I don’t know how you feel about books, but to me, the prospect of having nothing to read is right up there with being deprived of oxygen. So whenever I move, I immediately make a beeline for the public library.
Sadly, Seville’s public library turned out to have a paltry supply of books, most of which looked like outcasts from private collections: dog-eared mysteries, popular novels several generations out of date, and obscure nonfiction titles that were probably written by the former owner’s great-uncle. There were two shelves of English-language volumes, mostly by Agatha Christie. I love Agatha Christie, but she’s not an ideal candidate for rereading; knowing who did it at the outset kind of takes the challenge out of the puzzle.
I managed to scrounge up a few titles to check out from time to time, but the choices only grew more disappointing. Then one day I returned a book a week late and was reaching for my wallet to pay the fine when the librarian explained, more in sorrow than in anger, that the penalty for such a transgression was having my library card suspended for three weeks. I was shocked and mortified. To me, being banned from a library was like hearing the tribe had voted to abandon me on the hillside for the wolves. I slunk away, feeling like an outcast and a criminal, and never returned.
It was about this time that a few forward-thinking friends started buying Kindles and Nooks, but I hated the idea of electronic books. I love the feel of paper, the crinkle of turning pages, the smell of the ink and, in my own books, the coffee stains, pressed flowers and other reminders that this book and I share a past.
That attitude lasted about 15 minutes after Rich bought me a Kindle. I realized that I was just like the folks back in 1455 who said, “Printed Bibles? To me, it’s just not the word of God if it isn’t hand lettered by monks on sheep vellum with gold curlicues and little illustrated scenes tucked into the capital letters.” It’s the content that counts. As long as it’s delivered in readable form, the curlicues and sheep vellum really aren’t vital to the process.
As my book Dancing in the Fountain gets launched over the next few weeks, I’ll be interested to see how many people buy “real” books and how many opt for the e-reader edition. I already know that I’m giving one of the first printed copies as a gift to my library of origin in Menlo Park, California, where I checked out books from the age of 8 to 18. It’s a tiny token of my appreciation for the countless hours of pleasure and inspiration I found there. Thanks, Menlo Park Library!
This interview just appeared on the popular expat website, Costa Women. As it's a members-only site, I got special permission to reprint it here, so you'd all have the chance to see it.
Introducing Karen McCann
Did you find Spain, or did Spain find you?
I kind of stumbled across Spain on my way to Italy. Stopping in Marbella to visit friends en route to Florence, I found I really liked Andalucía. Then my husband told me he’d always wanted to learn Spanish. I believe his exact words were “How hard could it be?” (I think we all know the answer to that!)
And Seville, tell us more
From Marbella, I took a side trip to Seville and fell in love with the nutty mix of vibrant street life, age-old traditions and gorgeous 16th century architecture. Seville is like New Orleans, a grande dame who is magnificent long past her prime. And she has 3000 tapas bars; I have vowed to sample them all.
How did you become a travel writer?
In the US, I did more serious journalism, but that just doesn’t offer the same scope as describing what it’s like to eat fried flies in Thailand, buy a blowgun from a shaman in the Amazon, swap jokes with the Pope of Egypt or play with a baby bear in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I’ve just written a book about my experiences in Seville, but these other stories kept trying to sneak into the book, so I started a travel blog to give them a place of their own.
Somewhere you have always wanted to travel but not visited yet?
There are tons of places I’d like to visit. A friend’s husband was once offered a job in Mongolia, and I immediately told her, “Lucky you! What an adventure!” She said, “Two years living in a yurt in a remote mining camp in Mongolia – what part of that sounds like fun to you?” I could see her point. It would make a great blog post, though.
Enjoy Living Abroad; what would you say is the most important part to settling in “abroad”
To me, the key is mentally unpacking your bags. Years ago I moved from San Francisco to Cleveland for my husband’s job, and by a weird coincidence, the woman across the street had just done the same thing. She told me every night she dreamed of California and woke up with a hideous shock at finding herself in Cleveland. I built a wonderful life in that community, but to this woman it was like being condemned to live in a yurt in a remote mining camp in Mongolia. She never mentally unpacked her bags, hated being there and soon departed for another life.
About Karen, a hobby you would like to share
When I arrived in Seville, a Spanish friend convinced me to join her art class because it would be good for my social life. Painting sessions were held in a cramped, poorly ventilated classroom in a high school that was kept under perpetual lockdown in a barrio an hour away by bus, on the edge of the one seriously scary and dangerous neighborhood in the province. The first thing I was told was never, ever to use the school bathrooms; I never did find out why, and it was probably best left that way. But I rediscovered a love of painting and have been doing it ever since.
Where are you from originally?
I’m a fourth-generation Californian. My great-great grandmother came from England to homestead in the Midwest, my great-grandmother travelled west by covered wagon and settled in Los Angeles, and my grandmother scandalized the family by becoming a silent film actress. My mother went to Stanford, and I grew up in what we called the Peninsula, a place the world now knows as Silicon Valley.
Something we wouldn’t necessarily know about Karen
I once joined a circus. I was stranded in a small California town with some college friends, and at a coffee house I met a teenager in a pith helmet who told me he was in town with the circus and they needed some extra hands. Before I could say “big top” I had a job selling popcorn when the regular popcorn lady was busy working as a clown. The job paid $35 a week, and I had a shot at becoming an apprentice clown. It was tempting, but in the end, I went back to college.
If you were struck on a desert Island what would you have to have with you?
Books. After that, maybe food and water.
What book do you have bedside your bed at the moment?
I am in the middle of No Time for a Siesta by Costa Woman June Wolfe. It’s great fun reading about someone else’s expat adventures, especially when written in June’s lively and engaging style. I like her title, which would never have worked for my book, as I always take a siesta. Waking up a second time each day, I feel like I have 14 mornings a week.
What do you snack on when you write?
I drink lots of tea. And every once in a while, when I feel my brain needs extra stimulation, I eat chocolate. I don’t always keep it around the house, and sometimes my husband finds me burrowing into the back of the cupboard in search of crusty old baking chocolate or half-stale cookies, muttering dementedly, “Come on, I have to get this chapter finished…” He’ll ask, “Should I be seriously alarmed? Or are you just on deadline?”
What other travel writers would you most like to sit next to at dinner?
Among others, I’d love to sit with Bill Bryson, an American who lived in England for many years. He once said, “Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking up from a long coma.” I find this true even if I’ve only been away six months. America is something you have to stay in practice for. I visit the US twice a year, because I don’t want to lose my touch, but I spend eight months a year in Seville, because that’s where my heart is.
You have a book coming out; tell us more
Dancing in the Fountain, which will be out this summer, is my book about Seville and how living abroad can be a wonderful opportunity to hit the re-set button on your life. The title comes from one blazing hot night when my husband and I were sitting on the edge of a big stone fountain. We began dabbling our feet in the cool water, and the next thing I knew, we were wading then dancing in the fountain. It’s actually legal to do this in Seville, but an old man passing by growled at us, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s my whole point.
How can we find out more (website, Facebook, Twitter etc.)?
My website enjoylivingabroad.com has snippets from the new book and photos of some of the characters, including the mysterious L-F, whom we suspect of being in the witness protection program. My blog is part of the website, and that’s where you’ll find stories about my other travels. On my Facebook page www.fb.com/enjoylivingabroad I’m tracking the progress of my book, which is in the final rewrite stage and due back to my editor at the end of this month. I think I can make the deadline, but it’s going to take a lot of chocolate.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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