The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: The highs, but also the lows, of the writing life

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong Shannon Young quit her day job a year ago to become a full-time writer. Here’s the latest entry in her expat writer’s diary.

Dear Displaced Diary,

As you’ve no doubt noticed over these many months, most of my entries have focused on the good things happening in my life as a writer. I prefer to take an optimistic view of my progress. But there are hard days, too—when I don’t see the results I’d like or accomplish as much as I want. On such days, uncertainty and frustration overwhelm the logic telling me I’m on the right track. Yesterday was an especially low day, so this month I want to share with you a sense of the ups and downs of the expat writer’s day-to-day existence—take you on a kind of roller coaster ride.

One of the worst lows: Comparisonitis

I try not to obsess over how other people’s books are selling (except for research purposes), but the desire to look at a comparable book’s sales rank and wonder why mine isn’t doing as well can creep in like an evil sprite. That can lead to insecurity and jealousy over things that are 100% out of my control.

That way lies madness!

The flip side of comparisonitis is reading a great book and feeling like I’ll never be able to write something as good. I’ll say to myself: “Of course they’re selling better than I am! Their book is gripping and sexy and funny and I can’t put it down! Why can’t I do that!”

Borders in Ann Arbor, by Joanna Poe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Borders in Ann Arbor, by Joanna Poe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

How I deal with it: The old adage about the overnight success that takes ten years is absolutely true. Behind every book that takes off like a shot there’s a writer who has put in the time, sweat, and tears to get to that tipping point. I have to remind myself, sometimes on a daily basis, that I’m putting in the work now that will hopefully pay off in a big way later (both from a sales perspective and a skill perspective). This is a craft, and I am still an apprentice in many ways. I also need to remind myself to focus exclusively on the things I can control, such as writing the best books I possibly can—and occasionally stepping away from the Internet.

One of the best highs: Fans!

Yes, I officially have fans. This month I received my first fan letter for the Jordan Rivet books from someone who is in no way connected with me or anyone I know. She wrote me again this week to tell me that she finished Burnt Sea and loved it!

While I was in Arizona, I also got to meet up with two different readers who are friends with my mom (one read Seabound before I ever met her, the second I’ve known for many years). One told me she felt star struck to be having coffee with me. The other had highlighted her favorite passages from Burnt Sea and shared them over Chipotle. To hear that she enjoyed these sentences I’d been poring over for months was incredibly gratifying. Both women made me feel great about my work—and that kind of encouragement can’t be understated, especially on the low days.

Jodan Rivet fans

Stateside Jordan Rivet fans Trine and Julie (photos supplied).

Another low: Rejection

I’ve chosen the indie-publishing road for my Jordan Rivet books, and it comes with its own share of rejection. There are a few promotion sites that are real heavy hitters. I’ve been accepted by some of the big ones, but rejected by the biggest of all (Bookbub). Sometimes this is just a matter of scheduling, but it still stings.

Much of my work as Shannon Young is not self-published, though. I’ve been waiting for a response on a particular piece for six months. This week I finally got an answer: no. It’s time to reassess and decide whether I want to release this particular work as is or develop it into a longer project.

Rejection Mug

Photo credit: “Journal of Universal Rejection” coffee mug, by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

How I deal with it: Even though six months have elapsed since I submitted the piece, I’m realizing I may need to step away from it a bit longer before I can make a clear-eyed decision. There are a lot of emotions tied up in rejection, and I need to make an intelligent decision about whether to move on, keep trying, or do something differently. That takes time and perspective.

A kind of high: Not reading reviews!

This high isn’t what you might guess. The reviews for my work have generally been positive, but for me the real triumph is that I’ve finally gotten to a place where I no longer read my reviews. I’ve come to realize that, at the end of the day, reviews exist for readers, not for writers. They are there to help other people decide whether or not they’ll like a book and to give the reviewers a chance to express their thoughts about it. None of that has anything to do with the author.

If I do read my reviews—including positive ones—here’s what happens: I fixate on the critiques. I can’t help it. I’m an optimistic person, possibly confident to a fault, yet it’s always the critiques I remember. And you know what, diary? There’s absolutely nothing I can do to fix things at that point. The book is done and dusted. I can’t change it. So why obsess over the one thing that didn’t work for a reader who enjoyed the book as a whole?

(Note: I follow my writers’ groups’ critiques like gospel. I’m always trying to improve my work, but when a book is finished and published that no longer applies.)

Thus reading reviews is a recipe for utterly futile stress. So while I am incredibly thankful for people who take the time to write reviews (and they’re essential for the success of a book), I won’t read them. Instead, I’ll focus on making every book better than the last.

Yet another low: Missed deadlines

I’ve mentioned before that I like to make checklists and to-do lists for myself. Crossing off items on time or early never fails to make me happy. On the other hand, if I miss my deadlines it can be equally frustrating.

Case in point: my new part-time teaching job starts on October 5th. The timing of the classes means I’ll have to rework my writing schedule to stay productive. I wanted to finish the final book in the Seabound Chronicles before then. My goal was to finish the current draft on Friday. Well, on Monday the book was 80,000 words. By Friday, it had grown to 86,000 words, but I had only reached the 51,000-word mark in my edit. Adding all those scenes took a lot more time and thought than anticipated, so now I probably won’t finish the draft until Thursday at the earliest. This leaves me with less buffer time than I had hoped before the Great Schedule Shuffle begins.

Photo credit: Pixabay.

Photo credit: Pixabay.

How I deal with it: Like always, I need to glue myself to my chair and just get on with it! The book will be finished when it’s finished, and I’m not going to put out a half-baked project (or even 80% baked). The worst thing I could do would be to let frustration or impatience paralyze me.

The knack of staying on an even keel

This emotional rollercoaster is normal for a full-time writer. It’s important not to let either extreme get in the way of my work. The key is to accept the reality of the lows and to figure out ways to deal with them so as not to become derailed.

Thank you, Displaced Diary, for giving me a chance to process. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get the day turned around and become productive.


Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet

* * *

Shannon, thank you for giving us such a clear window onto the highs and lows you’ve experienced as a full-time writer. TBH, it brings me back to the days when I was a graduate student in the UK and how frustrated I felt on the days when my thesis-writing wasn’t going well (or at all). When you have to keep producing page after page, you can become very isolated, and you’re already feeling somewhat isolated to begin with as an expat. It’s great you have found such a supportive writers’ community in Hong Kong. You also seem to have a much better ability than I did at the same age, to trust in the process! Readers who are also writers, can you relate to Shannon’s vacillating emotions? Please share your own experiences in the comments. ~ML

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WORLD OF WORDS: There’s a word for that homesickness that grips expats and overseas travelers, and it’s French!

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out at the start of this month with She Writes Press, recounts a time during her travels in France when she and her husband felt suddenly out of place and full of longing for home. Ironically, however, the most apt expression she could think of to describe this feeling was French!

They’re inevitable. Those days that occasionally, and sometimes from out of nowhere, invade the life of a long-term international traveler or expat. You miss home, you’re a stranger in an alien place, you’re gripped by le cafard.

While French has an expression for homesickness (mal du pays), I prefer the other term, le cafard, to describe this dark visitor. It literally means “the cockroach”.


Photo credits: Alone In The Dark, Nobody Waiting, by Môsieur J.; (inset) Gaspard le cafard, by InOutPeaceProject. Both images via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The creepy cockroach of homesickness

Seven weeks into our year of living in Europe, homesickness hit and hit hard. My husband, Joe, and I were in southwestern France. The fall weather had turned decidedly cold under steely gray skies and thick cloud cover—never good for lifting one’s spirits. Though we never imagined our adventure abroad would be daily champagne and constant merriment, we didn’t expect the blues to make their appearance so soon.

Exploring endless desolate, medieval stone hamlets had darkened our mood. Everything had been touched not only by the savagery of the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English in the 14th and 15th centuries but also by the 13th-century Cathar Crusade.

Prior to leaving for Europe, I’d read extensively about the Cathars and decided that we had to visit the region in which this shameful yet fascinating period of history took place.

The bloodthirsty military campaign of the pope, ironically named Innocent III, to eliminate the dualist offshoot of Catholicism in Languedoc-Roussillon was conducted with abandon against the heretics. No one was spared—men, women, children, and the elderly were all slaughtered. And when Catholics refused to give up their Cathar neighbors, one religious leader (a monk, no less) famously declared: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

In a sunnier clime, this history might have been remote and intriguing. But against a backdrop of unrelenting gray with no access to the Internet, it left us feeling fogged in and low. Very low. After visiting so many places that witnessed sieges, starvation, plagues, pestilence, and butchery, even the cheeriest of souls would have succumbed to its grip.

Cathar Crusade

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Pope Innocent III wearing a Y-shaped pallium, by unknown 13th-century artist; “Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto da fe” (detail), by Pedro Berruguete; Expulsion of the inhabitants from Carcassone in 1209, taken from the manuscript Grandes Chroniques de France. All images via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a bug that thrives in the dark—and in the Dark Ages!

Melancholia, tinged with some serious mal du pays, reared its ugly head without warning. Perhaps we’d had our fill of cold, antiquated spaces and lonely, abandoned stone villages. Or perhaps the total absence of others to provide even a bit of people-watching diversion had brought us down. But maybe we were just in a trough of the normal vicissitudes of travel.

To put it simply, we missed our children and we missed our country—we’d come down with a serious case of le cafard.

Despite knowing that immersing ourselves in the brutal extinction of the Cathars might not be what we needed to improve our dispositions, we plowed ahead toward our next destination: Caunes-Minervois, just north of Carcassonne. On the way, we stopped and hiked the steep Cathar hill town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, where the region’s alleged heretics had taken refuge, and took a long midday break for a sunny, outdoor lunch in Albi (home of Toulouse-Lautrec), with its austere, imposing redbrick cathedral of Sainte-Cécile, unlike any other church in the world. We noted that the cylindrical exterior of its nave looked like a space shuttle ready for launch. Sainte-Cécile was built after the Cathars were wiped out as a visible reminder to those who might be thinking of defying Rome not to forget who was in charge.

Sainte-Cécile Cathedrale

Photo credit: Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi, vue de la rive opposée du Tarn, by Jean-Christophe BENOIST via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Back on the road, we drove farther south into the Montagne Noire to our ultimate destination: the constricted streets of Caunes-Minervois, where our Internet-enabled hotel awaited. It had been over a week since we’d communicated with our children, and we were lost in reverie about what we would learn when we fired up our laptops. Our son had had an interview the last time we spoke. Did he get the job? we wondered. Our daughter was coming down with a cold. Was she feeling better? Did my latest Amex payment process, and was the house we hoped to rent in Spain still available?

Just can’t get rid of it…

Our home for the next three nights was the Hôtel d’Alibert, an age-old townhome in the heart of the medieval quarter. The affable but quirky owner (you cannot arrive at the hotel between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. because he is napping—it says so right on the door) lets us in through the French doors of the hotel’s restaurant at just after five. (The front portal remained inexplicably locked all day.)

The coda to our arrival in Caunes-Minervois was this: “Yes, the hotel has free Wi-Fi,” the proprietor confirmed, “but I’m afraid it’s not working; there have been problems.”

Wifi problems at Hotel dAlibert

Photo credit: Hôtel d’Alibert à Caunes-Minervois, by Gaël Gendrotvia Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

We were enraged and on the verge of tears. Here we were in yet another deserted town with no means to connect. We dragged our devastated spirits up the spiral stone stairway to our room and dropped our luggage. Le cafard attacked with a vengeance. For the rest of the evening, in a fit of pique, we seriously contemplated the possibility of returning home—of giving up on this gap year business—but finally agreed that all would be better in the morning.

After our night of frustration and reflection, the morning light bolstered our resolve to rally.

* * *

Now back stateside, I still refer to a bout with the blues as le cafard. It just seems so perfect a term. How do other languages express this feeling of profound melancholia? Are there expressions in other languages as accurate as the French?

* * *

Thank you, Marianne! How well you’ve described, with the help of that vivid French metaphor, the sense of alienation that at some point or another plagues all of us who venture beyond borders to travel or live. The word we use on this site, “displaced”, simply isn’t strong enough! Readers, do you have any suggestions for words or sayings in other languages that can convey these feelings? Do let us know in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Back in Britain, I can’t find a strong cup of black tea to save my constitution

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat—and now repat!—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share, this time about England’s favo(u)rite drink.

“I’m not doing this again if you can’t stop going on about the tea,” declared my husband with a generous dose of irritation.

“But, really, it’s terrible,” I said. I couldn’t stop myself, you see, and his outrage was by now fully stirred.

“Okay, I’m leaving, that’s it.” He got up and headed for the door.

So ended our little tea break experiment.

Now that we have returned to England, my husband is working a great deal at home. It was my idea that, since he is talking to people around the world a lot in the evenings, we take a tea break together during the quieter mornings.

Though we are living in rural South Somerset, there are plenty of places we can choose. Our local pub does morning coffee and afternoon tea, with scones if you please. And there are little tea shops and cafes scattered around neighbouring villages.

I was ready to enjoy myself sampling them all.

Only now it seems I will do so alone, or not at all.

Food, glorious food! Sandwiches, cakes, full breakfasts…

Many of these places are serving wonderful sandwiches on hand sliced granary or flavourful white, chock full of local hams, cheeses, sausages and bacon.

Homemade cakes, too, are the order of the day.

Also noteworthy is how many of our local establishments realizing the potential in serving early breakfasts to those on their way to work. No longer is a “full English” only to be found in hotels or transport cafes, now you can enjoy one on shabby chic china while sitting at a distressed French provençal style table on a Cath Kidston cushion. You find people of all professions—from drivers to office workers, farmers to solicitors.

Breakers sandwiches cakes oh my

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Georgian Tearoom, Topsham, by BazzaDaRambler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); All-day yummy English breakfast via Pixabay; High tea for two at Tallula’s Tearooms, by Jessica Spengler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

It’s a lovely thing, but this brings me back to the tea. Surely, sandwiches, cakes—and now bacon-and-eggs with their many accompaniments—demand hot and strong tea? My husband believes I am the one out of step in being so unhappy with a spineless brew. But I cannot believe, I just cannot. What has happened to my compatriots in the years I have been away? Why are we accepting such mean servings of tea in our pots—and paying for it, too? Where is our backbone, our firm upper lip?

All I want is a good cup of spine-bracing black tea!

Keep calm and drink strong tea

Photo credits: Keep calm and drink tea! by Graham Hills; English Breakfast Tea, by Mark Hillary—both images via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Nowadays, instead of getting a nice pot of tea, we are offered a menu of teas: green ones, black ones, Chinese, Indian… We are told that these are special and tend to feel a little uneasy about demanding a little more of them. Perhaps two teabags in a pot is a little greedy, gross even.

There is, of course, a place for different tea from different places made with different temperatures of water and intended to be less bodied and more fragrant that the black teas I am primarily talking of. And the English are very interested in food and drink from far flung places and get much pleasure from experimenting with it.

But surely that doesn’t mean that we should allow our own food culture to be degraded?!

I’ve been away too long to know when the current tea culture sprung up, but to me it seems a little awkward. Extensive menus with flowery language makes me uncomfortable, and certain paraphernalia seems to try just too hard—muslin muslin tea bag with a stick instead of a string anyone?

Give me loose leaves and a little tea strainer any day! I truly believe, that as free chickens give better eggs, liberated leaves will give us happy tea. Leaves need space to develop. We must take time to give our tea leaves the correct environment to do their work.

Give Me a Tea Strainer Any Day

Photo credit: Straining, by Dave Crosby via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Americanization of British tea culture

What bothers me most is the uncomfortable realization that all this fancy talk and tea hides the truth that the American way has for some incomprehensible reason, taken over our own.

How have we fallen for this? America simply is not a tea-drinking culture.

How well I remember my first pot of American university tea. Tea warmed in the coffee maker and a cheap tea bag removed from its individual yellow paper back and hopefully dunked in the water and dangled in the vain hope it would tint and flavour the water.

Except for the presence of a spotty badly dressed student, tea is now made like this worldwide—even in Britain. We, too, are making tea like an 18-year-old American student whose only electrical appliance is a cheap coffee maker.

Interestingly, the only person I knew in my year at college in America did a fine job with a tea bag, but she knew well the need for a quick addition of boiling water. When I discovered her father was from Yorkshire, it all began to make sense—particularly her deft “mashing” technique with the back of a spoon. You see, a tea bag can be rescued if you remain mindful of the important things.

For the record, here’s what works (and why)

For me the recipe for a fine cup of tea was, and still is, a spoonful of tea leaves per person and one for the warmed pot. Onto this would be poured, boiling water, boiling. The pot would be lidded so it could be covered and left for a good five minutes before pouring.

The addition of milk and sugar is a personal thing, but the tea itself has to be strong, with a deep colour—and body.

Aunties Tea Shop Menu

Photo credit: Auntie Eileen’s Tea Shop, by Duncan Hall via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Back here in the England of 2015, cafes and hotels seem to think it elegant to offer our tea in a gimmicky and deconstructed manner. A pot of hot water and a paper-wrapped tea bag on a saucer. But in all that show the importance of boiling water is lost. Bring it quickly to the boil, warm the pot and then use it. Don’t boil and re-boil or boil for protracted period of time—but do make sure it is boiled and recently so.

While I’m in full flow, I’d like to add a quick grumble about the tea bags and strings. Why are these so often twisted around the handle of the pot? First, the leaves are confined to a bag then the bag itself is prevented from moving freely.

How in all of this can the tea properly infuse? It can’t.

A “No More Tea Bags” Manifesto

Since my husband has long since taken refuge from this rant, let me finally call for an end to the tea bag, particularly the irritatingly trendy ones, along with kettles that boil. Let me also call for a generous amount of tea in the pot.

Let’s say goodbye to tea that looks as though it has had a fright and welcome back to the kind of tea you need when you have had a nasty shock or need a comforting and strong arm, which happens to all of us at some point…

Call for an end to teabags

Photo credit: Last of Mom’s Tea, by Alan Levine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Can you relate to Joanna’s disappointment at finding England’s tea a shadow of its former self? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The 5 top tools for handling the culture shock roller coaster

Photo credits: HE Rybol in Germany; book cover art (both supplied).

Photo credits: HE Rybol in Germany; book cover art (both supplied).

For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol presents some of the material from her book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. For those who are new to her column, H.E. is the product of a German dad and a French mom. She was raised as a Third Culture Kid and has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. She currently resides in Luxembourg.

Hello, Displaced Nationers. This month I want to take you into the (sometimes too rapidly beating) heart of culture shock.

As those of you who have experienced it will know, culture shock is about a series of ups and downs. On the down side, a traveler may feel:

  • alienated
  • anxious
  • disconnected
  • nervous
  • vulnerable

On the up side, they may feel:

  • curious
  • excited
  • free
  • happy
  • fully alive

If you are a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that for the past few months I’ve been quizzing expats about their experiences with culture shock so that I can add to, as well as sharpen, the tools for easing the condition that I’ve collected in my so-called culture shock toolbox.

This month I’m going to share a few ideas that you can find in my book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide; but first let’s do something to put us into a culture-shocked state of mind. To that end, I’ve devised a quiz based on one of my own experiences.

In fact, what happened was that I continued helping until another Singaporean man walked by and said, in a rough tone: “Only a foreigner would do that.” He pressed his palms together, bowed slightly, and thanked me. I could see my helping was making the man with the flyers really uncomfortable, so I stayed just a little longer and then, wishing him good luck and smiling kindly (which he probably didn’t see as he barely looked at me!), left. Later I asked my local friends to help me interpret this rather strange (to me) encounter. They told me Singaporeans are cautious and tend to mind their own business. Is that because of they live in a nanny state? Maybe, maybe not…

Photo credit: Marina Bay Shoppes, Singapore, by David Jones[] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[].

Photo credit: Marina Bay Shoppes, Singapore, by David Jones via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Raw…but exhilarating!

When we go into culture shock, we are in free fall. Having exited from our comfort zone, we are stripped straight down to our core. Oftentimes we lose confidence in our ability to meet the most basic needs: What do I eat? Where do I sleep?  Who do I connect with? Where do I belong? Will I be safe?

Cognitive dissonance is a big part of the problem. Our ideas and the reality we find sur place don’t match—which can feel threatening.

But leaving our comfort zone also propels us into a moment of accelerated growth. As we slowly begin to make sense of all the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures—and interactions with others—we expand our minds to incorporate new perspectives. There is potential for us to learn compassion, kindness and gratitude. The experience may feel raw—but it can also be exhilarating.

Photo credit: Roller coaster via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Legoland roller coaster in Denmark,via Pixabay.

Some of you readers should know me well enough by now that you can predict the next step: I can hardly wait to open my toolbox and offer you some tips for achieving this potential for growth.

5 tools for handling the culture shock roller coaster:

1. Consider the benefits: The term “culture shock” often evokes negative connotations. But let’s turn that on its head and pretend for a moment we don’t need a toolbox. Simply ask yourself:

How have challenging cultural transitions positively impacted my life?

2. Use food as an icebreaker: Food is a great way to learn about a new country and connect with people over a shared need. Say, how about getting out those cooking tools? :)

3. Communicate: “Please”, “thank you”, and a smile go a long way in someone else’s culture. Learn some basic phrases in the new language before you take off. For sure, a small phrase book, pocket dictionary or app ought to be in that toolbox. While you won’t end up having an in-depth conversation about political or social issues right away, at least you’ve made a start. Also, given that most communication is nonverbal, don’t be afraid to use your hands and feet—always fun no matter how clumsy it might feel! Find out about body language. What’s the polite way to hail a cab? Beckon someone to come over? Is it rude or polite to look someone directly in the eyes? Observe.

4. Slow down: Treat the fact that you are entering a new culture as an opportunity to slow down and take it easy. Take time to adapt and go of any preconceptions. Think of this tool as a pressure valve: open it up and let go all of that stress and pressure out. Don’t force yourself to visit as many sights as you can—even if you feel obliged to do so. The point is to enjoy yourself, isn’t it? Allow yourself time to fully experience this transition.

5. Practice the art of being grateful: Seeing life from a different perspective is a wonderful way to learn to appreciate what we have been given, on the road as well as in the home we’ve left behind. Here are some of the things I’ve become grateful for while traveling:
• hot water
• clean water
• a bed
• access to fresh food
• restrooms
Mostly, though, I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, conversations I had with people I met along the way, friends I made, lessons I learned—and the privilege of having had the opportunity to experience all this in the first place. As often as possible, use the tools you have at hand to open your mind to the good things that surround you.

* * *

Readers, I hope this has you “fixed” until next month. Until then. Prost! Santé!

Editor’s Note: The above post was adapted from Chapter 1 of H.E. Rybol’s Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. It is followed by six chapters full of tips:
1. How to deal with craving comfort
2. How to process new information
3. How to cope without autopilot
4. How to deal with difficult situations
5. How to deal with alienation
6. How to unite both worlds within yourself

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

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WONDERLANDED: The Girl in the Mirror–from “Beautiful Affliction,” by expat writer Lene Fogelberg

Lene thru the looking glass

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Lene Fogelberg author photo (supplied); “Alice through the Looking Glass”, Guildford, by Colin Smith via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0); icu 2, by Jo Naylo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A couple of days ago we were Wonderlanded with the award-winning Swedish poet Lene Fogelberg, who is now an expat and a writer. This post, which I’ve titled “The Girl in the Mirror,” is an excerpt from Chapter 44 of Lene’s newly published memoir, Beautiful Affliction. It describes the moment when Lene was staring into a mirror in a hospital room having removed all her clothes in preparation for emergency open-heart surgery. (As those who read her interview will know, she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect shortly after her arrival with her family on the East Coast of the United States, and given only a week to live unless she had medical intervention.)

Unlike Alice, however, Lene has little desire to step through the looking-glass without knowing whether she will end up queen of her own heart…

* * *

IT IS A SMALL ROOM. A toilet. A sink. A soap and disinfectant dispenser on the wall. A single lamp over the mirror. A pale face. Is this me? These eyes, small blood vessels, black pupils dilated. I have nowhere to run. The door is locked and there is no window where I could crawl out, and even if there had been one, I would force myself to stay.

Everything. She said everything.

My shoes. Into the bag. Sweatpants. On top of my shoes. Sweater next. Fold. Into the bag. I’m getting dizzy bending over and getting up, but I have to do this. Slowly. T-shirt. Bra. Underpants. Socks.

Who will open this bag, take out these clothes, unfold them? The floor is cold under my feet.
No jewelry. No rings, no necklace. Nothing to keep my hair from my face. Just skin.

The girl in the mirror is shaking and fighting back tears and her eyes tell me: Do not look away do not dare look away you have to see this. Her chest swelling and shrinking, narrow shoulders, purple nipples, bluish skin stretched over her ribs.

It was all just pretend, she says, the roles you played, the costumes you wore. This is the real you.

Here is my body. Which I have fought and pleaded with and commanded and cared for and decorated and dressed and undressed and loved and hated. Here it is. Pale and thin. And yet it has been heavy, so heavy to carry. In a way it would be a relief to finally step out of it, fold it, and put it in a coffin.

But in these eyes I can see Ingrid and Stina dancing, and in these hands I can feel Anders’s touch, and on this forehead I can feel him stroking me gently, and in this scalp I can feel the pull of my mother braiding my hair, and on these shoulders I can feel the weight of my dad’s arm telling me he loves me without using words. They are all there; my body remembers them, all the memories written on my skin and in every movement.

My body remembers them

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Getting ready to go out, by Lars Ploughmann via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); release via pixabay; children’s dance via pixabay; Hans via pixabay.

There. My skin is soft under my fingers, will be soft under the scalpel. But my ribs are hard, resisting the line I’m drawing, the curve, showing the way to my heart.

Is this how it will end?

Can she be the queen of hearts

Photo credits; Heart via Pixabay; Red Queen of Hearts, by Suzanne Schroeter via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I have done everything they told me. Followed the instructions. But this is the point where that’s not enough. It has to be my own decision. It has to be me reaching for the robe. Me putting it on. Me reaching for the bag. Me looking into the mirror one last time.

The girl in the mirror is staring at me, pleading, please don’t make me.

Is this really happening? Or am I down in the corner, my head in my hands, refusing to make this decision? Crying that it is not fair, it is not fair.

Please, please, don’t make me.

There, there.

Please, don’t.

There is no other way. You know it.

And the girl in the mirror is silent. And she looks away.

The doorknob is cold in my hand.



I open the door.

Cold doorknob

Open the door, by Hernán Piñera via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Excerpt from Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir, by Lene Fogelberg

* * *

Thank you so much, Lene! I find it extraordinary that you can write so poetically about your adventure of stepping through such a macabre looking-glass and confronting the “real you”. Your powers of self-observation make me think of Alice’s declaration:

I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

Except Alice was a timid young woman, whereas you write from your heart about your heart. As you put it in a recent tweet:

There is no shortcut when you write from your heart. You drill through every layer protecting your innermost secrets.


Readers, what do you think? Has this excerpt from Lene’s book moved you, and made you want to read more? Beautiful Affliction, published by She Writes Press, is now available from Amazon or Good Reads. You can also visit Lene’s author site, whee she keeps a blog, and/or stay social by following her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And of course you can also express appreciation for Lene in the comments below. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Wonderlanded with Lene Fogelberg, award-winning poet, writer, and double open-heart surgery survivor

There’s something from Alice in Lene Fogelberg’s story. Photo credits (clockwise, from top left): NecoZAlenky (original Czech film poster for Something from Alice) via Wikimedia Commons; Lene Fogelberg author photo (supplied); operating room via Pixabay.

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
the hole with Lene Fogelberg, a Swede who has lived in quite a few places but right now can be found in Jakarta, Indonesia.

With her long red hair and blue eyes, she looks a little like a Swedish Alice. What’s more, her biography of her early years is not dissimilar to that of Alice Liddell, the muse behind the Lewis Carroll story. Growing up in a small town by the sea, Lene was full of curiosity about the wider world and also in love with words. Describing her youth in a recent guest blog post, Lene says that for her,

written words danced lightly as feathers on the page. I loved to read and made weekly visits to our small town library, the bicycle ride home always wobbly with the heavy pile of books on the rack.

But while similarities are rife to Carroll’s Alice, the “wonderlanded” story Lene lived as an adult in fact comes closer to Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s surrealistic interpretation in his 1988 film, Něco z Alenky.

Něco z Alenky means “something from Alice,” and Lene ended up taking something from Alice’s story when, after moving to the United States with her husband and children, she found herself being wheeled through a rabbit warren of hospital rooms into an operating theatre. As in Švankmajer’s film, she was in a bizarre dream rather than a classic fairy tale.

Strangely, from the time she was young Lene had suspected there was something wrong with her heart. She even harbored a not-so-secret fear of dying young, trying to make the most of each moment. But Swedish doctors repeatedly dismissed her concerns, treating her like a hypochondriac.

And then, it happened: her worst nightmare came true. Shortly after arriving in America she went to have a physical so she could get an American driver’s license—and the American woman doctor informed her she had a congenital heart condition and only a week to live.

Lene survived two emergency open-heart surgeries to tell her story: quite literally! Her memoir (and first book), Beautiful Affliction, is out this week from She Writes Press. Until now, Lene had written in Swedish, mostly poetry, for which she has won some awards. But even though she chose to write her memoir in English, she retains her poetic style, as we will see later in the week when we publish a short book excerpt.

But before that happens, let’s have Lene will take us down into her rather harrowing rabbit hole. True, she’s had some reprieve since since recovering from her surgeries and moving to Jakarta—but only some, as Jakarta is the kind of place where you have to take your life into your own hands to cross the street. But I’m getting ahead of the story—over to Lene!

* * *

Lene Fogelberg: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Just to give you a little more of my background: I grew up in the south of Sweden, in a small town by the ocean. As ML says, I often stood looking out over the ocean following the waves in my imagination, wondering about all the exciting places in this world. In my youth I spent a couple of summers in France studying French and falling in love with this beautiful country.

As newlyweds my husband and I moved to Germany as students for a year, where I learned the language and took care of our newborn baby (just three months old when we arrived). After Germany, we moved back to Sweden and stayed there until my husband’s employer offered him a position in the United States. We moved to a small town outside of Philadelphia, called Radnor. That became the scene of my life-threatening health crisis. How it erupted and played out is the topic of my book, which, as ML mentioned, came out this week.

We spent a year and a half in the United States in total and then moved back to Sweden for a couple of years. Nearly four years ago we relocated to Jakarta, but in December we will be moving again: to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Stop this moment, I tell you!” But [Alice] went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears…

After moving to the US there was a huge pool of tears because of the drama that unfolded in the weeks following the transition. My husband and I had to have physicals prior to getting our American driver’s licenses, and as soon as the doctor put the stethoscope to my chest she reacted to the sound of my heart. It turned out I had a fatal congenital heart disease and that I’d lived longer with this disease than anyone the US doctors had ever met.

Beautiful Affliction story

As Lene attests in her newly published memoir, her “rabbit-hole” experience was full of heart, tears and physical drama. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Front and back cover art for Lene’s book (supplied); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustration by Milo Winter (1916), via Wikimedia Commons; The White Rabbit’s House, by Kurt Bauschardt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

[S]he felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?”

The events that unfolded are covered in my book Beautiful Affliction, which is a crazy story, full of heart and physical drama, not unlike Alice’s own confrontations with her changing body.

“Where should I go?” –Alice. “That depends on where you want to end up.” –The Cheshire Cat

Although my physical crisis was great, Jakarta has been one of the biggest challenges in a “wonderland” sense. The city is chaotic, with heavy traffic that is always jammed, making it difficult to navigate. I was shell-shocked for the first six months.

“Oh, I beg your pardon!” [Alice] exclaimed in a tone of great dismay…

Here in Jakarta where the population is mostly Muslim I try not to show too much skin. I wear clothes with sleeves and never skirts shorter than the knees.

skirt and shoes Alice in Wonderland

Photo credit: Alice shoes, by Shimelle Laine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see, a dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry.”

Greeting people here in Indonesia can be a minefield. The safest bet is to put my hands together and say, “Namaste.”

“There’s certainly too much pepper in that soup!” Alice said to herself, as well as she could for sneezing.

I love nasi goreng and all the Indonesian dishes—but without the chili, which is too spicy for me.

Nasi Goreng Hold the Chili

Photo credits: Nasi goreng (fried rice), by Tracy Hunter; (inset) Nothing is real, nibble and drink me…, by Wonderlane. Both images via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would invite my family and friends from Sweden and serve all the delicious fruit that can be found here in Indonesia. I know how you can long for sunshine during the long, dark Swedish winters and I would love to give them all a vacation full of sunshine and fruit smoothies.

Tropical Tea Party

Photo credits: A Swedish Mad Hatter [my description], by Rodrigo Parás via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Fruit stall in Bali, by Midori via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

“Well!” thought Alice to herself. “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs!”

I am getting more and more courageous. I guess living abroad gives me a sense of “I can do this” and when faced with challenges I can now say to myself: “You have been through worse.”

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

Stay busy so you don’t lose yourself to too much introspection. Especially if you are a traveling spouse coming with your expat partner. Make friends who can go with you to explore your new country. And whenever you go on excursions, try to learn the language so you can speak with locals and really get to know the country more than from a tourist’s point of view. The feeling of discovering gems of knowledge that are not in the tourist guides, like a local saying, is very rewarding and makes you feel connected to your new “home”.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…

My next writing project is a novel that takes place here in Jakarta. It is a hilarious and heart-breaking story where I combine the ancient myths of Java with modern society and where East meets West. The first draft is basically finished and I hope to follow up my debut book with this story. It is kind of crazy and sometimes I wonder why I am writing it, but I am in love with the characters so I keep going. It is very much a fruit of my “down the rabbit hole” feelings. I would say that most of my writing comes from a place deep inside where I feel like I have discovered something unsettling with the world we live in and, because I need to pinpoint it, I write about it, in an effort to grasp it.

* * *

Thank you, Lene! Being wonderlanded with you was a moving experience. I sense you are a very special person to have survived so much and still be full of curiosity about the world. Readers, please leave your responses to Lene’s story in the comments. And be sure to tune in later in the week when we feature a sample of her writing! ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Lene writes about her wonderlanded experience.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: The story of Jo Parfitt and her expat press, Summertime Publishing


Attention displaced bookworms! As our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is still honeymooning (literally—congratulations, Beth!), we have loaned her space this month to seasoned expat and freelance writer Ana McGinley, who will tell us the story of a well-known international creative in the expat book world: Jo Parfitt, founder of Summertime Publishing.

Hello, readers, and thanks Displaced Nation for this opportunity to talk about Jo Parfitt. A journalist, editor, writer, speaker and teacher, Jo has lived abroad for 26 years—in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and now Malaysia. She is the founder of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Eighteen years ago, Jo published A Career in Your Suitcase, her guide to creating a portable career. Now in its 4th edition, the book continues to grow in popularity as the number of expat accompanying partners, mostly women, find themselves seeking new mobile careers to replace the jobs and careers relinquished to embark on a global relocation.

Jo Parfitt and A Career in a Suitcase

Jo Parfitt on Bankastraat, Den Haag, Netherlands, one of many former homes; book cover art for her bestseller, A Career in a Suitcase, now in its 4th edition.

Jo’s own career in a suitcase

The success of that book inspired Jo to set up her own business mentoring expats in search of suitable career opportunities. Having written 31 books herself, Jo decided to extend her training to include writing skills guidance for new authors. Several of them have partnered with her to publish their works, and Summertime Publishing—which she’d first set up to publish her cookbook, Dates, written while living in Oman—took off.

After nearly two decades, Summertime has a catalogue of over 100 publications covering many facets of expat life, including:

Summertime Top Five

Jo recruits her dream team…

A year ago, Jo enlisted the help of former Displaced Nation columnist Jack Scott, he of Jack the Hack fame. Jack had published his book, Perking the Pansies (a memoir based on his popular expat blog of that name), with Jo (he now has a sequel out: Turkey Street).

In addition to Jack, Jo has hired Jane Dean (who was Jack’s editor).

Jo, Jane and Jack have British roots, although Jane is now a US citizen, yet all three are based in different global locations: Jo in Kuala Lumpur; Jack in Norwich, UK; and Jane in The Hague, Netherlands. All three have in common the experience of relinquishing previous careers to accompany their partners—and establishing successful portable careers in the publishing world.

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

Today Jo takes care of sales and marketing, business growth, client intake, big-picture edits and manuscript assessment at Summertime Publishing. Jane is the chief editor and production manager, and Jack is responsible for royalties, administration, digitization and social media.

Business is conducted digitally via computer networking and bi-monthly business meetings on Skype—and regular Skype meetings with their team of designers. The three aim to physically meet each year for the company annual general meeting.

Jo says that the recent expansion of her business is directly related to the growth in the globally mobile workforce. As more people relocate to new locations, the thirst for knowledge about expat issues, both unique and common to specific destinations, increases. Expats tend to be well-educated individuals capable of resettling in unfamiliar places and adjusting to new cultures, without losing their own cultural identity. By necessity expat partners often dive deep into the culture of their new destination, interacting with local people and services daily. These accrued experiences, good and bad, can form a strong basis for a good story.

The summertime—& sunshine—of the expat life

Anyone who is familiar with Jo has noticed a theme running through her life and work having to do with summertime and sunshine. Jo says she named her press “Summertime” after the song by Gershwin, which she sees as her theme tune. “I am a positive person and love the optimism and hope in the lyrics,” she says.

Having spent ten years in the intense sunshine of the Middle East, Jo has also published a novel called Sunshine Soup, about expat life in Dubai, and she currently keeps a blog about the life she leads with her husband in Malaysia, called Sunny Interval, because after postings in Europe they get to enjoy the sunshine again.

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval[]

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval.

There is also, of course, Jo’s sunny disposition to consider. “I am an optimist at heart and like to see the good in everyone,” she says, adding that, since setting up her press, “my motto has been Sharing What I Know to Help Others to Grow.”

Further to which, in closing I’d like to share some tips Jo has for expats who dream of writing a book:

• Do your own market research to see whether books covering your topic already exist. Most mainstream bookstores do not have a specified section for expatriate books—so look online.

• Visit Expat Bookshop and Summertime Publishing. (Interested in publishing with us? Send a message via the contact form on the site.)

• Download the free booklets offered by Summertime Publishing:

• Consider the practical aspects of publishing a book. Writers who enter a contract with Summertime Publishing will be offered editing, printing and promoting services tailored to suit their individual needs.

• Most importantly, assess your available time and lifestyle and evaluate the real possibilities of being able to regularly focus on your book project. writing a book demands a high level of focus.

And now for Jo’s parting pearls:

I believe everyone has a story in them. I tell someone that if their story is likely to inspire, support, inform or entertain another person then it is worth telling.

* * *

Thank you, Ana, for introducing us to Jo Parfitt. Her dedication to the cause of publishing expat works, along with her sunny disposition, has extended the feeling of summertime for me a little longer! Readers, how about you? Any questions for Ana +/or Jo?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

Born in Australia, Ana McGinley has now lived in seven countries in 15 years, so more than qualifies as a serial expat. She writes, edits, reviews and researches articles for various online publications, including serving as the review coordinator for Summertime Publishing—all of which distracts her from finishing her book about caring for ageing parents from abroad, a topic related to her previous work as a social worker with older people. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her Canadian husband and four children, all born on different continents. To get to know Ana better, please follow her HuffPost column. You can also view her portfolio of published works here.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: For Stephanie Patterson, the role of expat historical novelist seems to have been predestined

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Hello again, readers. Last month I introduced you to expat writer Oliver Tidy, who found his calling in writing crime novels set in the UK once he became an expat in Turkey. For my guest this month, Stephanie Patterson, it was the other way around. Stephanie developed an early passion for places other than her home country of Germany, and for the English and Scottish medieval periods. In other words, it seemed almost predestined that she would move to the UK and write historical novels set in these places and times.

Although Stephanie first lived in Kent when she arrived in the UK 18 years ago, she relocated to Aberdeen and then, after a stint in Wales (Cardiff), where she met her British husband, Laurence, has lived in Edinburgh for the past 10 years.

Stephanie Patteson destiny

Photo credits (left): Stephanie Patterson in her beloved Scottish Highlands (supplied); Map of Germany, by Central Intelligence Agency; The main geographical divisions of Scotland, by SFC9394—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Not surprising, given her proclivities, Stephanie believes the key to settling into a new country is total immersion. In her case this technique greatly improved her grasp of the language (she is a certified translator of English to German). It has also enabled her to write romantic suspense and adventure set in Scotland, England and Normandy under the pen name of Cathie Dunn.

In 2011, Stephanie and Laurence set up Crooked Cat Publishing on the model of an independent US publisher. To date, Crooked Cat has published over eighty paperbacks and e-books with authors across the world, several of which have won (or been shortlisted for) prizes. It has quickly developed a reputation for producing quality fiction.

As Cathie Dunn, Stephanie has two historical novels published with Crooked Cat:

  • Highland Arms, a romantic Scottish adventure (originally released through Wild Rose Press), set in Stephanie’s favourite area of the Scottish Highands: Lochaber. It’s the first in her Highland Chronicles series.
  • Dark Deceit, the action of which takes place in 1140s England and Normandy, when a brutal civil war is taking place. It’s the first in her Anarchy Trilogy, set mainly in medieval Normandy.

She has also self-published Silent Deception, a romantic paranormal novella set in Victorian Cornwall.

When she isn’t writing, editing or publishing, Stephanie is visiting castles, towns and cathedrals throughout the UK. A hobby historian, she has taken university modules in Tudor Studies and Scottish Studies. While in Wales, she took part in medieval re-enactment (the medieval and Jacobite eras being her favorites).

Stephanie’s love for medieval Norman history saw her back in Normandy for a holiday in July. Ultimately, she (and her husband) would not rule out moving to France one day, and, yes, she is currently studying French to improve her knowledge of language and culture.

* * *

Welcome, Stephanie, to the Displaced Nation. I think I can guess the answer but I’ll ask you anyway: which comes first, story or location?

Yes, as you probably guessed, I’m usually inspired by location and/or architecture first, which I then combine with potential plot ideas. My Scottish romance, Highland Arms, was born when I travelled through Glencoe and along the dramatic Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. The forbidding scenery (helped by the adverse weather of sleet, rain and fog) was the perfect setting for an adventure set in the 1720, featuring a smuggler. I always carry a notepad, and on that occasion I found it very useful for jotting down ideas.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones via Wikimedia Commons[] (CC BY-SA 3.0) []. Loch Linnhe, by Moralist via Wikimedia Commons[](CC BY-SA 3.0) [].

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones; Loch Linnhe, by Moralist. Both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For Highland Arms, I was fortunate enough to find booklets by local historians about the era, which allowed me to paint a more realistic picture. This, in combination with a number of visits during different seasons, allowed me to set the scene quite realistically. I did the same for Dark Deceit, which is partly set in Gloucestershire and partly in Normandy. I took hundreds of photos during a holiday in Normandy and kept going back to my travel diary for pointers. I prefer to write about areas I’ve visited. If I can convey my own feelings and impressions, it helps create the atmosphere.

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

As I write historical adventures, I tend to focus on history and landscape. I found Normandy hugely inspiring for its medieval history and the buildings that have survived from that era. The castles and cathedrals paint a vivid picture of 12th-century life, and I try my best to capture it and convey it into my stories. As you mentioned, I consider myself a hobby historian and have bookshelves full of history tomes, in English and French. It helps that I love the culture.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

Here is a passage from Highland Arms:

Catriona nodded. “Thank you, Mr MacKinnon. I wasn’t looking forward to scaling those peaks.” Her gaze scanned the shimmering surface high up, so glaringly white against the deep blue morning sky. Hidden under layers of cloud the day before, the steep hillsides now presented themselves in all their dangerous glory. Stunned by the beauty yet relieved she did not have to cross them, Catriona smiled as she gazed across crags as sharp as a dagger’s edge.

Relaxing in the stillness of her surroundings, she was surprised at her own reaction. Instead of the misery that held her in its grasp for the last few weeks, a new sense flowed through her.

A feeling of…belonging?

She shook her head in disbelief. What brought this on? The eerie stillness should unnerve her, but instead it calmed and steadied her. Taking a deep breath, she gave her mare a nudge with her heel. Perhaps this journey was going to be good for her after all. No longer banishment, but rather an escape. Perhaps even a fortunate escape.

By the time they reached a small settlement by the shore of Loch Linnhe, the sun had crossed its zenith. Melted snow, and the footfalls of men and horses, turned the ground into a muddy slush. A handful of cottages stood scattered along the path, their walls covered in a thick layer of mud to repel the winds. Smoke swirled through holes in the roofs, filling the air with the smell of peat.

Catriona took a deep breath, enjoying the dusky scent. While she waited for MacKinnon to return from a cottage he’d entered on their arrival, she nudged her mare to the water’s edge to let her drink. Her gaze roamed over the large loch, to the far shore and back to where a narrow arm of water branched off into Loch Leven, disappearing from sight between high peaks behind her. The rugged beauty pulled her in.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Though not always possible, I find it easier to describe a setting once I’ve visited it for long enough to develop a “feel” for the location. For Dark Deceit, I developed an impression of what life was like in that region during medieval times by exploring the abbeys in Caen and Falaise Castle, among other monuments from that era. The book’s hero is originally from a town called Mortagne, in today’s southern Normandy. During our holiday, we drove down to the town and had a wander through it. I took in the surrounding forests (which haven’t changed too much since the 1100s) and ignored the more modern aspects. I try my best to picture the landscapes as they might have been.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

One of my favourite novels is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The way she describes the desolate landscape, the remoteness of the location, is compelling. You have a real sense of being there. I also enjoy reading MM Kaye’s novels, mostly set in India and Africa. A Third Culture Kid (she was born in Simla and lived all over the world as an adult), Kaye evoked a sense of place that many other authors writing about those areas don’t manage in quite the same way.

Patterson faves

Photo credits: Cover art; insets: Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930), by The Chichester Partnership via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); M.M. Kaye via goodreads.

Thanks so much, Stephanie!

* * *

Readers, any questions for the intrepid Stephanie Patterson? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Stephanie, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @cathiedunn.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).



DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How I spent my summer vacation

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong Shannon Young quit her day job a year ago to become a full-time writer. Here’s the latest entry in her expat writer’s diary.

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s still blazing hot here in Hong Kong, but the kids are heading back to school and expats are returning from home leave visits to their families across the globe.

Speaking of school kids: In the tradition of every good elementary school student, I thought I would report to you on how I spent my summer vacation.

Every July since moving to Asia in 2010, I’ve boarded a plane for the US and headed to Arizona, where my parents and siblings live, or to Oregon, where my grandparents live. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I would enter a whirlwind of visits, barbecues, catch-ups, family dinners, appointments, Five Guys runs, overdue conversations, and late-night chocolate-chip-cookie-baking hangouts.

This year, however, I stayed put in Hong Kong. A friend was visiting during the two weeks when my whole family is normally in Oregon, and I knew I needed to focus on my writing in order to hold to my publication schedule. I was a full-time teacher for five years, but I gave that up a year ago, remember? As a writer, I get to keep working right through the summer!

All work…

I mentioned in my last diary that I’m taking a part-time teaching contract this fall. I don’t yet know exactly how the part-time hours will affect my writing schedule, so I’m buckling down to finish the remaining books in The Seabound Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic adventure series set at sea, as soon as possible, which as you know I write under the name Jordan Rivet. My goal is to have all four books out in time for Christmas. Over the course of the summer I finished, edited, proofread, formatted, and uploaded the full-length prequel Burnt Sea. It officially went live on August 30th!

Burnt Sea_live on Aug 30

I found that despite the stifling conditions of summer in Hong Kong, I wanted to work more and more, including on weekends. I typically write for five hours a day, five days a week, but adding in three hours or so on some Saturdays and Sundays helped to up my game. When it is hot and rainy by turns, installing myself in an air-conditioned coffee shop feels like the sensible thing to do!

Hong Kong summer collage

Photo credits (top to bottom): it’s been a long rainy life, by Jaume Escofet; Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery on Lantau, Hong Kong, by Robin Zebrowski, and Cafe, SOHO, Hong Kong, by Stephen Kelly; Rainy day in Hong Kong, by Jeremy Thompson. All via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This summer I also completed two substantial revisions of the final book in the Seabound Chronicles, one in July and one this past week. This included writing the actual ending scenes to the series, which was pretty cool. A few people are reading the draft right now, and I’ll be ready to dive into another round of revisions when I get their feedback in mid-September. The full series is weighing in at 306,000 words!

…and some play

Writing is a lot of fun, but sometimes it’s good to step away from the work to have other kinds of fun. I took a break to show our friend around (although she did some solo sightseeing as well). We got to revisit some of the great Hong Kong sites, fitting in jaunts to Lamma Island, Stanley, the Big Buddha, and other famous Hong Kong attractions–and eateries. I love any excuse to go to Din Tai Fung (a chain that originated in Taiwan, it specializes in soup dumplings).

Through the prompting of some very active friends, we also went hiking (taking one of the toughest walks in Hong Kong on what turned out to be the hottest day in 130 years!) and spent a weekend on Lantau, one of the large outlying islands. We stayed in an old village, very atmospheric, where we trekked through a river to get to a kite-surfing lesson and spent a day enjoying the waves at an out-of-the-way beach.

It was a nice reminder that Hong Kong is home to wonderful natural beauty, and it doesn’t actually take that long to escape the concrete jungle.

Hong Kong Natural Beauty

Photo credits: Kite-surfing beach on Lantau Island and view of the greenery (supplied).

…and some play/work

Another bit of fun was when Kevin Kwon, the author of bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians, now being made into a film, came to Hong Kong for a Q&A session at the KEE Club. The event was the first weekend in August, and any other summer I would have missed it. Instead, I got my book signed and listened to the charming and unassuming author talk about his work. (The visit was part of his tour for the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, which, incidentally, was announced in the Displaced Dispatch.) He told us he is working on the next installment in the series.

Kevin Kwan Talk HK

Photo credits: Kevin Kwan book cover art; Kwan at the KEE Club in Hong Kong (supplied).

Which reminds me that in addition to lots of writing, I crammed in time for plenty of reading this summer. Highlights included:

I’ve always read a lot, but I’m finding that it’s more important to carve out time than it was in the days when I had a long commute every day. I believe my upcoming part-time job will involve a fair bit of commuting, so I’m looking forward to having built-in reading time again. I read to learn and I read for enjoyment, and there are never enough hours in the day…

All in all, it has been a successful summer full of literary pursuits and unexpected adventures…

…with a plot twist!

It turns out I’m going back to the US after all! My husband noticed an eye-wateringly affordable Cathay FanFare, so just last week I booked a ticket home. I left on August 30th, so I was actually in the sky when the people who pre-ordered Burnt Sea saw the book pop up on their Kindles.

I’m looking forward to a quick visit that will mostly involve monopolizing the attention of my eight-month-old nephew. I’ll hang out with my siblings, eat a whole bunch of American food, and be ready to dive into the fourth draft of the Seabound finale when I return! I enjoy pushing through the work, but sometimes it’s important to step away and enjoy a bit of downtime, too.

But enough about me! What did you get up to this summer, Displaced Diary? What was your favorite summer read? Do you have any amazing adventures to report?

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet

* * *

Shannon, I must confess that I never made it all the way through a Tokyo summer, it was just too hot and humid! I’m impressed that you made it until August 30th. Readers, do you have any summer achievements worth sharing on your creative pursuits? Please leave in the comments. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (2/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

Having delivered a successful show, TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, explore Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan on the street where they rented a cottage in Woodstock; Lisa in front of the clock tower on the V&A Waterfront. (All photos supplied, taken by either Lisa or her husband, Daniel Lawrence.)

TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has had an exciting summer, even by her own, well-traveled standards. First she performed her one-woman show about growing up as a mixed-race TCK in Valencia, Spain, after which she headed for Cape Town, South Africa, for another performance, which she told us about in her last post. Today we’ll be treated to Part Two of her South African adventure!

Howzit, dear readers—molweni! Kunjani?

As some of you may recall, in my previous post I described the experience of taking Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to the Women Playwrights International Conference, held June 29–July 3 in Cape Town.

This month’s post is about the second half of said trip, during which my husband, Dan, and I explored the city and its surroundings. A travelogue, if you will.

The day after the conference ended, we took an Uber cab to our new digs in Woodstock, about half a mile east of the city centre. (We’re not fans of Uber as a company—but as the Cape Town drivers were excellent and we were on a budget, we compromised.) Our AirBnB guest cottage had an en suite bathroom with a big shower—an upgrade from the dorm life we’d experienced at the conference.

We took it easy that day because I was wiped out from a week of conferencing that had culminated in performing my show. (Dan had played a role in the performance, too, as my techie.) We went grocery shopping in what South Africans call a “lower rent” area, a couple of blocks away. It offered far fewer choices than you would find in the USA or Europe—similar to the shops of my childhood and adolescence, spent in Central America and North Africa. Our most memorable buys were the potato chips or “crisps” and the gingersnap cookies or “biscuits”: both excellent!

Regarding safety in the city: we had read warnings about crime, but we witnessed none. As we walked along the main road, young men shouted at us through the windows of vans speeding by, offering us rides. At first we were intimidated, but by the end of our stay it was so familiar that we would just call back “No thanks!”

On the way home, we stopped at a cafe, the Field Office, where we enjoyed a great lunch and decent WiFi connection.

Dan is a coffee aficionado and I love the way Cape Town serves chai lattes in pretty glass mugs, so we were especially happy hanging out at this cafe, which aspires to be an office-away-from-the-office (hence its name).

When we returned to the cottage, we nearly froze—my teeth literally chattered! As I mentioned last month, most homes in Cape Town don’t have heating or insulation for the colder months. Luckily, our host realized this and loaned us a space heater the next day. (We had foolishly assumed he didn’t have one.)

The next day we went to the V&A Waterfront, which I loved for the clock tower, the public art, the restaurants and shops—and the fact that so many of our fellow tourists were from African countries. It was a pleasure to be among travelers from the African continent for a change. We discovered some fantastic traditional arts-and-crafts shopping at the African Trading Port.

Impilo! (Cheers!)

The following day we took a winelands tour. The countryside was beautiful; we passed a farm that had a zebra, a springbok, an ostrich, and more animals you never see on US farmland. Without having eaten breakfast, we tasted five wines (!) in Paarl valley, which was perhaps not the healthiest way to begin the morning.

Our next stop was charming Franschhoek, where I insisted on getting breakfast—a lovely muffin-like scone with butter/cream/jam coupled with a caffe latte…I felt much better. We also bought chocolate at a pretty chocolate shop because…chocolate!

The second winery was very fancy; then we continued on to Stellenbosch, where we had a tasty lunch. The towns were pretty with Cape Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture.

The final winery on our tour had lots of character in the form of gigantic spider webs hanging by the stained glass windows. It was there we learned that fortified wine is to port what sparkling wine is to champagne. In total that day we tasted 12 wines and three ports fortified wines. We liked the ports fortified wines the best.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries; a glass of port, a fortified wine[], by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries on Lisa and Dan’s tour; a glass of port, a fortified wine, by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

Benza iKapa (Beautiful Cape Town)

The next day we took a city tour. We were supposed to go to the top of Table Mountain but it was too windy. (We were finally able to reach the top on our second-to-last day. It was so beautiful, I feel enormously lucky and grateful to have experienced it.)
Table Mountain_top
Our guide showed us some of the beaches near the town. The water was such a beautiful shade of light blue—I’ve never seen water like that before! And the view from Signal Hill was spectacular—I can’t use that word enough for the natural beauty surrounding Cape Town.

And on this tour, I finally had the chance to see the outside of all the places that Dan had visited during our first week while I was “conferencing”:

We walked through a small section of the Company’s Garden, a beautiful park with very old trees and Egyptian geese having Make Way for Ducklings moments, to the Iziko South African Museum.

This tour ended with the requisite visit to a diamond shop, which no one in the van was interested in, but we all ultimately decided to go in for the demonstration on how the jewels are made from gems (and, I’ll admit, for the free champagne). There was loads of tanzanite (named for Tanzania, where it was discovered) on display—a good investment, apparently. We didn’t invest.

Legacy of apartheid

While at the South African Museum, it was disturbing to learn that the museum’s first curators had created life-sized models from molds of actual living “Bushmen” (who were never credited) to demonstrate an “authentic, primitive, and it’s being lived today” lifestyle. Since the end of apartheid, the museum has been re-curated from the indigenous perspective.

On our second-to-last day we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. (The prison is now a museum.) We had a great guide in the bus, who stressed that the prison was not about Nelson Mandela. The prisoners chose Mandela to speak for them, but they told him what to say and asked him to refashion their words because he was so eloquent and was also trained as a lawyer. At the prison itself, we had a former prisoner as our guide, who showed us Mandela’s cell. No white prisoners were held in that prison—only “blacks” and “coloureds,” who were not treated the same (there was worse treatment for blacks).

Mandela’s last prison, Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), which we’d seen during our winery tour (we stopped to take pictures beneath the inspiring Nelson Mandela statue at the entrance). At that prison, he actually lived in a private house inside the compound.

On our last day we went to the District Six Museum, which is a beautifully and intimately designed and curated memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during 1970s apartheid. My eyes started welling up in the first five minutes. I felt anxious, angry, and moved.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

At the conference I had remarked to a young South African theatremaker that I hadn’t perceived any racial tension among the diverse group of actors and directors who staged the play readings; she replied that that was because we were at the university, but things were different off campus. Dan and I were unpleasantly surprised when one of our tour guides, an older white man, stated that “black neighborhood” equaled “ghetto,” and pointed out a section of the city that he considered “awful”—but it looked like any populated section of a city in a developing nation to me.

I grew up mostly in poor countries, so I’m accustomed to the scrappy, grimy, not-at-all-pretty-yet-functional aspect of many an urban area. We actually bought our groceries on the block that the guide was pointing out. It’s all a matter of perspective…

Ubuhle bendalo (Spectacular scenery)

Despite South Africa’s painful history, it’s impossible for the visitor to ignore its spectacular scenery. We went on a tour to the Cape Peninsula, including Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Spectacular vistas and beaches—again, I’ve never seen that color of ocean.

We also loved seeing animals that were new to us. We took a boat to see Cape fur seals on Duiker Island. Along the road throughout the day we passed zebras, baboons, bontebok, and ostriches—mostly not penned in—just by the road! And ever so many African penguins on Boulders Beach!

We ended that particular day at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which were lush and green, and I treated myself to a new mug at the gift shop. (A mug of tea being part of my writing ritual!

South African animals collage

Clockwise, from top left: Ostrich between road and sea; South African farm animals; African penguins at Boulders Beach; the Egyptian geese in Company Gardens.

Glorious food

We had been wanting to try the best Cape Malay food in town. We were told it was at Biesmiellah, so went there for dinner. Best comfort food ever after a day that had run the emotional gamut from a grim yet inspiring prison-turned-museum, to one of the world’s natural wonders with jaw-dropping vistas, to a fantastic restaurant where the cooks are Muslim women who feed you after sunset during Ramadan (so you can only hope they’ve broken their own fasts while taking care of tourists).

We ate wonderfully well in Cape Town. I can also recommend:

Paradoxically, almost every day we were approached by a homeless person, each one of a
different ethnicity/race (white, black, Malaysian, etc.), often young, always deeply courteous, asking for a meal. It finally occurred to me to carry an energy bar in my coat for giving away.

Last but not least…

While at the District Six Museum on our last day, we happened to run into a few WPIC delegates, one of whom complimented my performance of Alien Citizen from the previous week: a great way to cap off our visit.

One of the last things we did was to return to Company’s Park to walk the length of it; there were numerous romantic couples on the grass, which reminded me of Rome’s Villa Borghese Gardens and L.A.’s Griffith Park. We also saw many guinea fowl in and around Cape Town—again, we loved seeing animals we never get to see in the States.

We also visited St. George’s Cathedral, which was lovely and smaller than I had expected. It’s so famous for Desmond Tutu that in my head it was the size of Chartres—until I actually saw it and went inside.

We even took in the South African National Gallery, which had two incredible exhibits by South African artists:

  1. photography and more by Omar Badsha, and
  2. a multimedia-with-moving-sculpture work by William Kentridge called The Refusal of Time.

Hamba kakuhle! (Go well!)

All too soon it was time to wend our way back to L.A. The first leg of our flight was at night. On the British Airways plane back to Heathrow, the flight attendants sprayed something throughout the cabin, saying that it was not toxic but that we should still take our contact lenses out and not lick the mist. Um…

I’ll spare you the details of our layover in Heathrow, but be warned: that airport goes well out of its way to make you miserable. Meanwhile, our flight out of Cape Town left late, so we missed the connection and were rerouted to San Francisco…and our luggage got lost at SFO. It was finally delivered to us four days later—intact! Hooray!

Looking back, I think we were lucky to have mostly clear weather during our time in Cape Town as I was able to take extraordinarily vivid impressions of the majestic Table Mountain, the city and its surroundings, which are still with me…

On another level, I found Cape Town stimulating as an artist. It’s the kind of place that compels you to be brave and keep trying to tell your story truthfully. That’s also what I took away from our trip, along with an abiding gratitude to the WPIC programming committee for choosing Alien Citizen as the closing show—and of course to my generous backers who made the trip possible. Without a doubt, it counts as one of the highlights of my creative international life.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! I really appreciated hearing about your travels within and around Cape Town from your ATCK perspective: it was fascinating, as well as moving, to take this virtual tour. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below. —ML Awanohara

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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