Friday, October 29, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Roman Chestnuts

Our guest this week is Patricia Winton, who writes traditional mysteries that focus on Italian cuisine, inspired by years of eating in the country. She has enjoyed languid summer lunches under a grape arbor in the Tuscan hills, shared a dish of tripe with complete strangers sitting elbow to elbow at a Florentine market, and learned to make pasta by hand from an Italian chef. Her work features an Italian-American journalist who has returned to her mother’s native Italy after losing her job when her newspaper folds, her husband when he finds a younger model, and her mother when breast cancer wins the battle. A native of the American South, Patricia now lives in Rome. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and its Guppy chapter.

My first apartment in Italy was on Via dei Castagni, Chestnut Tree Street. It was a funny little apartment with a kitchen where both the top of the fridge and the sink struck me below my hip bone. I always entered the kitchen in a crouch. When I moved there I’d never seen a chestnut tree because disease had destroyed most of those in North America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Oh, I’d seen beautiful old furniture crafted from chestnut wood, and I’d memorized portions of Longfellow’s “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” in school, so the name of my street had a romantic allure. It was inevitable that I would fall in love with chestnuts while I lived there. Now, many years later, I always think of that apartment at chestnut harvest time.

And chestnut harvest time it is. In the chestnut woods, where the trees can soar to 50 feet (15 meters), families carry baskets and wear protective gloves to gather these jewels. The nuts have a spiny outer shell that can really stick you. Fortunately, these outer shells tend to split open before the nuts fall. Each one contains two to five chestnuts, and when they fall, it seems that more chestnuts occupy that outer spiny shell than lie on the ground. Thus the gloves. In the markets, mounds of these shiny brown orbs are appearing. I walked up and down the market yesterday looking for the biggest ones I could find. I boiled some last night with a bay leaf. They are so sweet that I’ve eaten almost all I cooked even though I wanted them for tonight’s dinner.

And best of all, the caldarrostai, roast chestnut sellers, are setting up their grills in the piazzas in central Rome. The aroma of roasting chestnuts wafts up the Spanish Steps and meanders through narrow little streets. The caldarrostaio sits before a large round grill with a lower level filled with charcoal and a flat, perforated top. He slits the chestnut shells with a sharp, short-handled knife before putting them on the grill. The chestnuts that have already roasted are heaped onto a waiting tray the same size as the grill. The caldarrostaio can maneuver the tray over the grill to keep the chestnuts hot. When a customer stops, he (and they all seem to be men), scoops up a serving of hot chestnuts with a slotted spoon and pours them into a paper cone. The streets are littered with chestnut shells at this time of year.

I love the scent, but I have to admit that I never buy roast chestnuts in the street. I watch tourists eagerly taking their paper cones and give myself a secret hug because I know that I can recreate that aroma and flavor at home. I use a chestnut roasting pan which looks rather like a long-handled frying pan with quarter-inch holes in the bottom.  The caldarrostaio’s grill has a similar surface, but it’s much bigger. You can use these pans over an open fire as in The Christmas Song or over a gas flame on the kitchen stove. Or you can roast them in the oven. One enterprising Italian friend uses the microwave, but his wife points out that the ensuing smoke has discolored her microwave from pristine white to grungy yellow.

One caution, if you decide to roast chestnuts. They are like popcorn. Steam accumulates under the shell, and the chestnuts will explode as they heat up. Because chestnuts are much larger than popcorn, they can become deadly missiles as they burst. To eliminate this danger, you must cut through the shell to allow steam to escape. For years, I tried cutting a circle around the middle of the chestnuts,  but I’ve adapted the method of the caldarrostai. They cut a slit over the curved side so that when the steam escapes, the shell opens up revealing the creamy nut underneath. I slice an X into the flat side with a box cutter. The X opens up, making it simple to remove the shell.

Chestnuts have been a mainstay in the Italian diet at least since Roman times. They are available fresh during the autumn and dried year round. You can even buy chestnut marmalade and chestnut flour. My Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking has almost fifty recipes, ranging from pasta to main dishes to dessert. There’s a beef stew made with dried chestnuts, carrots, and onions; an exotic ostrich steak with chestnuts and raisins; many soups, especially with chick peas; and a host of desserts ranging from puddings to cakes.

Now, I think I'll head for the kitchen to make sausage with chestnuts for dinner.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Speakers' Corner: The Place Where Everyone Gets Heard

I watched as Gavin White, an independent filmmaker, explored the past and present of London’s Speakers' Corner, dubbed “the single best known place for free speech on the planet,” and wondered why we don’t have one in Central Park in New York. I had walked by the Speakers' Corner in London, and more than once. While the concept probably wouldn’t survive in the stricter, more prohibitive cultures, the Gotham city should’ve been able to handle it. For now, I bow to the Brits.

White’s documentary takes us through an engaging and thought-provoking series of clips shot at Speakers' Corner over a few years, ranging from criticism of every political system known to man to a heated debate about the Islamic marriage practice, and from modern gay and lesbian issues to Christianity and atheism. Yet, some speakers stand out of the crowd even in this eclectic sea of humanity. “I preach love,” declares a speaker whose platform seems to be completely apolitical and religion-neutral. He shares a few bits of his wisdom. “There was a Swedish girl here last week. She listened to a nutcase on the left, to a psycho on the right, and came to me. And we had an absolutely wonderful evening together!”

“You have the right to remain vocal,” says the civil right activist and revolutionary, Heiko Khoo, featured in the documentary. A son of a Chinese mother and a German father, he was interviewed about the history of Speakers’ Corner as well as taped during his political and cultural debates. As the film progresses, we learn that Speakers' Corner was frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, C.L.R. James, Ben Tillett, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and William Morris. Interestingly enough, this symbol of free speech started as a place for public execution – it was home of the notorious Tyburn hanging tree. Later the tree was replaced by triangular-shaped gallows with each beam able to hold eight people at once. When a convicted person was about to be hung, he was allowed to speak to the crowd, which often gathered hundreds of people, and say anything he wanted. For the first time in his life, he was about to be truly heard.

A native Australian, White had just moved from Melbourne to London to work as a producer on “The Media Report,” a show for European Business News, when he discovered the Speakers’ Corner phenomena. “I was broke and discovering London, looking for a film project that wouldn’t take me away from my day job,” White recalled.
One Sunday, while walking through Hyde Park with his sister, he saw a crowd at the Speakers’ Corner and was hooked. As it was only held on Sundays and didn’t interfere with his work schedule, White explained, “It was the perfect subject for a documentary!”

The Speakers’ Corner project took close to 11 years of White’s life, during which he filmed every Sunday for 3-4 years through every season. “It was quite a labor of love,” he reveals. “The project languished for a while due to lack of funds, but eventually I convinced enough people to assist and make it a reality.”

Gavin White currently resides in San Francisco where he runs a company that provides text-based media to poor communities around the world using an online platform called Mobilize. His documentary Speaker’s Corner was recently screened at the Astoria/Long Island City Film Festival in New York.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pearls, Princesses, and Perspective

Way back when my book idea first started taking shape, it took me a while to figure out how to frame it, even whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction. If it were fiction, I figured, it would probably be of the literary sort, because that’s mostly what I read back then, plus I knew I wanted to pluck interesting details from history and current affairs to layer my story. Then I stumbled across a unique mystery series by Sujata Massey, and it changed everything.

I wish I could remember which of her books I’d read first. It may have been Zen Attitude or The Samurai’s Daughter. I don’t remember now because after I read that first one, I devoured the rest of the series in a matter of weeks. The series follows Massey’s protagonist, Rei Shimura, a hip, twenty-something Californian with a Japanese father and American mother, on her adventures between San Francisco and Tokyo, two worlds in which she is equally comfortable, as she hops between jobs and love affairs across the continents. 

Along the way, Rei gets swept up in various intrigues, mostly involving murder, and readers get to learn about all kinds of interesting stuff—from antiquing, diplomacy, pearls, tropical storms, homophobia abroad, war crimes, age-old Japanese customs, and so much more. Massey’s writing is always a treat. I was sorry when in 2008, she ended her successful series with the tenth installment, Shimura Trouble. (On the upside, she has a forthcoming historical suspense novel set in India we can look forward to. Can't wait.)

I hadn’t read many mysteries before these, but soon I began devouring other mystery subgenres, such as police procedurals, cozies, thrillers, historical, and futuristic. And yet Massey's series still stands out. She featured a main character who essentially grew up in several cultures and so approached life and crime-solving from her own unique perspective. As a reader, I loved the ease with which her protagonist moved from one world to another and how Massey was able to cover so many elements through this type of fiction that I too wanted to write—cultural themes, obviously, but also generous dabs of historical context, societal issues, travel, and of course, lots of adventure and mystery.

It’s taken me a while to find other authors who bridge such cultural divides, but they’re out there. My favorites are the Scandinavian authors. Of course, most everyone’s heard about, if not read, Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s runaway-bestselling thrillers. But there are quite a few fine novelists from his part of the world whom you should not miss.

One of my favorites is Icelandic author, Arnaldur Indradason, and in particular, his book, The Draining Lake. It features a detective investigating a crime that connects two cultures I knew very little about—Iceland, of course, but also communist-era Leipzig, Germany. Don’t let the remoteness of either place put you off. It’s an incredible story that weaves readers between the present and the Soviet era and two fascinating cultures that will leave you wanting to know more about each of them.

Henning Mankell connects crimes that take place in his native Sweden to events around the world, using settings as compelling as China, Eastern Europe, and across Africa. Norwegian author, Karen Fossum, wrote a novel called The Indian Bride that I found especially intriguing because it gave me a balanced view on how rural Norwegians view both immigrants and India.

Another of my favorites is Lisa See’s fascinating Red Princess Mystery series. Her powerful, intricate thrillers center on a pair of main characters—one an ethnic Chinese raised in the States and another an American who moves to China—caught up in international intrigue. See weaves in cultural and political topics seamlessly.

What books have you enjoyed, mystery or otherwise, that gave you a glimpse into life in other countries?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When The Storyteller Becomes The Story

The scene opens at a movie-theatre in Mexico City, 1976. The place is a hot-bed of anticipation with people waiting for the premier release of a movie about the plane crash survivors in the Andes who turned to cannibalism.

A handsome man with expressive eyebrows rushes up the aisle. The intensity in his eyes catches peoples’ attention and their gaze follows his heavy footsteps. Another man, this one with a smile as wide as the Amazon River, turns to greet his friend with a warm embrace but ends up with a fist in the eye. The crowd gasps. Women scream. Men yell. Blood oozes from the man’s eye, across his cheek and onto the carpet.

If I didn’t know better, this could be a cliffhanger ending for a South American telenovela (soap opera). But it isn’t. It’s a slightly fictionalized version of events that unfolded between two of South America’s literary heavy-weights – Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The encounter between these former best friends has been playing on my mind a lot lately, probably due to Mario Vargas Llosa winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. It’s hard to imagine the winner of such a distinguished award duking it out in public with a colleague and (former) best friend. Admittedly, the Llosa/Márquez altercation happened over thirty years ago but we’re still talking about it. It proves that everyone, including acclaimed writers, have their own stories to tell.

So what is Mario Vargas Llosa’s story? Born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936, Mario was an only child. His parents separated, and Mario was sent to a military academy in Lima which became the inspiration for The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad y Los Perros). The book criticized the Peruvian military and as a result, they burned thousands of copies. This launched Vargas Llosa as an influential public figure and offered him a chance to use his writing as a way of changing the way people think. He even ran for the Peruvian presidency (and lost) in 1990.

I first encountered the works of Vargas Llosa after reading García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me. Even though these men haven’t spoken to each other for more than three decades, they are linked together whether they like it or not. Both have won Nobel Prizes for literature, Vargas Llosa wrote a doctoral thesis in 1971 about García Márquez, and they both lead the fore of influential and classical South American literature (especially in terms of magical realism). And neither will blab about what really happened that night in Mexico City.

Over the years, Vargas Llosa has criticized García Márquez for his friendship with Fidel Castro. Some say the fallout leading up to the most famous punch in Latin America was over politics. Others say it was over a woman – Vargas Llosa’s wife to be exact. Rumor has it García Márquez took it upon himself to console Vargas Llosa’s wife after he told her about an extramarital affair Mario had. Vargas Llosa has been quoted as saying the historians will be the ones to find out the truth.

In 2007 Vargas Llosa provided the forward for García Márquez’s 40th anniversary edition of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Writing a forward for the man he doesn't talk to is a mystery in itself. And when the 2010 Nobel announcement was made, Garcia Márquez tweeted (yes, even the world’s best authors tweet), “Cuentas igaules” (“Now we’re even”). It looks like there’s an almighty “to be continued” slapped on this episode of the Márquez/Llosa telenovela.

Which writers do you admire and how closely do their life stories mirror their fiction?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bending the Rules

Growing up in Tehran, my husband watched John Wayne movies and Roadrunner cartoons, but he never developed an appreciation for Iran’s art cinema. “The films stop in the middle of the story,” he complains. So when it comes to choosing which Iranian movies to watch, I’m usually the one who makes the decision.

One film we both love is Offside, written and directed by Jafar Panahi. It tells the story of six female soccer fans who disguise themselves as boys and sneak into a World Cup qualifying match at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. As the English subtitles state during the opening credits, the Iranian authorities ban women from men’s sporting events. Part of the film was shot during a real-life World Cup qualifying match between the home team and Bahrain.

The disguises are flimsy—two of the girls try to comply with Islamic modesty practices by wearing scarves under their baseball caps, while another wears a military uniform that does little to hide her womanly curves. Separately, they are quickly found out and placed in a makeshift holding pen outside the stadium to await punishment for breaking Iran’s gender separation laws. They follow the game blind, able to hear but not see the action behind the wall of their “jail.”

Panahi tells his story with humor that points out the absurdity of imposing a custom in a society where strict gender separation is not part of the culture. When the women plead with their guards to let them watch the game through a crack in the wall while waiting for the authorities to decide their fate, they receive the official line: the ban is to protect them from the foul language of men in the excitement of the game.

“We promise not to listen,” one girl replies.

What I find delightful about this film is the way it reflects an aspect of Iranian society that has long fascinated me: ordinary people tweaking the rules of their restrictive world to live life on their own terms, and to hell with the consequences. Pushing the envelope of acceptable social behavior has become almost a national pastime among young, upwardly mobile Iranians.

As a visitor to the country, bending the rules is not an option for me. Partly out of respect for the conservative segment of Iranian society, but also because I don’t know where to draw the line. Which rules are flexible and which ones are carved in stone?

When I bring up the subject, a common response is, “we don’t know where to draw the line, either,” usually accompanied by a nonchalant shrug. But they do know. Relatives tug at my scarf on a trip to the upscale Tandis mall in North Tehran. “Show more hair. You look too Islamic.” But on visiting an important shrine near Tehran, I found that the chador was mandatory attire (fortunately rented at the door) and had to ask some helpful ladies for a crash course in the proper way to wear it. They giggled at my attempts to walk with the huge cloth wrapped around my body—and without falling flat on my face.

With each trip to Iran, I understand these nuances of social behavior a little better, but I won’t be watching any soccer games from the bleachers in Azadi Stadium any time soon. The locals can tweak all the rules they want. I’ll sit back and watch Offside one more time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Off The Beaten Track: Headdress Diplomacy

Canadian crime writer Anthony Bidulka counts academia, accounting, footwear, food services, and farming among his former careers. A decade ago, he left all that behind to write novels full time. His award-winning Russell Quant mystery series features a gay, world-traveling detective who lives a big life in a small city on the Canadian prairies and whose adventures take him, and the author, to settings as varied as Barcelona, Botswana, the Arctic, Hawaii, and, most recently, across the Middle East. Date with a Sheesha is his seventh book in the series.

Writing a mystery series where in every book the main character travels to some foreign destination, begs the question. Which comes first? The travel? Or the story? The answer, for me, is not as straightforward as it might seem. I can say this. I never select a travel destination solely for the research possibilities. Yet, when I arrive in certain places a neon sign seems to light up in my head blaring the message: this is a location you'll want to write about. Although I always do some amount of journalling while travelling, in these instances, I pay closer attention to details, to smells and sounds and food and drink and weather – all the things I use in my writing to evoke a foreign setting.

All this being said, the story is still tantamount. A foreign locale needs to fit the story I want to tell. Not the opposite. I often tell the story about when I was on my honeymoon, which took me sailing around the Arabian peninsula. At the time, I was in the midst of writing what would become the sixth book in my series. It would have made sense – given the proximity of source material and inspiration – that I would have set the book in the Middle East. The book's title? Aloha, Candy Hearts. As you might guess, I did not use my adventures in Dubai, Fujairah, and Jeddah in this book. Why? They simply did not fit the story I wanted to tell. Of all the books in the series, this was meant to be the most romantic and whimsical of the bunch. Hawaii fit the bill. Riding camels in a dust storm and dealing with the religious police in Saudi Arabia did not. Even so, the neon sign in my head lit up like Christmastime. I did write about my Arabian adventures in the next book, Date With a Sheesha.

I was blissfully unaware (at first) of the import of our big, white, birthday cake of a cruise ship docking in Jeddah (the first American based vessel in five years). But as the women donned their abbeyas prior to disembarkation, turning the ship's jovial ballroom half black, it started to sink in.

At some point during our time ashore, my spouse and I deviated from the group to do some investigating on our own. We shopped for shoes and spices in the old souk. The vendors seemed less than friendly. But we ventured on, undaunted. At one stall a rather aggressive seller managed to fit me with a Middle Eastern headdress (complete with skull cap) before I could manage to say a polite 'no' and move away. He was that good. And fast. This was my first moment of true discomfort. What to do? I was certain if I walked the rough runway I'd just come through wearing this sideshow version of the populace's daily dress, I would be scorned, spit on by camels, and run outta town. I decided to buy it (to be polite), and wear it only as far as the other side of the nearest corner. But I had no idea what I was about to be in for.

The headdress was ridiculously inexpensive – something like Cdn$3. I paid and walked off, almost immediately sensing a change in my environment. Vendors who'd previously ignored me when I'd tried to buy something without speaking the language, suddenly smiled as I sauntered by, the thick white shafts of fabric floating behind me like a cape. Others waved. Some began to follow me and tell me (they suddenly knew some English) that I looked like the King of Jordan. By the time I returned to the tour bus area, I had a Justin Bieber-ish entourage. And then the media descended. I spent half an hour giving interviews for radio and print and having my picture taken with the head of Saudi Arabian tourism (who just happened to be our tour guide that day...guess who alerted the media?). I could almost believe that if you were to visit Jeddah today, you might see my face on the latest travel brochure for 'Visit Saudi Arabia'.

As writers, we wear many hats. Creator. Editor. Financial manager. Promoter. Salesperson. Spokesperson. Researcher. This headdress was never a hat I'd expected to don. But it brought me a wonderful experience and taught me a valuable life lesson. I learned that the best way to show respect for a person's culture or way of life is to walk a mile in their...hat.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Thick Skin

For all of those who want to fit into a new culture, my advice is: grow a thick skin. If you land in New York, grow a rind.

New York is a great city, but it’s a tough city, too. It is also a city of immigrants and impatient Gothamists who often don’t have the time to listen to yet another foreigner’s accent.

My biggest problem during the first six months in New York was isolation. Back in Russia, where my dissident parents had a bad, but vast and famous reputation, our phone never stayed quiet for long. Someone always called, someone always rang the bell. We seemed to have been connected to every iconoclast in the country, and there had been plenty of those. In New York, our phone sat silent for days. It was friendship and human interaction that I missed the most. I felt like a tree that had been pulled out of its soil and stuck into a rocky ground forgotten by the sun and the rain. Yet, I was determined to grow my roots anew. Slowly but surely, as I met new people and made friends, that unnatural void began to close.

The other problem – a much harder challenge to meet – was language. I got off the Boeing with a somewhat improved high school version of British English with an injection of a three-week crash course in American lingo. The articles, tenses, and verbs were still in a chaotic mess inside my head, and my ear was as deaf to the Brooklyn slang as it would be to Latin. The loss of tongue instantly transformed me from a well-read intellectual with a caustic sense of humor into a wordless creature with a depressed look and desperate eyes. Desperate for an intelligent conversation, for a joke, and for brain food. Depressed because I felt I would never master chit-chat in this new language, let alone writing a beautiful sentence.

During the first six months, I studied my new life in silence. I only opened my mouth to ask for directions when I was hopefully lost, and to tell a pizza guy what slice of dough and cheese I was buying today. I knew it wasn’t the best way to learn a new language, but this was my culture shock. I was ashamed of being a dumb immigrant.

A helpful family committee took part in picking out my new occupation. Computers were hot, IT jobs were plenty, and they didn’t require an extensive vocabulary. “You don’t need to talk to anybody,” a relative said. “You sit in an office and write programs all day. It’s a perfect job.” Three years later, with a diploma in Computer Science mocking me from above, I was perched at a massive mahogany desk inside a Wall Street skyscraper, writing code instead of words, gnawed by a depressing feeling that life was passing me by. I wanted my tongue back and I wanted to write stories.

By that time, my English lexicon had grown and I started to question the disheartening postulate that people don’t become bilingual after fifteen. I began taking writing classes and workshops, going to literary events and putting together critique groups. At work, I switched from writing computer code to writing technical documentation. After reading a book, I wrote down and memorized every word in it I hadn’t previously known. I loved theater so I became a regular at the off-Broadway plays, listening and learning how playwrights expressed their characters’ complex emotions in the language I was determined to master. I hired professional editors who taught me to break my long, whirlwind Tolstoy-like sentences into the precise, razor-sharp modern English. It took time, more explicitly, years, but my perseverance paid off and I began to see my work in print.

A few years ago, during a trip to Brighton Beach, the famous Russian enclave of New York City, I suddenly realized my expatriates stopped speaking Russian to me. They no longer recognized me as their own. I was surprised, but not upset. I figured I have completed my journey into my new culture. Snapping back into my old one was one sentence, one joke and one wisecrack away.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mi Helado Es Su Helado (My Ice-cream Is Your Ice-cream)

When the plane touched down at Ezeiza International Airport, Buenos Aires, I had a backpack full of climbing gear and a head full of dreams about summiting Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. I hadn’t expected to land in Argentina for the first time and feel like I was finally returning home.

At the airport, Spanish with an Italian lilt blasted over the speakers and women with legs like spaghetti paraded in short, tight mini-skirts. Dark-haired men that could easily have been models sauntered through the airport, comfortable in their own charm and sex-appeal. By the time I hit Buenos Aires proper I’d decided that this was the place of my heart – and I hadn’t yet tried the ice-cream.

Half the population of Argentina comes from Italian heritage, easily identified by their passion for coffee, cakes and ice-cream. Argentines have a great love for “lunfardo” (slang), as do Australians which was one of the first things I found we had in common. Slang and wine, but that’s a whole other post. It took me three visits to Argentina before I finally took the plunge and moved there.

The first friends I made in Argentina were through bonding over homemade ice-cream. It’s not uncommon to find ma and ma shops on every street corner, a rainbow of frozen flavors just waiting to be devoured. Plastic chairs and tables are set up on sidewalks and locals gather to eat, laugh and gossip. It didn’t take long to find my favorite ice-cream shop, and I set about trying to fit in. Boy, that was a lot harder than I expected.

I thought my love for Argentina would give me an automatic “in.” Here was a single woman who uprooted herself, moved to their country and had fallen in love with the people and culture. But wariness lined their acceptance. When I was asked “Boca or Riverplate?” I thought they were talking about political parties. I had no idea which football (soccer) team you barracked for could have such an influence on how people view you.

Often, I was asked why I would choose Argentina when I could live elsewhere. I never found it difficult to answer. The language, warmth of the Argentine people, astounding scenery and lifestyle all added up to something I couldn’t resist. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of amazing places in the world, but for so many reasons, Argentina captured my heart. But no Argentine could understand why I would want to live in their country, even though their patriotism is amongst the strongest I’ve ever experienced.

Fortunately, my Argentine friends embraced me and my flawed Spanish, inviting me to family functions, including weddings and milestone birthdays. I learnt how to tango (very badly), eat asado (Argentine BBQ) without looking like I’d just had a bath in a tub of fat and I perfected how to swill copious quantities of Mendocino wine without falling over. Life was good and it didn’t take long to adjust to my new country.

In the early days, though, especially when my Spanish was worse than a toddler’s, I felt left out. The gap between languages left me floundering, especially in large gatherings and I felt like an imposter. I desperately wanted to be “one of them” yet my accent gave me away every time. But the harder I tried to learn Argentine ways and their Spanish, the more accepted I became. When people realized I wasn’t just flitting through, they took me more seriously and went out of their way to help me negotiate customs and language challenges.

When the economy in Argentina took a dive in 2001, many Argentine’s couldn’t escape their dire circumstances. And even though it was never mentioned, I know many friends and colleagues were thinking that the gringa could go back to her life outside the financial shambles of Argentina at any time. I wasn’t privileged by any means, but because I came from a non-South American country, people naturally assumed I was rich. But man, I was far from it. Although if you measure richness by experiences and the depth of friendships made in Argentina, I was richer than all the Spanish galleons put together.

But I stuck it out, protesting right alongside the nation. That single action changed how I was viewed forever and finally, I felt I was amongst my people.

And in case you need to know, my answer is Boca.

What have you found in common with people from other cultures? Did that commonality help build friendships?

Monday, October 18, 2010

From Hejab to a Handshake

“Do you have to wear a burka?”

This is the number one question people ask me when I tell them I travel regularly to Iran. It’s a question I never have a ready answer for, because the most honest reply is “yes and no”.

“No” because burkas are worn in Afghanistan, not Iran. Traditional Persian women wear chadors, like the two ladies in the photo. And “yes” because I know that the real question is this: do you have to cover yourself like a Muslim woman? The precise form of hejab, a woman’s proper Islamic attire, is irrelevant. I do have to wear a loose-fitting tunic and scarf under current Iranian law.

The follow-up question, often unspoken but apparent from the wariness in the speaker’s eyes is: but how do you feel wearing such a symbol of female oppression? The answer to this one is easy: it doesn’t bother me a bit. Mainly because I don’t see hejab as an oppressive symbol, but rather as an expression of religious devotion. But also, when I travel, I follow one primary rule: check your cultural attitudes at the door. Open your heart and mind to a new way of thinking, of being. For me, that is the whole point of travel.

Knowing what to wear on the street in Iran is the easy part. More difficult is navigating the many unfamiliar customs. This is complicated by the fact that Iranian hospitality makes everyone seem so open and friendly, it’s easy to forget that there are any social rules to be broken.

And yet I have broken a few—such as the time on my first visit to the country when my husband stopped a group of men on the street to ask for directions. At the end of the conversation, there were handshakes all around. Unthinking, I stuck out my hand as well. The men stared at me in alarm, and no one reached out to shake it. I realized I’d made a faux pas, and later I learned that Muslim men do not touch women they are not related to.

Like many rules in Iran, this one is routinely broken. Despite the lack of physical contact between genders, Iran is not a fully segregated society. Bus seating is organized by gender, with women sitting at the back, while savaris—the shared taxis that ply regular routes along Iranian city streets—are co-ed. Men and women share cramped quarters, practically sitting in each other’s laps. Where Islamic custom and convenience collide, convenience wins much of the time.

I’ve learned that the best strategy is to wait and observe. Not all men are averse to a handshake with a woman, and most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell who they are. A man whose beard and collarless tunic identify him as a conservative Muslim will certainly observe the gender separation rules. But a young guy with a gold ring in one ear and hair long enough to brush his shoulders probably isn’t going to think twice about it. For everyone else, I wait and let the man make the first move. If he sticks out his hand, I shake it. If not, a simple nod in greeting will do.

What about you? Do you have strategy for navigating unfamiliar customs? What mistakes have you made?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Off The Beaten Track: Hammett, Bogart, and Me

Our contributor this week is Dave Sinclair. He writes detective noir set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and has an uncanny knack for trivia about Hollywood movies from the '30s and '40s. He also has his own blog that he sometimes remembers to post on -

As I sat there eating my superb medium rare steak I couldn’t help smiling like a loon. History positively seeped from the mahogany walls. I tried to tell myself this was just any old restaurant. That this was just a room. But it wasn’t. This place had history. This place had cred. I knew that in this small San Francisco bistro Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon. I could be sitting at the very table Bogart lit a cigarette and cracked wise. This was no ordinary place to strap on a feed bag.

John’s Grill on Ellis Street, downtown San Francisco, certainly looks the part. The dimly lit interior with its dark wooden walls hasn't changed since Hammett sat at the bar waiting for his "chops, baked potato and sliced tomato". Well, I’m taking a stab that’s what he ate, as it’s aptly described as Sam Spade's grub of choice in The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett, like John’s Grill, may not have been the first to do what he did, but damn, he was certainly one of the best.

It’s generally agreed that Edgar Allen Poe was the grandfather of detective fiction who wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 (here). Australia, and Melbourne in particular, played a part in spreading the detective novel’s appeal – in 1898 Francis Hume wrote The Mystery Of The Hansom Cab, wholly set in Melbourne. It was hugely popular in its day, selling 375,000 copies in its first year of release.

But it was Hammett that dragged the genre kicking and screaming out of the mire of pulps and penny dreadfuls. Like Chandler, Hammett created realistic detective and stories. His lean writing style, cynical characters and complex plots brought a new energy to the stagnant detective novel and in the process, created a new beast – Hard Boiled Fiction. His tough heroes confront violence with full knowledge of its corrupting potential. In his novels Hammett painted a mean picture of American society, where greed, brutality, and treachery are the major driving forces behind human actions. His plots rocketed along often taking new, and brutal, turns. He set the bar, and it is debatable if it has ever been reached since.

It is little wonder then that Hammett chose John’s Grill as his hang out of choice. Despite the fact that today the restaurant is replete in crisp white table cloths, excellent service and sumptuous gourmet food, you can still feel that in its darker corners the place has a much seedier history. Character is a word that springs to mind, though without the trappings of a high class eatery, menace is probably more apt.

Ironically, it now houses a real life mystery – about the low down rat bastard that stole the Maltese Falcon statue used in the film, as well as various Hammett first editions (here).

John's Grill is a place of mystery, gourmet food, literary history and jazz on a foggy night. The echoes of the characters created between the walls still resonate – Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) and Continental Op (The Red Harvest and The Dain Curse). So, if it’s alright with you, I’ll continue to grin like a loon.

The Novel Adventurers will be dedicating a week to books and movies with international settings very soon. Stay tuned!