Category Archives: books

Goodbye to All That

You won't find her at the market anymore.

I’m afraid I’m not perfect. Ever since I repatriated to the USA at the end of 2001, I admit I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to putting up with the tastes and opinions of Americans who’ve never been farther away than an occasional week in the Caribbean or Mexico, as well as all those businesses that make their living catering to those tastes and opinions. (“I decided to go live in Slovenia on a whim, and I did,” I say to myself with chest puffed metaphorically out. “I’m just as good as anyone else out there! Maybe better!”) Whenever I go into a home-furnishings shop and browse through the photos and posters in the Exotic Destinations section, I know exactly what I’ll find: Paris, Venice, New York, maybe Tuscany, precious little else. What a bore.

Which is why I so enjoy talking to those folk I consider to be ‘my people’: those who either are, or have been, expats, well-traveled world citizens, or at least People Who Know Europe. Not that I should talk so loudly — I’ve never been east of Romania, never been to Africa (except for Tunisia), never been to Asia. I’ve always wondered about what’s around the bend, what’s beyond the farthest outpost in my experience.

I recently enjoyed writing an article on expat creatives in Slovenia — musicians, filmmakers, writers. It wasn’t part of my plan, but all those I ended up interviewing were Americans. It seems to me that the American expat is a breed apart from, say, the German, Australian or British expat. Because the USA is so isolated, American expats tend to think they have a lot more to prove when they move overseas — not to be seen as the typical insular, monolingual American, for example, they tend to throw themselves into their host cultures full-throttle. They need to Make A Statement, carve out their territory. They don’t want to be back home, they sense there’s other stuff out there worth exploring, and if they sometimes seem to want to become more Italian than the Italians or more Russian than the Russians, who can blame them?

Some expats are, of course, more, well, naturally out there (in more than one sense) than others. Take the notorious writings and escapades of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, who started the eXile newspaper in Moscow (and wrote a book about it, which I haven’t read). Ames and Taibbi, who haven’t spoken to each other in years, have relocated (not exactly with glee) back to the US and — as a recent Esquire piece makes clear — haven’t exactly mellowed with age. Nutcases, once-and-future addicts and world-class haters they may well be, but Ames and Taibbi are probably the expats all other expats should be measured against, the ones who actually lived the lives other, more timid sojourners only daydreamed about. (That most of these daydreams remained daydreams is probably a good thing.)

Nearly equaling those guys for gumption is New York writer/musician/cult figure Mykel Board, who decided to relocate to Mongolia for a year in 1995-96, for the heck of it, and had the adventure of his life — or at least one of them — and wrote about it to hilarious effect in his book Even a Daughter is Better Than Nothing (I’ve read it, you should too; it can be bought for cheap on Amazon.com).

I haven’t read any of those books about Americans relocating to Tuscany or Provence — too mainstream, couldn’t care less about these people’s plumbing and wiring problems in renovating that oh-so-picture-perfect farmhouse, reminds me too much of the silly posters in the picture-framing section of the store anyway.

I experienced a far different sensation recently, reading a memoir of a place I know well, by a woman who came to Slovenia before I did and remains there now. I’m speaking of  Erica Johnson Debeljak, whose memoir of her early years in Slovenia, Forbidden Bread, was published last year by North Atlantic Books. It is a passing strange thing to read a book written by someone I know, with whom I shared a city for a time. We didn’t see each other every week, but I knew Erica and her husband, the noted poet, essayist and educator Aleš Debeljak (for whom I edited a manuscript or two while I was living in Ljubljana and working as an English language editor), on a casual basis. I used to think of Erica as the Official American Female Expat in Slovenia, since she was obviously a smart and capable person who had done very well for herself in terms of switching careers along with countries, combining this with raising a beautiful family and maintaining a rather high profile in the SI (one wintry day on the street near my flat in Bežigrad, I remember seeing a large photo of Aleš, Erica and their young children on a billboard, in a winter scene, possibly riding on a sled, in what I’m almost sure was an ad for the ubiquitous Slovenian cellphone company Mobitel). As her memoir makes clear, though, the first years were anything but a smooth ride as she adjusted to and sometimes clashed with the customs of her new home, represented in all forms from the infamous bureaucracy of the new state to the rural lifestyles of her husband’s family.

Erica moved to Slovenia only a couple of years after it had declared its independence from the fast-fragmenting Yugoslavia, and battles were still going on just to the south between Croats and Serbs (at her otherwise idyllic wedding reception, she could hear machine-gun fire a few miles away over the border in Karlovac, Croatia).  You’d expect capsule descriptions of the history of the region and Slovenia in particular, and Erica provides them clearly and concisely, but the heart of the book is a personal story of her struggles with the new land. There’s the odd language, of course, but language is a fixed and codified thing; you can take classes in it, and it can be mastered with sufficient amounts of concentration and practice (lots of it).

You can’t, however, take a class in social attitudes (at least not, as far as I know, in Slovenia). Certain things can only be learned by direct experience, such as the Slovenes’ aversion to drafts of any kind (riding in a hot car on a hot day with no air conditioning, nobody opens a window — which I can vouch for), and triple-diapering a baby (which I’d never heard of before reading this book — something about worrying about setting the baby’s hips out of joint). Although the Slovenes tend to be competent and honest, they’re also not as direct as Americans, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but is ultimately just another detail for an expat to adjust to.

The book’s final chapter jumps ahead from 1995 — just after the birth of the Debeljaks’ first child — to 2008, when they have a teenage girl and two growing boys and Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO, the tolar is history, and modernization has, as Erica writes, rendered obsolete much of what she covered in her memoir. It’s meant to be jolting, and it certainly was for me. Expats understandably tend to romanticize their chosen foreign destination, even when, as one hip Slovene woman once told me, “your paradise is someone else’s prison.” Over the five years I spent in Slovenia I could see the old ways fading out as certainly as the cafes with Tito-era decor gave way with a vengeance to postmodern facades and shops that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen, Rome or London. I accept that time can’t be reversed, but at this point I wonder how I’ll feel when I set foot in Slovenia again. You can’t go home away from home again. I know that at the least, I’ll miss the tolars.

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Let me tell you about my town…

Although when I started this blog I intended it as a personal outlet with which to sound off about anything and everything, rather than as an adjunct to a resume or one of those websites that shouts, “Here I am, look how great I be,” I don’t see anything wrong with occasionally trumpeting things I’ve done that I’m proud of — it is, after all, my website and if I don’t talk about this kind of stuff, who will?

This past year I’ve been lucky enough to have been keeping quite busy as a freelancer specializing in travel and business-oriented writing; I even restarted a long-dormant sideline (which used to be a main gig back in the day, in another life) of writing about music and musicians, this time for Austin’s daily newspaper, which I’m very happy about — it gives me an excuse to chat with and ask nosy questions of people like Nick Lowe and Amy Rigby, not to mention attending the occasional free concert in the middle of the week (I wouldn’t want to be out nightclubbing every night, even if I could stand to do that anymore, but once in a while is fine, it keeps the juices flowing, especially while feverishly scribbling in the dark as I listen to the goings-on on stage). I’ve also done quite a bit of writing about my adopted city of Austin for a variety of magazines, from Voyageur (the house organ of Carlson Hotels Worldwide) to Ty Pennington At Home.

In any event, back in April of 2007 I was approached by an editor at Fodor’s Travel asking if I’d like to update and expand listings for their Austin website — which I did, using the old, dated text as a framework, deleting closed restaurants (there were several), making notes of which hotels had changed ownership (quite a few), editing at will and adding reams of new copy.

That fall, I was tapped to write the Austin chapter of a forthcoming actual print guidebook; Fodor’s had published a guide to Texas over a decade ago, but it had been so long that this new project was treated as a first edition, which, essentially, it is. The book was published in July, and you can buy it here. A smaller guide to San Antonio, Austin, & the Hill Country, with expanded listings for those areas, came out in August.

Full disclosure: I only wrote what I estimate to be 85 percent of the Austin chapter (another writer handled most of the nightlife/entertainment section, because it was such a huge job and deadlines were short), but, yeah, I’m the guy you can blame if the chapter steers you wrong. It was a lot of work that felt at times like a final exam in being a Real Travel Writer, as I zipped around from one hotel to another like a lunatic (no, I didn’t stay in every one of these hotels overnight, but I did check out the rooms and public spaces thoroughly, from historic landmarks to highway off-ramp crash pads), dashed from one Austin Attraction to the next, gave some ink to a host of new shopping opportunities, laid down the Basics of Getting There and Getting Around (uh, no, you don’t need a car downtown), and familiarized myself with good and bad, cheap and luxe restaurants alike (and no, in case you’re wondering, I did not end up eating dozens of meals on the cuff). I took great delight in deleting two restaurants from the listings that in my opinion, had become faded tourist traps (I’m not saying which ones; if you know Austin well, you might deduce them from their absence), and a hotel or two with exceptionally rude front-desk staff.

I tried as hard as I could to be as current with the listings as possible, but of course, right after the deadline things happened like long-time restaurants closing and the city’s arena football and hockey teams (both minor-league affairs) folding. Chefs leave, shops close; what can you do. Call ahead. Check the web site.

In any case, I can now say that I’ve probably seen the interiors of more hotels in Austin than almost anyone except serial masochists and temporary maids.  During the course of my research, by the way, I determined that nearly all of these hotels either: a) have recently completed a major renovation, b) are in the middle of major renovations, or c) are planning major renovations next year.

Or at the least, they’re getting new carpeting and some chairs for the lobby. Oh, and Sleep Number beds are big. And if the place doesn’t have in-room flat-screen TVs yet? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Looking for a place to stay? Get in touch.

How to Be a Nonconformist: a fond remembrance

Even given my association with the Freecycle movement, I admit I’m still something of a pack rat when it comes to books and magazines — I’m better than I used to be, but I could stand to get rid of a fair amount of prose even I admit I’ll probably never seriously read through again. But I’ll never part with one slim volume that’s been in my possession for, gad, nearly 40 years now, and has lost none of its charm.

Those of you of a certain age will remember, in your school days, ordering inexpensive books by mail order from Scholastic Book Services. Oh, the excitement when the teacher would distribute the little paperbacks in class several weeks later. Nearly all the books I ordered from SBS are long vanished and forgotten, but not How To Be a Nonconformist, by Elissa Jane Karg. My yellowed but intact edition is the first printing, dated December 1968 (the original, non-SBS printing came out in 1967). In its satirical deconstruction of ’60s hippie/alternative culture centered around Greenwich Village (when alternative types could still reasonably expect to be able to afford living there), complete with artful, painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink drawings and lettering by the teenaged author, it was probably the first prolonged exposure to satire my spongelike nine-year-old brain had encountered. I ate up lines like, “Nonconformists smile only sarcastic & sardonic smiles,” “Nonconformists are cynical and questioning & consistently negative,” and “Playing in a band is cool. The more embittered & loud your songs are, the better,” as Elissa Jane Karg articulated concepts I was only beginning to intuit, decoding the secret rituals and belief systems of the mysterious hippie culture of the older Boomers, eight or ten or twelve years my senior. Even then, I thought a lot of it was silly. She did, too, and unlike almost all of her peers, she got the reason right.

Karg’s ultimate point, of course, was that if everybody does the nonconformist thing in exactly the same way, they’re as conformist as the people they’re rebelling against; in such circumstances, the real nonconformist is the person who embraces the square and the reactionary, or at least a short haircut (if you’re a boy) and eschewing flower-print dresses (if you’re a girl). Sort of a template for embryonic punk rockers, if you really want to push things.

Over the years I’d occasionally thumb through the little book and wonder what had become of Elissa Jane Karg, and a few years ago I surfed the Web and found that an Elissa Karg was the co-author of a book called Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists, and was apparently also a freelance writer in the Detroit area, reviewing restaurants for the Metro Times, an alternative weekly in that city.

Today, for reasons too boring to go into, I decided to Google Ms. Karg again and found that, wonder of wonders, How To Be a Nonconformist had been recently reprinted by a company called ONZO Media in Edina, Minnesota. You can buy a copy here for $10, which is 20 times more than my original purchase price of 50 cents in 1968 but still, I think, a fair bargain. (You can even order a highly cool T-shirt using Karg’s original drawings.)

Unfortunately, I also discovered that the Metro Times had also reported that Elissa Karg had died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.

Only a month before.

The Metro Times story reads:

<<Karg, who wrote for MT from the late ’90s until a few years ago, was a lifelong socialist who moved to Detroit in the early 1970s to become an organizer for the United Farm Workers during the grape boycott. She was briefly an autoworker before becoming a nurse for the homebound for 25 years. Karg also received a journalism degree from Wayne State University and is the author of the pamphlet Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists and the comical How to be a Non-Conformist, which she wrote in high school and was recently reprinted.>>

Elissa Karg, who was 57, leaves two daughters and one granddaughter.

How had she made that journey from promising young artist and writer, and editor of the literary magazine at her high school in Norwalk, Connecticut, to being a sometime auto worker, nurse, activist and restaurant reviewer in Detroit?

In the past, I occasionally thought about sending an e-mail to her and letting her know how much I liked her book, and how much of an early influence it was on me — in my thinking, in my writing, even in my general way of looking at the world. I’m really sorry, now, that I never followed through.

Rest in peace, Ms. Karg. You saw it clearly, and you walked it like you talked it.

Damn.

Want to be a writer? We did it, so can you

A lot of folks out there want to be writers, but only a few have the guts (and, just as important, the know-how) to set themselves up as home-based entrepreneurs. Sure, it’s an exacting and rewarding craft requiring actual creative thinking, but writers have to pay bills too, and should know how to get in touch with their inner marketer, accountant, and office manager. Thus, the need for books like How To Start A Home-Based Writing Business, by Lucy V. Parker (5th edition). I’d be happy to recommend this very useful guide even if Ms. Parker hadn’t included Mrs. Pogoer and me among several home-based writers she profiled in the current (fifth) edition.

Really, we’re tickled to be included and flattered that someone else (a fellow writer, too) thinks that our story is worthwhile reading for aspiring scribes.

So buy the book, already.

The media is the massage, or: What Bruce Sterling said (January 22, 2003)

[Blogger’s note: Here it is almost four years later — Bruce Sterling isn’t always right about everything, but how prescient was he that night in the bookstore?]

And then, there’s the media. I think of Laurie Anderson (who I really can’t stand otherwise for her snobbishness, self-indulgence and elitist attitude) when she remarked, as an aside during a concert, that she usually thinks of the media as “one giant slime mold.” Yes, it’s a cheap laugh. I don’t think of individual journalists as such, but when you consider that they are mere tools in the hands of the corporations they work for, and the interests said corporations represent, I have to give props to those journos who manage to let a bit of individual initiative slip through. It hasn’t been an easy quarter-century or so in which to journalize. Last night I went to Austin’s largest independent bookstore to hear sci-fi author and futurist Bruce Sterling (who you could call an early Late Boomer, having been born in `54, and with the graying longish hair to prove it). He was there to promote his new non-fiction book Tomorrow Now, in which he attempts to predict the next 50 years.

Among other things, he warned us to prepare for a season of major protest in the US in the very near future. (Worse things could happen…)

While I sat in the third row and listened intently to Chairman Bruce, I could feelmy cerebral cortex overheating and threatening to blow. The guy sees the big pic and takes a  very long view, and, like the best journalists, attempts to make sense out of seeming chaos. I wasn’t covering the event for any outlet, but found myself making notes out of habit…

Among Sterling’s many provocative statements, here’s a standout: “All the demonstrators are saying No War For Oil. Eventually, you realize that the war is oil. If you have oil, you can get away with anything. It’s worse than heroin. Everyone who gets near it is corrupted. Look at Enron. It’s the devil’s work. And coal is worse. If Saddam Hussein didn’t have any oil, he would have been gone long ago.”

Sterling described the antiwar marches last weekend in Florence, Italy as “a 7 km long march” composed of scads of different groups, not one of them talking to another. It’s a gathering with precious little cross-pollinating dialogue, he said, adding that chaos is no substitute for bad government; “if the sewers don’t work, you’re screwed.” You could say as much for the protests last weekend in the US. Here’s a topic for discussion: is the peace movement’s lack of centralization its fatal flaw? Do we need a leftist Mussolini type (or a Lenin) to organize the peace activists into an effective critical-mass organism (or, a big giant slime mold)? Or do we leave well enough alone?

As for the media, he adds, “There isn’t any difference between media and surveillance. They’re the same thing. This is something we’re doing to each other.” Which is something that, as a journalist, he added, he’s profoundly ambivalent about. Security vs. privacy is a major concern: “Nobody blind-dates you anymore, they’re gonna Google you on the spot!” (He also expressed reservations about doing a public reading in his hometown, because he doesn’t like to be recognized at 2 a.m. in the supermarket.)

In Sterling’s words, he’s “neither an optimist nor a pessimist; I’m just engaged.” As for me, I’m just an interested observer asking questions…

You can view Sterling’s blog here.

Peace of mind, y’all.

Paging Pogoer (January 15, 2003)

[In response to the moderator’s  recent posts about the deaths of Joe Strummer and Andy Gibb, with Pete Townshend’s bust for allegedly possessing kiddie porn thrown in for good measure]

I arrived home last night from a week in NY and NJ with the Fiancee, visiting our respective families and arranging our big fat New Jersey wedding in April (no, it’s no fun doing it from a distance). It was tiring, and we could’ve done without the January wind whipping along the Jersey waterfront, not to mention the long slog home to BBQ Land through various airports (made more arduous by the addition of several heavy gift packages courtesy of the Fiancee’s surprise bridal shower last Sunday; we mailed some home via UPS, but not quite enough). Still, it’s exhilarating to us to think that it’s finally, at our semi-advanced ages, Our Turn. (In short, here’s my take on getting hitched: it’s a relief to find out you’re human after all, like everybody else, and rather than it being a handicap to find out you need and can be moved by other people, that it has everything to do with coming around to being who you were meant to be from the start, your better self.)

Today the Fiancee bought a blue-velvet-lined wooden storage chest to hold the good gift flatware: startling to look at this item and realize it doesn’t belong to my parents.

As to the other recent topics: I’m generally reluctant to post to a board when some rock star dies, because I believe that musicians and artists — actually, people in general — should be celebrated (and in some cases, reviled) while they’re still among us. What good does it do them to get all these encomiums now, and what good does it do us to do the encomiuming (or whatever)? I know, the bell tolls for thee and it’s ingrained in us, but still. Not that I haven’t felt badly or wanted to communicate my feelings to others (God knows) when a favorite musician died, but (call me churlish) I felt much worse when I thought that the artist still had some of their best work left in them, and/or when they died as a result of a dumb accident rather than by self-abuse, suicide or stupidity, or after they’d long since played themselves out.

I have absolutely nothing against Joe Strummer — I like “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored with the USA” as much as anyone, and he was a good role model, sure; it’s just that he was never my rock god of choice in the late `70s/early `80s, and along with most of his older fans, I wasn’t listening to his recent output. I never cared about the Bee Gees even as objects of nostalgia (though they recorded a few good tunes in the late `60s) and the posthumous media circus surrounding Gibb is as dignified as Ted Williams in the freezer. As for poor old Pete Townshend, the hooha surrounding his `research’ (and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that it was just that) illustrates the alarming tendency of the American press to succumb to the worst instincts of their Brit counterparts, as well as the  reat Anglo-American alarmist tradition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, no pun intended. Not to be Pollyanna, but I believe the world is a much better place than you’d think it was if you got all your information from newspapers and TV, rather than walking outside and using your five senses.

All of these recent stories do get you thinking, however, about the subject of the graceful exit. How does one know when it’s time to retire, or at least, to do something else? Should one rely solely on the little inner voice, or does one really have to wait for the tabloids to deflate your balloon? Subject for further study.

Since we’ve been discussing books, here’s what I’m reading these days: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. A fascinating collection of I-wuz-there quotes by a sizable cast of (real) characters; I like it because it just lays the data out there and lets you make up your own mind.

Oh, I still have my old 45’s. Why would anyone get rid of them?