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Cheuse Center grant helps student explore her roots through café culture

December 10, 2018   /   by Mary Lee Clark

Rachel Purdy spent two months in Eastern Europe to explore the idea of estrangement and culture through the prominent café culture. Photo provided.

When creative writing student and experienced traveler Rachel Purdy decided to write about her family roots in the Balkans, she knew there was no better way to get to know the area than to be there herself.  ​

Purdy is a seasoned traveler, having visited the continental United States and Alaska on a 5-year-long RV trip with her boyfriend. But the international trip became a reality because of a grant offered by the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center. The international research travel grants are awarded each summer to MFA creative writing students at Mason to cover travel and conduct on-the-ground research for creative writing projects.  ​

The grant took Purdy to Eastern Europe, specifically former Yugoslavian countries, for two months to explore the idea of estrangement and culture through the prominent café culture. She traveled through Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.​

"[Estrangement is] this idea of people that are very alike but are not able to have a relationship with each other,” said Purdy. “I saw that parallel in countries within the Balkans.”​

Purdy’s project idea comes from her grandfather, who was born in Belgrade, Serbia, before World War II, an event that prompted his parents to come to the United States. After her grandfather passed away, Purdy decided she wanted to explore her roots in Serbia. She explored estrangement in an area torn up by multiple wars, most recently the Yugoslav Wars, and how that mirrored estrangement in her own family. ​

She did this through café culture, which she said is very different than it is in the United States.  Coffee shops are a place for socializing, even with strangers. These were the places Purdy was able to connect with everyday people who, she said, were welcoming and usually willing to share their experiences. ​

"I started making small connections, and those were the people that put me in touch with other people. From there, I branched out,” said Purdy, who will write about her experience in the Balkans as part of her MFA thesis. ​

Purdy said that, in doing her research, she learned about the importance of patience. Early on she become discouraged about people not opening up until she met a man named Saša in Niš in Serbia.​

“As we sat at the cafe, several people walked by Saša to say hello, and a few of them updated him on different events in their lives,” said Purdy. “It was an opportune reminder that sometimes you have to let the story unfold, as much as you have to pay attention and ask questions.”​

In the few years that the Cheuse Center grant has existed, the center has sent five students to places like Brazil, France, the Balkans and Germany and will fund three more students to travel in the summer of 2019. ​

“These grants are part of the Cheuse Center's larger cultural diplomatic mission that uses creative writing as a means of international dialogue, exchange and understanding,” said Matthew Davis, founding director of the Cheuse Center. “Our underlying philosophy is that global literature has an integral part to play in the understanding of global communities.”​

This year’s Cheuse Center grant recipients also include Carol Mitchell, a first-year MFA student in fiction who traveled to her home country of Brazil to interview residents of Lebanese descent, and poetry student Tim Barzditis.