An Innocent Abroad

“Expatriate” has such an ugly connotation if you don’t know your Latin. Just because you leave America for an extended time, or forever, you are suddenly not a “patriot?”

Even if you are an Army veteran? (I am)

My mother’s Mark Twain library.

Even if you love making apple pie? (I do)

Even if you have a Mark Twain library? (see photo)

Oh, wait.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

– Mark Twain, “The Innocents Abroad”

Wendell Berry may disagree. But even Berry spent time abroad in his youth.

In the summer of 2017, I’ll be moving to Europe for a year to teach American college students how to be “foreign correspondents,” journalists who translate other cultures, politics, wars for a U.S. audience.

In other words, journalist expats.

Like Twain, from whose Innocents Abroad I extract readings for my classes (here imagine heavy sighs from my college students).

The first nine months will be spent in Luxembourg, the tiny, wealthy country edged by Belgium, Germany and France. The last few months will be in a place that I know well and love: Florence, Italy.

The move is something I’ve anguished over. As amazing as this opportunity is, do I really want to leave my family, friends, garden, dog, MLB baseball, golden fall nights around a bonfire, 100 uncompleted home projects for… A. Whole. Year?

(This won’t be a question should Donald Trump win.)

My friends were quite patient, endlessly discussing should I stay or should I go? Meredith and Sarah swept my reluctance aside with welcome scheming on when to visit.

“I enjoyed the solitude,” said my friend Kay, who also has taught abroad. “But you were away for a few months,” I reminded her. “This would be. A. Whole. Year.”

Kay smiled (she really has a winning smile). “I went on solo trips – enjoyed them, too,” she explained.

Solo trips with rattlesnakes

That prompted memories of my first solo trip. The summer before my freshman year of college, I went on a week-long, Outward Bound-like program throughout southern Missouri hosted by my university. We camped, hiked, canoed, bonded, rescued each other when our van driver rolled the vehicle.

But late one afternoon, the organizers dropped us 18-year-old “This Is My Time” kids off about a quarter-mile apart along a ridge in a national forest. We each got a sleeping bag, water, some food.

No cell phone, of course. No flashlight.

That day, I was wearing tennis shoes, shorts and a bright green swimsuit top that I had bought to set off my red hair. In a photo the university took, I was gloriously surveying the forest valley below, a smug smile on my face.

But a few hours later, in the deep dark of the night, there was no smug. In fact, I was pretty sure I was bedded down in rattlesnake den. Every forest noise terrified. When one of the organizers surprised me, hiking by to check on everyone, I wet my pants.

Stumbling into Korean bordellos, Hawaiian vaults

But in the years that followed college, I “solo’d” while living repeatedly in foreign locations. Japan. Korea. Hawaii.

In all of those places, I was a minority. A red-headed person – in a sea of shiny black-haired, caramel-skinned people – who stumbled through endemic languages and struggled to fit in.

From each place I took pieces of memories that had vivid color, leaving behind the drab or mundane or lonely.

So the weekend I spent accidentally lodging in a Seoul bordello with silk curtains for walls… sticks.

The late nights spent drinking sake around a warming pit table in the apartment of Japanese friends… sticks.

The dreadful workdays in a windowless security vault closed off from the Hawaii sunshine… forgotten.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss the power of prolonged loneliness, the turning into self.

I long have respected the writings of Ayn Rand, and her “Virtue of Selfishness,” rejecting altruism, changed my life. It wasn’t until grad school that I realize I had that version of “self” all wrong.

My classmates Gautam Naik and Sean Naylor probably still laugh about the day they explained that Rand’s libertarian philosophy was really quite… conservative. Not progressive, as I had interpreted it.

And so I worry about being left to my own thinking devices – what else will I get wrong?

A weekend alone with my thoughts and Italian orators

In fact, I’ve experienced loneliness keenly over some of the recent summers I’ve taught in Italy.

Wind surfers near Lovere, Italia, on Lago d’Iseo. Photo by A.L. Blair

One long weekend, with no friends to visit and boredom encroaching, I ventured solo to Lóvere, a town on Lago d’Iseo in the foothills of the Italian Alps. I went there specifically because I would be out of my element, hiccuping disconnected Italian phrases where few speak English. Meeting few tourists.

I hopped on the ferry in the town of Iseo, ordering a ticket to Lóvere in what I thought was passable Italian. The ferry operator replied in English.


But in Lóvere, I got what I came for. Extreme hiking alone. Watching for hours as a vast volleyball tournament unfolded that was conducted in every European language but English. Staying at a hostel where the receptionist spoke four languages, none of them mine.

Most nights I found my way to the bookstore on the square, where speaker after speaker got up on a pedestal in front of hundreds of people. In Italian, they talked politics, literature, philosophy – and…. and… I understood.

Understood maybe not all the words. But I understood that the opportunity to debate ideas is universal. That standing in the town square next to a lake on a warm summer evening debating ideas in any country  is… bliss.

Yes, I’ll be an innocent abroad next year.

I’ll stumble, mangle words and, no doubt, miss everything at home.

But “expatriate?” Guess I’ll aim for owning it.


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