When the going gets tough, the world beckons.
Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By THOMAS SWICK
Lydia Davison Whitcomb
A Love Affair
by Elisabeth Eaves
Seal Press, 304 pp., $16.95
Toward the end of this clear-eyed, finely wrought memoir, the author finds herself in Paris with her diplomat-boyfriend, living the life of a freelance writer in an elegant apartment off the Champs-Elysées and wondering where it all went wrong. “As we get to know the area,” Eaves writes, “we like it less and less.” She complains about the chain stores on the famed boulevard and the lack of life on the side streets. When people do appear, their faces are often distorted, telltale signs that they’ve just been to one of the neighborhood’s numerous plastic surgeons.
It takes a good writer to make Paris appear unappealing. But having read the previous 280 pages, we fully understand Eaves’s dissatisfaction with her fate. She has a restless soul, and heart, and her life up to this point has been anything but tame. Eaves, author of the well-received Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, is one of those people for whom travel is an almost physical need. At the age of nine, living in Spain during her father’s sabbatical, she discovers Tintin and dreams of foreign adventures even while in the midst of one. This year abroad shows her, at an early age, “that when you were somewhere else, you could be someone else.” Back home in Vancouver, she attends a French immersion school until the ninth grade, so she speaks two foreign languages before many American kids study one. At the University of Washington, she takes up Arabic.
Her good friend Graham sets off on a year of travel, and reading his aerograms—mailed from Hawaii, Fiji, Australia—she falls in love with him. Has he become someone else? Or is it that she sees for the first time his adventurous and sensitive sides (having experiences and then putting them into words)? On his return, they become lovers. Then she sets off for a summer in Spain, where she meets Pepe. Their passionate affair causes her no conflict; she is back in the land that taught her about adopted identities: “Graham and Pepe were not even relevant to one another. They were in different languages, and I was a different person with each one. They belonged to two separate worlds.”
This summer establishes a pattern of finding love and escaping from it, only to succumb again in another place. The desire for new lands becomes inextricable from her need for new lovers—the sensual pleasures of both satisfying her unquenchable thirst for experience. Travel provides a way out and (if she wants it) a way back in—with everything fresh. “The traveler,” she writes, “always betrays the place.” Romances don’t sprout everywhere. Eaves spends a year abroad in Cairo—“I needed something that would sear me, something that might hurt”—and includes a fascinating section on the problems of traveling as a woman (which will open the eyes of any male who has ever been mildly hassled in a souk).
There is a special hell reserved for foreign women. With her friend Mona she travels to Yemen. These chapters—which, like the others, have old-fashioned titles like “On Being an Alien,” “On Adaptation”—nicely capture the atmosphere of not only the place but the feeling of being adrift in a very strange land. The two women managed to go beyond the tourist experience (which is often easier in a country without many tourists) staying with a Yemeni family in Taiz. Reading her cool, detailed depictions of the culture—after her more personal revelations—I was reminded of the memoirs of Kate Simon, possibly the greatest travel writer (certainly the most underrated) this country has produced. Eaves has the same knowing, unflappable appreciation of the world, and the ability to make it come alive on the page.