Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .

Karen Larsen

Breakeing the Limit

Read Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s review of Breaking the Limit

An interview by John Coyne
I do not know Karen Larsen (Bulgaria 1996–1998). I’ve never met Karen Larsen. I firstPrinter friendly version heard about her book when it was nominated for the best books by RPCV awards that Peace Corps Writers gives every year. Reading Breaking the Limit: One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through North America I was taken by her great spirit and love of adventure, and tracked her down — not that she was easy to find. Now, I want you to read my interview with her, but I don’t want you to read it unless you read it from beginning to end and no skipping ahead to get to the best parts. Karen is an amazing person and we are lucky to have her as one of our own. I have known a lot of RPCVs in my years of tracking Peace Corps writers. Karen Larson is not the best writer, as she might be the first to admit, but she is a fine woman, and that is proven page after page in her book as she tells of her ride from New Jersey to Alaska on her Harley-Davidson. And also you’ve got to love someone who when leaving graduate school and Princeton University on her bike knows just how to time the blasts from her Harley so the sound sets off the alarm systems on all the expensive cars parked on trendy Nassau Street. So read what we talked about over the winter and then go out and buy her book.
Where are you from, Karen?
I’m from Ontario, originally, a mining city called Sudbury. My Dad is a Danish immigrant and moved the family to America when he was accepted to graduate school in Boston. I grew up in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
And you went to college where?
The University of Maine in Orono. I have both a B.S. in Secondary Education and a B.A. in European History. When I completed my Peace Corps tour, I went directly into Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs where I earned an M.P.A in International Development.
What got you into the Peace Corps?
Those proverbial stories about influential high school social studies teachers are true. Some of them, anyway. Andre Joseph taught U.S. History at Concord-Carlisle High and it was in his classroom that I learned about Kennedy and the Peace Corps. The idea of service, of travel, of reckless immersion in a culture struck me as a purposeful thing to do, as well as a possibility for great and grand adventure. I never shook free of those ideas (although I modified them substantially after I actually joined the Peace Corps) and ten years after that high school classroom introduction I was on a plane to Bulgaria.
When was that?
In 1996.
     My primary assignment was as an English teacher in a language school in the small town of Cherven Bryag (Red Bank) in the north-western part of Bulgaria. My cohort and I had the dubious experience of arriving just before both the government and the economy imploded in the fall of 1996. As that particular set of social disasters unfolded I kept teaching but also morphed into community needs assessment and working with a couple of local orphanages and elderly groups on procuring basic support.
We haven’t interviewed any RPCV writer from Bulgaria. Tell us about life there as a Volunteer.
Shall we start with my home? I lived only a hundred yards from the Dr. Peter Beron School where I taught. My apartment was a one-room space with a kitchen alcove and a door fronted by heavy steel grate that had to be unlocked with a medieval-looking key. The building was of the Stalinist school of architecture; concrete, angular and forbidding, with untrapped drainage pipes that let the cockroaches in and left everything smelling vaguely of sewer gas in the summer. There was a broad window and narrow balcony however, which let in hazy light and the green smell of tiny garden plots below.
     On warm days the old people sat on the crumbling stairs outside, watching the goats and the children and the Roma women carrying bags of used clothing to the market. One of my colleagues lived with her husband and young son in a flat on the floor below mine. She and I would sit and smoke cigarettes together, our conversations half in English half in Bulgarian, the subjects that women everywhere share: family and health, hardship and employment, modern fashion, hopes for the future, jokes at the expense of men, where to find bread, our exhaustion and the vacations that we were too poor and too overworked to take.
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