Of Roaming & Writing…

 Nancy Davis wades into Lake Bled in the former Yugoslavia circa 1962, during her time spent in Europe as a cryptographer for the State Department. (Photo: Courtesy Nancy Davis)

Nancy Davis’ Adventuresome Spirit Has Taken Her Around the Globe and Painted a Vivid ‘Human Experience’

For the last two and a half years, the internal affairs of the Falls Church News-Press were buoyed by the special mojo provided by Nancy Davis.

This accomplished author, counselor, philosopher and former Foreign Service officer did not seek high standing at the paper. She needed a job and the News-Press needed her for some rather menial receptionist and clerical work.

As she recalls, she stopped her funky little car in front of the old News-Press office, leapt out and grabbed a new edition of the paper, only to have the News-Press owner pull up behind her and bellow, “I hope you paid for that!” (The News-Press is a free distribution paper, of course).

Their friendship had begun when Davis was handling advertising placement for a local realtor years before. This encounter, however, brought Davis into the News-Press fold. Last June, her formal employment ended as she decided that she and her long-time partner, Lilli Vincenz, needed to hit the road on a series of trips and seminars.

But when the two returned for a visit at the News-Press’ annual open house last month, they were greeted with, “Welcome home!” In her usual fashion, Vincenz, an accomplished amateur violinist, brought her fiddle in the event an opportunity opened up for a jig or two.

Davis and Vincenz gained considerable notoriety in 2005 when a PBS-funded film, “The Gay Pioneers,” was aired nationwide and featured at a number of important gay history events. Black and white film of Vincenz being in some of the earliest public demonstrations on behalf of equality for gay people were included in the documentary, along with snips of recent interviews with both her and Davis.

Every year in January, the couple holds its own open house at their North Arlington home, where Vincenz plays and Davis rolls out some of her many fascinating short stories for a public reading.

Most of Davis’ stories are about her times in the former Yugoslavia or Egypt as a foreign service officer in the early 1960s. They’re mesmerizing. Her attention to details, such as facial characteristics, smells and moods, turns seemingly routine events into captivating accounts.

One particularly amusing story dealt with a routine ride in her old vehicle along a major road between Trieste and Belgrade. Her companion on the ride talked Davis into pulling off the road into a tiny village where the companion grew up. What followed were hours of revelry according to local custom with the girl’s in-laws and friends, culminated by the gift of a bottle of the uniquely Yugoslavian, pungent liquor, slivovitz.

As they took off, by now into the night, to return to Belgrade, they found the one or two gas stations along the route had closed. So they ran out of gas. With no prospect of help, Davis thought to sacrifice the slivovitz to the gas tank. Sure enough, it worked. The car limped home and was parked in the lot beneath the apartment building she lived in.

The next day, a neighbor came up to Davis remarking, “Your car must have been on a real bender last night, because I went into the parking lot and it absolutely wreaks of alcohol!”

Nancy Ruth Davis can’t stand to stay bored or unsatisfied with her lot in life for very long. “College was being a pain,” is the only explanation she feels is necessary to give for dropping out of her home-state school in Colorado and  flying across the country to Washington, D.C. to join the Foreign Service.

Davis spent six years working abroad with the Foreign Service as a cryptographer in cities such as London, Belgrade and Cairo. Davis has also published a children’s book, written for numerous publications, lived in a converted dairy farm in New Mexico, driven across the country once or twice, and came very close to getting detained on the Mexican side of the US-Mexican border. All that’s in addition to her two and a half years at the News-Press. 

“I didn’t know anything about the Foreign Service when I joined other than it had the word ‘foreign’ in it,” Davis recalled when asked why she joined.

Davis arrived in D.C. in 1958 via her first-ever plane ride. When she checked in with the U.S. State Department, she was given a very easy choice between career options. She could either become a secretary or a cryptographer.

After receiving her cryptography training on second hand Navy equipment, she left for her first assignment in the still cratered streets of London in October of 1958 and would remain there until August of 1960. She chose London as her first assignment because, she joked, “I wrongly believed that we spoke the same language.”

Her second assignment, the one which made the biggest impression on her and led to some very inspired writing, was a four-year stint in Belgrade, Yugoslovia in 1960.

She recalls falling in love with the city shortly after she stepped off the plane. “Belgrade had a feeling of somberness and poignancy that I found very appealing,” Davis recalls.

While not in a Third World country, per se, the average living conditions of the friends she made there were not good. But the citizens of Belgrade accepted their lot in life with a resolve that very much appealed to Davis.

“Yes, you had entire families living in one room. Yes, sometimes there wasn’t enough food to eat. But they weren’t beating their heads against the wall about it,” she recalls. Davis left Belgrade in late 1963, but her experiences there and her love for the city never left her.

Davis began writing short stories based on her experiences in Belgrade and the foreign service about three years ago. The short stories she has written about Belgrade are some of the most vivid you can find. They describe a place so foreign and mysterious, it almost seems fantastical.

She vividly describes smoky, dark, liquor-soaked cafés and bars, full of rich food and political intrigue, images of which linger in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.

One description from her Belgrade story, “Evening at the Skadaja” reads, “…we entered a world of red-orange flames and fireplaces; a world of warm, eager voices; the atmosphere alive with sweet onion and paprika and roasting meat.”

She went on to describe the music she heard as a “clear rippling melody from cimbalom strings, a Hungarian zither, accompanied by the husky voice of a Gypsy woman, singing in her native Russian.”

Davis returned to the U.S. in 1963 to live in New York City and receive special cryptography training from the United Nations. After that, she left for her third assignment, this time in Cairo later that spring, and would stay there until September of 1964.

In Cairo, Davis lived in the “Garden City” neighborhood of Cairo, and was happy to discover that the diversity there did not lead to the same racial turmoil as in her home country.

Davis recalls “the mix of many cultures, races, and skin colors was simply an enrichment of life.”

Her non-air-conditioned apartment was near a large mosque and through her open window she could hear the calls the prayer drifting over the neighborhood, a sound she recalls as “soothing, welcoming and all inclusive in that highly international neighborhood.”

It was also during this time that she felt the top of her head hit the “glass ceiling” that hung over the foreign service. When she was passed over for a promotion, she came to the annoying and unjust realization that she would never become a supervisor. She resigned in October of 1964 and drove to Mexico with a friend.

It was in Mexico that she began her writing career, working for an English language tourist magazine with other transplanted Americans.

She remained there a few years, but when her boss forgot to renew her work visa, she suddenly had two weeks to get north of the border before being arrested for illegal status and thrown in a Mexican prison.

Two weeks later, in January of 1965, Davis found herself at the border with all of her possessions and a sheepdog she’d had recently adopted.

“When the border officer looked at my papers, and then looked at the dog he became extremely angry, and wanted to know where the sheep was that I was trying to get across the border.”

Recalls Davis, “I managed to find a border officer who spoke English and he was able to explain that ‘sheep’ was a kind of dog, which was good, because I had only 25 more minutes before my work visa ran out, and I had no interest in a stay in a Mexican prison.”

She made it across the border with three minutes to spare.

Davis moved back to childhood hometown, Denver, got a job at a public relations firm, and got married to a man with four kids.

If this doesn’t seem like Davis’ style, you’re right. She describes her marriage as “interesting and tumultuous,” and also described the divorce four years later as “a birthday present to myself.”

 After a short time enjoying single life, living on a converted dairy farm in New Mexico, Nancy moved to Athens with a friend and began working for The Athenian, an offshoot publication of The New Yorker.

It was while she was with The Athenian that she got her first full-length piece published. Nancy returned to the U.S. when her father died in 1974, and drove her mom from Colorado to Florida so she could retire.

Nancy then took up residence in D.C. in 1975. She chose D.C., she says, because “when you work for the foreign service, D.C. becomes the U.S. city that you know best.”

In 1984 she met her partner of now 23 years, Lilli. Together they started the Community for Creative Self Development, a community for gays and gay-friendly people, and dedicated to the idea that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.”

When she compiled her notes into a workbook for the group, a friend encouraged her to  get it published. It was this workbook that ended up becoming her children’s book, “An Angel Named Promise,” which was published in August 2006.

When Nancy became frustrated with her job at a local realty company, she was offered a position at the News-Press in January of 2005.

“In addition to her competent and reliable contributions, Nancy helped maintain an especially congenial atmosphere that rubbed off on everyone. She had very good vibes,” says Nick Benton, News-Press owner and editor. “She will be missed.”