An award-winning journalist, author, editor and blogger, Karen McCann has been living in Seville, Spain, since 2004. Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. A fourth-generation Californian, she lived in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband for two decades before the couple moved to Seville “for a year” and decided to make it their home. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and travelling the world, with frequent visits to California to maintain ties with family and friends.
Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad tells the story of her transition to expat life, which she calls “the greatest opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program.” I thoroughly enjoyed this book and so I was more than delighted when Karen agreed to answer some questions about her travels, writing, living in Spain, and about her new book.
Karen, what prompted you to become a travel writer?
It’s tremendous fun and gives me an excuse to go to exotic places and ask impertinent questions of total strangers.
What was your very first travel writing assignment? Can you tell us a story from that time?
I was going to Egypt with some photographer friends who were doing an exhibition in Cairo, and I convinced a local magazine to let me do a story about it. The most interesting part of the journey came in Aswan, where we’d advance-booked rooms in a venerable old hotel but were fobbed off with the mundane new wing. I marched into the manager’s office in a huff and made it clear I wasn’t leaving until matters had been arranged to my satisfaction. The manager flagged down a passing boatman and offered to make arrangements for my little group to sail over to an island and visit a Nubian wedding party taking place that very minute. We jumped at the chance, and wound up with the best pictures and stories of the entire trip, proving once again that the best travel writing starts with something going wrong. And when I got back, the manager had arranged a room for me in the old section of the hotel.
This incident taught me that connecting with just one local person can provide the thread you need to guide you through the cultural labyrinth into the heart of a foreign place. In Seville, I was lucky enough to form a friendship with my landlady, who has introduced me to countless Sevillanos, persuaded me to join an art class that rekindled my interest in painting, took me to a private bullfight and has made my life in Spain richer in a thousand ways.
(Image copyright Karen McCann)
How much do you feel that your work in Egypt, Georgia and other countries prepared you for living more permanently in a country other than your own?
Visiting rugged places like the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bosnia and El Salvador taught me how to live outside my comfort zone for weeks or months at a time. I had to get used to doing without a steady supply of things I’ve always taken for granted, such as electricity and potable water, and staying alert to dangers I’d never encountered before, like unexploded land mines and leopards. After that kind of travel, Seville seems extraordinarily comfy and safe.
To be a good travel writer, do you also need to be a good photographer?
Lots of good travel writers aren’t particularly good photographers. But for a travel blogger, camera skills are an absolute must. In a blog, photos draw people into the story and keep them engaged in it. Often my blogs start with a picture that leads to a great story.
What would you say to the novice starting out in travel writing? Travel writing is very competitive – have you any tips for breaking into this area?
Remember the story is about your readers’ experience, not your own. Nobody is going to care if you saw a beautiful beach or an ancient temple unless you make the experience so real that they can imagine themselves in the scene. If you don’t, they will become bored and/or jealous of you, and that’s fatal. Draw them in, let them have a vivid vicarious experience through your words, and if possible, make them laugh a little, maybe feel a little “ouch.” And if you’re blogging, learn to take great photos.
Which were your favourite travel adventures? Which countries do you like to write about the most?
The Republic of Georgia is definitely high on the list. The physical conditions were pretty challenging; we only had a few hours of electricity a day, and we spent a lot of time working in cold, dark, crowded, smoke-filled offices with appalling bathrooms that were shared by the staff, patients and laboratory of a medical clinic. But Georgian hospitality is justly famous, and we have all sorts of wild stories about long nights spent drinking, toasting, dancing, making bread with vodka-drinking grandmothers, playing with a baby bear… Good times. India is another favourite subject: Rich’s run-in with the snake charmer, for instance. Or the time I got off the train at what might or might not be Delhi at 5 o’clock in the morning, and the train took off again with Rich still on board. The best stories usually involve something going wrong and figuring out how to deal with it.
How well do you need to know another culture?
Clearly, it helps to have a working knowledge of the culture you’re writing about, which starts with basic research to give you some background and context. But the most important thing is paying attention to what’s going on around you. And when what’s happening turns out to be at odds with your research, you know you’re on to something. For instance, when we moved to Seville, everyone told us that we would never see the inside of a Spanish home, as the locals do all their entertaining in cafes and restaurants. Apparently, our friends didn’t get the memo on that one, as we’ve been guests in more Spanish homes than I can count, in city, country and suburbs. How did this happen? That’s part of the story I tell in my book Dancing in the Fountain.
How do you weave ‘the story’ into travel writing? What is the story about when you write about travelling? What kind of subject matter do you focus upon?
The story is about the struggle. It can be something as simple as attempting to understand how a Spanish tortilla can be an omelette, when every American “knows” that a tortilla is a flat, round bread you use to make burritos. Or it can be as tough as trying to understand how people can cheat an AIDS orphanage out of food money. But if it’s just about the beautiful sunsets and colourful local clothing, it’s really not much of a travel story.
I have major wanderlust, as yet unfulfilled, so I wonder how you felt living in Cleveland and not having lived abroad as you’d planned. Was it a major issue for you?
Not long after we went to live in Cleveland, Rich and I took a vacation in India, Malaysia and Bali. After that we always managed to arrange a few weeks each year in some remote location in Latin America or Asia. So our wanderlust would be satisfied, at least temporarily. As soon as we got back, Rich would start planning the next trip.
Where was your very first independent travel destination? Would you tell us a story from that journey?
After my freshman year in college, I backpacked around Europe with a friend. At one point we were in Dubrovnik, staying at a guesthouse that, we felt, was overcharging for everything from the room to use of the washing machine. My friend broke something in the room and, feeling certain the owners would charge ten times its value, insisted that we check out without telling them about it. As we walked off down the street, our host charged out of the house shouting and we took off running. It was at this moment that the disadvantage of being in a walled city, with but a single exit, became very clear to me. Sprinting down to the main square, we jumped onto a bus that was just closing its doors and made it out of the city, with our host standing in the square shaking his fist at us. I haven’t dared go back to Dubrovnik since.
What first made you go to Spain as a holiday destination? What drew you to that country?
It was sheer luck. Some friends invited us to their time-share apartment in Marbella, along the southern coast of Spain. The weather and beaches were lovely, but the area was full of high rises and tourists; not much of “old Spain” remained to be seen. However, we made a side trip to Seville, fell in love with the city and returned the following spring for six weeks. After three more spring vacations, we decided to spend a year there, and halfway through that year we realized we weren’t visiting, we had found our new home.
Do you have any stories you could share with us about misunderstandings that have occurred while you were learning the language?
One day, when we were first in Seville, Rich wanted to make a small repair in our apartment. After a quick trip to the dictionary, we set out for the hardware store muttering “destornillador, destornillador, destornillador” (screwdriver, screwdriver, screwdriver) to ourselves. Unfortunately, when we arrived, my mind went blank and Rich blurted out a similar word, “ordenador” (computer), causing such mutual confusion that we were forced to abandon the attempt and flee the scene without buying either a screwdriver or a computer. At the time, we were pretty annoyed with ourselves. We felt distinctly foolish, frustrated that a simple errand was thwarted by lack of basic vocabulary and too embarrassed to go back to that particular hardware store anytime soon. But we also got a lot out of the incident: a good laugh, a story we’ve been telling for years, and — once we ran home and double-checked the dictionary — the word “destornillador” forever etched in our memories.
What inspires you to travel?
I like adventure. And I’m willing to give up a little comfort to get it.
What are your favourite and least favourite things about travelling?
I love meeting people whose lives and perspectives are so different from my own. The worst part of travel is the time spent waiting around airports during long, jet-lagged layovers.
Apart from Spain and the US, where are your favourite places to travel?
Anyplace that’s new. Rich and I are planning a long train trip through Eastern Europe next year, visiting obscure towns and small cities in countries we’ve never been to before. Know anyone who’s been to the Carpathian Mountains? Me neither. I’ll let you know what they’re like.
Least favourite travel destination?
Bermuda. It’s all about lovely clothes and pretty sunsets and… I’m sorry, I must have nodded off…
Before wishing Karen and her husband well on their latest travels, I wanted to ask for one last story. Karen tells me about a situation that arose at a wedding where the guests were from many different countries and several languages were spoken.
‘A few years ago, Rich was best man at an American friend’s wedding in Norway. The groom and his Norwegian bride had lived in Hong Kong, and the crowd was quite international. Rich spent days working on his toast, which would be in English but conclude with a few carefully rehearsed phrases in Norwegian, wishing the couple every happiness in their new life together.
After days of painstaking preparation, Rich stood up at the appropriate moment and gave his toast, earning an enthusiastic round of applause. He sat down feeling especially proud of the Norwegian ending, until a member of the bride’s family leaned over and said, “Great toast. And what fun that you included a little Chinese at the end in honour of their time in Hong Kong!”’
Dancing in the Fountain has been published in paperback format by Café Society Press and is available on Amazon in the UK, Europe and US. Kindle format to follow in early August and for other e-readers shortly after that. There is an excellent Reading Group guide at the end of the book.