The fear of being unemployed and mounting debt are strong motivators, which is why Gretchen Berg found herself in a small town in Iraqi Kurdistan teaching young adults English.Not exactly the path that the 39-year-old copy writer and fashion maven had envisioned, especially since she’d already dismissed a teaching career. But in 2009, financial desperation and a love of travel had Berg packing her oversized hockey bags (overweight charges: $2,920) with a year’s supply of tampons among other things (hey, you can’t get those things in Iraq) and boarding a plane for Erbil.
Located 50 miles east of Mosul in northeast Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), Erbil has a population of 1.3 million, mostly conservative Muslims whose world views couldn’t be more opposed to Berg’s. But “I was living in an expensive apartment in Seattle and couldn’t get a job anywhere and was terrified,” she said in an interview from her Oregon home. “But as soon as I decided to go, I thought, I’m going to write a book because it’s going to be a unique, weird experience.”
The result is “I Have Iraq in My Shoe: Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion” (Sourcebooks; www.sourcebooks.com or Amazon.com) a fun, fast summer read that may have other beachgoers giving you strange looks when you laugh out loud, which will be often. Berg’s perspective on life and culture in Iraq is strictly that of a self-described fashionista who would “rather watch ‘Project Runway’ than CNN.”
In truth, Berg never really assimilates; she just learns to survive with the help of such things as Facebook and Skype; Nutella, M&Ms and Snickers; Diet Coke (not easy to find); and a new blender “which I quickly fell madly in love with,” she writes. “It cost an incomprehensible $26 and was glass, with an apple-green base and rubber lid. It encouraged me to consume the requisite two to four servings of fruit a day in the form of smoothies, which almost counterbalanced the Nutella and candy bars.”
To periodically assess her attitude and accomplishments, Berg keeps a running tally. Her final score after a bit more than a year: $4,880 in overweight luggage fees; $41,745 of debt eliminated; nine countries visited (lifetime total: 45); 20 pairs of shoes purchased; zero soul mates (she had so been hoping); and a 5 out of 10 for cultural tolerance.
“I won’t sugarcoat it,” she writes. “While there were definitely things I could appreciate about the Middle East, the glaring inequities between men and women were too great to ignore.”
Nevertheless, “it was really good to get to know the people because of the things they lived through,” like climbing over mountains to escape persecution. “With this book, I’m hoping to reach some people who would never take the time to learn about a different culture.”
For photos that correspond to chapters, go to gretchenbergbooks.com.
Travel books for the younger jet setters
Put “Not for Parents” in the title of a book, and like a kid, I want to read it.
Maybe Lonely Planet publisher is using reverse psychology, but I couldn’t help perusing copies of the “Not-for-Parents” paperback series. Written for kids about Rome, London, Paris and New York City ($14.99), readers learn about these world cities through colorful, quirky graphics and text. (Also available: “The Travel Book: Cool Stuff to Know About Every Country in the World;” hardback; $19.99.) Did you know that 14-year-old Annie Moore from Ireland was the first immigrant to be checked in at Ellis Island? For that, she received a $10 gold piece, equal to about $10,000 in today’s money. Or that the real name of the Statue of Liberty is “Liberty Enlightening the World?” Or that Slovakia has the world’s biggest stalagmite in Krasnohorska Cave? Buy these books for your kids, then ask permission to read them. For more information, visit lonelyplanet.com.