The Road Less Traveled
The Snake and I: Close Encounter with a Spitting Cobra
By Tammar Stein
I live in Singapore and a year into the pandemic, with the borders closed, the city-state was starting to close in on me. Every day, the sun rose at 7am and set at 7pm. Every day, the weather was hot, humid, and bright with occasional torrential cloud bursts. Every day, there were Bentleys and Porches, glass-and-steel high-rises, and sharp-eyed Safe Distance Ambassadors ready to enforce the rules. The pandemic locked 5.7 million of us in a high-functioning bubble, and inside the bubble we all stayed. The days blurred together, one season indistinguishable from the next.
I feel deeply grateful to live in a country with miniscule rates of transmission, and most days I could handle the restrictions with ease, grateful for everything the government was doing to keep its inhabitants safe. But there were days when I felt trapped, jumping out of my skin, unravelling in my confinement.
My Children And Other Animals
By Alex Byrd Jones
Here in Italy, where I live with my family, the cockroaches are small and crafty things. You almost never see them. They stay well out of sight, and their only desire is to be left alone with those microscopic fragments of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that they might be so lucky to gather here or there. I mean, who could blame them? They’re shy creatures, and frankly, kind of cute.
And yet my kids are terrified of them. Now teenagers, my children are far smarter and world-wise than I was at the same age. Nevertheless they won’t even approach certain corners of our apartment where a cockroach was seen several years before.
Now, I’d consider myself a father of the most encouraging and nurturing kind, but I find my children’s fear of Italian cockroaches unacceptable. They have no idea of the epic cockroach battles my sister and I went through in...
Living in Amazing Thailand
By George Fuller
I moved to Thailand in 2001 as part of my job at the time and immediately fell in love with the country and its people. I thought that if I tried hard enough to adapt, I might even think about becoming a Thai citizen. As it turns out I was both naive and downright wrong.
It is theoretically possible for a foreigner to become a Thai citizen, but it is practically impossible culturally. I thought that having a Thai wife would make it inevitable that I would become a Thai citizen, but I was wrong. Having a Thai wife did help me become a permanent resident, but going any further would have been a mistake. Unlike the U.S., which is a nation based on an idea, Thailand is a nation based on an ethnic identity. In fact when Siam changed its name to Thailand (twice actually: first in 1939 and...
The Lacquer Boxes of Fedoskino
By Hayley Alexander
Most visitors to Russia - and even those who have never been there - are familiar with at least two traditional Russian handcrafted items. The first and most widely recognized are the stacking wooden matrushka dolls. The second are the lacquered papier-mâché boxes.
[”The Morning of the Streltsy Execution,” lacquer plaque detail with mother of pearl. Original oil by Vasily Surikov, Tretyakov Gallery Moscow]
Like all handmade items and souvenirs popular with tourists, there are the exceptionally good, the good, the not so good, and yes the ugly, each with commensurate price ranges. My wife Linda and I, new expatriates in Moscow, found that the matrushka dolls held little appeal for us, but the lacquer boxes did. While working at the U.S. Embassy, Linda became acquainted with a Russian woman, Anya, who knew many artists in Fedoskino, the first of four towns to produce the traditional lacquer boxes (others being...
Living in Japan: Personal Impressions
By Wendy Jones Nakanishi
I feel I know Japan and the Japanese well. I am the beneficiary of circumstances that have made that knowledge possible. I have lived here for over thirty years: not in some anonymous city but in a rural area where local families trace back their history for centuries, and customs have remained largely unchanged in the space of living memory. I am married to a Japanese farmer and have three biracial sons, and we inhabit a neighborhood that is like an extended enclave of my husband’s family.
This has granted me the privilege of seeing the private side of the Japanese: to observe them in their ordinary family lives – at home, at play. But I also have encountered the professional or public side. I have been employed full-time since my arrival, at a private Japanese university. I have attended countless meetings and worked on many committees. When I am at...
In Full Bloom
By Victoria Hess
This story is about tampons.
You still there?
Really, it is about tampons and toilet paper, and me being a “virgin expat” moving to my first foreign country. My husband’s employer thought little enough of the local economy that it paid for us to ship a massive amount of consumables, so we wouldn’t run out of things that we needed during our two-year tour. I was 30 and newly wed, and I was supposed to figure out how much toilet paper, tampons, soap, sugar, oil, cereal, and other critical items we would use while we lived in a war-ravaged country at the ends of the Earth.
Iraq. 1988. Between the wars.
I didn’t even have to go shopping for most of it. I sat in my living room, looking at a typewritten catalog of non-perishable grocery items and thinking to myself that the locals must eat something. This was pre-internet, complicating my research....
Can and Can’t in Casablanca
By Nicolas Ridley
Mid-evening in a neighbourhood bistro in the sixième. Elizabeth has been listening to me politely but she is puzzled. Although — en principe — she is a firm anglophile, changing her name from ‘Elisabeth’ to ‘Elizabeth’ at an early age, she sometimes finds the English themselves a little odd. The purpose of my present journey, for example, mystifies her completely.
—You want to make sense of Morocco? she says. Forget it. You can’t. There’s no sense to be made of Morocco.
—Not so much Morocco, I say. Casablanca. I’d like to remember Casablanca. Or to try to remember it. The place itself. The time I spent there …
—Casablanca has gone, she says. It no longer exists. That Casablanca — the Casablanca when we knew each other — isn’t there. It may never have been there.
I fill Elizabeth’s glass and then my own. In the past she would have lighted a...
Farewell to Purgatorial Eden
By Kirsten Bauman
Today is Friday. I’m moving soon and my growing to-do list is daunting. First, I have to cash a check at the bank so I can pay my household staff. There’s my indispensable nanny, the housekeeper-cook who also does the grocery shopping, the gardener who doubles as a security guard and driveway gate opener, and the driver whose sole job it is to pick my two toddlers up from their preschool every afternoon. I also have to remember to leave money for the children’s last weekly French class and organize our last Saturday with friends at the Sheraton pool resort where our family has a membership. And then there’s the goodbye party to plan.
Not bad for a mid-level U.S. government bureaucrat. But there’s a catch. I live in Africa, a place where all these luxuries are negated by the shadows cast by Ethiopia’s dark side. It is a...
Night Dude and the Second Society Take on the Forces of Chaos Following Revolution
By Tamar Donovan
As soon as we moved into our new home in Cairo, we learned that a fact of life in the city was the presence in apartment and office buildings of a class of worker known as bowabs, or porters. Bowabs were expected to collect trash from residents’ front doors, sweep and mop the stairwells and lobby, escort meter readers and delivery men, and generally keep an eye on the building’s comings and goings.
The bowabs in our building lived in a plain, tiny apartment with threadbare furnishings; they were a young and fluid population, groups of two and three boys at a time coming to try life in the big city and returning to the village when it got to be too much. Other bowabs on our street lived with their wives and children in tiny spaces carved out of lobbies and parking garages. I called the porters and...
The Accidental American
By Catherine Tondelli
The year was 2001, and I had come to London one year earlier for two reasons. One was because I was offered a dream job working as the business development director for a global architectural firm designing five-star hotels in some of the most spectacular locations in the world – Tahiti, Seychelles, Dubai, Fiji, and the Maldives.
The other reason was to be closer to the love of my life, Fausto, whom I had met one year earlier at the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
I was living out my dream of an international, cosmopolitan life, commuting every other week to Rome. I had traveled extensively before moving to London and felt I was culturally open. I felt at ease with all of the people I worked with – whether Arabs, Australians, South Africans, Israelis, or Scots – and I thought of myself foremostly as a global citizen who just...
By Regina Landor
Mounds of red peppers are suddenly on display everywhere we go in our neighborhood in Belgrade: in the market, on the side of the road, and in the trunks of people’s cars. Sweet red peppers abound in this region, and it is a tradition – a very, very longstanding one – to roast the peppers in the fall and make ajvar, a sweet red pepper relish. Lots and lots of ajvar is made. People make jars of it to store for the winter months, in order to have some all year. As we drive through the winding roads of Koshutniak Park behind our home, we even see people roasting the peppers over an open grill, a large pile of peppers next to them.
I am invited to an ajvar- making day at the home of my new friend, Indira, a Bosnian woman who is married to an American diplomat....
The £400 Fruitcake and Other Lessons on Fitting In
By Jennifer Richardson
Looking back, I pinpoint the end of my love affair with London to this moment: I was paying for a pint of milk at our dingy local convenience store—optimistically referred to as the corner shop—when, in midflow of taking my money, the shopkeeper vigorously spat on the floor.
For the past two years, I had ruthlessly deployed my American-expat optimism in overlooking this sort of deflating aspect of daily London life. Miniscule, closet-less flats and $20 hamburgers had evaporated from my consciousness in the face of the splendor of a morning commute through Kensington Gardens. But now, I had been undone by expectorate. When my British husband received a modest inheritance that was enough to upsize us in our yet-to-gentrify neighborhood but not to deliver us into the genteel reaches of say, Kensington and Chelsea, there was only one thing to do. We jumped at the chance to...
Boy on the Bus: Crossing Paths with the Roma
By Regina Landor
I am riding on the bus in Belgrade on a gray, cold afternoon when I see out of the window a small boy and his pregnant mother walking toward the bus. They are Gypsies, or Roma. I watch the little boy get on, but his mother seems to have disappeared. He’s holding a stocking hat, rocking slightly from foot to foot as he stands in front of each passenger, hoping for money. Surprisingly, people are putting in small bills. I turn around and realize why I hadn’t seen his mother: they split up and she sent him forward to appear as if he were alone. She is sitting in the very back of the bus. Our eyes meet. I quickly look away. She doesn’t need my judgment.
The child, who looks about four or five, is wearing gym shoes that are at least one size too big, baggy pants,...
Skiing with the Serbs
By Amanda Fernandez
We took the road towards Pale, into the heart of Bosnia’s Republika Serbska, twisting through mountains which had once been a favorite hideout for teams of the Yugoslav National Army artillery and snipers. Most of the mines had been cleared, but inclement weather would carry some down to the road every so often, blowing up pedestrians or cars.
We were three heady American women in our twenties, emboldened by the U.S.-led effort that ended the Balkan war after years of failed European negotiations, and had spent the last year working in destroyed villages, avoiding minefields, and helping rebuild a region destroyed by war.
Photo by John O'Brien
It had taken a toll on our It had taken a psyches. So one weekend, we set aside our usual security concerns as well as our ideals, and simply became three ski lovers, missing home and itching for a road trip. Even...
Loi Krathong: Festival of Lights, Laughter and Love
By Apple Gidley
We arrived in Bangkok in May towards the end of the dry, hot season and just in time for the monsoons. It is a popular misconception amongst farang (foreigners) that the monsoon season brings months of relentless rain. In reality, we were headed into five months of complete unpredictability. One day would be cloud-free, though with hair-curlingly high humidity, and the next we would be wading through the garden with all manner of creatures that had risen with the waters of the nearby klong (canal).
We called the canal Sweetwater Creek. It was anything but. In fact, it was a sluggish slew of water with additives of various kinds, from human waste to kitchen scraps. When the rains came, our little pond in the garden would overflow, along with the rather spectacular goldfish I had foolishly been talked into buying. They happily mingled with the lesser varieties from the klong...
Learning from Daouda
By Kari Masson
“Asalaam malecum,” I said, greeting the man wearing a lab coat as I took off my plastic sandals and entered the building. I had only been in the West African country of Senegal for a few months, but already my cultural eyes were adjusting. I could see that this small, cement block structure, with no water or electricity, was a symbol of progress for the Lébou village of Sindou. Unlike its neighbors, the town now had a medical clinic.
When malaria made its annual trek through the country, the villagers would have a place to go for medicine. When their children fell on the jagged ocean rocks, they could be stitched up. They had someone they could trust, one of their own who had come home to help them. They also had me, an American fresh out of college who stumbled through their language and didn’t know the first thing...
No More Pork Chops: My Ghana Experience
By Magdalena Travis, age 10
In the summer of 2004, my family moved to Accra, Ghana. I was seven years old then. This was the first time in my life I was going to live in Africa. On the one hand, I did not want to say goodbye to my friends in Poland where my family and I had been living - my Dad works for the U.S. State Department and Krakow was our first post. On the other hand, I was curious: what would Africa feel like? My image of Africa was a big sand dune with elephants, giraffes and zebras, covered with plantain trees and coconut palms.
Well, this was one of the times when I was wrong. Accra is a busy town with dusty winds from the Sahara during the harmattan season. Over the two years I spent here, a great number of exciting things happened. In Mole National Park, I saw...
The Bookseller of Dhaka
By Michael Bedford
Rain swept across the patio, flowing almost parallel to the ground. Coconut palms on the perimeter bent severely, whipped in the heavy winds. The South Asian nation of Bangladesh was leaving the season of grisma and entering barsa, the monsoon season. Grisma is a difficult season, between the dry coolness of December to February and the heat and flooding monsoon rains starting in June. In grisma, Bangladesh suffers from worsening drought conditions - ironic in a nation with the world’s largest river delta and a reputation for massive floods. Rivers and streams dry up and become navigational nightmares.
The arrival of the monsoons is welcome, drawing cooler air, heavy rains and strong winds off the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh is quickly transformed back into a land of water, with some of the largest river systems in the world overflowing their banks, driving millions of people from their homes. Raindrops fall...
Sí Soy Vegetariana: Yes, I'm a Vegetarian
By Nichole M. Martinson
“Nicholasa, you’re going to have a hard time in Spain with the food,” one Spaniard told me.
“Why are you going to Spain? You know they eat nothing but meat,” an American friend inquired.
“You’ll at least try the jamon, right?”
News flash: Ham has just joined chicken on the international list of not-meat meats.
I wasn’t even two hours out of the United States when the challenge and confusion around my not eating meat started to take shape. My vegetarian specialty meal was chucked like a shotput onto my tray; so much for the friendly skies. We’re all painfully aware that airplane cuisine is the worst on the planet, but that didn’t excuse the bland, overcooked, non-flavored meal set before me. I’ll give Iberia Airlines credit for not widening my thighs with fattening dairy products and sugar, but no meat does not mean no taste.
I had conducted...
American Junk Food Addict Visits Vienna
By Sarah S. Rhodes
David was arriving! We had been looking forward to his visit for six months. We couldn’t wait to show him the sights of Vienna. After all, he was my 11-year-old son’s best friend from the United States.
Also, his parents had been so gracious and generous to our family over the years. We seemed to share so many things in common: an interest in foreign affairs, traveling, leading professional lives, reading The New York Times, modernizing old homes but retaining their charm, gardening and cooking. David’s trip here would be a wonderful learning experience, they said.
Let’s just say it was an experience.
Oh, we tried to make it wonderful. We showed David Hundertwasser Haus, the colorful “playhouse” by designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and we showed him Schoenbrunn Palace, with its coach collection and formal gardens. And we tried to make it educational. We showed him the Hofburg, the imperial palace...
By Maria Bauer
Bebachshit, dashui kojast? (Excuse me, where is the washroom?)
Dar Anjoman Irano-Emrika’st. (It is in the Iran-American Society.)
We, a small group of Foreign Service Officers’ wives recently arrived in Tehran, were dutifully repeating the sentences of the Persian lessons which the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute had devised. That we were not bored to tears was entirely due to Najmeh Ashgar, our teacher, who held our complete attention. With her large black eyes and jet black hair contrasting with her porcelain-white skin, she had the characteristic features of a beautiful young Persian woman. There was a glow about her, an animation and enthusiasm that completely captivated us. She obviously enjoyed teaching us and somehow managed to enliven these idiotic dialogues with amusing, typically Persian idioms in order to convey to us the special flavor of her language.
“May your shadow never grow less” (may you remain healthy) and “May...
Perfectly Good Stuff
By Chris Ward
In Japan, no one has any room to store much of anything, and when you get something new you have to get rid of something old to make room for the something new. When you get rid of it, if it’s big, you have to call the “sodai gomi” (big garbage) agency to find out what day they can pick up your sodai gomi; then you put it out on the sidewalk and they come and pick it up. End of story, unless you’re a gaijin living in Japan. You drive by and see perfectly good stuff sitting on the sidewalk and say, “Jeez, that’s perfectly good stuff! They’re throwing it away! We could use that! Let’s take it!” This is what happened to someone you know just the other day – we’ll call him Bud.
Bud was riding along on his bike in his business suit. He was on...
Looking for a living God
By Amanda Holmes
Those colorfull gingerbread domes will take your breath away. But Saint Basil’s Cathedral on the inside seemed less a destination than a series of vestibules. There was a labyrinth of interconnected chapels, mostly under scaffolding. God was either lost, or too difficult to find. So I left. I saw the dead god first.
It was November 11, 1993. “Now’s our chance,” Ben said, “before it’s too late.” Ours was a circus-gawking impulse and we knew that. To pay respects was hardly the motive. We just wanted to scratch the tourist itch. Lenin would have hated us for it.
Even so, it was the notion of a last chance that made the thing urgent. Sentiment over communism was at an all-time low. There had been talk of moving Lenin from the mausoleum to a final resting place next to his wife. I had read how they treated the body in chemical...