You don’t need to go abroad to eat, pray or love
The Kensington branch of the upmarket travel company Kuoni has a poster on the window bearing the cryptic legend: Eat, Pray, Love. It’s intelligible probably only to women passers-by and for them, it means one thing: the film of the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, starring Julia Roberts. The story involves Julia/Elizabeth taking a year out of her life — funded, though the film doesn’t make this clear, by a generous advance from her publisher — in order to discover food in Italy, God in India and love in Bali. It could just as well have been the other way round: she could have found God in Bali, food in India and love in Italy; the great thing about all these places is that they were a safe distance from home in New York, from the husband she had just divorced, and the actor she left when their affair flagged.
Anyway, for an extraordinary number of women everywhere, the film and book have been a clarion call to find themselves, preferably in the same locations. The travel industry has seen an upsurge in vacations to all three destinations. An ‘EPL-themed’ expedition to Bali by a company called Spiritual Tours (it provides all the elements of the film, barring sex with an empathetic but virile Brazilian) is sold out. Another travel company promises: ‘See the world for yourself on a transformational journey taken straight from Liz’s itinerary in the film Eat Pray Love with STA Travel. Embrace romance on the beaches of Bali, find inner peace next to the tranquil beauty of the Taj Mahal in India or indulge in the perfect pasta and wine in Rome with exclusive STA Eat Pray Love journeys.’ I suppose the Balinese need the tourism, but you can’t help feeling sorry for a small nation overwhelmed by an influx of needy older women driven a bit mad by the film’s promise that ‘in Bali, everyone has a love affair’.
I felt unease, myself, watching the film — a discomfort which cannot be entirely attributed to discontent about not being Julia Roberts. (I mean, the very first time she prays, God says, quite distinctly: ‘Go back to bed.’ I’ve been saying my prayers all my life and I’ve never had that kind of comeback.) The problem is the pernicious premise that to find yourself, you’ve got to go away. In order to learn how to love food, you go to Rome, where nuns eat ice cream with every appearance of pleasure. To find God, you go to an Indian ashram; that’s where Julia learns how to meditate and forgive herself for the divorce. And for love, you find it in Bali rather than, say, a crowded lift at work.
Now I can see the symmetry in a psychic journey being replicated in a physical journey, but this is all wrong. It attributes magical properties to Abroad in the way of transformation of the self when it would be quite a bit more challenging and a good bit more interesting to do it at home. Why do you have to go to India to pray? How about going, oh, to the C of E? That’s got some perfectly lovely liturgy, which could do the job if you tried. Or how about just sitting at the back of a church, where you can meditate in a space designed for that very purpose?
As for learning to ditch the guilt when you eat, why Rome? Why not Aberystwyth? You can eat good food pleasurably anywhere if you take the trouble, including right here at home. You can get over your carbs anxiety just as well with a luscious and shiny Chelsea bun as with a pizza. As for love... I couldn’t myself help thinking that the discarded husband had a point when he said exasperatedly: ‘Why couldn’t you find yourself in our marriage?’ That would be quite a bit more difficult, though, than finding yourself in a place where women wear flowers behind their ears and you don’t have to earn a living.
Perhaps someone should do a follow-up film, where Ashkay Kumar or some other fabulous Indian man comes to England to learn to love food at the Saxmundham farmers’ market — the honey! the marrows! — how to pray in the parish church in Walsingham and how to love when he meets the right girl in Thurso. It might help us get things into perspective.