Friday, March 27, 2009


When I was growing up in Southern California my parents always had a subscription to the LA Times. Friday was my favorite day, because Jack Smith had his column in the View section. His writing was always witty, sophisticated and insightful and he had the ability to see the humor in every situation. I think the L.A. Times should publish a collection of Mr. Smith's columns - that would make me very happy. Until they do, I'll have to content myself with God and Mr. Gomez.

Originally published in 1974, God and Mr. Gomez: Building a Dreamhouse in Baja was re-released in paperback in 1997, and used copies can still be found at reasonable prices. This book was the first of its type that I had read, and it's a type I have come to love; building and/or refurbishing a house in a foreign country . Jack Smith and his wife signed a ninety-nine year lease on a lot in Baja California and hired a contractor, Mr. Gomez, to build a vacation home for them. Miscommunication, mistakes and hilarity ensue, people learn lessons, and I want to move to Baja. The hot/cold water solution that Mr. Gomez comes up with is worth the entire read. As usual, Mr. Smith's writing is impeccable and entertaining. This is a book that will always stay in my library.

In 1997, as Mr. Smith's book is being re-released, I discovered Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, a gem of a book. If you waited for the movie, you did yourself a disservice. Not only is the book so much better, it's also totally different. Ms. Mayes falls in love with Tuscany and buys a home. It's a fixer-upper and she has the vision and heart to do it right, no matter the frustrations. I want to move to Tuscany. I want an olive grove and citrus trees and a field of lavender. I want a stone terrace overlooking it all where I can have my coffee in the morning and my wine in the evening.

I also read Ms. Mayes second volume, Bella Tuscany, but if you only have time for one of her books, choose Under the Tuscan Sun - it is the better book by far.

My friend Tim, with whom I have been discussing books for thirty-four years, recommended Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist In Spain. Chris Stewart is on a trip in Spain and decides to buy a ranch... then he goes home to tell his wife that they are moving. Fortunately, she's a good sport. Of course, the house is in need of much repair and its former tenant is not ready to move out. There is no road to the house - furniture (and everything else) has to be carried over a handmade bridge and up the hill. The neighbors are eventually won over as the Stewart's ease into renovation and ranch life, and, I want to move to Spain. I want to move there anyway, and this book reinforced the desire. I think the lemon scented roads could win anyone over.

Tahir Shah wants to move to Morocco and raise his daughters in a way that is more similar to his childhood experience. He buys a house that was once owned by the Caliph, and packs up his family. You know what's coming, right? The house is in disrepair, it comes with a slew of staff that will not leave, and it's haunted. Despite having grown up in North Africa, Shah has been gone long enough that he is clueless as to how anything gets done in Morocco. He has become too western in thinking and custom, and he has a westerner's desire to control his environment. A delightful story unfolds in The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca, as he realizes that only the djinns are in control. And, I want to move to Morocco.

All of these writers combine several elements that fascinate me: Foreign lands and different cultures, architecture and renovation, and the desire to uproot oneself and live somewhere new and completely different. I admire the sense of adventure they all share. The tenacity to see the project through. The easing into a life that is in all ways slower and simpler. And of course, in every case, they know how to tell a story. It's all in the writing.

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