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Book Review: Rita Golden Gelman’s “Female Nomad and Friends”

Travel is about connecting with people, about taking risks and being open to new experiences. These are the themes of the new anthology Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World, an eclectic and encouraging collection of stories that will resonate with many travelers. Compiled by Rita Golden Gelman, author of the best-selling Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, the anthology comprises over 60 individual stories, centered largely on connecting through travel, and 31 recipes ranging from the bizarre (dried worms) to the more traditional (bruschette).

Included are stories about food, love, fear, friendship, sadness and miscommunication. In one tale, an American mistakenly tells a French postman in his best French, “I threw the postman down the waterfall without a bell.” In another story, an employee at a Trader Joe’s grocery store gives a bouquet of roses to an ailing elderly woman. Many stories are about navigating foreign transportation systems, getting lost and having to trust locals without speaking their language or knowing where they’re taking you. In one example, two Peace Corps volunteers miss their port of exit on a boat in Paraguay and are dropped off in complete darkness at the edge of the jungle and told to stay the night with a family who can help.

The variety of content, subjects, emotions and experiences found in Female Nomad and Friends reflects the fashion in which the stories were collected. The seed of the book was planted in France when Gelman was visiting a longtime friend and chef, Lars Johannsen. He suggested that Gelman write a cookbook that included stories from her travels. Eventually Gelman realized she’d rather read that book than write it herself. Through her website Gelman announced an open call for submissions of recipes combined with stories about connecting and risk-taking.

Together with another longtime friend, writer Maria Altobelli, Gelman chose the best recipes and stories. This frequently meant disregarding their original ideas about length and content in favor of stories with the most heart. “Occasionally, we found a story we liked that wasn’t even close to the themes of connecting and risk-taking, but if it made us laugh or cry or feel good, we slipped it in,” Gelman writes in her introduction to the book. Another thing that makes Female Nomad and Friends such an effective read is that it maintains the different voices of its 41 authors. The authors write, talk and feel like ordinary people, making it easy for readers to relate as the writers recall misfortune, dangers and above all the random acts of kindness that travelers experience time and time again from perfect strangers.

And here’s another selling point: Every penny of profit from Female Nomad and Friends goes to fund scholarships for slum children in New Delhi, India, who have graduated high school to attend vocational school, improving their job prospects. Gelman was originally inspired to raise money for such scholarships in 2005, after spending more than a year in Delhi, including many hours in one of its slums. She saw an opportunity to expand the program with profits from her new anthology and the 40 other authors were eagerly on board. Already, author royalties totaling $46,750 have been sent to the Rotary Club in Delhi, which mentors the children.

In keeping with the theme of her new anthology Gelman recently hosted an international dinner party featuring recipes from her book. Through her personal website and Facebook pages Gelman spread word of the party and invited people from around the world to “connect” by hosting their own parties celebrating the launch of the book, the wonders of travel and the dollars that each book sale represents in scholarships.

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