The Mystical Draw To Asheville

Soulfull graffiti in downtown Asheville.

Asheville, North Carolina is a well-kept secret that is getting out. Just as San Francisco and New York are full of transplants, so is Asheville; the transplants are people looking for a small city stitched together by a love for nature, music, arts and the healing arts. People speak of being “mystically drawn” to Asheville. They come from all over, and many originally lived in San Francisco or New York, then moved to Oakland or Brooklyn, and found they wanted a smaller place still.I thought that was just me, and it turns out there is a trickling migration of people just like me, who want the same open-minded, artsy, healthy vibe and who want it in a more calm place that promotes community. A tango teacher told me that Asheville is a small-town version of the San Francisco of 25 years ago, before the Silicon Valley giants came and that and other factors changed a hippie town into a digital-power-hub.

I got my hair cut while I visited Asheville, and my hairdresser estimated that 60% of the people she has met moved from elsewhere. The town itself is not the south. Travel a half-hour outside the city to go tubing or slide down a natural rock slide, and you hear Southern accents, but inside Asheville, the accents are diverse. Still, there is a lot of “y’all.”

I visited Asheville with one of my best friends, Griet. Griet is Belgian and had been living in North Carolina with her boyfriend in Chapel Hill. We couchsurfed with Ben, who opened his apartment to us for a week and who describes himself as a wandering mystic. Ben is all about love. He wears a fair-trade, Jesus-style robe at least half the time, even when he bikes (no car), to the chagrin of his teenager daughters. He and his daughters are Quakers and taught me a lot about the Quaker culture as we sipped tea at a remarkable tea lounge in downtown Asheville. I learned the theory of waiting three times to speak at a Quaker meeting. Wait til the impulse strikes you three times before you dare to stand up and share the message God is channeling through you. We also went to a chocolate lounge together. Asheville has three chocolate lounges–this is a town that is serious about pleasure. Ben took us to a contra dance, where the contra dancers are hip and young and cute, and we took Ben and his daughter to a tango lesson. Asheville’s tango community is tiny but they do have one incredible tango-yoga class.

Asheville is very family-friendly, and we often saw young people frolicking with their kids. Here at a street arts festival.

My curiosity about Asheville had been intense, and I myself considered moving there. The idea first came on in Salento, Colombia, where I was traveling through the coffee zone mountains last year. I felt so awed and peaceful in the mountains, and had an awakening of sorts. I love the mountains! Either I didn’t know that about myself before, or I never loved the mountains so much. A peace among the green descended on me. During that week, I met a Colombian family who live in North Carolina. They told me, “Come to North Carolina! Asheville was written up by a women’s magazine as the number one place for women to reinvent themselves! You should move there!” A day later, I met a couple from Atlanta who had taken a year off to travel through Central and South America and Asia. They too encouraged me to move to Asheville. The universe pointed me that way, and I considered visiting that fall, but I wound up staying in Colombia longer then getting sick. It turned out that getting sick spurred my celiac diagnosis and that whole trip has consumed much of this year.

But back to Asheville. We visited the Asheville Movement Collective, which hosted ecstatic dance gatherings on Sunday mornings. The gathering felt much more connected than the ecstatic dance gathering I visited in Oakland. Ecstatic dance, or Five Rhythyms, promotes individual, free, creative body expression to music as a way to connect with your inner self and with others. The dance was held in a barn-like structure, and the first time is free for newcomers. I made much more eye contact in Asheville than in Oakland. Not sexy, just playful and fun. After the dance, everyone gathers in a circle to say what is present for them in that moment. Exactly that moment. These are Quaker-like utterances too, one only speaks if one is called to. And they are short and touching. I love this kind of stuff. Yes, it feels like church to me. A church of the body, in a way. Afterward people make announcements and it is absolutely striking that fifteen of the sixty or so people there are hosting a healing arts workshop of some kind over the next month. Shamanic journeys, Body Widsom training, Holistic Nutrition, Feldenkreis, you name it, they are doing it. And how do these hippies find enough paying clients for these workshops into their inner worlds? We couldn’t quite figure out the economy in Asheville. So many massage therapists, who is paying for those massages? Are they just trading?

There is money in Asheville, that’s for sure. Plenty of tourism and fine dining. So tourists are getting massages, that must be part of the explanation. The restaurants are impressive. In fact, there is the most incredibly entirely gluten-free fine dining restaurant Posana Cafe. It’s run by a couple, and the wife is celiac. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There is a place where I can order a range of meals without deep inquiry with the waitress. Posana alone is reason enough for a celiac to make the pilgrimmage to Asheville. And may there be more Posana-type restaurants across the nation and the world!

There are not many black people in Asheville, or at least not downtown. We rode the bus two days. The bus was full of people of color as we rolled through the projects. But downtown, most of the few black people we saw were panhandling. The famous weekly drum circle in the middle of town–which has become a tourist attraction–was almost exclusively white. Asheville’s one major failing from our point of view was a lack of diversity. The percentage of the U.S. population as a whole that is African-American (black only) in 2010 is 12.6% and in Asheville the percentage of non-Hispanic black people in 2000 was 7.2%. Why there seemed to be so few black middle class people lingers as a question for me. In this post, one black woman describes the demolition of an area with many black-owned businesses in the 1960s to make way for projects.

Griet said she couldn’t live in a place like Asheville with so little diversity. I could see her point, but at the same time, I have lived in few places that feel truly diverse. San Francisco is literally diverse but in actuality, people rarely mixed. It’s tribal, and people stay within their tribes. Oakland is the only truly diverse American city where I have ever lived–I love the way that cultures rub up against each other here and people are so comfortable with interacting. But I would live in Asheville for a time, I think.

A piano player who plays every Monday morning at a downtown cafe. Asheville is like that--live piano music integrated into the everyday. He serenaded me and Griet on my birthday and we danced. Later we found out that he and his girlfriend rent out their apartment for a tang-yoga-breath class, which we attended the next evening.

Asheville is a place for artists, and aspiring artists, and to explore your creativity in ways that you might not have considered before–for your own enjoyment and growth, rather than for money, glory, or career. It’s clearly a collaborative city where people work together on projects and support each other. We met one guy from LA, a filmmaker who had come to Asheville for a few months to recharge doing yoga and meditation, and running around being present in a small place. I can definitely see Asheville being that kind of place for me–a recharging retreat for creative inspiration. It’s not the mountain town I imagined in Colombia. It’s actually more of a city than those mountain town were. You need to drive outside the city to feel the mountains. In those Colombian mountain towns the feeling of being surrounded by glorious green was all around you, all the time. So there you go. . . maybe I will live in both places, for a spell. Life is longer that way.



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San Francisco vs. Buenos Aires: Tango

I sometimes feel high from San Francisco tango but I never full as fully blissed out as I did out at a Buenos Aires milonga, or even at a Buenos Aires practica or class. An element of soul is missing here, especially at the practicas and milongas where the so-called “good” dancers (often teachers dancing a more performative nuevo style) show their stuff. They are “good” but I don’t enjoy watching them that much They are more active and athletic. Tango should never be athletic, it is just an exchange of energy.


First the ineffable. Presence. Argentine men embody tango in their body; they breathe and puff out their chests in a way that gives the dance its presence. A few American men do this but most don’t to the extent that Argentine men do and don’t give the dance that wild-hearted presence. It’s not quite as intense or soulful.

It’s not uncommon for “good” male leaders in San Francisco Bay Area to learn the follower role well. Some learn the follower role to become better leaders and others appear to enjoy it. It’s not uncommon to see men practicing together at a practica. You would not see this in macho Buenos Aires. There are also more female leaders who are not teachers.

Buenos Aires milongas have waitresses and waiters who takee your drink order. There’s more infrastructure for enjoying the atmosphere. You can win champagne. It’s a stronger ambiance to sit and watch. In San Francisco sitting and watching is not as pleasurable.

The cabaceo doesn’t really exist in the Bay Area. People just ask you to dance to your face. Even if they use their eyes they do it right in front of you. We don’t have the staged theater of a Buenos Aires milonga with people inviting each other with their eyes across a room: men on one side, women on the other. We’re much more mixed up and casual.

The embrace is rarely tight or compressed in San Francisco the way it often is in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires. Men embrace much more lightly in San Francisco and give followers more freedom. They also pull them up less.

Many people in San Francisco talk during the dance and only the best dancers seem to be really present for the dance and not thinking about something else, looking at others, etc. When I tell someone I prefer not to talk while dancing he acts like it is an advanced skill to multitask. The whole point of dancing for me is to communicate in a different way and to do so mindfully–to not talk.

The Russians are the Argentines in San Francisco. There are so many Russians in the San Francisco tango scene, and they are all serious about tango. It must be the suffering in the culture. Brooding and macho still? There are also a lot of good Iranian and Turkish tango dancers in San Francisco.

Dancers in the Bay Area do more complicated figures. You could say they are more into showing off. The connection often seems weaker.

San Francisco milongas are more likely to offer free food.

Tango obsession is a little more uncommon in the Bay Area. But certainly people get obsessed with tango here too. Especially the Russians.

Most of the taxi drivers in San Francisco are not milongueros and it’s highly unlikely that one of them will serenade you with a tango song.

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A Beautiful, Musical Dance with One of My Favorite Teachers

Here is a dance with Oscar Casas, one of my favorite teachers in Buenos Aires. His enthusiasm for tango and the clarity with which he is able to communicate technique (especially technique for “followers”) makes him a gem. Actually, I prefer Oscar’s way of talking about “leaders” and “followers” in tango. He calls “leaders” “generators” of energy, and “followers” “processors” of that energy. That is a much more accurate description. The traditional female role in tango does not just follow, she (or he, as often as not in the Bay Area) interprets the invitation offered by the lead and processes it as something beautiful with her own unique movement. Processor may sound technical but it is a lot better than follower in my book!

This dance with Oscar came at the end of a private lesson after my first month in Buenos Aires and after four months of tango study total (in Colombia, a bit in the U.S. and then in Argentina). Now I have been studying tango for six months.

I don’t know if I could possibly be more passionate about tango. It is a weird thing for me, this sudden love that has seized me. I have to set limits with myself to not do tango every night on the theory that I love it less when I do it all the time.

Tango is absolutely hypnotic and so much more than a dance. It is a highly charged, theatrical and structured culture and a new way of connecting with myself and others. I think that the beauty of tango for me is that it demands discipline to learn a technique to create a beautiful connection with others. The more I study, the more beautiful the connection becomes. Tango also teaches me to set boundaries, how to say no. The dance is intimate, and we cannot allow everything in–especially not unwelcome feedback or other bad behavior from partners. So I am learning from tango on many levels and enjoying an entirely new ride in my life.

Much more to come and to say. I’ve been feeling so much with tango, and just stepping closer, slowly, to writing about it. To fill the gaps before my own deluge of writing and other documentary work, here is a documentary trailer by “zen tango” teacher Chan Park that attempts to answer the question, What is tango and why do I feel so strongly about it?

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Tango: Suffering for the Bliss

Tango is theater, and we must play a role if we want to dance–glowing with confidence. This is how the maestro Graciela Gonzalez began a women’s technique workshop that I attended in Buenos Aires.

Sometimes we women in tango feel like goddesses, she said, and sometimes we feel invisible. Often Gonzalez said we are responsible for our own invisibility, emanating negative energy when we are not feeling confident, not comfortable. The men can sense it. They don’t ask slouchy women to dance. And so it goes. Tango is always a reflection of how you are feeling; people will want to dance cheek to cheek with people who are glowing.

Mostly, tango brings me bliss, if not bafflement at how I could be so obsessed with a dance. Lately, I have been absolutely addicted in a way that I have never been addicted to any other activity. Since coming back to San Francisco I have gone to a class or milonga almost every day, and for my two months in Buenos Aires, I lived and breathed tango in such an obsessive and ultimately beautiful way. The journey has been something of utter beauty: finding new connections to myself, my partners, the floor, and to passion itself.

Tango is setting a new standard in my life for excellence. I was never quite so into anything else–not writing or yoga. Writing is more complicated, more solitary, perhaps more necessary, but not as pleasurable. Tango makes me happier. It must be all the endorphins. So many older female tango dancers look so young. If I can lose myself in anything else, like singing, or cooking, half as much as I lose myself in tango, I will live out the rest of my days a happy person. It’s not just me, this is what tango does to people. My friend Griet wants to do a photo essay of the blissful expressions on people’s faces while they are dancing in Buenos Aires milongas. They are delicious.

But there is always a flip side, isn’t there? And that’s part of what makes tango so interesting. How people are willing to suffer for it. Learning tango is notoriously painful. I look back at videos of my first weeks learning when I was in Cali, and launch. I look like I am walking as if I am a Frankenstein dressed up for Halloween. Tango asks us to relearn how to walk; experienced dancers in Buenos Aires told me it takes five years to learn the tango walk. It’s that subtle.

In the beginning you can imagine the heavy plodding, the doubtful, hesitating way we try to reinvent walking. I remember in one class I forgot to tango-walk and just started walking normally and the teacher said, Yes, do that!!! My normal walk was so much closer to tango than my weird first-weeks-of-tango walk. Especially for leaders, the first two years require discipline and endurance.

I danced with a lovely man in his late 40s in Buenos Aires who told me he didn’t start to enjoy the dance until he had danced two years. The level of deliberation and sheer anxiety was too much, but then at two years, the bliss kicked in, and he was hooked. He got an invitation to go to the south of Brazil for 10 days, but he couldn’t go. Why? There would be no tango. He didn’t want to go more than three days without tango. Another Scottish couple planned two weeks of travel in Argentina during their six weeks in Buenos Aires, but cut it short after a week. Again, there was no tango.

My tortured-until-two-years in friend and I had that conversation at Gricel, a warm candyland of a milonga with a beautiful pin flourescent sign warmly illuminating the dance floor. But the otherwise friendly scene at Gricel sent me outside to cry once early in my time in Buenos Aires. I was in my first three weeks in Buenos Aires and another dancer who was good but not great had given me five points of “feedback” during a dance. That’s not appropriate at a milonga. I considered cutting off the tanda, but didn’t. I hate that feeling of continuing to share myself with someone I don’t trust.

I went back to my table of Norwegian and Swiss dancers unable to hide feeling overwhelmed by his “feedback.” They immediately understood. All women feel it, and as I learned later from talking to male friends, men get it from women too. Women can be just as “helpful” as men. Too much feedback at a milonga. Any is inappropriate in a social setting.

So that sent us outside for a teary heartfelt discussion about what we suffer for tango. Solveigh, a beautiful and hip Norwegian woman who is 64 for looks 50, told me she started tango at 60. When she started learning in Bergen, all her dance partners were much younger. She felt out of place and insecure. She drove hours for milongas and then drove home feeling demoralized. But it was all worth it for the moments of high bliss. She told me, “Don`t ever give it up, if you have a heart for the dance and the music it will give you so much pleasure in the future.” Life as a tango dancer is a tangonovela.

Later in Buenos Aires my friend Griet and I had a fascinating conversation with three Romanians who had come to dance. They were just as obsessed as we are, if not more, and had been dancing for two and five years, respectively. We went around the table and talked about what had drawn us to tango, and what kept us. I talked about the floating feeling that I get from some dances, the feeling of floating above reality, and that blissful sensation keeps me from coming back. And the fact that tango is sensual without being sexual, a chance to enjoy the body without have sex.

Simona recast my reason as “forgetting” and said that it’s basically the same for her. Dancing tango is a way of leaving behind reality and existing in another world. The music is so powerful at times I get tingles and can barely even dance. (There have been some hilarious moments when I felt like I was too excited to dance and couldn’t dance well as a result. That is more likely to happen when there is a live orchestra.)

Another Romanian guy told us about how salsa—and then tango–helped him to climb out of a limitless hole of depression. His friend wants to be excellent at tango and is motivated to be an above-average dancer. She loves traveling to tango festivals, and the drive to be better keeps her going.

Griet talked about tango being a chance to give and receive love. That idea came into closer focus for us during the last week of our time in Buenos Aires. When a dance wasn’t going well or we were not excited about dancing with someone, we just focused on giving love. Somehow the choice to love your partner can make a not-great dance a little better. One of our first teachers in Colombia talked about the issue of love in tango a lot. Buenos Aires teachers didn’t talk about love quite as much. They were more focused on technique.

Love is essential, that’s the missing piece. I may have a technically beautiful dance but without a heart connection it feels a little empty. It’s really about the connection, which is definitely what first captivated me when I saw a couple dancing tango for the first time in Cali, Colombia. I thought, this is something else. This is mindfulness, two people attuned to each other on a level that I had never seen in salsa or in any other dance. Tango demands complete awareness to feed that connection and keep it alive. That is what keeps me coming back.

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Passion in a Buenos Aires Taxi

Lindo Como Vos: A professional tango singer (and taxi driver) Victor Diaz serenades me on the ride home from a milonga, Zona Tango in Balvanera, extremely local, sort of grungy, one of my favorites. I predict this will be the opening scene of a longer documentary piece I make on the passion of tango addicts in Buenos Aires. How can I resist after this? Collaborators, funding, this is your call to join me.

(I’m catching up on old posts from my travels to Buenos Aires now. Look forward to more, much much more.)

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Looking for Joy, Finding It in Tango

My first teacher Mauricio corrects my hips Tango feels like the passion I have been looking for a long time. It makes me happy. I don’t even need to be dancing. Watching others dance can be equally blissful. It’s the transportingly beautiful music, and most of all, the utter concentration and mindfulness that tango requires. If I am dancing, and my mind wanders just for a minute, my dance falters in a way that it is much more obvious than if my mind wanders while dancing salsa. I love the way that tango captures all of my attention. Even when I am watching others, I find myself completely focused watching them.

I have to admit that sometimes in my pre-tango life (funny how I could already say that, the pre-tango life. . . ) I felt a certain kind of despair. I would look at other people who have passions like ceramics or snow-shoeing that they really love. They get lost in the moment doing them, they know that they are going to enjoy a day if they spend it doing ceramics or snow-shoeing. I just couldn’t think of any one passion in my life where I would fairly reliably find joy.

How many Saturday afternoons did I spend shopping with a friend? Buying a new shirt might be sort of fun but it’s an expensive (and also cheap) form of joy. I’m not sure finding a great dress on sale qualifies as joy, more a thrill. Yoga, not really. I enjoy it for its emotional and physical benefits. Tennis is occasionally fun, but I can’t say that I care enough to work on my serve. Languages, yes, I love learning languages and that comes relatively easy for me. Writing is a need and it makes my life, mind and spirit infinitely richer. But I can’t say that writing consistently brings me joy. It also has brought me angst. So where is the joy in my life? That zone in my life where I lose track of time and become one with whatever I am doing, that gives me energy and uplift? I felt really sad when I didn’t know.

I was on the search for something that would give me joy at home this year while traveling. Traveling, I would say, is a joy. I get to be the amateur (for the love of it) sociologist that I naturally am, observing other cultures. But for most of this year, I felt like I was trying out a lot of things that I didn’t love enough to commit to, like scuba diving and surfing. I did a week of surfing lessons in Jericoacoara, Brazil. I enjoyed understanding the velocity of a wave and how one might try to ride it, but I wasn’t a natural and I thought, I just don’t care enough to spend a month of my life battling waves. I enjoyed watching surfers, especially the women, but just couldn’t imagine getting there myself. Ditto with capoeira: I like it, but would I ever get that good at it? I wondered, when am I ever going to find anything that I love enough to commit to it?

Patience. I think I finally found it. There were times when I really thought I was going to quit tango and give up, because the basics of the dance like the walk and the posture weren’t coming to me. But I stuck with it and found the right teachers and over time I gradually improved. There were also “big bang” improvements when suddenly the dance clicked. I am at the beginning of a lifelong learning curve, but over time I am loving tango more and more. The music. The dance. The blissful mindfulness of dancing and watching other people dance. And the people I have met through tango. I have learned some really important things by sticking with tango, even for just two months in Cali.

Now that I have finally found something that I actually love enough to commit to, I can see that it makes a big different to find the right fit. Maybe this is how people feel when they finally meet a lifelong mate. They realize that they were just trying too hard with all those others who weren’t the right fit. Now I can see that tango is a fit for me in a way that a lot of other things—most things, in fact—are just not.

For example, kitesurfing. While I was traveling I met tons of women who brimmed with energy and enthusiasm when they talked about kitesurfing, They talked about the adrenaline and I love adrenaline rushes, so I thought, I’m going to try this! Well, I did. I just couldn’t quite see it. It’s possible that I quit my lessons after one day because the water was way too cold at Lago Calima near Cali. But I kept thinking, for the cost of one hour of kitesurfing lessons I could do four hours of tango lessons!

Tango is a way better fit for me than kitessurfing. Tango is about connection and I enjoy feeling connection with others because I am such an interior person. Kitesurfing is totally solo and feels a little lonely to me. I am already lost in my own thoughts. Tango is a language, a communication between two people, and I enjoy languages. Tango has an endless depth to it in terms of styles and moves, and the depth of emotion expressed, both light and dark, and I like depth. Kitesurfing must have a lot of depth too but I just don’t care to learn it. Kitesurfing involves a lot of equipment and I hate dealing with equipment, it would be a chore to me to set up and take apart the kite every time. All you need for tango are proper dancing shoes and music. I love that.

Tango has really shown me that I have to find a lot of joy and bliss in an activity in order to want to pursue it. And that I feel a degree of passion for tango that I never felt for yoga, tennis, capoeira, or improv theater. (Though I am thinking improv theater might fall in the category of “if I had stuck with it longer, I might love it more, so I am going to try it again once I am settled somewhere.)

It brings me a feeling of peace to realize that there is at least one thing out there that I love enough to really commit to and learn deeply. In some way, understanding the qualities that bring my joy in tango helps me to understand how to bring more joy into my life with other things too. I’ve realized that my joy really comes through collective forms of music and dance–singing and dancing with other people. I am very much at the beginning with tango. It’s even possible this will be a passing fancy, though I hope not. Tango can be a lifelong love, and people usually get better as they get older. That is an exciting thought.


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Americans Abroad

Susana and I arrive at the Santa Rosa hot springs after three long bus rides and an interesting conversation about Americans!

One of the best things about traveling has been the ability to see my own country from a distance. Not only have I gotten the chance to see the U.S. more objectively (as the center of the world that it definitively is not), I’ve also absorbed impressions from all the people I’ve met from all over the world.

So what do people say about Americans? I love listening to foreigners’ perceptions of Americans, even when the perceptions are quite negative, because it’s not what you would expect. None of this is actually “true” of course—but they’re all fascinating points of view.

Americans are so practical!: The idea that Americans are very practical came up all the time. Once, I was asking my tango teacher Carlos in Cali whether he thought that an investment of two more weeks of private tango classes would make a big difference, and he said, all you Americans ask that question or questions like them. And his Colombian students, according to him, just live day to day, just grabbing whatever opportunity (or class) they can at the moment. This contrast came up all the time. For example, I was talking with my couchsurfing host Betao in Sao Paolo, and he claimed that Brazilians are happier than North Americans because they accept uncertainty and live in the present moment. More on that in this blog post “Brazilian Happiness Part Two.”

Once, in Rio, I was sitting around and chatting with my friends Roma and Iracema as Iracema checked her Facebook page (an activity so similar to a scene in San Francisco). Iracema is a whimsical philosophy teacher who did her doctoral thesis on Nietzsche and always found a way to bring Nietzcsche into conversation in a way that totally made sense. Iracema had offered to give a class on “Love Total” in a Facebook status update. “Love Total” would be an advanced seminar on self-love, friendship, romantic love, menage a trois, and more. Was she serious? Was it a joke? Something in between. She read the comments from people who said they wanted to take her course. I asked how many friends she had and how many people had indicated interest, and calculated a 15% response rate.

Roma and Iracema looked at me like I had performed calculus, and said, Wow, you Americans are so practical! You’re all about numbers! Having sent out countless email marketing campaigns for my websites, calculating a response rate seemed elementary to me. But somehow, for them, this communicated an American business-minded practicality. Was this just because they are artists and I’m both artist and entrepreneur? Or did it speak to a North and South American divide in thinking? Really, for me calculating a Facebook response rate was just second nature!

Americans feel too much pressure to be positive! Susanna, a Swiss-Portuguese woman whom I met in Salento, a picturesque mountain town in the coffee zone of Colombia, was one of the more fascinating characters that I got to know while in transit. Susanna was one of those impressive women travelers I met on my trip who know their passions well. One of hers was scuba diving with whale sharks, which she hoped to do off the Pacific Coast of Colombia. She seemed to have a plan of exactly what she wanted to do. These women speak in the “I” about their plans and if you want to join them, well, great, but she certainly wouldn’t be afraid to go on her own.

Susana and I both really wanted to visit these spectacular-sounding thermal baths in Santa Rosa in the coffee region of Colombia. Getting there from Salento meant taking three different buses but Susana was convinced it could be done as a day trip and that seemed easier than lugging our bags on three buses so I said OK, let’s do it. A huge bike race was going on in Colombia (sort of the Colombian Tour de France) which made the trip even slower. That gave Susana and I a lot of time to talk.

Susana and I got along very well, and had one of those deep conversations that you have with a person you’re going to spend only a day or two with. She told me I was only the second American she had met that she could get along with. Most of the Americans she met she felt were dishonest.

Dishonest, really? I asked. I found that sort of hard to believe.

Well, emotionally dishonest is really what she meant. I probed a little deeper.

She told me that when American travelers told her about their day back at the hostel, they always said whatever they did was fantastic. They bubbled over with energy, but as soon as they stopped talking about the museum, the horseback ride, the dance class, whatever, the energy drained out of their faces. She felt like they were performing their enthusiasm, as if nothing was really as good as they said it was.

So they feel a lot of pressure to be positive, I asked. Exactly, she said. How funny! Susana agrees with social critic Barbara Ehrenreich who delivered the same message in her 2009 book
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America this past year. It’s about how forced positive thinking–the need to put a happy face on everything–is destroying everything from Wall Street to health care.

Not me! I’m not the too-positive American! I tend toward honesty. I had woken up that morning after not sleeping well and when Susana asked me how I slept, I said, horrible. I sometimes worry about being overly honest but apparently that scored me authenticity points with this Swiss-Portuguese traveler.

Americans are so sincere!But on the other hand, when we do tell the truth, we get criticized for that too! Last December I visited France after a long hiatus of not visiting for thirteen years. I had the good fortune to stay with Colin and Zenna in their Montmartre apartment. Zenna is my dear friend Halo’s cousin, and we had met the previous summer at Halo’s wedding in Northern California.

Colin, Zenna, and I got around to reminiscing about Halo and Karl’s beautiful wedding, and Colin told me, he could not believe the sincerity of the toasts. A best man, for example, could not be trusted with a microphone at a British wedding–he would get far too wasted and sarcastic! The toasts, by contrast, in our American circle of friends were all exceedingly heartfelt, and Colin and Zenna saw that as exceedingly American. I had thought that was just normal!

Six months later in Rio de Janeiro, I was hanging out with Brazilian friends and expatriates from England, Angola, and Ireland at the wonderful Bar do Mineiro, a Cheers-like place in Rio’s Santa Teresa neighborhood (kind of the Montmartre of Rio). People stand outside Mineiro for hours drinking and laughing, sharing beers, one after the other, pouring the beer into little glasses from big collective bottles. One of my best friends in Rio is Marcello and I was there with Marcello and his friends.

For some reason, that night Marcello’s friends decided it was the night to tell Marcello he needed to man up and declare his love for me. Marcello and I are just friends. I wanted it to stop, immediately. Apparently this made me an American with no sense of irony. I just felt absolutely mortified, and if that is an American reaction, so be it.

They love candy bars! My Belgian friend Griet told me she really enjoyed most of the Americans she met. She thought they all had a great sense of humor. (Belgians, as it turns out, are known for their sense of humor, so the compliment means something coming from her. Belgium, a tiny, young country created as a barrier to stop Napoleon, sandwiched between self-important France and the larger Netherlands, doesn’t take itself too seriously. People who don’t take themselves too seriously tend to be funny.)

Griet befriended a group of American guys from the Los Angeles area while traveling in Bolivia. She hopes to visit them in the U.S. since they got along so well. She said they were always wanting “American” things. They were traveling in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, and they always needed to find Snickers! There’s something really hilarious to me about a bunch of American guys in Bolivia on the hunt for Snickers.

Americans are on the move. I have to be honest and say there are not that many things that made me long for the United States this year. The conveniences of great hot water and fast systems for payment are nice, but they are not exactly the stuff that make you long for a homeland. One thing I do like about the United States though is our dynamic labor market. Yes, it absolutely sucks that we work too hard and the concept of vacation. let alone a career break, does not exist for many people. But it’s a stimulating place, career-wise.

When you are traveling, you don’t really want to talk about work. But every so often it is nice to have a good talk about your life path, and the best people I found to have this conversation were Americans. My friends in Brazil and in Europe tend to stick with the same job or career. In Brazil, many of the best middle-class jobs are acquired through a good score on a concurso, a test for employment. And once you get a good job, you stick with it. Europeans are much more likely to stick with a career as well.

Americans, and in particular, the San Francisco people I met (and also some Atlanta people) just seem more open to scheming, to career change, to creative ways to make a living, working remotely or through real estate investment or through a thousand different ways. I appreciate that spirit of self reinvention, of being creative and remaking your life. And that is one great freedom of the United States, the opportunity to make it up as you go along.

On the other hand, Americans could also be quite obnoxious talking about work constantly even when they were in paradise-like beach towns. Most of these work obsessives were from New York. I remember one twentysomething New Yorker couple having dinner next to us in Jericoacoara, a remote, spectacular beach town in Northeastern Brazil. The girlfriend was fawning over the boyfriend telling him what a genius he was, and how his new start-up was going to be a huge success. He was going to make millions, for sure.

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