction with people and it makes you feel much more connected to humanity.
Q. New York is enormous; it can seem overwhelming to first-time (or even third-time!) visitors. Advice?
A. Avoid chain restaurants and coffee houses. Let a local take you around, as you and Terry do. And get out to the other boroughs. You really can’t get the full Big Apple experience just in Manhattan. The real New Yorkers live in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
Down to the important stuff…**
Q. Best New York breakfast?
A. Egg. An awesome place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The last time I was there I had the duck sandwich, which was also slathered in duck pate.
Q. Favourite place for a browse?
A. I love the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. I love Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt and their peers.
Q. Best coffee stop?
A. Jack’s. It’s on my block in the West Village and has a great neighborhood feel.
Q. Good place for lunch?
A. Oh, so many. I’ll go with Hecho en Dumbo, a Mexican place on Bowery and E. 4th St. They have a great two-course lunch for $10 and huge bowls of spicy pozole.
Q. Favourite neighbourhood for a stroll?
A. Lower East Side. The narrow streets and fire escape-clad tenement buildings are really atmospheric. Plus, if you get thirsty the neighborhood is crammed with great drinking spots.
Q. Best place to kick back?
A. I love Washington Square Park. When the weather is nice, there’s always something going on. When I walked through the other day, there was a punk rock-looking couple jamming on some accordians and a jazz band playing about 100 feet away. A little further on was a guy playing Bob Dylan songs on an acoustic guitar.
Q. Good dinner spot?
A. I recently went to Perbacco and was quite impressed. The chef, Simone Bonelli dabbles in molecular gastronomy and he does it well. Think: a Parmigiano crème brulée or a deconstructed carbonara complete with deep-fried spaghetti.
Q. Favourite bar?
A. There are too many. One that comes to mind, though, is Lolita Bar, on the Lower East Side, where I hold my semi-monthly readings, the Restless Legs reading series.
A. I love Idlewild Books, the closest New York has to a travel bookshop***.
Q. Where can we find the most curious and irreverent New York souvenirs?
A. Obscura, located in the East Village. C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted an 19th-century wooden leg or a creepy vintage ventriloquist dummy!
* Curiously, Farley might not like to be pigeon-holed as a travel writer, but he’s written lots of great travel articles, which you can find here.
** I asked Farley for all these eating and drinking tips cause he’s also written a lot about food. Check out these.
*** Don’t forget to grab a copy of Farley’s book while you’re at Idlewild Books or any other bookstore for that matter.