A Sip and aTrip Takes You into a Dream

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Travel Memoir

Many Americans have made their peace with the “gotta get ahead” pace of daily life. In fact, often urbanites and sophisticates in the United States wear the burden of their busyness or over commitment as a gold star. Yet, some dream about how life might be in a smaller place with a slower pace. The biggest dreamers imagine themselves abroad – Italy, France, Africa, or China. The speculation touches the part of the soul that whispers, “What is more?”

There is something innately romantic about the idea of going to Provence, a storied region in the southern France that makes most people sigh who yearn for wine, cheese and conviviality, combined with beautiful vistas, and a slower pace of life. Keith Van Sickle’s One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence responds to the hunger like a four course dinner. I had the same positive reaction to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and more ever more to former fashion editor Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet series.

The author, a tech consultant who made his bones in Silicon Valley, gets a taste of life outside the “run, run” daily pace in the United States during a work assignment in Europe. Van Sickle and wife Val went to Neuchatel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. “We lived in a village so small that the streets did not have names and the cows outnumbered the people,” he offers. That is a sample of the wit, clarity, insight and personality in the prose that makes the work an even more attractive read.

One of the interesting dimensions of the work is the author’s spirit. He does not glamourize life in Provence, but rather lays out the ups and downs of the adventure in breezy snippets. Most of the chapters are short yet filled with insight. Readers will enjoy the challenge as he and  Val struggle to learn a new language, and find ways to let go of common U.S. practices. For example:

We were in St.-Remy and stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for lunch. I went to the restroom, a one-room affair used by both men and women, and had to wait in line behind four ladies.

When I finally made it to the restroom I was surprised to find the toilet seat up. Even after four ladies! I told Val about this and she said it was common, that even when there was a separate ladies room, women would often leave the seat up after they were done. Apparently it’s a French custom.

Readers will be quickly impressed by the way Van Sickle gives wings to words. His sentences tend to be tight, which allows him to pack a lot of detail, meaning and humor into a small space. Rather than a “and the next day” narrative, the 192-page book is more about “and then there was the time,” which helps to quickly carry the reader through the story. For example, I loved a tale he told from his first days in France in a three-paragraph chapter:

Soon after we arrived, we went for a hike around the Etang de Berre, a bay so large that it’s almost an inland sea. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch and a poodle came up to me, looking for a handout.

I had finished my sandwich and was eating an apple. I figured that since Lucca liked apples this poodle would too, so I tossed him a piece.

Obviously, I had not counted on the refined palates of French dogs. He sniffed the apple and gave me a withering look. Then he turned his back, heisted his leg over the apple, and trotted away.

Van Sickle rolls out the adventure of his adjustment to Provence with a similar candor, which in the end develops a voice that bids the reader to relate to the author more as a friend than an adventurer. Most readers will read the last word in the book and wish they could hear one more tale. One Sip at a Time ends, yet the author offers Francophones, dreamers, travel-lovers, as well as those who might want to try a similar adventure, a chance to continue the relationship through a blog where he share insights into France and the adventure that is life.

One Sip at a Time reminds readers of when travel memoirs were a major entertainment source, and the urge to travel was more tightly tied to discovery. The reader gains insight into how one struggles to fit into another culture. At the same time, Keith and Val show readers that an effort can capture a dream. Readers who might want to move to the French countryside can make it, One Sip at a Time.

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And, The Workers Say

Talking Back: Voices of Color
Nellie Wong, editor
Red Letter Press
240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9323223-32-3

Given the recent reports on desperate conditions for service workers throughout the United States, there is no better way to honor Labor Day than to propose you check out Talking Back: Voices of Color. The work offers readers insights into the United States from laborers and a broad assembly of those who see life from the streets instead of ivory towers. The text might be ideal as a reader for writing students, because the commentaries are easily readable and well edited. It is also a chance to hear more from those who live daily with consequences of the social, political and economic policies rather than the competitive cries of paid pundits. Any adult interested in the honest exploration of views on those issues from a wide range of Americans – native-born and immigrant, different genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, and disabilities – is bound to find enlightenment in this essay collection edited by poet Nellie Wong. I did.

If you are closed to the views of those sectors of society, or prone to be biased against the fact that the group behind it is largely socialist, the work provides a chance for openness. No? Then it will not appeal to you.

Talking Back was – and is – a potent force, a crucial step in understanding that race oppression, sex discrimination, abusive bosses, income inequality, poverty, homelessness, and never-ending war were systemic, institutionalized under capitalism to wreak havoc on our political, working and creative lives.

Wong writes that in the introduction as the key lesson learned through the transformation she underwent in the 1970s. As a Chinese woman, she was raised to be silent about her views. The Oakland writer says that as she listened to the many voices of those shunted aside in society she began to grasp that speaking out was a path to change.

Talking Back: Voices of Color is filled with testimony on trending topics as diverse as immigration reform, the Mexican Border, police violence, the Middle East crisis, and workers’ rights. Most of the statements are less than 1,000 words, yet the writers use of facts and reflection give them punch. Interested readers will find themselves saying, “I didn’t know that,” over and over as the commentaries organized under chapter headings such as, “The border crossed us,” make it easier to hone in on the subjects of greatest interest. For example in Chapter 7, “Shaking it up,” retired Teamster Ann Rogers’ contribution, “Still working after 80: Social Security and me,” pulled me into the book. Her plight is one to which many retired Baby Boomers can relate.

 “The cost of living skyrocketed over two decades, my Social Security did not,” she explains in the dissection of a government benefit system that provides no comfort to many elderly. At 82, the Chippewa woman still works daily, “because I unfortunately also need food, clothes, medicine, a car, gas, and car repairs.” Rogers makes readers consider how the system doles out Social Security compensation. She talks about the general procedure, then asks readers to think about what that might be like for a working single parent.

A Social Security pension is based on an average of a person’s lifetime earnings. That means low-wage workers get smaller payouts. Rogers started as a waitress then worked for Sears. Her employer’s retirement rested on company stock. When those prices dropped like a boulder off a cliff in the recession in the late 1970s, and she was laid off at age 60, there was little to hope for except Social Security. “The highest 30 years of my wages were averaged to figure my benefit,” she states, then contrasts her underfunded fate with what will happen to those who will have to cope with the even more restrictive policies today.

Now wages are averaged over 35 years, and that is sure to include the low wages most people start out making. For many women, unaffordable childcare means they have to take time off work when their kids are young, and they don’t have 35 years’ worth of wage history. 

In the overall, the book is an unsubtle critique of capitalism. The work’s tone is not negative, however. This would be good for personal enrichment or to share with senior high or college writing students to open their eyes to ideas that differ from is usually published in essay collections. Most of the Talking Back authors are literate, yet not professional writers. Their political perspectives are far left of liberal or centrist perspectives found in my social anthologies, and that is one of the reasons the book provokes thought. The voices of color are a clarion call for change.