Have Suitcase, Will Travel
David Prior is a travel writer. Not the new age kind you see on TV hanging in Ibiza by the kidneyshaped pool holding a daiquiri with a paper umbrella perched in it, but the kind that rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty. And he loves food – eating it, meeting the people who make it, and then documenting it. Born and bred in the sunshine state of Queensland in Northern Australia, David headed south to Sydney after high school where he sank his teeth into the world of interiors and food styling, becoming, as he puts it, “a jazzy little courier, hanging around the cool people and trying not to get in the way.” Soon, he left Australia for Europe. It was around about this time that his love of food and travel first intersected. “I had never traveled before I moved to Europe so it was there that I understood that food and culture were really the same thing and so to really write with authority around food you have to experience many, many authentic realities,” David says.
For the past decade, David has lived a somewhat nomadic existence to bring his stories about food and travel to life. His modus operandi is “have suitcase, will travel” and he means it. He left Sydney at age 23 after receiving a scholarship to the University of Gastronomic Science in Bra, Italy where he was mentored by Carlo Petrini, founder of both the university and the Slow Food movement. Carlo later introduced David to iconic chef Alice Waters, which prompted David to move to the world’s other sunshine state, California, where he worked as Director of Communications at Water’s Chez Panisse restaurant and her nonprofit initiative, the Edible Schoolyard Project. Throughout this time, he’s continued to produce food, travel, and design stories for Vogue Living, WSJ, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, British Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue, Monocle, Bon Appetit, Nowness, and Lucky Peach – and racked up a lot of Frequent Flyer points in the process. Last year, David relocated to New York City, but has tallied a total of only two months there, as his pursuit of new stories continues to send him all over the world.
David’s seemingly Romantic existence is not
without sacrifices, however. He admits it has been difficult to meet people due to his here today, gone tomorrow itinerary. What David calls work most people would call vacation, and he’s the first to admit that he can’t carry on behaving like he’s on a “Mykonos gaycation all year round.” His unconventional professional life has led to some unconventional romantic arrangements as well. He’s had cross-continental flings that most of us only fantasize about, and appreciates better than most the convenience of dating apps. For now, however, David is content to live with his most trusted companion a little while longer – his suitcase. To what extent do you live by your motto: Have suitcase, will travel? As I write this I am on a plane juggling a tray table and my laptop. I have been living out of that single suitcase for si x months. Sometimes publications send me on an assignment, other times it is on a whim of mine or an instinct that something great is happening in a particular place. A few years ago no one would send me to São Paulo, for example, which seems absurd now because of the many food, nightlife, and design stories that have been written about that incredible city in the past two years or so. It was great to go there and feel as if you were writing about something new and unique. That is hard in a place like Paris or Rome, because publications in London, New York, and Sydney constantly commission stories there…Sometimes you’ve just got to go and take a risk but I like a balance of commission (security) and adventure. In terms of the actual line “have suitcase, will travel,” a friend came up with it and it resonated with me because it was pretty good humored. It began as tongue-incheek, the same as my Instagram, @priorforhire, but now that I get more and more work and my schedule gets crazier there has become a real
truth to both. What happens after you land on the tarmac of a new city? Well, that is my favorite moment of all. I’ll never forget when I fir st left Australia to move to Italy. I stepped out of the train in Milano Centrale – that great building and it was Men’s Fashion We e k and all these chic, giraffe -like creatures were having e spresso at t he station’s bar. It was so exotic to me and totally thrilling.
There i sn’t really a science or method to it – but I think it’s about instinct and taste. I am not one to plan a trip unless I am covering a specific person, place, or phenomenon. I go, I walk around, I chat to people and have a drink with them. And I always visit the market, particularly if I am writing about food… it gives you many pieces to solving the puzzle. I like the NYTIMES 36 Hours concept in the Travel section, but I really feel like to even begin to get a read on a place it is more like 72 Hours. I feel my most “awake” in those first days. Everything is
new, you are feeling and seeing the differences, there is a sense of wonder and some adrenaline going. I usually find my subjects in those days. I’m naturally very curious, quite social, but also very observant, so if I see something that captures my attention I want to know more and I go for it. Maybe I do tend to take too many risks but that’s part of the adventure. What I’m always looking for is authenticity, something that is truly representative of the place. You know when you see it.
You’re more a storyteller than a traditional writer, concerned with the cultural traditions, familial heritages, and societal influences surrounding food beyond the plate. Why is communicating the narrative of food so important to you?
It feels very pretentious, but I do think of myself as a storyteller. I guess it’s because I think of other writers being so much more accomplished and “writerly,” I don’t feel like I’ve earned my stripes in a publishing house or a newspaper and I certainly didn’t train as a journalist! I actually started writing so I could afford to travel when I was living in Europe and could keep up with my friends. I fell in love with being on the road, so in order to keep going I made it my work. I guess because I am so involved in the imagery of the stories and try to use a few mediums to communicate the message, being a ‘writer’ always felt a little limited, too. Why food? I think that culture is most easily expressed through food. You don’t have to speak the language or have a great understanding of a place’s art or history to engage with it. At its best it is very democratic and tells you so much about a place and its people. For me, it’s always been the way to find the keys to unlock the door into the real soul and spirit of a place.
After you studied at the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy, you landed a job at Chez Panisse with acclaimed chef, restaurateur, and food activist Alice Waters. What was one great lesson you took away from that period of your life?
I’d always been into what Alice was doing, even as a kid in Brisbane, Australia interested in cooking. Her style of food, her politics, and the way she engages with the world outside her restaurant always appealed to me. I took away a great many lessons from that experience, but more than learning about food itself or even the process of building a social movement, what I learnt from Alice is not just that anything is possible but that everything is possible. She is incredibly determined and optimistic and those qualities have and will continue to change the way the world eats.
What has been one of your favorite discoveries from your travels so far?
I don’t really have a favorite. There is too much good shit out there to find and I find something I love everywhere I go. And I mean everywhere. When I think of highlights my mind starts running but I guess it’s the more exotic places that stick out – parts of the Middle East, the Amazon, Africa. Iquitos in the Amazon is a pretty wild place. Really isolated in the middle of the jungle. The market there was intense. Witch doctors, monkeys, whole turtle carcasses, strange fruit, and obviously a huge drug trade going through it.
And one of the most devastating?
I am extremely sentimental about my time in Syria. I went just before the war and I found it to be unbelievably magical. It was like the Rome of the Middle East, but with zero tourists and a mystery about it. Getting lost in the souk and shooting Damascus with Pablo Zamora was one of the greatest, most mind-expanding jobs I have ever had. No one wanted to commission me to go but we went, and once the images rolled in and the story was done, everyone wanted the story. It was never printed, of course, but I feel lucky to have seen it. I have no idea what it is like now. Thousands of years of history and dozens of wars never destroyed the city, but I fear this one has. I hope that I can use my story and those images to be some kind of witness to what was lost at some point.
While the nomadic lifestyle of a travel writer has it’s assumed benefits (ahem, frequent flyer points), how does this impact your dating life when you’re constantly out of town?
Perhaps you should ask the people that have tried dating me! It is really fun to meet new people all the time. I do love it, but when people say about
being a travel writer “oh it’s a dream job” I do sometimes think “Well yeah, it is but forget about having a relationship.” It makes it really hard. You fall in love, you leave. Cycle on repeat.
How have you dealt with the dilemma of living your dream at the expense of potentially putting love on hold?
It has just been a reality for me and to be honest I probably haven’t wanted a relationship until recently. But there aren’t many guys who have the patience for it or the nerve to really trust me. I am hopeful, though, because there are now more and more people in my situation. Not because they are travel writers (we are a very endangered species), but because they travel often for work and it’s never been simpler or more possible to be mobile. Let’s say I am hopeful…
On the flip side, you get to travel the world and meet new people daily. What’s it like to make a connection while travelling and then leave it behind?
Well, that can be really hard. When you meet people while you are traveling, they know its temporary and paradoxically they can pull walls down quickly that they would otherwise take a long while to bring down if you were dating in the same city. Things can get intense quickly. Also, my work is other people’s holidays so I can’t really behave like I am going on a Mykonos gaycation all year round. That gets old, and quickly. But that being said, I’ve met and continue to meet really amazing people and there have been times when I’ve been a touch heartbroken in the cab to the airport…
Pros vs Cons of online dating?
I sometimes think that apps or social media generally can be a little “my best version of myself by me.” We’re all guilty of it, but I think it’s good to be aware when you are engineering experiences for your Instagram or Facebook and not actually participating in the moment. Online dating can be great when you are traveling, but you need a balance, too. You can’t be relying on it to meet people in a new place…I’ve seen a lot of people sit in their hotel rooms all day on their phone, organizing the party for the night and never seeing anything of the actual place they are visiting. That’s not for me. Like anything, I think you need a balance.
So when you do eventually settle down and find Mr. Right, what do you imagine it will look like?
The settle down dream scenario I usually picture when I am really over traveling, tired of being unable to cook my own meals, not going to my own gym or seeing my mates, is of having a farm near a surf break (and an international airport!). In that case, a Mr. Right could be a farmer, surfer, or combo of the two. I’m joking (kind of), but to be honest I actually think that maybe meeting “the one” is quite like the experience of travel writing. You go there with an idea in your mind of what it will be and then the reality is so different and so much better than you could have ever dreamt. Like I have to be in my work when it comes to finding the other piece of my puzzle I’m going to try to be awake and open to every possibility and adventure. Lisa Marie Corso is a Melbourne-based writer and editor currently working as Editorial Coordinator at
TheDesignFiles. Every day she thanks her parents for naming her after Elvis’ spawn and not an avant-garde fruit, endangered specie, or aircraft. You can follow her on Instagram @lisamariecorso.