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home : columnists : notes from away
July 12, 2020

Note from Away: Brief Encounter
CAMDEN. There is always a slight foreboding as I negotiate that steep, last step down to Laite Beach. Behind lies the civilization of warm car interior and grass embankment and asphalt pathway and picnic tables. Ahead lies sand, shells, seaweed (is it wet or dry? is the tide advancing or retreating?) and the pebbled . . .
Thursday, July 23, 2015

From Offshore: I can't see the telephone tower
The island women got together Sunday afternoon in a beautifully decorated church basement to eat crabmeat sandwiches and coo over cute infant gear at a baby shower. The new mom-to-be was very close to her due date, so getting stuck on the island, where there are no facilities for having babies in any degree . . .

Thursday, July 23, 2015
Notes from Away: Mother of exiles
MANHATTAN. I have spent much of my adult life abroad, away from America. I have been "fato profugus," as Virgil said of Aeneas. "Blown onward by fate." Or in my case, drawn forward by the opportunity to work in Central Europe emerging from the Soviet shadows and in China emerging from totalitarian . . .
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Notes from Away: Cleopatra's Voice
SHANGHAI. When we finally arrived for the concert, we were quite wet from the rain, and rather cross. Shanghai has four major concert halls. Three of them are located in the western half of the city where we live and work, in the district called Puxi, meaning west (xi) of the Huang Pu river. One is the gleaming new . . .
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Notes from Away: A Sparrow in April
SHANGHAI. Like the turning mill-wheel, the year rounds on itself again, and again it is April. As in most years, according to the Jewish and Christian calendars, April is the month for Passover, and - the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the spring equinox - for Easter. In the historical American . . .
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Notes from Away: The Lion City
SINGAPORE. He was not religious, so if he dreamt in his final days, while rumors and nurses ran through the corridors of the world-class hospital, he dreamt not of heaven, but of an extraordinary life. His face always had a lion's cast. As a teenager, he evaded massacre in the Japanese occupation. After the war, young . . .
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Notes From Away: An Inconvenient Film
Beijing. At first, after the film starts streaming, all you see is a chart of Beijing air pollution and all you hear is a woman's voice. Then you see the woman speaking, alone on a bare stage, in jeans and a white blouse, a thin microphone curving round her face. Her audience of young Chinese know her well. Her name . . .
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Notes from Away: A Russian Winter
MOSCOW. In the winter and spring of 1992, just weeks after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in a street market in Moscow overlooking the Kremlin and Red Square, a young international lawyer, an American in Russia for the first time, could buy a babushka doll to take home as a keepsake. . . .
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Notes from Away: Je suis Français aussi
PARIS. Recent events remind me how Miss Moore, our high school Latin teacher, made the class recite the description in the Commentaries of Julius Caesar of the country he had so famously seen and conquered. Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres . . . Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. . . .
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Notes from Away: Political Fathers and Sons
A COUNTRY ROAD. My son and I are enjoying the drive through this northwest corner of Connecticut even though it is a grey winter's day. The two of us are in high spirits, searching on the radio for mutually congenial music, and having a laugh when something unlistenable or absurd blasts out from some station or . . .
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Notes from Away: New Year Ritual
ROCKPORT. 2015 AD. Somehow we are surprised by the angle of the sun this time of year. It blinds us as we drive south and west in the afternoon, and also as it rises in the morning through different portions of pine or cedar or oak than in any other season. The low rays entering the windows illuminate odd corners of . . .
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Notes from Away: Take up and read
MILAN. 387 AD. Perhaps with the benefit of today's film technology, we could pretend to fly over the ancient vibrant, anxious city - the western capital in those dangerous days of a divided and declining Roman empire. Through the modern miracle of computer simulation we could hover over streets and markets . . .
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Notes from Away: Evening News
SOMEWHERE IN CHINA - Go to any news kiosk in Shanghai and, if you read Chinese, you will find many tabloid papers, often called "wanbao" or "evening news." English-language newspapers for foreigners in China often summarize the more sensational or poignant of the tabloid reports - in a prose . . .
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Notes from Away: Pacific Tremors
NAGANO, JAPAN. Last month, an earthquake struck the mountain villages around Nagano, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998. Houses collapsed, roads buckled, and dozens were hurt, some quite seriously. It reminded me of our family visit to the same place last winter. . . .
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Notes from Away: Robots in Taiwan
TAIPEI, TAIWAN -- I remember clearly the first time my son and I went to a Camden Hills Regional High School basketball game. He was in fifth grade in Shanghai at the time, and the family was home in Rockport for the Christmas holidays. The son of very good friends of ours in Camden was one of the stars of . . .
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Notes from Away: The World Is Young
CONCORD, MASS. - The town common has a granite monument with a simple inscription below a list of names. "In honor of THE BRAVE MEN whose names it bears and records WITH GRATEFUL PRIDE that they found here a birthplace, home or grave. 1866". . . .
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Notes from Away: A young girl learning to read
SHANGHAI: "Don't stare, Dad; people will think you're weird," says the teenage boy. "I am not staring. I'm gazing," the man says. These two are making their way, one Sunday morning, the few hundred feet from their house in its quiet lane to where the main street reaches a busy square, and the boy's favorite . . .
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Notes from Away: Silence Coerced by Law
BEIJING AND HONG KONG. I hope no readers of these pages ever experience what I did a few days ago, in a hotel room in mainland China. Nothing violent. But in some ways worse, precisely because it seemed so innocuous. The television was turned to the BBC morning news. The anchorwoman began to . . .
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Notes from Away: Hong Kong
China, on this National Day (October 1), is a tale of three cities: In Shanghai, our home these last dozen years, the sky today is blue and clear since factories are shut down for the holidays. Streets are half empty and cafes half full. We only saw two national flags in the neighborhood, although almost every TV set in the . . .
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Notes from Away: Far from Ferguson
SHANGHAI - An incident involving an ethnic minority and the police, but far from Ferguson. In fact, just a few hundred steps from our house in Shanghai. A little bit of background: some 95% of the population of China is ethnically Han, meaning the group we Easterners think of as "looking Chinese" . . .
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Notes from Away: Libraries
While back home from China during this beautiful summer, all the talk in Rockport about the library made me think about the book I almost tried to write when I was in my 20s. In 1983, I had been living and working in Beijing for more than three years, fresh out of college, and was beginning to get restless . . .
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Notes from Away: "O say can you see . . .?"
The small town west of Boston where I grew up is the distance of a morning's run to Concord and its rude arched bridge. The gravestones of Minutemen in the old cemetery are blurred by time, but a town committee marks them with small flags with 13 stars for the Fourth of July. . . .
Thursday, July 3, 2014
Notes from Away: Taipei
Taipei. One Sunday 35 years ago a milk truck was parked in front of the student dorms of Taiwan University. On its side was a large image, easily recognizable, of a very populous country, and in the "southeast" corner, separated by a thin area of blue, was the figure of a small island painted the same color as the mainland. The sign read "China National Dairy." . . .
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Notes from Away: In A World Turned Upside Down
Shanghai. Scattered machine gun fire, getting closer street by street it seems, and in the distance the concussion of heavy shells. A whiff of gunpowder embitters the night air. The reverberations call to mind the terrible guns of August 100 years ago, and walking past dark closed-up shops normally open . . .
Thursday, March 20, 2014

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