Welcome to the Memories of a Moonbird podcast. Exploring life… one story at a time.
Daniel: Hello friends! And welcome to the Memories of a Moonbird podcast. I’m Daniel Scherl. Today on the show: He’s one of the most well read and intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life, not to mention one of the funniest. These days, he and his wife Bonita spend their time working with the Hollywood Food Coalition, a nonprofit organization that for more than 30 years has been providing meals and medical care for those less fortunate. I know him simply as my friend John, but you’ll know him as the lovable and charming Dr. Phlox from Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as scores of television roles on everything from True Blood, Bones, This is Us, The Orville, and Shameless, just to name a few. His career has spanned over 30 years and today he joins us to talk about his passion for travel and how it’s been such an important part of his life. And he’s even going to try one of my freshly baked scones. Please welcome… John Billingsley.
John: Well, thank you for having me.
Daniel: Tell the friendly listeners out there, where are you from?
John: Oh, that’s the hardest question of all because I lived in about nine States before I was 12 or 13 years old. I was born in Media, Pennsylvania. I lived in Schenectady, New York, Fayetteville, New York, Huntsville, Alabama, Slidell, Louisiana and New Orleans, Manhattan, and Southern Connecticut.
Daniel: Did you ever go visit where you grew up?
John: You know, Slidell was almost wiped out during Katrina. It’s on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, so there was a lot of flooding there. No, I never have and I wouldn’t. It was so long ago.
Daniel: Did you retain any friendships over the years of people you know?
John: No, not from there. A few friends from growing up in Connecticut.
Daniel: What area of Connecticut?
John: Southern Connecticut. Fairfield County, Westport. Bedroom community of New York. My dad was a commuter.
Daniel: It’s a beautiful area.
John: Yeah. I mean, I was bummed at the time because I was like, oh, New York! I want to live in New York! And so he kind of hauled us all off to the suburbs. It was, you know, jeez! And at one point, I remember a couple of years into that, we were living on Lilac Lane, a very bucolic street, and we’d acclimated, I’d acclimated, and my dad said, “Well, I might have an offer of a job in Mexico City.” And for us as a family, I think that my mother and the two kids was like, no, that’s it. We’re done moving. Turn it down. We’re staying in Connecticut! And now of course I think, ah, fuck, I was an idiot. I was a child. I should have said, “Yay Mexico City!” I’d be, I’d speak Spanish. I’d have dual identities.
Daniel: Was there… Do you look back at your roots as a child with all the moving around, because I have a similar thing. We moved fifteen times from when I was born until I was in high school.
Daniel: I always say my dad was a dental brat, and, I mean *I* was a dental brat, excuse me.
John: You know, one doesn’t think of a dentist as being all that peripatetic to be honest with you. Was he a bad dentist? Was he always on the…
Daniel: No, no! Apparently this is not an appropriate word to use anymore, but he always defined himself as a “gypsy.” So he just, he liked to wander and he did get promoted several times for jobs. So he kept getting better and better opportunities. And then there was an economic crash at some point. And I remember on his 50th birthday he got laid off and they hired all young doctors out of dental school. But I was gonna say that having moved around so much and being uprooted, I often credit with my ability to just pick up and travel whenever. And I’m curious if you feel that there was any of that with you moving around so much as a child?
John: I don’t know if I’d say it was a function of the moves we had foisted upon us as children. But from the time I went off to college, my parents sold the house and they themselves actually got a Volkswagen Rabbit and they trundled around the country for two or three years. And my dad retired early at 47. He figured that if they sold the house, they could milk the proceeds until they hit their retirement years and then social security and pensions and what have you would kick in. So, when I went off to college in Bennington, Vermont, they left and I didn’t see hide nor hair of them for several years. So not having a home to go back to meant that I was sort of forced into being a bit of a vagabond and I… And you know, you go off to college and pretty much all of your teenage shit is either stored or disposed of, so I didn’t really have anything to travel with except a duffle bag. So I did do a lot of traveling in those, in those college years.
Daniel: Is there a particular time in your life where you developed a passion for traveling?
John: Yeah, it might’ve been that period of time. I went to, I was on an exchange program with Bennington and I went to London and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts with ian offshoot program. And from the end of that term, my pal Michael Rogers and I traveled around Europe and I certainly, you know, I mean that was one of those… You know, when you’re young, especially…
Daniel: How old were you at that time?
John: I would’ve been 20, I think. We went to Ireland and we did some hitchhiking. We biked, we went to Dublin, we went to Galway, we hitched a ride on a fishing boat to the Aran Islands. We went all around Spain and France and we were in Venice for the carnival, which was probably my favorite travel memory ever.
Daniel: Well, that was going to be my next question.
John: All night dancing in the campanile, and you’re 19 and you’re, you know, full of erotic energy and the entire city is bursting with people who you think just want to get laid, and you find out they don’t necessarily want to get laid with you, but still, that’s another story. It was one of those moments in your life when your youth collides with the marvelousness of travel in a way that’s actually extraordinary.
Daniel: That’s great. I’m going to quote you on that. That’s great.
John: Traveling is different as you get older. It’s, you know, I mean, I certainly… I can’t travel the way I traveled when I was younger. I don’t have the body for it. I don’t have the stamina for it, or the energy for it. And my partner would kill me if I tried!
Daniel: So what do you like most about traveling now?
John: Well, the irony of course is that you’re having me on even though I’ve probably done less traveling in the last few years than I have in my entire life because my wife and I have devoted a significant amount of our lives to working for a not-for-profit called the Hollywood Food Coalition, which you’ve alluded to, which is an amazing organization that helps provide an array of services for people who are homeless and hungry. And I am very dug-in to that work. And in essence, one of the co-volunteer Executive Directors, which dramatically limits the amount of time I have to travel. Although I still act, I’m going to Nova Scotia in a couple of weeks for a gig. So it’s not out of the range of possibility that I’ll continue to travel a bit, but it’s usually associated now with gigs. And I’m not gonna be at the helm of this organization forever, so I look forward to traveling more down the road. But for the foreseeable future, my travel is probably somewhat constrained.
Daniel: And what do you like most about traveling as who you are today?
John: My favorite thing to do is to go some place that I’ve never been before, and if I can get up early in the morning and fortify myself with coffee and take a map and just spend the entire day just walking around and figuring out how the public transport system works, and figuring out what the cool neighborhoods are, and just getting the lay of the land and having a sense of… I’m a, I’m a big urban person, you know? As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the trips that have been out into the countryside. We went to the, into Scotland and went out to the isle of Skye, which was just magnificent. I do love the feeling of being, you know, out on the edge of the world. But I’m a city person. I’ve spent my entire life… I’m an actor. I spent my entire life in cities and I do probably lean towards exploring new cities.
Daniel: Is there a particular place on earth that you feel is the “piece de resistance?”
John: No, no, no. I mean, you know, that’s the wonderful thing about travel. The wonderful thing about people. The wonderful thing about life is everybody is their own unique, fascinating animal. I think that gag of wherever you hang your hat as your home is the best way to live. And I’ve never lived any place that hasn’t fascinated me. I’m always interested in, in the community I’m in.
Daniel: What’s your favorite thing about Los Angeles?
John: The incredible diversity and variety of experience that’s available to you from the “Leave it to Beaver” quality of Southern Pasadena that is still sort of to me, kind of redolent of 1955 you know? To the wonderful ethnic sprawl of, of innumerable neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I love the fact that you can go to the beach, you can go to the mountains, that every little neighborhood has its own feel, its own vibe, that there’s never, you’re never going to run out of of cool restaurants and cool shops and cool arts experiences.
Daniel: It’s interesting because how long have you been in LA now?
John: I moved here in 1994, so…
Daniel: 25 years.
Daniel: Yeah. Cause I’ve been here 20 and I have a love/hate relationship with LA because I’m from the Midwest originally. And I, I miss some of that. I miss four full seasons. I miss snow. I miss really good rain.
John: I guess when I moved here, I moved here from Seattle where, talk about rain… And landing here and realizing that it was, you know, I think it was November-ish and I was hanging out on my patio where I was subleasing with the banana trees and my jockey shorts and a tee shirt and not getting rained on, not shivering and not thinking, “Here comes Winter… Oh, my God.” Just thinking…
Daniel: Buckle up…
John: “Hello, Los Angeles!” And I, I confess that is one of the things that I love about it. We take for granted what it’s like to not get up in the morning worrying about whether or not the weather’s gonna motherfuck you that day.
Daniel: Yeah. Well, speaking of Los Angeles, let’s dip really quickly into your career. I wanted to know how much has travel been a part of your career as an actor?
John: If you’re an actor and you have any success at all, travel is by definition baked into your career. I mean, you’re always, you know, you go from job to job to job. Back in the day when I was a theater actor, it would be theater, job to theater job to theater job. So I toured Germany, I toured Scandinavia, played different cities. You… It’s very, very hard. In fact, I started a theater company in Seattle because I was trying to find a way to root myself.
Daniel: What was the theater company called?
John: It’s called “Book-It,” which adapts fiction for the stage. It’s still around 30 or so years later. I started it and then left after about five years and I was also an acting teacher.
Daniel: Would you ever go back and…
John: Oh, no, no, no, no. I mean, I visit Seattle a lot because I have a lot of friends up there, but I would never, I’m, I’m pretty much now a full time film and television actor slash, apparently… not-for-profit guy.
Daniel: How old were you when you booked the Dr. Phlox Star Trek gig?
John: Uh, geez, 40? Maybe 39? 40.
Daniel: And is there a cool story? Was that just an agent audition, or was there any kind of fun story about it?
John: Yeah, just auditions. I mean, I moved here when I was 34, 35 after having spent 15 or so years in and around Seattle doing regional theater. And my first marriage ended, and I was kind of getting burned out as a teacher. I’d been teaching acting for 10 years. I was ready to hand over the reins of the theater company to some other folks who I thought would do a great job. I did, I just was burnt out and I wanted to… I was worried about making a living. So I moved here and it took me about two or three years to kind of make some inroads. I got a series called “The Others,” which was short lived. I think I was 38 years old, maybe 39. And then another year goes by and it was just an audition. You don’t usually have a ton of information. Even if you’re auditioning for a series regular. Sometimes you get the script, sometimes you don’t. This was an instance I didn’t get the script. I had one scene and it said, uh, it said “You are playing an alien doctor. Come in with a slight alien accent”. It’s like, what the fuck is that? So… So Bonnie and I…
Daniel: Do you remember your audition?
Daniel: Who did you audition for?
John: Brannon. Braga. Uh, Rick Berman, who were the, you know, the cooks and bottle washers. And then the casting director was a gentleman named Ron Surma, I think was his last name. He retired shortly after casting that show. So I would have been one of his last, one of his last cast actors. But the office was Junie Lowry-Johnson’s office and uh, she’s been a great, I hate to say supporter, but she brought me in very early on in my career. That office brought me in very early on in my career here for NYPD blue. So they were, they’ve always been very gracious at bringing me in down the years.
Daniel: That’s awesome. Where was the most fun or interesting place, I should say, location, that you guys shot at in your opinion?
John: I never got to lead the soundstage because I was the only one in a cast of seven that didn’t, uh, you know, have fist fights or pitch woo to alien babes. I was the only character guy. So my role was to be sage.
Daniel: Well that really ruins my question.
John: Yeah… So I never went on location. And we didn’t go on location much.
John: We were on UPN. UPN itself was a failing network. We didn’t have a huge budget. As it became apparent that we were going to go down with the ship of UPN, or UPN was gonna go down with the ship of us, the budget was dialed down considerably from year to year to year. So we had a lot of what they call “bottle shows.” A bottle show being a term that in the industry defines, “We don’t have a lot of money, so we’re making the show on the soundstage this week. We’re not leaving it. So no location stuff.” So we, uh, we as a show didn’t do a ton of location stuff.
Daniel: If Dr. Phlox were here right now…
John: He would probably be playing with your Guinea pig…
John: Which is sitting right next to me.
Daniel: [Laughs] It’s “Double Stuf.”
Daniel: Who we’ll try to interview some other time… But if Dr. Phlox were here right now, what planet would he say was his favorite place?
John: Well of the known planets, I don’t think any of them are hospitable and none of them have restaurants, so I think he would probably, you know, take exception to the premise of your question… If you mean in the world of Star Trek…
New Speaker: [Laughs] Yes.
John: Which planet is my favorite? That would ask me to have more knowledge of the universe of Star Trek than I have.
John: You could just say Risa, the pleasure planet.
John: I would not remember the names of the planets. Again, I didn’t tend to visit a lot of planets. So you know, you’re talking to the wrong guy.
Daniel: It’s all good. Now this question, I hope you can answer: Besides the transporter, which is a cool, really cool technology…
John: Never, ever would I do that. Not in a million years.
Daniel: So you’re Dr. McCoy.
John: I ain’t going in no fucking transporter. No way.
Daniel: Besides the transporter, is there any kind of futuristic technology that you wish we had today? Could be from Star Trek or something you yourself imagine?
John: I wish we had less technology. I would like to dial back the technology.
John: I’m a Luddite. Look at what’s happening in the world, man. You know, I just, I think that this instant, the instant gratification of I can reach anybody I want, anytime I want… The expectation that somebody should be able to reach you anytime they want. The idea that you can go online, you can bleach, you can gab, you can hector, you can harass, yada, yada. I think it’s opened up a lot of Pandora’s boxes to be honest with you. I mean, I don’t mean to say I’m a Luddite. Of course I recognize that there’s a lot of good that comes along with it.
Daniel: Well I was going to say, can we also mention all the great things?
John: Sure, sure. You do that. And I’ll talk about the shitty things. I mean my God have mercy, look at the lunatic that we’ve elected to office. In part it’s because, you know, that kind of unleashed id has become part of our experience due to technology, due to this kind of, you know, this, this… Somehow we have become a country and a world where it’s okay to just blurt, you know, whatever is ghastly, whatever is vile out. And I, I think we’re paying a big price for it.
Daniel: And we’re going to revisit that actually near the end of the questions when we talk about environmentally conscious traveling and things like that. But I’m going to circle back real quick to talking about some of your favorite places. So where is, where are some of your favorite places you’ve traveled in your life and why are they favorites?
John: Um, Amsterdam is one of my very favorite places.
Daniel: For the French fries?
John: Oh, everything. Everything. The canals, the, the warmth and the friendliness and the relaxed nature of the people. I just find that it’s one of those cities like Venice that because of its physical layout and because of the nature of what it’s like to live in a canal-ridden city, there’s a certain kind of mystery and atmosphere to the city itself that’s just charming. I love those cities where you’re… Barcelona, I think. In the Gothic quarter. Anytime you’re kind of wandering around and it’s like, “I don’t know what’s down this alley…Let’s try! Let’s go see!” I just love that about the city.
Daniel: I felt that way in the French Alps actually. We were in Annecy, which is an old town and there’s a whole section of it that’s, that’s from “days of yore” and you can walk around and feel like you’re in a 1500’s novel.
Daniel: It’s quite magical, actually.
John: And then on the opposite side of that, I think… I’ve been to New Zealand a few times and that was a great privilege because if it hadn’t been for Star Trek, I wouldn’t have been invited to Star Trek conventions, which are all over the world. And I certainly doubt I would’ve ever gotten to New Zealand, and I’ve been on multiple occasions. And that to my mind is possibly the most glorious place.
Daniel: Did you visit Hobbiton when you were in New Zealand?
John: I did not. That’s below, um…
Daniel: It’s Matamata. Below Auckland, yeah.
John: Is it on the North Island?
John: Okay. No, then I didn’t see it but we didn’t get around extensively on the North Island. Couple of forays to the South Island and didn’t get below, um, Christchurch, so…
New Speaker: So you didn’t make it to Queenstown?
New Speaker: Did not make it to Queenstown.
New Speaker: It’s beautiful.
John: Yes, I’m sure it is. And I would love to go back. It is, as you know, possibly the most inaccessible place on the planet. That’s other than, you know, the obvious absurdity of trying to get to Antarctica or South Africa, which is another, you know, ass killing trip. And this is the problem. As you get old, you know, you, you, you… Your ass speaks up! Your ass says, “How are you… How, how long is this flight, man? I don’t think I want to do this.” And the rest of you says, “Shut up!” Because it’s going to be fun when we get there. And your ass says, “Yeah? Yeah? Then then you sit on the goddamn chair!”
Daniel: And this is business class even?
John: No, no, no, because… In part, A) I was on the show that killed the franchise, so they’re not offering me a business class ticket. I ain’t fucking Brent Spiner. B) I want to bring my wife so we have to trade, you know, whatever the mucky muck ticket is for two, you know, lowbrow tickets. So no, it’s… and I’m not gonna, I don’t want to go without her, so…
Daniel: If you were going to recommend a place in the world that you think everyone should try to visit in their life…
John: See? This is it… I don’t want to, I don’t want to ruin New Zealand. If everybody actually heard me and went, “Okay, I’m going to New Zealand,” New Zealand would be ruined. So I don’t want to recommend New Zealand. Although, I think if it was me, and I had a bucket list, and I had like, you know, one last trip in me, I think I’d be inclined to say I want to go there.
Daniel: I would actually agree. It’s an incredible place.
John: It’s an incredible place.
Daniel: The people are great.
John: The people are great, and there’s only ten of them, so you know, if you want to kind of be by yourself, you’ve got no end of space. It’s about the length of California, but as opposed to California, you go from like coast to coast. Uh, so, so, and any beach you hit is radically different than any other beach you hit. I’ve never been to a place where there’s that much variety.
Daniel: It has fjords.
Daniel: The fjords are incredible, like Milford Sound.
John: Yeah! The bubbling lava pools and the underground caves with the glowworms and great wine country, and…
Daniel: So we did this tour called, in Waitomo, called The Black Abyss. And you would not like it. The opening part of it because you repel through what we call an earthen butthole, which is basically just a very tiny opening in the ground and you repel like a hundred feet down into a cave and then you spend three hours in a full wetsuit moving and jumping into underground rivers and seeing glowworms. And it’s, it’s the most incredible thing.
John: I did actually want to do that because you know, last time I was…
Daniel: You should if you go again!
John: Bonnie was having none of that. She was having none of that. If you are married, you see you are married to somebody who climbs mountains. I’m married to somebody who, what is the opposite of climbing mountains?
Daniel: Watching t.v.
John: Well, I, um… I was thinking more like, you know, taking a civilized stroll that ends in a coffee shop.
Daniel: Okay. There you go.
John: So there is, yes, I was thinking the travel equivalent of… yeah.
John: So, I’m not saying that, I mean I’m no more likely to climb a mountain than she is. I think when we were younger, I might’ve been a little more inclined to say, “Let’s go to the glowworm caves!”
Daniel: Now for the record you can actually, they have different tours, and you can go to the glowworm caves and just walk in to them or get into a little boat. You don’t have to climb through an earthen butthole.
John: Well, that’s the one that appealed to me though. Cause at the time it didn’t, it didn’t, I mean like repelling it wasn’t like I was having to climb them. They’re just like, you know, they lower you down.
John: Fuck it. I mean it didn’t seem like it was going to kill us, but yeah, Bonnie didn’t want to do that. But you know that on the other hand I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t trade her for, you know… a gajillion rock climbers.
Daniel: Well I hope not… so how long have you been married now?
John: We have been together for going on 22 years, and we’ve been married for 19.
Daniel: So as a couple, what are your strengths when you travel?
John: Well, I think one of our strengths is that we’re both pretty sociable. So I think we’re perfectly happy to strike up chin wagging sessions with the folks we meet along the way. And in part because we traveled together as part of the Star Trek universe, that’s kind of baked into the pie. You know, you’re hanging out with the fans a lot, a lot of invitations to go out to the local pubs and have a drink and her willingness to be part of that, and in fact to dominate the experience, is… [laughs] she’s never going to listen to this, I know that, so I can say whatever the hell I want… makes it tremendously enjoyable.
Daniel: Has the majority of your traveling experience been with Bonnie or by yourself?
John: Oh… That’s… that’s a hard question to answer. You know, when I was younger and I was doing more plays, of course, that was by myself then. I was married once before, my first wife and I, although we didn’t have a ton of money, we had a fairly long honeymoon together in Italy and we did what traveling we could then. But then, you know, even now, I’ve been a film and TV actor for 28 years or whatever and you do a fair amount of, you know, you get gigs and so you go on the gig. Bonnie goes on her gig, I go on my gig occasionally…
Daniel: I was going to say, how often do you get to travel together for gigs?
John: Oh, we… in our glory days, when we were, uh, we, we weren’t doing this, uh, this, uh… what was the question? [laughs].
Daniel: Has the majority of your travel been with Bonnie or…
John: 50 / 50. I mean, we’ve only been together for, um, I’m turning 60 and we’ve been together for less than half of my life, so it would have to be more like 55 / 45. Like I’m going off to Nova Scotia in a week or so to do a show and…
Daniel: Does she get to go with you?
John: I’m hoping she will and hopefully she’ll join me. It’s all, it’s a little hard to tell sometimes because you don’t… The other person would love to go, but, but there are also… My wife is an actress and she has, you know, stuff holding her here. And so it’s not always easy to arrange. She recently was working in Salt Lake City. I visited her there. I think Salt Lake City has become a much more interesting city over the course of the last few years.
Daniel: Did you ever actually get to Mexico City?
John: I’ve never been to Mexico city. No. I have huge holes in my travel experience. Never been to Latin America, never been to South America. A little bit in Asia. Never been to Africa and never been to India. Never been to Russia. I mean, you know, I’m really not the ideal candidate to be interviewing, you know, about traveling.
Daniel: No, you are, because you have actually traveled, You don’t have to… People often make this mistake that they think that to be a “traveler” means you have a passport filled with stamps from all over the world. But that’s not true. You could be someone who’s never left the United States, but you’ve been all over the country and experienced travel. And that’s, that’s what it’s about. It’s about leaving home and going somewhere else and seeing, I mean, there are plenty of different cultures in our own country.
John: Well now that I know you set a low bar, I can appreciate that. Yes. Yes. All right. I can clamber over that bar.
Daniel: [Laughs]. What’s the one place above all others you haven’t been that you really want to go?
John: I’d love to go to St. Petersburg. There’s a, you know, certain parts of the world that there’s a rich legacy of literature. And so for me, going to certain cities, going to London, going to Paris, I mean, you’re also seeing it in a way that allows you to kind of reflect back on some of the things you’ve read or allows you to go home and re-read some things…
Daniel: For fans of like, “Les Miserables,” to go to France and see… yeah.
John: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And I’m, you know, I… so much happened in St. Petersburg down the years and there’s so much wonderfully, you know, wonderful literature and so much wonderful nonfiction about Russia, particularly St. Petersburg, which is where the, you know, the, as much as Moscow is considered to be the it place, the Russian revolution really started in St. Petersburg.
Daniel: Is this the Bolsheviks and all that?
John: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s where the Winter Palace was and that’s where the uprisings were. And you know, I would love to go there.
Daniel: Well, culturally I’d love to go to Russia because they have some of the greatest composers of classical music.
John: Sure. Absolutely. You know, these days, unfortunately, and it is one of the things that always has to kind of kind of, you know…
John: Yeah, to be taken into consideration. I mean, I… It’s hard to really know how to respond to this as an issue. How do you square your curiosity with the part of you that feels like you have to have some cognizance, not for your personal safety so much as just for your sense of, you know, what it might mean morally to travel to certain places. Like I wouldn’t go to Venezuela right now, you know? I, and I don’t know.
Daniel: Do you do anything that annoys Bonnie when you travel?
John: Oh good God, I can’t get up in the morning without annoying Bonnie. From the time it takes me to get out of bed and go brush my teeth and come back and get the newspaper off the doorstep, I’ve done seven things that annoy Bonnie. No, we’re pretty, I mean actually, I make a lot of jokes, but no, we’re pretty good travel companions. The things that I’ve… She tends to sleep in a little bit in the morning. Our hours. I think this is one of the things that you find when you’re married is that you, you realize that your sleeping patterns are a little bit different. I tend to wake up a lot earlier than she does. And on the road, I will wake up and I’ve learned, it’s like I don’t sit there and stew waiting for your partner to wake up so you can begin the day, go take a long, early morning walk, have some coffee. If we’re someplace where we’re, you know, communicating by phone, I’ll say, “just text me when you’re up” and I’ll try and keep close enough.
Daniel: Yeah, we do the same thing actually. Even here, just at home. Like if I wake up early, I’ll just go for a walk around the neighborhood and have tea and start my day and then she’ll mosey on in when she’s ready, and…
John: Yeah. And that took, that took me a little, a little bit of time I think, to acclimate to, cause you know, usually you think you’re with your partner and you’ve got a sense of the itinerary for the next day and you know, you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna go there, yada yada, the day will start. And then if your partner sleeps in, it’s like, well, you know… Itinerary, come on… What about the itinerary? So I think…
Daniel: The hours of the museum are only open so long.
John: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think we’re both pretty good at feeling like, you know, being in a place is 90% of it. The individual attractions, as cool as they are and as wonderful as many of them have been that we’ve gotten a chance to see, that isn’t really the animating purpose behind, for me, a trip.
Daniel: What is?
John: The geography, the landscape, the people, the culture, the experience of bopping around a part of the world that you never thought you’d bop around in.
John: I think it’s fascinating to me just getting a map and walking. I just, that’s my favorite part about travel. I just, I love kind of poking around.
Daniel: I can’t agree more. The best night we ever had in Paris was when we just looked at the map and we just said, okay, we’re gonna start at this one and kind of loop around this way. And we just walked for four hours and it was awesome.
John: It’s great. And you stop and have a little cocktail. You stop and, you know, you rest your feet, I mean…
Daniel: Get some food, take some pictures…
Daniel: This particular night we ended up near the Sacre Coeur, if I said that right. The big church up on the hill, you know?
John: Hm hmm.
Daniel: And we just walked and ended up there, and there were about 800 people sitting on the steps and a couple of guys up there with acoustic guitars just playing, and they were playing all these American songs. It was really funny. And everybody’s singing, and there’s dudes walking around offering Cokes and beers and all this stuff and, and there’s a, there’s a fire… a person doing fire dancing. It ended up, it wasn’t even a particular like carnival or anything, it was just like a Friday night in Paris!
John: Yeah. You travel to broaden your own sense of what it is to live in this world and you broaden that by coming into contact with a lot of different people. And I think that’s probably reason one to travel.
Daniel: If you had to give, if someone was new to traveling and said, well, “Hey John, do you have any tips for me?” Like things just essential things about traveling I should know before I head off into the world?
John: Just not confusing the, you know, the itinerary you’ve created with the joyful experience of travel itself. I mean, I think it’s very possible to kind of get a little too, too hamstrung by your sense of what the obligation of the trip is and that’s not the trip.
Daniel: Yeah. Expect the unexpected.
John: Yeah. And I think it’s wonderful to travel with somebody you love. I think it’s, you know, I mean, I don’t think there’s anything as, as marvelous as that. I’m a big fan of road trips, particularly in the U.S., But everywhere I’ve ever been that I’ve had a chance to actually get in the car and bop around.
John: I mean that’s just a marvelous thing.
Daniel: You and Bonnie are probably like me and Jolene, that you really enjoy being in a confined space for multiple hours with. I love road tripping with her. We have a blast.
John: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean I do think that’s one of the things that I, I actually don’t get to do this as much as I would like. I’d love the idea of just being able to kind of throw a dart into a U.S. Map and say okay this, the point of that dart, is the epicenter of what’s going to be a two week road trip. Now let me find out how I can from that epicenter, figure out what a really cool interesting trip’s going to be because it leads you into some very interesting rabbit holes.
Daniel: You have a whole new business now… “Dart Travel with John Billingsley.”
John: Yeah! It’s fascinating because anywhere you go in the world if you consider it like, okay, how do I, what if I fanned out from here for two weeks? And you did the research, there’d be all sorts of like fascinating little towns and byways and interesting, you know, places that you would never otherwise go.
Daniel: Do you have a favorite meal or a favorite place in the world that you love to eat? And do you have a favorite food?
John: Oh, my favorite restaurant, unfortunately it’s closed now. It was in Sydney called “Rock Pool,” and it was, it was, uh, that’s, that’s the meal that I, you know, you kind of look back on and you go, Oh, Oh… That and some Italian meals.
Daniel: With your vast knowledge of books, which is quite impressive, is there a particular book or novel, or both, that you think people who are passionate about travel or want to become more passionate about travel, something that they should read that would really expand their intellect?
John: Well, I don’t know if this is exactly that, but I think everybody who likes to travel should be familiar with the works of Bill Bryson.
John: He’s such a… One, he’s just one of the funniest men you’ll ever meet. And he’s got an insatiable curiosity and he’s traveled everywhere and he’s written extensively about the places he’s gone as opposed to say for instance, a Paul Thoreau. Who also is extraordinarily learned and fascinated in travel. But his books tend to be, I think, a bit on the dark side. He’s the guy who’s written extensively about train trips he’s taken all around the world and I enjoy reading him. But for my money, Bill Bryson, who wrote a wonderful book as a for instance called, “In a Sunburned Country,” about life in Australia, which is just marvelous. He’s written extensively about touring the British Isles, about touring Europe. He wrote the great book about a walking the Appalachian trail. Probably one of the great books / travel books ever written is called “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West about her experiences traveling in Eastern Europe, particularly in Yugoslavia back in the 30s. I think that’s kind of a, a truly seminal travel book. Oh, you know, there’s a wonderful, it’s not a book really. It is, it’s a compilation of, what’s her name? “Book Lust” by a librarian up in Seattle and her name is escaping me. And she wrote a book in which you can basically kind of look up books by categories. If you like crime fiction written by women, if you like period romances about Mary, Queen of Scots, yada, yada yada. But she also…
Daniel: Nancy Pearl.
John: Nancy Pearl. Nancy Pearl wrote “Book Lust,” “Book Lust 2,” and she wrote “Travel Lust.” I think it’s a book, “Travel Lust.” And it’s a great resource guide for anybody who’s interested in traveling because it introduces you to books about every place you could conceivably think of to go that would be relevant to that place, both nonfiction or novels. So I think that’s… That’s a book I recommend a lot for people who want to kind of, you know, as I do, who want to think about “What do I read before I go to this place.”
Daniel: Right. And I think it’s so important to do that. And not a lot, really, I don’t think a lot of people do. But it’s so great because once you do, when you’re there, you have so many awesome points of reference.
John: Yeah. Absolutely.
Daniel: And the place becomes so much more alive.
John: Absolutely. The other thing I love is, I love books that actually are guided walks. You start a point A, I mean all of the books do it, Fodor’s does it, Frommer’s does it, I mean, I think there’s not a guide…
Daniel: I hate to disappoint your Luddite self, but they actually have technology now where you can…
John: Yeah, fuck that shit.
John: I’m sorry, I’m, that’s exactly it. I’m walking around with a fucking phone in my hand. No, I want the book. I want the book. I want the book in my hand. That’s how I roll baby.
Daniel: Double Stuf wants the book too.
John: I want the book.
Daniel: Speaking of today’s world and technology and all that stuff, how do you feel about environmentally conscious travel? There’s been a lot of stuff recently about how we’re, you know, dealing with the world, some of the troubles of the fossil fuels…
John: Yeah, that’s really, that’s the world we’re living in, isn’t it? There was something in the paper the other day, some, some, I think it was in response to Greta Thunberg, I’m not sure how you pronounce her name. She took a solar powered yacht, I think, across the waters to come speak to the UN and somebody wrote in, kind of a snotty letter, you know, the gist of which was saying, “Well, most of us don’t have access to solar powered yachts,” and you know, the reality is everybody who’s out there marching is there in some way, shape, manner or form using up resources themselves while protesting about the using up of resources to which, you know, you can only respond, “Yeah, well, what other option do we have?!” I mean…
Daniel: Right, exactly.
John: You live in the world and the problem becomes, yes, one is aware of the fact that to fly is to pollute, to drive is to pollute, to eat meat is to participate in the destruction of our planet. And you can make individual choices that are designed to kind of reduce your own particular footprint. But uh, much as I might admire Ed Begley, Jr., the reality is is that very few of us are going to be able to reduce our footprint to the extent that would be theoretically desirable to save our planet. So I don’t know what the answer is to environmentally sound travel practices. I’m not entirely sure that that’s not oxymoronic.
Daniel: Well, it’s interesting because I…
John: Like manageable growth. I mean the growth of the world and the explosion of the population has resulted in the problems we’re having. And yet you can’t not look at the growth of the population historically from a time when after the second world war, for instance, the average Chinese person did not live to be thirty, to the era we live in now where the average Chinese person makes it into their seventies. You can’t say that’s not a good thing. And yet, and yet we are a victim of our own success.
Daniel: My theory is, do the best you can in your small corner of the world. And if every single person on earth did that, the good would multiply. You know? And so, like I do things, like I carry a water bottle with me through security that’s empty. A regular water bottle, not a plastic one. I don’t do plastic bottles anymore. And then I go through security and I fill my water bottle at a drinking fountain or from one of the places that I buy food from, whatever. And then I’m, I’m not using single use plastics which are going to be banned worldwide eventually everywhere anyway. But it’s in small ways. I feel like if more people were aware of the small things they could do to just contribute to the better health of the planet. Obviously, there’s bigger issues we have to address. But even those temporarily would be good things.
John: It’s a tricky thing, and not to play devil’s advocate, because yes, I think that’s, that’s obviously important, but I do think one of the things that’s happening in the world is a little bit because we feel so powerless and our inability to actually affect major political change that we, we have to, to feel halfway decent as people convince ourselves that the small ball actions we take are significant. And to a certain extent, I think one of the, you know, I have this feeling all the time that I’m doing things that are small because I don’t know how to do things that are big.
John: And I think that’s actually something that is, has been to a certain extent, intentionally foisted upon us by a political class that would prefer us to be bovine than to be activists. So we’re, we’re taught to a certain extent to take our energies and to channel them in ways that are somewhat passive, that are not belligerent, that are not, you know, truly going to result in the kind of radical changes it might save this world.
Daniel: That’s a very good point.
John: I don’t know what the answer to that is. I honestly,
Daniel: I don’t either. To take your side of things for minute, I also don’t know in reality if the manufacturing process that makes my Yeti mug, or whatever one I choose, if that’s as harmful to the environment as single use plastics. I have no idea. I’m banking on the fact that you’re right, it does feel better.
John: Exactly, exactly. And, and that is, you know, I mean, we, we rescue a lot of food. We repurpose food for the food shelter where I work at and, and that feels great. It feels great to save food that was going to get chucked out, and to bring it back and to, and to give it to our clients. But, you know, the reality is, it doesn’t scratch the surface of the surface of the surface of the surface of the surface in terms of, of the amount of food that’s getting wasted. And there is probably no way to really scratch that surface because it’s a function of a capitalist system that produces far more food than people can eat. It’s a commodity and people want to make money. And so they, you know, they make food.
Daniel: [Sarcastically] “Depressing Travel with John Billingsley.”
John: It is! It is! Well, you know, I mean, we live in a scary motherfucking world, man. I mean, you know, we are, we are… I mean, Greta Thunberg… There’s a reason she took that fucking yacht across the Atlantic. There’s a reason she stood up in front of the UN. There’s a reason she said, “Fuck you, Charlie.” We are living in a world that is going to be destroyed by a bunch of of, you know, frankly, I think self-satisfied white men who’ve made themselves rich and who don’t really give a flying fuck about the world they leave behind.
Daniel: Which is crazy.
John: And it is infuriating.
Daniel: It is, and it’s crazy to me because I feel like how can they not understand that all the riches they’ve acquired will not mean anything when there’s no planet on which to enjoy them?
John: They’ll be dead. Trump said it. Trump said it when he was asked point blank, “Well, what happens if there’s a huge economic crash,” yada yada. He said, “Well, I won’t be in office.” I mean that, that is the way I think a lot of people think. Unfortunately. I think that’s to a certain extent baked into the human pie. You know, humans are fuck, fight or flee. It’s our genetic predisposition to care about us. And from us, we go to our family and our tribe. Caring about the world. I think unfortunately…
Daniel: It’s a big ask, it really is.
John: It’s not something that we are, are conditioned to do. You know? And I do despair in that sense. What is environmentally correct travel? I’m not sure that there is such a thing.
Daniel: John, I’m gonna bring it upbeat one notch.
John: Oh, bring it upbeat, baby! Bring it upbeat!
Daniel: I like to ask interviewees, “What’s your wooby?” And if you don’t know the reference, it’s “Mr. Mom,” the movie in the 80’s with Michael Keaton. His kid has this security blanket that he doesn’t want to let go of, and he says, “Come on bud… Gimme the wooby.” And so what it means is, what is the, what is the one item that you always take when you travel? Or do you have something that you take that’s a comfort that you don’t like to travel without?
John: I do not. I have no, there’s no such thing. I will say that because I, I’m a reader. I will never go anywhere without books.
Daniel: Well, there you go.
John: And if I travel, but they’re different books.
Daniel: Still, but the idea of books is comforting to you.
John: And one of my most, my most precious memories, oddly enough, was when I was traveling in the trip I alluded to earlier with my pal Michael Rogers, and we’d separated for periods of time, go off on our own little adventures. I traveled with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “Dune,” um, what else? “Portrait of a Lady.”
Daniel: Wait, wait, go back. You read sci-fi?
John: I know! Believe it or not. “Portrait of a Lady” and “Day of the Jackal.” And to this day, and this would have been 19 Jesus, 80, uh, 81, I guess. However many years it’s been, I remember those four books so vividly because I re-read each of them on that trip. So I read each one twice, and as much as I loved the trip, I have incredibly warm, deep memories of the books I read on that trip. They were randomly selected.
Daniel: Well, since Dune is coming out in 2020, where were you when you read “Dune?”
John: I think that was Ireland.
Daniel: Now, see, that’s a great juxtaposition having this novel about Arakis, the dune desert planet, in one of the most lush green beautiful countries on the planet.
John: Well, of the four, I mean the two I remember the most vividly are “Portrait of a Lady” and a “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.” They were denser. And I consequently read them more carefully, you know, two, two times each. And I definitely remember, reading “Portrait of a Lady” in Venice because, you know, I felt such a, such a Jamesian connection to the… Have you read “Portrait of a Lady” by chance?
John: The lead character, Isabel Archer is a woman who is experiencing the peculiarities of living abroad and how intricate and Byzantine the European mind is. And traveling around Europe reading it was kinda like, “Hmmm, mmmm, yeah.”
Daniel: And what year does it take place?
John: I n 19… well, 1890’s / turn of the 20th century. So anyway, that’s probably my, what is it? My woogie, my boogie, my booby, my, what is it?
Daniel: [Laughs.] Your wooby.
John: My wooby? Yeah, I guess my wooby would be always books. I’m always going to have some books with me.
Daniel: What we didn’t address is, I have a passion for scones and over the years I have, I’ve tried to perfect a recipe and today I baked a fresh batch of mixed fruit scones for my friend John.
John: And those were motherfucking good scones.
John: Can I just say? Am I allowed to use the word “motherfucking” on this?
Daniel: You just did.
John: I just did.
Daniel: I do have to tag the podcast with the explicit content.
John: I liked that. I like all the podcasts I do, I like to have tagged.
Daniel: But anyway, so John…
John: GREAT scones. Great scones.
Daniel: Thank you. They did. You could see them in a a French bakery or in English bakery?
John: If these were scones in a bakery. I would come back for them, I would recommend them to my friends and I would say, “You know, normally, I don’t like scones…” Cause as you said, I think they’re too dry. This was… I had two!
Daniel: Yes. I don’t like them dry either, so I make them more moist.
John: I’m probably going to take a third home with me actually.
Daniel: Excellent. And fans… The secret is… Buttermilk. John, thank you so much for being here. You’re awesome.
John: My pleasure.
Daniel: And even though it’s a different version of the show… Live long and prosper, my friend.
John: Oh, excellent. All right, fabulous. I, didn’t they blow up Vulcan? Isn’t Vulcan dead now?
Daniel: It is.
John: Or is that an alternative timeline?
Daniel: It’s an alternate timeline. We don’t want to talk about that.
John: Yeah. Somewhere. I have an alternate timeline… Dr. Phlox is still out there shagging chicks and… I had three wives, you know? We, is this, are we still recording?
John: This is like the end credits where the movie is over, but the actors are still horsing around.
John: Wow, cool!
Daniel: Now did you tell Bonnie, “Hey, look, Dr. Phlox had three wives… I should have three wives.”
John: She wasn’t too happy because one of the wives who was introduced on the show was a mutual friend of ours who was considerably younger than both of us, and she could not get an audition as my own wife. It was like typical fucking Hollywood. It’s like they get some babe to even play the character actor’s wife. Like you’d get a hot chick like that in a million years.
Daniel: Now, Dr. Phlox had game, c’mon.
John: Although that episode was about, as I pointed out to her, my wife spends the entire episode hitting on trip.
John: So even in the episode in which I have a wife, I’m basically a cuckold.
Daniel: And on that note…
John: On that note, although Dr. Phlox had no problem with cuckoldry. So on that note… No, and now it’s over now… Now it’s over. This is it. This is real now. It’s really over now.
Daniel: Thanks for listening everyone. And for the record, John didn’t leave with one scone… He left with three.
Daniel: If you’d like some more Moonbird in your life, and hey, who wouldn’t? Head on over to memoriesofamoonbird.com or visit me on social media @memoriesofamoonbird.
All content © 2019 Daniel F. Scherl / Memories of a Moonbird