16 Mar 2015

Podcast Recommendation Monday: The Bittersweet Life

Author: krb3k | Filed under: Uncategorized













Podcast: The Bittersweet Life is a show about expatriatism, from (mostly) two points of view: that of a short-term expat with a definite departure date, and a long-term expat who may or may not ever leave. It is set in Rome, and the city itself is as much of a presence as the hosts. Caravaggio’s “Basket of Fruit” (above) serves as this podcast’s logo and, for the detail-oriented, provides insight into the content (though of course “bittersweet” is a tip-off, as well); notice the worm hole in the apple, the bruising on the pears, and the dying leaves. This is a still life, but not of idealized perfection, as many of us have come to expect of still life paintings. If you’ve figured out that this podcast will NOT offer up a rainbows and roses view of expatriatism, well done!  (Note: the two hosts are crazy about Caravaggio, and they devote two episodes to his work; N.B, I have yet to hear them, and will be heartily embarrassed if I’ve offered up my pretentious critique about its probable relationship to the content, only to find out that the painting was chosen at random ;) ).


Who’s responsible: Katy Sewall & Tiffany Parks Katy Sewall was a longtime NPR employee at a Seattle affiliate whose husband’s studies took them to Rome for a year. Tiffany Parks has lived in Rome for over 10 years, and is married to an Italian. Katy and Tiffany have been friends since they were 13, and their long friendship contributes heavily to the warm, intimate tone of the show (more on that later).


TBL is funded by listener donations.


Katy & Tiffany at 13. (Please note that I found this on the podcast's website- I did NOT perform some excellent stalking and grab it from an old yearbook.

Katy & Tiffany at 13. (Please note that I found this on the podcast’s website- I did NOT perform some excellent stalking and grab it from an old yearbook).













Why I like it:

  • As mentioned above, the podcast has a genuine warmth about it that is incredibly appealing. Most episodes were recorded in Katy’s apartment, on her bed, because, as she explains it “It’s the quietest part of the apartment”. The apartment is situated above a pizzeria and, though I am not usually given to schadenfreude, I have to confess that hearing Katy talk (several times) about how the partying went on until 2AM, at which point the employees began dragging the tables over the sidewalk to put them away, is pretty funny. Adding to the informal atmosphere is the fact that the two of them often eat snacks while they’re recording, and that you can faintly hear street traffic. If you close your eyes, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine yourself there with them… not in a creepy way, of course. (Question: if you have to specify that something isn’t creepy, does that automatically qualify it as creepy? Discuss).
  • The hosts are incredibly candid about not only their expat experiences, but also about their relationships with their families. Perhaps it’s because their families don’t listen to the podcast (although I can’t imagine that’s the case), or that they just don’t mind saying exactly what they think. To be clear, they never say anything mean or awful about their families, but both are remarkably forthcoming about family members’ foibles, and the discomfort that can arise from them.
  • They ALWAYS ask the questions that I want them to ask! This is true both when they are talking with each other, and when they are interviewing other people. I recall one interview in particular when they were interviewing a woman who has spent a very long time living as an expat in Europe and South America, and who is now in her 30′s. At one point during the conversation, I was dying to know what her family thought of her choice to live abroad for so much of her life, and Katy (I’m sure in response to my telepathic pleadings- never mind that it was recorded several months ago!) promptly asked, “How does your family feel about this?”. I’m quite sure that not everyone could get away with asking some of these questions; don’t misunderstand me: neither Tiffany nor Katy or ever rude or intrusive but, in the hands of people less genuinely interested in their subjects, some questions could be interpreted that way.
  • Their guests are interesting. Thus far in my listening, we’ve heard from a student in his 20′s, children aged 8-13, a retired couple, a woman in her 30′s, and a woman in her 50′s. We’ve also heard from Derek, Katy’s husband. One guest who hasn’t shown up yet (and I am dying- DO YOU HEAR ME? DYING!), is Tiffany’s husband, Claudio. I really, really want to hear his perspective on what it’s like to be married to a foreigner. We’ve heard Tiffany’s point of view (during one episode, Katy asks Tiffany if she thinks it’s possible for people who don’t share the same native tongue to truly understand each other, particularly with regard to a relationship like marriage- I will cruelly leave you to hear her answer for yourself) as the “outsider”, and I would really like to know whether or not he views her as an outsider.*Do you see what this podcast does to you? After a while you become invested in the lives of two people whom you’ve never met. This is an incredible accomplishment in my opinion (though maybe it’s a common reaction, given the popularity of reality television though I think this is different), and is down to Katy and Tiffany themselves. They are nice people, with totally relatable foibles and flaws, and you come to like them so much and hope for wonderful things for them.
  • The expat experience rings true. Though my longest expat experience was only three months (I spent a semester in China as an undergrad), I frequently find myself nodding in agreement with the feelings of isolation, excitement, frustration, and wonder. I went to China knowing zero Chinese and quickly discovered that NOT being able to make yourself understood (particularly when one is considered- a-hem- somewhat eloquent in one’s native language) is one of the most frustrating things in the world. Despite that, I am someone who enjoys being set down in the middle of a place where I don’t look like anyone else, and don’t speak the language. It can be a bit scary, but it is also absolutely exhilarating.

The absolute best gift that my parents gave me (besides being incredibly decent people who loved me, obvs) was travel. My first trip abroad was to Austria, Germany, and Italy. My dad is retired military and, back in the day, retirees and their families could fly to Europe on military-chartered commercial planes for around $50/person. ( I’m brokenhearted that this is no longer a thing, as I think that we should give our citizens [military dependents and civilians] plentifully opportunities to get out of our huge, isolated country and see other parts of the world.) When I was 17, we went to England and Scotland, flying military charter to an Air Force base in Germany and catching a cargo plane to England. It was basically the coolest thing ever. I mean, seriously: I was like Indiana Jones in a floral sundress (*note: for many years when we traveled I thought of myself as India Jones- Henry’s cool, adventuring sister. This may or may not still be a thing. Shut up.).


So, yes: I really like this podcast, though it should have a warning label- something along the lines of “This podcast has been known to cause intense longing for travel/living abroad in its listeners. Proceed with caution”. I’m completely serious: The Bittersweet Life has re-awoken my wanderlust, which was effectively tamped down by having a baby and the exhaustion of the subsequent 6 & 1/2 years ;) But now, friends, now I’m rested and refreshed and ready to go. And my husband is alarmed… as he probably should be :)



Visit The Bittersweet Life’s webpage , and subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


Follow the hosts on Twitter: @katysewall & @thepinesofrome