By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 19, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Gemma Tarlach has led a fascinating life. 

She worked in Munich as a chambermaid, went to culinary school in New York, got a Master’s in journalism from Madison and worked, traveled and / or lived in Las Vegas, Moscow, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Norway, New Zealand and Antarctica. During the winter.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Er, pun intended.) Tarlach has also published a book, worked as a pop culture writer and music critic and today is the associate editor for Discover Magazine, published by Kalmbach Publishing Co. in Waukesha.

Shall we keep going? OK ...

She is also the caregiver of three rescued animals, homeowner and cancer survivor, who never technically graduated high school. (And remember, she still earned a Master's degree from Madison.)

But despite all of Tarlach’s accomplishments, one of the most fascinating aspects of her life is that even though she was born in New Jersey and lived, worked and traveled all over the world, she picked Milwaukee to call home.

"Milwaukee is a happy medium of many things, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be manageable. And I love Wisconsin winters. I really do," she says.

In this latest installment of Milwaukee Talks, Tarlach shares the details of her adventuresome life. Where were you born and what else about your early years would you like to share?

Gemma Tarlach: I was born in New Jersey but, as for year, let's just say I'm a lot younger than Jon Bon Jovi but a lot older than Snooki. 

I definitely inherited my wanderlust from my grandfather – my mom's dad. As a teenager, he lied about his age to get into the Merchant Marine and see the world. Pretty much every summer he threw us into the car and drove in a new direction until we hit water. Sometimes it was the Jersey Shore or Long Island, other times it was California, Florida or Nova Scotia.

OMC: Where did you go to college?

GT: I went to Columbia, initially with plans to become an architect. I switched majors in junior year, however, studying comparative politics because I thought it would make it easier to land a travel-friendly job and, truth be told, because a required architecture studio class conflicted with practice time for the archery team.

OMC: Archery team?

GT: Yes, I was a member all four years of college. 

OMC: What did you do after college?

GT: I worked in Munich for a while as a chambermaid at a hotel and spent my money traveling on the weekends and days off. But eventually I worked for the State Department, which had me learn Russian and sent me to Moscow for two years as a consular officer. I spent my money and free time traveling – do you see a pattern? – including to several places I feel so fortunate to have seen, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Syria.

OMC: What was Syria like?

GT: Syria was one of the most beautiful and architecturally fascinating places I've visited, but even then, nearly 20 years ago, everywhere I went I saw signs of the regime's oppression of its citizens, its weirdly fostered cult of personality for Hafez al-Assad, who was still in power, and a deep unhappiness among the regular people, the shopkeepers, the bus drivers. Watching that country go up in flames over the past couple years has been heartbreaking.

OMC: So what did you do after Moscow?

GT: After Moscow, I was going to be sent to Belgrade, somewhere I did not want to go. So I quit and got my Master’s in journalism from UW-Madison on a fellowship. Writing has always been a part of my life, so I thought I'd try it professionally. 

My focus was on science journalism, which I chose largely because I liked sharks and volcanoes and dinosaurs and stuff, but I was hired at the Journal Sentinel soon after as entertainment reporter; I’d like to think because I'm entertaining. That was my introduction to Milwaukee, and the start of a bit of a love affair with the city.

Eventually I was promoted to pop music critic at the paper, but, to be honest, I was burnt out, both from trying to summon enthusiasm for a lot of music that was not "to my heart," as a French chef friend of mine would say, and from dealing with readers who took my reviews a little too seriously.

Every now and then I'll still run into someone who recognizes my name and wants to argue with me about some Matchbox Twenty review I wrote in 1998. Let it go, people. Just. Let. It. Go.

OMC: So, you quit the paper and then what?

GT: So I did what any normal person would do and sold my house, moved to New York and went to culinary school. No, really, it made sense. I like process, and that's what baking and pastry, the focus of my study, was all about. 

I needed a break from full-time journalism, though I continued to freelance, and wanted a job that would make it easy to travel and not just visit but live in exotic places. So I worked in Vegas, at 9,000 feet above sea level on the Continental Divide in Colorado, in a remote corner of New Zealand's South Island and, for 20 months, at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Each one was special, but Antarctica and New Zealand affected me deeply, especially the ice. I actually get a bit emotional talking about the ice a lot of the time. I'll leave it at that because I don't want to ruin my mascara.

OMC: You lived in Antarctica? What did you do there?

GT: I started in Antarctica as a baker during the summer season but loved it so much that I applied to stay through winter. The station population plummets from 1,000 to 1,200 in summer to about 150 in winter, so they only need one baker and she had already been hired. But I convinced them to let me stay as a cook through winter, so my first stint was 14 months. I fell in love with winter there and went back for a second six-month stint as a cook. People who've heard the stories keep telling me to write a book.

OMC: So what drew you back to Milwaukee?

GT: I loved being a nomad, but eventually, keeping your life in a storage unit and relying on friends to get your mail, drive you to and from the airport and give up their guest room whenever you're in town gets old. 

My nomad years were intense and interesting and I have no regrets. But after Antarctica, I headed to arctic Norway for another job, got there and realized no, this is not what I want. I want a garden again. I want a dog. I want to settle. So I came back to Milwaukee.

OMC: Out of all the exotic and fascinating places you’ve visited and lived, what makes Milwaukee home?

GT: Milwaukee has the greatest concentration of friends for me, interesting, decent people that I care deeply about and who have been wonderfully generous and supportive.

But I also think I appreciate Milwaukee differently than someone who was born and raised here. It's not a perfect city, but the quality of life and cost of living is terrific compared with other places I've lived. And I am utterly in love with Lake Michigan.

I lived in New York and that's a great city, but the congestion of people and traffic and noise got to me. I lived in Vegas and that was just a horror: everyone is hustling there in one way or another and the drivers are almost as bad as they were in Moscow. 

Milwaukee is a happy medium of many things, big enough to be interesting, small enough to be manageable. And I love Wisconsin winters. I really do.

OMC: You also returned to journalism. How has that been?

GT: It was a bit of a culture shock going back to journalism, but the job opportunity was right. Look Mom, I'm finally a science journalist! But seriously, while I miss having knives and a blowtorch at the ready in my workplace, I love science, and I love the intellectual challenge of going from writing a story on pandemic to editing another story on particle physics to interviewing someone about transhumanism all in one day, which has happened.

I'm a curious person, so I enjoy constantly learning.

OMC: Where do you still want to go?

GT: Iran, Mongolia and Afghanistan have been the top three picks on my travel list since I was about 10 years old. One day. And I also really want to swim with the Great White Sharks in False Bay, near Cape Town.

OMC: What are your 2014 resolutions?

GT: I don't make resolutions. I just do it.

OMC: What do you like to do when you’re not working?

GT: I write fiction, mostly fantasy and some historical. My novel "Plaguewalker" was published last year and I'm still getting royalties, especially from Europe, which is pretty cool. 

I bought a house near Tosa earlier this year so I'm in full HGTV makeover mode – albeit on an IKEA budget. In addition to the cat I adopted in February, I brought home a terrific puppy in August and another earlier this month. All of them came from MADACC, where I volunteer as time allows. I'm also involved in some of their event organizing, and I'd like to find time to do more. 

OMC: Are you married?

GT: I'm not married. I'm accepting applications but still waiting to find my Mr. Darcy. Ha!

OMC: What are three random things about you that you have not already shared?

GT: I'm technically a high school dropout. I left after junior year without a diploma because Columbia accepted me. Quitting high school was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I feel very fortunate to have had my mom's support. I think she saw that I was chafing at the bit to get on with my life.

I hate chocolate. A lot of people find this difficult to believe, but it tastes like cough syrup to me. When I was working in pastry kitchens and developing chocolate recipes, I'd get someone else to try it and tell me if they liked it. I was popular with the line cooks! Hating chocolate, or at least disliking it, is a fairly common trait among pastry cooks and chefs, at least based on my anecdotal observation.

When I'm stressed I watch "The Lord of the Rings" movies, sometimes over and over. Extended editions only, of course. Friends poke fun at this habit, but to me it makes perfect sense. When "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first one, came out in theaters, I had just finished months of chemotherapy and radiation following surgery for cancer, and was in that purgatory where you have to wait to see if the treatments worked. 

I remember waiting in line with my friend Julie to see the movie saying, "Man, I hope I'm alive to see the next two." Because those are the kind of thoughts you have when you have cancer. I think on some level they're tremendously comforting to me now because I did survive to see all three, and re-watching them is a reminder. 

Now they also remind me of my time in New Zealand. I lived and worked in Glenorchy, right in the thick of several "Lord of the Rings" filming locations and hiked or drove to dozens of others. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

OMC: You had cancer?

GT: Yes, I had Stage 2B breast cancer, no family history or major risk factors, diagnosed September 2000, and underwent surgery, chemo and radiation. I wasn't – and am still not – afraid of cancer. I think maybe it's because, I flatter myself, of my attempts at a Taoist, scholar-warrior mindset or, more likely, my science journalism background. The whole experience for me was like an interesting science experiment. My oncologist jokingly, I think, told me he didn't want any more journalists as patients because we asked too many questions.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.