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Thursday, March 26, 2009


I have been trying to write a one page preface for my book and it is harder than I thought. Here is one I wrote and quickly rejected.

Who among us hasn’t flirted with the idea of uprooting yourself from the security of a comfortable life in a beautiful American city; moving to a country whose language you speak badly and where you don’t know a single person; plopping down at random in a city you visited only briefly long, long ago; moving into an apartment with total strangers who look at you as something along the lines of an exotic pet; changing absolutely as much about yourself, from your name to the food you eat so as to fit in better—you pray—in your new surroundings? Me neither, at least that’s not the way I looked at this move before I left. I was either too naïve, foolhardy, or ill-informed to give the possible downside of moving much in the way of consideration. I suppose that I had reached a time in my life when all of the risk of this move was completely outweighed by what I thought I would gain.

In popular parlance I guess you could call my decision to move a “no-brainer” which seems to fit on more than one level. On the one hand it seemed like an easy choice to make: stay where I was or make a huge change just for the fun of it. It was also a no-brainer in the sense that not much serious thought went into my move. I think the worst that could happen I have already laid out in the first paragraph, and it really wasn’t bad at all. Just about everything else I write about represents the best things that can happen if you take a flying leap into a new life. If someday I do hit bottom, I’ll spare you the details. Come to think of it, people love hearing about that sort of stuff so if it happens to me, I promise that I’ll take good notes as I fall to pieces.

I don’t think that complaining is an essential element when chronicling a new culture, not that I have much to complain about. There are some authors who have made a good career by whining about everything they see, hear, smell, and eat in their travels. I call this the “There’s No Place like Home” school of travel writing. These guys could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by just sitting in front of the television and watch as someone else does it for them. I consider myself to be extremely low maintenance, as they say, and when I travel I’m perfectly willing to sleep on a train station bench. I’m not saying that a bench is my first choice in sleeping arrangements but if it comes down to that I’ll survive for a night or two. I’ll eat damn near anything and extra credit if it’s fried (I’m actually a pretty good cook and I have a few essential recipes in the book).

I suppose that the flip side to complaining too much would be those writers who are overly-romantic in describing the people and places in their travels. You can call this the “Wine Dark Sea” school of flowery travel writing in which every noun has an accompanying adjective, every vista is “breathtaking,” every dish is “mouth-watering,” and every person you meet is a lovable and charming stereotype. I know it is very popular with readers so I should mention that I don’t fix up an old house in this book. Instead of This Old House my style is more This Brand New Apartment which means I have the time to work on my Spanish and reflect on the things Americans can learn from the Spanish lifestyle instead of making trips to the hardware store.