Slovakia only became an independent state in 1993, so it is less than 30 years old. In this interview, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and I discuss borders and how strange it is that history draws lines on a map that don’t necessarily represent the people who live within them. These layers of invasion and empire can shape lives for generations.
Sarah also recommends places to visit for both culture and nature and shares specialties of the region, as well as some of her favorite travel books.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the author of memoir, poetry, and religious nonfiction. And today we’re talking about I Am a Brave Bridge: An American Girl’s Hilarious and Heartbreaking Year in the Fledgling Republic of Slovakia.
- The sense of always wanting to be somewhere else — and whether those of us who are ‘unrooted’ will ever find home
- How borders split Europe in ways that resonate through history
- Interesting places to visit in Slovakia, for culture or nature
- Slovakian architecture, including wooden churches, built without nails
- Food and drink specialties of the region
- Recommended travel books
You can find Sarah Hinlicky Wilson at SarahHinlickyWilson.com
Header photo: Photo by Branislav Knappek on Unsplash
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the author of memoir, poetry, and religious nonfiction. And today we’re talking about I Am a Brave Bridge: An American Girl’s Hilarious and Heartbreaking Year in the Fledgling Republic of Slovakia. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you, Jo. It’s so exciting to be on your show.
Joanna: Oh, well, this is a very cool place to talk about.
Before we get into the book, you describe it as “a story for anyone who is always homesick for somewhere else.” And I love that. What do you mean by that? And how does that manifest for you?
Sarah: I think all of us who are travelers have this experience happened to us after a certain point of time that suddenly, it’s springtime. And instead of being appreciative of the springtime where you are, you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember what springs were like in this other place,’ where you used to live, or you once traveled.
You feel yourself yearning, ‘Oh, if I could only be there this time of year,’ or when the fall colors come, or it’s Christmas, or some other holiday. And you get to this point, and I got to this point early in life of just being perpetually homesick because wherever I was, I wasn’t in that other place.
I think for me, personally, it was also exacerbated or developed by the fact that I moved around a lot when I was a kid. As you can tell from my accent, I’m an American, and Americans have a habit of moving around a lot. So I never really felt anchored in one place.
As a result, I think I became extra heightened in my sensitivity to any place that I went to and really wanted to just have that genius loci, the feeling of the place that was so distinctive and not like anywhere else in the world. Once I got into adulthood, as started with my Slovakia story, I’ve just been traveling all over like you have. And now it means that there’s always somewhere that I wish I was, no matter where I am, no matter how great it is, I’m always homesick for somewhere else. And so, I thought probably a lot of world travelers can really relate to that feeling.
Joanna: I know how you feel. But it’s so interesting. You said Americans move around a lot. And my experience in America has been very interesting.
Obviously, I’m in England right now. When I go to America, people say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to have been to New York,’ for example, or New Orleans. And I’m like, ‘Well, you’re in the same country. Why don’t you just go there?’
And it’s funny, because I feel like there are these two types of Americans and a lot of Americans actually, I thought the majority of Americans don’t move around. And then there’s people like yourself and people who’ve been on this podcast who are travelers. I feel like there are these two types of Americans, as you kind of just said there that everyone moves.
Sarah: That could be true, there are probably Americans who both don’t move in the sense of changing homestead, and Americans don’t move in the sense of traveling to see their own country. So, for myself, it was definitely that my family picked up and went to another city or town to live many times in my childhood. And I have very much in my adulthood as well.
For me, it’s like it’s not having that sense of being really deeply anchored and rooted in a place. And I think there’s something about that for Americans also, since the vast majority of us do not have ancestors that come from the physical territory of North America, we are the children of immigrants. So there’s always the sense that no matter how long we’ve been there, we’re not really of there, we’re from somewhere else, and how do we relate to that other place?
I don’t know. Maybe I know I maybe romanticize it a bit for people who actually are really rooted, but maybe you have a different relationship to England as an English person because you can, even if you don’t literally know your lineage back hundreds of years, there’s sort of a sense like, ‘This is my land, I belong here.’ And I think Americans are much less likely to have that feeling.
Joanna: We’re a conquered people — like the English have been conquered by lots of people. And then of course, we had an empire, but we lost it. So I think we’re further away from the Empire than the U.S. — you’re still losing yours.
Sarah: Maybe it’s a different kind of homelessness or unrootedness than what we have.
Joanna: I could talk about that topic all day, but let’s get into Slovakia.
First of all, where is Slovakia? And why is its history so complicated?
Sarah: Slovakia is in Central Europe. By some measures, it is the geographic heart of Europe. But I think there are many places that claim that because it depends really on where you decide Europe begins and ends. It is south of Poland, north of Hungary, east of the Czech Republic, and west of Ukraine. And yes, Slovakia used to be part of Czechoslovakia, but Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed for almost 30 years now, folks, so, don’t make the mistake of talking about it like it’s still there.
Joanna: Thirty years. Wow.
Sarah: Yes, it’s almost 30 years. In 2023, it will be the 30th anniversary of The Velvet Divorce as it’s called. Also, Slovakia is not Slovenia, that is a former Yugoslav Republic down to the south next to Italy.
Joanna: So why is it so complicated? You mentioned The Velvet Divorce there. Why does it have these historical issues that still resonate today?
Sarah: In writing my book, I had to get my mind around the history of Slovakia. And what I discovered very early on is that the nations that we know now seem like they must be inevitable and ancient, but in fact, they’re all very much piecemeal put together.
Germany and Italy were not united nations within themselves until the late 19th century. That’s really recent. So, what I discovered about Slovakia is that although Slavic peoples who we now identify as Slovaks have been there for something like 1,500 years, the Slovaks, as we know them, emerged from being the Northern Territory of the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Kingdom of Hungary was a political unit, not an ethnic unit.
So, weird as it is, there was no Slovakia and no Hungary without the other country until basically the end of World War I. At that point, both of them were part of the Austrian Empire, which was the heir of the Holy Roman Empire, which is the heir of the Roman Empire. So you can see they’re all these political, religious, ethnic realities, all bundled up on top of each other.
Slovakia only became its own independent nation in 1993, when it divorced from the Czechs.
The only reason it was ever attached to the Czechs is because when the Allies won World War I, they wanted to split up the Austro-Hungarian Empire that caused so much trouble in the first place.
So they said, ‘Okay, Austria is going to be only this territory of German speakers,’ and all the German speakers in the Czech lands were going to be removed. So there was actually a forcible deportation of Germans out of the Czech lands in 1918. There was this huge population swap between what became the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia and what became the modern nation of Hungary.
All the Hungarians had to leave Slovakia and go to Hungary. And all the Slovaks had to leave Hungary and go to Slovakia. Big mess. It taught me that there’s no such thing as clean borders, and trying to have a homogenous population always leads to bloodshed.
Joanna: This is, again, another really massive, interesting topic. I’ve been thinking about this with Afghanistan. Obviously, as we record this [in Sept 2021], Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands and ‘Afghanistan’ doesn’t exist except as a political unit. It’s certainly not an ethnic unit, the same with Iraq, even the UK; Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, even Cornwall sometimes says they want independence.
As you say, this just resonates through the history of the country, and also the people within it. The Balkans and what happened there. I find this so fascinating. It’s so difficult when we cobble together different ethnic groups into a country borderline.
Sarah: We think we could solve the problem by having inside the border, everyone’s the same language, everyone’s the same ethnicity, but it never happens that way in real life. So the political problem cannot be solved ethnically. I think that was, more than anything else, the political takeaway I got from studying Slovakia is history and trying to understand why it turned out the way it did.
Joanna: Absolutely. And also we can have world peace if everyone marries everyone else, so that everyone’s intermarried and everyone knows someone of the other ethnicity and all of that?!
Let’s talk about the place itself.
What are some of the interesting historical and/or cultural places to visit?
Sarah: The first place nearly everyone lands is Bratislava, which is now a capital city. It actually was the coronation city for the Hungarian Empire back when that still existed, so it has a very deep and rich history. It’s got a charming castle up on the hill. Not very exciting on the outside Cathedral, though it’s fairly nice on the inside.
It has this super ugly communist bridge spanning the Danube, which is on the cover of my book. I like to jokingly call it the Eiffel Tower of Bratislava. Nobody liked the Eiffel Tower at first when it was built either but it became iconic. And this SNP bridge, as it’s called, across the Danube, is this iconic symbol of Bratislava.
It’s got a great old town, wonderful to wander around. And if anyone out there has been to Prague and been exhausted by the throngs of tourists, the great thing about Bratislava is it’s smaller, less well known, not nearly as crowded, and therefore a great place to get that wonderful feel of Central Europe without the exhaustion of competing with the tourists.
You can also go farther out into the countryside, it’s much less built up still. There’s a lovely wine road that goes through Svätý jur, the town that I used to live in and continues on. Wonderful white wines from the Carpathian Mountains. There’s a little spa town called Piešťany, that I always love to go to.
There are some lovely central Slovak towns that were once centers of mining, that was like the first major industry in Slovakia. And far out on the eastern side is the second city, Košice; all of it is just relentless Central European charm. And in between, there’s lots of mountains and castle ruins, probably more castle ruins than you could possibly imagine or visit in a lifetime.
Joanna: That’s cool. I’m looking at the map here. I always like to remind myself. I always think I know where things are and then I get confused. Central Europe is difficult the best of times, but it’s got the Danube River in the west corner near…it’s going through Bratislava. But then mostly it looks pretty mountainous, with some lakes and things. It does look like mountains are the natural landscape of the country.
Sarah: I would say my impression still is that Slovaks are particularly passionate about nature. I’ve been told all the people who come to Bratislava for work, they all leave on the weekend and go back out to the village to work in the garden in the summer, or go skiing in the winter, and go hiking in between. There’s lots of natural beauty there for sure.
I always thought it was kind of comical, their highest mountain chain is called the High Tatras in the north-central part, and Slovakia brags that it is Europe’s shortest mountain chain. So, that’s a funny sort of distinction.
And what would have been the tallest peak in it is not the tallest peak because at the very top it tips over to the side and it’s called Mount Crooked, and that’s like one of the emblems of Slovakia. This mountain that would have been the tallest if it hadn’t screwed it up right at the last second. So, I love that.
Joanna: It’s very cool. I quite like a short mountain range. I’m not much of a mountain climber myself. But you and I share a background in theology, although yours is much more comprehensive.
What is the religious side like in Slovakia? Are there some places you’d recommend visiting as a person of faith, or like me, someone who just loves architecture?
Sarah: There are tons of wonderful churches to look at of all kinds. Slovakia still is a fairly religious place compared especially to their Czech neighbors who are often considered the most atheistic nation in Europe, and Slovaks are among one of the most religious ones still.
Any church you go into will be great, but the best ecclesiastical architecture in Slovakia is the wooden churches. And these are churches that were built entirely out of wood without any nails at all. A lot of them are Greek Catholics, so, that means they observe the Eastern Orthodox type liturgy, but they are actually part of the Roman Catholic Church. So they’re often called Greek Catholic. It’s kind of a confusing term. And a few of them are orthodox.
The ones of my own Lutheran tradition, these were actually built at a time when Lutherans had just barely been granted legal toleration. They were not tolerated at first for a while. But then when they were legally tolerated, the rule was passed under this thing called the Articles of Sopron, which said, ‘You can build churches as long as there’s no metal in them.’ And that meant no nails.
It was supposed to be a clever way of preventing any churches from being built at all. But instead, they kind of did a Lincoln Logs, do you know what those are? Interlocking log type things. They built entire enormous wooden churches without any nails.
There’s one in particular that I love, I talk about it in my book, called svatý kříž, it means Holy Cross. It was originally in a valley that the communists were going to flood for a reservoir. But the people convinced the communists that they should rescue it because it was an example of folk art. And although communists were down on religion, they were big on folk art.
So the communists paid to remove this all-wooden church from the deep valley and put it up on the hillside. And it is enormous. It can seat like 5000 people and it has a soaring roof. And it’s all made of wood, there’s no stone, no metal, or anything to hold it up. Just type ‘Slovakia’s wooden churches’ and you will see just how absolutely beautiful and just the engineering of them to be so spectacularly built and so spectacularly beautiful at the same time is really inspiring.
Joanna: And again, I’m just googling as you were talking, and that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Carpathian wooden churches. So, that’s really, really cool. I did not know about that. And that’s why I love this show, because I learn these new things.
So you mentioned the communists there.
Do you still see parts of the Communist history in the country?
Sarah: Oh, absolutely. And most of the time, unfortunately, it does have a kind of accident-at-the-side-of-the-road fascination for it. But for example, in Bratislava, you have this iconic weird SNP bridge which kind of…do you remember the cartoon, ‘The Jetsons? ‘
Sarah: They lived in this circular house. It kind of looks like something out of ‘The Jetsons.’ On one side of that bridge is the beautiful castle cathedral old town. But on the other side is this neighborhood called Petržalka. It is just like one ugly concrete high rise after another.
It was all built post-war to solve the housing crisis. But now it’s emblematic of that kind of just soul-destroying communist architecture. And everywhere you go, you will still see those kind of buildings. There’s been marvelous reconstruction and renovations since the communist period ended a little over 30 years ago now, but it still is definitely on the landscape.
You can also sometimes see the environmental impact. I remember seeing open mines and slag heaps leftover. Environmentalists were among those who protested communism most loudly because of the damage that was being done to the earth in an attempt to keep up its very efficient economic system.
Joanna: When we were in Hungary and my husband’s family originally come from Hungary. What was interesting is some of the older Hungarians, some of them thought fondly of the days of communism. That always is fascinating to me. Did you get any of that sense? Or was it, “Glad it’s all over?”
Sarah: When I lived there, we were the first town out from the capital. I think that was the first place opportunity and good schooling came. So people were very forward-looking there. But I have distant relatives who live in the center of the country. And even though they were clearly benefiting and rebuilding their homes and starting new businesses, they would talk about golden communism, darling communism, and how much they missed it. And it was because you had no freedom, but you also had no chance to fail totally. You had that security of stasis.
To suddenly go from nobody excels, but nobody falls out of the system, to suddenly you have freedom, you have competition, you have democracy, you have possibility, and you have no cultural or personal training and how to take advantage of the opportunity. It’s terrifying and a lot of people we’re just going to get left behind in the new way.
Plus the fact that there was no small amount of corruption in the transition process. The first premier, Mečiar, was a notorious kleptocrat. So it wasn’t like they instantly got like a true democratic process. Or they instantly got a fair and open markets that competed freely for the good of the consumer.
It was definitely, ‘Oh, sure, you’re my crony, I’ll sell you off this national business cheap and then you can do whatever you want with it.’ So, that probably had a lot to do with the people’s fondness for the old ways where at least, again, no one was going to fail totally even if nobody was going to excel or be free.
Joanna: Communism has pros and cons, just like capitalism has pros and cons. And it always feels like we don’t learn our lessons from history.
You mentioned the wine road earlier, which I’m obviously excited about, it’s because I do like a glass of wine. And you do have some recipes in the book.
What are the regional specialties in terms of eating and drinking if people should visit?
Sarah: Across the country, the national specialty is called bryndzové halušky, which means these little dumplings, they are kind of like Italian Gnocchi, made with potato, boiled, and then you top them with bryndza, which is fresh sheep cheese, only to be found in Slovakia, you really can’t create this dish outside of Slovakia.
And then with a slab of bacon cut up into little bits and fried, and of course, all the grease poured on top, you would never drain off and waste any of that wonderful bacon grease. So, needless to say, you need to drink it with a lot of wine and you will still feel it weigh heavily in your stomach afterwards, however delicious it is.
In my book, as you mentioned, one of my recipes is from what I call, my relative, Marta’s communist industrial version of this which he made was flour-only dumplings and Laughing Cow cheese instead of the hard-to-come-by sheep cheese. And it’s not a bad facsimile, I have to say. But again, you’ll definitely want to have some white wine to cut the load.
Other than that, I love Slovak food. Lots of things are made with paprika, much like its Hungarian neighbor to the south, like goulashes and stews of all kinds. They make wonderful sweets out of poppy seeds and walnuts, like filled rolled cakes with walnut or poppy seed filling, or little cookies, or whatever. All kinds of sausages, all kinds of sauerkraut dishes.
My mother once participated in a pig slaughter that was where they boiled the head to make head cheese and used the rest to make roasts, and bacons, and sausages, and everything. I would say that you can certainly get good restaurant meals there. But if there’s any way you can get invited into someone’s home and preferably a home that has big garden and a wine cellar, then you will really get the best of Slovak cooking. That’s the way to go.
Joanna: Is it on your mother’s side that you have ancestry there?
Sarah: My father’s side.
Joanna: Oh, okay. But your mom decided to go join in that…?
Sarah: Well, we all moved there and she loves to cook, and so, she was just all-in. In fact, I’ve been bugging her for years to write a cookbook because she knew all these amazing kitchen ladies and collected recipes from them, firsthand stuff you will definitely not find in restaurants. I hope someday we can get that down for posterity.
Joanna: I read the wine there is also the Tokaj region, which is obviously part of Hungary as well and we certainly enjoy a Tokaj. But the other thing we had in Hungary was the Pálinka, the local spirit.
Sarah: Oh, yes.
Joanna: Do they have a spirit?
Sarah: They do have Pálinka, but I think more popular in Slovakia is Slivovitz, which is distilled from plums. You can just get a faint whiff of plum, it’s mostly just fire water that burns right through you. They also make a version of that from pears called hruškovica.
Interestingly, my maiden name in Hinlicky is a corruption of Slovak, nilitsky, which refers to the pear that is so ripe that if you wait till tomorrow, it will be rotten, but if you use it today, you can make hruškovica out of it. So I obviously am descended from a line of these firewater makers.
Joanna: That is awesome. Wonderful. Everything’s in your name.
Sarah: I’m so proud.
Joanna: That is really good. Because mine, Penn, is like a hill, is really boring. But no, that’s fascinating.
Is there anything else that you love about Slovakia that people might find interesting?
Sarah: I think it’s so overlooked and forgotten. And even though I had the family connection to it, it wasn’t until I tried to write this book, this memoir of the year that my family lived there, in the year of its independence, so, soon after communism.
Having this idea I was making a homecoming to my ancestral lands. But it became this perfect window through which to see the whole course of European history, and all the layers of invasion and empire, all these questions we talked about at the beginning regarding language, and politics, and religion, and how they all overlap with each other.
I got reconnected specifically how my own religious tradition of Lutherans, they were really always a tiny minority in Slovakia but were so important for its history. The first feminists were Slovak Lutheran pastors’ wives and daughters. I thought that was really cool. I just think it’s not your usual European story. And yet, at the same time, it is iconic of the whole complex history of the continent.
Joanna: And also, I bet it’s cheaper to travel than some of the more ‘famous’ European countries.
Sarah: That is a bonus too. I will not doubt it.
Right now, as we speak, you are in Japan. But you say in the book, you think of yourself as a New Yorker.
How do you embrace what’s different about a culture while still retaining your American side?
Sarah: I don’t think you really know your own culture or nation until you leave it, because everything around you is normal. It’s only when you exit that you can say, ‘Oh, this is really specific to my country and my people.’
The joke on me in this whole book is going to Slovakia thinking I was a Slovak, having spent my whole American upbringing thinking I was truly a Slovak and then getting to Slovakia and discovering they all sure thought I was an American and not a Slovak. And finally realizing I am an American and not a Slovak.
It’s been three or four generations now. I am not a Slovak anymore in the truest sense. But then that is part of being an American is this double identity of where your ancestors come from, and where you are now.
I think, for one thing, it helped me figure out how to strike that balance of being truly an American and yet having a heritage elsewhere. But also, I think getting out of America let me set aside the, maybe, superficial aspects of American culture I really did not like and able to embrace more deeply the things that I truly value about it. Its traditions and commitments to freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, and the kind of entrepreneurial spirit, and just we have a limitless sense of possibility.
And it can seem obnoxious when you’re in the middle of it and in a constant state of competition. But I’ve spent time in places where there is much more of a pervasive sense of despair and impossibility, rather than endless possibility. Given the choice between the two, I’d much rather be in the competitive space of endless possibility than in the despairing space of no possibility.
Joanna: Oh, me too. I love that about the American spirit as well. And it’s so interesting that often we can only appreciate a place when we leave. I feel the same way about England and the UK because I spent 11 years in Australia, and New Zealand. We moved back here a decade ago now.
When I talk to people, even my family, I’m like, ‘Gosh, we really appreciate our country a lot more than they do. Because they haven’t left.’ And it’s almost like when you’re in it, you take things for granted, and you don’t see how good it is. And there are a lot of good things. The media sometimes makes it not seem that way. But there are a lot of good things about our countries, about the UK, about the U.S.
Sarah: I think the false praise of your country also comes from never leaving. Because it’s kind of a joke, the Americans are like, ‘USA, number one,’ have flags up. And they’ve never even been to Canada. I was like, “I think America really is a wonderful country. But I’d find it much more convincing from you if you actually left for a while and found out exactly what you mean when you say that.”
Joanna: Tell us why you’re in Japan and how that fits into your traveling self?
Sarah: I loved Slovakia so much that year I lived there, I wanted to stay forever. And then I didn’t, I came back to visit my family during college, but I never lived there again.
And then once I grew up and got married and had a kid, we moved to France. We lived there a long time. And then that kind of ran its course, we decided it was time to move back to the States. And we really thought we were going to stay there. For about two years, my husband was on the job hunt. And then literally the only door that opened was one to Tokyo.
So we came here just three years ago now. Andrew, my husband, is a professor at the Japan Lutheran Theological College and Seminary. That was the job we came for. But then in the process, they asked me if I would be willing to take up the job as pastor at the English Language Congregation of Tokyo Lutheran Church.
I’d been a pastor, I was ordained long before, but I spent about 10 years in academic work of theology, rather than congregational or pastoral work. So I wasn’t particularly looking to get back into it. But I thought, well, if the door opens, you might as well go through it and see what happens.
It’s been really great. I really love the people here and the work I’m doing, and I still find Japan pretty bewildering. We had no background in Asia before we came here at all. So, everything was from scratch, including the language. My husband teaches in Japanese, I’m way behind him in language study. We’re just taking it in the spirit of adventure. Like, here we are. And it seems to be a good thing. Our 16-year-old is flourishing here, so, why not?
Joanna: I love that. I think that’s a good way to do it. I haven’t been to Japan. It was on my list before the pandemic.
Sarah: Right. It’s so hard to get in now. There was even a question if we’d be allowed back in. We’re only allowed back in after a visit to the U.S. this summer, because we’re long-term visa holders, still, no tourists allowed.
Joanna: Hopefully within a couple of years the world will open up again. My husband’s been a number of times and it sounds a fascinating place. I really want to write a book set there.
Sarah: I will take you for a green tea, if you ever make it here. I hope you do.
Joanna: Oh, excellent. I will take you up on that.
What are some books about Slovakia, or travel memoir, or whatever you like that you would like to recommend?
Sarah: One of the reasons I wrote my book is because Slovakia is so under-written about in the English language, I looked, there is really not very much out there. So, the only real recommendation I can make is a very famous book called A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great travel writers. And he has a chapter on Slovakia towards the end of that book, passing through it in the late 1930s. And that’s quite delightful.
My other recommendations are not Slovakia-related, because like I said, there isn’t much. But these are a few other travel books that I absolutely love. I mentioned that I lived in France for a long time. And there’s a book by Graham Robb called The Discovery of France. This was another one of those eye-opening books for me because it’s this wonderful portrait of how France became France.
To us, it seems self-evidently like France is France. But actually, France is an empire of a bunch of little regions, like nations are basically empires in miniature. They actually had to go and pull in the people from Britannia, and from Languedoc, in the south, and Provence, and from Alsace, which is where we lived, and forced them all into becoming France and French.
That was really accelerated by Napoleon actually, who had this unifying vision. So, that book will really take a country that you thought you knew from croissants in Paris and give you a sense of how extraordinarily regionally diverse it always was, and in many ways still is.
Another book that I love is Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook. And what he does, it’s really cool. Each chapter takes a painting by Vermeer that has some element from outside the Netherlands. So it might be a hat made from beaver fur from Canada, or porcelain from China, or a painting from Japan. And this is Vermeer’s time. So this is the 17th century.
What the author does is he talks through all the ways in which Dutch culture formed around its relationship with foreign cultures. And again, this was totally eye-opening to me, because I always thought, like, what was truly of a culture is what came from its territory, its own land. So, if it’s Dutch, it has to be like wooden shoes and Gouda cheese, right?
But actually, what makes the Netherlands what they are is also what they have selected from their relationships to Indonesia. For a long time, they were the only Westerners allowed into Japan. And so, there are other relationships with other countries of the world. So I think that’s really eye opening too.
Again, instead of having this pure, internal, authentic version of a country, a country is also what it selects from the outside world to bring in and incorporate. And if you just think about the fact that you can’t imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but tomatoes are a new world product, there were no tomatoes in Europe before 1500. That gives you a sense of how much today’s cultures are defined by what they’ve taken from the rest of the world.
I also would beg anyone who’s only seen the movie Out of Africa, please read the book. It’s so much better, I’m sorry, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. But really, the book is so much better. And it is not primarily about the romance. It’s this just stunning story of loss.
In the title Out of Africa, she’s writing in mourning as someone who has been left. And it’s so wonderfully complicated, because she was there as part of the colonial forces, should not have been there, lots of bad stuff happened there. And yet, she loved Africa so deeply and wrote this book out of the wound it left in her soul to be taken away from it forever, and the relationship with a man that the movie is all about. That’s just the final loss in the whole chain of loss.
But her writing is just exquisite. And I’ve actually only read it once. I don’t think I could ever go through it a second time. But for anyone who really wants to have that complicated sense of what it means to fall in love with a place and also one maybe that you shouldn’t be in, it’s just extraordinary.
And my very last recommendation, I would be remiss not to mention the fact that my husband is also an accidental travel writer like me. He wrote a book called Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. It tells of the pilgrimage he and I took in 2010, recreating the footsteps of Martin Luther as he walked from central Germany to Rome before he became a famous reformer.
Since we’re Lutherans, we thought it would be cool to try to recreate that. And we had all sorts of things go wrong, including the fact that we left from the wrong city and in the wrong year, but that is actually part of the story. You can take a look at the book to find out why we, avid Luther fans, got it so terribly wrong.
Joanna: Those are all excellent, and a diverse recommendation list. Thank you for that. Where can people find you, and your books, and your husband’s books online?
Sarah: You can find all my stuff at sarahhinlickywilson.com, that has everything that I do.
The press that I started to publish I Am a Brave Bridge is called Thornbush Press. You can find it at thornbushpress.com, and that will lead you to ‘Brave Bridge’ and my other projects as well.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Sarah. That was great.
Sarah: Thank you. You’re welcome.