This question was the topic of one of the final sessions of the PEN World Voices writers’ festival. I took the subway into Manhattan and found one of the few remaining seats at the Instituto Cervantes – a place I’d never heard of before, an Upper East Side home to an organization that promotes Spanish culture and language abroad.

The session featured a novelist from Argentinia and one from the Netherlands, in addition to New Yorker Lee Stringer (whose home was a tunnel beneath Grand Central Station for 12 years) and the ever-charming Alain de Botton, whose most recent book The Architecture of Happiness I have recently gobbled up during the research for my Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. His presentation, which featured a slideshow and had everyone in stitches, explored the ways in which the idea of “home” refers both to physical and psychological “space”.

Especially pungent was the odor of the man seated next to me. In addition to his body odor, he jiggled his legs incessantly and coughed and spluttered and cleared his phlegmy throat for the entire hour and a half of the session. Then he had the audacity to go up to the presenters after the session had ended. I wanted to warn them but was too desperate for fresh air, so I bid a hasty retreat. It’s a little bit sad to think that my smelly neighbor will be one of the things I remember most vividly about this otherwise wonderful session.

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