Photo: Ashleigh Pinnell
I started laughing before I got to the first real page of Gretchen Berg’s memoir, “I Have Iraq in My Shoe.” With no context, Berg quotes Miss Teen South Carolina as she completely bombs her pageant response about the educational system. Though as a Southerner I was embarrassed when this clip immediately went viral (fearful we would all be labeled blubbering idiots), I was soon laughing with the rest of the country. Berg’s use of this quote as the prologue gave me the sense that she had moxie. Cut to page two where she compares herself to Scarlett O’Hara (my literary heroine), and I was pretty sure we were soul sisters.
It takes more than a sense of adventure to drop everything and move to Iraq for two years to teach. It takes cojones. Apparently Berg’s got those, too. After falling victim to the recession, she uprooted her entire life and moved to Northern Iraq to eliminate debt and find a soul mate. She chronicles her progress, or lack thereof, at the close of each section in an adorable running tally. Thanks to a generous vacation schedule, Berg is able to take frequent breaks from her attempts at assimilation to travel Europe and indulge her shoe fetish. Come to think of it, there is less assimilation than I anticipated and the entire memoir is a quick, breezy read. Sure, she interacts with her Iraqi students on a daily basis, but the majority of her time is spent with fellow ex-pats in their sequestered English Village where they can mingle with the opposite sex, drink alcohol, and wear scandalous shorts. Did she gain valuable insight into another culture? Sure. But she didn’t have to change who she was to get it.
I often worry that at 27 I have already missed that window of opportunity for a major life change. How can I start from scratch at something new when I’ve already invested so much time? Well Gretchen Berg did so at age 39. It’s never too late to learn more about others while learning about yourself, and if you can do so in an environment that tests the limits of your tolerance, all the better.