On the importance of travel…

You’ll be shocked to hear, I know, that I LOVE to travel.  Or, maybe not, since my blog is subtitled “Reflections on books, travel, and whatever else occurs to me.”  I consider these two primary passions of mine to be inextricably interconnected.  Books allow me to experience other times, places, and lives on a daily basis.  And travel, well, travel allows me to engage with and at some level actually experience those other times, places, and lives.  I don’t travel nearly as much as I would like, so reading is how I assuage my insatiable curiosity about the world.

The 20 year-old girl who got on a plane for the very first time in her life 35 years ago and flew to Spain to spend a year studying in Madrid was not the girl who returned.  That experience shaped me in ways I could not have imagined in my sheltered Colorado childhood, and I would never think about myself, my community, or my country the same way again.  Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying that “traveling make a man wiser, but less happy.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case with me, because there is a euphoria when I travel that I can’t readily describe,  but I do know that traveling has made me much wiser, and has informed and shaped my political views accordingly.

Which leads me to my latest book, Travel as a Political Act, by Rick Steves (Avalon Travel, 2015).  You most likely have at least a passing acquaintance with Rick Steves from his PBS shows, primarily about Europe.  I always pause on them when I’m flipping through channels, and have always liked his affable manner and un-assuming, “regular guy” narrative.  He advocates traveling much like I learned to do as a college student:  as light as possible, with an emphasis on learning about the history and culture of where I am while searching out authentic food and lodging experiences and interacting with the locals.  But I’ve never actually read his guidebooks.  I had a friend remark once fairly early in the Rick Steves phenomenon that her experience of looking for the restaurants and hotels recommended in his books only resulted in spending all her time with other Americans.  While I do extensive studying about history, culture, sights, and logistics before any trip, I have my own hit or miss approach to finding food and lodging, and by and large it has worked well for me.  But when I saw Travel as a Political Act, I was intrigued, first by the title and then after flipping through the book by Steves’ message:  “Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.  It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world.”  The chapters ranged from the former Yugoslavia to El Salvador to Iran to Israel and Palestine, with stops in between to examine what we could learn from the European approach to social issues.  I was curious.

Steves does a very good job in his shows of masking, or at least downplaying, his progressive views, and I should warn you that if you believe in American “exceptionalism”, or that traveling  “…means seeing if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port”, then this book is going to make you uncomfortable.  At best.  It might make you angry.  He makes no apologies for this, for offending people who disagree with him because they’ve never seen first hand children who literally live on top of a garbage dump, or the brutal realities of what protecting American interests abroad really looks like.  But since my travel experiences have led me to hold many of the same views as Steves, I loved this volume and found it inspiring.  And while I squirmed with his admonition at the end of the book to “share lessons, expect more from your friends, and don’t be afraid to ruin dinner by bringing up uncomfortable realities” (I HATE conflict), he is, I believe, right when he says:

In a land where the afflicted and the comfortable are kept in different corners, people who connect those two worlds are doing everyone a service.  Afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted.  By saying things that upset people so they can declare they’d fight and die for my right to be so stupid, I feel I’m contributing to the fabric of our democracy.

I did not expect Steves to be such a good writer.  Even putting his political conclusions aside (all of which I whole-heartedly agree with), the writing in this book is excellent.   It is succinct, and thoughtful, and explains complex historical situations carefully and clearly.  I have a better understanding of the current situations in Iran, Israel, and Palestine after reading his chapters about those countries than I’ve gleaned from viewing the nightly news and reading the newspaper daily for years.  Angry about immigration, and the unaccompanied minors problem from last summer?  The chapter on El Salvador might make you re-think previous assumptions.  Think that Colorado erred in legalizing marijuana?  His explanation of how various European countries approach drug use as a social ill rather than a criminal activity will help you understand why some of us voted for legalization, and would like to see an end to the “War on Drugs”.   And although it is popular to discount and deride progressives as “un-Christian”, Steves makes quite clear that he is very much a Christian, and that his political views derive in equal measure from his extensive travels and efforts to connect with people AND his faith.

Periodically in his book, Steves alludes to criticisms of his pacificism and accusations of being un-American.  One of the lessons I’ve learned from my travels is that there are MANY ways to look at an issue, and what saddens me about the current state of politics in the United States is the refusal by so many to compromise coupled with the venom levelled against those who disagree with them.  I think it should be possible to discuss issues without resorting to name-calling.  And I truly believe that if more Americans would really travel (beyond packages to Cancun or Disneyland) and engage with other cultures, our country would be better off.  I spent my entire teaching career hoping that if my students took one thing out of my classroom, it would be that lesson. As Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

While I never got even remotely good at flamenco dancing, my year as a student in Madrid instilled in me a life-long passion for that art form!  (Yes, that's me in the green sweater...)

While I never got even remotely good at flamenco dancing, my year as a student in Madrid instilled in me a life-long passion for that art form! (Yes, that’s me with long hair on the right…circa 1981…)


“If I Fall, If I Die”: don’t let the title fool you…

One of the best summations of parenthood I know of is by Elizabeth Stone, who likens having children to having “…your heart go walking around outside your body.”  The novel If I Fall, If I Die, by new voice Michael Christie (Crown Publishing Group, 2015) takes this concept to extremes, and in the process illuminates one of the great truths of parenting:  despite your best efforts, your children are going to fall, and they are going to experience pain.

Don’t let the title of this wonderful book put you off, as it did me at first. By using the characters of an agoraphobic and depressed mother and her skateboarding son, Christie has written a surprisingly kind and gentle celebration of living.  The novel opens with eleven year old Will stepping outside of his house for the first time in many years.

The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die.

He was not riddled with arrows, his hair did not spring into flame, and his breath did not crush his lungs like spent grocery bags.  His eyeballs did not sizzle in their sockets, and his heart’s pistons did not seize.  No barbarian lopped his head into a blood-soggy wicker basket, and no glinting ninja stars were zinged into his throat.

Actually, incredibly: nothing happened…

Eventually, of course, a lot does happen to Will as he seeks to lead a normal life, and in the process discovers friendship, danger, and skateboarding.  I enjoyed all the characters in this book.  Yes, his mother, Diane, is very mentally ill. But that is the genius of the book, or all good literature for that matter.  Because really, how many of us parents haven’t secretly (or, frankly, in our over-protective society not so secretly) sometimes wished that we could slap a helmet on our child and keep them inside with us forever, safe from the harm we know very well will inevitably befall them in this imperfect world?  As the novel reveals the terrible tragedies Diane has suffered, we come to an understanding of the monumental struggles she faces every day in just getting out of bed while also raising a child.  That she is also an immensely creative and somewhat famous artist only makes her more compelling.  Other characters, like Will’s friend Jonah or the mysterious vagabond Titus, are equally finely drawn.

I especially liked the language in this book.  In particular, the traumatized and damaged Titus speaks in a way the twelve-year-old boys find weird, but that I found fascinating and evocative.  When he says things like “invigorate your blood bank” and “those cruelties may revamp” you might scratch your head, but they make an odd sort of sense within the context of his past.  I also enjoyed the setting in a rusting, seen-better-days Canadian town.  Many of the characters knew Diane and her family in the past and thus allow her a level of privacy and tolerance hard to fathom in my suburban world.  But they’re also real humans, with typical human failings.

The way mental illness is portrayed in our media and much of our literature disturbs and frustrates me.  This is a novel that brings home the immediacy and human suffering involved in terms like “agoraphobia” and “depression”.  Diane really does try to confront her demons and get better, and Will forces much of that on her through the very normal process of growing up.  Skateboarding, that seemingly most dangerous of pursuits, provides a way for Will to challenge himself and his mother’s phobias, and it is the movie he makes at the end of the book of his tricks and falls with his mother’s old equipment that provides the title of the novel.  Maybe I’m overly sympathetic to this book because my own son was a skateboarder, one who also chafed against any constraints on his freedom to experience the world.  Sometimes we parents forget that our job is ultimately that of sending our children away, or as Will thinks as he hugs his mother:

How could he explain now that even though boys could trip and punch you, and wolves could feast on your flesh, and blood could gush from your body and bounce on the ice, and some kids didn’t even have parents to worry about them, and a boy could disappear from the world and nobody would care, Marcus (the first boy he met when he ventured outside) had been right — the Outside wasn’t all that dangerous.  It was worth leaving for, if only to see it up close and to make a friend for a short while.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” OR What NOT to read when you’re trying to lose weight

I feel sorry for my husband.  For the first six months of my retirement, he ate quite well.  It was a change from previous decades, when I had very little energy left for cooking at the end of my long and exhausting days.  In fairness to him, there were many years when he took over cooking duties almost exclusively.  But he was tired, too, and we ate out more than was probably good for us.  With a constricted budget and new-found time to think and plan, I started cooking edible meals from quality ingredients, with the added bonus for him of re-discovering my enjoyment of baking.  He loves cookies, pies, cakes, biscuits, rolls…and I loved how much he loved them!  But as the months went by, my clothes were fitting tighter and tighter.  Even though I was trying to exercise every day, it just wasn’t enough.  It was a visit to my doctor in January that had me re-thinking our eating, once again.  The arthritis and torn meniscus in my right knee had me in almost constant pain, which was exacerbated by even a few extra pounds.  And my blood work numbers in various categories did not look good.  So, I embarked on a weight loss effort.  I’m proud to report that I have dropped ten pounds since then, and feel better than I have in a very long time.  But it has not been without some difficulties, principally for my husband.  I am just not a nice person to be around when I am hungry.  And despite following all the standard wisdom of not crash dieting, portion control, drinking lots of water, having frequent low-calorie snacks, etc., etc., etc., the reality is that I have been hungry at some point pretty much every day since January.  Which has left my poor husband without the goodies he so enjoyed AND a cranky wife.  Not good.

Which leads me to the book I just finished, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (HarperCollins, 2000).  I was excited to see it recommended by new members to our book group as our next read.  I’ve enjoyed Bourdain’s travel television shows for years, and often thought that his was a unique and original voice and that I would enjoy his writing.  His book did not disappoint.  His writing is exceptionally funny and thoughtful and straightforward.  But it is also gritty and realistic, which means that if you are easily put off by gutter language (English AND Spanish) and sexual innuendo of the basest sort, this may not be the book for you.  Since I spent thirty years teaching teenagers, there isn’t much that shocks me, so I was able to look past vocabulary I would never use and phrases I would never utter to enjoy the glimpse of a lifestyle so different from mine as to be as foreign as the most foreign of countries.

My sister spent some time bar-tending and waitressing when she was younger, and when talking of those gigs hinted at much that Bourdain lays bare in this book.  In addition to offensive language, there is drug addiction, criminal activity, sexual promiscuity, painful injury, and pretty much any other sort of bad behavior you can imagine. But there is also a strange beauty to the way in which Bourdain describes the workings of a competent chef and his crew, and the sheer complexity of making a restaurant run efficiently is astonishing.  It’s not a life I find even remotely appealing, but through Bourdain’s  eyes I have a greater appreciation for what it takes to get food to a restaurant table.  I’ve known several former chefs over the years, and while they’ve never been as direct or blunt as Bourdain, the long hours and just plain hard work they’ve described has left me thinking that teaching, with all its attendant challenges, wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

I want to read more of Bourdain’s books.  He really is an original and enjoyable voice.  But before I spend another 300 pages in his gorgeously described, food-soaked world, I’ll wait until I’ve reached my weight loss goal.  Otherwise, it just makes an already grouchy me even grouchier.


Two very different reading experiences of the world

I have a few steadfast guidelines when I travel, especially abroad.  I try to never eat in American chains, and instead seek out local specialties.  I try to walk as much as possible in order to better “feel” where I am.  I try to enjoy every moment, and not let my budget keep me from experiences I may never otherwise have.  And I try to visit at least one book store and buy something reflective of the location.  On my recent trip to Iceland, then, I was excited to hear the bus driver/guide of our Golden Circle tour state that when people ask him about the best souvenir to buy, he suggests “books”, since so many Icelanders are avid readers.  I even saw the figure float around that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime!


Armed with this validation, I visited a book store on my last morning in Reykjavik and purchased the novel Independent People, by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Halldór Laxness (Random House. 1946.)  The driver’s other suggestion was The Sagas of Icelanders, but that looked a bit overwhelming even for my decidedly nerdy tastes (plus I was pretty sure it wouldn’t fit in my carry-on and would put my suitcase over its weight allowance).  Independent People is considered by many sources to be the book that secured Laxness his Nobel Prize, and it is definitely a masterful work that takes the reader into an existence far removed from the 21st century United States.  In the introduction, Brad Leithauser compares the novel to Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), a book that forever changed the way I read and think about literature and the world.  I can’t say that I found Independent People to be that defining of an experience for me, but it did immerse me in a time and a culture that I found fascinating.

Set in the early 1900’s – World War I has a prominent role in the developments of the last half of the novel – the main character is Bjartur, a peasant who is determined to own his own land and never be in debt to anyone.  I didn’t find him to be a particularly sympathetic protagonist.  His primary preoccupation is his flock of sheep, and he shows more concern for his ewes and lambs than he ever does for his wives and children.  One of the most reprehensible passages in literature for me, in fact, is when his oldest son disappears during a blizzard.  When Bjartur chances across what is left of his son’s body in the spring, this is his reaction:

Ah well, he would have to do something for the body, seeing that he had found it, and that as quickly as possible, for the ewes had taken to their heels and were out of the gully by now.  He was wearing a pair of thick, heavy gloves that were practically new, and he took the glove from his right hand and threw it to the corpse, for it is considered discourteous to leave a corpse that one has found without first doing it some small service…

“Hallbera,” he said that evening, throwing her a glove, “knit me a glove to match that odd one.”  (Hallbera is the mother of Bjartur’s dead second wife, and grandmother to the dead son.)

“Hullo, where’s the other?” asked the old woman, for she had never known the crofter to lose a glove.

“Oh, we won’t bother our heads about that, old girl.”

In fairness to Bjartur, he leads a life of poverty that I can scarcely imagine.  His diet consists primarily of “fish refuse”, coffee, and porridge.  His croft is a turf hovel where he and his family live in a loft above his animals.   And in the end, this singular devotion to his sheep and to his “independent” status backfires, leading him to build a house he can’t really afford and doesn’t enjoy, only to have political and financial manipulations by his wealthy neighbor result in losing everything and having to start all over again in a croft he builds on his mother-in-law’s homestead.  In the final pages he does achieve a sort of redemption, forgiving the daughter he threw out when she became pregnant and carrying her to this new home even as she is dying.

Laxness was a pacifist and an advocate for the lower classes (in America his books were blacklisted for a time because of “Communist sympathies”), and his novel does an excellent job of showing the economic divisions and injustices inherent in a culture still essentially mired in the Middle Ages.  Having seen a typical homestead recreated in the National Museum in Reykjavik, and having contemplated the beautiful but COLD and forbidding Icelandic landscape, I found that the book really helped me to experience in some small way a very different life and reality.  On our last night in Reykjavik, we took a boat trip to look for Northern Lights.  We did briefly see some, but then it started to snow, essentially guaranteeing we would not see any more.  Waiting to see if the clouds would pass, the somewhat frustrated tour guide took to reciting Icelandic poetry.  Poetry is also a strong element in Independent People, and Bjartur’s love of that art may be his only redeeming feature.  In the end, the sprinkling of beautiful verse into a harsh and unforgiving story and landscape struck me as a fitting souvenir of my visit.

downloadBefore leaving for Iceland, I read another book set in a foreign country, but it could not have been more different!  I have a probably unfair prejudice against romance novels that is a vestige of my book-selling years, which means that I most likely wouldn’t have even considered Paris In Love: A Memoir (Random House, 2012) if I had known before chancing across it that the author, Eloisa James, is a best-selling Regency romance writer.  Fortunately, I didn’t know that, and “Eloisa James” is actually the pen name of Mary Bly, a professor of English Literature at Fordham University and an excellent writer.

Reeling from the death of her mother and her own cancer diagnosis, the American Bly/James and her Italian husband liquidate all their assets and take a year’s sabbatical in Paris.  The memoir consists primarily of short observations drawn from her Facebook posts, with the occasional lengthier essay.  I liked this format a lot.  It felt like I was experiencing Paris with her on a daily basis.  And in her “escape” from her previously frantic life, I found a reflection of what I’ve experienced as I’ve stepped out of the hurricane that is modern education into retirement:

…days were organized not around to-do lists and …deadlines but around walks in the park and visits to the fishmonger.  Deadlines came and went without a catastrophic blow to my publishing career; I relaxed into a life free of both students and committee work, laziness ceased to be a frightening word.

I never did learn how to live in the moment, but I did learn that moments could be wasted and the world would continue to spin on its axis.

It was a glorious lesson.

This is a book of small insights and pleasures, with a delightful dose of humor.  (“Hair apparently ranks just below the happiness of my children and possibly above my husband’s happiness.”)  You can almost see the exquisite window displays and taste the chocolates.  And her observation that “French women do too get fat. In fact, they come in all sizes, from very slender to very stout” was a revelation to me.   The trick, one that I came to intuit only recently, is this:  “…French women do not turn to Hollywood for instruction on how to dress.  Instead, they discover what flatters their particular figure, and they stick with it.”

As the author learns to slow down and savor the experience that is Paris, she reflects what I have often observed when I have lived and traveled abroad, and what I am savoring in my retirement:  life may be about more than just our latest “accomplishments” or our bank balance.  In their wildly disparate ways, the fictional Bjartur of Iceland and the very real Eloisa James/Mary Bly underscore that what may be most important are not the American obsession with financial gain, but the daily enjoyment of friends, of family, of a flower on a spring day.