The first time I traveled abroad, I was fifteen. My family took a 3-week tour of Europe in honor of my brother’s high school graduation. We visited the UK, where, among other memorable experiences, my brother and I snuck out for a midnight tube ride to the Hippodrome and where I smoked my one and only cigarette with a punk street band called “The Unloved”; Italy, where I bought myself a tiny sapphire ring that I still wear, and where after I was stuck in a hotel elevator alone for an hour, I recovered from the trauma with a Perrier at the bar and fell in love with the idea of traveling across the continent on motorcycle after two pairs of Scandinavian bikers came in wearing leathers and road dust and salty wind; Greece, via ferry, on which my mother, grandmother and I drank too much Ouzo, and where, even profoundly hungover, I couldn’t stop marveling at the ruins of the Acropolis; Netherlands, where I was enchanted by the canals and bicyclists, cheese factories and art museums; Liechtenstein, where I remember having one of the best sleeps of my life on a down-filled bed under a slanted roof.
I’d been starving for those cultures and histories without even knowing it, and at the end of those three weeks, I was utterly transformed by that brief exposure to the world beyond the borders of the United States. I began to study languages (French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, German, and Latin), began to read books by international authors, began to imagine a life of travel and adventure.
I’ve been all over the world since then, for business and pleasure, education and romance. I studied in France and Spain during college, lived for three+ years in Venezuela as a young expatriate, returned to favorite lands and encountered unfamiliar ones as an adult. Certainly there are people who have traveled more extensively and speak more languages more fluently, but that wide-eyed fifteen-year-old in me is still fascinated by distant lands and different cultures.
So when—via the auspices of my colleagues at Writers in the Schools (WITS), where I’ve taught for the past five years—the invitation came to be writer-in-residence at the Dostyk American International School in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, I could hardly wait. I will be teaching creative writing to a group of young expatriates, who are already well traveled and multicultural. I decided to build a curriculum around the themes of memory and place, because even if they don’t realize it now, someday they will look back on their years in Dostyk Village and recognize it as a unique, and perhaps even transformative, time in their lives.
For every book I have or will ever write, I draw upon the specific details gleaned from those places that live in my memory and in my imagination. I hope that will be true for these students someday, too.
To be continued…