When in the company of veteran travel and food writer David Downie, I find myself smiling. Whether in Paris, where our group of writers spent a day with him and his charming, photographer wife Alison Harris in the Marais, or at book readings, (he’s now on tour with his latest book, Paris to the Pyrenees; a Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James), I find great pleasure in this skeptic’s company. To be with him is to find oneself in conversation with an erudite, witty, knowledgeable doubter, a Francophile in spite of himself, a raconteur, a connoisseur and a sometimes curmudgeon. To dive into his writing is to discover the same irrepressible curiosity and irresistible spirit.
In this new book, for example, the “pilgrim” sets out on a distinctly non-religious quest: to lose weight after too many years of food writing, to travel a wide swath of France by foot instead of by car, and to come to terms with what has been dubbed the dread “mid-life crisis.” He was, after all, turning fifty. To travel with him, of course, is a delight. What better company than Druids, Caesar, and his arch-enemy Vercingétorix, or the modern pilgrims, characters and rogues he and Alison met along the road?
And what better testimony to pilgrimage, in the truest sense? Although, from the get-go, Downie makes clear his aversion to the blind faith of the faithful and the follies of some of his fellow-travelers who comically decked themselves out in the scallop shells, the symbol of St. James, he also is open about his own searching. Although he eschews religious, or even “spiritual” vocabulary, an added pleasure is that he shares his inward journey, too. In the beginning of his book he defines a pilgrim as “a wanderer, a traveler in foreign parts, a foreigner…” To that I might add a seeker, one who, despite stumbles (or literally falling) or the temptations of staying comfortable, follows ‘the way’ to its endpoint, understanding that his true destination is in the journey itself.