The greatest writer’s retreat in the history of the universe

The first thing you learn as a writer – or in my case I just figured it out about a year ago – is that you really need to have your ‘space’. The space where you go to write. It should be comfortable, virtually devoid of distractions, with all necessary tools and equipment ergonomically placed and in top working order, with at least one clichéd sexy assistant attending to your every need, like the Portuguese girl in “Love Actually” or, for the ladies, Alfred from “Batman”.

I have had non-stop, whimpering, maddening, hair-yanking, sobbing space issues since the day I sold my house in 2003. Allow me to briefly illustrate a few of the ‘spaces’ I’ve had to endure in the past four years:

Location: Cadiz, Spain

Time there: Five months

Description: A windowless room, with a single, distant light source, a folding table, a chair salvaged from the School for the Future Pyromaniacs of Andalucia, in a busy three bedroom student apartment, below another apartment with a family that made thunderous, unfathomable, incessant noise for 19 hours a day.

Bonus annoyance: The middle-aged, hard-drinking, harder-smoking, overweight mom from the family upstairs, who routinely went about her business clad only in a t-shirt, had an aversion to underwear, and always seemed to be looming at her door when I climbed the stairs to the roof to hang my laundry. Things like that you can never un-watch.

Location: Iasi, Romania

Time there: 16 cumulative months

Description: Two apartments. One where the internet cable only reached to a couch built after they invented springs, but before they invented puncture-proof upholstery, with windows overlooking a supermarket parking lot where a car alarm went off once every 17 seconds, 24 hours a day. The hot water was out an average three days a week. The second place, a rickety table, that was seconds from collapse and a chair that was too short and had tacks protruding from the butt-side. The woman living above me often rehearsed her new bowling ball juggling routine, or so it seemed as there was a frightening, chandelier-tinkling bang at least once a day that sounded precisely like a 12 pounder being dropped from a height of six feet. The people next door were using their spare bedroom as a film set for jungle-fucking pornos (they were evicted).

Bonus annoyances: The old lady who made a living beating carpets clean out in the courtyard started work promptly at 7:20am, seven days a week. The rhythmic whacking of the carpet swatter against the carpets, bouncing off three flat buildings into my window was about as soothing as gun fire. Dissatisfied customers at the crooked currency exchange place below my window went on screaming jags at least once a day. Whenever there was a concert in the Palace Square, 1/2 a block away, the sound resonated in my apartment like I was on stage singing backup and the bass made my genitals vibrate – A bad thing? No. Distracting? Yes.

Location: Torregrande (Oristano), Sardinia, Italy

Time there: Five months

Description: Kitchen table. No shops to satisfy chocolate cravings. Nothing to do. Virtually alone. Mobile internet service signal so weak, I had to often stand in the middle of the street to get a connection, and even then I only managed a data transfer rate of about 3kps. Shopping had to be done at a market 10km away, via an unreliable bus line that – if it ran on time – only ran once every one and a quarter hours.

Bonus annoyance: Motorcycle geeks used my village as a turnaround point while doing speed tests on the country roads and since they were loathe to slow down much there was always an even change of someone being killed, preferably them, but maybe me and that would’ve sucked.

Torricella, where I am now, ain’t much better. I have to ride a half-busted, mountain bike specially shipped in from Siberia 4kms uphill both ways (yes, really) just to get bread, never mind bottles of wine, which are a lot heavier than they seem when they’re on your back and you’re riding (or pathetically walking) a bike-like apparatus up a hill.

And I’m not even gonna start on all the untold hostels, airports, train stations, overnight buses and doorsteps in front of apartments with unsecured WiFi hubs.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a ‘space’ devoid of distractions, discomforts, long-term social isolation and undue inconveniences. I’ve also tried to imagine a place with more distractions, discomforts, long-term social isolation and undue inconveniences than I routinely endure (Answer: a dynamite testing range, with no plumbing and Morse Code internet access, on No Pillow Island, in the treacherous seas 500 miles south of Tierra del Fuego).

After a few comments in this blog last week, I got to thinking about my ideal ‘space’. The product of this unproductive day dreaming was Leif Land™. Originally, I thought Leif Land would be an all-inclusive, self-sufficient resort and writer’s retreat somewhere nice like Tahiti. But I quickly realized that wasn’t good enough. I don’t want outside forces to hold sway on Leif Land, affecting its atmosphere, management and policy, because that would be distracting and the whole point of Leif Land is to eliminate distraction. Leif Land needs to be autonomous. Its own nation, like Vatican City.

So, the first step would be to locate a place with a ruler as batshit crazy as Mussolini who could be persuaded (or bribed) into letting a square block of their nation secede and become it’s own sovereign state. The short list includes North Korea, Myanmar, Transdniestr, Paraguay, Florida and Australia.

Once we’ve staked out the borders, we’d have to either renovate or purpose-build the structures to my satisfaction. Required amenities would include:

• Satellite internet so we’re not dependent on whatever asshat country we’re in for service. Needless to say there would be comprehensive, high-speed WiFi service throughout the entire compound.
• 50 electrical outlets in every room, even the toilet (apart from internet access, ill-placed or limited power points have been the bane of my battery killing existence).
• A business center, fully equipped with printers, scanners, copiers, A/V gadgets, PCs, an FTP backup server and whatever the hell else equipment I whimsically decide we’ll need, like maybe a voice-command robot with a built-in thesaurus that serve drinks.
• A large variety of workspaces: offices, libraries, beanbag nooks, hammocks, couches, gardens, terraces, coffee shops, sensory deprivation tanks and rickety tables and chairs with protruding tacks in case I ever get nostalgic.
• Small, basic, but comfortable guest quarters for all guests (hey, you’re there to write, you don’t need anything fancy, apart from a comfortable bed and sound proofed walls).
• A 24-hour, on-demand dinning hall with a crack team of chefs that can expertly prepare Italian, Thai, Indian, French, Chinese, pizza, hamburgers, 17 ingredient omelets (extra spicy), chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, chocolate éclairs and fajitas.
• Every work space will need an espresso machine, a small but respectable wine rack and a full wet bar, including ice machine that dispenses both shaved and cubed.
• Coolers in every room with an exhaustive selection of soft drinks, juices, Red Bull, Gatorade and, oh what the hell, water.
• A fitness/recreation hall with a walk/run track, free weights, Nautilus machines, bikes, full-court basketball, volleyball and badminton (in case my mom visits),
• Several home theater rooms hooked up to a central DVD/Tivo server device with 100 terabytes of TV and movies.
• Hot tub
• Private helipad with rocket-booster helicopter that can make airport transfers in under 15 minutes.
• Medium security prison and detox unit in case the Lonely Planet authors go on a drunken rampage again.

Weekly rates for guests would be calculated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the writer’s income for whatever project they’re working on while in residence. Anyone deemed to be abusing Leif Land or its residents will be banned, shunned and have their belongings auctioned to pay for damages or balance due.

Finally, Leif Land will be governed by a body of former or retired writers who are attuned to the mentality, needs and the rarified neuroses that our kind goes through. (You didn’t think I was gonna get involved in that mess, did you? I’ve got stuff to do people! This blog doesn’t write itself you know!!) This body will be evaluated and re-elected or replaced every two years at a knock down, drag out party weekend, where anyone caught working will have their laptops tied to their backs and then be thrown in the pool (oh yeah, we’re gonna need a pool).

Additional suggestions welcome. I have to stop writing now because having my laptop on a kitchen table that’s three inches too high is making my shoulders and neck spasm. When the spasms get too bad I have to ask my neighbor to open wine bottles for me and then I feel inclined to share and that’s not in my nature.

Speaking of distractions, part of the giddying intrigue of being an American, homeless, freelance travel writer living long term on a continent where I cannot spend more than 90 consecutive days in any one country is that the clock is always ticking. My 90 days for Italy are almost up, so action is needed in the form of a four night getaway to Malta. Rumor has it that I could probably renew my visa through paperwork, but knowing Italy’s fondness for bureaucracy, I think a four night border hop to Malta will probably take less time and will likely be cheaper too. Oh and there’s the matter that’s it’s Malta, a mysterious and magical place that I’ve wanted to visit for two years. Though now that has Ryan Air has flights from the UK to Valletta for like 90 pence, I suppose the mystery and magic has dulled somewhat, but I’ll do my best to conjure it up even if it means two bottles of wine before dinner.

I leave at dawn on Tuesday. At the direction of various concerned colleagues and my dedicated team of mental health professionals, I am leaving my laptop behind, meaning next week’s blog entry is gonna be a little late. This wacky non-laptop trip concept will also mean that the remaining work on the LP Tuscany chapters will be a wee bit rushed, but it should flow rather quickly now that my dreams are exclusively consumed with Tuscany editing. And not just the freaky nightmares where I realize that I somehow forgot to visit Siena during research. I’m actually doing productive editing while I sleep, that I transcribe to the manuscript after I wake up. I’m like Tyler fricking Durden here. Send pills, lawyers and a cheeseburger please.

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