Monday, September 28, 2009

Global Faces

by Joan

When I was growing up, the dream of my traveling around the world seemed as likely as my looking like Bo Derek. But several years ago, I did go (though I didn’t arrive in Dallas looking like Ms. Derek). Although we made a full rotation, if you tracked our route around the globe, our trail would be a thin rubber band leaving 99% of the world left unseen. Even so, my eyes have been around the world and they were opened to new cultures, new food and new characters.

My eyes have seen the spot on Mykonos where Shirley Valentine’s dreams (and mine) came true. They’ve seen the Istanbul bazaar and the Acropolis from a nearby hilltop restaurant. They’ve seen dainty painted eggs in a Salzburg shop, Mount McKinley on a rare clear day, Pope John Paul II's coffin in the crypt below St. Peter's Basilica, and the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam (another dream come true).

I’ve yet to put together a collage of saved ticket stubs, museum literature, menus, beach pebbles and coins, but we have over 3,000 pictures from our trip, photos of the rich landscape of cobalt seas and white columns, of glaciers and rocky beaches.

Of us eating fat raspberries in The Netherlands and toxic foogoo in Japan.

Of a cow staring us down from the middle of a winding Swiss road.
Of Greek gods hovering around us.

I treasure the pictures of my guys, the backs of their heads offering me a view of the world from their perspective. Of my dear friend Joy and her big Greek family and our adventures in Athens and Delphi. But I've always been fascinated by the faces of nameless people.

I gathered a lifetime of stories, my mind spinning like the globe we circled, so it’s no surprise I see those nameless people cropping up as characters in my dreams, wheedling their way into future novels. One day maybe I’ll write about the couple on the steps of a Tokyo temple, a bride and groom as stunning as their costumes. Who are they? What twists and turns has their life taken since that day?

Perhaps I’ll write about the surprise and wonder in exotic children, about where they fit in the family tree or what secrets they will learn about their ancestors.

Or maybe I’ll tackle the people whose faces tell stories without words. Will I write about the older woman whose life is laid out in her stature, or about the only English speaking resident in the tiny town of Montefelonico who shared homemade limoncello and tales of his stint as a college professor with us?

No matter where my travels have taken me, I've studied a world of faces. They tell stories enough for their characters to jump off the globe, hopefully carrying suitcases of plots with them.


  1. Although I've not traveled as extensively as you, I have lived in different regions of our country--from the Midwest (where I grew up) to a brief stint in LA to the South (ten years in Alabama). Every place has provided insight into the way people live. I think educators call it Immersion. Now, when I write and a character comes to life on the page, I'm certain echoes of people I've met are resounding before me. It's a fascinating realization.

  2. Pamela, your characters are full of real life, but more interesting--you've got good observation skills (and a wicked imagination!).

  3. Wow, Joan, you have got some incredible photos and stories to tell from that trip. I knew you had traveled, but not that extensively. You and I really should compare some stories. Remind me to tell you about the KGB agent we met (and liked)and our trip to Vietnam.

  4. Kim--KGB agent! Do tell...

  5. Okay, Joan, you aked for it.

    I lived in Finland when I was seventeen because my father built a golf course there. The company he works for was also building one outside of Moscow - apparently the first one built there by an American company - and it wasn't going smoothly. A group of Russians from that project came to Finland to see what the Finns were doing differently. The group of six men included a former cosmonaut and a "translator." The translator, we all know, was KGB. Dmitri was a slight soft-spoken man with kind blue eyes. I could not imagine he had a violent bone in his body - he was about the warmest person you could hope to meet. His English was great, of course, and he and my mom really hit it off, as they were often seated together at company dinners. Every night he went through a struggle trying to call home and talk to his wife and toddler daughter. He was quite distressed when he couldn't connect with them.

    The group was sent with money to take care of their expenses, but Dad's company paid all the bills and so they were left with money they could not bring home without explanations. They divided it up and went shopping. Dmitri wanted a snowsuit for his daughter, so mom and I took him to find one. Department stores in Helsinki don't have anywhere near the selection that they do here in the States, but it was a lot more than Dmitri had ever seen. He was so overwhelmed that he just held his head in his hands and begged my mom to choose for him.

    Incidentally, the first time I was ever tipsy was in the company of this same group of Russians, minus Dmitri, in Moscow. Between every two people at dinner sat a bottle of vodka and a bottle of Champaign. Drinking ages were unheard of there and I got a bit nervous when my glass was filled and the taosts to world peace started. My dad leaned over and whispered, "drink up, Kim," and assured me that he and mom would take care of me. I remember dancing later (I don't dance) and being told I was a "most unusual woman" by one of the delegation. He used the same line on my mother later. I suspect it may have been all he knew how to say in English.

  6. Kim, Dmitri sounds like a great character. I hope we see him again someday. Different name, hair color, etc., of course.

  7. I second Kim's WOW, Joan. Super stories and pics. Bet they have or will play a role in a number of your stories. As an American expatriate for about twenty years, I know how much foreign scenes and cultures can spark the imagination, as well as broaden your outlook in so many ways.


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