“So we’re going to take the train through the famous Chunnel at last,” I remarked rapturously.
Rich and I had been talking about it for years — ever since the Chunnel opened in 1994, in fact — and last September, as part of a surprise birthday excursion, he arranged for us to take the 2.75-hour rail journey from London to Paris. I was thrilled, wondering what it would be like to go speeding along at 300 kilometers per hour under the English channel.
It turns out that riding through the Chunnel looks exactly like this:
So not quite as visually thrilling as I’d imagined. Apparently others have been equally underwhelmed because the railway, Eurostar, now offers an alternative view. In the train station’s departure lounge enormous ads invite kids to rent virtual reality goggles; apparently you enter your seat number so the experience can be tailored to your precise place in the train. As a rule, Rich and I prefer actual reality during train rides, so we made a snap decision to pass. Obviously, now that we’ve done a bit more research, we are kicking ourselves for missing out on the opportunity to experience the Chunnel like this:
With or without virtual reality goggles, Rich and I remain steadfast fans of train travel. More civilized and less hectic than flying or driving, rail journeys let you read without getting carsick, stroll to the bar car for coffee, or engage in idle conversation with fellow passengers. And train travel isn’t just better for us, it’s better for the environment. By taking the Eurostar from London to Paris instead of flying, Rich and I lowered our trip’s CO2 emissions by 91%.
Math isn’t my strong suit, but when you figure there are about a billion inter-European air flights annually, if even a fraction of those fliers switched to trains, we’d make the planet a healthier place to live.
Whenever the subject of rail travel comes up, somebody always says, “Yes, I love trains too. If only I had the time to take them.” Maybe you do! Because it turns out that when you travel between European cities, it’s often faster to go by rail. Our Chunnel train from London to Paris was actually quicker than flying — only nine minutes quicker, but still!
Why don’t savvy travelers know that going by rail is often faster and always kinder to the environment? For one thing, the travel industry “only wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire, and more flights,” according to one of the most famous train travelers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. While working as a manager with British Rail, Mark launched a website and a personal crusade to inspire and assist railway travelers. His hobby grew into a career that’s made him a household name among train buffs around the world.
“People don't understand that by train (and for that matter, ship) the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” Mark told me. “It's not just about 'getting there'! For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp!”
Many of my favorite travel stories come out of our railway adventures. Like that time on the Hungarian-Romanian border when a couple of uniformed men took our passports and disappeared into the station. Twenty minutes later the train started up again, causing us to stick our heads out the window shrieking hysterically, “Our passports, our passports!” Only then did Rich and I realize that our part of the train wasn’t going anywhere. The lineman’s OK-to-go signal was for the back half of the train, which was separating from our section and returning to Hungary. The fact that everyone on the station platform knew this, and had doubtless arranged this amusing little prank countless times, didn’t seem to diminish their innocent delight in watching us make fools of ourselves.
Rich and I love long railway journeys, and one that lasted 83 days is chronicled in my book Adventures of a Railway Nomad. The journey took us through 13 countries on 38 trains for a total of 4627 railway miles. We came home with countless stories about silly misunderstandings, the kindness of strangers, and thrilling moments when we were gobsmacked by the unexpected.
“Anything is possible on a train,” wrote Paul Theroux. “A great meal, a binge, a visit from card sharks, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” Rich and I experienced all that and more as we traveled to areas so remote that, to us at least, they seemed the modern equivalent of those places on the ancient maps marked, “Here there be dragons.” You can imagine how excited we were when our train journey took us to Kraków, Poland, and we discovered these (alleged) actual dragon bones hanging on the wall of the cathedral.
According to legend, as long as these enormous bones — said to belong to the dragon Smok Wawelski — hang on the cathedral wall, Kraków is safe from destruction. Are they working? You bet. Otherwise, how would you account for the fact that during World War II, when just about every major city in Poland was bombed to rubble, Kraków survived more or less intact?
Railway journeys often inspire an adventurous spirit and profound thoughts. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity on a train. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed the lovely metaphor, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction,” which calls to mind a favorite saying passed on to me by a reader: “Never chase a missed train. Get a pastry and wait for the next one.” Today, we can add another form of train wisdom to our collective repertoire: choosing to ride the rails provides a practical way to support to the global climate recovery effort. In the long run, choosing railway travel may make us all more healthy, happy, and wise.
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“Is a groveling email offering to pay damages enough?” I asked Rich the morning after the party. “Or do you think this requires www.FakeMyDeath.com?”
“Let’s see how they respond to the email,” he said soothingly. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
It all started innocently enough when an American friend here in Seville remarked that in a moment of insanity he’d promised his young boys he’d make a life-sized bull’s head that they could paint. “How do I even start?” he wailed.
“You’re in luck,” I told him. “There’s a local artist who makes papier-mâché bull’s heads; I’m sure he’ll sell one unpainted. And I’ve got crafts supplies you can use.” Two weeks later my friend threw a big party, and before heading to the drinks table, I handed over a box of paints and brushes to a group of ten kids, aged maybe six to twelve, who disappeared into a room with a life-size papier-mâché bull’s head and no adult supervision.
It wasn’t until late in the evening, around the time one of the guests was demonstrating how to remove the cork from a bottle of champagne with a sword, that I began to wonder uneasily just what the kids might be getting up to. “I’m sure they’re fine,” I told myself, applauding as the cork shot across the room.
It wasn't until I woke up late the next morning that I began to focus properly, and with hideous clarity, on the amount of damage kids with paint brushes could inflict on walls, floors, furniture, lampshades … and did I remember that one of the guests had a white dog?
With some trepidation I emailed the hosts and received back blithe assurances that no damage at all had occurred, and everyone was delighted with the painting project. Whew! “I guess we don’t have to move to another city and assume new identities,” I told Rich.
Eventually those friends left Seville, and the bull’s head was passed along to another family, then another. A week ago, to my astonishment and delight, those currently housing the beast announced they were handing it over to me. As we (and by "we," of course, I mean Rich) carried the bull’s head home through the densely packed streets around the cathedral, locals and visitors poured out of cafés to capture the one-man parade with their iPhones.
People often ask me why I enjoy living abroad, and for a start I cite the many zany moments like this one that pop up unexpectedly, keeping expat life so vivid. Yes, living in a foreign place can be challenging at times, but it’s also tremendously exciting, with astonishing surprises seemingly around every corner. You certainly don’t find yourself stuck in a rut, operating on automatic pilot, wondering when your zing faded to monotony.
In the past, nearly all my American friends and relatives used to think I was bonkers to live abroad. Not anymore. Nowadays half the people I know, and quite a few I don’t, are flooding my email inbox with requests for advice about resettling overseas — preferably somewhere with congenial company, good weather, and affordable wine. And fewer rampaging wildfires, mass shootings, and terrifying headlines.
I can’t respond to each email in as much detail as I’d like, so as my regular readers know, I recently put together Enjoy Moving Abroad, a Three-Book Set of Insider Tips for Living Well Overseas. It includes updated and expanded editions of two previously published guides, 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: Essential Tips for Easing the Transition to Expat Life and my bestselling Pack Light, plus How to Meet People on the Road: A Guide to Forming Friendships in Foreign Lands, published here for the first time.
These days the vast majority of my books are bought in Kindle format, but with the holidays approaching, I thought a paperback would be nice for those who prefer giving “real” books. And while normally I market my books exclusively on Amazon, if you're in Seville, you'll soon have the opportunity to buy this book at an actual, brick-and-mortar shop: Isla de Papel (Puerto del Osario, 14).
This cozy bookstore is owned by my publisher friends Heidi and Enrique, who installed one of the amazing new print-on-demand machines — basically a giant copier that can print, collate, cover, and bind a book in just seven minutes. I emailed Enrique pdf files of the cover and text, and on Friday he did a successful test run, producing a single book. In the next week or so, he'll run off a small batch and then keep printing more copies whenever they are needed. How cool is that?
We live in an age of technological marvels that often outstrip the science fiction I read as a kid. When I’m in my home state of California, the atmosphere is a dizzying mix of thrilling futuristic visionaries and a dystopian landscape where whole towns can disappear overnight. I love my state and my country and spend time there regularly, but it’s always comforting to return to Seville, an ancient city that survived the Visigoths, the Moors, the Inquisition, and Franco’s dictatorship — to name but a few. Its past is a constant reminder that dark times don’t last forever and every generation somehow finds the strength and ingenuity to deal with the future.
In the meantime, Sevillanos have much to teach us about living in the present. Whatever else is happening, they never forget to enjoy family, friends, cold beer, hot tapas, and a one-man bull’s head parade. I can think of few better reasons for moving abroad that the lessons it teaches us about coping with uncertainty and embracing life’s small, quirky pleasures whenever they come our way.
Enjoy Moving Abroad is now available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
The Kindle price will go up in a few weeks, but right now I have it priced as low as Amazon allows: 99 cents to purchase, free for those enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.
If you have a chance to order it from Amazon and leave a review I would be very grateful. The more reviews I get the higher the book is ranked, making it more visible to those seeking this kind of information. Unfortunately Amazon is now quite strict about insisting you order the book from them if you want to post a review.
One recent Sunday, Rich and I took a midday stroll out of Seville’s old centro into the more modern district of Nervion and chose, more or less at random, a bustling café-restaurant for lunch.
Our waiter (who turned out to be the chef) leaned in confidentially and said, “I recommend the wild boar.”
You don’t find jabalí on many menus these days, and as the price was just 5€ ($5.67) we figured it would be an appetizer we could sample before moving on to the main meal. What arrived was a heaping platter of slowly simmered meat swimming in gravy (by which I mean boar fat loaded with salt). The flavor was magnificent. As we tucked in, sopping up the gravy with crusty bread, I could feel my arteries hardening and waist thickening and absolutely did not care.
When the chef came by and saw we’d made serious inroads on the gravy, he asked if we’d like more. Before my conscience or common sense could kick in I said, “Yes, we would!” He whisked our platter away and returned it a few minutes later with the remaining meat soaking in another lake of boar fat. Mmmmm.
As we paid our lunch tab — which with two short beers came to a whopping 7.40€ ($8.39) — Rich said, “I’ve missed this. Don’t get me wrong, I love the new foodie places, but this is Sevilla profunda [deep Seville].”
I got to thinking that while many visitors to this fair city are dining on such exotic delicacies as smoking goblets of Peruvian-Japanese ceviche, they are missing out on the unpretentious old-school dishes that were once the only cuisine available in 99% of Seville’s eateries. So for those who’d like a taste of Sevilla profunda, here are some of my favorites — with suggestions for where to find the best in the city. Not in Seville at the moment? I’ve included links to recipes so you can make them at home.
Carrillada: Pork Cheeks
Yes, I know, pork cheeks may sound a bit odd, even off-putting at first, but as my friend Lauren puts it, “Carrillada is a melt in your mouth, get up and dance, and smack yourself in the head for not having eaten this earlier type of food.” The meat is surprisingly tender; like jabalí, the secret is slow cooking it for hours until it melts in your mouth.
Where to try it: Bodeguita Romero, Calle Harinas, 10
How to make it
Tortilla de España: Spanish Omelet
Where to try it: Boca a Boca, calle Barcelona, 5
I recommend this to guests who are picky eaters and order it myself on days when I can’t decide what I’m in the mood for. Tortilla de España aka tortilla de patatas (Spanish or potato omelet) is a dense egg dish cooked in a frying pan with potatoes and onion. It’s such a staple that our Spanish teachers included a tutorial in the curriculum. It’s not easy; you have to flip the omelet over using a plate or second frying pan. But it’s Spanish comfort food at its best.
How to make it
Solomillo al Whisky: Braised Pork with Whisky Sauce
Where to try it: Los Coloniales, Plaza Cristos de Burgos, 19
The secret to this dish is tons of garlic; I never worry about vampires when I walk home after a night of solomillo al whiskey. It’s served everywhere in Seville, but for my money, the best place to try it is Los Coloniales, where the portions are generous and the waiters serve it up with old-school service: fast, courteous, and if you speak Spanish, accompanied by a quip or two.
How to make it
Espinacas con Garbanzos: Spinach with Chickpeas
Where to try it: Bar Dueñas, Calle Girona, 3
When I first arrived in Seville I was a vegetarian and practically lived on this tapa, one of the few non-meat offerings available in those days. Now I eat everything, but I still love this dish, especially in colder weather. I’m told it originated in Persia and arrived via the African Moors, who loved spices and included a pinch of cumin in the recipe, a rare thing in Spanish cuisine.
How to make it
Cazón en Adobo: Marinated fried fish
Where to try it: Bar Blanco Cerrillo, Calle José de Velilla, 1
If you’re on Calle Velasquéz in the downtown shopping area, there’s this heavenly moment when your nose picks up a vinegary scent that’s so alluring it stops you in your tracks. Before you know it, you’re heading down an alley to Bar Blanco Cerrillo for their trademark cazón en adobo, which after half a century has become a tapa of near mythical status.
How to make it
Where to try it: Vineria San Telmo, Paseo de Catalina de Ribera, 4
On summer days, I love sitting down to a bowl of this cold, creamy soup made of tomato and day-old bread, enlivened with just enough garlic and vinegar to give it zest. Like gazpacho, it was invented in Andalucía as a thrifty use of yesterday’s baguettes. Garnished with chopped hard-boiled egg and scraps of ham, it’s a great light meal all by itself.
How to make it
Goulas: Fake Baby Eels
Where to try it: Casa Morales, Calle García de Vinuesa, 11
Not a huge fan of eating eels? Me neither, but the fake ones are delicious and I sometimes tease American visitors by ordering a dish of goulas. Real baby eels (anguilas) are hideously expensive, so locals make mock baby eels from pollock fish, trimmed to worm-like shapes and dyed grey along one edge to complete the illusion — much like the fake crab sold in the USA as “krab.”
How to make it
There isn’t space to describe all the classics, and perhaps another day I’ll write about colo de toro (bull’s tail), albondigas de choco (cuttlefish meatballs), and other wild and wonderful local favorites. In the meantime, if you do find yourself in Seville, take the time to seek out some of these traditional favorites, preferably in a family-run bar where somebody’s grandmother is doing the cooking. She won’t be serving up Japanese-Peruvian ceviche or chocolate-covered duck liver pâté with whimsical garnish, but she will deliver the kind of hearty, mouthwatering fare that’s been the pride of Seville dinner tables for countless generations.
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“Would you and Rich be interested in going on the test run for a new food tour a friend of mine is starting here in Seville?” an expat pal asked me a few years ago.
Tough work, but somebody has to do it!
“If it’ll help,” I replied graciously, thinking Hot damn! This is gonna be good.
And it was. Rich and I met up with Lauren Aloise and a small group of fellow volunteers to spend three hours strolling through the city’s back streets, nibbling and sipping along the way.
We had fabulous food and a marvelous time. If I had a complaint at all, it was that I was so stuffed by the end of the tour that I couldn’t do justice to the final round of tapas. Since then, Lauren and I have kept in touch, and I thought her story would be fun to share here, as an example of how one American woman built a new life for herself in Spain.
What drew you to Spain?
I spent my junior year of college between Granada and Buenos Aires, and loved both. That said, I saw very little of Spain and left with a very basic understanding of the culture and cuisine. Despite living with a host family, my experience only just skimmed the surface. I was focused on bettering my Spanish (and enjoying Granada's amazing nightlife!) and my host mother was a terrible cook. I left Spain thinking that Spaniards didn't eat meat (I only had it once while there!). I never planned to return to live here, but I studied Spanish as a second major, and at the end of my last semester, my professor recommended the Auxiliar de Conversación program [training to work as an English language assistant in Spain]. At the same time, my boss at a restaurant I was working at kept urging me to spend time in Spain to learn all I could about Spanish food and wine — he was convinced it would be the next big thing and that it would give me a leg up in the hospitality industry when I returned. So I applied for the program and packed my suitcases!
You had no intention of moving to Spain permanently?
That's right, I came with the intention of spending a year or two in Europe to learn about different cuisines. But I met my husband within a couple weeks of arriving, and that caused me to stay in Seville. I met his parents pretty early on in the relationship and really bonded with his mother over food. She taught me that simplicity is key, that Spanish home cooks never measure, and shared her best recipes with me. I also learned patience (Spanish classics aren't complicated, but often cook over many hours) and to make the most of a small kitchen (hers is tiny -- and so is mine!).
What inspired you to start your food and travel blog, Spanish Sabores?
I was a part-time English language assistant and gave private English lessons, but I fiercely missed the hospitality industry I'd always been a part of. Since I couldn't work legally, I decided to start writing about food and travel on the web. I had a couple of blog failures before starting Spanish Sabores! But I've always loved writing, so blogging came easily, and I also loved the challenge of learning about everything else involved — from web design, to SEO, to photo editing.
How did that lead to launching Devour Tours?
After I got married I knew I needed to get back into my career in hospitality and tourism — but we were in the middle of a recession, and jobs were few and far between. My husband and I decided to take a chance and move to Madrid, so we bought a bus ticket and left on an adventure. He started a company right away, offering software services for renewable energy facilities. I started freelance writing about food and travel, and gave cooking classes. One day I found an ad for a food tour in France and thought it sounded perfect. Food tours combine amazing food, local history and culture, and support for small businesses — what's not to love? I could step away from the computer and actually show people the types of things I was already writing about. So I just dove in and created a website and a few experiences. Today Devour Tours is in six cities: Seville, Granada, Malaga, San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Madrid.
Our mission is to connect curious travelers with local food and communities in a way that helps culture thrive. We'd love to take our mission beyond Spain to other incredible food destinations. In the age of huge chains and the "hipsterization" of traditional neighborhoods, the places that make our cities unique are disappearing. I hope to be a small part of telling those stories and helping them survive.
What do you love most about Spanish food?
We keep it simple in Spain. We take an incredible ingredient and do as little as possible to it. Maybe a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar, or perhaps just a few flakes of sea salt. It's very much a quality-focused food culture.
Could you share a recipe with my readers?
One of my favorites is my mother-in-law’s recipe for salmorejo, a cold soup that's gazpacho’s thicker, creamier cousin. See recipe and video.
What advice would you give Americans who are coming to Spain for the first time?
I would recommend going slow, mixing big cities with some smaller villages, and coming back again and again. As for the food, be open minded and take a look at what the locals are eating before ordering. Don't expect lots of seasoning and sauces — enjoy the taste of the ingredients! And to kick everything off on the right foot, take a food tour! It'll set you up with context and tips for the rest of your trip.
Have you been on a memorable food tour — anywhere in the world? I'm always thinking ahead to future trips, and would love to hear suggestions in the comments below.
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Of all the stamps in my passport, the one that gives me most delight is the one for a country I’d never heard of till I got there, and that may or may not actually exist.
Two years ago, Rich and I were wandering around Vilnius, Lithuania’s engaging capital, when we suddenly found ourselves at the border of another nation: the Republic of Užupio.
Formed in the nineties by scofflaw bohemians in the wake of liberation from the Soviets, Užupio (also spelled Užupis) has no legal standing, but it does have its own flag, currency, constitution, president, anthem, patron saint (the ever-outrageous Frank Zappa), an army of 11 men (now retired), and a shopkeeper who, for a small fee, will stamp your passport. We were charmed by the sheer lunacy of it all.
When I tell stories about stumbling upon offbeat places like this, people often ask, “How do you find this stuff?” Those who don’t know us well assume Rich and I spend months scrutinizing options, doing a cost-benefit analysis of the fun-to-expenditure ratio. Not so! In fact, over time our trips have become less researched, less structured, and to the greatest extent practical, less burdened with baggage. And they’re way more fun. Want to try it? Here are some tips to get you started.
Travel with a purpose. Why go anywhere? For relaxation? A change of pace? Adventure? Answering these questions is the most vital — and the most commonly ignored — step in planning; skipping it can lead to ghastly misunderstandings and conflicts. For instance, are you looking forward to days of scuba diving and long nights at the casino, while your partner is dreaming of a second honeymoon? Before booking anything, see if you can identify activities you’d enjoy together. Long ago, Rich and I discovered we both get a kick out of funky dive bars, old-school diners, and weird roadside attractions; seeking them out has added zest to our wanderings for decades.
Pack light. Easier said than done, I know. And for some journeys, such as weddings and business trips, you really do need a pretty substantial wardrobe. But if you’re traveling for fun, you can get by on less, without sacrificing comfort, hygiene, or a basic standard of style. Here’s how I reduced my travel attire to the bare necessities on a month-long trip through four countries.
Don’t overplan. When we signed up for a tour of Cuba, we had no idea how packed our days would be. Attempts to dodge a few activities — the 8:00 AM talk on the history of music comes to mind — led to stern lectures about the fact we were there on an educational visa, so failure to show up for even a single activity would spark harsh, if unspecified, retribution from the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republic of Cuba. Yikes! By the end of the trip, a simple walk through Havana felt like the Bataan death march. Never again. Now all our trips are entirely composed of free time, which we like to spend leisurely sipping espresso in a sidewalk café watching others gallop about in a sightseeing frenzy.
Take detours. Free time lets you indulge in whims and go exploring. You might stumble into unknown countries like Užupio, or those once isolated behind the Iron Curtain, such as Albania. Last spring Rich and I went to the Greek island of Corfu in what we fondly believed was the offseason, only to discover it was crawling with tourists. Aghast, I opened my laptop to look for alternatives. That’s when I discovered a hydrofoil that would take us to Sarandë, Albania, conveniently located just 8.7 miles across the Ionian Sea. The Albanians seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to see us. They chatted with us, showed us the catch of the day, and gave Rich a spiffy haircut. We had a wonderful time. Faleminderit për kujtimet, Albania. (Thanks for the memories.)
Recombobulate. Whenever we arrive in a new town, we immediately sit down and have a coffee. The ritual is, of course, less about coffee than about catching our breath, making sure we know where we’re going and how to get there, and — let me underscore this point — figuring out where there’s a cash machine so we can get enough local currency for our immediate needs. We once neglected this step while crossing from Romania into Bulgaria, where we were harassed so relentlessly by a black market cab driver that we fled the train station and hopped in the first legitimate taxi we saw. Halfway to our hotel we realized we were in the awkward position of having no Bulgarian lev to pay our fare. Our driver was kind enough to take Romanian leu, but we vowed never again to skip our recombobulation coffee.
Respect others. The reason we travel is to experience people and places that aren’t like home, yet we sometimes struggle to appreciate the differences. “Just like Americans have the American Dream, others have their own dreams,” wrote Rick Steves. “Put yourself in the shoes (or sandals, or bare feet) of the people you meet. Find out why Basque people are so passionate about their language. Drink with Catholics in a Northern Ireland pub, discussing the notion of the tyranny of the majority. As you travel, learn to celebrate the local Nathan Hales and Ethan Allens, such as Turkey's Atatürk or El Salvador's Oscar Romero.”
Return home changed. “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am,” said Michael Crichton. “Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience ... That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”
So in the end, what adds joy to our journeys? I believe the Užupians expressed it best with the symbols on this sign posted at the border crossing: smile, proceed slowly, think artistically, and try not to fall into the river. Laimingas keliones (happy travels)!
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“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde once said. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Today, he’d no doubt say, “I never travel without my phone. One should always have sensational images to scroll through on a plane.”
Taking sensational travel photos has become an international obsession. Witness the number of selfie-related injuries and deaths, a phenomena that’s now so common it has spawned its own Wikipedia page and two nicknames: “killfie” and “selfiecide.”
Fortunately most of us have learned that taking a powerful photo doesn’t require dancing with the grim reaper. Ever since I started this blog in 2011, I’ve been experimenting with (non-life-threatening) ways to improve my photography so that it adds punch to my stories. Just about the time I finally invested in a decent camera, I discovered my iPhone was giving me better shots, without all the fussing and fiddling. I gave away my “real” camera and now count on my phone to help me capture the sensation of joyful discovery I feel in the moment I first behold something truly wonderful.
Often a great shot is sheer luck — or as Ansel Adams put it, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” Of course, you can't always count on luck, so next time you're ready to click the shutter, you might want to have a few tricks on your back pocket to boost your chances of doing justice to the scene.
Trick #1: Take multiple shots of the subject. Sometimes even a slight change in angle or focus can suddenly make the image sing. I rarely take less than two shots of anything and often go for five or ten. (Rich says this has taught him more Zen-like patience than any meditation course.) Occasionally I realize I’ve arrived at that golden moment when God’s ready for a closeup; often, however, I don’t recognize my best shots I have until I scroll through them later. Which is why I advise taking lots.
My iPhone’s camera has a burst mode, which lets you take multiple shots in quick succession just by holding down the shutter release button or the volume-up button. (Here’s how to do bursts on an Android.) To be honest, in the heat of the moment I usually forget it’s there, but it can be terrific for capturing action shots.
Trick #2: Shift your perspective. It’s natural to shoot from eye height, but sometimes you get a more intriguing view by positioning the camera higher or lower, or finding a scene with unusual angles or depth. When possible, avoid sticking the main subject squarely in the middle against a flat background; that feels more static, like a police mug shot. Try stepping to one side, going down on one knee, or climbing up to a higher viewpoint.
Trick #3: Blur the background. This places everyone’s attention on the main event when it might otherwise be deflected to random passersby, hideously inappropriate graffiti, or other background clutter. Even if the background’s fine, as in the bookstore below, blurring lends a certain dreamy romance to the mood. In the photo of the fans, the distant, hazy image of Plaza de España gives context, underscoring the exotic location.
To get this effect, I use my iPhone’s portrait mode; the same effect is possible for Android users with a little finagling.
Trick #4: Arrange food shots like still life paintings. We often grab snapshots of interesting meals, but they tell more of a story if you pull in other stuff that’s on the table: a napkin, crusty bread, a dish of olives, wine glasses, the map of Paris. You’ll also want to remove any unsightly distractions such as dirty plates from the previous course. Apologize in advance to your dinner companions and insist they begin eating while their food is hot.
Trick #5: Work with uneven light. Bright, even light can make photos look flat and boring; this is why I avoid using my flash. You’ll get lots more drama when you happen to be somewhere with slanted light — for instance, from windows, lamps, or the sun at the beginning or end of the day. If you’re struggling with really low lighting conditions, borrow a friend’s cell phone, switch on the flashlight function, and hold it above and to one side so that you create your own slanted light. Nowadays, whenever I stumble across a place with gorgeous natural illumination — like this Krakow café — I immediately reach for my phone.
Every picture tells a story, even if it’s something as simple as “We loved this spaghetti” or “I can’t believe I’m here!” or “Is it me or is that really weird?” If you’re having fun taking a photo, chances are some of your enjoyment will carry over into the image, and it will delight your family, friends, and random strangers on social media. “There are no rules for good photographs,” said Ansel Adams. “There are only good photographs.” OK, maybe he's right and there are no rules, but I can suggest one life-saving guideline: no matter how much you want the shot, promise me you won’t ever do this.
Got any hot tips or questions about travel photography? Let me know in the comments below!
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One of the most ghastly surprises of my expat life occurred during a convivial country barbeque shortly after we’d moved to Seville. Without warning, a Spanish friend called for attention and announced, “Now our American friends, Karen and Rich, will sing.”
This was horrifying on so many levels. I’m the least musical person on the planet, and (I say this lovingly) Rich is even worse. For a second I expected to look down, notice I was naked, and think, “Thank God, it’s only a nightmare.” When that didn’t pan out, I briefly considered hitching a ride to the airport and repatriating to America. But in the end Rich and I managed a hideously off-key rendering of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and everyone gave us pity applause and told us to keep our day jobs.
Incredibly, these same friends (clearly gluttons for punishment) continued to ask us to sing at other parties. It turns out that in Seville, as in many traditional societies, every guest is expected to contribute something to the evening’s entertainment. You are literally meant to sing for your supper — or tell a story, make a joke, juggle, or provide some other form of amusement. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to keep the evening rolling along.
Nowadays, meal-sharing apps and websites offer unprecedented opportunities to dine with locals in their homes. On such occasions, bear in mind that your social obligations don’t end with providing a valid credit card number. Don’t worry, you’re not required to juggle the dinner rolls or tap dance with a glass of water on your head (although if you do, I hope I’m there to see it). Most hosts have more modest expectations: that you’ll arrive with good manners, a friendly attitude, and a few entertaining ideas.
Tell a Joke
Are you good at telling jokes? I’m hopeless. I love storytelling and tossing out wisecracks but have a hard time remembering the kind of elaborate knee-slappers that start “these three nuns walk into a bar.” If you do tell jokes, consider your audience’s sensibilities and grasp of English. You’ll probably want to skip that hilariously raunchy political zinger you heard on Last Week Tonight and go with a more general crowd-pleaser like this classic.
Ask a Question
As you may have observed, if you get people talking about themselves, they’ll often emerge from the conversation thinking that you are a brilliant dinner companion. You might start by saying something nice about their city (“They’ve done a lovely job patching up the bullet holes in the main square!”) and asking if the region has changed much in recent years.
If it feels comfortable to shift to more personal topics, try out some of “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” used in a scientific study on establishing intimacy.
Listen to the answers, ask follow-up questions, and pour more wine, because the conversation is going to get interesting.
You never know what you’re going to learn about your dinner companions. Rich and I once signed up online for a Palestinian meal served in a private apartment in Barcelona. We arrived to find the other guests were Germans visiting a relative who now lived in Barcelona with his Spanish wife. As dessert came around, one brother said, “Before we conclude the meal, why don’t we each tell a story?” He led with a humorous account of meeting his wife, another spoke of his travels, and then it was the 93-year-old grandmother’s turn.
She told a sweet tale of falling in love with her late husband when he was a young man in the service. “We were separated for many years, but we wrote each other and never lost hope…” I did the math realized with a start that her beau had been a soldier in Germany’s Wehrmacht during WWII. Now that was a granny with some serious backstory.
Sometimes our entertainments take us into deeper waters than we were expecting. And that’s part of the adventure of connecting with people from other countries. Reaching across the cultural divide opens the door to vivid new experiences, and sometimes the ones we find most challenging turn out to be the most gratifying.
Many years after the barbecue incident, that same group of friends took us to visit a nursing home in a Spanish village, and when we got to the main lounge, they announced to the assembled residents and staff, “Now our American friends will sing.”
As usual, this came with no advance warning, but by then Rich and I were always ready. Knowing that call-and-response songs work best, we taught everyone the fa-la-la-la chorus and launched into “Deck the Halls.” In no time, everyone was clapping and singing; a few even let go of their walkers to dance. No one cared that we couldn’t carry a tune or that they were singing a Christmas carol on a sweltering afternoon in August. Within minutes, the pleasure of raising our voices together transformed us from strangers into a circle of kindred spirits. And isn’t that the whole point of connecting with locals when you’re abroad?
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Nearly all my American friends and relatives think I’m bonkers to live abroad. “But you’re from California,” they point out in bewilderment. “That’s where people move to. Why live anywhere else?”
No doubt some suspect that I’m hiding out in foreign parts because I’m secretly up to something, like the expat writers in William S. Burroughs famous quote: “They lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.” (For the record, I do not own a pet gazelle.)
Most of us move abroad for much the same reason we went away to college — not because we love our parents, our country, or our upbringing any less, but because they have prepared us to go out and embrace a bigger, brighter future. I often say that moving abroad is the greatest opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program. But to be more accurate, you’re not so much reinventing yourself as removing the external props that keep you confined within a particular cultural identity, so that now you can find out who you really are.
People considering a move abroad often send me emails asking if it’s worth it. The short answer? Yes. At least, it is for me. The long answer? Yes, because you learn and do amazing things. Like what?
Get comfortable with being outside your comfort zone. Worried about being in a rut? You can kiss that problem goodbye. As Bill Bryson put it, "Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."
Don't take yourself too seriously. Sometimes those interesting guesses lead to linguistic and cultural pratfalls. For instance, you might innocently ask the man at the farmers' market if he has huevos (literally eggs but slang for testicles) causing other shoppers to roar with laughter as he responds with a pithy zinger you can’t fathom and probably don’t want to.
Make do with less. In the early years, our shopping efforts often floundered to a halt in a welter of confusion and embarrassment, forcing us to flee the scene without the eggs, screwdriver, or other planned purchases. Eventually we managed to outfit our entire apartment, but as we originally intended to stay just a single year, we did it simply and cheaply. Nearly fourteen years later, minimizing possessions has become a way of life. On the road, I can easily live out of a single small suitcase for months and occasionally enjoy traveling without any luggage whatsoever.
Be patient. Eventually, you really will learn to accept with equanimity waiting in line for hours at the Foreigners’ Office, only to be told that your residency card application is delayed because you didn’t provide the document that this very same clerk refused to take from you three weeks ago when you presented it.
Talk with anybody about anything. One of the true joys of expat life is meeting extraordinary people from around the world (often while waiting in line at the Foreigners’ Office). I’ve learned if I ask the right questions (and stop talking about myself) most people have incredibly interesting stories to tell.
Appreciate America. Nothing gives you fresh perspective on your own country like living outside of it and learning how it appears to others. I don’t always find it easy to explain things like the 13th Amendment, the electoral college, or gerrymandering, but these conversations give me a lot to think about. And it’s encouraging to hear a Spanish friend say, as one did a few years ago, “Your country’s founders got it right. Democracy is always a messy business, but your constitution is an incredible document. You’re lucky to have it.”
I agree. Living in post-dictatorship Spain, traveling to countries occupied for decades by the Soviets, I have grown more passionate about democracy. That’s why I helped start a group here in Seville that provides American expats with information about issues, candidates, and how to vote from abroad. And why this summer, Rich and I decided to put off a long-planned, many-month train trip around the Mediterranean rim to work on voter registration in the US during the run-up to the midterm elections.
Last month in California, Rich and I signed up to do voter registration following the ceremony in which 800 immigrants from 84 countries were sworn in as American citizens. We arrived early, snuck into the back of the room, and listened to the crowd explode with cheers as their citizenship became official. Many were moved to tears, and I have to admit, I was too. Just like my own ancestors, they’d worked hard, gotten lucky, and found their place in the (admittedly somewhat dysfunctional) American family. I was thrilled for them and spent a good part of the morning congratulating and hugging the people I registered. One man told me he’d been working toward this day for 24 years.
Some people will always question the wisdom and sanity of my move abroad, but I believe it’s made me a better person, a more thoughtful citizen of the US, and an unofficial ambassador for my country. “I’ve never really talked to an American before,” one Spanish friend told me. “You’re not what I expected.” Since many Europeans base their views of the USA on The Simpsons, I wondered if she’d feel more at ease with me if I dyed my hair blue. Or got a pet gazelle. And it’s moments like this, when I see myself through the lens of another’s cultural perspective, that I realize how truly fortunate I am to live in a larger world.
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“Have you bought your miners’ headlamps yet?” a friend asked me.
“You mean, those lights you strap on your head? Do we need them?”
“They’re really great if you have to pick through rubble looking for survivors,” she said matter-of-factly.
Perhaps the scariest part of that conversation was the way swapping tips for coping with mass catastrophes has become commonplace in the US. If you haven’t been caught up in a large-scale disaster yet, you know someone who has, and it's clear you could be next. We’re all glued to our screens gasping at scenes of post-Florence flooding in the southeast, wildfires rampaging across California, and the rising death toll around the planet from heat waves and floods.
This is “the face of climate change … playing out in real time,” says top climate scientist Michael Mann. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which measures planetary extinction-level events using the Doomsday clock, calculates we’re now just two minutes shy of midnight (aka Armageddon).
Is the world taking all this bad news with quiet dignity and grace? What do you think?
As any ostrich will tell you, the first line of defense is denial. Naysayers are shifting from “It’s not happening” to “It won’t affect me.” While five out of six Americans agree that climate change exists, more than half our citizens are convinced it will never directly impact them. You might want to ask the residents of North and South Carolina about that. Others, especially those a bit further inland who did not lose family members, homes, pets, businesses, cars, or their region’s power grid, are holding firm. They’re like teenage smokers who say, “I know you think smoking causes cancer but hey, I’m up to a pack a day, and all I have is this nagging little cough.”
Others believe the sky is falling and it’s all God’s fault. The Internet is awash with articles and videos titled “Are We Living in the End Times?” Everyone from Biblical scholars to Al Jazeera to survivalist cults are weighing in, with varying degrees of helpfulness and hysteria. The article “Here’s Why You Really Need To Prepare Like A Survivalist Right Now” urged us all to “get into a survivor mindset” and then showed this photo.
Really? I’m supposed to plan on sleeping rough and eating animals I kill and skin with that knife on the tree stump? Are you kidding me?
My home state of California has some of the world’s most unstable geography, but I am staking my life on the belief that the disasters I’m most likely to face will call for a very different set of survival skills. After a summer spent talking with fire survivors and reading the advice of experts, here’s the best wisdom I’ve learned.
Tip #1. Assess the dangers in your area. In my home state of California, there is a 99.7% chance of a major earthquake by 2037. The wildfires that devoured 1.5 million acres this summer came within five miles of my cottage. Our town of San Anselmo has cycles of serious flooding and we’re due again by 2025. Obviously we’re living on borrowed time. But enough about me; what’s likely to hit your town? Blizzards? Tornados? Mudslides? "Nowhere in this country can you say, 'I have nothing to worry about,'” points out meteorologist Steve Bowen. “You can move to escape a specific peril, but not peril in general.''
Tip #2. Prepare and practice your emergency plan. As Rich and I discovered when we were evacuated during San Anselmo’s not-quite-as-serious-as-feared flood of 2017, the natural impulse is to leap in your car and careen wildly to higher ground. In our case, that left us stuck in a tangle of dead-end hillside roads, and eventually we had to drive back downhill and cross the rising floodwaters to reach someplace warm, dry, and equipped with sufficient chardonnay to sooth our nerves. For the next evacuation, we have selected a destination and practiced walking the 4.5 mile route, in case we have to flee on foot. The phone number and directions are in our address book under Emergency Hotel, as I fully expect to be too overwrought to recall my own name, let alone that of the rendezvous point.
Tip #3. Pack an emergency supply kit. Rich and I spent all summer accumulating stuff we thought might come in handy: food, water, medical supplies, chocolate bars, vitamin G (aka gin), and a host of gadgets and gismos, all packed in a rolling cart for better fleeing mobility. (See the full emergency packing list here.)
Tip #4. Vote for people who take climate change seriously. “The record-breaking extreme weather events causing chaos across the globe should be a wake-up call,” said Christiana Figueres, architect of the UN Paris Climate Agreement, when I saw her this summer. “We will move to a low-carbon world because nature will force us, or because policy will guide us. If we wait until nature forces us, the cost will be astronomical.”
With large-scale catastrophes becoming America’s new normal, we’re all struggling to cope. As one journal noted with magnificent understatement, “Whether natural or man-made, disasters cause many of us to feel increased levels of stress and anxiety.” While most of us channel our nervousness into stocking up on canned food, jittery young people, fearing they’ll come of age in a post-apocalyptic landscape, are signing up for courses like this:
“Rich, do you think we need to learn to make our own glue and rope?” I asked dubiously.
“No. If it comes down to that kind of stuff, we’re toast. Do you think we need to pack more vitamin G?”
“Absolutely. And more chocolate.”
Clearly our work isn’t done yet. A few days ago, I spoke with my friend to reassure her we were now the proud owners of miners’ headlamps.
“Terrific. Do you guys have walkie-talkies? You know the phones may be out.”
And so the shopping continues.
Stay safe out there, my friends, and send me any good emergency prep tips you know! And by the way, I'm on the road next week, so I won't be posting. Just didn't want you to worry I'd disappeared into America's disaster vortex.
The first thing they always tell you about Napoli (aka Naples, Italy) is, “Don’t go.” And for a lot of travelers, that’s good advice. The city is insane. Every cab journey is “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride” from Disneyland. Attempts to cross the street on foot are like traversing the Grand Prix. The lodgings are tricky to locate and full of surprises. My first time there I slept in an abandoned spa with revolving colored lights. On my last visit, I stayed in an old lady’s apartment full of erotic art and had to pay a coin-operated elevator every time I went in or out of the building. Nothing in Napoli is plain vanilla.
Which is precisely what I love about the city.
The chaos of Napoli always makes me feel more vividly alive. The streets are teaming with people, half of them on Vespas, all rushing about their daily affairs with tremendous zest. Everyone seems to be talking at once, using their whole body to underscore key points with flamboyant gestures. Rules are ignored, and creativity, not organization, is prized; I always picture the parents teaching their kids to color outside the lines and eat dessert first.
There’s an exhilarating, anything-goes atmosphere, and back in the day, one of its riskier innovations developed into the world’s favorite comfort food: pizza.
The idea of putting toppings on flatbread didn’t start in Napoli. It goes back to — well, I’m guessing the day they invented flatbread, which was sometime during the Neolithic era. But it took think-outside-the-box Neapolitans to have the courage (or madness) to add tomatoes, which were widely viewed as toxic ornamental plants when they arrived in Europe from the New World. When the trailblazers survived the experiment, everyone started adding tomatoes to the traditional toppings of olive oil and cheese, and pizza became a local favorite. Italian immigrants brought it to the USA in the 19th century, but it didn’t go mainstream until American GIs discovered it during World War II and came home demanding more. And they got it. Today, Americans consume three billion pizza pies a year — that’s 100 acres of pizza a day, or 46 slices (23 pounds) per person per year.
Luckily for all of us, pizza has maintained the Napolitano anything-goes attitude. While some purists argue that the only “true” pizzas are the marinara and the margherita, the world disagrees, enthusiastically embracing countless varieties. Oh sure, there was a bit of a flap over Hawaiian pizza when Greek-Canadian Sam Panopoulos introduced it in 1962; some felt adding sweet pineapple was an abomination. Just last year Iceland’s president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, caused a media firestorm when he casually told some students that he was fundamentally opposed to pineapple on pizza and would ban it if he could. Jóhannesson later clarified: “I like pineapples, just not on pizza” and suggested topping pizza with fish instead. And the debate rages on.
Some have been equally scathing about white pizza. In a Huffington Post article, lifestyle editor Alison Spiegel dissed white pizza as “difficult to pull off” and often “gummy and gooey … gloppy … offensively boring.”
I beg to differ. As evidence I site the recent morning I spent in the kitchen of my friend Karen Adelson, who lives in California’s wine country and is one of the finest cooks I know. She’d offered to make me her favorite white pizza and I jumped at the chance to see this controversial dish done right.
As a starting point, she consulted the recipe for Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano from Joanne Weir’s Wine Country Cooking. But in the true spirit of pizzaiolos everywhere, my friend didn’t slavishly follow directions. She added artichoke hearts, sliced rather than grated the mozzarella, and baked the pie on a pizza screen rather than the customary pizza stone or metal pan. And instead of making her own, she bought the dough to save time and fuss. A cook after my own heart.
There was absolutely nothing boring, gooey, or gloppy about Karen’s white pizza. The flavors sang with garlic and lemon juice, balanced beautifully by three creamy cheeses, fresh arugula, tangy artichoke hearts, and the light, yeasty crust. Spiegel and the pizza purists don’t know what they’re missing!
Of course, you can take innovation too far. I myself am aghast when I hear about people topping pizza with Nutella, frog’s legs, an entire Happy Meal, or pizza-flavored ice cream. But I will staunchly defend their right to experiment any way they like — so long as they don’t make me eat it.
Wildcat experimentation is what gave us pizza in the first place, and its comforting presence helps us keep going when the going gets tough. As entertainer Henry Rollins put it, “Pizza makes me think that anything is possible.” In these uncertain times, when the entire world can seem as chaotic as Napoli, we need pizza more than ever. Justine Sterling wrote in Food & Wine, “In a recent Harris Poll, Americans revealed their favorite classic comfort foods (eaten when sad or stressed), celebratory comfort foods (eaten when happy or during a special occasion) and curative comfort foods (eaten when sick). Unsurprisingly, the overall winner was pizza." And on days when I need an extra helping of comfort, I go with what Yogi Berra said: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.”
Recipe: Pizza with Arugula and Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
What's your favorite pizza? Are there any kinds you wouldn't eat?
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
OUR CURRENT LOCATION:
San Anslemo, CA