Reading While Abroad

Here is my problem of the year: Books weigh a lot. And it’s rather a nuisance to try to travel when you have a whole collection of “to be reads” waiting for you at home.

I’ve been away from home (and away from my book collection) for almost a year. Over the summer I was interning in Washington DC, and only brought five or so books with me. I was lucky that I ended up subleasing for a couple that had numerous books in English (and Latvian! But as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t read those), and could add on to my reading list without having to worry about how to transport books home. I also began to use my phone’s Kindle app more and downloaded some poetry books.

When I left for Poland I brought three books with me. Only three! They were Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (which would be a re-read for me), and Wisława Szymborska’s poetry collection Here, which I brought to practice Polish, as it has the poems in Polish as well as the English translations. I was worried that this wouldn’t be enough books because I was sure I would have too much extra time and no friends and I would be bored … etc., etc. But I eventually took the advice of my mom and didn’t spend half of my baggage weight on books.

But between the end of September and the end of December I finished exactly one book: The Land of Green Plums (which I had started when I was still in Wisconsin). And guess what, the reason I read only one book that entire time was because I was busy, and I had friends, and I was never bored.

I began to read more after Christmas. This is usually the trend with me – I tend to read more during December and January. This is probably because I usually get quite a few books for Christmas, and have a lot of downtime. This year there were no Christmas books. In late January, missing this tradition I took myself down to the major English-language bookstore and bought myself two books: The Passport by Herta Müller and Time Bites by Doris Lessing. During this time I also had access to an actual Kindle (not just the app on my phone!). While I’m not a Kindle-or-Bust person, I did find that I really enjoyed reading on it.

Since January I have read four books. It’s not a lot, but it’s not a number I’m ashamed of. All but one of these has been in physical form. And this may be a problem when it comes to me leaving Poland, because I’m a bit of a book hoarder, and I would like to bring all of my books back with me. But that’s not going to be possible so there will have to be some culling of the herd in June.

So, with that long ramble of a tale of my reading while abroad exploits, I have a few tips on how to read while abroad:

  1. If you’re going on a short trip (up to a month), bring a paperback or two that you have no attachment to. These are relatively lightweight, and if you bought them for cheap (I recommend bringing the books you bought on clearance or at a library book sale), you won’t feel guilty leaving them in a hostel lobby once you’re done with them.
  2. If you’re travelling with friends, bring along a book to trade with each other when you each finish your book.
  3. If you’re staying in a country long-term, and are in a relatively large city, find a bookshop that caters to ex-pats. If you’re lucky the books should be relatively affordable, and there may be the possibility of selling books back when you are going to leave.
  4. If you can’t invest in a Kindle (like me), I would suggest downloading the free app on your laptop or phone. There are also a lot of resources to find cheap or free eBooks online, such as Project Gutenberg (yay classics!), this Reddit forum, and Book Riot’s “Deals of the Day.”

Happy reading, and great travels!


Writing Anxieties


I have a problem with making myself write. I hesitate to write because I become nervous and anxious about doing it. As someone who has been relatively confident throughout my life, I don’t know why I would be afraid and nervous and, for the lack of any better words right now, unconfident about writing.

There’s nothing specific that makes me afraid about writing; I haven’t had anyone say “you’re a terrible writer” or, “you shouldn’t write about this.” Instead I just get the idea in my head that I’m not good at writing, or that I don’t have any significant ideas that are worth writing about.

And this doubt and anxieties are bull! I absolutely love writing; I love being able to tell stories that I find I can’t tell when I’m talking to people, I like creating characters, I like the physical act of writing with a nice pen on quality paper. But then I become excessively anxious about putting words down and I decide to not write for week and weeks. That, of course, then turns my anxiety into more of a problem, because when I finally do go to write I can’t seem to actually get anything out because it’s been so long since I’ve written.

This is the point when I think I have the most doubts about not having anything useful or unique to say … or, really, anything to say at all. And even though I acknowledge the ridiculousness of these thoughts, my anxious little brain doesn’t care. And then there is the feeling that that everything I have written has been said, but possibly probably definitely said better than I will ever say it. I also worry that whatever I write is trite and clichéd.

I think I know one of the reasons why I feel this way: I read too many amazing books by amazing authors.

Actually, this really isn’t a problem. The real problem is that while I’m reading these books I then compare myself to authors who have been writing for 20, 30, 40 years and have won Nobel Prizes or Man Booker Prizes or what-have-you. It’s absolutely silly for me to look at these authors and their vivid, wonderful stories and I say to myself that I’m never going to write as well as these established authors.

And I might not ever be as good of a writer, but that doesn’t really matter. And a sure-fire way for me to never be as good is to worry about how I’m not a good writer now. But that takes time, and I think the important thing now is for me actually enjoy myself while I’m writing – to like the process and the topics and the general feeling of getting thoughts down on paper.

My other two anxieties I have about writing go hand-in-hand. Often when I am writing I tend to hold back on my feelings. I think too much about how I don’t want to be perceived as foolish or too emotional. I think I’m quite closed with a lot of people, and writing what I feel just opens up this whole fear that people will recognize who or what or why I am writing an emotional piece and possibly judge me for that.

I think this comes from the fact that I tend to be a private, not very outwardly emotional person. So when my writing is emotional or personal I become very uncomfortable at the prospect of any hypothetical readers sitting and feeling what I feel. And then I begin to “self-censor” myself and not write things that I really want to write.

So, here it is, all my anxieties laid out on the table. I’m not sure if there is a solution to my problems. Or, at least, not a particularly profound solution. My anxieties about writing just have to be worked through, I think. I have to tell myself that the more I write, even if 90 percent of it is crap, I will get better, eventually.

The next thing I have to do is perhaps a bit harder: I have to actively seek an audience. Just writing that makes me panic a bit. But the truth is that any feedback is better than no feedback. And I’m at the point where I’m tired of sitting on stories that I really enjoyed writing and think are good because I’m afraid a friend or a family member won’t like it. What is the possibility of someone I love reading a piece I wrote and saying “oh, Elizabeth, that was really bad. You should never write again”? In reality, they’re more likely to praise me and not give me any criticism (constructive or not).

So I’ve made a goal for myself to try to write most or all of a short story each week and show it to a friend. It’s not a difficult goal to keep, and I think it allows me to be flexible if I have some days of self doubt.

Weekly Reads — March 5, 2017


It’s been a long and busy two weeks! Language classes started back up, and I’ve been spending several days going to movies/talks/dinner/protests with friends. Kind of exhausting, and also not good for being productive with a blog and writing.

But I’m back at it, and this week we have “Weekly Reads and One Podcast.”

The Infamous Tale of the Murderous Chemistry Professor” — JSTOR Daily:

Here’s a little fascinating tale of the murder of a prominent Boston doctor and benefactor of Harvard’s Medical College in the 1840s by a “hot-headed” Chemistry professor. The article reminds me a lot of a historical mystery book, and I think this would a really fun story to fictionalise. I’m imagining the book cover in an Edward Gorey style.

Six Stories of Stunning Passports from Countries that No Longer Exist” — Atlas Obscura:

Passports have always fascinated me, even as a child. I think this fascination came from a desire to travel that I had even as an 8-year-old. It wasn’t until I came across this article about a passport collection that I even thought that passports were something that could be collected. And what a fascinating thing to collect! Atlas Obscura boils down some stories and background of rare passports from the website Passport Collector.

Podcast: Don’t Keep Your Day Job

It’s only been in the last year that I’ve been really into listening to podcasts. This last week, bored of the podcasts that I’ve been listening to months on end, I decided to browse Itunes for something new to listen to. That’s how I came across Don’t Keep Your Day Job, a podcast that interviews creatives who have started their own businesses. I’ve found it really inspiring, even though I have no interest in starting my own business. It definitely helped me get out of this creative slump I’ve had these last few weeks.

Weekly Reads — February 19, 2017


It’s a week of history, romance (OooOoooO!), and remembering an article I was supposed to write about last week.

The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day” — NPR:

We started off the week with that ubiquitous holiday of romance and chocolate.  I had a vague understanding of where Valentine’s Day came from — something about a martyred saint and the such — but didn’t know about the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, which could be considered the original Valentine’s Day. I wish the article would have expanded on the usage of the holiday in Shakespeare’s works.

Making Ink” — The Recipes Project: 

When I found this article my heart swooned a bit. The whole website in dedicated to recreating (or attempting to recreate) historical recipes. This particular article really sparks my interest because I’ve always had a love for old-fashioned ink and quill pens. The website is really good as well if you have any interest in methods for teaching history or recreating the past.

Opening the Heart’s Floodgates, With a Paw” — Modern Love (New York Times):

I have homesickness sometimes. Particularly as I’m living in a dormitory abroad. These past few months have been hard because I’ve had absolutely no contact with animals but when I’m at home I’m constantly surrounded by dogs and cats. And a sheep. This article gave me warm fuzzies thinking about the people who love shelter dogs.

And finally, the article which I forgot last week:

Q&A: The Women Who Write Dinosaur Erotica” — The Cut (New York Magazine): 

Yes, dinosaur erotica is a thing. Which I had no clue about until a couple months ago when a friend (the same friend who pointed out that this article was not included in last week’s edition of “Weekly Reads”) mentioned it. It’s an interesting insight into what type of books sell. Apparently. I would suggest following your enjoyment of this article with a little light listening of the podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno.


Book Review: The Passport — Herta Müller


There is something ingrained in me that makes me believe that short books will be easy reads. I blame studying history because a short monograph on history usually means you can read the whole book and not be overwhelmed.

If any book could rid me of this foolish notion, it would be Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize-winning The Passport.

Despite being just over 100 pages, The Passport conveys the bleakness and desperation that surrounds the characters. The Passport, like much of Müller’s other pieces of fiction, deals with the struggles of the German minority in Romania under the Ceaușescu regime.

The Passport doesn’t go into depth about the terrors of the regime — nor does it need to. The book follows Windisch, the miller of a village which is predominantly German, as he struggles to obtain passports for himself, his wife, and their grown daughter. Broadly, The Passport details Windisch’s attempts at bribing officials, first with flour from his mill, and later with sexual favours from his daughter. But the most prominent part of this book is the sheer weight of suppression and the desperation Windisch and his family have to leave Romania.

Müller writes exceptional imagery. Throughout The Passport is the image of an owl that flies over the town as a harbinger of death. The owl symbolises the fear that the German villagers live with. The owl also shows how the German villagers look for something to blame for their misfortune.

Animals as symbols are used quite often in The Passport. In one scene Windisch’s wife recounts a dream she had in which she journeyed up to the attic with a flour sieve, only to find a golden oriole that had died in the attic. When she lifts ups the bird, she finds a swarm of fat, black flies underneath it.

The flies flew up in a swarm. They settled in the flour sieve. I shook the sieve in the air. The flies didn’t move. Then I tore open the door. I ran into the yeard. I threw the sieve with the flies into the snow.” –38

Müller uses the flour sieve to show domesticity and food, and the golden oriole is wished-for prosperity (perhaps the kind that the Windisch family hopes to find when they leave Romania). But the oriole is dead, and the hidden flies taint the domesticity they already have.

The portrayal of time in the novel is another part of what makes the narrative so interesting. The timeline is not entirely clear, we’re not aware if the process has taken weeks, months, or years. Despite not knowing, the tone of The Passport gives us this feeling of oppression and uncertainty.

Overall, Müller’s terse language — she writes in short, almost choppy sentences — gives us the sense of fear and nervousness that surrounded the characters. The Passport is an excellent book for those who have an interest in history, or just want a general understanding of German minorities in communist-ruled countries after the Second World War.


Weekly Reads — February 12, 2017


Confession: Do I read most of these articles on Friday and Saturday night, after putting them in my Pocket App for safe keeping? Yes. Do I feel bad about that? Ehh…maybe. But I rather think that point is moot because I mean to read these earlier in the week, I just don’t get around to them until later in the week.

“Keeping Kids Frenetically Entertained is Ruining our Museums” — Aeon:

Even before studying history for six years, museums have had a special place in my heart. I enjoy the quiet calm, where I can think about history or art or dinosaurs. I go as far to like the quiet of a museum so much that I tend not to use the audio guide because I like to think on my own about the art or artifacts. Switek wonders about the function museums have had to take on in a world that pushes children (and adults) to be constantly entertained. I think if you’re interested in museum studies this piece will get you thinking.

“Teddy Girls: The Style Subculture That Time Forgot” — AnOther:

Teddy Girls were the female counterparts to the British, 1950s Teddy Boys; young working class men who took on the style of upper-class Edwardians. This article is a short history of the Teddy Girls, punctuated with photographs by Ken Russell that were thought to be lost until 2005. Definitely a must-read for those interested in 20th-century subculture and fashion.

“How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit”Literary Hub:

I’m trying to get back into writing fiction. I feel like I’ve been away for eons, and I don’t remember how to write anything but essays. Part of this attempt has been reading about the process of writing and trying to be inspired. I don’t agree with all of Solnit’s advice, but then, I don’t have to! I can take the advice that works for me, and leave the rest.

“Vegetarian Chili with Winter Vegetables” — New York Times Cooking:

And finally, a recipe that I actually made! This is a really good recipe that is pretty easy. I didn’t have access to/didn’t want to search all over Krakow for winter squash so I just left it out.


Saturday night blogging essentials. Mmmm, raspberry beer. 


Weekly Reads — February 5, 2017


It’s been eons since I posted a “Weekly Reads.” As you can probably tell, it’s been a busy few months. But I’m back at it! Here are a few internet things I’ve recently been reading

“An Anthem Against Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Piercing and Prescient 1914 Protest Poem” — Brain Pickings:

Considering everything that has been happening in the last few months, and particularly the last two weeks, this poem, written at the height of the suffrage movement, hits home. Amanda Palmer reads the poem, with a background of music by Jherek Bischoff.

“Highlighting Women in Photojournalism” — Lens (New York Times Blog):

This article looks at the gender gap in photojournalism; it doesn’t so much focus on wages, but on how many women are represented in the profession. I was particularly interested in what type of photo assignments women photographers tend to get, and how one photographer thought that while women tended to create more “humanistic” photo-essays, did not mean they should be pigeon-holed into photographing women’s stories. “There needs to be gender parity, because we all are different and we need different perspectives, not because we need women to be ambassadors to women, necessarily.”

Listeners Sold Us On What’s Special To Them … And They Sure Got Specific”  — NPR:

The honorable mentions to a recently aired segment on All Things Considered, these fake ads perked up my day. I couldn’t help reading the advertisement for moss in a vintage make-up ad voice.