So I have a million reasons (excuses, really) for not having written in the blog for a long while.
- The kids were home for the summer, and between roughly 8 am and 9 pm I was with them. After they’d go to bed, I’d be knackered and have no energy left to write.
- Susan’s surgery and post-op recovery left me little time to write.
- I felt like I didn’t have much to say that was new or interesting.
- I was busy.
- I was lazy.
- I was both busy and lazy.
But there’s an excuse of late that’s actually reasonably credible and real. I’ve been writing a book.
I was reading a book called A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, Chris Stewart’s follow-up to Driving Over Lemons, both of which recount the lives of Stewart and his family, who quit life in England to buy an isolated sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains of Southern Spain. It was an entertaining, swiftly-paced read, and it got me thinking.
My wife and I have been living abroad since 1996 – Korea, Mexico, Japan, England, Hungary, and now Spain – and there’s an incredible wealth of experiences there just waiting to be mined. So I sat down and started writing. Some days it goes smoothly, some it’s a painful slog to get just a few hundred words written (words which frequently end up in the recycling bin), but I try to write some every day.
And so here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to share the first chapter of the book with you all, and get some feedback. What I’m looking for here is honest criticism. I want to know what you actually think of the writing, the project in general, and if it’s something that you would pick up in a bookstore.
The working title is Exile from Main Street: Twenty Years of Life as an Expatriate. That may be subject to change. Also, keep in mind that this is a rough first draft, so bear with me here. Anyway, enough by way of introduction. Here goes.
Chapter 1 In the Beginning
I thought they were Hari Krishnas, when in fact they were Hassidic Jews. I couldn’t tell the difference, didn’t even really know if there was a difference. Such were the infinite depths of my ignorance as I stood in the departures area, waiting for a plane that would take me to Tel Aviv for a three-week bus tour of Israel and Egypt. I was thirteen. It was my first trip abroad.
I’d love to say that the experience was revelatory. That while gazing out over the baking mesas of the Judean Desert from the hilltop ruins of Masada, or wandering through the markets of Cairo I had some kind of epiphany, that I became bedevilled by a bittersweet desire to travel the world. I didn’t. I thought Masada was hot and dull, that Cairo’s Khan el Kahlili market stank of strange spices and camel shit. Have I mentioned that I was thirteen years old?
Oh sure, I learned a great deal of history and culture on that trip, but what I learned mostly was that I hated bus tours. When, four years later, I was presented with the opportunity to repeat the adventure, I declined. (Now, of course, I would jump at the chance – busses, blue-haired old ladies and all.)
No, there was no thunderbolt moment when I knew that I wanted to experience the wider world in a way that few people get to do. But still. I had an itch somewhere that couldn’t be reached, an inkling that there was a lot more outside of the dull little West Pennsylvania town where I was attending college, more than my circle of friends who drank too much cheap beer and trudged hungover to early morning classes, more than, well, this.
And so one still September evening I found myself walking down Via dei Neri, a bottle of chianti under my arm, headed to the rooftop terrace of some friends.
I was an English major, steeped in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats. I wrote long papers on the theme of melancholy in 18th century poetry. I worshipped Keats, Tennyson, Dickens and Dryden. Thus is made perfect sense, when I decided to take my Junior year abroad, that I would end up in Florence, Italy.
I knew almost nothing about Italian art, architecture, history or culture, and even less about the Italian language. So why was I walking down Via dei Neri instead of standing in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey?
I think it had to do with the snow. You see, I was sitting in my school’s International Education Office one December evening. The sun, such as it was, had set somewhere around noon, and a wind-driven snow that teetered on the temperature-edge of sleet battered against the windows. My feet were wet. And cold. A list of potential study-abroad destinations was in front of me in the glow of a table lamp: Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh; Frankfurt, Liverpool, London; Paris, Strasbourg, Vienna. They all sounded about as cold and wet as my feet.
Then I saw it: Florence. Of course! Italy! Sunshine and wine, pizza and pasta, la dolce vita, baby! It was pretty much as simple as that. I signed onto Syracuse University’s Florence program because of the weather.
I’d never been to Italy, and certainly never lived in a foreign country. Everything was new to me. I was a gaping, gawking yokel, an Appalachian hillbilly transported to Times Square. Everything was so old. Everything was so beautiful. Everything was so magico, so magnifico. I became one of the most irritating entities on the planet – the foreigner who embraces a country and culture so completely that he refuses to find fault with it, who is in love with a place in the same way a stalker is in love with his victim. Best food in the world? Italian. Most melodious language? Italian. Loveliest women? Italian. Greatest artwork? That’s right, buddy, it’s in Italy, and if you don’t think so maybe we should step outside for a minute.
Yes my friends, I was an Italawannabe of the worst stripe. I owned six hundred pairs of stylish shoes. I bought fourteen hundred trim-cut coats. I wore a blue cardigan with gold piping over a yellow shirt under a fitted cranberry blazer. Finally, I looked like a local. I most decidedly did not look like the kind of person who wishes to appear Parisian by donning a blue-and-white striped shirt, red ascot, beret, and black skinnypants. While carrying a baguette under his arm.
Trouble was, I’d be on the bus and some goddamn little kid would get on as though he was in the middle of an Armani photo shoot. Not only were his clothes more expensive and more stylish, this snotty little six year old wore them better.
But I was making inroads into the language. As someone with little facility with languages, they were difficult, often painful roads, but after a couple of months I could get by in a restaurant, make myself understood in a shop, and get on the phone and make a room reservation without inadvertently propositioning the landlady. Learning a bit of the local language makes a huge difference; it’s one of the fundamental keys that opens doors into a culture. But more about language learning later.
Florence – all of Tuscany, all of Italy, really – is a wondrous place, as anyone who’s ever spent some time there will tell you. Rome, Venice, Verona, Sienna, San Gimignano, Perugia – the very place names evoke fascination, romance, history, imagination, grace. There was simply so much to see, and we spent every spare moment exploring, devouring anything and everything we could.
Of all of the extraordinary experiences I had that year, at least two stand out as ones that made me begin to think: Yes, I want to do this for the rest of my life. The first was very early on in my time in Italy, September 16, to be exact, one day before my 20th birthday.
My friends Mark and John and I (yes, we were Matthew, Mark and John – for months we hunted unsuccessfully for a Luke to hang out with) were in Santa Margherita, a small town on the Ligurian coast, wedged between lush green hills and a Mediterranean that was shades of blue I’d only seen in movies. Growing up on the coast of Maine I’d done a lot of snorkeling in frigid, turbid water, my underwater fantasies fuelled by Jacques Cousteau, but slipping into this warm sapphire sea was something entirely different – the visibility seemed endless and my nether regions hadn’t recoiled, shocked and appalled by a sudden ice bath.
Tiny electric blue damselfish and kaleidoscopic ornate wrasse rose and fell along a rock face dotted with black sea urchins and scuttling hermit crabs. I dove to the bottom and flipped over on my back to watch the sun’s rays filtering through the water, and was cruising back to the surface when I saw it. A small octopus was peering out of a crevice in the stones. I reached out to touch it and it flushed red and black in irritation, abandoning its spot and dancing his way down the cliff with twisting, curling tentacles.
I can’t even begin to explain what that meant to me. An entire childhood of picture books and rainy afternoons, of warm laps and nature documentaries, of scuffling feet in the sand and searching under stones, of tidepools and daydreams – it all came flooding back in the unblinking eyes of that octopus. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I knew I wanted more of it.
The second involved wine. We were on a school outing to the Ruffino winery in the rolling hills south of Florence, and a small group of us wandered up a worn wooden staircase to a loft in one of the winery’s stone barns. A long, narrow room was flooded with sunlight from a lone window at the far end, and an old man, dressed in a loose wool suit and flat cap of the type that seems to be favored by rustic old men all over Europe, was laboriously hanging huge bunches of Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes to raisinate for the production of sweet Vin Santo wine. From where we stood the grapes were backlit, the outside edges of each grape glowing in streams of sunlight.
I don’t know why, but the scene struck me forcefully. The old man, the stone walls and the wooden beams, the shafts of late-afternoon sunlight picking out each grape and making it luminous. It seemed like something sacred, sanctified, a tableau that somehow transcended time. I felt privileged to be there, to witness a thing so simple yet so stunningly beautiful. Until that day I’d never heard of Vin Santo, or Trebbiano grapes, or the practice of getting old men in flat caps to hang them to dry, and I wondered to myself: What else is out there that I’m missing?
But although I was learning the language, the culture, the customs, I was a still a student, living with other Americans, studying with them, partying with them, existing in something of a bubble. Not quite a tourist anymore, but not yet an expatriate. When the school year was over, I went home. Italy had been a potent learning experience, but in the end I was just an American kid on his year abroad.
So back in the States I settled into what the majority of us settle into – I finished college, got a job, bought a house and a car, got engaged to be married. It looked like my life would be much like every other; not quite one lived in a state of ‘quiet desperation,’ but one of routine resignation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I felt like I was being cheated in some way, was cheating myself.
Then all hell broke loose. My relationship with my fiance began to crumble and ultimately collapsed, leaving me with two dogs, a car payment, and a house I could no longer afford. The bills were mounting. A long Maine winter was coming. I needed to get away. I needed a plan. So I sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle of chianti and started to think. What could I possibly do that would allow me to make money and travel at the same time? By the time the bottle was half empty I knew what I was going to do.
So at the end of the week I packed a few bags, my fishing pole, a selection of books. I locked the front door of the house, put the keys in the mailbox, got in the car and drove away. It was time to get going.