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Travel literature, part 3: Travelling while staying in one place - Expats writing about life abroad (updated 13 September 2016)

Here is a genre that has been included under the heading of “travel”, although it should properly be labelled “memoirs of places”, or, to borrow from Peter Mayle: “being there” books. These are the accounts of people, for some reason often British, who have chosen the expatriate life and moved abroad and then felt the urge to write about it. The genre has existed as long as there have been expatriates, but it was Peter Mayle who made it popular with modern readers with his bestseller A Year in Provence. Since the publication of this book more and more people have jumped on the bandwagon and written about their experiences. The result has been that the places the most popular books describe have seen an increase in tourism, and people long to buy houses there and live the dream presented in the books. Some have gone further and made that dream come true.

I like to divide these writers into two groups: the simple-lifers and the good-lifers.
Broadly speaking, the former try to outdo each other by writing about how isolated and dilapidated their houses were when they bought them and all the hard labour that went into fixing them up, and how character-building and liberating it is to live - for a while at least - without indoor toilets, electricity, telephones and tap water. Then they go on to bemoan the fact that other expats have been attracted to the area and are spoiling it, or to wax poetic about how the expat population has revived the area.
The latter group revel in the luxuries of living abroad: the food, the weather, the gardens and landscapes, the people (who are always interesting and often eccentric), and how cheap and wonderfully exotic everything is.

Some of these writers start out belonging to the former group and then join the latter once the house is fully fixed up. Which brings me to a common sub-genre: the fixer-upper story.
This can feature both kinds of writers. Those books tell the story of how the author arrived in the foreign country with a limited amount of money and bought a cheap house to fix up over a number of years, or, if they had plenty of money, how they fell in love with a location on which there stood a dilapidated house and decided to fix it up rather than tear it down and build a new one.

This may sound like a rather sarcastic description, but I actually do like to read such books, provided they are not too egocentric or badly written. Unlike stories by travellers on the move, the “being there” stories can give you an in-depth idea of a place or country, whereas the other kind rarely go beyond superficial impressions.

Here are a few that are worth reading:

Gerald Durrell:
*My Family and other Animals. Lovingly written childhood memoir of living in Korfu, Greece, full of descriptions of quirky characters, both human and animal, and wonderful descriptions of nature. Portrait of a Korfu that seems to be mostly a memory today. I have read this book approximately once a year for the last 20 years and I never get tired of it.
*Birds, Beasts and Relatives. The sequel to My Family.... Not quite as good, since it is a collection of stories rather than a cohesive narrative, but there are some really funny stories and wonderfully drawn portraits of people and animals in there.
*The Bafut Beagles. Memoir of people, animals and nature in the British Cameroons. I know I mentioned this book in the previous list as well, but after some thinking I decided it fits better here, since Durrell doesn’t describe much travel in it, only short animal collecting expeditions from his base in Bafut.

Karen Blixen: Out of Africa. Blixen’s memoir of living on a farm in Kenya. Even with her paternalistic view of Africans, it is still a charming portrait of Kenya’s colonial past.

Osa Johnson: Four years in Paradise. Osa and Martin Johnson were American naturalists and adventurers who were famous for their explorations in East and Central Africa, the South Pacific Islands and Borneo. This book is about their four years in Kenya.

Charles Fergus: Summer at Little Lava. This is one of the best books I have read about Iceland by a foreigner. With his family, he stayed for a summer at an abandoned farm in western Iceland.

Peter Mayle: A Year in Provence and the sequel, Toujours Provence. A Year... is the humorous account of the Mayles’ first year in Province, France, a fixer-upper story. The sequel is more disorganised, a collection of essays on various subjects rather than a cohesive story, but perhaps better able to make one want to visit the area. Have not read the third installation.

Eric Newby. A Little House in Italy. The first book of this genre I remember reading. Another fixer-upper story. The Newbys bought a farm in Tuscany in the 1960’s and fixed up the house, made friends with some of the neighbours (and had endless problems with others), and watched the old ways of life dwindling away.

Christ Stewart. Driving over Lemons: An optimist in Andalucia. Stewart and his wife bought a farmhouse in Andalucia, Spain and began a new life there. A fixer-upper.

Elizabeth von Arnim: Elisabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer. Both books are fictionalised accounts of von Arnim’s life and her obsession with gardening.

Marlena de Blasi: A Thousand Days in Venice. Marlena met her destiny in Venice when a total stranger walked up to her and confessed his love for her. Her life in the USA was in a muddle after a divorce, and she took a chance and moved to Venice to be with him, and the story tells of how she fell deeply in love with the city and how her relationship with her “stranger” (as she calls him in the first half of the book) developed in pace with her growing love for the city. Very evocative of the place.

M.F.K. Fisher: A Considerable Town. Fisher’s portrait of Marseille is quirky and well written and her descriptions of food can make me hungry just after having eaten.

Formerly TBR, now read (September 2016):
M.F.K. Fisher: Aix-en-Provence 
Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun. Enjoyed it but wouldn not call it a favorite.

Chris Stewart: A parrot in the pepper tree

On the TBR list are:
Joan Marble: Notes from an Italian Garden
Annie Hawes: Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted


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