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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The Difficult Journey to You

Click the image to download or play the audio clip.

In China there is a wisdom that states if you feel there urge for revenge sit by a river, and eventually your enemy’s body will float by. I find the same happens with people you admire. If you keep living, every now and then, someone familiar, or whom you admire, passes…and it’s cool.

Mary Karr

In 1995, I interviewed then-Syracuse University professor Mary Karr and reviewed her memoir, The Liar’s Club, which became a nonfiction classic. I noted the publication  of Cherry and Lit, her other memoirs, but did not get as deeply into them, mostly because life moved on. 

Nonetheless, the native Texan stayed lodged in my memory. I noted the depth of her reflections on her path, when I gave a quick read to  Sinners Welcome, her first book of poetry, but always looked for her to share more of the personality I briefly came to know.  That happens in The Art of Memoir. The link shares an audio clip.


My best choices for books on the writing craft are still Stephen King’s On Writing,  and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That said, the audio clip linked above, shows me Karr could supplant Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, as third on my short list of book about how to best write your story. 

Fiction is no easier to craft than the truth. As Chilean author Isabel Allende once stated: “There’s basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I’m using a bunch of lies that I’ve made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I’m using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized.”

Memoir takes a different level of courage and spirit. “I don’t know where the idea originated that memoir writing is cathartic,” says U.S. writer Koren Zailcks, whose 2005 debut memoir, Smashed, is considered another landmark work. “For me, it’s always felt like playing my own neurosurgeon, sans anesthesia. As a memoirist, you have to crack your head open and examine every uncomfortable thing in there.”


Karr, who is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University, takes readers into the classroom as she shares a spirit and technique for getting into the dark depths of one’s being that is as direct, unvarnished and as true to the heart as the advice and instruction she gave in courses on writing memoir years ago.