Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You'll Never Walk Alone -- at the Vatican

They all just want out.
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I do not like crowds. When I'm in one, I can think of six thousand reasons why I don't like them, and each one of those six thousand reasons has a mind of its own. People are not meant to be treated like cattle. Cows, besides the obvious fact that they moo and poop and are perfectly happy to follow the cow butt in front of them on their way back to the barn, do not usually visit the Vatican.

People do. A lot of them. I'm sure the statistics are like seven billion a second. And, with all the sex scandals, I don't think anyone has time to pay attention to maximum capacity limitations. I wonder what the statistics are for people going apeshit and beating the cowpeople in front of them to death with their digital cameras. I'm going to Google this.

"You're doing really well. I'm surprised," said Josef, the Hungarian florist--my perennial traveling companion.

Um, moo?
"So am I," I responded calmly. I was doing self-calming exercises, chanting quietly I will not beat the people in front of me to death with my camera, I will not beat the people in front of me--

"I thought you'd be having a panic attack by now." Josef was at my side, his chest squashed against the woman's head in front of him.

"I am actually." I winced as a hand brushed against my arm. "I'm making my happy face."

"Ah, so you are. I like your happy face."

The woman with the riding crop was our guide.

I will not beat the people in front of me to death with my camera, I will not beat the people in front of me to death with my camera.  

I booked the a.m. tour of the Vatican museums: reviews mentioned that the morning tours were less crowded. If this was less crowded, I want to know how many camera bludgeoning incidents happen in the p.m.

Due to some special audience or something (this is not the most informative post, I know), the basilica was closed until 2 p.m., so we stayed on the grounds. Luckily, there's a restaurant in the museums that serves real food as opposed to the other "restaurants" at the Vatican museums that serve mediocre pizza, boring salads, stale bread, fruit salad out of a can, etc. (in other words the standard tourist food because Italy thinks tourists know absolutely nothing about food anyway. I can't say it enough: Italy thinks you're stupid.)

What is it they say about cleanliness?
Back to the restaurant that serves real food: When I ordered in Italian, the waiter actually smirked at me and answered me in bad English, which solved my quandary about tipping him. The restaurant floor was a mess. There was more rubbish on this floor than on the streets of Napoli. The waiters were serving people while ignoring the dirty plates from previous guests. There were stacks of dirty plates on every table (we removed the ones from our table ourselves). This has to be the dirtiest place I've ever eaten in. The food was OK. And I was out of the constant flow of people.

The entrance to a museum
A little after two, we tried to make our way to the Sistine Chapel, where we would have been able to enter the basilica. Sadly, we got a bit lost in one of the cowpeople drives and ended up back where we started. (No one was killed during this time.) Instead of mooing our way through the crowds again, we decided to walk around the Vatican outside to the entrance on Piazza San Pietro. The queue to enter the basilica was--hyperbole aside--a kilometer long, and three or four people deep. I think it was one of those situations, like the human intestines, in which, if you unwound it and made people stand behind each other in the queue, it would have reached to the moon and back. We opted for gelato instead.

I was not raising my camera to hurt anyone.
Crowds aside, I enjoyed Rome more than ever this time. Why? I'll tell you next time, but I'll give you a hint: I'm going to eat my words about the bad food in Italy. I'm even going to be complimentary and grateful--almost teary.

I must be off,



Christopher Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Friday, May 25, 2012

When in Rome?

The Trevi Fountain
Off to Rome for the weekend. I've been to Rome, but I don't think I've ever done what Romans do when I've been in Rome. What do Romans do when they're in Rome? If my ethnological instincts are perky and fit today, I'd be correct in assuming that the average Roman stays home on Saturday night, boils up some store-bought pasta, drinks half a glass of really cheap red wine and falls asleep in front of the TV watching Italia's Got Talent. Non lo so, but I think this would be fairly accurate. And I'm not about to make my own pasta. I can't even eat pasta.

The last time I was in Rome, my hotel was about two kilometers away from the Vatican, so I got up early every morning and ran to Piazza San Pietro. It was not such a beautiful run since most of it was through a run-down neighborhood, but once I arrived at the Vatican I was rewarded with the opulence of organized religion. And coffee.

I put milk in this espresso doppio.
In Rome, it's not really cool to drink coffee like an American. In Rome, coffee is drunk standing in a "Bar" in iddy-biddy cups with sugar, with three old men. No one even gets to sit down. What's the point? The Roman espresso experience lasts about 49 seconds--98 if you order an espresso doppio, which of course I did. And the barman looks at you weird when you don't put sugar in the espresso. I'm going to try to drink coffee like the Romans this weekend, but I can't promise I won't hunt down a Starbucks.

In 2009, my father was generous to treat six people to a tour of Rome that lasted all day. It was an exorbitant indulgence that included at tour of the Catacombs. Grazie, Papa! The tour, sadly, did not go well for everyone. To read about it go HERE

We have reservations for a Vatican tour. I've done this tour before, so I know how long one has to wait in line for the bathroom. Have I told you I hate crowds? I was on Piazza San Pietro for Easter 2000 when Pope John Paul II greeted the world in 179 thousand different languages. I was not the only one there. Have I told you I hate crowds? There is always a steady stream of blessing-seeking crowds at the Vatican. Holy hordes, Batman. I booked an a.m. tour, which is supposed to get me in and out before the seas of people begin to invade the Holy See. We'll see.

My mission this time is to find the Gluten-free Rome. Roma senza glutine as it were. A quick Googling has given me three pages of restaurants, so I think I'll be fine. Va béne, I say to myself. Tranquillo. After all, vino é sempre senza glutine. Giusto?

Do you think the Romans have their pictures taken with fake Centurions? I'm not sure they do this, not every day at least. And I'm pretty sure they're fake, not like the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. They're real. I once fell asleep on the grass across from the Colosseum. That was a nice day, and I think sleeping on the grass across from the Colosseum is something a Roman might do.  

What is your experience with Rome? Were you there on Easter 2000? And if you were, how on earth did we miss each other?

Devo andare/devo essere matto!



Christopher Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Read My Shorts!

It's still Short Story Month for another week, which means you still have time to read a few more excellent short stories.

I'm almost finished with Tania Hershman's excellent and often pleasantly bizarre collection My Mother was an Upright Piano. These stories are brief bursts of creative energy that will stay with you long after you've put the book down.

Here's a list of short reads at Dan Powell's The Short and the Long of It. And I'm on it. Thanks, Dan!

"We Dance" by Jane Hammons at Fictionaut

"Ten Notes to the Guy Studying Jujitsu" by Robert Vaughan, now at Fictionaut (not for children)

"Fly" by Julie Innis. This story, originally at fwriction, now appears in her new collection of short stories Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture.

A short post, I know. But it is Short Story Month. 

I must be off (to read more shorts),


Christopher Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Give Me One Night on Ibiza

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One night on Ibiza is not enough. I could have stayed the whole summer. Let me rephrase that: I could have stayed the whole summer if the summer were a hundred days of low-season. I'm not sure I'd be able to deal with the summer crowds. I like visiting a place before the season starts.

What about you? Are you a low-season or high-season person? Can you walk along a crowded promenade with hundreds of other tourists or does this make you crazy?

Low Season
The first thing you need to know about Ibiza is that it's tiny. Not tiny like an atom or my admiration for Lionel Richie, but in comparison to, say, Mallorca or Crete, Ibiza, is iddy-biddy. Over the weekend we explored a great deal of the island--from south to north, east to west--and I never once felt as if I'd driven for hours to get somewhere. Again, this might have a lot to do with the low number of tourists on the roads.

A pint of cider is bigger than the north of Ibiza.
Ibiza, one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, is known as a party mecca. The world-famous discos on the island attract big acts, but they didn't really attract us. Are my dancing days over? No, not really. I dance. I dance in the car. I also dance in my head. I CAN dance. Some people can't, you know. I, on the other foot, have a well-developed groovethang. So why didn't I head to the disco? After all, in the words of Kylie Minogue, my disco needs me? Right?

Well, probably not. I think the discos on Ibiza need 19-year-olds who will look back and cringe at their pictures from Ibiza in 2012. What's with the women's fashion of embarrassingly short shorts? Isn't the concept of clothes to cover our parts? I walked behind a pretty "blonde" post-teen for a few minutes on the porn-menade of Sant Antoni, trying to figure out the appeal of shorts that don't cover the butt. Why wear shorts at all? Why not just walk around in a thong? I have a thong. Somewhere. In my past.

A pleasant surprise . . .
The second thing you need to know about Ibiza--if you are a Celiac--is that packaging in Spain tells you if the product has gluten in it. All you need to look for is "Sin gluten". Very easy. Due to the masses of Brits who invade the island every year, most bars serve cider. Make sure you ask for no ice. And there's always some variation of a Greek salad on the menu. It's Celiac Awareness Month, by the way. Read more posts on traveling gluten-free HERE.

How many things do you really want to know about Ibiza? Sadly, most of the island has been turned into a dance floor throbbing with fit, tattooed guys and girls clad in obligatory strips of clothing. Is this sad? I don't know. I just felt under-tattooed and overdressed. I did not, however, feel old and fat.

Eivissa, the old town
And someone scratched our car, which I discovered afterwards was nothing special. All the cars are scratched on Ibiza. It's a party island. For four days, the car cost us 40 euros, which was well worth the money. The island has hundreds of little beaches tucked away, down dirt roads where you can relax and enjoy the party in your head.

This post is my 200th post at I Must Be Off! which means I'm dancing in celebration--because I can dance. Really.

If you haven't already swung by the Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival, which I hosted last week, HAVE A LOOK.

in a pleasant place.

I must be off,



Christopher Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Expat Author Interview with Matthew Hamilton

Matthew Hamilton and Mt. Aragats
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Matthew Hamilton, a poetry reader for the online magazines Mason’s Road and Drunken Boat, was a US Peace Corps Volunteer for four years, in Armenia (2006-2008) and the Philippines (2008-2010). Currently, Hamilton is the Librarian for Benedictine College Preparatory, an all-male, Catholic and military school. He’s also working on an MFA at Fairfield University, CT.

Hamilton's The Land of the Four Rivers is now available from Cervena Barva Press!

IMBO: Hi, Matthew. Welcome to I Must Be Off! First, let me say that’s it’s been a pleasure learning more about your life and your writing. How has your writing changed over the years?

Hamilton: I used to write poetry exclusively. Now that I am working on an MFA, I have written short stories and creative non-fiction. Currently I am working on a screenplay about the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

IMBO: You were a Benedictine monk for four years. I assume you wrote during that time, right? How did solitude affect the way you wrote?
Hamilton: Yes, I wrote a lot during those four years, mostly poetry. Umm… the third part of this is tricky, but I’ll do my best and explain it as simply as possible.

Solitude allowed me to study and write with limited distractions. This, of course, was not the reason why I became a monk, (I became one in order to seek God) but the monastic life provided me with the structure I needed to become a better writer, and within that structure, I was given valuable time to be alone. I wrote persona poems, so being able to spend a few hours a day in solitude and study a particular person without any distractions was very helpful.

IMBO: What’s a typical day like for a Benedictine monk?

Hamilton: Benedictines are educators, so many teach at a college or high school. However, a monk’s obligation to attend Mass and the Divine Office are top priority. At Belmont Abbey, NC, monks prayed together three times a day, at 7:00am, 11:45am, and 7:00pm. Mass was said every day at 5:00pm, so they organized their teaching obligations around monastic duties.

I was a monk in formation, so when not in the church, I spent my days performing manual labor, such as painting a guest room or refinishing furniture, and studying.    
Planting Rice -- Gonzaga, Philippines

What's the daily schedule in the Peace Corp like? Tell us about when and where you had the chance to write while you were in the Philippines and Armenia. What was your inspiration to write there?

Hamilton: After a three-month training course in country, each volunteer is sent to their permanent site, where they will remain for 2 years. For the first three months, they live with a host family. If other housing is available, volunteers have the option of moving into their own place after three months.

Although volunteers are assigned specific jobs in education, heath, or solid waste management, most of them generally work in all three in some capacity. In both Armenia and the Philippines, I was an English teacher. However, I also assisted in farming potatoes and rice, and taught classes on environmental protection.

School of Getk, Armenia -- Hamilton and 10th grade boys
For me, living in Armenia was much more of a challenge than living in the Philippines. Armenian summers were nice, but winters were brutal. With no heat in the classroom, teachers and students had to bundle up. I wore three layers of clothes and still froze. It was a little better at home. At least we had a wood-burning stove. However, the heat was only contained in the family room. It was so cold in the other rooms, that we unplugged our refrigerator and used our bedrooms to store some of our food. Secondly, although we had an indoor bathroom, we couldn’t use it in the winter, due to the frozen pipes. And man, going out to an outhouse when its –4°F is not fun. And finally, unable to extract water from the sinks in the house, my host dad and I walked to the river every other day to fill up two large barrels, one for drinking water, and the other for hygienic reasons. But living in a cold environment does have its advantages. It’s difficult for parasites and bacteria to live, which brings me now to my life in the Philippines.

Killing goat during town fiesta. Batangas, Philippines
Living in the Philippines was a great experience. For one thing, and although I loved my host family dearly, I was able to rent my own place. Two, it was a 15-minute walk to the beach, and since most Filipinos didn’t like becoming darker than they already were, I usually had the whole beach to myself. But bacteria and parasites flourished. Although I was lucky enough not to contract malaria or dengue, I think I made up for it. In two years living there, I ingested three amoebas, contracted pink eye, an ear infection, and the grand finale, blood poisoning.

IMBO: Goodness. I’m striking the Philippines from my bucket list right now. But it’s not always the easiest of times or places that inspire us. What did your experience in the Philippines teach you?

Hamilton: I can sum this up easily: I’d rather be poor and happy rather than rich and miserable.

IMBO: I hear you. Have you ever had times when you didn’t write?

Teaching class -- Batangas, Philippines
Hamilton: I didn’t write much during my first year in the Philippines. I met my wife there, a Filipina, and I spent most of my free time with her. During my second year, though, I began researching MFA programs. In addition, I explored writer’s websites. The talented writer Marcus Spech invited me to join Fictionaut, and I was off to the races. I began writing like mad and was lucky enough to be published in a couple online magazines. Close to the end of my tour, I received an acceptance letter from Fairfield University, where I have since met a menagerie of talented teachers and writers: Michael White, Bill Patrick, Da Chen, Baron Wormser, and Ravi Shankar, just to name a few.

IMBO: As we wrap this up, would you care to share a story or a poem you’ve published recently?

Hamilton: My most recent one: “Psych Interview with a Rape Victim” published in Atticus Review.

IMBO: And a story or poem by another expat/repat?

Hamilton: Tim Harnett. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and now living in Korea. He is the author of Trompe L'oeil" (Painted Carpet Press, 2007), a funny picture of what college life was like during the 1990s pop culture. Anyone of the Kurt Cobain generation or college students during that time will enjoy this book immensely. His book "Rêve" came out in 2010 also from Painted Carpet Press. In addition, he is the co-author of the webcomic "Chefs in Black" with Cliff N. Hansen.

IMBO: Thanks for stopping by and chatting with us, Matthew!
Hamilton's chapbook The Land of the Four Rivers is out now from Cervena Barva Press. 
I must be off,



Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival

Art by Darcy Nicholas
I'm honored to host the May edition of the Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival. It's almost like I've been dubbed an honorary Kiwi. Pop on over to the Carnival. It's full of great stuff by writers, filmmakers and artists from all over the world -- but mainly from New Zealand and Germany. Enjoy the work of artists Hinemoana Baker, Tim Jones, Marcus Speh, Helen Lowe, Lori Fischer and so many more.

An Aotearoa Affair was created by Dorothee Lang (German) and Michelle Elvy (US-American living in New Zealand) to celebrate New Zealand's status as honored guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October this year. May's carnival is about all things "Bi" -- bilingual, bi-cultural, bilateral, bisexual and even bicycle.

Click HERE to start. 

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. He writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Celiac Awareness-slash-Short Story Month

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Were you aware of this? I wasn't until my cousin Jennifer told me. She's a Celiac too. Did you know something like one in ten of us is? Both Jennifer and I are adorable, but that's not it. We both have a disease--yes, I used the D word--that makes it impossible for our intestines to deal with gluten. Gluten you say? Is that the sticky stuff in sticky rice? No -- although you'd be surprised how many people think it is.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and (some say) oats. Which means Christopher and Jennifer -- do you think it has something to do with three-syllable names? -- can't eat conventional bread, pasta, pizza, etc. We also have to stay away from beer. In the meantime, a hundred companies have pounced on the gluten-free food industry, so we can eat gluten-free bread, pasta and pizza at extortionate prices. I should go cut myself a two-euro slice of gluten-free bread right now.

Eating gluten-free isn't easy. There are so many hidden sources of gluten in processed food these days. Thickeners, flavor enhancers and bottled sauces could all contain gluten. You actually have to call the company to ask exactly what "natural flavors" means. Protecting a company's secret ingredients is obviously more important than protecting the consumer's health. My rule: no "natural flavors" unless the label says GLUTEN-FREE and no foods with more than four ingredients (but I think this second one is only because my vision is so bad that I can't read the list of ingredients).

Part of I Must Be Off! for the last few years has been to help Gluten-free Travelers. I've told about my experiences in Nice, in London, in Bilbao. To see all my posts on Gluten-free Travel, click HERE.

It's also Short Story Month. You know, I think it's my month. I wonder if it's Expat month as well. For short story month, I'm reading three short story collections. This one by Julie Innis, this one by Tania Hershman (who I interviewed a couple of weeks ago) and this one by Sheldon Lee Compton.

If, however, you'd like to read one--or six--of my short stories in celebration of short story month, why not start with this one, or this one, or this one.

Also check out this growing list of recommended short stories at Flash Fiction Chronicles!

I hope we're all clear and aware now. No eating short stories unless the package clearly states "GLUTEN-FREE."

I must be off,



Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire). Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The State of Things

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Monday I got a cortisone shot in my problem-child shoulder because, after months of improvement, it's starting to get worse--and now my right shoulder is hurting too. I've tried to stay away from my computer at the desk in my office, sending emails and FB/Twitter updates from my iPhone and iPad, but I can't write blog posts on the iPad (it's not compatible with Blogger). And the pen device that should have allowed me to write posts long-hand and then upload the post to the computer is a lot of hooey. It works great if your handwriting is careful and precise. Have you ever tried to be creative while also being careful and precise? If you can do all that at once, you're a freak. And if you're pretty too, well it's not fair.

The cortisone shot is also a lot of hooey (which is my word for the day). If my shoulder improved at all after the shot, it was fleeting. After two days I now have the same stabbing pain in my deltoids when I try to lift my arm as I did before the shot. Friends say acupuncture, acupuncture, acupuncture; I say pathological fear of needles, pathological fear of needles, etc. How bad does it have to get before I shout, "Make me a pin cushion!"?

Now is really not the time to have a debilitating shoulder problem. I have a few things on my plate which need to be eaten, which require my body to be writing stories, editing a blog carnival, mowing the lawn, renovating a guest room. And, as I've mentioned, I'm publishing a book this summer.

What to do? Buck up. Bite proverbial bullet (not to self: buy bullets).

That's right. Buck up. Plow through and get things done. Write fast and get away from the computer. And speaking of getting away from the computer, next week I'm off to Ibiza. This will be the third-time's-the-charm trip. We've planned two trips to this party mecca in the Balearic Islands that ended up falling through. If this trip doesn't happen, I think I'll simply put the island on my list of lost hopes (with PANK magazine and meeting Billy Bryson).

I know how to tell people about my gluten situation in Spanish, so I'm set for Ibiza; but at the beginning of June I'm off to Japan. For the first time in my life as a Gluten-Free Traveler, I'm resorting to the Gluten-Free Restaurant Cards I've heard so much about from other Celiacs. And I've found a GREAT WEBSITE for Celiacs who travel.  I'm downloading the card for Japanese right now and would like to send out a heartfelt thank you to Roger and Lyndsay at for making these cards in so many languages. I hope the Japanese card doesn't say "Take me in the back and make a Maki Sushi roll out of me." That would be funny (for everyone except me, I suppose).

Julie Innis - Three Squares a Day With Occasional TortureSo that's what's for dinner in the next few weeks. If you're looking for something to read today, check out my story "The Whiter Places," which won the Cazart Short Story Contest recently. Or you can order Julie Innis's new collection of short stories, Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture. Or! You could get Tania Hershman's My Mother was an Upright Piano.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. He writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Expat Author Interview with Tania Hershman

Author Tania Hershman
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Tania Hershman, an author living in Bristol (UK), spent fifteen years in Jerusalem. Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published in 2008; her second, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions is hot off the press right now—and getting well-earned praise, most recently in the Times Literary Supplement!

IMBO: Tania, welcome to I Must Be Off! I love your work. We’ve published several of your stories at Metazen, so I know how I’d describe your writing, but how would you yourself?

Hershman: I would describe it as creative, possibly as speculative, somewhere around the areas of short stories and perhaps dipping a toe into poetry. I would describe it as short, often very very short, sometimes surreal, often I don't know myself what my stories are about. I have written since I was a child, it always felt right. I loved to make up stories. I still do. I still can't believe I get to do that as a career. It feels somehow, well, naughty.

Jerusalem Garden
IMBO: I love the word naughty. It’s a sweet word I wouldn’t have used if I hadn’t moved to the UK. Has being an expat affected your vocabulary?

Hershman: I often joke that spending 15 years living in Israel after growing up in London has given me a far looser relationship with the English language! But I do think that living for so long in a country where my mother tongue was not the native language has allowed me to be more flexible with English. I no longer have the same sense, say, of English idioms etc..., so I make them up. Is it dead as a dodo, a doorknob or a dormouse? I lost that when I let another language in, but I like the result, I love to play with language. I think being bilingual has opened me up to words and other ways they can be used. Since I worked so hard to learn another language, I think I don't take language for granted the way I might have had I never left England.

IMBO: I know exactly what you mean. The only reason I can still remember English idioms is because I have to teach them. And the way you write? Has being an expat shaped your fiction in any way?

A view to the Dead Sea
Hershman: I can't say whether being an expat affected what I write, because I wasn't really writing fiction before I emigrated. I don't tend to write stories set in fixed locations – neither England nor Israel – but everything I have experienced goes somehow into my writing. I think recently, after moving to England, I've started writing stories which seem to have themes of alienation, of being somewhat odd, awkward, not fitting in. It was very interesting how, after 15 years of being away, I don't feel English anymore, although to those around me I look and sound very English. I certainly don't really fit in anywhere, which I think is probably excellent stimulation for a writer.

IMBO: I think the feeling of alienation/not fitting in is so common among expats, and you put such a positive spin on it. What else stimulates/inspires you?

Hershman: I'm hugely inspired by creativity of any form, especially films. I love a great film! I really like the quirky, weird films, like this indie British film called Skeletons, I love it. Watching a film like that makes me want to go and write, fills me with joy. I am inspired by passion in anyone, for whatever they are doing, and humility. I am inspired by anyone who is working for the community, dedicating themselves to the greater good. I just finished running a set of story workshops in the Bristol Refugee Rights centre and was so inspired by the staff, the volunteers, the members themselves, an amazing group of people.

IMBO: Oh, I’d love to hear more about the Bristol Refugee Rights centre.

Hershman's Writing Shed in Bristol (I need one of these!)
Hershman: BRR is an amazing places, staffed by the most dedicated people who try to make life a bit easier for those who have fled to the UK seeking asylum, who are daily under the threat of detention even though they are not criminals. Although the level of English in my workshops varied hugely, and the languages spoken included Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi and more – the enthusiasm and cheerfulness of my workshop participants, some of whom struggled to write a sentence in English, was so inspiring! We looked at different themes each time, from fables to food, love and poetry – and we laughed, we laughed a lot! I got so much out of it, and I hope the group felt that they were given a different way to express themselves and share some of the culture they have brought with them.

IMBO: Care to share a couple of your stories with us?

Hershman: Her Dirt This story was inspired by a visit to the fantastic Wellcome Collection in London – they are devoted to bringing together arts and biomedical sciences and hold regular exhibitions on different topics. Before I went, I asked the editor of the Wellcome Collection blog if he might be interested in a flash story inspired by their “Dirt” exhibition, and he was very enthusiastic. This story was what emerged – there are 3 or 4 elements that came from the exhibition, and my strange brain put them together like this. It was the first time the blog had published fiction.

Express This is a story in my book that was the closest thing to autobiography I have ever written. It's basically about an expat who comes back from Israel to England and how he feels standing in Heathrow, that feeling of being somewhere where you don't have to make an effort, however slight, to understand what's being said, where words just flow into you and you can relax into them. Although the story makes me a little uncomfortable because it's pretty close to me, I'm happy I wrote it.

IMBO: How about a link to a story or an article written by another expat?

Hershman: Eddie by Nikita Neilin.This is the story I picked as the winner of the 2010 Sean O'Faolain short story competition. Nikita was born in Moscow and moved to America in 1990. I was knocked sideways by this story, which has the most amazing rhythm to it which echoes the laundromat where Eddie, an ex-con, works. Each time I read this story, it gives up more, the mark of a truly great piece of writing. It kept bringing tears to my eyes. 
" . . . I don't think it's a bad thing not to feel too comfortable, too settled."

IMBO: Did you ever get homesick when you lived in Israel? Has your concept of home changed after living so long as an expat?

Hershman: I didn't really get homesick, I didn't want to live in England and woke up most days thrilled to be where I was. I loved the beautiful light in Jerusalem, the sunshine, the heat, the way that people were so, umm, expressive, so un-English! Of course there was a lot of trauma to deal with, but in some ways the feeling was of living in the moment because you had no idea what might happen, and I do think now, having left, that that can be addictive, in a similar way, perhaps, to being a war reporter. I do think my concept of home has changed, I'm not sure where it is. I've been in Bristol for almost 3 years now and still am not always sure where I am when I wake up, and really still have difficulty crossing the road, if you asked me to tell you which way the cars drive, I'd need a minute to think about it. My body isn't used to being here yet. And I do miss speaking Hebrew, and a little Arabic. I love those languages. But England is a fantastic place to be a writer, it is very very good to me, and I don't think it's a bad thing not to feel too comfortable, too settled. What would I write about?!

IMBO: I love the way you think. It’s inspiring. Tania, thank you for stopping by. I wish you incredible success with My MotherWas An Upright Piano: Fictions. I’m going now to order my copy, but I'm stopping HERE to watch the video trailer for the book again and again and again.

Hershman: Thanks so much for having me, I really like being part of the ex-pat community, I think I will always be a part of it, no matter that I am now back in the country I was born in. It's been an honour, Chris! Thanks for the excellent questions and for wanting to buy my book. I'm so excited about it!


I must be off,


Tania Hershman's first book, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and included in New Scientist's Best Books of 2008. Tania's second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books) is out in May 2012. Her award-winning short stories and flash fiction have been widely published and broadcast on Radio 4. She is currently writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty, founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal spotlighting short story collections, and a judge of the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for popular science books.

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Crete II

Cretan Traffic Jam
I'm sort of a hybrid: not really a farmboy, not really a city boy. I know what to say to cows to get them going--or coming home. I know what to say to pigs to tell them slop's on. I know how to talk to sheep. No really, I do.

A few years ago as I was hiking up to the Stubai Glacier, I encountered a flock of sheep. I greeted them with a low Mahhhh Mahhhh. Was I surprised when one of the elder sheep raised his head and returned my greeting? Mahhhh Mahhhh. Not really. So I continued to speak to him. Mehhhh. Mah-Mahhhh. Mah. And he continued to converse with me. Before I knew it, fifty sheep were following me up the mountain. I was a hit.

On Saturday last weekend, we drove into the mountains on Crete near Chania. When we encountered our first sheep traffic jam, I jumped at the chance to walk alongside them. After a few minutes--and once the shepherd realized I was sort of a farmboy (but not really), he showed me how to herd the sheep so the cars could pass. He used a combination leg-slap and pssst, which turned out to be a well-oiled tactic.

Of course I got only a taste of Crete on our whirlwind three-day stay, but I'll certainly go back. And next time, I'll spend more time in the mountains. I'm more of a mountain fellow anyway. We stayed in a nice hotel with a beautiful pool direct on a beach with an incredible sunset (see below), but we never once put on our bathing suits (didn't even bring one). I'm just not the beach type. If I were the beach type, though, I'd spend my time in one of THESE beautiful places.

I am really a mountain person.

On Monday, we drove up to around 1200 meters to a little lodge that overlooks The Gorge of Samaria. It reminded me of a German Berghütte. I ordered a Greek salad, which the Germans call a Bauernsalat, and a half liter of red wine. The salad was fine, but the "red" wine was the worst "red" wine I've ever had. It was leaning dangerously towards port. Dear IMBO readers, are you from Crete? Do you know this "red" wine from the mountains? Is this OK? Because where I come from, we don't call this red wine. We call this awful, dodgy and "gone-off" wine. I drank only three-quarters of the carafe. Well, I had paid for it after all.
"Red" Wine

Do any of you know what the flower is called that the Cretans use as a hedge? It smells like jasmine, but a student of mine told me today that it's not jasmine. I'm curious now. I should have asked when I was there, but I didn't. Almost every hedge on Crete is made of this flower. The fragrance is at first pleasant, but then it sort of turns your stomach.

Fragrant Hedge on Crete
Tomorrow, my interview with author Tania Hershman goes live. I hope you'll stop by and read. Comment if you can find the comment button. The blogger interface causes problems sometimes. If you reload the page, it remedies the problem on occasion.

In May, I'm hosting the Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival, so watch for this. But for now, watch the sun set over Crete . . .

I must be off,



Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. He writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.