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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An email from Paris


Dear Linh,

I've just read your article, "Escape from America" on the Intrepid Report web site, and since I'm an ex-pat and am approaching seventy, thought I'd send along a few thoughts on the subject.

Yutang's childhood food memories certainly ring true, but growing up in the fifties and sixties in rural southeast Michigan (Romeo, population 600, where Detroit, while only officially 32 miles south, seemed like a foreign country for me), where we never locked anything up, all I thought about was baseball and how my piano lessons kept me from playing it, if only for a few hours a week. And how I loved listening to the radio broadcasts of the Tigers' games, keeping my scorecard, and seeing the game in my head. How I used to eat wild asparagus on my way home from school, listen to Mr Reese's cows as I drifted off to sleep, spend nights in my circle of pine trees on a high point in Mr Sheets' apple orchard gazing up at the stars, watching the moon arc across my circle of sky, ride with the milkman in his dripping, ice-cooled truck, four distinct seasons, and lots of fresh air. It's a bedroom suburb now.

Then one day I asked my father why we couldn't pay a fair price for our coffee or bananas or why a Russian farmer would want to fight with an American farmer, as I gazed northwest, figuring that's where a nuclear missile might come from and where Bobby Dietrich and I used to launch our home made rockets from an old gravel pit we called Gravel Canaveral. I suppose you could call that moment my "loss of innocence" or a lack of patriotism or my first subversive thought.

A few years later I stopped watching television, stopped reading the newspapers and magazines and began to read books recommended by upper classmen eggheads and the old guy in my hometown who sold used books, much to the detriment of my grades but they certainly got me to thinking about seeing a bit of the world. That and the encouragement of my Spanish teacher and one of my history teachers who presciently warned me of economic and proxy warfare.

So encouraged was I that upon high school graduation I spent nearly three months wandering around mid-sixties Europe, and even though '68 and '69 were slowly reaching the boiling point in France, I fell in love with the villages and the farmers, the small scale way of doing things, the traditions and the food, and in '73, giving up any thoughts of joining the family business or continuing graduate work, took off for Greece and the hope of finding a teaching job. The thought of having maybe two or three weeks of time off to go somewhere had become ridiculous. No. I was going to go for years, learn the languages, get to know the people, actually live there. And that's what I did. Greece, France, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, Morocco, and now back to France, where I've been since '03 and where I'll die.

I did spend a while in the States during the eighties and then again in the nineties, but it just didn't work for me. I couldn't adjust and it seemed that my country was drifting so far from reality, had become so insular and homogenized and third worldly (Dubya as president? Twice?), I sold all the shit I had accumulated and took off without any definite destination in mind, thinking maybe Crete, a vegetable garden, and maybe a small fishing boat. Obviously, it didn't work out that way, and I'm living in Paris with a wonderful woman, and dealing with the Hebdo phenomenon, the trans-Atlantic trade treaty, Sarko-Hollande as the equivalent of Bush-Obama, and the slight glimmer of hope that the recent Greek election might offer. And cultivating a bio garden we have in the country.

As I wrote to Joe Bageant some time before he died, one's arrival in a foreign country is usually full of promise. We want it that way. A new beginning, the novelty of it all. The novelty inevitably wears off and we're left with who we are.

All the best,

Steve Church



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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.