Praise for Mexico, A Love Story
"Twenty-two distinctive and unique voices sweep the reader through an exhausting and passionate range of emotions. The book is alive with love and laughter, tears and tenderness, death—and voices from the spirit world. Reading it is like inhaling a culture in all its dimensions. Like the richness of Mexico, the book sizzles with the heat and heart of the Mexican people and pulses through women in love."
—Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad
" This insightful collection of stories is filled with vivid descriptions and engaging characters. Women write about their love affair with Mexico and reveal a complicated lover imbued with beauty, passion, danger, and excitement that will lead them to a transformative experience."
—Rose Castillo Guilbault, author of Farmworker's Daughter: Growing Up Mexican In America
"Nearly two dozen American women wander into the vast worldnext-door that is our neighbor to the south. With equal measures of curiosity and courage, they journey to sunny resorts, grim penitentiaries, and time-challenged villages. Like them, you will be enchanted and amazed."
—Héctor Tobar, author of Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States
"With open minds and hearts, these writers engage Mexico in all its sensual, spiritual, confounding glory and emerge transformed."
—Gina Hyams, author of In a Mexican Garden
"This wide-ranging collection of gringa experiences in Mexico shines a light upon, and becomes a part of, one of the most charged cultural conversations on earth: that between North Americans and their southern neighbors."
—Tony Cohan, author of On Mexican Time and Mexican Days
"In this book, a love of Mexico flows from many springs. An L.A. teenager goes 'home' to Oaxaca once a year. A woman goes on vacation and stays seventeen years. Some fall in love with colors, food, the sea; some discover themselves in their interactions with the people they meet. What is common to all their stories is an openness to experience, an eagerness to transcend the familiar self. Sometimes there's hurt, too, because real travel, like real life, is not covered with a warranty. These wonderful myriad voices remind us that getting away is sometimes the real route home."
—Sandra Scofield, author of Gringa and Occasions of Sin: A Memoir
Praise for Italy, A Love Story
"A multifaceted look at the charms of the popular Mediterranean country through the eyes of twenty-eight noted women writers. They contribute appealing personal stories of their travels to various parts of the country."
—Santa Barbara News-Press
"In this thrilling and layered new collection, women . . . explore and describe in loving prose individual infatuations with a land that is both complicated by and adored for a rich tradition."
"Camille Cusumano has assembled a unique cast of women writing about their encounters with Italy. Together, they come close to defining that indefinable something—the people, the culture, the fit of people and culture with their landscape—that draws the traveler again and again to this land."
"When I first discovered Florence, with all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio still destroyed, I fell in love. This proves the experience of loving Italy is not confined to women. But the women in this book offer a useful perspective, highly flavored, with engaging, erotic implications. . . . The book is great voyeuristic fun."
—Herbert Gold, author of Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth
Praise for France, A Love Story
"This is a very readable collection. . . . Tales are alternately loving, witty, nostalgic, and, yes, occasionally swooning."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"The heart of this book is in the maturity of its voices of experience."
"In this beautiful collection, women share their experiences firsthand, reflecting on the ways France's unique culture has enriched and enchanted their lives."
"This book is an evocative gathering of short pieces from twenty-five female writers. . . . This is a collection that will be appreciated by the Francophiles among us."
—Toronto Globe and Mail
Greece, it has been said, was where art became inseparable from life. How often do we invoke the Platonic ideal or the Golden Age of Pericles as the highest standard by which to measure the merit of an idea, a work of art, a way of living? We do this because Greece has bequeathed civilization unparalleled gifts of beauty and wisdom, from its delicate pottery, gracefully sculpted statues, and the well-proportioned Parthenon and Acropolis to the enduring literature of Homer, Sappho, and Sophocles, not to mention Socratic discourse, Aristotelian thought, the first Olympic Games, our own democracy, and let's not forget moussaka, spanakopita, and souvlaki.
So it follows that each travel essay in this collection is a unique blend of artistry and life. For example, in Alison Cadbury's story we enter Greece by way of her fantasy writer's retreat, a quiet home in the Greek countryside. Ah, but there's a crack in this idyll, and he goes by the name of Kosmas. The ninety-year-old landlord drops by unbidden and shouts, "Wake up, lazy girl . . . and make me a coffee!" When you learn why he does this, you understand why she allows this natty Greek gent to continue this way.
This writer, along with the other authors in this anthology, offers the reader her Greek experience as a slice of life that transcends the typical surface treatment of the go-here, go-there travel article.
Katherina Audley takes the reader to that ubiquitous corner of Greece—the taverna. She relates her amazing tale almost entirely from atop a bar, where she dances nightly even as her inner anthropologist observes rituals such as smashing dishes or making kamaki, "the Greek man's prerogative to attempt courtship with every female who crosses his path." And there's Linda Hefferman, "a strange blond girl wearing pants," who carries all the way from her hometown mortician an envelope of American dollars and family memorabilia for this former Greek patriot's cousin. The ensuing task of eating the grateful Greek family's lovingly prepared goat entrails resonates as a metaphor for the difficulty of swallowing parts of a culture alien to our palate. Yet, Hefferman persists.
But Pamela S. Stamatiou is the paragon of such persistence. Her story about her romance and marriage to a Greek man is that bittersweet sort, offering up the intricacies of Greek ways and the pain and pleasure of assimilation in an old-world patriarchal culture that most of us will never experience.
Like Stamatiou, Colleen McGuire is an expat married to a Greek man—and, for better or worse, to her bicycle. It is purely delightful to travel with her by way of her two-wheeled steed to many of the Greek isles, including Lesvos, Pserimos, Kos (the Dodecanese homeland of Hippocrates), and Paros, where she climbs to the Valley of the Butterflies. Recalling how the Greeks raised athleticism to an art form, we want to cheer her on when she debates whether to accept the challenge of a day-long, 150-mile bike odyssey.
Given that Greece still holds many vestiges of its cult of the Great Mother, it seems fitting to include three moving stories that explore the mother-daughter bond. In Liza Monroy's coming-of-age piece, she visits her expat mother in Greece and makes her "journey into adulthood," sweetly recalling Greece as the country where the three Fates wove together "my past, present, and future."
The spirit of that famous mother-daughter duo, Demeter and Persephone, also imbues Diane LeBow's essay, in which she takes her fun-loving eighty-year-old mother to flirt and frolic on a Greek tour. Later she returns to cast her mother's ashes to the wind and sea. Simone Butler takes her mother's ashes, too, and mingles them with Greek soil. Her quest is for inner peace with her mother's untimely death, and she finds it in a small "mama church" en route to the cave of mighty Zeus. After her younger sister's death from cancer, Marilyn McFarlane, too, finds solace in visiting such places as Delphi's sacred way and the ancient hospital of Epidaurus.
Amanda Castleman's essay offers one of this collection's most brilliant examples of how art and life are inseparable. One morning in Athens, Castleman's husband serves her sweet morning Greek pastry along with the bitter news that he wants a divorce. In telling her story, Castleman writes prose that would make Henry Miller, acclaimed author of The Colossus of Maroussi, turn green with envy: "Plum shadows outline the Parthenon. This buttress of land, the art upon it—defying time and Turkish detonations—are so ancient. The moon even more so, a bruised apricot. My woes, suspended briefly between the two, have no weight."
If, as I do, you savor such well-honed prose, the kind that reveals a story equal to its labor, read Ashley Black. She goes to the mountains of northern Greece in search of the biological parents she only learned about after years of an uncanny passion for all things Greek. Again, it is the telling as much as the outcome of her search that draws us deep into a Greece we might never have known.
One has to be brave when reading Davi Walders's and Susan Tiberghien's stories. Walders writes how Rhodes, "officially the sunniest place in Europe," holds one of Greece's darkest chapters—that of the Rhodian Jews who did not survive the Nazi roundups and deportations. Walders's story unfolds through one of the few survivors, whom she serendipitously meets in Rhodes. Similarly, Tiberghien and her husband, just passing through a village in Crete, are taken in by an amiable Greek guide. Amid the pink flowers of a dittany-covered hillside, "the blossoming love bed of Zeus and Europa," they learn how their kind host lost his only child, a girl of fifteen, to the Germans during World War II. Even as Tiberghien now sees the flowered hills as "scarred battlefields," we realize that here is what we all long for when we travel—the depth and breadth of the whole story, the blinding, life-giving sun, as well as the darkening skies of past mistakes. We want to know that gardens grow over battlegrounds and that soft centers lie beneath leathery skin.
Once, a long time ago, I visited this isle-perforated land of scintillating whites and impossible blues. I slept on beaches and drank ouzo and retsina. I ate the unforgettable cream of yogurts and wrapped my tongue around a few Greek phrases. I thought I had been there, had experienced the culture—until I had the pleasure of working with these stories. Now I know better. With each story, I am carried back there; I am broadened. I hope every reader will be, too.
Kostas and the Deep Sea
The ferry rocked and dipped through the dark, headed for a tiny island that my guidebook called "the Aegean's hidden treasure." In fact, so few tourists visited the island that it had no actual hotels, according to the book. I'd have to rent a room in someone's home. And since the place had few telephones, I couldn't even call ahead to book a room. The only boat there departed from a slightly larger island just a few times a week, at dawn. "You won't regret taking the extra trouble," my book promised. "This little island is a slice of old Greece."
As the sky lightened, the ferry's other passengers began to stir, stretching and shuffling to the windows to squint at the fog. I realized I was the only tourist and the only woman on the boat. The others were old men in dark suits and caps, or young men in T-shirts and jeans. I smiled at an old man whose face seemed kind, but he grimaced and dropped his head, studying his feet. A moment later, the fog parted and our ferry stopped. We filed down a narrow ramp onto an empty stone pier. There were no buildings or cars or people to greet us, just the sounds of waves slapping against stone and a cranky gull squawking from a nearby rock. I followed the others along a road that zigzagged up the side of a dark cliff.
When I reached the top, my lungs heaving, the men had disappeared. I found myself alone, leaning against a low stone wall, looking at the kind of view that is so unexpected and wondrous that your mind takes a picture and stores it forever. On the other side of the wall, the cliff plunged hundreds of feet, disappearing into the sea, a glittering expanse of pink and violet that stretched to the horizon. To the left, perched like a dare at the cliff's edge, a jumble of buildings huddled together, shaped like children's blocks and white as clean teeth. I felt dizzy from a mixture of joy and vertigo.
"Dhomatio?" A woman waved to me from across the road. She looked like someone from a fairytale: the archetypal old-world matron, stout, square, and hunched, as if everything vital had been drained out of her. A shapeless black dress hung down to her ankles. "Dhomatio?" she repeated, waving me to come closer. This Greek granny couldn't mean any harm, I figured. As I walked toward her, I saw that she was rather young—barely forty. "Ella do, ella do" (This way, this way), she said, pointing toward town.
I nodded and followed her home to a plain, white cube attached to the side of a larger building that I figured was her family's house. She handed me a key and left. My little room was as plain and white inside as it was outside, with a door that opened to a tiny alley, rough wooden shutters for windows, and a cross hanging over the bed. Eager to explore my "slice of old Greece," I left and crept shyly around the town, enchanted by the white stucco buildings with bright blue shutters, the pink oleander that climbed walls and spilled over rooftops, and the streets, snaking haphazardly between the buildings, paved in large, smooth stones and designed far too narrow for even the tiniest car. I walked from one end of town to the other in less than five minutes, meeting six filthy cats, a boy leading a donkey, and three ancient men in dark suits whose eyes fled mine. Everything was going according to plan: It was the perfect little Greek island, chock-full of tradition and old-world charm.
Three days later, I was having doubts. I sat alone at an outdoor taverna at the edge of town, where narrow alleys gave way to the island's rocky brown hills. It was midday in July, uncomfortably hot, and I was bored and lonely—and stranded. I had just been to the plateia (town square) to buy a ticket for the next ferry, but the man had shooed me away. "Aperyia! Aperyia!" he said. "Strike. Strike."
"How long?" I asked.
He rolled his eyes. "One week? Two weeks? Nobody can know."
I had already walked around the town's ancient streets, eaten steaming moussaka at a rickety wooden table in the quintessential plateia, ridden on the island's only bus down its only paved road to its heavenly beaches—crescents of white sand lapped by gentle turquoise waves. I was ready to tackle another island.
I ordered another soda and cursed the strike, wishing there were other tourists to talk to. I hadn't had a conversation in three days. Everywhere I went, I saw clusters of men and boys—hunched over backgammon boards in the plateia, sipping coffee in the tavernas. When they saw me coming, they ducked their heads and fell silent. As for the women, the only ones I saw were the old-world mamas in long black dresses who served me dinner. Giddy from the afternoon heat, I mused that the island's young women had been placed under a protective spell that rendered them invisible to outsiders' eyes. I sipped my soda and imagined them walking by unseen, giggling and pointing at my short, blond hair, picking up my napkin when I dropped it at dinner, riding beside me on the bus to the beach. I wished one of them would appear and talk to me.
Suddenly, the taverna came alive: Rowdy and laughing, yelling in Greek, a group of young people filled the remaining tables. "Bires!" they called to the waiter. Soon their tables were covered in beer bottles and plates of calamari. I noticed they were all boys, with one amazing girl. She wore a shiny black bikini top and cutoff jeans. Her nails were painted silver. Her eyes were lined in thick black eyeliner. Her jet black hair was cut in a blunt bob just below her ears, with bangs cut straight across her forehead—just like Cleopatra. She turned to me and raised an exquisite eyebrow. "Why don't you join us?" It was my first experience of Katerina's charms.
By the end of the day, half-drunk in the bar she owned with her boyfriend, Markos, Katerina put an arm around my waist and claimed me. "I saw from your face that you are a girl who likes fun. You must not leave me." She yelled something to Markos, who nodded from behind the bar and started making another of the strong, pink drinks that were making my head spin pleasantly. "For months, I am alone with only boys." She shook her head. "Boys are very dull, you know," she said, placing a conspiratorial hand on my knee. "And of course, the local girls are not permitted to talk to me!"
Katerina told me she was from Thessaloniki, a city on the Greek mainland. She and Markos had fallen in love while working together at a bar on a neighboring island and decided to find another island and open their own bar. "I love this island the first moment I see it. It is beautiful. The beaches are perfect. The people are traditional, but they are good. It is the true Greece."
I looked around at Katerina's bar. As far as I could tell, it was the only bar on the island and bore little resemblance to what I thought of as "the true Greece." It was tiny—a single room I could cross in four long strides—but Katerina told me that they had modeled it after the big nightclubs in Athens: walls painted bright pink, lights tinted purple, a mirror behind a bar stocked with row upon row of expensive-looking liquors, and techno music played so loud it was like a second pulse. Markos tended bar. Katerina flitted between the bar and the sound system, where she donned headphones to queue up the next tape. She had changed into red leather pants and a silver halter top; a large gold cross hung between her breasts. In the far corner, a group of young men snickered into their beers, avoiding my gaze. "These local boys cannot speak English," Katerina said. "But they are sweet. I think they are a little afraid of you."
I told her about the boat strike. Her face lit up. "Wonderful! You can stay here and help me," she said. "I need another deejay."
After that, it was as if I had always been there. In the mornings, Katerina and I breakfasted in the shade of an olive tree in the plateia. She introduced me to the best yogurt I ever tasted, before or since. Made on the island by the old women, it was richer than homemade ice cream and had a slight sour tang that curled my lip. To offset the tang, we smothered it in honey. "It is the best yogurt in Greece," Katerina said. After breakfast, we went to the beach, where we exhausted ourselves swimming and sunbathing, then climbed a hill to an empty taverna that opened its kitchen just to serve us omelets, fried potatoes, and cold beer. In the afternoons, we parted to nap through the heat. At night, we met again at the bar, where Katerina appeared in another fantastic costume, glamorous as a movie star, regal as Cleopatra. She was the coolest person I had ever met. I found it ironic that I, the supposedly modern, savvy American, dressed so shabbily in my practical but plain wrinkle-free pants and T-shirts stained and misshapen from months of hand-washing in hotel bathroom sinks, while she looked ready for a fashion show runway. But she never seemed to notice the difference, instead treating me as if I were the glamorous one, as if she found my company irresistible.
I couldn't believe the life I was living. I barely recognized myself. On this little island, everything was light and fun—even me. It all felt too good to be true, and this began to worry me.
I turned my worry on Katerina. It seemed to me that she and Markos were living in a charming fantasy, having built a bar for a clientele that didn't exist. Each night, the customers were the same: their three friends visiting from Athens and the same four local boys. They must have been losing money. I rarely paid for my drinks, and Katerina was too generous to charge the local boys.
"This island is so quiet," I said. "Will there be more tourists later in the year?"
Katerina shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. Now, business is not so good, of course. But we think the tourists will come, and they will find our nice little bar, and they will like it! What is not to like? You tell me something you do not like, and I change it." She put down her drink and swept an arm, palm up, in front of her, presenting the room for my appraisal.
"I would change nothing," I said, meaning it. I loved this strange little bar where the music was too loud and I was the only customer. But Katerina's casual attitude made me anxious.
"How do you know that more tourists will come?" I asked. "What if . . ."
Katerina laid her hand on my cheek and shushed me. "Only God knows, right?" She clinked her glass against mine. "For the present, we live well!"
I looked away. "You know, I need to leave when the strike is over," I said. "The man at the ticket office said it may end in a few days." I would be sad to leave but was determined to stick to my travel plans, so I couldn't linger too long in paradise with Katerina.
"What is this 'keep on track'? " Katerina said. "Are you a train?" She grabbed my hand. "Come look at the stars with me, Sarah." We went out to the patio in front of the taverna, where we often sat, and shared a cigarette.
Katerina took a puff and squinted up at the stars. "If I get you a lover, then you will stay." Close by, in the darkness, a chicken clucked its disapproval. I giggled, thinking Katerina was joking. I should have known better.
"Him, I guess." I pointed to a boy with wavy hair the color of wet beach sand and an extra layer of boyish fat. He looked like a young Greek Bill Clinton, dribbling the ball calmly toward the basket, sweat sliding down his temples in the late afternoon heat. A crowd of scrawny, raven-haired boys cheered from the dusty perimeter of the makeshift outdoor court—a slab of concrete ringed by wooden benches borrowed from a nearby taverna.
My Greek Bill Clinton cut effortlessly around his opponent and sunk an impressive outside shot. The raven-haired boys went wild.
"That one? His name is Christos," Katerina said. "Okay. I take care of everything."
That night, Christos came to the bar for the first time. Later, he came back to my room.
"First, my first," he said, grinning. "Thank you."
I sat up in bed. Holy Zeus, he's a virgin. "How old are you?" Christos smiled up at me, brushing my shoulder with the back of his hand. "Seventeen."
I wasn't much older—barely twenty-one—but I was sure I had just broken some Greek law. This is where it all goes wrong, I thought. This is where I pay for living so carelessly. Then I thought of the Greek gods—disguising themselves as animals to trick their lovers, seducing other gods' wives, sleeping with sea nymphs. . . . This whole situation was so strange and dangerous and totally unlike me. And I kind of liked it. Christos looked me in the eyes and murmured something in Greek, over and over, like a song, until I lay back down and forgot to be afraid.
"I will stay a few more days," I told Katerina the next morning at breakfast. She licked the honey off her spoon and smiled, saying nothing.
From then on, I met Christos each night at the bar. I didn't fool myself that we were falling in love. He spoke so little English that our conversations were limited to a few words. I told myself he was with me because there was no one else; the local girls, locked up by their watchful parents, were completely off-limits. Besides, falling in love in Greece, thousands of miles from home, wouldn't make sense.
"What do you do all day?" I asked him one night. I had never seen him at the beach or eating breakfast in the plateia.
"Make house," he said.
"Oh—construction? You build houses?"
He nodded, then kissed me until I had no more questions.
A few days later, I saw Christos at work. It was a sweltering midsummer day. I was on my way home for a nap after a day at the beach. Christos was with a group of men, some young like him, but most of them middle-aged. They were all shirtless and wore long, dark pants, their faces boiled red by the heat. They walked back and forth, back and forth, hefting concrete blocks out of the back of a small truck, carrying them up a hill, then dumping them in a pile at the top. I shivered, despite the heat, imagining the rough concrete blocks cutting into Christos's gentle hands.
I told Katerina what I'd seen. "Yes, those boys work so hard here." She shook her head. "How lucky for Christos to have you at the end of the day!"
Her light tone frustrated me. This was serious. "Is that the only job for him here? Doesn't he go to school?"
"Christos? Maybe he will go to school." She shrugged. "Or maybe he will never leave the island and just build houses like his father. It doesn't matter."