The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Don’t mess with Texas BBQ Brisket

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

* * *

After another disappointing crack at BBQ Brisket Texas style this weekend, I have come to the bad-tempered conclusion that the joy of discovering how to cook wonderful dishes from far-flung places is outweighed by the complications of reproducing them elsewhere.

My Brisket is a sort of Third-Culture Recipe. It was learned in Texas by Little Old English me, and most recently I have been trying to replicate it in an another location: France. As with so many other recipe “finds”, it is the cause of endless discontent as well as fruitless searches for must-have ingredients that have no place in the third culture markets in which I find myself. In short, my brisket woes have made me conclude that the answer to the perennial Brazilian vendor’s question “Importado or nacional?” is “nacional.”

Every time.

It will be cheaper, less time-consuming and, ultimately, a better experience of the place you are living in. Additionally, you will avoid being an embarrassment to expatdom: the kind that imports Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup to a country where Maple Syrup is freely available, or baked beans to the land of feijoada (Brazil).

Look deep into your heart and you will find that while your desire to reproduce exotic recipes is partly born of greedy nostalgia, it could well include an element of entertaining one-up-man-ship.

Guilty as charged.

The Great Texan Brisket Debate

But back to the Texan Brisket.  For those unlucky enough to have never sampled this delicacy, let me enlighten you. Texans take a brisket — a chest of beef which usually weighs in at about 12lbs — and then proceed to start the Great Brisket Debate. The Debate is as much a part of the process as the cooking and eating. Some “Pit Boys and Gals” choose to make a “rub” of various spices, which they massage into the meat before cooking. Others argue that the “mop” or basting liquid will just wash most of it off anyway and that the flavor of the beef itself should be able to stand alone. Those who use a rub are sub-divided into those who use it just before the barbecuing process begins and those who like to marinate the meat overnight. (Are you beginning to see the importance of brisket to Texans?) Some sort of liquid is required during the long, slow cooking process of eight hours plus. The mop acts to keep the temperature down so the meat comes as slowly as possible to a state of doneness, and it also moistens and adds flavor to the meat. The contents of rub, mop, and barbecue sauces are personal and, as with all great recipes, subject to much secrecy.

Your average brisket is a pretty tough cut. The chest is mainly muscle and connective tissue with little fat marbling. As a result, most experts recommend dry-hanging the meat for 30 to 45 days. This ageing process allows enzymes to tenderize the meat and flavor to develop. It is a vital element in the process of successfully barbecuing brisket.

A vital element that one is forced to forgo in France.

The Battle of Bastings — to hang or not to hang?

I’ve been in France for three years and I have been trying to replicate this recipe during all that time. To start the process, I  hang up the beef myself, because the French, clearly, will not.

I have had a lot of success with brisket in England but very little in France. British beef is great for those embarking on BBQ Brisket 101. English beef comes from animals that are raised to give meat, and not from knackered dairy cows past their productive best, as so often happens in France. In addition, British breeders concentrate on small, docile beasts, which yield well-marbled and thus easily break-downable meat. Not only that, but the English animal is infinitely better hung than its French counterpart. (What am I saying? Dare I slight France’s impeccable reputation for matters of an amorous nature?)

Independent British butchers rarely age their beef for less than 21 days, while specialist, higher end establishments aim for 35 days or more. Hanging is seldom done in France because leaner meat is now in vogue: you cannot successfully age meat which lacks fat marbling. A final factor is that British cows are generally grass fed, resulting in a better flavor than French cows which, largely coming from the hot dry SW, must take a corn- or maize-fed diet.

Forget haute cuisine: it’s all about the haute boucherie. French star butcher gives seal of approval to British beef.

Now, I’m aware that an English girl talking about French meat might cause anger and even some references to Mad Cow Disease (an unfortunate episode which caused France to unilaterally and illegally ban British beef imports for six years). For this reason, I bring in Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec as my big gun. In 2012, Le Bourdonnec, Parisian butcher extraordinaire and the recipient of many awards, opened Le Beef Club, where the meat is all British. The restaurant has its own hanging room where beef is aged for up to 60 days. Le Bourdonnec is happy to tell his compatriots a thing or two about their attitudes to British Beef and why France should copy English ways. Yet opinion is entrenched amongst French farmers and butchers, even to the extent of shamelessly trimming the “fat cap” I so badly needed to protect the meat from the barbecue’s heat. Healthier, maybe; drier, certainly.

Texan Brisket – nacional, every time

The French cow — and vache I truly believe it was — who died for my barbecue last weekend, died in vain. The combo of rub, mop, slow cooking, and basting, yielded brisket which, while tasty, lacked the unctuous melting texture of the real deal. The fibres of the meat remained stubbornly overlong and well-defined to the very end. It was the texture which denied authenticity. Most Texans serve their Brisket with BBQ sauce on the side, or so I have heard from several reliable sources.  It would suggest that the brisket was less than perfectly cooked to mix the sauce through the meat. The fact that I “mixed for moisture” tells you all I need to know about the suitability of the meat in France for this particular recipe.

From now on I will reserve the meat for French casseroles and wait until I am once again in Texas to have my brisket fix.

But you know what? Thinking about it, the pork here cooks well and is tender. I wonder if I would have a better chance of Third Culture Recipe success if I turn my attention to pulled pork barbecue. Just one more bash? I’ll keep you posted…….

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “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?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

For this RVer who roams far and wide, iPhone in pocket, a picture says…

Becky RV Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Becky Schade at Charlies Bunion, along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains (photo credit: Becky Schade).

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 30-year-old American Becky Schade. Becky started traveling around America alone in her truck and RV (for those not in the know, RV stands for recreational vehicle, or mobile home) on September 14th, 2012. As she says on her blog, Interstellar Orchard, becoming a full-time RVer was a way to fulfill her dream of perpetual travel, exploration, and adventure, and to make her life the best it can be, right now, no holds barred. “And if I can do it, so can you,” she says.

She goes on:

Even if your Big Dream is going to take some time to realize, there are things you can do, right now, to improve the quality of your life. And they don’t all require a fortune or every free waking hour of your week.

Before pulling up her roots, Becky used to work with monkeys. She is an outdoor enthusiast and also a fantasy/sci-fi fan as well as gamer geek.

I have been waiting a while to interview her and write her fascinating story. Now I have my opportunity.

* * *

Welcome, Becky, and thank you for taking out some time from your adventures for this interview. I believe you were born and raised in Wisconsin but then, at the age of 25, became what is known in the States as a “domestic expat,” moving with a friend to coastal South Carolina. When did you really decide to break out and travel all around America as an RVer?
I loved how different South Carolina was from my home state of Wisconsin, but inside I knew I wanted to keep traveling and exploring. The truth is, I didn’t want to pay for a removal truck every time I moved, so started researching RVing as an alternative. In other words, I would be my own removal truck—taking my house everywhere with me. I eventually hit the road as a full-time RVer at the ripe old age of 28.

Your new-found freedom is clearly a wonderful experience, but do you ever feel homesick?
Home is where I park my RV travel trailer, which I pull with my trusty 2001 Dodge Dakota. Some people might call me a minimalist or even a gypsy because all that I own fits in my RV and truck. I don’t own or rent property anywhere, but I am always home. I get asked many questions about my lifestyle, like, do I feel crowded and cramped inside my little home? It may be difficult to visualize, but my “living space” includes the yard where I park my RV and the wonderful locations I visit. So I enjoy the free and constantly changing views from my bedroom windows that many house-bound folks might pay a fortune for. In reality I have more space than most people do.

The average person moves home, say, five times in their lives, whereas I imagine you could move five times in a month. I’m sure you’re often asked if you feel safe traveling alone, as a young single woman.
I am often asked that question, but you know something? The world is not as scary as the media would have us believe. Common sense is a person’s best safety tool and in my year-and-a-half on the road, I have never once felt threatened. If a place feels off when I arrive, I simply drive to the next place.

You obviously can’t work while traveling except when you stop in a place for a while. Do you ever worry about money?
No, one doesn’t need to be wealthy to live like I do. I saved up the money for the initial outlay from my last “real” job. With my accommodation and truck already paid for, I can explore the country comfortably on an income of $16,000 or less a year, which I make from working seasonal jobs in interesting places. I have at least six weeks a year where I don’t work at all and can focus on my hobbies as well as visit friends and family. I have health insurance, an emergency fund in case of accident or illness, and an IRA. Life on the road doesn’t have to be a gamble. There are smart ways to go about it that minimize the risks. It’s not an extended vacation but a way of life. I’ll continue traveling until I feel the urge to do something different.

I can relate somewhat to the things you are saying as I enjoy my own company, probably more than others enjoy it! And fortunately I have never experienced a feeling of loneliness. How about you, how do you find being alone on the road?
I don’t feel lonely. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things. I love quiet time by myself out in nature, and when I start feeling the need for human interaction, it’s usually not hard to find. Sitting outside your RV in a campground reading a book is viewed by many passersby as an open invitation to stop and say hello. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on my travels, with whom I’ve had some of the best conversations. I also keep in touch and visit with friends I had before hitting the road full time, and am a member of several online communities for RVers.

“Home is where I park it.” (classic RVer saying)

Something usually triggers or inspires a person to travel. Was that true in your case?
Since I was a teenager I’ve had this feeling that the typical American Dream of college, steady job, marriage, a big house, and a family wasn’t going to be my cup of tea—but it’s definitely what my parents expected. I was the dutiful daughter and followed that plan up to finishing college and getting a steady job, but I felt trapped and miserable. I wanted adventure. I wanted more than two weeks of vacation a year to explore. I wanted to learn by experience instead of just seeing things on TV or reading about them in a book. Those were the things that inspired me to pursue a different path and look into full-time RV-ing. At first I thought you had to belong to the realm of rich retirees, the kinds of people who invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in a gigantic, 40′ motorhome. Then I dug deeper and found that some younger folks were discovering a better work/life balance through life on the open road.

You are clearly a very determined young woman. Since you drove off on that September day in 2012, what places have you visited?
Last summer I worked retail at Badlands National Park, in southwestern South Dakota, and explored the Black Hills region—along with Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore—in my days off work. This past winter I was a volunteer at a conservation centre with the University of Florida and visited sinkholes and crystal clear springs. This coming fall I’ll be working at a warehouse out near Reno, Nevada, and plan to be photographing mountains and Lake Tahoe around that.

I’ll be looking forward to the pictures. So where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in your latest hometown?
Right now I’m just outside of Atlanta in Fairburn, Georgia, performing at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. Getting paid to sing at a renaissance festival has been on my bucket list for many years, but I could never work it around a real job. Traveling the way I do now has given me the opportunity, finally. I love what I’m doing, but the location is a different story. I prefer the country and have never lived in a city, so navigating the busy streets of Atlanta has been an experience. Never be afraid to try new things, though—otherwise, how do you learn what you really like and don’t like?

Absolutely, Becky. New experiences always open the mind, and the more I try new things, the more I realize how much I still have to learn. And now let’s see some of your photographs, which capture a few of your favorite memories. Can you tell me the story behind them and what makes them special for you?


Celebrating a new life of recreation at Big Sioux Recreation Area. Photo credit: Becky Schade.

This picture was taken at Big Sioux Recreation Area, just outside of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’d been on the road for less than a week driving from South Carolina to South Dakota to make it my new residency state. I got my driver’s license and plates and then took a hike to the top of this hill to see Sioux Falls and the surrounding countryside. I sat on a bench and realized it was Thursday. In my old life I’d have been hard at work, but instead I was at this wonderful place. This is when it really hit me that I was living my dream, that life would never be the same. It was magical.

The early bird catches the view at Folly Beach Country Park near Charleston. Photo credit: Becky Schade.

The second photo is of Folly Beach Country Park, just outside Charleston, South Carolina. Six years ago, my best friend and I were a year out of college and had earned some vacation time with our first “real” jobs. We used the two weeks to road-trip to South Carolina. I’d lived in Wisconsin all my life and was itching for a change of scenery; this was probably when I caught the travel bug. I took this photo at sunrise. We’d woken up at 4:00 a.m. to make sure we got to the beach before sunrise. I’m not an early riser, but getting to see the pink glow over the lighthouse was so worth the effort. We ended up liking our trip here so much that we moved to SC a year later, where I stayed until I hit the road.


Inspired by spires of granite near Sylvan Lake. Photo credit: Becky Schade.

The third picture was taken in June of last year, when I was working at a gift shop in Badlands National Park. On a day off, I headed over to Custer State Park, in the Black Hills. I had no itinerary and spent the morning in the south of the park watching bison. Then, after happening upon a couple of neat looking lakes, I decided to study the park brochures and find the best lake in the Black Hills. Beautiful Sylvan Lake caught my eye. The road that leads to the lake is the Needles Highway. The drive along that highway was amazing, more so because I had no idea it was there, and every vista was a surprise. This photo is of the Needle, a huge spire of granite that wind and water had hollowed out into a needle shape.

Nature—cheaper than therapy

It makes such a difference when you know the story attached to the pictures. Until you told me that story about the last one, all I could see was a silhouette of a girl leaning back with long flowing hair–not a needle! Where are your favorite places to take photographs?
I love natural places, I always feel most content and closest to the divine when I’m out in nature. And there’s such variety to be found, as the next three photos demonstrate. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.


Holy smokes! Nature in all its glory in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, NC/TN. Photo credit: Becky Schade.


Nothing bad about that! Badlands National Park, SD. Photo credit: Becky Schade.


The forces of erosion at work in Hunting Island State Park, SC. Photo credit: Becky Schade.

I know how you feel. Photographing a natural scene that is forever changing feels so fulfilling. I’d like to know if you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
Yes, I do. I don’t take pictures of people without their permission if they are to be the subject. But if they happen to be in the background of a shot, it’s not usually an issue.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
That’s an interesting question. For me, photography is a hobby and not the main reason for travel. I have no desire to get trapped behind the lens trying to take the perfect picture and miss the beauty of a magic moment. Having said that, there certainly is a magic to that rare photograph that captures the essence of a time or place. Maybe it’s because I’m a novice or that I make a point of not staging photos, but when I snap my shutter I never know ahead of time if I’m taking that kind of picture. It’s something I find out later as I’m reviewing the photos in my computer.

I can empathize. In my case if I’m not present in the moment I can neither photograph nor write with passion.

“The best camera is the one you have with you.” —Chase Jarvis

Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses do you use? And which software do you use for post-processing?
Haha, hoo boy—I’m about to get laughed right out of this column…or maybe, just maybe, help a few people understand that you don’t have to buy a thousand dollar SLR to be a photographer. My camera is my iPhone 4s—with no apps to change the functionality. That’s all I have. I don’t even own a point-and-shoot. Because I have no optical zoom whatsoever, it definitely limits the kinds of photos I can take, but for me the extremely high portability and low cost (relatively speaking) make up for that drawback. My phone fits in my pants pocket and has a waterproof and shock-resistant case, so I don’t fear taking it to rugged locales. Some might say that a smartphone is more expensive than many point-and-shoots you can buy, which is true, but when it functions as my phone and GPS as well as my primary camera, having all three in one package is definitely cheaper than owning them as individual gadgets. I use Adobe Photoshop 7.0, which I had actually gotten years ago for the purpose of drawing and coloring digital art from scratch. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to put it to the use it was designed for.

I hear no laughter, and if you can handle Photoshop you’re no dummy! If it makes you feel better, I am probably one of a small minority who have a DSLR camera but no mobile phone. Actually, I have a mobile phone that isn’t smart—it only makes phone calls; but I hardly ever turn it on. Now I hear some laughter!! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers or travelers?
First off, never let someone else’s definition of travel or photography determine your own by default. You don’t need all the newest gear to be a photographer, and you don’t need to book a plane halfway around the world to be a traveler. Take some time to think about what you really want from your experience, and let that be your guide. Second, if this is your dream, the life you want to live, don’t put it off for later. Later might never come. You want to be a photographer? Get out today and take some photos. Practice makes perfect. You want to start traveling? Start planning now and get to work on making it a reality. Set a date by which you’ll be out there.

Becky, I’ve really enjoyed our time together. Your story is an inspiration to us all. I only wish I was 40 years younger because I’m sure I would be tooling up an RV as fast as I could right now.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Becky’s RV life and her photography advice? She has certainly taken the road less traveled. If you have any questions for her about her photos and/or experiences, please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Becky, don’t forget to visit her blog, Interstellar Orchard. You can also like the blog’s Facebook page, connect with her on Twitter, or send her an email.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

HERE BE DRAGONS: All those cities you’ve visited on your travels? They’re the lego bricks for cityscapes in fantasy writing

Citiscapes Collage

(Clockwise from top) Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, Germany (photo credit: Andrew Couch); tram in Naples (photo credit: Andrew Couch); legos (photo credit: Morguefiles).

HERE BE DRAGONS is back, a column produced by fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany. We at the Displaced Nation have long been aware of the strong connection between fantasy (think Alice in Wonderland) and a life of international travel and residency. And now Andrew has got us pondering the idea of turning our adventures into fantasy stories!

—ML Awanohara

Last month on HERE BE DRAGONS, we talked about landscapes: the soaring mountains, unusual geographical formations, torrential storms, and other distinctive natural phenomena that can be used to build a whole new world for a fantasy story.

This month we move to cityscapes: the landscape’s urban counterpart, which has been largely shaped by the hands of man (or beast, depending on your story).

One thing I am learning while writing fantasy novellaswhich has only been reinforced by the posts for this columnis how much I’ve been influenced by my expat life and international travels when attempting to construct my own worlds.

When the bricks stick together, great things can be accomplished…

After living in Europe for several years, I now have a catalog of cityscapes to draw on, from grungy parts of London to quiet Parisian parks to industrialized Hamburg. What’s more, each area of every city has its own distinct sights, sounds and smells. And I’ve come to think of these various parts as my lego bricks for assembling the fantasy cityscape that features in my novellas.

I have heard that the second book is often harder for writers than the first. I am definitely finding this to be the case, but mostly due to character and plot, not setting. The setting of my next few novellas is the city of Resholm, which is perched on the line of cliffs called the Dropline. In creating Resholm I was heavily influenced by my impressions of Hamburg, a city in northern Germany that has a long history of being a free port. Resholm, too, is a port:


A skyline of towers along the ridge watched over the cargo and warehouse districts which dripped down the side of the steep slope, nearly to the edge of the cliffs themselves. Soaring arches piled on soaring arches cut the area in various places to hold up the docking piers. A handful of ships were moored across the area.

Hamburg also has the Speicherstadt, an area where goods could come and go without having to pay customs. I got to thinking, what would a city feel like if it had been created solely for the purpose of moving goods and not for the people in it? Resholm grew from this contemplation. In the stories, the police force exists primarily to safeguard the movement of goods in and out of the port, not to protect residents from harm:

“I don’t know,” Arnhelm said. An hour had passed since the officers of the Teeth had shuffled Jason and him into separate rooms. “Why don’t you ask her? Why are you even hounding my uncle and me? One of her goons nearly killed us and blew up a building in the docks.”

“Listen here, sonny,” the man said. “First off, neither the town nor its populace is in our jurisdiction. Resholm survives on its free port and our duty is to keep it safe. Safe for goods, safe for money and safe for free trade. In my experience, people take care of themselves. If they are smart.”

He leaned forward, picked up a piece of paper from the table between them and began to read. “Endangering goods in the warehouses. Bypassing a checkpoint. Reckless endangerment of transport. And that is before we even talk about the destroyed building in the docklands.”

Could I have created Resholm by studying photos of cityscapes found on the Internet? Probably, but I don’t think the result would have been as rich. Walking around a city is the best way to pick up its sounds, smells and sensations. Building a fantasy city from such memories, you become aware of the details that need to be included. For instance, I decided to include Hamburg’s tall, red-brick warehouses in the Speicherstadt, complete with their cranes and rails to move goods, in Resholm as well. The architecture so happens to date back to the late 1800s, which is the time period I am aiming to replicate in my story.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are building…as long as you’re enjoying the fantasy!

Of course, Hamburg is on water and isn’t dripping down the side of a cliff with airships docked at each level, but hey, it’s fantasy, which means I have the freedom to do what I want:

Only one bulb remained lit and he and Lucia left the tram car. They walked up a set of steps to the road which ran along the level five terrace. The smell of engine exhaust, unwashed humanity and a hint of damp stone assaulted Lors’ nose. The constant wind he had gotten used to didn’t seem to penetrate the row of buildings enough to clear the miasma. Despite the lack of wind, the street was cold. The docklands were in perpetual shadow on the northern slope. He could see the sky between the airships docked at the level above, but its light was so weak that lamps on poles shed he needed the scattered poles with their glowing globes to see anything in the eternal twilight.

A pair of tracks ran down the center of the road. Men stood on carts which ran back and forth controlling them with long handles. Sidings led off to both sides at each building. There was plenty of space to walk on either side, but they had to dodge carts and step carefully to make much headway. This was a place built for shipping goods. People served the crates they carried, not the other way around.

By no means does a fantasy city have to be built from a single real world city. The town square of Resholm is based on my memories of Poznań, Poland. The funiculars that service the docklands are from a day I spent wandering in Naples, Italy, and became fascinated with its tramway network. There are also some pieces of the city that owe to my meanderings in New York. But again, these are my lego bricks that I used to construct a stage for my characters to act upon and interact with each other.

Although my books fall more into the adventure—the characters must traverse a wide terrain—there is an entire genre of urban fantasy set solely in cities. If this kind of thing intrigues you, check out the following works:

* * *

Wannabe fantasy writers who are also travel buffs, how about you? Have you collected some cityscapes on your wanderings you think will affect your writing one day, or perhaps already has? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you’ve been fantasizing about particular topics, let me know, and I’ll attempt to stretch my imagination to discuss in a future post.

Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving” is a pleasure cruise for Western expats in China

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

All hail, displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! As a long-time traveler and reader, I’m drawn to books set somewhere I’ve lived in or gotten to know well. Reading an absorbing travel tale covering ground I once knew intimately, I am lingering again on the streets I once walked, recapturing the taste of meals I once savored, and recalling tiny details about a place that, until that moment, had been lost to memory.

country-driving_cover_pmThis month’s book is the third in Peter Hessler’s award-winning trilogy on China, called Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. I was excited about reading it as I’ve lived in China twice.

Any of you who are China hands will be familiar with Peter Hessler. Originally from Columbus, Missouri, he initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in Fuling, a small city on the Yangtze River. Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of Sichuan province for 50 years.

After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.

I devoured Hessler’s first two memoirs on China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (based on his Peace Corps experience) and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. Peter Hessler CollageI read the first just before moving to China and the second, right in the middle of my stay. Like other China-based expats, I found that Hessler’s descriptions of teaching English in Sichuan Province, along with his detailed portraits of the people he met all across China, helped me understand—and even anticipate—many of the experiences common to Western foreigners in China.

Country Driving follows suit, weaving together stories from the many road trips Hessler took while on assignment for several Western publications: National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.

“Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles.” — Chinese proverb

Country Driving is divided into three sections. In the first, which was also my favorite, Hessler chronicles his 7,000-mile trip across northern China, following the Great Wall all the way from the East China Sea to the Tibetan Plateau, in a rented two-wheel-drive SUV he’s not supposed to take out of Beijing. The reader accompanies him through rush hour traffic, dings and scrapes with other drivers, roadside scams, rutty roads and the wide-open desert leading to the Tibetan Plateau.

As he introduces the reader to the chaos of Chinese roads, he quotes the often bizarre multiple choice questions Chinese driving students are forced to answer, e.g.:

When overtaking another car, a driver should pass
a) on the left.
b) on the right.
c) wherever, depending on the situation.

When passing an elderly person or child, you should
a) slow down and make sure you pass safely.
b) continue at the same speed.
c) honk the horn to tell them to watch out.

When he picks up hitchhikers, who are a common sight on rural highways where there’s often a shortage of direct buses, he tells us their ages, describes their appearances, and reports what their occupations and, often, aspirations are. For instance, in a passage about taking a hairstylist and her grandfather to a city near or in Shaanxi province, Hessler writes:

The old man wore a weathered cap and rough blue cotton clothes. He was mostly toothless: a wispy beard hung from his chin. His traveling companion was the most strikingly pretty woman I ever saw in the north. She was twenty years old, with hair that had been dyed a light red; her lipstick was bright pink and a tiny beauty mark had been tattooed between her eyebrows.

About halfway through the first section of the book, I realized I was reading unusually slowly. Country Driving is a meaty 400 plus pages but Hessler’s prose is smooth enough to make those pages zoom by like one of the tinted-window “cadre cars” he avoids on the highway.

What was happening?

I started paying more attention—and realized that, instead of focusing on Hessler’s descriptions, I was busy daydreaming about China stories of my own. This passage, for instance, really rang home for me:

…(We) continued on foot to the gridlock, where drivers explained what had happened. It all started with a few trucks whose fuel lines had frozen. The trucks stalled…truckers had crawled beneath their rigs, where they lit road flares and held them up to frozen fuel lines. The tableau had a certain beauty: the stark snow-covered steppes, the endless line of black Santanas, the orange fires dancing beneath blue Liberation trucks.

Except in my story it’s not a truck that has the frozen fuel line, it’s a bus. And I’m not admiring the beauty of the landscape; I’m on the bus. And the flares were straw, the bus caught fire, and soon I (and my parents, who were visiting) had to hitch a ride on a different bus.

“If you want happiness in a lifetime, help someone else.” — Chinese proverb

In the second section of the book, “The Village,” Hessler zooms in on Sancha, a rundown village north of Beijing near the Great Wall, where he and a friend end up renting a small house. Whereas before, Hessler was entertaining us with road rules, now he is regaling us with stories of small-town politics. Hessler becomes good friends with his entrepreneurial landlord, and we hear all about this man’s business ventures and political campaigning.

The landlord has a sickly son, to whom Hessler is “Uncle Monster.” At the time Hessler’s rented car is the only reliable transportation in the village, and at one point the story becomes more emotional, when Hessler helps to save the boy’s life in a medical emergency.

Hessler is particularly good at illuminating tiny nuances of Chinese culture and life for the sake of us clueless Westerners. He provides literal translations of road signs and propaganda slogans for our amusement, and he is careful to let us in on passing conversations that point to larger issues.

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” — Chinese proverb

The third part of the book, “The Factory,” loses some of the intimacy built up in the first two sections. We go from travelogue to investigative reporting as Hessler ventures down into the mountainous coastal region of Zhejiang to observe a newly industrialized area, one virtually unknown to the outside world, where single cities produce single products.

What he loses in personal perspective, he makes up with research, interviews, and some great anecdotes. It’s only one third of the book, but could have stood alone.

The stories Hessler tells of the individuals working in this province are some of the most memorable in the whole book: stories whose subjects range from migrants seeking their fortune—at pennies an hour—on the East Coast, to the 50,000 residents of a river valley about to be dammed, to bosses under pressure to build a viable business. One entrepreneur he meets is planning to make his fortune by manufacturing the tiny rings that appear on every bra strap.

StrangeStones_bookcovrCountry Driving was excellent. It captures a lot of the aspects of China I enjoyed while living there—the plucky optimistic people I met, the amazing scenery and some of the wacky, like-nowhere-else experiences I had—but it also shines a light on many of the reasons I decided that my second time living in China would be my last: pollution, decisions made based on “face” or convenience rather than practicality or legality, arbitrary and changing rules.

Last year Hessler has published a fourth book, a collection of previously published stories, called Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, and although I’ve already read a few of the stories, I’ll be picking it up for a browse soon.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for another fascinating column! I almost feel as though I’ve been on a whirlwind trip to China, which is saying a lot, given the vastness of the territory. Readers, are you like Beth: do you like to read about places where you’ve lived as an expat? Why or why not?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN

jill 3One year ago, Displaced Nation asked me to conduct a series of regular interviews with writers on their use of location. Place is vitally important to my writing and that of my colleagues at  Triskele Books . It’s our USP. After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.

First, I’ve selected ten of favourite answers, on how these writers approach weaving literary magic carpets to transport readers to Bombay or Berlin, Syria or Odessa.
Secondly, I’ve added five of the most books that held me spellbound; works which make place a character in its own right.

Happy Anniversary!

Which came first, story or location?

 Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis:
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”

Charlotte Otter, author of Balthasar’s Gift:
“The two are intertwined. When the first images began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.”


How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Chris Pavone, author of The Expats and The Accident:
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying.”

JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult, and The Rise of Zenobia:
“With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Amanda Hodgkinson, author of Spilt Milk:
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”

Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa:
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”

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

Steven Conte, author of The Zookeeper’s War:
“With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.”

AD Miller, author of Snowdrops:
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”

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

James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and the Sea:
“Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch. ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.”

Share an extract from your work which illustrates place.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, on Geneva’s Water Fountain:

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric charges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

Books I’d recommend for use of location:

* * *

In next month’s Location, Locution, our guest will be Jessica Bell, an Australian expat living in Greece, who writes fiction, advice for authors, and makes music too.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.


Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:


And the June 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors June’s four Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) ANDREW CREELMAN, British expat in São Paulo, blogger and author of the memoir Trying to Understand Brazilian Culture

For his post: What It’s Like to Watch World Cup Games on the Streets of São Paulo, on his blog, What About São Paulo?
Posted on: 19 June 2014

Watching England vs Italy
The day I’d been waiting for had arrived! I’d managed to recruit a Dane, an American and a couple of Brazilians to support England with me, and we all headed over to the Fan fest area just in time for the English national anthem. I belted this out with gusto, and I noticed I wasn’t alone; there were at least 100 other Brits I could almost hear singing too.

Then the Italian anthem started, and things took an unexpected turn. It was as if EVERYONE else was singing along to this, waving their Italian flags. But then São Paulo is home to a huge number of Brazilians of Italian descent, and for some reason, I hadn’t even thought about this before arriving. To make things worse, there was a group of big, burly Italians stood by us, clearly very passionate about this song and the team.

Citation: Andrew, we’re surprised you didn’t perfect your capoeira kicks before venturing into the FIFA Fan Fest area of São Paulo to watch England play Italy. But it seems you were that clueless. Your story in fact puts us in mind of Alice when she was handed a flamingo and gopher and told to play croquet. She was “in such confusion that she never knew whether it was her turn or not.” Likewise, we note that you were jumping up and down when you imagined England had scored a goal when in fact the ball had hit the outside of the net. Still, it’s a good thing you were mistaken or else those “big, burly” Brazilians of Italian descent might have screamed “Off with his head!”. As it was, their smirks must have made you feel a right wally. Welcome to the Fédération Internationale de Alice (FIA). And, yes, it’s time to invest in the Brazilian equivalent of Spec Savers.

2) CLAIRE BOLDEN MCGILL, British expat in Maryland and blogger at UKDesperateHousewifeUSA

For her post: Brazil 2014: The World Cup Widow’s Guide to Surviving It Stateside, to Lawrence Brown’s blog, Lost in the Pond
Posted on: 12 June 2014

List of activities for making World Cup widowhood fun

3. Buy a big hat and pretend you’re a rich British aristocrat. There is no other reason to do this, other than it’s something fun to do when the game is on.

Really go to town on the British accent. Order or make tea and be all lah-dee-dah, and poo-poo lemon and sweetener, get a proper milk jug and dunk in a Custard Cream. Keep being posh and drink tea and say posh British things during the game.

Citation: Love it, love it, love it, Claire! Only can we make just one wee suggestion, that while outfitted in this rather outlandish garb, you borrow a line from the March Hare and say to your husband, very earnestly: “Take some more tea.” Then when he says he hasn’t had any tea yet so can hardly take more, you can say:

“You mean you can’t take LESS. It’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.”

Just think, he may look away from the screen for an instant, wondering whether you’ve gone totally barking. Mmmmm… Okay, probably not. Still, a Mad Hatter Tea Party would be marginally more entertaining than playing World Cup bingo with yourself (No 6).

3) JANE DEAN, blogger, editor, writer; English-born global resident (but currently in the Netherlands)

For her post: The Non-Expat Expat: Not Fitting The Box to her blog, Wordgeyser
Posted on: 28 May 2014

Today we have no concept of “home” in a geographic sense. This used to worry me and I know it caused consternation for our families that we no longer felt, or identified ourselves as, “British”. I used to feel wholly American, now not so much. I find I can’t identify with any given nationality, but am most comfortable surrounded by people like me, who are from everywhere.

Citation: Jane, at a time when America is about to celebrate its independence from Britain, we find it refreshing to encounter your “nothing is permanent, not even nationality” perspective. British one day and “wholly American” the next—it’s a pivot that can only be rivaled by the German football players on Team USA. What’s more, it’s impressive that you’ve renounced expat-hood as an alternative identity. We, too, have never identified with the expat label and, upon reading your post, suddenly understood why: it’s because we’ve all been “local” (only one of us has had an expat package, in Japan). Like you, we would advise others who feel they are “from everywhere” not to spend too much time on the Alice-in-Wonderland puzzle of “Who in the world am I?” The sooner one can get over the feeling of having arms and feet poking out of the windows and doors of the White Rabbit’s house—or, as you would put it, Jane, “not fitting the box”—the better. To echo your words: “The worst disasters make the best stories down the years.”

4) BRITTANY JORDT, diehard Wisconsinite, “almost expat” in New Zealand and travel blogger

For her post: Reflections on a year and a half abroad, from an almost expat on her blog, Today I’m 20-Something
Posted on: 13 May 2014

Which brings me to my point: anyone who tells you they don’t miss home is either lying or doesn’t have a home worth missing. In the first case, you can hardly blame a person for denying how much they long for the land of their birth, especially when (as is often the case) it’s not feasible to go back. The second scenario is one I don’t envy, even if the homesickness sometimes drags me down.

Citation: Well said, Brittany! Listen, a rainy day in Auckland, the kind that makes you wear socks with your slippers and huddle around the propane heater, would bring out the homesick in anyone, even those of us who don’t have homes worth missing. But your point is well taken. You’re not in Wisconsin any more. To return to Alice (don’t you imagine she and Dorothy would be friends?), a person who is living abroad, particularly on the other side of the world, in the Land of Feijoas no less, would be lying if they didn’t occasionally admit to having a moment like this:

“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

We also love that you refer to yourself as an “almost expat—a person who still feels the tug of home on her heart”. It’s the perfect way to describe the existential ambivalence that goes hand in hand with a life of displacement, that persistent feeling of: “There’s no place like home…There’s no place…” Is it any wonder that the Kiwi granny thought you were a keeper? :-)

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

TCK TALENT: Alice Shu-Hsien Wu, Cultural Bridge Builder and Global Nomad Videographer

Alice Wu TCK TALENT Collage

Alice Shu-Hsien Wu (her own photo).

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which was the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference.

—ML Awanohara

Happy summer/winter/rainy season, international readers! As some of you may recall, last month I talked to Cathleen Hadley, a fellow ATCK contributor to the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, dedicated to telling the stories of those of us who grew up among different countries. Today I’m interviewing another Limbo contributor, Alice Shu-Hsien Wu. An intercultural communication consultant and lecturer at Cornell University, Alice is particularly interested in intercultural adjustment and in internationally mobile families. She has produced two acclaimed videos about college students who have led internationally mobile, nomadic lives, in which the students themselves discuss such challenges as transition, cultural identity, and rootlessness.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Alice. I understand that you were internationally mobile while growing up, living in England, Finland and Sweden in addition to the United States.
Yes, my father was a biochemistry professor and had sabbaticals in various places. We went from New York City to Palo Alto, California, when I was 6 and to Upstate New York when I was 7, and then to England when I was 11 and back to New York State when I was 12. We also sometimes traveled to various countries where my father had meetings. I was a Rotary exchange student in Finland when I was 17; went to college and grad school in New York; and then, at age 26, went to Sweden to study and work, returning two years later to Ithaca, New York, where I still live.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I’ve been happy in many places—one of my favorites was California because of the sunny weather, fruit trees and flowers in my yard, and sand in the playgrounds (I was 6 then, remember). This was a welcome change from living in NYC—where the playgrounds were concrete and you weren’t allowed to walk on the small amounts of grass.

“Then when I got here it was a big adjustment identity thing: I didn’t feel American…” – Lynn, US

How did you find your various “repatriation” experiences?
My repatriation from Sweden was probably the most challenging—since I had lived there longer and gotten more immersed in the culture through school, work, and friends. I remember thinking American TV newscasters smiled and laughed too much compared to Swedish commentators and that college and grad students in the United States dressed very informally compared to students in Stockholm. Everything in the U.S. seemed bigger than I had become accustomed to in Sweden—gigantic tableware and portions in restaurants (especially in California), huge shopping carts and vast numbers of products in supermarkets. Also, I was surprised by the general lack of discussion about current world events in the U.S., compared to the amount and frequency of these discussions in Europe.

Now you sound like the other Alice: in Wonderland! (I mention because she’s the Displaced Nation’s mascot.) As an instructor at Cornell, you’ve made two important documentaries about global nomads/TCKs, Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the Future (1994) and Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium (2001). What did you like best about the creative process?
Meeting the students and getting to know them—they were fascinating, honest, and articulate. I screened the first global nomads video for the student interviewees at the end of the school year, and they liked it so much they decided to form a global nomads club. They asked me to be their advisor and I ended up working with them for the next three years. They were amazingly creative, active, and energetic and brought a lot to the campus community.

“Global Nomads have the ability to educate others…” – Liliona, Ghana

What attracted you to the documentary format? I have talked to other ATCK actors like myself and to novelists and artists, but you are my first videographer.
Clearly, there are many effective ways to portray the GN/TCK experience, but I was more familiar with the documentary format since I’d used it in teaching. For example, I’d used videos during intercultural training sessions for students and staff at Cornell to introduce topics like cultural adjustment, culture shock, and reentry shock. I also videoed international students as well as first-generation Americans who were participating in panels about aspects of American culture, as well as some international students who were teaching and doing role-plays. So I was very comfortable with the format. I really like being able to feature students’ own words and impressions—especially when I can capture them interacting with other students. In the first video, all of the students were from Cornell. In the second video, the students were from six different schools across the United States: San Diego State University, Colorado State University, The College of Wooster, George Mason University, Syracuse University, and Cornell.

Limbo_coverIn your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you describe the impact of the videos not only on the college students who participated in them but also on the TCKs in your audiences. You produced these two documentaries in the era before social media. How did the news spread?
I showed the videos to as many groups at Cornell as I could: students, including Resident Advisors in dorms and the members of an international student discussion group, as well as groups of staff. I also screened them at international and intercultural conferences. Also, the students who appeared in the first video were great with promotions. They showed it to their dorm-mates to help them understand the GN experience, as well as at an initial meeting of their global nomads club to introduce prospective members to the concept. And they traveled together to a Global Nomads International (GNI) collegiate conference in Virginia where they screened it for GNs and TCKs from other colleges. Audience members who’d been TCKs/GNs could really relate to the students on screen, and word soon spread.

“I never wanted to put down roots…”- Brian, US

Did making these videos help you to better understand yourself as an ATCK?
I could relate to many things that the students talked about, and making the videos helped me think about some of my own experiences such as leaving my friends many times and having friends in many different places.

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures? Or are you like many TCKs who are more likely to identify with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given that we’ll identify with them!)
I identify with some aspects of Nordic cultures like Sweden and Finland, some aspects of Chinese culture (due to my family background), and some aspects of American culture. I always seem to meet global nomads and Third Culture Kids wherever I go: I really enjoy it. After learning about the concept of global nomads and Third Culture Kids at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication and from the late, great David Pollock, I realized that a lot of the friends I’d made at college were global nomads (and they were very interested in learning more once I’d informed them).

As an ATCK, do you want to move frequently, or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My suitcase is always partly packed so it is easy to go on the next trip. On a recent trip to the West Coast, I was thinking about how much I love seeing all the gates listing flights to various parts of the world. I like to imagine what it would be like to jump on one of these planes and end up in a new part of the world. That said, I also enjoy having a home base, especially since I have kids who are quite rooted and don’t like me to be away for very long.

Are you working on a new TCK video project?
Yes. This spring I filmed three panels of Cornell students at Cornell’s Language House. This time I am looking at the influence of technology on the global nomad/TCK experience and how this compares to the experiences of GN/TCK students in my previous two videos. In addition, I am making a video that follows up on some of the students who participated in my first two films, and am planning to use social media tools.

* * *

Thank you, Alice! Readers, if you’re interested in learning more about Alice’s work or obtaining a copy of either of her documentaries, you can go to the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) website. And, to reiterate, you can read her chapter describing her work in Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids. The subheds above are all quotes from the students featured in her second documentary. Please leave any questions or comments for Alice below.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

For this global travel buff who meditates with camera in hand and HDR on screen, a picture says…

Andy Harvard A Picture Says Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Andy Harvard enjoying an ice-cold Hansa in a hotel bar off the coast of Durban (photo source: Andy Harvard).

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is the 45-year-old South African photographer, traveller and chef Andrew (Andy) Harvard. Most chefs enjoy eating and are by nature creative people. Andy is no exception and his creative talents, ideas and passion spill over into his passion for photography, which he indulges on travels in South Africa and worldwide. He has a blog that celebrates all three passions under the descriptive title “snap fly cook”.

An early bird, Andy often wakes-up at 03h00 in summers to be on the beach in Durban, where he lives, in time for first light and sunrise an hour or so later. He is also fond of seeking out “hard to access” locations and revels in the hours spent working and reworking his photos through his favorite software packages. As he puts it:

I find this process very calming and am sometimes like a kid in awe when something magical happens. It is a meditation of sorts for me, an “addiction” that has to be fed. Oh! The wonders of HDR processing.

* * *

Hi, Andy. Even though we haven’t met face to face, we’ve had a fair amount of electronic communication over the past six months, and I’m pleased we’re finally doing this interview. Before we start I’d like to thank you for the support you gave me when I was grappling with the real basics of DLSR and HDR photographylike how to take the lens cap off so my photos wouldn’t look so dark! I know you were born in Durban, which was the first place I visited in South Africa, in 1990. When did you spread your wings and start travelling around photographing different places?
It all started in 1999 at the end of a relationship. My ex-girlfriend and I had travelled to destinations such as Mauritius and the Maldives luxuriating in 4 & 5 star hotels and resorts. As part of our very amicable breakup, she gave me a free return flight to England, where I met my (now) best friend, Jason. He and I flew from England to Amsterdam for three nights. Remember the adage “what goes on tour stays on tour”? Well, I will say no more than it was a good tour and the start of my real travel and photography adventures.

Now we all want to know more; please carry on, Andy.
Well, I have mostly travelled alone and up until meeting my wife, have enjoyed adventuring by myself. I found that travelling with others has the potential to cause unnecessary complications. Maybe you want to eat Italian and your companion wants to eat Indian. One wants to head into Northern India, and the other wants to go spend a week in a houseboat in Kerala, a state in southwest India. I have no problem talking to strangers, mingling and keeping myself very busy. Budget accommodation and street food are my favorites, although I have been known to spend 5,000 INR (Indian rupees, around 80 USD) on a lobster and 14,000 INR (around $2,300 USD) on a hotel room in Mumbai, as well as similar amounts in other locations. But that is only once in a blue moon. It will, therefore, come as no surprise that on each occasion I have been to India, I have suffered from food poisoning.

Concentrate the mind on the present moment – Buddhist precept

You’ve been to quite a number of places in the world. Can you give us a clearer idea of the range?
I have travelled on business to Swaziland and many other destinations in South Africa. In pursuit of the Buddhist spiritual path, I have been to Germany, Spain and the UK to participate in retreats and festivals. I have an appetite for grassroots communication that has taken me to countries such as Brazil, Thailand, Croatia, Turkey and Lesotho. Meeting people from various cultures has been a great inspiration. According to Trip Advisor, I have been to 18 countries and 115 cities.

I understand you like to disconnect completely when you’re on a trip?
When I travel, I have minimal to nil contact with my home country. I purposely detach myself from everyday life for the time I am away so that I can dissolve into a dreamland of new discoveries and possibilities.

Despite having gone North, South, East and West, you are currently living in your birthplace, Durban, a city of which I have fond memories. It’s so long since I was there! What is life like in your hometown these days?
Durban (Zulu: eThekwini, from itheku, meaning “bay/lagoon’), for those who don’t know it as well as you do, is the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal and the busiest port in South Africa and Africa. Though a major manufacturing hub, it’s also a major centre of tourism because of its subtropical climate and fabulous beaches. I don’t think it’s changed much since you left. We Durbanites have always been “laid back”. Our roads are nowhere near as busy as those in the capital, Johannesburg. The beach is still magnificent for surfers and sun lovers, but swimmers must take care. The surf is big and the sharks bite! It’s never cold as you will know, but often the humidity is high. Let’s see, what else can I tell you? Oh, I know. Durban is the home of the Sharks Rugby Union, who are usually title contenders (rugby being our national sport).

It still sounds like a great place to be, but as I became an adopted Capetonian, I afraid I can’t support the Sharks. It’s the Stormers for me.

Receive the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is… – Buddhist precept

Let’s get down to one of your passions that is fast becoming one of mine, too—photography. First, you have kindly agreed to share three photos that capture some of your favorite memories. Can you describe the story behind each one and what makes them so special for you?
These three photos are from 2009 and 2010, before the photography bug really bit me hard. But they have each etched a place in my heart.


The grim reality of poverty in Kolkata; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

This photograph, taken in Kolkata (aka Calcutta), India, shows an elderly, thin, grey-haired lady in an orange sari. The lady in the white sari, lying curled up on the ground, I’d previously seen walking hunchbacked, slowly and in considerable pain, toward Mother Teresa’s home. I had a strong suspicion she was desperately trying to reach Mother Teresa’s Home for the destitute, sick and dying. I do not recall having ever having seen poverty of this magnitude when walking the main and side roads of South Africa, or anywhere else.

The picture alone tells a tragic story but your explanation adds a lot more. Thank you.


Another view of poverty in Kolkata, slightly more uplifting; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

This photo, also taken in Kolkata, indicates how desperate the lives of some people still are. The driver shovels refuse onto the truck while the crows watch in anticipation of scraps as a lady and her son appear to do so as well. The lady was searching for food and maybe something of value whilst her son sat quietly guarding their personal belongings. The dog, relaxed, watched as drivers constantly hooted and maneuvered around one another. A lot of noise but minimal fuss, no road rage or the time-consuming jams we tend to associate with dense traffic. The Kolkata experience was very brief, but I felt a sense of spirituality here. Small shrines are erected on the sides of most roadssometimes seen every fifty metres or so. Every person (other than the beggars at the temple), including the crows, dogs and cows appeared to be busy, desperately doing something meaningful in their quest for survival.

Knowing the story behind this photo helps us to appreciate how well you have captured a small corner of peace and quiet surrounded by a cacophony of noise.


The 2010 World Cup quarter-final match Uruguay vs. Spain, held in Durban, SA (Spain won to eventually take home the title); photo credit: Andy Harvard

Spain beat Germany in Durban on 7 July 2010. They reached a World Cup final for the first time and went on to beat Holland in Johannesburg. The only goal in Durban came from a header by Carles Puyol. This was the first time I had witnessed extreme soccer fever, and this photo won a competition in one of Durban’s newspapers.

In this photo you have captured the spirit of the occasion, which is now upon us again in Brazil. Congratulations on your award.

The key to happiness is inner peace – Buddhist precept

Next we’re going to talk about some of your current favorite places to take photographs. Can you explain why these three places inspire you and how it shows in the photos you’ve selected?
1) Huge mountains, deep valleys, tranquillity, big skies, rural living, clean fresh breezes, golden lightMonteseel, in the Valley of One Thousand Hills, makes one realize how small and insignificant certain problems we all have actually are:

Monteseel, in the  Valley of 1000 Hills, South Africa; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

Monteseel, in the Valley of 1000 Hills, South Africa; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

2) This unspoiled coastline with restricted access is literally around the corner from Durban’s Central Business District, which we call CBD. It’s a photographer’s paradise:


Northern Bluff coastline, Durban, South Africa; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

3) Early mornings at this spot are full of activity: surfers, ski boats, fishermen, sailboats, people exercising, seine netters, photographers, holiday makers, recovering late night revellers and more. After a year of hard slogging, I managed to take this serene pier shot:


Moyo uShaka Pier, Durban, South Africa; photo credit: Andy Harvard.

This photo actually won first place in my photo club’s monthly competition. The chairman said:

Brilliant, love the symmetric composition with a warm and cold side, slightly reminiscent of Turner’s sky in The Fighting Temeraire.

I know that Monteseel is an awesome place, so powerful it’s almost overpowering. It’s a great capture. Your photo of CBD is so dramatic that, although I know how warm the sea is, it looks positively cold. Why have you never shown me this before? It’s awesome. So you had to work a bit to get the last one! Well done.

You should move with a sharp consciousness… – Buddhist precept

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique, which will never be seen again, is a powerful force for you?
Yes, but more importantly, photography is the way I choose to meditate. I go into a semi-transcendental state when shooting and later when processing the photos on the computer. I believe the habit dates from my mother’s death in early 2013. When we visited her in hospital, we would all sit on the veranda outside the ward while I took night-time photos. Later, when going through some boxes of photos she had taken in her youth, I learned that she had been a photographer of “social” note. Not long after, I got hooked on HDR photography. I was a member of a Buddhist tradition for two years, attending teachings and meditation classes about 6–7 hours a week. Now my “meditation” is taking photos while a new day dawns in near complete silence and then sitting for hours post-processing photos to create a work of art. It isn’t a jobit’s a passion; and I want to keep it that way and share the results with others.

Thank you, Andy, for sharing such a fascinating personal story. Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Canon 6D, 17/40mm and 24/105mm. I also have my “old” baby Canon 550D which uses either lens above when not in use by “big brother”.

And which software do you use for post-processing?
Which software do I not use? I will use any software available to manipulate my photos to achieve the look I want to see. I know no bounds in this regard. I started with Photomatix HDR software and would attempt to “HDR” everything I could at any time of the dayi.e., dogs, people, machinery and trees. Later I learnt that this was a little foolish but, as I realized when reading this article on the topic, a necessary part of my progression. Lately, I’ve been shooting fewer exposures and manually blending them in Photoshop with layers and masks. I am new at this and on another learning curve.

Sounds like you are a post-processing junkie. I can identify with that and hope to move up to your level when I understand a lot more about the various programs. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Be confident and take charge. Keep the camera in hand or on a sling (not deep in a bag). Take lots of photos and even different angles on the same scene. Go into a tunnel zone where you are only thinking about and taking photos. Get down on the street and get dirty. Find top photographers who you admire and follow them. Study their work and every word on their pages (great tips sometimes come hidden in a few sentences). Look at the best photo you find and think “I can do this and better, it might just take some time”. Some really kind photographers offer free tutorials in video or written formatmake the time to find them and work through them.

* * *

Thank you, Andy. I have really enjoyed our interview. Your story is so compelling and you do approach things from a different angle to many of us.

Readers, what do you make of Andy’s experiences and his photography advice? And do you have any questions for him on his photos and/or experiences? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Andy, don’t forget to visit his blog, Snap Fly Cook. You can also connect with him on Facebook and visit his gallery of “special” photos on

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Summer in a bottle…we’re jammin’

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

* * *

“I heard that wine makers in the Napa Valley have found that picking grapes at night yields better wine,” I said to my husband as we walked the dog around our little neighbourhood.

He followed my line of vision to an apricot tree, which, every June, heaves with the luscious yellow fruit.

“I still think it would be a stretch for that snippet of hearsay to justify nicking the neighbour’s apricots to make jam,” he said.

“As if I would think of it,” I snapped.

But of course, I have thought of it, and often. After three years of living in France, I realize that I have entered into the kind of seasonal cooking that would make the hearts of certain editors of food magazines sing. Preserving has become a huge part of my life. Whenever I see a tree bursting with fruit, I am mentally pulling my preserving pan out of the pantry. Indeed, no tree is safe. My own cherry tree has been stripped bare of its rich dark cherries, which are now satisfyingly preserved in jars with wide red and white checked lids and little fruit decorated labels. Kitsch? Twee? Call it what you will.

Preserving the past

Seasonal preserving not only makes me feel smugly capable, it also provides a connection with a past where preserving was a necessity and not a lifestyle choice. In France the changing seasons are very clear and marked by the varieties of available produce. This is not always the case in other countries where I have lived. Sometimes seasons are blurred due to imports for those able to pay, while in others there is a shortage of actual seasons.  I have always thought we should be grateful Vivaldi was not born in Malaysia.

Jo's strawberrys and raspberrys

At the market

Here in Aix I buy my fruit and vegetables in a large farm shop. As the year progresses, the produce changes. Strawberries come in around April or May and I watch the prices drop and drop until 4 Euros buys you 2 kilos and you are happy to macerate and preserve to your heart’s content. As the supply of strawberries peaks and peters out, in come the apricots, at jaw-droppingly low prices. In England I would feel guilty to pay that much and make jam, preferring instead to use fewer and to put them where they are visible. So the season goes on with harvests of figs, walnuts, grapes and avocados. Even after years of living overseas, it still amazes me that something as special to a Brit as artichokes or avocados can be displayed in barrels as if they were as common as potatoes in Ireland.

I hope I never lose the delight in this aspect of expat life.

Gorgeous Cheddar, where seasonal quality trumps year-round quantity

I can get quite upset thinking of the English strawberry. The best of the best, produced in the county of my birth, Somerset, in the little village of Cheddar. Poor Cheddar, famous for its wonderful cheese, which has been knocked off and plasticized the world over until most people outside the UK don’t even know what real Cheddar is. On top of this, the reduction of its strawberry industry too. The problem was that for all its well-drained and optimal facing slopes, the season was only weeks long. It couldn’t produce enough fruit to satisfy the appetite of the nation which stamped its foot and demanded more and cheaper strawberries, and a longer season to boot.

The nation should be careful what it wishes for. Fruit varieties have been tampered with and grown under plastic so that we can enjoy strawberries for longer than the two weeks of Wimbledon. Flavor has been compromised — of that there can be no doubt. But you can still buy the real thing in Cheddar, or grow your own, and it’s well worth doing if only to see what this fruit should actually taste like: strawberry, if you are interested, and not water.

Then there are the imports. I am all for world travel, but not for soft fruit on which an indefinite travel ban should be imposed. The waxy Spanish strawberry is not only nearly devoid of the flavor of strawberry, but its texture is decidedly unappealing, being as coarse and waxy as an ageing fruit-pickers cheeks.

How much do I love a good strawberry? A bushel and a peck and some in a gourd.

Having said all that, I am (somewhat surprisingly) delighted to see the vast quantities of Spanish strawberries in my French market. There are two points in my rather shifty defense. Firstly, they are cheap, which justifies their use in jam. Turning a perfectly grown, traditional Cheddar strawberry into jam would be a crime, but boiling the heck out of the Spanish and adding sugar can only act to improve the flavor they lack. Secondly, the presence of the Carpentras strawberry gives a taste of how things should be.

The village of Carpentras, in the Vaucluse region of Southern France, hosts a strawberry festival in April each year. I like to think of this village as Soft Fruit Soul Sister to Cheddar. Yet, unlike Cheddar, Carpentras has been successful, in that typically French way, of protecting its strawberry: as fiercely as Champagne growers have protected their name under a registered trademark since 1987. We have much to learn from them.

Several varieties are grown. 90% of production is given over to the parajo, while its posher cousins, the ciflorette and the garriguette, are favored respectively by patissieres and those who like their fruit as it comes. These elite strawberries have retained their, well, strawberrishness with a deeper, fuller flavor. Price is higher but it is a price that locals and fancy restaurants alike are willing to pay for flavor. My favorite is the garriguette which, at 3.90 Euros this morning for 250g (16 strawberries), is nearly double the price of the regular Carpentras, but so well worth it.

This is the taste of the homegrown strawberries I remember from my youth, complete with that rich, almost caramel-like flavour. Heaven, and worth every centime.

Joanna's jam

Joanna’s jam

Bottling summer sunshine for winter days ahead

So here in France I can enjoy quality in my tarts and quantity for my preserves, and that, I think, is a perfect combination. In England it is less of a clear cut and easy situation. Most of my local Pick Your Own farms have closed in recent years and, outside of two or three beloved greengrocers, everything is plastic punneted mediocrity. Not awful, but not good and definitely not strawberry.

Back in France, as the year progresses, so my level of stress rises. Two batches of strawberry, one of cherry, brined olives rinsed and now bottled in olive oil, and apricot in the making, have placed considerable strain on my supply of jars. Yet I am always thinking greedily ahead. Figs are already on my mind, yet here I am in the throes of moving house. Somehow, the making of that Fig Confit must happen. I can’t miss figs at those sorts of prices. They must be preserved before my pans are packed. Or immediately after arriving at the new place before my boxes are fully unloaded. Will I be able to do it? I feel the panic rising. No amount of telling myself that I don’t actually have to do it this year has any effect. I have to. I must. It’s just the rhythm of the year and I can’t bear to miss the joy of opening a jar at Christmas in the midst of an English winter. Just a little ray of Provence sunshine from my other home on a cold, cold day. A little fig confit to serve with the foie gras adds a French touch to the festive season.

The stress is intensive by that Apricot tree which still preys on my mind. Those wasted golden globes are just asking for my attention. It really would be a crime to let them wither on the tree. Wouldn’t it?

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “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?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is made in the shade for expats and Third Culture Kids

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Today we welcome brand new columnist Beth Green to the Displaced Nation. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML! Displaced Nationers, for my first column we’ll be plunging into the world of crime fiction in which a city plays a major role. As I’m sure you know, many popular crime novels are set in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Chicago, where that setting is as important as the crimes committed there.

So, let me introduce another city with an underbelly you might enjoy: Dublin.

In contrast to the shamrock-and-Guinness tourist propaganda, Dublin can have a grittier, noir aspect, at least in the hands of skilled writer Tana French.

If you’re looking for a nice read where setting bolsters plot, and where some of the themes related to the experiences of those who lead the international creative life, French’s series about the Dublin Murder Squad is a fine place to start. The series, currently consisting of four books, features the members of Ireland’s fictional homicide unit, each of whom is given narration duties for one of the books—a device by which we constantly get new perspectives on the other detectives in the team as well as a chance to see the Irish Republic’s capital city through a new pair of eyes.

Various Dublins

For example, when the narrator is an experienced cop who was born to a poor family, the city doesn’t get a glossy treatment. He describes, with equal honesty, the run-down parts of town where members of his family live and the middle-class suburb where his ex-wife now resides.

Another detective, who has lived abroad, describes Dublin with more of a tourist’s eye when it’s her turn to narrate a novel.

Yet another is obsessed with appearances; and the fourth alternately seems to love and hate the city.

Cultural challenges

Though born in the USA, Tana French grew up as a Third Culture Kid. Her father was a development economist, and she spent her childhood in Ireland, Italy, the USA, and Malawi. She went to university, and ultimately chose to settle, in Ireland. Perhaps reflecting this early experience, French has each of her main characters navigate some kind of cultural shift in addition to playing his or her role in the solving (or making) of a murder.

IntheWoods_cover_pmIn the Woods is French’s debut, Edgar-winning novel. The action centers on homicide detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, both of whom feel culturally conflicted. Ryan, who grew up in the same village he must now investigate, was sent away to school after a horrifying childhood experience. He returns to Ireland as an adult but retains a carefully learned prep-school accent and manner of dress that marks him as an outsider even while standing in front of his childhood home.

Maddox, on the other hand, spent part of her childhood with relatives in France. She speaks French fluently and readily adapts to new surroundings and diverse situations. While this chameleon-like quality often comes in handy, it also gives her a sense of alienation in her home country. As Maddox says in The Likeness, the next book in the series:

I take after the French side. Nobody thinks I’m Irish, till I open my mouth.

Love of disguises

TheLikeness_cover_pmIn The Likeness, Maddox narrates the story of how she must go undercover impersonating someone—a foreigner, it turns out, who in turn is impersonating an undercover role (that of a college student) Maddox had previously assumed.

Controlling these layers of identity becomes intoxicating to Maddox (and to the reader, I might add) while also putting her career, and that of her superior officer, Frank Mackey, at risk.

Reading The Likeness, I was impressed by how much detail French provides to show that Maddox undergoes a believable transformation.

The domestic expat

In French’s third book, Faithful Place, Maddox’s boss, Mackey, gets his chance to prove himself in navigating the shifting subtleties of Irish culture and society.

Set in an area of Dublin known as The Liberties— not far from the tourist highlights in terms of distance but miles away in terms of economic progress and commitment to law and order—Faithful Place requires Mackey to return to the home he grew up in and attempt to solve the disappearance of his high school sweetheart, who he had always thought simply dumped him.

FaithfulPlace_cover_pmThough Mackey is thought of as down-to-earth and street-smart by his colleagues (one of the joys of the Dublin Murder Squad books is seeing different characters from inside and out over the course of several books), his time as a cop has not endeared him to his family or neighbors. He also married “up”, and there’s a great minor plot line concerning his decision to introduce his young daughter, Holly, to his “lower-class” relations.

At the beginning of the novel, Mackey says:

Both Jackie and Olivia have tried hinting, occasionally, that Holly should get to know her dad’s family. Sinister suitcases aside, over my dead body does Holly dip a toe in the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest.

No safe harbors

Broken Harbor_cover_pmIn the latest book in the series, Broken Harbor, a minor character from Faithful Place, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, takes the lead in investigating a gruesome crime committed in a rundown (yet half-finished) housing development on the same site his family used to vacation when he was a child.

Kennedy introduces the housing site to us as follows:

I used to know Broken Harbor like the back of my hand, when I was a skinny little guy with home-cut hair and mended jeans. Kids nowadays grew up on sun holidays during the boom, two weeks in the Costa del Sol is their bare minimum. But I’m forty-two and our generation had low expectations.

Why French speaks to international creatives

Though common plot and character threads hold a detective series together, there’s always a danger the author will fall back on the same formula to help her main characters solve the crimes in question. French succeeds in weaving common themes throughout the four books while also treating these themes afresh in each work. Most excitingly for us expats, she visits and revisits the feeling of being out-of-place in a culture (or subculture) not your own as well as the clashes that can occur when working with someone from a different background. Another favorite theme of hers, which also aligns with some expat experiences, is the stress of being evaluated on one’s exterior appearance.

But one of the most important common themes in Broken, Faithful and Woods is the power that a special place from one’s childhood can have—to which French’s fellow ATCK readers can surely relate. In Woods, Ryan must solve a crime in the very forest a crime was committed against him as a child—a crime he cannot remember but desperately wishes he could. In Faithful, Mackey discovers the ties to the past can last fast and strong, even years after he thought he’d broken them. And, in Broken, Kennedy’s memories from his childhood make the seaside scenery both delightful and sad, while the importance of the spot to the victims is equally powerful and alluring albeit for different reasons.

Moreover in Likeness, perhaps my favorite of the series so far, the main character doesn’t return to a place that’s important to her, but it’s just as important for her to realize that she—like the victim—doesn’t have a particular place on Earth to call her own in memory or deed.

French’s next novel, The Secret Place, will continue the Murder Squad series but with a new set of protagonist detectives drawn from the supporting characters of the first four novels. It comes out in August.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for such a fascinating column! I felt completely transported to the noir underbelly of Dublin. BTW, I noticed that in an interview with French that is posted on Amazon, she says she can’t imagine herself setting her books anywhere other than Dublin as she knows the city like the back of her hand. Hard to imagine she started life as an American! And I must say, her crime series sounds like perfect summer reading. What do others think? Have you read French, and if so, do you concur that her books would suit expats and TCKs?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,967 other followers

%d bloggers like this: