More than 25 years ago, I was almost penniless in Vietnam.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. To be precise, I had nearly a million dong – the local currency –worth about $40, and tickets for the long-distance train from Saigon to Hanoi and my flight back to the UK. I also had a credit card, but in those far off times, Vietnam didn’t have ATM machines or banks where one could easily turn plastic into cash.
How I came to be in this situation is a story for another time; what is relevant is the people I met on the train as we headed northwards up that fascinating, beautiful country. There was a middle-aged man from central Europe and a young couple from Holland and, at a time when tourism to that part of the world was far less commonplace than it is today, we all instantly became travelling companions for the three days we spent together. We played cards, visited markets, ate in restaurants and visited temples (all of which remarkably, in my case, was manageable within my meagre budget).
Finally, we arrived at our destination and went our separate ways wishing each other bon voyage. This was before the days of social media, and I have no idea what became of any of the others. But remembering that brief moment prompted me to propose another of my little thought experiments.
Please write down the names of a dozen people you know and like – but excluding close friends and family.
Now compile another list of 12 well-known people – from any sphere: the arts, sports, politics, business, whatever – whom you don’t know, but admire.
Now, alongside each name, please say what you know about where they were born and raised, and anything you can say about their parents and the way they were brought up.
If you can pen more than a few words for even half of the people you selected, I’ll be very impressed. I certainly couldn’t have said very much about my three fellow passengers. By the end of our journey, as we enjoyed a final bowl of Pho together, we all realised that we knew almost nothing about each other’s backgrounds. Incredible though it may seem, no one had bothered to ask or volunteer any in-depth information. We had certainly shared preferences in music and films and talked a bit about other places we’d been and people we’d met, and we’d enjoyed each other’s company. But I didn’t know where in the Netherlands the couple came from or what they did for a living. Nor did I know from which part of Europe Carl (or was it Karl?) sprang, or whether he was married or divorced, or gay. And none of them knew more about me than that I wrote about wine, a beverage we didn’t encounter in any of the places we ate.
Perhaps, you could argue, if we’d all taken a slightly deeper interest in each other, we would have developed closer relationships and still be in contact nearly three decades later. And you might be right. But acquaintanceships don’t have to evolve into friendships. I’ve relished lots of conversations with people I haven’t felt the need to see again.
So, to return to my experiment.
Presuming there are gaps in your knowledge about the 24 people on your lists, how much does it matter? Does not being able to say where your neighbour, for example, was born change the way you think about her? Do you care, now you come to realise it, that you can’t even name the country in which that singer or actor you like was brought up? And what about all those blank spaces in which you might have written a few words about their parents?
How does this apply to wine?
Yes, of course, it adds something – possibly a lot – to the experience of drinking a wine when you have met the man or woman who made it and stood among the vines and barrels. But that’s not to say that you can’t get a lot of pleasure out of a wine of which you know little or nothing.
Over the years, I’ve had all sorts of relationships, with people, places and wines. Some have been a lot deeper than others, but that doesn’t mean that the shallower ones weren’t worth having. Indeed, I’m pretty sure my brain doesn’t have the capacity to handle everything in depth. I couldn’t restrict my musical input to Bach and Mozart and their peers, my reading to Austen and Proust and my wines to complex expressions of great terroir.
Looking back, I didn’t really see very much of Vietnam on that trip, but enough to make me want to return several times with a little more money in my pocket, and the desire to learn a lot more. And maybe that’s a lesson to be learned from wine too. That enjoyable acquaintanceship can spark the desire for deeper knowledge and appreciation – but not necessarily at the time.