And yes, I've included recipes!
“I started your book yesterday,” one woman told me. “Just planning to read a couple of chapters before today’s gathering. And I couldn’t stop. I read the whole thing. Finally my husband’s asking, ‘Are we having dinner?’ and I’m saying, ‘Yeah, sure, fix whatever you want.’ I just had to finish it.”
Obviously, I was going to love this group. About a dozen of us were meeting at the home of my good friend Kathryn Johnson, who is famous for, among other things, her phenomenal networking skills, her gardening and her cooking. When she offered to arrange a sort of ad hoc book club, bringing together some of her favorite women friends for an August evening sitting in her garden, nibbling on tapas and discussing Dancing in the Fountain, I knew it would be phenomenal. And it was.
We began with glasses of a charming 2011 Madam Fleur rosé and a leisurely browse through the tapas table, which included a pitcher of gazpacho made from fresh watermelon and Kathryn’s own tomatoes, seasoned with ginger, jalapeño and cilantro. Platters were heaped with grilled vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts and mozzarella cheese balls to dip into the Romesco sauce, a tomato-based Catalan recipe enlivened with hazelnuts, ancho chile and cloves. A rich tapenade of black and green olives was accompanied by slivers of toast. Then there was the spicy shrimp in mango salsa that held the unexpected crunch of radishes…And of course there were the Spanish hostesses’ most indispensible favorites: paper-thin ham, Manchego cheese topped with membrillo (quince paste), salty fried almonds, olives, and the short, hard breadsticks known as picos.
Since I talk so much about food and art in the book, Kathryn suggested I bring along some of my food paintings, so I chose the one of corn and heirloom tomatoes and another of voluptuous pears, then added a couple of portraits of colorful characters, including Jan, a German I know who has taken up the beachcomber’s life in southern Portugal.
When we had all collected enough delectable morsels on our plates, we climbed the stone steps to the upper terrace and settled on chairs under the palm trees and umbrellas to talk about travel and living abroad. I read two short excerpts from the book and then we discussed topics raised in the book's Reading Group Guide. “Could you talk a little about what you mean by the phrase, ‘You have to mentally unpack your bags?’” asked Kathryn. And that led to a lively discussion about what it was like to arrive in a new place and begin letting go of your past life so that your arms would be free to embrace the new.
I’ve had many similar conversations with my book club in Seville. As foreigners, we will never fully integrate into Spanish social life. Yet when long-term expats have tried to go back and live in the US, they often return to us with tales of scattered families and friends, a bewildering social and political landscape, the shockingly high cost of living and a feeling of being adrift in a foreign country even in their own home town. Having heard many stories like this, Rich and I make sure we return to California on a regular basis. America is something you have to stay in practice for; we don’t want to lose our touch.
As the afternoon turned to evening, more women shared their stories and talked about how various parts of the book had surprised them or reflected their own experiences. Kathryn refilled our wine glasses and brought out chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds and cinnamon tortillas with fresh blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. We lingered on until the sky turned a deep, sapphire blue, and then gathered for a group photo before we took our leave of one another. It was a truly memorable evening, thanks to Kathryn, and to all the other extraordinary women who were part of it.
I love living abroad and adore traveling, but even my hell-yes-let’s-go attitude seems downright stick-in-the-mud compared to the nomadic lifestyle of my friends Lindsay Lake and Ross Williams. Now in their late twenties, Lindsay and Ross are nomads. Since I got to know them in Seville in 2008, they’ve lived in Prague; Berlin; Amsterdam; Victoria, Canada; Buenos Aires; Phuket, Thailand; Paris; Berlin again; Barcelona; Budapest; Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Merida and Playa del Carmen; and Barcelona a second time. As I write this, they are boarding a plane to New Zealand.
Ross and Lindsay are not rich dilettantes on a permanent vacation, nor (so far as I know) are they secret CIA operatives, hitpersons or members of the witness protection program. They’re wireless nomads, part of a small but growing number of people who work over the Internet in ways that allow them to live anywhere – and everywhere – they choose.
Of course, like most people, they started out with “real” jobs in bricks-and-mortar locations, first in Denver and later working for a tech company in Seville. Then they realized that advances in telephone and Internet technology made their location irrelevant for many jobs. Doing international searches on CraigsList, they found market research clients for Lindsay and sales work for Ross that could be done entirely over Skype and cell phone; his sales clients in the US need never know he’s out of the country.
“We threw all the chips in and bet everything on this decision,” says Ross. They got rid of all excess belongings, and today, their entire worldly goods can fit into a taxi: two suitcases, a small rollaboard, a backpack, Ross’ guitar, and their large, cheerful dog, Rocky, who travels with them everywhere. The couple has evolved strict rules to keep their baggage manageable. If you buy a t-shirt, you get rid of a t-shirt. Always choose multi-use items, like the lightweight bars made by Lush that serve as shampoo, body wash, hand soap, dog shampoo and even laundry detergent. And most importantly, don’t buy anything you don’t really, really need.
Like most young couples, they live in modest rented apartments and work hard five days a week. Unlike most people of any age, when they walk outside after work, it’s always someplace new and exciting, with opportunities to learn new skills, such as Basque cooking in Spain and scuba diving in Thailand.
As long as there’s decent Internet connection and no dog quarantine laws, they can live anywhere that takes their fancy. Entering on a tourist visa usually limits them to a three-month stay and then they move on. It’s not the lifestyle for everybody, but for Lindsay and Ross, it’s a great way to see the world while moving forward with their careers. “It’s really not a question of why we do it,” says Lindsay. “It’s more a question of why doesn’t everyone do it?”
How long will they keep it up? That’s what’s everyone’s wondering, especially as they’ve just announced they’re expecting a baby in February. They admit they’ll probably have to curtail their travels to some degree, but they have no intention of returning to the US, or settling permanently in any one location. As Lindsay puts it, “We want to be sure we’re raising our kids in an environment bigger than their own back yard.”
Find out more about Ross Williams, Lindsay Lake and the Wireless Generation.
The times were pretty wild when I was at the University of California at Berkeley, especially for one friend who called himself after a popular cartoon character; I’ll refer to him here as “Roadrunner” (not his real nickname). By spring of our freshman year, the combination of the rigorous academic schedule, various romantic complications with his girlfriend, the campus riots and a few unfortunate recreational drugs eventually caused a breakdown that landed Roadrunner in a psychiatric care facility.
When I was finally allowed to pay him a visit there, I was shown to a sunny porch where he sat quietly looking down at a bowl of strawberries sitting on the table in front of him. He looked exhausted but triumphant, with the air of tough battles fought and won.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ve come a long way . . . “ Roadrunner smiled and plucked a strawberry from the bowl, holding it up to the sunlight. “… to this strawberry.”
From that moment on, his phrase became my favorite way of describing the hard-won accomplishment of any enterprise worthy of the effort.
Eighteen months ago, I leapt into this book project on a moment of pure impulse and inspiration. Since then, I have spent countless hours writing, editing, rewriting, making the story line tighter, revealing more about myself than I ever expected to, taming recalcitrant phrases, working with editors and proofreaders, coordinating with production people, arranging distribution with Amazon sites around the world, getting the Kindle version ready for release…
And now, my book is making its official debut. It has changed a lot over the last eighteen months, but in all the ways that really count, it’s exactly how I wanted to write it.
I’ve come a long way to this strawberry, and it is sweet.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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