Abroad by Penelope Lively

Do we see the lives of others through the lenses we create from our own experience?  Anthropologists have struggled with how the observer changes the world of the observed.

imagesListening to the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, I heard Ann Morgan cite Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, as someone who had dealt with this theme in Abroad, a short account of a young couple’s trip to the Continent in search of inspiration.

Ann Morgan notes:

“The danger of demanding authenticity, or “spirit” of a place in a book is that we look for what we expect to see and miss what is there. Instead of allowing the stories of a region to open our minds and read us in new directions, we can become narrow and petty, demanding that regional literature conform to our expectations.  Far from broadening our horizons, we risk shutting ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we see our version of the world reflected back at us ad infinitum.”


Since I had never read Abroad, I downloaded a copy for $3.99 and quickly read the 26 page novella.  The story is witty and humorous, with a definite caution to all of us who think we can learn more about the “culture” through travel.

In Lively’s Abroad, two young British artists decide they need to go Abroad to the Continent to see “landscapes peppered with peasants, wearing proper peasant clothes…All so authentic…In England we didn’t have peasants. Just the rural working class. Farm workers.Not the same.”

The Lively fun never stops in its light ridicule and witty banter:

“…part of the appeal – not knowing what people were talking about…You were on the outside, not involved, just looking on, which is what you were there for…”

When the couple comes across a picturesque country wedding party, they are, at first, happy to lurk nearby to sketch the group.  Of course, they are noticed and the country folk invite them over to enjoy food and wine, and the couple revel in their authentic experience. However,when their car does not start and they are stranded at the farm, their hosts are not willing to extend their hospitality to the couple with no money to fix the car or pay for their keep.   By the end of the novella, the pair are forced to admit ‘You can have enough of authenticity eventually,’ but not before the clever “peasants” have squeezed a week’s worth of unpaid farm labor out of them, and a fresco of the family on the kitchen wall.

Never underestimate the locals.