Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: How Not to Live Abroad by Shaun Briley

The title probably tips you off to the fact that this is not your typical moving and starting over travelogue. In fact, Briley and girlfriend Helen take a trip to Spain, mainly to avoid having to get actual jobs and to get away from Helen's mother. While there, they start entertaining the idea of investing the last of their dwindling money into a Spanish farm. Now, if they had money behind them, ensuring that they didn't actually have to farm, this would be a good idea, but for two people who seem fairly averse to working, buying a primitive (no running water, no electricity) farm seems the height of ridiculous. But they do it anyway, under the impression that Mother Nature will be kind and abundant. They soon discover that farming is a lot more work than they had anticipated, as is making their home a bit more amenable to people used to creature comforts. They do not go about modernizing right away, more like jerry-rigging things, because they are in financial straits. While this memoir of their time in Spain does have the requisite locals, they are folks living on neighboring farms, not workers come to improve an ex-pat's dream home or a summer retreat. Briley and his girlfriend learn how to exist with and on the land from the fellow residents of the campo but their life remains uneasy. Money is a continual problem. Their relationship is fraying. And they are at odds over what modernizations are welcome or needed in their lives. I doubt that this book would convince anyone of the appeal in a run-down, primitive farm life in Spain but it is, in its own way, still a paean to that country's more remote areas. I do think that the amount of backbreaking work that these two must have faced on a daily basis just to exist was certainly downplayed, perhaps in deference to an audience who might or might not believe how many hours a day one can spend fighting shrubby growths or trimming almond or olive trees. Even with the whitewashing of the work aspect, it was still clear that this paradise was an uneasy one both in the traditional sense and in terms of life there not being easy. This was a quick read and while I thought there was definitely a bit of bitterness towards Helen that still managed to squeak through, it was probably a fairly balanced accounting of their folly (relationship and life choice). For fans of the moving and starting over travelogue, this is a unique and different look at life as an ex-pat.

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