‘LOITERING WITH INTENT’ is a delicious phrase. It feels cocky and twinkly-eyed, defiant and ready to laugh. It is also the perfect name for this languid collection of travel stories from the past decade, which covers South-East Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Ritu Menon is a great visitor of museums, relisher of ruins, avoider of crowds, drinker of wine and collector of people. The book moves forward at a slow, meandering pace with the impossibly long sentences of a traveller who is thoughtful and unhurried. This is the diary not just of a happy traveller, but of a happy life, a life well lived. Full of friends, good food and long conversations.
Today, a collection of travel stories interspersed with black-and-white sketches feels like it has tip-toed in from another age. I get the feeling that it must have started out as a handwritten diary, a beautiful one at that. With a smooth cover and thick creamy paper, written with a pen that was satisfyingly heavy.
I read through Menon’s travel diary as you would scroll through the instagram of an impossibly thin, beautiful, blonde woman, completely mesmerised by the way she lived and travelled. There is something so soothing about this world. No talk of money or time. Both seemingly available in unlimited quantities. And people. Such interesting people of fine pedigree. Painters and writers, translators and photographers . As if this wasn’t enough, most of these interesting people double up as wonderful cooks. They know who is propping up the government and where to get the best cannoli.
The book covers ten countries in just about that many years. The sketches, especially those of landscapes are lovely and make you even more curious about all the places covered. The profusion of pagodas, the Citadel of Aleppo, not yet damaged.
The chapters covering the Middle East are special; they sizzle with life. The chapter on Palestine was a favourite, as the writing was in a strong singular voice that we don’t hear enough of in the rest of the book. The chapters go back and forth in time, and give a bit of unevenness to the writing. But I suppose that’s what a diary is like. Unfortunately, there are also a few typos and editing glitches, and a cruel reduction of Emily Bronte’s lifespan by two years.
Some of the older stories feel charmingly dated, like Menon’s observations of Japanese tourists in 2005 and how they photograph everything. Do they actually see anything, she wondered, touchingly unaware of how 2016 would make Japanese tourists of us all, reducing the whole world to a backdrop for selfies.
Menon is a great eater and drinker and her descriptions of food and meals will have you dreaming of fat olives and fresh dates. There is an especially groan- inducing description of a sandwich eaten in a Sicilian market that lovingly describes a baguette sprinkled with olive oil, topped with crushed oregano, fresh formaggio and thinly cut prosciutto. I was salivating by the end of it and I’m supposed to be a vegetarian.
When it comes to drink, Menon follows Montaigne’s advice that to be a good drinker, one must not have too delicate a palate. And so the chapter on the vineyards of southern France doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is a bubbling up of art and culture in these travels. I lost count of how many times the words ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ came up.
The last few pages of the book find Menon looking out a window onto an English countryside. She sees soft hills and a gentle sun and Ruskin’s line ‘there is no wealth but life’ comes to her. And it feels right that she is the one who got that window, that view, so acutely aware of the richness of her life and travels.