I once told William Zinsser that his office was an oasis of writing, which made him smile. Inside that uncluttered office on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, nothing mattered but the work and pleasure of writing. Everything else — publishers, agents, the demise of print, the rise of free content, anxieties about success, failure and Amazon rankings — you left at the door.
Zinsser, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was the author of “On Writing Well” and 18 other books about writing, travel, memories and music. He was also a generous mentor to other writers. Through his books, he taught millions of people to write better by demonstrating simple, clear sentences and an authentic voice.
A few hundred people, including me, were lucky enough to hear his advice in person. I had an in: Zinsser was married to my cousin Caroline Fraser Zinsser, who is a fine writer herself and shares his curiosity about the small stories that reveal our common humanity. As a relative, I felt comfortable asking him for advice. After I got to know him, I realized he was just as welcoming to strangers who called up with writing problems.
In Zinsser’s office, writing was sacred. Woody Allen must have recognized some confessorial quality in Zinsser when he saw him on the street in Manhattan and cast him as a priest in “Broadway Danny Rose.” I always felt nervous there, staring at a white abstract painting by his son, John Zinsser. William Zinsser was warm, but he cut out small talk and got right to the matter at hand. Just the knowledge that he was listening intently and didn’t suffer nonsense clarified my thinking fast.
At one visit, he asked what book I was working on. I told him I wasn’t writing a book, because my last one had been a best-seller, and my agent didn’t think that any of my ideas since then would sell as well, so I wasn’t writing anything. He paused. “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”
“So why aren’t you writing? Do you have any idea how stupid what you just said sounded?” he said. “You’re a writer!”
Then he delivered one of his most pleasurable sermons — about how you don’t write to sell, you don’t write what your agent or your publisher wants you to write, you write for the process of finding a true story, and you write for the reader.
“The central problem in most writing is the American obsession with the finished product,” he said. “Most Americans setting out on a memoir can picture the jacket of the book — the headline, title, byline and a charming tintype of a child with a pail by the seashore,” he said. “The only thing they haven’t thought about is how to write the damn thing.”
You can’t plan a book, he once told me. You have to respect the process. When you start to write, you’ll find that the story won’t turn out the way you imagined it, but it will be truer to your life. “Forget the final product and start writing the damned story.”
The next time I visited, I had started writing a new memoir. But, I confessed, the story was boring as hell. I was writing about building a house in Mexico, and so far, the only other character in the book was a dull real estate agent, and the building process went smoothly. No stakes, no drama.
“Why did you build the house?” Zinsser asked. “What was the quest you were on?”
I couldn’t answer, because it would take me 200 more pages of writing to figure it out. But it was the key to the book.
“I’m a great believer in writers embarking on quests or pilgrimages,” Zinsser said.
That quest may not be a grand adventure. He tells his students to think small when they’re looking for their narrative.
“Most people sit down to write a memoir and think it’s the story of their wonderful life, that they have to write something that will be certifiably important and worthy,” he said. “They put together a chain of events which are worthy, but not necessarily very interesting.” He tells his students to forget the memoir and write about memories that stick with them.
“They rummage around, I wait them out, and finally they say something like, ‘I’ll never forget the day when my father and I …’ and they tell a story that is so minimal it’s universal. Most writers forget how the smallest things yield the biggest emotional wallop.” He tells his students to relax, and not worry, as he put it, whether someone at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop will say, “What a stunning comment on the human condition.”
Zinsser encouraged me, and so many others, to write for the sake of writing. He offered us tools to write better, cutting away clutter to get to the core. He gave us permission to be ourselves on the page and to enjoy writing so our readers would enjoy it, too.
His words are a tonic in the world of content and dollars per word. When I’m itching to write, to explore without a clear plan, his advice gives me courage. He’s gone now, but his words keep coming to me at my keyboard.
Zinsser was brilliant at teaching craft and story, and left the world with a lot of better writers. But the greatest thing he offered me, writer to writer, was faith.
Laura Fraser is the editorial director of Shebooks and the author of “An Italian Affair” and “All Over the Map.”
I just got back from two weeks of having fun in New Orleans and teaching in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and all I took could fit in a carry-on. (I actually also packed 16 copies of my book All Over the Map, so I did check the bag, but that left me precious little space for clothes and shoes). I have traveled a lot, and I think this was the best I’ve ever packed (and, ahem, I wrote a story on the topic for O Magazine a few years back). I managed to dress to party and be professional, to ride bicycles and to be on a panel discussion in front of 500 people. I taught four classes and saw five bands. A super-versatile wardrobe.
I mainly packed clothes by gr.dano. The designers are friends, so I’ve worn their clothes a lot over the years. Jill Giardano and Brian Scheyer are incredible designers–their drapey, sophisticated designs manage to look flattering on tiny, thin Jill as well as robust me. I have a navy dress from gr.dano that is my go-to, ace-in-the-hole professional dress, but I had no idea how versatile their clothes could be when traveling–not to mention wrinkle-proof and fab for every occasion. Their clothes work together, and I only added a few other pieces.
Black and white polka dot tulle dress (uncertain origin)
That’s it! it all fit in the space of a carry-on. I wore the ankle boots, ponte pants, black T and duster on the plane. I wore everything at least twice, sometimes more. It was great how I could layer pieces–the zip tunic vest over the tunic top, with the cowl neck jacket or the duster over it. I could wear the flimsy tulle dress over the Eileen Fisher tunic or under the g.rdano vest. By far the most versatile piece was the zip tunic. I was riding bicycles in it all over NOLA, and then teaching seminars in it in San Miguel. The faux wrap dress came in second: I went to a fancy dinner in NOLA for my birthday, then dancing afterwards, and two days later appeared on a panel discussion in front of 500 people, looking totally professional. I hand-washed the tunic as well as the ponte pants, and they came out perfectly. Special mention to the cozy duster: I wore it on the plane, and then when my B&B had our private bathroom down the hall, it worked perfectly as a bathrobe. That’s crucial with a carry-on! The chiffon poncho was great over the Eileen Fisher tunic dress for a dressy party look, as was the tulle over the tunic dress. The VSA necklaces, long and short, dressed everything up.
So there you have it. Fabulous wardrobe in a carry-on. Above, a not very good p hoto of the gr.dano ponte pants, tunic, and cowl-neck jacket with Mardi Gras beads and mask!
I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was about 13 years old. Below is the complete list of the books I read in 2011. You can read the rest of the list on my website.
From this list–which this year, ended up being about a book a week–I’ve picked my ten of my favorites. Not all of these were published this year, but I just encountered them this year. I left out old favorites that I read again–Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though reading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish was an entirely new experience). I have also left out Paul Auster, because I love everything Paul Auster writes, so why go over old territory. Here, in no particular order:
1. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
This book was over 900 pages, but I flew through it. It was a gripping thriller, with the spare language and quirky details I love in Murakami. This book deals with cults and all the fake realities we live with all the time, and how we try to sort them out. Plus, it was a love story with a very satisfying ending. Maybe what I love about Murakami is that he can write such a traditional story with so many metaphysical twists and high and low cultural references casually thrown in, without announcing themselves.
2. Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks
This book, about a young sex offender trying to make his way in the margins, was simply amazing. Just read it.
3. The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
Maybe I loved this book so much because I have three sisters, so a lot of the themes and interactions were familiar. But I found her descriptions of human relationships to be nuanced and fresh; I felt as if I were living in that weird family for a few days.
4. The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
The Plague, by Albert Camus, is one of my favorite books, and I’ve had a fascination with books about the plague since. Geraldine Brooks came across a plaque near an English village describing how it had quarantined itself during the time of the plague in the 16th century; she imagined the rest. She did such a wonderful job with the history and language that I immediately got two other historical fictions she did–Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American at Harvard, and March, about the imagined life of the March girls in Little Women, who went to the Civil War and was pals with the transcendentalists and abolitionists of the day (including my ancestory, John Brown). Impeccably researched novels.
5. Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard
I guess every MFA teacher around has read Jo Ann Beard’s essays, each one a little gem. I hadn’t read them, and was amazed at their economy of language, structure, and ability to say so much so profoundly in so little space.
6. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown,by Julia Scheeres
This book is essential reading for San Franciscans, telling the tale of one of the darkest chapters of our history from a humane point of view. Scheeres did meticulous research from FBI files and survivors to tell the story of Jonestown from the perspective of the people who were drawn into that world because of their ideals. A tale of 60s idealism going very, very wrong. Reads like a novel.
7. Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner
Like One Thousand Lives, this novel is written by a fellow member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, but trust me that I’m not biased when I say this is a wonderfully-written book. Through vignettes scattered in time, we learn about generations of a Chicago family and the themes of love and loss and shame that run through them. Lovely.
8. Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
This wasn’t written this year, but it’s an earlier novel by the author of the Glass Castle, and worth a read. What I loved about the book was that she wrote a kind of memoir of her grandmother, who was quite a character–a tough, independent woman of the West.
9. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Of course, I get this book mixed up with The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which I also loved, and which is completely different. But this tale of a lower-caste Indian’s rise in the world of entrepreneurship was funny, revealing, and a heartbreaking portrait of two Indias. I think you can read anything published recently with a tiger in its title. Except–wait–the Tiger Mother? Forget that one. Stick to the novels and you’ll be safe.
10. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee
I can’t believe I’m already at 10. I was going to mention Great House by Nicole Krauss, and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. But this spot is for The Privileges, which is a lively, funny, sarcastic novel about ethics and amorality among the wealthy insider trading set. Completely entertaining.
I’m happy that Santa et al brought me a big stack of books from the Booksmith, which gives me a great start to 2012 with The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie; Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon; Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga; Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, and In One Person, by John Irving.
My 2011 booklist:
I’m starting a five-star rating system this year (before the books on the list were either starred or not)
Man in the Dark****
The Cookbook Collector***
La Bella Lingua***
Boys of My Youth*****
Jo Ann Beard
The Flaming Corsage***
The Widower’s Tale****
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents**** Julia Alvarez
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks***
The Toughest Indian in the World*****
Orange is the New Black*****
The White Tiger****
Half Broke Horses****
The Year of Wonders****
The Tiger’s Wife****
Pride and Prejudice*****
Before Night Falls***
Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures**
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
The Weird Sisters*****
Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater***
Amor en los Tiempos del Colera*****
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Nowhere City****
Blood, Bones, and Butter***
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America***
The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts***
Louis de Bernieres
Food is Culture***
Lost Memory of Skin*****
A Short History of Women****
Love and Shame and Love****
The Voyage of the Rose City****
John Moynihan (dear departed friend)
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown****
For all the times I’ve visited Italy, I’ve never been in Piedmont until now, except once, to visit Torino. On that trip, I had a meal that seemed heavy and dull for Italian food, and based on that scant evidence, I decided I didn’t really like Piemontese cuisine.
Spending more time in Piedmont, I realize I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve had the opportunity to spend three days bicycling around Piedmont, which is the best way to see this region of Italy (which is actually the second biggest, after Sicily). While Tuscany and Umbria are packed with tourists this time of year, Piedmont is calm and cooler than the rest of Italy. It’s one of those regions—like Puglia—that is often overlooked by tourists, and feels like a much more authentically Italian part of Italy, with its rolling vineyards, medieval towns, and hilltop castles (last time I was in Tuscany, it seemed like I only heard English, and I had a terrible meal at a café I loved 15 years ago right in front of Santo Spirito in Firenze). Here in Piedmont, you don’t see menus translated into English as often and people aren’t so tourist-weary that they’ve stopped saying “Buon giorno.”
I hopped on a (super-light, carbon frame) bicycle with DuVine Adventures, a bicycling company that specializes in what could be a fairly complete philosophy of life: “Bike, eat, drink sleep.” Unlike at many other tour companies, one of our guides was a local—which makes all the difference.
Guide Rappeti is an avid cyclist and racer, as well as a member of a family that has been making wine since the time of Napolean. He was born in Acqui Terme, where we started our trip, and knows everything about the local history, wine, and cycling routes in Monferrato. He explained the first thing I wanted to know, for instance, which is why Piemontese cuisine relies so heavily on anchovies when it is far from the sea. Turns out that they used to tax salt when it came from Liguria unless it was packed in fish. Voila!
We took a quick spin the first day, about 13 miles, and got a sense of the terrain, which is hilly, with wide vistas of grape fields and small towns in the valleys and ridges. It was immediately clear that the Piemontese are used to cyclists, because they give you wide berth, are polite, and offer a friendly toot on the horn to let you know when they are approaching.
One of the wonderful things about bicycling on vacation, especially in Italy, is that you have a big, honest appetite for the wonderful food (which you burn off). We didn’t go to a fancy restaurant the first night, but an old noble house in the country where one of Guido’s friends, Graziella Priarone, makes Villa Delfini wine, near the town of Morsasco. We toured around the old estate, which included a vast Grotto which was either a refuge during war, or a place for monks; its use lost in history except for speculation. We settled in to an intimate dinner in a stone cellar.
We started with a dry sparkling wine, and Guido gave us a rundown of the main wines of Piedmont and how they are made. “In Piedmont, the winemaker has to respect the grape, and the history,” he said. “Tuscan wine is more geared to the market, but here it is geared to tradition and taste.” Piedmont, he explained, has a long tradition of dry wine. Barolo is the most elegant and aristocratic, and Barbera and Dolcetto are more for every day (and let me tell you, I’d love to have a Barbera or Dolcetto every day). Barbera, in his estimation, generally offers the best balance of price and quality. Guido is quite opinionated about wine, but his opinions are driven by tradition. When I asked about screwtops, he said screwtops are fine—just don’t call what’s inside “wine.” Wine has to breathe, he said.
Our dinner was paired with the wines, which were exceptional. All of the food was simple with beautiful ingredients. For antipasti, we had an Insalata Russa, which is not a “Russian” salad, but dialect for “red.” It was a rice and egg salad with peas, celery, carrot, and tuna—very fresh. We drank a chardonnay spumante (a sparkling wine fermented in the tank, not riddled and in the bottle like those in the champagne method). We also had some prosciutto and salami, home-made foccacia. We had carpione—delicately fried eggplant and chicken. For primi, we had malanzane plin. Plin are what the Piemontese call very small ravioli; these were filled with eggplant. The tomato sauce was from tomatoes picked at the absolute perfect moment in the summer, bursting with flavor.
As we moved on to a Dolcetto, I asked Graziela about the Slow Food movement, which started nearby, in Bra, which is known for its cheese. Carlo Patrini wrote a manifesto against the first McDonald’s in Italy, near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Since then, it has become a worldwide movement (I wrote one of the first American stories about Slow Food in the New York Times magazine sometime in the 90s).
“It’s complicated,” Graziela said. The general idea of Slow Food, as a way of promoting and preserving artisanal foods, is wonderful. But basically she said that in the course of becoming ever more popular, it has become a brand, which recognizes other big brands. So you rarely see really small producers in a place like Eataly, or in the Slow Food books.
Guido gave the example that someone from Slow Food tasted his wines and awarded them a very fine rating. But when Guido said his family makes only 10,000 bottles, it was deemed too small for Slow Food. I said I thought that was contrary to the whole point of promoting and preserving small, artisanal producers like Guido and Graziela.
Added to that, Graziela pointed out, precious few women are listed in Slow Food. The movement is slow about a lot of things.
Graziela was incredibly passionate about food. Ingredients, she says, are 90% of any dish. The preparation is simple, and only 10% of the result. The same, she said, can be said about wine. It’s all about the sun, earth, and grapes. It certainly tasted that way.
On our second day, we took a 25-mile ride out of Aqui Terme in a lovely loop passing wineries. We started on a big hill and ended up on a ridge with spectacular views on both sides. I’m a slow rider—especially on the uphill—and my group was filled with super-fit cyclists (which is not always the case), but everyone was patient and friendly. We ended up at Graziela’s again for lunch, this time on an outside terrace, which was wonderful. Guido remarked about how many people have enjoyed lunch in this place through the centuries. It was everything you could want in a lunch—three different wines, prosciutto, salami, chickpea salad (with goat cheese), foccacia, chicken salad, mozzarella and tomatoes, finished off with some amazing mint/lemon sorbet. I wasn’t all that eager to get back on the bike and ride to the hotel in Aqui Terme, but it was a beautiful day. Later in the day, we tried some local moscatos sitting by the big pool in Aqui Terme.
Dinner on the second day was memorable. We went to Guido’s family’s farmhouse, which was where the family fled when Napoleon came and his army took over his family’s land in the flat part of Aqui Terme (when Guido’s ancestor protested, they cut off an ear). The family moved to the top of a hill, where the house is invisible from the town and main road. The view is amazing of grapes running up and down hills in all directions. The family has turned part of the house into an agriturismo, Cascina Marcantonio, done with spare modern lines inside and using historic materials: gorgeous. Upstairs are a few rooms where you can stay.
We helped Guido’s mother, Clara, and his father, Franco, with the dinner. At least we tried to help. She had made a number of traditional Piemontese dishes. We chopped nuts for hazelnut cake, patted out foccacia, spread sauce on eggplant slices and rolled them up, and made whole-wheat tagliatelle. It was really fun to get our hands into the pasta and help. While we were cooking, we had a glass of their spumante, and some grissini with a bagnetto verde sauce. Grissini are breadsticks that are from Piedmont, and they are not like the cardboard breadsticks you get in an American Italian restaurant. These, which Franco made, were delicate, crispy on the outside, and just soft inside. We dipped them in the bagnetto verde, which I am going to run home and make. This is an amazing savory green sauce, and as far as I could tell, the recipe goes like this:
100 g parsley
2 hard-boiled eggs
6 anchovies, deboned
A handful of capers (500 g)
One panino soaked in vinegar
You chop up the parsley fine, like pesto, as well as the other ingredients so that the sauce is smooth. You can add garlic if you like, but Clara didn’t. You can put this sauce on meat, fish, just about anything.
Our dinner, seated near giant windows with a sweeping view where we could watch the sky grow pink, was one of the best I’ve ever had, particularly because it was made with such care from such lovely people who are so proud of where they live and the wine and food that their family has made since forever. Guido brought out bottle after bottle of his beautiful Barbera (the vineyard is MarcAntonio). We had:
Involtini di melanzane (eggplant roll-up)
Zucchini-filled crepe with local cheese
Vitello tonnato—thinly sliced veal with a sauce with mayonnaise, capers, anchovies,a nd tuna
Tagliatelle with aromatic herbs (marjoram, basil, thyme, etc.)
Incredibly tender boiled meat with some tomatoes and green sauce
Finally: the hazelnut cake.
We all thought the hazelnut cake was the most splendid dessert we’ve ever had. It was light, with a slightly crunchy texture, and not too sweet.
Clara’s Hazelnut Cake:
Mix: 300 grams ground hazelnuts
1 T sugar
Separate 4 eggs (Clara only uses her neighbor’s eggs, because she says they are far superior for baking than the ones you buy at the market). Put 130 grams of sugar in with the yolks and a teaspoon of vanilla.
Whip the egg whites with a tablespoon of powdered sugar
Add 120 grams of softened butter to the egg mixture. Add the hazelnuts, then fold in the egg whites.
Bake at 150 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.
It was an incredible evening where we all became friends and had the warm glow of a wonderful meal and wine, with an amazing view, a moment out of history, a moment to savor for a long time.
On the third day, we took the hardest ride. After one particularly difficult hill, Giovanni, our other guide, offered up a leftover slice of that hazelnut cake. It may have tasted even better then.
Thanks to super-cyclist, aptly-named Linda Crank for her photos!
I just arrived in Torino, and as usual when I visit Italy, I felt an immediate sense of well-being. Torino is a cafe city, with huge porticos that you can walk under throughout the town; it has been called “the most Italian city in France.” I love watching all the people dressed up for being out in public, even in the heat, with colorful sundresses, men wearing green and purple pants. Such a sense of style.
But what I love most in Italy are the markets, and Torino has two that seem to represent the old and new here, the traditional Porta Palazzo and the huge, almost fetishistically good Eataly at Lingotto, near the old Fiat factory. Enrico Deaglio, a Torinese journalist here who is the partner of my good friend Cecilia, explained to me that the Porta Palazzo goes back to before medieval times, when it was the central market for all traders in northern Europe. Cecilia and I took the tram to near the Porta Palazzo and came upon a huge market. One side was festooned with cheap clothing, probably made in China, but the food side was all-Italian.
Every time I travel in Italy and see markets like this, I want to cook. There was a huge hall with all kinds of fish, stands upon stands of tomatoes, vegetables, olives, cheeses, flowers, meats. Everything was local, everything was at the height of the season. We had a long day before us, so I only bought a few rosy apricots; the vendor picked the ones that were perfectly ripe to eat that day.
We went from Porta Palazzo into the medieval streets of centro Torino, and then stopped at a 17th-century cafe called Al Bicerin. A bicerin is a Torinese specialty, basically hot chocolate with cream and sometimes rum. It’s a ridiculous thing to drink in the middle of a hot summer day, but you can’t really leave Torino without trying one. The chocolate was amazing, not at all sweet. You sip it with a spoon. Mine didn’t have rum, but it would’ve been good with rum.
After we wandered around the centro, we took a train to Lingotto, which is where the old Fiat factory and the workers housing is. We walked past the long factory to what used to be an old vermouth factory and houses Eataly, which must be the world’s most amazing supermarket (one opened recently in New York). The market showcases absolutely the best of all Italian foods, with an enormous variety.
When we first walked in, the market looked too precious and sterile, especially after the colorful bustle of Porta Palazzo. We were hungry by 3:00 after subsisting all day, Italian-style, on a cappuccino. We sat at one of the bars that served food; since it was late, only the “carne/formaggio” bar was open, so we shared a couple of plates, prosciutto melone and a burrata cheese with some mache and red pepper conserve. The bread came in a little basket that told us the provenance of the flour, that it was ground with stones, baked in a wood-fired oven that morning, and explained where the sale came from, too. It was some of the best prosciutto and burrata I’ve had.
Fortified, we could make our way around the market. I was stupefied. There were rows and rows of every kind of pasta imaginable. Hundreds of brands of olive oil. A huge case of fresh pasta. Every kind of jam and sauce imaginable. Huge displays of cheeses and meats. The seafood looked like it all slithered and flopped into the case a few moments before. Clean and tidy, everything was displayed as if for a photo. Eataly made Whole Foods look like it has the produce variety of a 7-11.
Eataly, which was created by Oscar Farinetti, opened a few years ago, in collaboration with the Slow Food movement. The idea is to showcase the best Italian artisanal foods, and also create a space for people to sample and learn about them. The place is awesome, and, of course, expensive.
There was so much to try that I settled in on picking out my dinner for the next day. I bought some fresh gorgonzola plin, which is what the Torinese call little ravioli. I also picked up some perfect, peppery arugula. Then I went to the cheese stand to try some pecorino cheese, which is my favorite (made from sheep’s milk). I was atonished at the sheer quantity of pecorinos. I tried one washed in barolo, I tried one with herbs, and finally settled on something simpler and more soulful, a simple fiore sardo cheese. I wanted to take home bottles of olive oil, big hunks of bottarga, Sicilian marmalade, slices from the fat legs of prosciutto hanging in the meat section.
My friend Cecilia shops here, she says, when it’s Sunday and the markets closer to home are closed. It’s a fun palce to visit, but for most people, it’s not a place you can shop or eat eery day. I was amazed by Eataly, but also felt a little like it was all too easy. One of the delights of Italy is coming across those artisan foods where they are local, discovering them, having the locals prepare them with pride. A Sardinian cheese doesn’t taste the same away from Sardinia, though it is still a wonderful cheese. Unlike at the Porta Palazzo, there wasn’t a cast of characters calling out to sell me their peppers and snails; the human interaction was missing, too, because Eataly is populated by professionals.
All that said, Oscar, could you please bring an Eataly to San Francisco?
After Eataly, we dropped by the old Fiat factory, which has turned into an awful mall, with loud music, the smell of popcorn, and rows of teenage shops from which you cannot escape. Inexplicably, in the middle of all this, is an art gallery, the collection of the grandson of the founder of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli, and his wife, Marella. For four euros we got to see six Matisses, which I figure is a deal. Even better, we got to walk on the roof of the building, which is the old race track for Fiat. They’d start building the cars at the bottom of the factory, then they’d work their way up to the top, where they’d get taken out for a spin on the track.
Deaglio told me that when Agnelli died, everyone in town, some 200,000 people, including him, stood in the line, starting at the bottom of the factoring, and going to the top, to shake the hands of the remaining family and to see the casket. The Torinese are proud of their town, with its industrial beginnings, its cornucopia of food, its Paris-like streets, its cafes.
We ended the day at dinner on the sidewalk near the house at a lovely place where we had anchovies and raw meat appetizers, and some pasta with swordfish, cherry tomatoes, and capers, which is hardly Torinese. I should’ve had something more local, which would have been heavy on a summer day, so I ate something from Sicily instead. Foodwise, I love the North of Italy, but I would choose the South.
All Over the Map is out in paperback! Even though I love the hardback as an object–the cover is beautiful–it’s probably best as a paperback, a great read to take along on a summer trip to the beach (or to the couch).
I’ve been delighted and humbled by all of the responses I’ve gotten from readers. One recently told me that the book has a quality of euphoria that is hard to find in life–and that it swept him away.
Another fan wrote: “I stayed up later than I should have night after night, eating each chapter like a chocolate truffle. I loved the way you expressed, in words I’ve never been able to formulate, why I travel (to discover something that I didn’t even know I was looking for). And the reason that I love learning languages (because to speak Spanish, I have to be a little bit Mexican, or Castillian, or Argentine…). Your book was everything I love in a memoir: brave, honest, insightful.”
A doctor from Florida wrote: Finished your latest book this morning and it was a wonderful experience. I probably should say right off the bat that I haven’t read any of your work before. The other day I was in the library with my children, while they were looking for books I was glancing through the new arrivals section. Your book “All Over the Map” caught my eye and I checked it out (I promise I will buy “An Italian Affair”). Reading the jacket sleeve I was hooked by the words romance and adventure. You see my wife and I have travelled to Mexico and climbed Iztaccihuatl and exchanged wedding vows on the top of Temple 2 in Tikal Guatemala. We love those countries as well as Portugal and Greece. We have been toying with the idea of taking our children this summer to a Spanish language immersion program. What better way to instill a passion for travel and a tolerance and understanding for other peoples cultures then to travel to foreign lands. Once again I want to say how much I enjoyed your book and thank you for sharing your experiences. It reinvigorated and reenergized me in my determination to open different paths to different cultures for my kids.”
From a reader in Maryland: “I just finished All Over the Map and I was sorry to reach the end of the book. Another 100 pages, and I would have been your house guest in San Miguel de Allende, say maybe tomorrow? My life has taken a different course but I’ve arrived at an age and a time where I could see myself standing where you are. I was inspired. Thank you.”
I love it when people take the time to drop me a note, like this one: “Hi Laura, I am reading All Over the Map and I love it. I hope it never ends.”
And I’m so touched when people send notes like this: “I’ve loved many books but never taken time to send the author a fan letter in gratitude for
the lovely experience. All Over The Map was so delicious that I had to get An Italian Affair because I needed to know how your story began…Your books woke me up from a two year funk after hubby died. All my pleasures kind of
froze and then while in my favorite book store [ Capitola book cafe ] I was drawn to Map because of the graphics . What an absolute treat ! I was so taken away . . . . . thank you for your story, dear lady. Just what my shrink should have ordered !”
Thanks to all of you who took the time to write to me! Please recommend All Over the Map to your book group. There’s a reading guide here from O, the Oprah Magazine.
I am also available to chat with book groups via Skype or phone.
My friend Fabrizia Lanza, the director of the Anna Tasca Lanza Sicilian Cooking Courses, will be here February 13th, and I’m throwing a reception with her at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where we’ll taste some Sicilian wine and foccaccia, talk about Sicilian cuisine (Fabrizia is one of the world’s experts on the topic), and introduce people to the Savoring Sicily workshop Fabrizia and I are teaching in Sicily in June.
I’m excited to be teaching with Fabrizia in Regaleali, her family’s wine estate about an hour outside of Palermo, because the place and the people in it represent what authentic Sicilian cooking–and lifestyle–are all about.
Three years ago, my Italian friend Giovanna and I drove to Regaleali after visiting the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, and picnicking in its heirloom gardens. Another Italian friend, who is a food expert, insisted that I meet Fabrizia and take a course at her school, and I couldn’t wait. We stopped in a bar in a small town to ask directions and finally found our way on roads that wound through grape and wheat fields to a set of stone houses, impeccably kept, painted with blue trim: Le Case Vecchie at Regaleali.
Le Case Vecchie, and Regaleali, are the kind of places you dream about when you think about an ideal of Italy–a place that is historic, where people grow their own grapes and olives, make their own cheese and wine, and tend a garden filled with heirloom vegetables. At this time of year, May, the iris were in full bloom, and the vast rolling fields of grapes were green.
Fabrizia welcomed us warmly, and introduced us to her parents, Anna Tasca Lanza and her father, the Count Lanza. Anna, who, sadly, died last year, introduced Sicilian country cuisine to the United States through her cookbooks and her classes, as well as her cooking school. I am so happy, and feel so honored, that I had the opportunity to meet this incredible woman, and to share some meals with her at her table. Fabrizia’s father is a consummate storyteller, which made the meals all the richer. It was a pleasure to sit outside with the family under a shady tree, having a glass of Regaleali white wine before commencing dinner.
Giovanna and I stayed for two days. Every meal, including those we helped prepare during a cooking class, was memorable, but simple. The cuisine is what makes places like Chez Panisse famous, though the Sicilians have been doing it for centuries: high quality ingredients, simply prepared. One morning Anna and Giovanna deboned what seemed like hundreds of sardines to make my favorite dish, paste con le sarde, which has fennel, and always tastes like the sea breeze over the country landscape.
For lunch one day, Fabrizia made a cassata, which is a very sweet ricotta cake, once eaten only at Easter. “Sicilians have terrible sweet teeth,” Fabrizia told me. This is due to the influence of the Arabs on the island (who also brought pasta here in 1154).
Fabrizia took us on a tour of the Regaleali estate, showing us the winery, the dining room where the Queen of England ate when she was here, and the place where they make cheese. There isn’t much in the world I love more than pecorino cheese, after pasta con le sarde.
After a morning walk around the vineyards, Fabrizia gave us a cooking lesson. Fabrizia, who has a background in art history, approaches cooking not only through her palate, stomach, and knife, but through her considerable intellect. She has made documentary films about some of Sicily’s food rituals, such as baking incredible varieties of bread before the feast of San Giuseppe. She not only knows the technique of how to cook traditional Sicilian dishes, but she knows the history and culture from which those dishes were derived. It was such a pleasure to be with her in her kitchen. Now, Fabrizia has taken over as the director of the cooking school, and is dedicated to preserving Sicilian foodways, as well as ancient varieties of Sicilian fruits and vegetables in her lovely garden.
Fabrizia and I have become friends; I even cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her in San Francisco. I was delighted to visit her in Palermo last year, even though it was a sad time for her, because she took the time to take me on a tour of Palermo’s incredible food markets. There, people sell gorgeous vegetables, fruits, and fish in stalls–perhaps one person sells only eggs, another only snails. Fabrizia knows the history of all the dishes in the market, and is eager to try bites of anything that looks good, including the spleen sandwiches. (You can read about our time in Palermo in Afar magazine.)
I’m so excited to be doing a writing and cooking course with Fabrizia. The course is about food writing, and writing from the senses. It’s for published writers or novices. The setting and meals at Regaleali will liven your senses and inspire your writing. The cooking classes will teach you about traditional Sicilian recipes, and will offer plenty of material to write about in the afternoons. The setting is gorgeous, and the workshop will be limited to ten people, so sign up soon! The workshop will be from June 12-18, when everything is blooming in the Sicilian countryside, and there are plenty of berries and vegetables in season. the workshop includes all meals, wine, lodging, and a trip with a private guide to the Valley of the Temples. More information is here.
You can also register through Fabrizia’s website, or email email@example.com.
Last year, while teaching at Esalen, I had the opportunity to meet John Marks and Susan Collin Marks of Search for Common Ground, an NGO that promotes conflict resolution throughout the world, often through using popular media. I was so impressed with their positive message and efforts at limiting violence throughout conflict-ridden places in the world. Here’s a short piece I wrote about one of their projects:
In Cote d’Ivoire, a soccer player tells his coach he’s been fired from his job for no good reason. Another player, angry, says that that boss always fires people who aren’t from his tribe – so they should teach him a lesson. The coach calms the riled young men and insists they solve the problem without violence, by talking to the boss instead. So the players arrange to meet with him.
“Our country is like the national team,” the first young man tells the boss. “You like soccer, right?”
“Bien sur,” says the boss, who eventually decides, over the disapproval of others in his tribe, to rehire the soccer players from the other tribe.
Like everyone around the world, the boss loves soccer, which is what makes The Team, a soap opera based on a soccer team, a hit in the countries where it runs. The soap opera isn’t just popular entertainment — though it is that — but a metaphor for ethnic relations and a message promoting conflict resolution between warring tribes. John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground, which produces the soap operas, says the core message of the soap operas is simple: “If they don’t cooperate, they don’t score goals, and they lose.”
Search for Common Ground, which has produced conflict-resolution programs internationally since 1982, often using popular media, initially created The Team in response to the tribal violence that roiled Kenya in December 2007 following a presidential election. During that conflict, which was spurred on by hate messages on the radio, 1,500 Kenyans died and 300,000 were displaced. Marks and others at Search wanted to turn those media messages around, using a soap opera to promote peace instead of violence. In the show, players from different tribes must work together in spite of their differences, solve problems without violence and take personal responsibility for their actions.
In one episode, a coach unwittingly makes a woman from another tribe – the tribe that murdered his wife – the captain of the team. When he later learns the truth about her tribe and wants her to step down, she proves she can motivate the team to win. The coach comes to see her as a person, not a tribe member, and keeps her as a leader despite deep disapproval from his family.
Along with the Kenya show, Search for Common Ground is creating similar versions of The Team in 11 other countries that are riddled with ethnic violence. Shows are already on air in Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Morocco, and in production in countries including the Congo, Liberia, Nepal, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Pakistan. Funded by U.S. and European governments and non-profit foundations, the Washington D.C.-based Search team produces the shows and creates a structure for the series, but in every country, local writers and actors fill in the details of the stories so that they ring true to viewers.
“In each country the stories are different, because each culture has its own problems and its own storytelling traditions,” Marks says. In Morocco, for instance, players tackle the growing conflict between the rich and the poor in their communities. In Congo, the players have to grapple with gender issues and violence. (All the teams on the soap operas are co-ed).
Like soccer and soap operas, the series has become very popular. In its first season in 2009, two million Kenyans watched The Team, and two million more tuned in to the radio version. The Team is consistently rated among the 10 most popular shows in Kenya, attracting 25 percent of the available viewing audience.
The show has been successful in affecting attitudes about other ethnicities and reducing violence in Kenya, Marks says. Actors and members of the Search staff showed episodes to community leaders in violence-prone areas in that country and facilitated discussions afterwards. “It had unbelievable effects,” Marks says. “People were saying things like, ‘I’ve forgiven the people who murdered my brothers.’” After one such meeting, he says, a criminal gang that had been terrorizing Nairobi slums decided to go straight, make restitution to the people they wronged and become a positive civic action group.
Follow-up evaluations show that the soap opera has had lasting effects on attitudes and behavior in Kenya. In surveys conducted by Search, two-thirds of respondents said that the issues of tribal identity and differences affected them “very much,” and almost all said that The Team was an effective way to address the issues. After mobile cinema screenings in areas without access to television, participants reported that they were more accepting of people from other tribes and that the shows had helped them develop individual confidence, self-discipline and taught them to accept responsibility for their actions.
“One of the continuing themes in the series is people taking responsibility,” says Marks. “Individual players realize that they can’t rely on tribes, that they need to be responsible for situations as individuals.”
Marks started Search for Common Ground out of a sense of personal responsibility. A former State Department official, he resigned in 1970 in protest over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and then worked as a policy advisor to a U.S. senator to try to cut off funding for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He then wrote The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, an exposé of U.S. intelligence abuses, and The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate,” about the CIA’s use of LSD and other behavioral techniques.
Marks realized that he had become a figure opposing the war, opposing the CIA – in short, an oppositional character. “I wanted to be for something,” he says, and so decided to work toward doing something positive. During the Cold War, he wanted to help defuse the confrontation and promote common security. With the help of an inheritance, he started Search for Common Ground and worked on anti-nuclear projects and international mediation. In 1989, Marks created a Soviet-American Task Force on Terrorism, working unofficially with a former CIA director and the ex-head of counterterrorism for the KGB to outline recommendations about how U.S. and Soviet intelligence organizations could work together to combat terrorism. Both the KGB and the CIA eventually accepted the recommendation to cooperate; the RAND Corporation, a national security think tank, became the co-sponsor.
Over 28 years, Marks’ organization has spread throughout conflict-ridden countries in the world, mediating between leaders and creating peaceful messages and conflict-resolution tools like The Team through the media and popular culture.
“I’ve been trying to transform conflict on the planet,” Marks says. “That’s my work, my passion and my life.”
Creating peace is a responsibility everyone shares, he adds. “You can start by taking responsibility for resolving the conflicts in your life peaceably, with win-win situations,” Marks says. “It has to go from the individual to the group to the globe.”
Laura Fraser is the author of the bestselling travel memoirs An Italian Affair and All Over the Map. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, More, Gourmet, O, the Oprah Magazine, among many others. Her website is laurafraser.com.
I somehow have very bad luck with New York Times reviews. Most authors would say that it is very good luck to have your book reviewed in the Times at all, not to mention that any publicity is good publicity. They would also say that it isn’t wise to complain about such a powerful institution.
I have huge respect for the Times. I’m addicted to the paper, and feel proud every time I write for it. It’s simply the best paper in the country. My experiences writing for the paper have shown me that they are very, very careful professionals, and respectful of their writers.
So when a review appears from a writer who is snide and disdaining, particularly, it seems, of women, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. Worse to think that almost every person you know will read the review and feel–I don’t know, pity?
When my first book, Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It, came out, Gina Kolata gave it a very bitchy review, randomly plucking lines that seemed foolish out of context. A few months later she made extensive use of the book in a piece on the history of dieting, without credit. A few more years later she wrote a book on a similar topic. But first, she did what she could to bury mine. The Washington Post gave Losing It a great review, and its topic was featured on the cover of Newsweek. It made a contribution to the discussion about weight in the United States.
An Italian Affair was ignored. All Over the Map was included as part of a travel roundup, reviewed by Joshua Hammer, a Newsweek bureau chief and war correspondent. It might have been nice if the reviewer had been a woman, or at least someone who was capable of reading a book about a woman’s internal as well as geographical journey and not call it “embarrassing.” I was not embarrassed, and I think it says a lot that he was. My book was one of seven reviewed; five were by men, and the last two listed were by women–and one of those women, Rosita Forbes, has been dead for decades. I guess they needed a live woman in the mix.
I realize Hammer had to read a lot of books and digest a lot of material for his reviews. That could account for his weary tone; he had a lot of pages to plow through.
Writers are sensitive, so you can read the review yourself: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/books/review/Travel-t.html?pagewanted=3&sq=Laura%20Fraser&st=cse&scp=1
I was annoyed, of course, that the reviewer described parts of my book as “Eat, Pray, Love Lite.” I’m not sure what it is about going to Rwanda to look at reconciliation projects after a genocide, or interviewing sex-trafficked women in Italy, that counts as “lite.” And no slam to Elizabeth Gilbert, who seems like a lovely person, but I wrote An Italian Affair about six years before she packed her suitcase, and I’m tired both of the comparisons to her book and the notion that my book was inspired by hers. It was not. Isn’t there room for more than one book about a woman uses travel as a means to find herself?
Does one complain about a review? Ordinarily, you’re supposed to roll with the punches, and hope that discerning readers like the book better. In this case, I could have shrugged off the digs I just mentioned and been happy that even a mixed review was better than none.
My friend Tim Redmond, Executive Editor of the Bay Guardian, and a friend whose judgment I respect hugely, told me, “It was bad, but not that bad. It’ll still sell books. It mostly seemed as if the reviewer totally didn’t get the book at all; I think even to categorize it as a “travel book” is wrong. But it’s okay; I don’t think it will dissuade people from buying it.”
I think he’s right. Many of my other friends said I was over-reacting and that the review was positive. My agent, editor, and publicist were not happy with the review, but suggested I let it go. I would have, but for one line in the review.
There was one wild inaccuracy in the review, and it had to do with a scene I described where I was drinking with some Samoan fa’afafine, males who act in the roles of women, and then took a walk on the beach, where I was sexually assaulted. I included this scene because one of the themes of the book is the price that women pay for independence and freedom, all over the world. It was not an easy scene to write. In fact, I had written an entire novel about the incident, which I threw away, leaving only that one scene.
Hammer described this scene as a “drunken flirtation” that ended in rape. But nowhere in the text was there any indication that I was flirting with the Samoan surfer. In fact, I disliked him from the moment he sat down, when he asked me to help read a letter in English from a poor girl who’d fallen for him, and his attitude toward her was completely derisive, crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the sand. Plus, he was about as smart as a refrigerator. I couldn’t very well tell him not to walk on the beach near me because it was his beach; I was a visitor in the country. I was just getting air. I made my disinterest in him clear in the book. Anyway, it’s a memoir. I know what happened. I’m the expert here.
I decided I had to write a letter to the Times. Here’s what I wrote:
To the Editor:
Joshua Hammer’s review of my book, All Over the Map, contained a grave inaccuracy. He described a scene in my book where “an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” Nowhere in the text is there an indication that I flirted with the man who raped me; that is an assumption, and a wildly inaccurate one. One of the themes of my book is about how, worldwide, women who either desire to be independent or who are compelled to strike out on their own are punished by members of their cultures who are still vastly ambivalent about changing women’s roles. Sadly, Hammer’s review proves that point by insinuating that because I was out drinking with some Samoan drag queens, I must have been flirting with the rapist who joined us, and therefore to blame for the ensuing rape. Aren’t we past the notion that “she had it coming to her”?
The editors have acknowledged the letter, but haven’t told me anything else so far. I don’t want to make a stink; I’d just like to raise a little consciousness. That part of my book was subtle, and I deliberately did not want to make a big deal out of the incident, which I don’t want to do in print in the Times. I just wish someone would apologize. That Samoan surfer did, the next day. It didn’t make the bad incident go away, but it helped me realize that he was human, too.
Update: The Times has agreed to run my letter about the review. I appreciate their professionalism and consideration.
Here’s a Q&A she did with me about All Over the Map:
Q&A with Mary Roach
MR: I loved your new book, Laura. I found it to be really wise. There were some lines that really stayed with me, like, “Whatever happens, in spring there will always be rhubarb.” I also loved, “It’s not that the grass is greener, it’s that you can never be on both sides of the lawn.” Amen.
LF: Thanks, Mary. I’m wiser, I hope, than when we first met in our twenties!
MR: With this book, there’s something about the fact that you’re writing it in “middle age”–there’s a wisdom to it, and your perspectives on yourself, relationships and marriage had a lot of depth. An Italian Affair was a wonderful, sweeping romance, but this one has more depth and lessons for so many people who are in similar situations.
LF: I guess there are a few advantages to being middle-aged. You’re not as much of an idiot.
MR: I was wondering why there was such a big gap in time between An Italian Affair and this book? I mean, I know, book ideas are not easy to come up with, particularly when you’re writing from your own life—and there’s that sense that you have do always be doing something book-worthy.
LF: That’s right. An Italian Affair was successful enough that it was hard to come up with an idea that people in the book world thought would be as successful. I went to see a mentor, William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, who’s an old-school journalist, with an office in New York City that’s like an oasis of craft where agents and publishers dare not enter. When I told him I felt like I couldn’t write anything because I didn’t think anything would be as successful as my last book, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He told me to just get back to writing about what moves me most.
MR: Good advice.
LF: Absolutely. And the funny thing about this book is that it ended up being quite different from what I set out to write, and I like it better. Everything happens in the process of writing. You can’t plan it all out. The book is a little hodge-podge—“All Over the Map” is kind of the theme as well.
MR: You’re giving your critics a big, fat target. Here’s your headline! Run with it! (Both laugh). But life is all over the map, and maybe because you travel so much, you’re skilled at finding the angle in covering the things you report that fit a larger narrative—you did a really good job of thematically weaving in issues about women and the struggles they have all over the world and the ways they find of dealing with what society expects of them. The book is really not all over the map at all.
LF: I in no way wanted to compare the issues I’m dealing with to those of the women I interviewed—prostitutes in Naples, genocide survivors in Rwanda.
MR: I feel your pain, honey. Just try being me! You can’t believe some of the dates I’ve had on Match.com! You think your Saturday night is rough! (Laughs) No, I don’t think you in any way belittled their experiences, because the stories of those women are very compassionately told.
LF: Good. I just wanted to get across that we’re at a funny time in history when women all over the world are in a double bind about what’s expected of them.
MR: So, did you think about writing this book in the second person like An Italian Affair? I remember you went back and forth when you wrote that, deciding between first person or second.
LF: Or the royal “we.” With this book, it’s part of that sense of being older and wiser–I felt I could land on the first person. I’ve got something to say, I have more confidence about my voice. With An Italian Affair, the second person worked, partly because it gave it a dreamy quality, like a fable. But this is a different book.
MR: This is such an honest book, I don’t think the “you” would work. You can say about yourself, “You’re the most impulsive person, always blurting things out,” but the reader might take offense at the “you.”
LF: I’m not sure men who read An Italian Affair appreciated the “you,” either. “You’re having an affair with a sexy French professor.” Wait! No I’m not! It just doesn’t work for everyone.
MR: My publisher did an audio book for my last book, Bonk, and they found a male reader. I asked, “What about that chapter where I have sex with Ed in the ultrasound lab?” That’s going to be a little problem, since it’s in the first person. They hired a woman.
LF: That’s hilarious. Since An Italian Affair was about my thirties, and All Over the Map is about my forties, that means there’s less sex in it, sadly. But it’s harder to write about sex in the first person, so it’s just as well.
MR: One of the things I like about this book, in an age where there’s a blurry line between fact and fiction in a lot of memoirs, is that this one is absolutely true. You didn’t exaggerate anything, or change things around to make them fit. It’s a really real story about coming to grips with who you are, and what you thought you’d be.
LF: I guess the journalist in me believes that memoirs should be true. I mean, dialogue is never word for word, and memory is always faulty—memoir is about the truth to the best of your ability to remember it– but I don’t believe in embellishing anything. If you want to do that, just call it “fiction.”
MR: I was especially touched by your portrait of your mom, and just a generation back, how hard it was for her to balance an adventurous spirit with family life and pretty rigid social expectations of women. I liked your exploration of whether women can have it all. When you talked to women at your reunion who seemed to have great jobs and family lives, you scratched the surface and saw a lot of stress, and they envied your life. Like you said, it’s not that the grass is always greener, it’s that you can’t be on both sides of the lawn.
LF: The whole dating thing in your forties is brutal. Thank God you vetted a lot of my Internet dating matches over the years, or I would’ve gotten into bigger trouble. Or maybe I would’ve had more to write about. But you had an unerring sense with the “delete” button.
MR: Yeah, I remember the guy who took you to Muslim Malaysia where Americans weren’t very welcome, in the middle of monsoon season.