The Displaced Nation

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Best of 2014 in expat books (1/2)

Best of Expat Books 2014

Kindle Amazon e-reader by Unsplash via Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

Seasons greetings, Displaced Nationers. That special time of the year is here again, when we publish our selection of this year’s books with meaningful connections to expats, Third Culture Kids, global wanderers, and others of us who have in some way led “displaced lives”.

Having assembled this list on my own in years past, I am pleased to be joined this year by Beth Green, our BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist, who has also graciously agreed to sign over her column space for the month.

Let’s give Beth the floor:

Happy holidays, all! Preparing for this yearly special, I went back through all of the books I’ve read since January—not such an easy task; I read a lot!—and realized that I hadn’t actually read all that many that were published in 2014. I just now took a look at my TBR list, to which I’m constantly adding—and saw it includes a few that were written a couple of hundred years ago!

As is the case I suspect for many a well-traveled reader, I read most often on my Kindle, which means that I don’t often look at the title and publication pages to see when the book came out. Probably the book that has stayed with me for the longest this year is The Tiger’s Wife, the debut novel by Téa Obreht, an American writer of Bosniak/Slovene origin. But that came out in 2011!

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And now for some 2014 picks in these three categories (stay tuned for a follow-up post with THREE MORE CATEGORIES!!):

  1. TRAVEL
  2. MEMOIRS
  3. CROSS-CULTURAL CHALLENGES

A few points to note:

  • Books in each category are arranged from most to least recent.
  • Unless otherwise noted, books are self-published.
  • Contributions by Beth are (appropriately enough!) in green.

* * *

TRAVEL

My_Gutsy_story_cover_smallMy Gutsy Story Anthology: Inspirational Short Stories About Taking Chances and Changing Your Life (Volume 2) (October 2014)
Compiled by: Sonia Marsh
Synopsis: Marsh celebrates the gutsy in each of us with this collection of stories from 64 authors who found the courage to face their fears and live their dreams.
Expat credentials: Born to a Danish mother and British father, who brought her to live in West Africa at the age of three months, Marsh has lived in many countries—Demark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize—and considers herself a citizen of the world. With a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., she is currently living in Southern California with her husband but in 2015 intends to start a new chapter as a Peace Corps volunteer.
How we heard about: We have long enjoyed Marsh’s collection of “gutsy” travel stories and have followed her on Twitter for some time.


Luna_Tango_Cover_smallLuna Tango (The Dance Card Series Book 1) (Harlequin Mira, July 2014)
Author: Alli Sinclair
Genre: Romance
Synopsis: Tango is a mysterious—and deadly—influence in journalist Danni McKenna’s life. She looks for answers about her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and finds romance in the process.
Expat credentials: Alli Sinclair is from Australia but lived for many years in South America, where she worked as a mountain and tour guide. She considers herself a citizen of the world.
How we heard about it:  I used to blog with Alli on the now-retired Novel Adventurers and have enjoyed hearing about her book’s path to publication. I was especially thrilled when Luna Tango won Book of the Year in the inaugural AusRom Today Reader’s Choice Awards last month. Congratulations, Alli!


Slow-Train-final-cover_smallSlow Train to Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, April 2014)
Author: Diccon Bewes
Genre: Travel history
Synopsis: Bewes follows “in the footsteps” of Miss Jemima Morrell, a customer on Thomas Cook’s first guided tour of Switzerland in 1863, and discovers how this plucky Victorian woman helped shape the face of modern tourism and Switzerland itself, transforming it into the Cinderella of Europe.
Expat creds: An Englishman who grew up in “deepest Hampshire”, Bewes worked for ten years at Lonely Planet and the UK consumer magazine Which? Travel, before moving to Bern, Switzerland, where he is now a full-time writer. He considers himself a “permanent expat.”
How we discovered: I came across Bewes’s blog through a Google Alert and was impressed by how prolific he is. I also liked the fact that he admits to being a chocolate lover. (No wonder he has a thing for Switzerland!)


Kamikaze_kangaroos_cover_smallKamikaze Kangaroos!: 20,000 Miles Around Australia. One Van,Two Girls… And An Idiot (February 2014)
Author: Tony James Slater
Synopsis: Tony James Slater knew nothing about Australia. Except for the fact that he’d just arrived there. The stage is set for an outrageous adventure: three people, one van, on an epic, 20,000-mile road trip around Australia. What could possibly go wrong?…
Expat credentials: As a former writer for the Displaced Nation, what more creds does Tony need?
How we heard about: The Displaced Nation is committed to tracking Tony’s progress as a writer. We are especially fond of his ability to make fun of himself! He wears his travels lightly, you might say…


MEMOIRS

Year_of_Fire_Dragons_cover_smallYear of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong (Blacksmith, forthcoming June 2015; available for pre-order)
Author: Shannon Young
Synopsis: When 22-year-old Shannon follows her Eurasian boyfriend to his hometown of Hong Kong, she thinks their long distance romance is over. But a month later his company sends him to London. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her plans. Soon, she will need to choose between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.
Expat creds: Shannon is an American twenty-something currently living in Hong Kong. (Reader, she married him!)
How we knew about: Shannon writes our “Diary of an Expat Writer” column and has also been sharing “chunks” from an anthology she edited of writings by women expats in Asia (see listing below: under “Crosscultural Challenges”).


Coming_Ashore_cover_smallComing Ashore (October 2014)
Author: Catherine Gildiner
Synopsis: The third and final in a series of best-selling memoirs by this American who has worked for many years as a psychologist in Toronto and writes a popular advice column in the Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine. The book begins with Gildiner’s move to Canada in 1970 to study literature at the University of Toronto, where she ends up rooming with members of the FLQ (Quebec separatists), among other adventures.
How we heard about: Book #2 in Chatelaine’s 7 must-read books for November.


I_stand_corrected_cover_smallI Stand Corrected: How Teaching Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson (Nan A. Talese, October 2014)
Author: Eden Collinsworth
Synopsis: Collinsworth tells the story of the year she spent living among the Chinese while writing an advice manual covering such topics as personal hygiene (non-negotiable!), the rules of the handshake, and making sense of foreigners. (She has since returned to live in New York City.)
How we heard about: Book #3 in Conde Nast Traveler’s 7 Books to Get You Through Travel Delays, Bad Company.


Seven_Letters_from_Paris_cover_smallSeven Letters from Paris: A Memoir (October 2014)
Author: Samantha Vérant
Synopsis: At age 40, Samantha Verant’s life is falling apart—she’s jobless, in debt, and feeling stuck…until she stumbles upon 7 old love letters from Jean-Luc, the sexy Frenchman she’d met in Paris when she was 19. She finds him through a Google search, and both are quick to realize that the passion they felt 20 years prior hasn’t faded with time and distance.
How we heard about: From an interview with Vérant by British expat in Greece Bex Hall on her new blog, Life Beyond Borders.


Becoming_Home_cover_smallBecoming Home: A Memoir of Birth in Bali (October 2014)
Author: Melinda Chickering
Synopsis: Though born in small-town USA, Melinda never felt quite at home there. As an adult, her search for herself led her to the Indonesian island of Bali, where she found herself living a life she hadn’t anticipated, becoming a housewife and mother. This memoir of her experience with pregnancy and birth offers a window on life for a western woman living in an Asian culture that respects the forces of darkness as well as the light.
Expat credentials: Originally from Iowa, Chickering has settled in Bali.
How we heard about it: Displaced Nationer Melinda contacted me earlier this year to tell us the exciting news that her memoir was being published. Congratulations, Melinda!


The_Coconut_Latitudes_cover_smallThe Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms, and Survival in the Caribbean (September 2014)
Author: Rita M. Gardner
Synopsis: Rita is an infant when her father leaves a successful career in the US to live in “paradise”—a seaside village in the Dominican Republic. The Coconut Latitudes is her haunting, lyrical memoir of surviving a reality far from the envisioned Eden—and of the terrible cost of keeping secrets.
How we heard about: Displaced Nation columnist James King interviewed Rita for “A picture says”.


At_home_on_Kazakh_Steppe_cover_smallAt Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir (August 2014)
Author: Janet Givens
Synopsis: The story a middle-aged grandmother who left behind a life she loved and forged a new identity as an English teacher, mentor, and friend in Kazakhstan, a newly independent country determined to find its own identity after generations under Soviet rule.
How we heard about: Recommended by the We Love Memoirs Facebook Community.


Into_Africa_cover_smallInto Africa: 3 kids, 13 crates and a husband (June 2014)
Author: Ann Patras
Synopsis: Patras was born and raised in Burton-upon-Trent, in the English Midlands. When her husband, Ziggy, is offered a two-year contract as site manager for building a new cobalt plant in Zambia, they discuss the pros and cons of leaving luxuries and England behind—and then decide it could be an “interesting” family adventure. They end up raising three kids, countless dogs and living in Africa for over thirty years. (She and Ziggy now live in Andalucía, Spain, and have absolutely no intention of ever moving again. Hmmm…have they encountered Charlotte Smith yet? See next item.)
How we heard about: E-book promotion.


PawPrintsinOman_cover_smallPaw Prints in Oman: Dogs, Mogs and Me (April 2014)
Author: Charlotte Smith
Synopsis: Smith was born, raised and lived in West Sussex, UK, until her persuasive husband, Nick, swept her and their youngest daughter off to live in mystical Oman. Her love of animals helped her to shape an extraordinary life in the Middle East—her first step being to convince a local veterinary clinic to employ her. (Note: Smith now lives in Andalucía, in southern Spain.)
How we heard about: Recommended by the We Love Memoirs Facebook community. The book was also on the New York Times best-seller list (“animals”) in October.


loveyoubye_cover_smallLoveyoubye: Holding Fast, Letting Go, And Then There’s the Dog (She Writes Press, April 2014)
Author: Rossandra White
Synopsis: A collision of crises on two continents forces Rossandra White to face the truth. Just as her American husband disappears to Mexico, her brother’s health crisis calls her back home to Africa, and her beloved dog receives a fatal diagnosis. She faces down her demons to make a painful decision: stay in a crumbling marriage, or leave her husband of 25 years and forge a new life alone.
How we heard about: Through a Facebook share of White’s Good Reads giveaway.


Lost_in_Spain_cover_smallLost in Spain: A Collection of Humorous Essays (March 2014)
Author: Scott Oglesby
Synopsis: Scott Oglesby moved to Spain to start over. When he discovered he was still the same person, now six thousand miles from home, the result was dysfunction, delusion, chaos and this book, which many readers have described as “hilarious” and “brilliant”.
How we heard about: E-book promotion.


Journey_to_a_Dream_cover_smallJourney to a Dream: A voyage of discovery from England’s industrial north to Spain’s rural interior (February 2014)
Author: Craig Briggs
Synopsis: Craig, his wife Melanie and their dog, Jazz, left their home town of Huddersfield, in England’s industrial north, and set off for Galicia: a remote and little-known autonomous province in the northwest corner of Spain. And so began their Journey to a Dream…
How we heard about: E-book promotion, as a result of which I am currently reading this on my Kindle. It’s very well written and entertaining.


Paris_Letters_cover_smallParis Letters: One woman’s journey from the fast lane to a slow stroll in Paris (February 2014)
Author: Janice Macleod
Synopsis: MacLeod found herself age 34 and single, suffering from burn-out and dissatisfaction. So she abandoned her copywriting job and headed off to Europe, where she ended up finding love and freedom in a pen, a paintbrush…and Paris! Macleod says her journey was inspired by The Artist’s Way, written by Julie Cameron.
How we heard about: From an interview with MacLeod by American expat in Paris Lindsey Tramuta, which appeared on Lindsey’s blog, Lost in Cheeseland.



CROSS-CULTURAL CHALLENGES

Soundimals_cover_smallSoundimals: An illustrated guide to animal sounds in other languages (November 2014)
Author/illustrator: James Chapman.
Synopsis: In English, we say dogs go WOOF, but in Romanian they go HAM HAM. Chapman regularly publishes illustrations of onomatopoeia and animal sounds in other languages on his Tumblr blog. This book (available through his Etsy shop) collects some of those plus a lot of new sounds that weren’t in the original comics, and a few new animals that haven’t been posted at all.
Expat creds: None that we know of; would love to hear more about how he got started collecting these sounds.
How we heard about: Pinterest.


The_Devil_in_us_cover_smallThe Devil in Us (CreateSpace, October 2014)
Author: Monica Bhide
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Short stories that carry you to a far away place, amidst people seemingly very foreign to you, but somehow create a connection—from the Indian-American cancer survivor escaping her pain and finding passion in Mumbai, to the Japanese teen in Georgetown discovering forbidden love. Bhide is known for her writings about Indian food. This is her first work of fiction.
Expat creds: Monica is originally from Delhi, India, but has lived in Bahrain ad now in the United States.
How we found out about: Pinterest.


Japanese_Husband_cover_smallMy Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy! The comic book: Surviving and thriving in an intercultural, interracial marriage in Tokyo (October 2014)
Author: Grace Buchelle Mineta
Genre: Comics/manga; humor
Synopsis: The autobiographical misadventures of a native Texan freelancer and her Japanese “salaryman” husband, in comic book form.
Expat credentials: Mineta grew up mostly in Texas, but also spent her teenage years in Accra, Ghana and Sapporo (Hokkaido), Japan. She now lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband (they got married in January) and blogs at Texan in Tokyo.
How we found out about: From a guest post by Mineta on Jocelyn Eikenburg’s blog, Speaking of China, titled The “Dark Side” to Moving Across the World for Love.



Kurinji_Flowers_cover_smallKurinji Flowers (October 2014)
Author: Clare Flynn
Genre: Historical romance
Synopsis: Set in South India during World War II and India’s struggle for independence, the book is centered on a young British colonial, Ginny Dunbar, who has arrived in India for a new start in life. She has to battle her inner demons, the expectations of her husband, mother-in-law, and colonial British society, and her prejudices towards India and its people.
Expat credentials: Flynn has never been an expat (she lives in London), but she is an Italophile and spends lots of time in Italy. She loves travel and her idea for this book came while she was on holiday in Kerala, India.
How we knew about: Flynn was interviewed by JJ Marsh for the latter’s popular column, LOCATION LOCUTION.



The_Haiku_Murder_cover_smallThe Haiku Murder (Josie Clark in Japan mysteries Book 2) (October 2014)
Author: Fran Pickering
Genre: Expat mystery series
Synopsis: A haiku-writing trip turns to tragedy when a charismatic financier falls from the top of Matsuyama castle. But was he pushed? Expat Londoner Josie Clark thinks he was, and that’s when the trouble starts…
Expat credentials: Pickering has lived and worked in Tokyo, and though she is now back in London (literally next door to where she was born), she travels back to Japan frequently to visit friends and do research for the Josie Clark mystery series.
How we heard about: Pickering was interviewed by JJ Marsh for the latter’s popular column, LOCATION LOCUTION.



LostinTranslation_cover_smallLost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (September 2014)
Author: Ella Frances Sanders
Genre: Illustration/Translation
Synopsis: Did you know that the Japanese language has a word to express the way sunlight filters through the leaves of trees? Or that there’s a Finnish word for the distance a reindeer can travel before needing to rest? This book is an artistic collection of more than 50 drawings featuring unique, funny, and poignant foreign words that have no direct translation into English.
Expat credentials:  A self-described “intentional” global nomad, Sanders has lived all over the place—most recently Morocco, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.
How we heard about: From a post about the book by Maria Popova on her much-acclaimed Brain Pickings site.


Everything_I_Never_Told_You_cover_smallEverything I Never Told You (Penguin, June 2014)
Author: Celeste Ng
Genre: Thriller
Synopsis: A mixed-race family in the 1970s tries to unravel a family tragedy.
Expat credentials: Celeste Ng isn’t an expat, but she has a deep understanding of what it means to feel displaced. Her work deals with multiculturalism and race issues in the United States.
How we heard about it: It was voted the Amazon Book of the Year.


TheBook_Of_Unknown_Americans_smallThe Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf, June 2014)
Author:  Cristina Henríquez
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.
Expat credentials: Henríquez isn’t an expat, but her father was—he came to the US from Panama to attend university.
How we heard about it: Henríquez’s novel was Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller this year in the Hispanic American Literature & Fiction category.


TheOtherLanguage_cover_smallThe Other Language (Pantheon, April 2014)
Author: Francesca Marciano
Synopsis: A collection of short stories involving women who are confronted by radical change or an old flame, in locations that range from New York to India to Kenya to southern Italy.
Expat credentials: Marciano is an Italian novelist who left Rome at age 21 to live in the United States. She later moved to Kenya, where she lived for a decade. Although Italian is her first language, she chooses to write in English.
How we found out: From an essay by William Grimes in the New York Times Book Review: “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar: Writing in English, Novelists Find Inventive New Voices.”


Dragonfruit_cover_smallHow Does One Dress to Buy Dragon Fruit: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (April 2014)
Editor: Shannon Young
Genre: Expat non-fiction; anthology
Synopsis: In this collection, 26 women reveal the truth about expatriate life in modern East Asia through original works of memoir and creative non-fiction.
Expat credentials: To qualify for inclusion in the volume, writers had to be able to say they were, or had once been, expats.
How we heard about: We have followed Shannon Young ever since she contributed to the Displaced Nation on the topic of the London Olympics. She currently writes a column for us about being an expat writer, and we’ve been sharing “chunks” from her Dragonfruit anthology for the past few months.


Chasing_Athens_cover_smallChasing Athens (April 2014)
Author: Marissa Tejada
Genre: Romance
Synopsis: When Ava Martin’s new husband unexpectedly ditches her months after they’ve relocated across the world to Greece, the heartbroken American expat isn’t sure where home is anymore. On the verge of flying back to the States with her tail between her legs, she makes an abrupt decision to follow her gut instead and stay on in Greece, until a crisis back home forces her to decide where she truly belongs.
Expat credentials: A Native New Yorker, Tejada is an author, writer and journalist based in Athens, Greece. Living the expat life in Europe inspired her to write her debut novel.
How we heard about it: Again, from an interview conducted by British expat in Greece Bex Hall on her blog, Life Beyond Borders.


Moving_without_Shaking_cover_smallMoving Without Shaking: The guide to expat life success (from women to women) (April 2014)
Author: Yelena Parker
Genre: Guidebook-meets-memoir
Synopsis: Parker draws from the experiences and views of 9 women who have lived across 12 countries, to craft a resource for those who are dreaming of—or already facing—relocation abroad.
Expat creds: Parker herself is originally from Eastern Ukraine but has lived and worked in the US, Switzerland, the UK and Tanzania. She has chosen London as her latest expat location.
How we heard about: From a Google Alert.


QueenOfCloudPirates_cover_smallQueen of the Cloud Pirates (Crossing the Dropline Book 1) (March 2014)
Author: Andrew Couch
Genre: Fantasy novella
Synopsis: Far to the North of the Iron League core cities lies the Dropline. Beyond this line of cliffs the power of elemental Air rules supreme. The crucial region is threatened and two young men stand at the tipping point. In order to survive, they must learn to work together and rise above their own shortcomings. Oh yeah, and escape from pirates. Don’t forget the pirates….
Expat credentials: An American abroad, Couch lives with his wife in Freiburg, Germany. He says that much of the inspiration for the worlds he writes about is a mix of a wild and crazy imagination (he grew up reading fantasy books) and his travels around the world.
How we found out about: Couch contributes the HERE BE DRAGONS column to the Displaced Nation, focusing on the connection between the displaced life and fantasy writing (more powerful than any skeptics out there might think!).


What_Happens_in_Nashville_cover_smallWhat Happens in Nashville (March 2014)
Author: Angela Britnell
Genre: Romance (“choc lit”)
Synopsis: Claire Buchan, a straight-laced barrister from Exeter, UK, flies to Nashville, Tennessee, to organize her sister Heather’s bridal bash—and quickly finds herself out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a most unsuitable beau…
Expat credentials: Britnell grew up in a small Cornish village in southwestern England. She served in the Royal Navy for almost six years, culminating in an assignment in Denmark, where she met her American husband. Thus began a chronic expat life. The couple, now empty nesters, have settled in Brentwood, Tennessee.
How we heard about: Rosie Milne wrote about Britnell in an article that appeared on Telegraph Expat: “Expat romantic novelists inspired by real life.” (Milne btw lives in Singapore and runs Asian Books Blog.)


Monsoon_Memories_cover_smallMonsoon Memories (January 2014)
Author: Renita D’Silva
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: Sometimes the hardest journeys are the ones that lead you home. Exiled from her family in India for more than a decade, Shirin and her husband lead a comfortable but empty life in London. Memories of her childhood fill Shirin with a familiar and growing ache for the land and the people that she loves. With the recollections, though, come dark clouds of scandal and secrets. Secrets that forced her to flee her old life and keep her from ever returning…
Expat credentials: Now living in the UK, Renita grew up in a picturesque coastal village in South India.
How we heard about: Amazon.


The_Shaping_of_Water_cover_smallThe Shaping of Water (December 2013—we’re letting it squeak in!)
Author: Ruth Hartley
Genre: Literary fiction
Synopsis: The story concerns the overlapping lives of several different people, expats and locals or some mix, who are connected to a ramshackle cottage by a man-made lake in Central Africa during the Liberation wars across its region.
Expat credentials: Hartley grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities. She later moved back to Africa, as an expat. She now lives in Southern France.
How we heard about: I discovered Hartley via one of my social networks and then decided to approach her about being interviewed for the Displaced Nation.

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Your turn readers: Have you read any of the above works and if so, what did you think of them? And can you suggest other works to add to the list? Beth and I look forward to reading your comments below!

From Beth:
Intrigued by some of these titles? Go on, download a few! ‘Tis the season to support the output of other international creatives!

Finally, please note: Beth and I may repeat this exercise in six months (summer reads!). But if you can’t wait until then, I suggest that you sign up for our DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week, and also follow our Pinterest board: DISPLACED READS.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post: IT’S FOOD!, THIRD CULTURE KIDS & COUNTRY GUIDES/TRIBUTES.

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In this novel of displacement, water shapes the land, the country and people’s lives, almost beyond recognition

Ruth Hartley Collage

The Shaping of Water cover art; Ruth Hartley author portrait; Ruth Hartley’s painting of her father’s farm.

My guest today, Ruth Hartley, is a writer and an artist—but from the point of view of the Displaced Nation, she is something else as well: an expert on displacement.

Ruth has lived a life of displacement. She grew up in Africa, a continent that continues to have the world’s largest number of forcibly displaced peoples. She grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities.

Ruth took refuge in London, where she married and started raising a family—but still felt the pull of her native Africa and chose to become an “expatriate economic migrant” in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). She lived with her husband and children in Zambia for 22 years, returning to the UK in 1994 to practice and teach art. Five years ago she set out on a long tour of Europe and Turkey. She now lives in Southern France.

Manzi ni moyo (water is life) —Chinyanja saying

Ruth recently published her first novel, The Shaping of Water, which, perhaps not surprisingly, reads like an ode, a kind of paean, to displacement. The action follows the progress of a decision by Rhodesia’s rulers to build a dam across the mighty Zambezi. They called it the Kariba Dam because the dam wall spans the narrowest and steepest of the gorges along the river, known locally as kariwa (a trap). Completed in 1959, the Kariba Dam created a vast man-made lake, Lake Kariba, in the Zambezi Valley. The lake displaced the river people, the Tonga, and forever changed the ecology of the region.

The book’s protagonists are a colonial couple, Margaret and Charles. They decide to build a lake-front cottage in Siavonga, a settlement that springs up to accommodate the displaced Tonga.

Ironically, although the ramshackle cottage sits in a spot that would never have existed had it not been for the building of the dam, which shaped the river in a new way, it is the one constant, a kind of retreat from the forces that displace practically everyone during the African liberation wars that ensue. Margaret and Charles use it as a place of sanctuary, and eventually two other couples come to do so as well: South African freedom fighters Marielise (Margaret’s niece) and Jo, and NGO worker Nick and his UK-raised African wife, Manda.

The cottage also provides a livelihood for Milimo, the son of a Tonga woman whose home was drowned by the lake. Margaret hires Milimo as gardener and caretaker for the property at the suggestion of Father Patrick, a missionary who worked in the Zambezi Valley before its shaping by water.

As a kind of review of the many layers of displacement in this novel, I offer this quote from the book, which I think also demonstrates Ruth’s lyrical style of storytelling:

Here near Kariba, ‘the trap’, in the middle of a wilderness, is a place called Siavonga, which is a name without meaning. It is a place that will be a town but a place that is not yet built. It is a place that is presently isolated by poor and inadequate roads and it is difficult to reach. It is in a country that is becoming another country, with another name. It is here that there is a plot where a contractor builds a cottage above a lake not yet filled with water. All this takes place in the newly created Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland that will be no more in a few short years. Two of these countries will change into independent states with different names when that happens.

It is an exercise in madness and dreams, in magic and megalomania, and the Tonga people know it to be impossible.

And now I think it’s time to get to know Ruth a little better, and hear some more about her book as well as the other creative projects she is working on.

* * *

Hi, Ruth, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I expect you will feel entirely at home here. I wonder, did you consciously set out to write a book exploring displacement?
Displacement is a good way of describing what happens in the story. Displacement can lead to new opportunities but it is also damaging. I deliberately structured the book so that it explored three main themes:

  • Damage to the environment.
  • Damage done for political reasons.
  • Damage that is personal, emotional and private. It includes damage done by racism and sexism and deals with both in subtle ways.

Though each of these themes gets its own part in the book, they are also interwoven. I passionately wanted to bring the issues of contemporary Africa to life in a truthful, but also empathetic and positive, way.

I know you lived through many of the events that are depicted in this novel. To what extent is your work autobiographical fiction and to what extent historical fiction?
My novel is about entirely fictional characters living through actual and verifiable political and social events. I grew up in an intense political climate in Africa with a strong personal commitment to human rights. I did live through those events and have always made notes and collected newspaper articles and books throughout my life. But because I respect and love the individuals I knew in Africa I was careful to invent the people in my story. None of them is me either though like Margaret, I, too, am a gardener. The cottage, however, is real and the cottage guest book provided me with records of the weather and the lake levels.

“…all that I have left of my life, work, and friendships is stored on my computer” —Marielise

For me, the cottage assumed the role of the central character. You said it was real. Was it a place where you actually stayed?
If a cottage can be a character, then the one real and existing “character” in the novel apart from historical political figures is the “Cottage”. The book was in part, written as an elegy for a place I loved. Built before Zambian independence, the cottage belonged to a group of friends who were no longer resident in Zambia and my husband and I became its caretakers and at times its only guests. Here are some photos of how it looked:

TSOW cottage 001 (2)

The cottage in Zambia on Lake Kariba that Ruth Hartley and her family often visited. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

view from the cottage to the lake 001

The view from the cottage to Lake Kariba; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

In 1975 I gave the owners a Visitor’s Book to record happy weekends spent there with friends. The book became my sole responsibility and I kept it as a log of the cottage and the lake from 1975 until 1994. It was finally returned to me after 2000 when the cottage was sold.

TSOW guestbook DN 001 (2)

The original Guest Book from the cottage, which Ruth inherited and used to inspire her novel. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

Looking at these materials makes me wonder: did you ever consider writing a memoir instead?
I wrote a fictionalized memoir called The Love and Wisdom Crimes in 1999 in which I was careful to protect people’s identities. It is about how I became politicized and fell in love when I lived in South Africa in 1965. Though I was told it is good and poetic, I had countless rejections because the African setting was not considered to be easily marketable. I have just completed a no-holds-barred memoir of the year that followed when I survived as a single mother in London. It is titled A Bad Girl in Search of Love.

Goodness, you are prolific! Can you describe your path to publishing The Shaping of Water?
At 70, I didn’t want to waste time or energy on rejections so I went for self-publication and self-promotion. I believe the market is moving this way in any case. I used Troubador Publishing because they offer a comprehensive printing and marketing package at a reasonable cost and with integrity. I don’t expect to recoup my investment but I will self-publish again. Hopefully it will be cheaper because of what I have learnt.

What kind of audience did you intend for the book?
I think that my audience is anyone who reads for pleasure and who also likes to make journeys of discovery into new worlds and ideas with believable and interesting characters.

“It’s not sensible—this—this racism!” —Margaret

I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me a feeling for contemporary African history, while also making me realize how little I actually know about Africa. I think I identified most strongly with Margaret and Charles. I felt bad that they saw a future Africa that would have a place for them, only to have that vision eradicated as the violence of the liberation wars escalated. It seemed to me that even if you wanted to do the right thing for Africa, after a while it was hard to know what the right thing was.
I have been thrilled to find readers who do not know Africa or its politics but who still have enjoyed the book and its characters. I didn’t intend this book as a lesson in African history, but I expect it would be good background material.

So what are you working on next and will you continue exploring some of these same themes?
I am working on two more novels. I am more than half way through writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine, a book that is set half in a fictional African country and half in London. The setting and the plot are quite different to The Shaping of Water, but the themes should be of universal interest. It is the story of Lara who begins in Africa as a wildlife artist and the lover of Oscar, an entrepreneur who owns a defunct gold mine and is also a political manipulator. Her journey takes her to London and a life with Tim (a journalist) and Adam, a child of doubtful paternity. She makes, owns and uses art that is troubling and troublesome.

I enjoyed looking at some of your art on your author site. I look forward to reading your book about an African wildlife artist. What’s your other novel about?
I have plans for another novel titled Hannah’s Housekeeping. Hannah is a mature woman who has seen the world and had many lovers. She runs a B&B but though Hannah cleans up the dirt in her house, her husband is missing and she doesn’t know if she can keep death from her door…

Sounds tantalizing! Finally, are there any pieces of advice you could impart to other international creatives?
I am an artist and writer who was effectively prevented from writing and painting for a good part of my adult life though I did teach and work in support of artists for many years. I learnt that it is important and essential to make art and to write, though very few artists and writers make a living from their art or get much recognition for it. Creative people, however reclusive, need an audience and to communicate.

How about lessons for other wannabe novelists?
It is important to write well and that takes practice and humility and many, many redrafts. I am always anxious about what my readers think even when I know I have written a good book. My readers matter to me so I have to keep on improving my craft as a writer.

Thank you, Ruth, for being with us today and for sharing some more of the story behind The Shaping of Water. On your Web site you describe yourself as a compulsive storyteller. I think we got a feeling for this today as well.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Ruth? To learn more the Kariba Dam and the experiences that inspired the story Ruth tells in her novel, please watch this short video interview with Ruth and also be sure to visit her author’s site.

And if you think you’d like to read Ruth’s novel (we highly recommend it as a Christmas read!), Ruth has kindly arranged for Displaced Nation readers to get a 50 percent discount when ordering a paperback copy at the Troubadour site (enter the code: HARTLEY).

You can also buy the book in a Kindle format, not only from Troubadour but also from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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!

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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture precious memories of life in other countries

ExpatArtasTherapy_Principle1As explained in my introductory post to this series, the Swiss-British philosopher (and Adult Third Culture Kid) Alain de Botton argues that art of all kinds can be a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas.

But is that also true of expat works? Does our art benefit humanity more broadly, or are we creating things—memoirs, novels, films, dance and stage performances, social enterprises—that will only ever speak to people like ourselves: what fellow global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own”? (We currently number around 230 million, or just over 3 percent of the world’s population.)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: "London from Hampstead Heath," by John Constable (British Museum)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: “London from Hampstead Heath,” by John Constable (British Museum). Photo credit: John Constable, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his “Art as Therapy” lecture, de Botton specifies 6 ways art can answer human needs.

The remainder of this series will look at whether, and to what extent, these observations apply to the works of international creatives, beginning with…

Principle #1: Art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories.
De Botton cites John Constable and his paintings of clouds above Hampstead Heath as an example of how an artist can sometimes capture something significant yet fragile they have experienced and don’t want to forget.

Will the John Constables among us please stand up? Seriously, it strikes me that we international creatives are well positioned to preserve the memories of the daily wonders we’ve encountered in far-flung parts of the world, our knowledge of which accrues over time. (Not for us the Wonders of the World, when there are so many intrepid world travelers around, eager to conquer them.)

Back in the days when I lived first in England and then in Japan, I always felt like the poor cousin of the anthropologist—I wasn’t an area specialist but that left me free to approach life with an Alice-like curiosity, never quite losing the sensation of having fallen through the rabbit hole. And to convey that to others…

But let’s look at some examples, shall we? Each of the visuals below is inspired by or belongs to the work of an international creative that has featured on this site in some way. I selected these four individuals because of their ability to conjure up an image of something rather precious within their new landscape—the expat equivalent of a dramatically shaped cloud. And, as de Botton has been invited to do at several museums, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I experienced.

#1: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here

Parabens

Photo credit: Marbela via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

OBJECT LABEL: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here, inspired by Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book, American Exbrat in São Paulo.
ML’S POST-IT: I have never been to Brazil, but reading Farrell’s step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to live) in São Paulo piqued my curiosity. I particularly enjoyed her vivid account of the Brazilian birthday party. What a palava! Far beyond my wildest imaginings. But what is even more curious to me is the Sweet Table, sitting in splendid isolation until the very end of the festivities. According to Farrell:

“The design of the Sweet Table is on the same level of importance for the birthday party as is the set design for a Broadway performance. It consists of hundreds of sweets, strategically placed around the other decorations. But most importantly, NO ONE TOUCHES the Sweet Table until the birthday candles have been blown out at the end of the party. No one. An interesting objective when you have anywhere from thirty to fifty children running around wild and free.”

I rather like the thought of deprivation in the midst of so much decadence: does that make the brigadeiro, when you finally get one, taste even sweeter?
FURTHER READING: Our interview with Megan Farrell, by Andy Martin: Why exbrats in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city.

#2: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?

Acacia Trees

Photo credit: Gezira Sporting Club, by Jorge Láscar via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

OBJECT LABEL: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?, inspired by Alice Award nominee Kathleen Saville‘s description of these trees in Zamalek, Gezira Island (Cairo, Egypt) in a post for her personal blog.
ML’S POST-IT: The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy. But after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I feel calmer. Might I have a tree-hugging future?
FURTHER READING: Saville’s blog, Water Meditations, focusing on her water travels.

#3: Elephant Road Trip

Elephant Road Trip
OBJECT LABEL: Elephant Road Trip, inspired by Ruth Hartley and her novel about Africa, The Shaping of Water (Hartley grew up in that part of the world).
ML’S POST-IT: Hartley’s novel begins with the construction of the Kariba Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, over the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa, flowing into the Indian Ocean. As much as I enjoyed Hartley’s book, I could never quite wrap my head around the scale of what she describes, whether talking about the dam, a massively ambitious project, or about the problems Africa faces as it attempts to shake off the colonial yoke. Perhaps that’s why I took comfort in Hartley’s description of elephants serving as the continent’s original bulldozers:

The roads over the escarpment follow for the main part the old migratory routes taken year after year for millennia by elephants. Elephants, who for all those thousands of years would roam, not just around Zimbabwe, or just around Kenya, but all the way up sub-Saharan Africa from south to north and back again. Now human governments have decreed that elephants must obey human laws and stay within the bounds of national boundaries drawn by straight-edged rulers on maps. In the time before colonization, a mere 150 years ago, elephants travelled where they always travelled, and they walked across mountains with consummate skill and ease, always finding the most direct routes through the least difficult of the passes.

In the midst of a man-against-nature, man-against-man story, I found it a restorative to imagine these pre-colonial times when the elephant, such a magnificent beast, could be relied on to forge trails through the dense brush and trees.
FURTHER READING: Coming soon: our interview with Ruth Hartley about her book.

#4: Shanghai Mix

Shanghai Mix

Photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

OBJECT LABEL: Shanghai Mix, consisting of a photo taken by globe drifter Rachel Kanev, which she chose to feature in her iinterview with James King for our site’s “A Picture Says…” column.
ML’S POST-IT: Rachel has captured a memory of an experience I’ve had several times myself but had nearly forgotten: namely, what it’s like actually to witness Asian economic development rather than pontificate about it. As Rachel puts it in her chat with James:

In that fleeting instant, one can see Shanghai’s varied transportation, high-rise buildings and red lanterns, as well as Kate Winslet—that curious amalgamation of Western modernity and Chinese traditionalism that is everywhere around you in the city.

Perhaps because she snapped the photo just as the sun was setting, it fills me with sweet nostalgia. (I’m not remembering the smog, for a change…)
FURTHER READING: Rachel Kanev’s blog, Globe Drifting

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that touch on expat experiences and emotions. Did you find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

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 Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: A new series based on Alain de Botton’s strange and wonderful notions

expat_art_as_therapy introGreetings, Displaced Nationers. While countries in Asia are celebrating harvest and moon festivals, we are marking the occasion with the start of a new series: EXPAT ART AS THERAPY. The series owes its provenance to the fertile and somewhat loony imagination of the young Swiss-English philosopher Alain de Botton. Today and over the next few months, we’ll cover some of the same ground as de Botton in his “Art as Therapy” lecture, in which he demonstrates how art can shed light on life’s big themes.

Except our topic will be the work of international creatives, a subset of artists more generally. Can the art people produce as a result of living among cultures in other parts of the world—and feeling, at times, displaced—shed light on life’s big questions?

Haven’t yet heard of de Botton? Here is (more than) you need to know:

  • Having grown up in both Switzerland and the UK, he’s an Adult Third Culture Kid who comes across as European, English, both and neither.
  • He’s a prolific pop philosopher, with a shelf-full of books and two very popular TED talks to his name.
  • He also has his critics, who call him a “high-brow self-help guru.”
  • Regardless, he hasn’t looked back since his 1997 essay titled How Proust Can Change Your Life became an unlikely blockbuster in the “self-help” category.
  • As explained in a recent Displaced Dispatch—what, not a subscriber yet? get on with it!—de Botton has set up a cultural enterprise in Bloomsbury, London, called The School of Life, which aims to “teach ideas to live by” and “inspire people to change their lives through culture.”

Returning to the aforementioned “art as therapy” lecture, De Botton lists six ways that art can respond to human needs, and in this series I’ll be attempting to apply this scheme to the works of international creatives. Does the art produced by expats, rexpats, TCKS, ATCKs repats, and other international creatives have something to contribute to the good of humanity at large and if so, in what ways?

It all sounds rather grand, doesn’t it—or would grandiose be more accurate? In any event, not to worry, you won’t remember any of this by the time the column starts up properly next month.

That said, perhaps it would help if I left you with a couple of examples of the kinds of questions we’ll be examining, enough to whet your appetite for more.

Here goes:

1) How does it benefit the world that Alan Parker has written a best-selling indie book about what it’s like to be a Brit man trying to raise alpacas in Spain? I’ll warrant that many of us, myself included, have no wish to live in Spain or raise alpacas—yet I did feel moved by the account of his adventures as reported on this blog, and presume that others have as well. What are we all getting out of it?

2) Likewise, are there pleasures for all to be reaped from long-term expat Kathleen Saville’s description of the acacia trees on the island in Zamalek, Gezira Island, where she lives in Cairo? (NOTE: Saville, who blogs at Water Meditations, is a contender for a September Alice Award, which you’d know if you read our most recent Dispatch.) Take me for example. The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy, but after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I was blown away. Why, and would others with no special interest in Egypt feel the same?

* * *

At this point I hope I’ve said enough for you to make a mental note about checking out next month’s column!

In closing, please join me in a resounding chorus of “Shine on, shine on harvest moon/Up in the sky…” (Click here if you don’t know what I’m talking about or can’t remember the words.) Yes, I know it’s not high art; it’s a Tin Pan Alley stuff. But it’s seasonal and makes me smile—and our mentor, Alain de Botton, would give me a pat on the back for that!

STAY TUNED for Beth Green’s book review column.

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 Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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A spoonful of imagination helps the expat life go down: In tribute to our 7 columnists

Sugar spoon by jppi (Morguefiles); jet painting by Prawny (Morguefiles).

Sugar spoon by jppi (Morguefiles); jet painting by Prawny (Morguefiles).

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, as summer draws to its inevitable close, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the talented individuals who write columns for us from an expat or otherwise displaced perspective.

Curiouser and curiouser! If it weren’t for them, we’d know a great deal less about the contours of the kind of creative life that is lived across two or more distinct cultures.

Fiction, fantasy, food, photos, theatre—oh my! Our columnists also serve as the Wizards who can help the rest of us transform our travels into a trip down the Yellow Brick Road.

(Yes, Dorothy has now joined Alice as a Displaced Nation heroine.)

Without further ado, they are, in alphabetical order:

1) Andrew Couch

COLUMN: Here Be Dragons
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT ANDREW: He spent this summer developing the Peanut Butter Bar WordPress app, which allows you to attach sticky bars to the roof of your site that stay visible no matter how far a user scrolls. (“Smooth” is free. “Chunky,” which has more features, costs $15.)
COLUMN PURPOSE: Andrew demonstrates, through snippets of his own writing, the possibility of collecting materials for a fantasy novel from a life of international travel.
MOST POPULAR POST: Andrew’s first, “The expat life as fuel for fantasy writing,” perhaps because his concept is a little fantastical.
WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: You will never look at your displaced life in quite the same way again but will see yourself as the protagonist in your own Alice or Dorothy story, a story you’re not only living but could (should?) be writing…

2) Beth Green

COLUMN: Booklust, Wanderlust
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT BETH: She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life.
COLUMN PURPOSE: Beth selects books with particular appeal to international creatives.
MOST POPULAR POST: Her first, about the Dublin Murder Squad series by ATCK writer Tana French, perhaps reflecting Beth’s own passion for mystery (she is also a member of the Sisters in Crime mystery writers’ association, another interesting fact about Beth).
WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: The peripatetic Beth has a correspondingly eclectic taste in books, sampling everything from psychological mystery to journalistic memoirs of China to biographies of eccentric female travelers of the past century.

3) Elizabeth Liang

COLUMN: TCK Talent
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT LISA: Lisa spent part of the summer in Iceland, putting on her one-woman autobiographical show about growing up as a TCK, Citizen Alien.
COLUMN PURPOSE: Lisa profiles Adult Third Culture Kids with unusual talents. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them find success as actors, just as Lisa has.
MOST POPULAR POST: Lisa’s interview with Laura Piquado, an actress in New York City who grew up all over the world and told Lisa she is now

dyak and atheist, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, Jain, Egyptian, Italian, Canadian—there is nowhere in the world that has ever felt foreign to me.

WHY YOU SHOULD FOLLOW: Because they weren’t originally expats by choice, adult TCKs can teach the rest of us a lot about the glories as well as the challenges of leading a displaced life. Plus Lisa’s gutsiness in developing her own TCK show gives her creds. She and the show are terrific! I know because I’ve met her and seen it.

4) Meagan Adele Lopez

COLUMN TITLE: The Lady Who Writes
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT MAL: Meagan Adele Lopez (nicknamed MAL) is both Anglophile and Francophile (she once lived in Paris). Talk about open-mindedness!
COLUMN PURPOSE: MAL writes about what she wished she’d known before setting out to write and self-publish her first novel, Three Questions, based on a romantic adventure that started at the end of her first expat stint in the UK (in Bristol).
MOST POPULAR POST: MAL’s first, suggesting that expats may easily be able to find a novel in their novel lives. Note: MAL has just wrapped up her six-post series for us.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Rather like Dickens, MAL calls on elements from her thespian background (she used to be an actor in Hollywood, no less) for writing a novel. Her characters are real: she imagines “dining out” with them!

5) James King

COLUMN TITLE: A Picture Says…
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JAMES: James now lives in Thailand but during his previous expat stint, in South Africa, he ended up settling in Capetown, where he still has a house he’s renting out but would like to sell. Anybody interested?!
COLUMN PURPOSE: James tries to coax expats and other displaced types for whom photography is a creative outlet to tell the stories behind their favorite photos.
MOST POPULAR POST: James’s interview with Irish “ruin hunter” and photographer Ed Mooney, which generated a whopping 32 comments.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Why people feel compelled to take photos and what their favorite subjects are turns out to be a great window into the displaced mindset. Kudos to James for developing the series in this new direction.

6) JJ Marsh

COLUMN TITLE: Location, Locution
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JJ: She plans to attend the Chorleywood LitFest on November 16th, 2014, wearing a toga. Hey, carpe diem and all that!
COLUMN PURPOSE: JJ interviews well-known authors who are expats and/or set their books in far-off lands about the role of place (location) in their imagination and subsequent writings (locution).
MOST POPULAR POST: JJ’s interview with Amanda Hodgkinson, who finished her first two novels, 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk, after relocating with her family to southwest France.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: JJ commands respect in the writing world for her own achievement in crafting a European crime series featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs, in which place plays a major role (she thinks of it as a “character,” she says). This must be why so many other authors are willing to share with her the techniques they use to transport readers to other, more remote parts of the world. Her columns are invariably illuminating.

7) Joanna Masters-Maggs

COLUMN TITLE: Global Food Gossip
INTERESTING FACT ABOUT JOANNA: She is a school friend of Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison. Want another one? She is half Irish and half English, which surely qualifies her as a TCK?
COLUMN PURPOSE: Joanna provides the inside story on food that comes from having lived as a trailing spouse in eight very different countries for more than 16 years.
MOST POPULAR POST: “There’s no taste like home,” in which Joanna confesses that she’s been so busy trying to cook the local food for her four kids that she neglected to introduce them to traditional English dishes.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ: Her repeat expat life has turned her into a creative chef extraordinaire. She knows how to make her own clotted cream (and provides a recipe) should homesickness strike, but is equally adept at Texas Barbecue Brisket.

* * *

In other news…

Have you checked out our Pinterest pins lately? We’ve quite the collection of displaced reads, movies and people, eg:

We can take you on a trip out of this displaced world should you wish to be further displaced; or for those who prefer a fantasy metaphor for their escapist tendencies, check out our Alice in Wonderland and Follow the Yellow Brick Road boards.

IT’S FOOD! is one of our most popular boards (natch!), as is World Parties, Holidays & Celebrations (hooray!). We also have two boards that celebrate the spirit of two previous blogs by me and another Displaced Nation founder, Kate Allison:

Speaking of Kate, you may have noticed that after producing episodes of her novel Libby’s Life on a regular basis for a couple of years (90 episodes, can you imagine?!), she is now updating the story on her author blog and aggregating those posts every so often for the Displaced Nation audience.

Last but not least, if you haven’t caught up with our Displaced Dispatch lately, take another look. Besides links to the latest posts, we have ORIGINAL contents by yours truly, exclusive giveaways (there’s one on now!) and candidates for the monthly Alice Awards.

Yes, we are still doing our Alice Awards and have now added an occasional Wizard of Oz column about repatriation: “Emerald City to Kansas”. We’re a busy (dis)place!

STAY TUNED for the announcement of August Alices.

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 original contents, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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10 summer hacks picked up from an expat (& repat) life spanning Japan, the UK and the US

summerhacks_US

The summer ideal, so rarely achieved (apart from the cocktail), Public Domain CC0 via Pixar.

New York City, where I now live after years of being an expat on two small islands, the UK and Japan, had a particularly brutal winter in 2014. You would think I’d now be in the mood for summer.

But no. It hasn’t worked that way.

The moment the temperature and humidity levels skyrocketed here in the city, I realized my feelings about summer haven’t changed. Basically, and as expressed in this space before, I can’t stand it. Or, in the somewhat more poetic words of Swedish black metal trio Woods of Infinity:

Summer is not my friend. Satan, let it end.
Sunshine, hurting my eyes. Making my skin look like…argh.

Which brings me to today’s topic: summer hacks. What hacks have I picked up from the three countries where I’ve lived—Japan, the US and the UK—that can help me through summer’s doggiest days?

FROM JAPAN:

1) Avoid the sun at all costs.

Japanese women seem to have been the first to get the memo about avoiding sun damage. During the summer, which in Tokyo can be particularly brutal, most would not venture out in the heat of the day without a hat or a UV parasol, sometimes both. (Note: A regular umbrella will do in lieu a proper parasol.)

2) Carry a fan and a handkerchief.

If the heat becomes unbearably hot, say, when standing on the subway platform or getting into a car, one of the easiest ways to get cool is via a simple fan, either the kind that folds or an uchiwa. And if you find yourself perspiring profusely in a public place, try dabbing your face and neck with a handkerchief folded into a neat square. (When living in Japan, I used to find it entertaining to go into a department store and look at the vast array of handkerchiefs on display in the ground floor accessories. Every major Western designer has done one, meaning they’ve all had to struggle with translating their unique look into a small square of cloth. Who knew?)

3) Eat sparingly (cold soba) or else for energy (grilled eel).

On a hot and humid day, one of the healthiest meals is the simplest: a plate of cold buckwheat noodles, or soba, which have been cooked al dente. The noodles are dipped into a cup containing a special sauce (consisting of dashi, sweetened soy sauce and mirin), to which has been added fresh wasabi and sliced spring onions. Alternatively, if your body feels depleted during a heat wave, you can go to the other extreme and have a meal of unagi kabayaki, freshwater eel that has been glaze-grilled: it is served over white rice, typically with a cold beer to accompany. (By tradition, Japanese favor this meal from mid-July through early August, to counteract the lethargy and debilitation that occurs mid-way through their blistering summers.)

4) Drink plenty of cold tea and, for short bursts of energy, iced coffee with milk and a shot of gum syrup.

In Japan you can buy, at every convenience store, huge plastic bottles of green tea or oolong cha (my fave) to refrigerate so that cold tea (most people don’t ice it) is always on hand. You can also make mugicha: a caffeine-free barley infusion, said to be the “flavor of summer” in Japan and always served a room temperature. Before moving to Japan, I had never before tried iced coffee , where apparently the Japanese have been drinking it since the 1920s. Usually, it’s served in a glass to accompany or finish a restaurant meal—not in a plastic disposable cup (it’s impolite to eat and drink on the streets in that part of the world). Although hesitant at first, I became an immediate fan and was pleased to see it had caught on in the West by the time I returned. Now you can even get iced coffee in Dunkin’ Donuts. And, whereas I don’t usually add sugar to coffee, I will sometimes add to the iced version as I find my body needs that extra bit of energy to get from A to B. (In Japan, one always adds gum syrup, which dissolves much better than sugar, but it’s hard to find that here.)

FROM THE US:

5) If you can’t stand the heat, move to a cold dark box, aka a movie theatre.

Maybe it’s a New York City thing, but I’m thinking of Michael Maslin’s New Yorker cartoon showing a movie theatre with a marquee that says:

AIR
CONDITIONING

and a movie

6) Eat ice cream.

One or two scoops of freshly made ice cream in a dish or a regular sugar cone (nothing heavier or fancier) is one of life’s simple pleasures. Many people die in heat waves (no joke), so this is one to have, and keep, on your bucket list.

7) Seek invites to places where you can swim—in a pool, a lake, the ocean.

Nothing is more refreshing on a hot day than plunging into some cool water. Another tip is to put on a shirt or dress that is slightly damp—it will be dry by the time you reach the subway.

8) No opportunity to escape to a house in the Hamptons or equivalent? Have a cocktail.

See my still-relevant post of three summers ago on cocktails as mini-summer escapes to exotic locales, entitled Some enchanted drinking…

FROM THE U.K.:

9) Seize the moment and go crazy.

British summer tends to be short and sweet—and blissful (not too humid). Should you have a day where the heat breaks and temperatures and humidity levels are bearable, EMBRACE SUMMER AS YOUR FRIEND. Now, British people go to extremes by stripping down, as noted in this recent post by Annabel Kantaria in her Telegraph Expat blog, hence risking sunburn and melanoma. (As an aside: Did you know we once did an interview with Annabel? Check it out if you haven’t seen it.) At the very least, perhaps you could pull off an impromptu picnic or bike ride, or else try to score an outdoor table at a popular restaurant or pub.

10) Have a cuppa.

Contrary to the Japanese and American customs, tea is drunk hot in Britain because it makes you sweat and therefore cool down. This hack is one of the more practical legacies from the days when the Brits occupied India. To this day, I will sometimes make a cuppa when I’m boiling hot. Think the science sounds dubious? Listen to this NPR story. In any event, tea is an important summer drink in all three cultures, for good reason. It sustains you. See my post on the virtues of tea-drinking.

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. What can you add to my list before that Woods of Infinity song starts haunting me again:

Awake at night again. No tears to weep and too restless to sleep. Thinking of all and nothing and got stuck in between.

Hurry, please! Any foods, drinks, rituals, Bacchanalian festivities or other hacks you’ve picked up from your lives of displacement? How about current films you’d recommend? SOS, I’m melting over here…

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Soccer players for sure, but shouldn’t Germany also be loaning us words? With cherries! say British expat comedy writing duo (huh?)

Denglish 3 Collage

Adam Fletcher (bald) and Paul Hawkins at a book fair, in a screenshot from their Denglish video; Paul atop his Batman car in Prague. All photos supplied by Paul Hawkins.

Like other U.S.-based World Cup fans, I’ve been thinking a lot about Germany lately. The nation certainly has been generous in loaning the U.S. national team all kinds of soccer coaching and playing talent. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann is a German soccer legend, and five players on the U.S. squad spent most of their lives in Germany, including one of the team’s star players, Jermaine Jones (his father, an African American U.S. army soldier, met his German mother while stationed in West Germany; they later divorced).

But is it possible Germany should be offering us even more, as in new words and language possibilities? The answer to this question will require the help of today’s guest, Paul Hawkins, a young British expat in Berlin. With his writing partner and fellow British expat, Adam Fletcher, Paul recently produced Denglish for Better Knowers, an illustrated book of German words and sayings that, in the view of this comedy duo, ought to be imported into the English language.

(German, really? Doesn’t it have lots of rules and too much grammar??)

AND WE ARE GIVING AWAY A SIGNED (PAPERBACK) COPY! Just leave a comical comment on this post, to be eligible.

Paul and Adam may be expats but they are tapping into the long and great British tradition of finding comedy in the quirkiness of everyday life, something I came to value during my expat years in the UK (and still miss). What’s unusual about this pair, however, is that they aren’t afraid to dig for material in a country that has long been reviled by the English (see my recent post on the World Cup). It helps, no doubt, that they’re Millennials. But has their creativity also been sparked by the sheer act of being displaced, of having to navigate another cultural and linguistic tradition? Let’s hear what Paul has to say.

* * *

HowtobeGerman_cover_ds

The book was published in German and English, each language beginning at either side of the book, by C H Beck.

Hi, Paul, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Before you and Adam came out with Denglish for Better Knowers, Adam produced an earlier work, How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps. What exactly was the impetus for this series?
Well, How to be German was sort of this big, happy accident of Adam’s, where he poked and prodded the various eccentricities of his long-suffering German girlfriend, Annett, and then extrapolated his findings to about 80 million people. But to be fair, he’d also lived in Berlin for seven or so years, during which time he’d had lots of humorous experiences with the curious creatures known as Germans. In fact, the book grew out of an article of the same name Adam wrote, full of his observations about what makes Germans German, from their love for sparkling apple juice to collecting insurance contracts and tilting their windows. His post struck a massive nerve and went viral. Adam describes the book as a “love letter to the German people,” who had somehow adopted him for having such profound insights into their national character. Thanks to him, they were no longer being portrayed as eating sausages, drinking beer, and wearing leather shorts…

Is your German not the yellow from the egg?

And Denglish?
Denglisch for Better Knowers is a follow-up of sorts, a kind of “love letter to the German language,” where we get to celebrate and poke fun at Deutsch (even as we struggle to learn it!), in hopefully a way that only dumb aliens to the language could. Oh, and although I’d assisted Adam with the first book, this time around he roped me into being a co-author. I don’t remember why, but I think it might because I have hair.

And the pair of you also run an online business of sorts, called The Hipstery. In fact, that’s how I first discovered you. How does your entrepreneurial venture fit in with the book writing projects?
Adam and I are creative, but we don’t have very long attention spans.The Hipstery has proved the perfect way to exploit these independently useless character traits. It’s a kind of long-running shambles of a gift business. In fact, it’s been a few different things at a few different times, depending mostly on mismanaged excitement, deluded whims, and confused expectations—perhaps the least impressive of which was an actual shop in Berlin, which, by the end of its short, lazy lifespan was only open for about two hours a week, on a Thursday afternoon, sometimes, maybe. We would get excited, make a little product (a poster, a T-shirt, a game, for example) and quickly release it, after which we got bored and moved on to the next thing.

denglishforbetterknowers_cover_ds

Published in German and English, each language beginning at either side of the book, by Ullstein Verlag.

And at some point the “next thing” became Denglisch for Better Knowers?
In fact, the book began its life as a nice design on a poster, and then one day we saw a lot more humorous potential in the concept.

Let’s talk about Denglisch the word. What does it mean exactly?
Denglisch refers to the increasing amount of English words sneaking into the German language, in place of working, pre-existing German alternatives. It gets used a lot in the German media and tends to consist of ‘”cool”, buzzy, international, marketing-type words such as upgedated, downgeloadet, outgesourcet… Well, our idea was that German has so many great and often humorously unique words that English doesn’t, it should lend us some words, too. In the book, we make a case for our favorite “German” ways to enrich the English language.

With the German language is very good cherry eating

I visited the picture gallery of ten colorful German expressions, watched the promotional video, and even took the Denglish Quiz (got 70%) on the book site. Of all the German words and expressions that appear in your work, which are your top three faves and why?
I guess my three personal favorites would be:
1) Ear worm (Ohrwurm)—describes the phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head. It’s such a simple, perfect word, it’s amazing English has nothing like it.
2) Hand shoes (Handschuhe)—German for gloves. It’s so lovely. I know this flies in the face of everything I just said about German words that English doesn’t have, but I don’t care. I want it!
3) Is it art, or can I chuck it? (Ist das Kunst, oder kann das weg?)—a wonderful idiom and great example of German humor. I don’t think it needs explaining. It just needs using. It becomes especially useful whenever the British artist Tracey Emin is selling something…

Hmmm… Were there any German words or expressions that didn’t make the book, as the concepts they express are too foreign to be used in English?
There’s quite a lot which didn’t make the book, but I have the time-bothered memory of a deranged old lunatic, so I can’t think of that many examples now. Oh, there was that expression Himmel, Arsch und Zwirn!, which we didn’t include for some reason. It translates literally as “Sky, Arse, and Thread!” and serves as an exclamation of annoyance, like shouting “Damn!” or “Blast!” or “Bollocks!” (if you’re English). It’s pure nonsense (or “nonsense, with sauce,” as you’d say in German), and I guess that’s why we couldn’t include it. You can’t fight fire with fire, and you can’t write nonsense with nonsense, because galactic haircut trouser squabbling. Indeed.

OooKay! Probably I need to read the book to interpret that last statement. I’m curious, how did you and Adam meet, and was it “collaboration” at first sight?
Despite us both being English and both living in Berlin, in fact we first met in the Czech Republic. Basically, I flew out to Prague on a whim in 2012 because friends of mine were driving a convertible painted like Superman there as part of a car rally, after which they planned to dump it. I told them to give it to me. I didn’t have any plans or ideas what to do with the car… all I knew was that if you can get a Superman convertible for free in Prague, you’d be an damned fool/respectable citizen not to do so. Not long after my arrival in the Czech Republic capital, I posted a message on CouchSurfing…something like, “Hello, I’m an idiot who came to Prague, and I don’t know any one, and I’m bored, and do you want to meet for a coffee or a beer?” Well, Adam, who was also in Prague with a friend, replied to my message, and we met up. We soon got talking about what we did: writing, well, actually comedy writing…actually, fairly absurd comedy writing. And upon realizing we were pretty much writing the same kinds of stuff, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of humor, it wasn’t long before we decided to try something together. Pretty weird, right?

Um, what’s the best and worst part of working as a team?
Writing as a team is mostly very fun. The best part is getting to make and hear jokes all day—as opposed to sitting alone, typing gibberish, and always wondering: “Is this funny…? Maybe it’s funny… I don’t know…” The worst part, however, is when you come up with a hilarious punchline like “Congratulations, Binky!”, only to find Adam wont let you use it for some boring reason like: “It doesn’t make any sense.” Which might be true, of course, but let’s not take Adam’s side here.

Is your English all under the pig?

Which part of the UK do you and Adam come from?
I come from London, or North London, or North of London, or Broxbourne, depending on whether I think you know where it is. Adam is from a different place, most notable for it being totally unmemorable. I guess he’s told me about forty times where he’s from, and the only thing I can tell you about it for sure is it has a dreadful school and might be vaguely near Norwich.

And how did you end up choosing to live in Berlin?
Adam moved to Leipzig for a job around seven years ago and then to Berlin about two years later when he became self-employed. I moved here a year and a half ago, for similar reasons. It’s a great place to live and roam free amongst all the freelancers. We call it the Mecca of Delayed Responsibility.

Do you think you will ever repatriate back to the UK?
I don’t think Adam will repatriate because he was never a big fan of England (small talk, weather, having to think before speaking, etc.) and because he’s increasingly becoming somewhat of a reluctant, and highly unqualified, pundit of German culture—something he’s trying to correct throughout his next book, Make Me German. As for me, I could still imagine living in London, just as soon as I become a mega rich oil-baron oligarch with unlimited Oyster card funding. One key difference between me and Adam is the amount of German we’ve learned. The more time you’ve invested in the language, the less you can bear the thought of wasting it by leaving! He’s a lot more invested than I am…

You said that Adam is working on another book. How about you: any more creative projects in the pipeline?
Yes, Adam is hard at work on his next book, Make Me German, which entails undertaking a series of amusing challenges in pursuit of finally learning enough about Germans and Germany to justify his nonsensical position as a spokesperson for their sense of humor. He was last seen trying to write a Schlager song and Nordic-walking in the most German place of all German places, Majorca. As for me, I’ve just finished a book, which comes out in Germany at the end of August, called How to Operate a Human (Gebrauchsanleitung Mensch, in German!) It’s a fun little book rather like an iPhone manual (except for people), which I won’t be able to read.

What do you mean you won’t be able to read it? How is your German coming along these days?
Mein Deutsch hat sich verbessert, aber ich kann meinen eigenen Unsinn immer noch nicht lesen.

Which leaves me with only one thing left to say: Alles klar!

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Paul? Or do you find yourself nonplussed, without words, for what you’ve just heard? In case his rants have made you curious, be sure to:

YOU CAN ALSO LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW to be eligible to win your own free copy!

Can’t wait to order the book? Paul suggests doing so from the Hipstery site, which offers worldwide shipping.

Finally, should you wish to follow Paul’s brilliant career, he can be found at his author site, Hencewise, on Twitter and on Facebook.

To reiterate, alles klar!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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From soccer hater to World Cup fanatic: A most peculiar expat tale

FIFA World Cup Collage

The Brazilian player Edmilson Santos, by AK Bijuraj; CocaCola FIFA World Cup Soccer, by Mike Mozart; FIFA World Cup trophy, by Warrenski (all CC).

To mark the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I have updated a post I wrote four years ago, in time for 2010 World Cup, in South Africa. I wrote it for the now-defunct Pond Parleys, the brainchild of esteemed writers Toni Hargis (a British expat in the US, with an American husband) and Mike Harling (an American expat in the UK, with an English wife).

In America, of course, we call it soccer. But I am content to say “football.” If there’s one thing I learned from living in England for nearly ten years, it’s to use the English language with precision (in which case, shouldn’t it be “foot-and-head ball”?).

So, herewith, an attempt to tell the rather twisted tale of my conversion to football fandom, though part of me will always wonder: is my story more typical than one imagines? Surely, a taste for football isn’t easily acquired by those who don’t have it in their national DNA?

PART I: Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England

This little tale of mine begins on a dark and stormy night in the latter years of the 20th century. I am living in football-mad England but am rapidly developing an aversion to the sport, squandering my first real opportunity to see it played at a professional level.

Chalk it up to my contrarian nature. I’m not one to throw myself into chanting, banner waving, and other tribal behaviors before I’ve had a chance to study what’s going on and make a full appraisal. And it did not take me long to find things I was less than enamored of, including:

1) The game itself—the endless running up and down the pitch with hardly any scoring. The few times I watched a football match, I inevitably got up to make a cup of tea, or dozed off, just as the one goal of the match was being made.

2) The fans—mostly male, many of them yobbos (some of whom are now chavs?). But even if we leave social class out of the equation, a good number of the UK’s football fans appeared to be hooligans, not exactly the most appealing lot—especially to a grad student like me, whose images of England had been formed from a steady diet of Jane Austen novels and Merchant-Ivory period movies. Occasionally violent male bonding rituals weren’t on the agenda. (I’m sure it didn’t help that my arrival in England coincided with football hooliganism reaching new levels of hysteria.)

3) The jingoistic tabloid coverage—which reaches its height whenever England plays Germany. I happened to be living in London in 2006, when the semifinals of the European finals, between England and Germany, took place at Wembley Stadium. What a palaver! The British mass-circulation paper The Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline “Achtung! Surrender!” over a photo of two England stars wearing World War II helmets. Years later, when England met Germany in the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, John F. Burns contributed an article to the New York Times contending that such “rib-poking” has provided catharsis for England and Germany over the years. Who am I to contradict Burns, the Times‘s London bureau chief and an expert on interpreting his native culture? Still, I couldn’t help but think of the late American historian Howard Zinn‘s warning that harmless pride can become an “arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.” Red card!

It’s perhaps worth noting that of all the reasons I came up with not to like football, none of them included the argument that occasionally surfaces in right-wing circles in the United States, which is that football is collectivist and carries the threat of “socializing” Americans’ taste in sports.

As an expat, I had a choice: keep skating along the surface and pretend football doesn’t exist, or else try and go closer to the beating heart of my adopted culture and see what makes it tick.

So I gave football a miss and moved back to pursuing a life of cream teas, theatre performances, cricket…wait did I just say “cricket”? I must be getting batty… (hahaha)

PART II: How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup

Am I looking forward to this year’s World Cup championship games in Brazil? Why soitenly! Numbskull that I am, I’ve finally gotten with the program!!

Herewith, the second part of my most peculiar tale. As explained in Part I, I never paid much attention to the sport despite nearly a decade of exposure; on the contrary, I developed an abhorrence for it.

But four years ago all of that changed. Having settled back in the United States, I found myself powerfully drawn to the championship that took place in South Africa, and I expect it will be no different this time around, with the World Cup being hosted by Brazil. (While I’m sad that Paul the Octopus is no longer with us, I take comfort in the thought of Nelly the Elephant taking his place—her punditry is apparently on a similar level.)

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when my conversion happened, especially as football still has all the same drawbacks I’d once noted: goals are few and far between, the fans are predominantly male, and jingoism reigns, particularly between the English and the Germans.

All I know is that it wasn’t until I was back in my own culture that I felt comfortable giving the sport a chance. Yes, I know this is ironic considering that the UK is considered to be the cradle of the game (the English have been kicking balls competitively since at least 1314), whereas we Yanks still aren’t quite there.

My top three reasons for fanning football are:

1) It’s the World Cup, stupid. Living in England, I couldn’t see the World Cup forest from the local English football club trees. But when watching the very best players in the world compete, even a hardened skeptic like me can start to appreciate why they call it The Beautiful Game. Those feet of theirs—they are using them like hands! That Messi fellow: it looks as though the ball is glued to his feet; how extraordinary! Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta: it’s incredible how they can pass the ball through the midfields! And let’s not forget Yaya Touré and the way he switches gears. Robin van Persie has a left foot to die for! And so on…

2) It’s a much-needed distraction from other kinds of world events. There’s nothing quite like a soaring soccer ball to lift the spirits, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of seeing a team, and a nation, carry off the trophy. I can still recall the thrill of watching the first European team win outside Europe, at the tournament in South Africa. ‪Viva España!‬

3) It’s on a par with, or perhaps even better than, the Olympics. Ironically, even though there is nothing quite like football to arouse nationalistic urges, the World Cup is, as the name suggests, a world competition, with 32 nations competing. (Compare that to America’s World Series—now that’s a misnomer!) Repeat expats like me, who are a hybrid of nationalities, are the ideal supporters of such sporting events. I think it also helps that I don’t really have a dog in the race. Though America competes, we aren’t yet a serious contender for the cup. This leaves me free to throw my support behind almost any athlete or team that I think are the world’s best. The Olympics of course provide many such opportunities; but that’s the problem: there’s too much choice. What I love about the FIFA World Cup is that it’s a singular occasion. There can be no bigger stage, literally as well as figuratively, than the vast pitch on which this ultimate sporting drama takes

*  *  *

It’s time to hear from you, dear reader. Is my conversion complete, or should I be bending the case for football still more, by stressing its potential for opening up intergalactic communication and fostering truly universal harmony? And even if you don’t share this new-found enthusiasm of mine, can you at least relate to the experience of getting to know and love a sport outside the ones you grew up playing and watching? Do tell!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Some funny things happened on the way to paradise, as recorded in this brilliant new expat memoir

Paradise Imperfect Collage

Clockwise from top left, surrounding Margot Page’s author photo (center): Monteverde waterfall; the family’s front yard; Margot, her husband,and their three kids; sunset; their youngest child, Ivy, on the vine outside their house; first day of school. All photos courtesy of Margot Page.

Before introducing today’s guest, Margot Page, I’d like to make one thing clear. When I first read of her decision to uproot herself, her husband and three young kids from their comfortable life in Seattle to spend a year in Costa Rica, I thought it made perfect sense.

In fact, it reminded me of my initial decision to try living abroad. While I wasn’t married with kids, nor was I looking to land in paradise, I sensed that I needed to get a wider perspective on my own country. It was before the era of the dot com boom and crazy Wall Street wealth, but even then, we Americans were becoming a pretty spoiled and entitled lot. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it and wondered: would my life be enriched if I tried living with less?

Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s return to Margot’s story. As she notes toward the beginning of her wonderful memoir, Paradise Imperfect, Seattle in 2003 could drive a person crazy:

It was an environment that made a person constantly aware of how rich other people are.

Thanks to all the overnight Microsoft millionaires, her family often felt “downright poor,” she says, despite enjoying a high standard of living and a reasonable amount of money.

Margot missed out on her opportunity to go abroad while still single—to “confront her privilege,” as she might say. But she is feisty enough to think that she need not forgo the expat experience of her dreams. A dozen years into her marriage, she finagles it so that she and her husband, Anthony, could quit their jobs, rent out their house, and head off with their three children, 4, 9 and 12, into the mountains of Central America, for a year.

The family settles down in the cloud forest of Monteverde, where the kids attend a “school in the clouds” with many Tico classmates and the entire family works hard on mastering Spanish. While it is enjoyable to read about their adventures in that part of the world—which at one point include a trip to Nicaragua, where they received a “full-on truth assault” about what poverty really is and hence their “own, unimaginable wealth”—there are plenty of other reasons to read the book as well, not least of which is that Margot is a gifted writer possessed of a self-deprecating sense of humor (always a huge plus at the Displaced Nation). She is, in short, jolly good company, as we shall see in the interview that follows. NOTE: Margot has generously offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE COPY to the person who leaves the most compelling comment about why they’d like to read her book.

* * *

PI_FrontCoverMargot, pura vida! Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Many people may not realize that you waited ten years before writing a memoir about the year you and your family spent in Costa Rica. Why was that?
Actually, I did try to write the book when we first got back—I just couldn’t get it done! But the great thing about that initial effort is that I wrote down a lot of the events when they were still fresh. Then, when I was actually ready to write the book, I was able take those stories and stand back from them, and see the picture they formed. You might liken it to an impressionist painting. Up close, I could have looked at an event from that year and said “Hmm, nice dot.” But with the distance of time, I could see that all the dots made a picture, with form and theme and sense. Had I managed to get it written right away, Paradise Imperfect would have been a completely different book.

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead?
More than one publisher suggested I turn Paradise Imperfect into a novel. Fictionalizing your story really lets you pile on the crises. Memoir only has a chance with the big publishing houses these days if you’re either already a celebrity (Tina Fey, Hillary), or if something truly hideous happened to you. If I’d had to saw off my arm or a couple of the kids were on meth, the big houses would have been all over me. As it was, they were very “Ooooh, we love your writing! Can you turn it into a novel?” Because then of course I could introduce some addictions or incest or something—you know, the stuff that really makes a story pop.

You went from a harried existence with very little work-life balance in Seattle, to a carefree, pura vida existence in Monteverde. Looking back, what do you think was your strongest impetus for packing it all in like that?
I think my impetus was about the same as anyone’s who’s living a busy, full life and has one of those days where you just feel like you’re running the whole time. The only difference is that a lot of people take a bubble bath at the end of that day, maybe pour a glass of wine—whereas I rented out the house and bought airplane tickets. It’s still not entirely clear to me what made that night different from a bubble bath night. Although clearly, the bubbles weren’t doing it for me anymore.

From reading the book, I know that even though you didn’t work in Costa Rica, you were far from idle. You applied yourself to learning Spanish and also did some volunteering—which had the added benefit of helping you practice your Spanish.
Yes, I went from working more than full time to volunteering a few hours each week at an amazing art gallery/studio; one of the owners painted me the piece of a woman in a hammock, stretching her toes to heaven, which became the cover of Paradise Imperfect. So while the kids did their homework, I would work on my Spanish, or practice painting assignments.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”

No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “Be careful what you wish for”. Was all the family togetherness as wonderful as you were hoping?
The initial period, when it was just the five of us, on top of each other all the time—that was a real challenge. It’s a good thing to have done, but it wasn’t so delightful in the doing. Of course, as we grew into our lives there, other people got incorporated, which was great. Kids would go off with friends, people would come over. And, as time passed and we adjusted to the conditions, we found all kinds of goofy things to do with ourselves. We had dance parties in the living room, just the five of us. We’d walk several kilometers just to get a milkshake and go to the library. There was much flopping around in hammocks with books and conversation. And with no sports practices to work around, dinner was a nightly togetherness event, with kids helping cook and clean the kitchen.

When I saw the title to your book, I was thinking of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In your case, paradise was imperfect. Why is that?
Paradise is imperfect because people are. We just ARE, and putting us in front of a really pretty waterfall just means you have flawed, funny people in front of a really pretty waterfall. In Costa Rica, we were strangers in a strange land together, and that made us incredibly close—which was wonderful, but you know, the closer you are, the more blemishes you can see. Wherever we go in the world, we take our human frailties with us.

You were the one with the original idea to take your family to Costa Rica. Were there any moments for you personally when you could say that you felt displaced and had made a mistake? 
Honestly, I never had that moment. At Christmas during our Costa Rica year—I put this in the book—the kids were lonely, and the possibility hit me hard that maybe the whole escapade was just a tremendously selfish act, bringing the kids on this adventure that was really for ME. But I never once felt like it was the wrong thing for me.

Here at the Displaced Nation, we call that your “pool of tears” moment.

“Sweet is the breath of morn…/With charm of earliest birds…/fragrant the fertile earth/After soft showers”

Was there a particular moment when you felt you were born to be Costa Rican rather than American? Having read the book, I can think of quite a few: when visiting your children’s “school in the sky,” when coming across new flora & fauna, or when tasting the fried chicken from El Super Pollo in Monteverde.
I had those moments almost every day, that Costa Rica was exactly where I belonged. But I think it was usually tinged with “I am exactly where I belong right now.” And although it was hard to leave, coming back to the States felt right, too. One of the fun things about that year, paradoxically, was that it gave me the chance to fall back in love with being an American. Back home, I’d been pretty upset with the political landscape. But when you travel, you get a different perspective on what truly corrupt government can look like, and you think “You know, we all wish Congress would do their jobs, but it appears that not having your shit together is not, in fact, the very worst crime a government can perpetrate on its people.”

You say you were happy to get back to Seattle, but did you miss Costa Rica once you returned? 
We definitely missed Costa Rica, and the way we got to live there. My son, Harry, spent a semester in Monteverde a few years after our family returned. When he got home, he smelled fried chicken and had this super strong sense memory of Super Pollo in Monteverde. He said:

I love it there so much. And I love Seattle so much. And it’s great, having two places to love. But it also means that, no matter where I am, I’m always just a little bit homesick.

Unlike many of our readers who are long-term expats, you stayed abroad only for a year. But the impact appears to have been lasting.
All our kids are travelers, now. And I can’t see a freighter without wanting to jump on it. My husband, Anthony, seems to have the travel bug the least, but that is not surprising. As I mention in the book, he’s a congenitally satisfied person :)

“Thou shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

When you got back to Seattle, was it back to the grind for you and your husband, or was your outlook somehow different?
The hours went back to being a similar breakdown to what we had before, though there was much less parental shuttling as our kids had become brilliant walkers and public-transit-takers. 
But the most important change was internal: We knew in a much clearer way that we had made a choice to live in this way. And our family also had a core togetherness as a result of that year in Costa Rica. Even when we’re geographically scattered, we feel together in a way I didn’t feel before. I attribute it to our common challenge of spending a year figuring out a new language and culture. Think about it: When do parents and kids ever have the opportunity to learn something so fundamental as how to speak, all at the same time?

And one more repat question: Did your family retain its social conscience, developed over the course of that year of learning to live with less?
I think we’ve kept an in-our-bones awareness of the fact of our own, sheer luck. I used to tell myself “I’ve worked really hard for what we have,” which is true! But you know what else is true? A lot of people work just as hard, and don’t have any cushion, and never will. That year in Costa Rica also developed us as people who will keep getting out there. Our son, Harry, was recently in South America, and while many of his peers tend to backpack and look at things until their parents’ money gives out, he got a job waiting tables. Our older daughter, Hannah, recently graduated college and moved to a new city; she hasn’t asked for a dime to help get started, and the housing she can afford is frankly a little appalling—but she is so spunky and awesome about it! And Ivy, the youngest, is currently back in Costa Rica, where she goes to school and helps out in the small hotel that her family runs.

Treading the publishing path

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Finding the discipline to cut was just excruciating. There are so many fun little stories that didn’t make it into the book. Stories I slaved over! Sentences I loved! But the difference between writing a legit book and just publishing your journal all cleaned up is that you really do have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner or whoever said. At the time I was finalizing, I thought I had cut absolutely down to the bone. But now, looking back—I think I could have killed more darlings.

Why did you publish with a small press?
That decision was made on the advice of my agent. As already mentioned, the big publishing houses told me I needed more crisis, but my agent loved the book and wanted me to be true to my experience. I simply don’t grant that there isn’t interest and beauty in true stories of normal people. You have to tell them well, of course.

What audience did you have in mind for the book?
My ideas about audience went from something pretty specific to something much more general. People always think we’re this crazy alt family that’s always up to wild shenanigans. Or else they think we’re obscenely wealthy, and had no economic issue in quitting our jobs. But we’re actually so mainstream! So I wanted to show regular people: “If we could do this, you totally could.”

But it quickly became clear the audience is basically everyone who likes a good story. Men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with grown kids—the different populations that have responded has been really lovely. Some people are planning a big adventure and are actively looking for inspiration, but the vast majority just love the people they meet and the events that unfold in the book.

The most fun for me is when women say “I got your book but I haven’t read it yet, because my husband is totally hogging it!” I can’t say why it’s so rewarding for me that Paradise isn’t just a chick book, but it really, really is.

What’s next for the indefatigable Margot—more books? Other creative projects?
I write for magazines about topics that interest me. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m nuts about the head of their church—I call him Pope Frantastic. And in the next year, I’m going to seriously embark on the novel that’s been in my head. I’m trying very hard to be a Twitter user, but really? I find the whole idea enormously intimidating.

How’s your Spanish these days, your art?
My Spanish and art—ack. Let’s just say I really hit my zenith during that year away.

10 Questions for Margot Page

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Wow, that is a hard question! It’s the “truly” that’s stressing me out. I’m going with Fidelity, a five-story collection by Wendell Berry. It is the most beautiful arrangement of sentences ever organized about how to be a person.
2. Favorite literary genre: Any book that someone in my family read and then gave it to me saying: “You HAVE to read this; you will love it so much.”
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m actually really smug about what a light traveler I am, so my reading usually tends to be any book I’ve been meaning to read that I won’t mind leaving behind. Or airport magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic). I try to read trashy magazines because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to give money to the people who are putting this crap in the world.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I just don’t trust anyone to run the country who doesn’t love Calvin. That’s my litmus test, right there.
5. Favorite books as a child: Mandy, by Julie Edwards. I must have read that book a hundred times. It’s about a girl who finds a garden and makes it hers. It’s like The Secret Garden but has a lot more soul and a lot fewer sideshows. It’s just a beautiful story of a lonely girl who sets out to heal her own little heart, and in the process finds people to help. And Julie Edwards (who, amazingly enough, is also the actress Julie Andrews) wrote it because she lost a bet about swearing to her daughter. I have a lot of respect for that whole situation.
6. Favorite heroine: Claudia from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Claudia. I never was her, as a kid—I was much more like her reckless little brother, Jamie. But as an adult and a parent, I relate to Claudia much more. She went to the museum for reasons not unlike the ones that took me to Costa Rica. She had to go get a piece of her self back, a piece she had lost to her role as responsible big sister. Mine was as responsible mama and breadwinner, but those roles are not so dissimilar. Claudia’s cooler than I am, though, just by nature of being 12. And in New York.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: The thing is, my fantasies around meeting writers all revolve around how incredible it will be that this amazing, brilliant human is interested in ME. But writers are total crazed narcissists! Have you noticed? So my scenario is unlikely. That said, I think Donald Barthelme and I could have a pretty good time, if he’d just stop being dead for a minute. He wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say and I wouldn’t really care. I’d just listen to what he said and then we’d have pie.
8. Your reading habits: I read every single day on the bus to and from the office. This makes going to an office infinitely more tolerable.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I gotta be honest here. Paradise Imperfect.
10. The book you plan to read next: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. I’m traveling right now, and it’s next to me on the seat.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Margot? Do you admire her decision to trade in her family’s packed schedules for a life of monkeys and footpaths, which is almost paradise? Or do you think she was crazy? Do you identify with any of her motives or epiphanies, thinking (as I do) that extended trips overseas should be encouraged for Americans?

Don’t forget, there’s a FREE digital copy on offer that will go to the best commenter…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Paradise Imperfect is available from Amazon (among other venues). Peruse the many five-star reviews, and be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit the book’s companion site (where you can read about Margot’s other writings, including a Modern Love column for the New York Times), like its Facebook page +/or follow Margot on Twitter, where she’s now testing her wings.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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Why did the chicken cross an international border? Because this expat told it to!

sharon lorimer chicken hat

Sharon Lorimer graces the cover of Coop du Monde sporting a chicken hat; photo credit: Kim Khan.

Sharon Lorimer is joining us again today. Last time she and I met, she had on her entrepreneurial hat to tell me about the ingredients she used to start up her company, doshebu. We discussed the company’s mission of helping overseas employees become versed in the “art” of being an expat—her knowledge of which is based, in no small part, on her own experience of being a Scottish expat in New York City and of her husband’s experience as an American ATCK (he has lived in London and Singapore).

This time around, however, Sharon is sporting a chicken hat. Why is that, you may wonder? For the simple reason that she has her eggs in more than one basket. She may be a businesswoman but she also loves cooking. She self-published a photo cookbook named Coop Du Monde at the end of last year, which offers suggestions for jazzing up your basic roast chicken recipe ranging from Pilgrim’s Fowl to Nippon Coop to Mi Amore Coop.

And just now she put out The Seasoner’s Handbook, a companion to her very first cookbook, From the Global Scottish Kitchen, in which she reinvented dishes from her native Scotland by adding flavors picked up from her “gastronomic journey.”

Cock a’ Leekie Udon, anyone?

Sharon’s culinary creativity will be our topic today. She tells me that she has always enjoyed experimenting with food, but by now it should be clear that flying the Scottish coop has pushed her in some new directions.

* * *

CoopduMonde_cover_dropshadowHi, Sharon. Welcome back to the Displaced Nation! Tell me, why did you decide to write a book about roast chicken?
I think it grew out of my fondness for the Sunday Roast ritual in the UK. Even when I was growing up in Scotland, I always preferred to spice it up. But since coming to the United States and leading a more international life, I’ve taken these experiments up a level.

But why chicken? When I lived in Britain, I remember having a lot of lamb and beef.
Well, chicken is probably the most popular for the home cook and besides, it’s eaten all over the world.

I’ve had a look at your book and I’m impressed that it offers a step-by-step guide to roasting a chicken and then suggesting a number of variations.
In fact, the point of the book is not so much to give people recipes as to help them be creative when they cook. I explain the process of blending spices and herbs together and choosing vegetables so that you can invent your own Coop du Monde.
TheSeasoner'sHandbook_cover_dropshadow

Which came first, spices or travels?

You seem to be obsessed with spices. In your newest book, The Seasoner’s Handbook, you explain how to use chili peppers, pomegranate seeds, saffron, mole, truffles…
These are some of the flavors I’ve picked up on my gastronomic journey. Take the pomegranate seed, for instance. I first had a dish seasoned with this fruit in London. As I explain in the book, I hadn’t tasted it before but it made the meal so enjoyable that I thought about how I could use it in other dishes. It has a mellow flavor that combines well with stronger and more subtle flavors.

Your Scottish cookbook, to which this book is a companion, reinterprets your native cuisine in light of what you have learned about the cuisines of the US, Mexico, France, Japan and Greece. In a post discussing the book on your blog, you say:

If I had created a cookbook that represented my travels, the contents would be traditional dishes made authentically. Thinking globally about taste lets you use different aspects of cuisines to develop new ideas.

It sounds as though you’re making a case for fusion cuisine, but is that right?
Cuisines are identified by nationality, and fusion means blending two national cuisines. I want people to understand that it’s less about replicating other people’s cuisines, or competing to be the best at a style of cuisine, and more about exploring what you like. Lots of us expats want to find ways of expressing all the influences we’ve picked up on our travels. What better way to blend them than in cooking?

“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens” – Louis Jordan

How big a role does cooking play in your everyday life?
My husband and I make very simple food during the week. He is a good cook, too, and we take turns cooking for each other. One thing that makes it on to the table every month is Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for whole roasted fish Tuscan style, which essentially means baking it in salt. Bourdain just talks about it in his book Kitchen Confidential. We tried replicating it from the description. It’s really easy. You just stuff herbs, garlic and lemon it to the belly of the fish. Pour olive oil on the fish and encrust in lots of Kosher salt and bake for 45-60 minutes at 375°F.

Mmmm…sounds good. Fish has been one of my staples ever since I lived in Japan.
Well, don’t overlook the beauty of chicken. My new favorite easy meal is a Cook Yourself Thin recipe for butterflied chicken breast marinated in olive oil, rosemary and lemon juice. It only takes 30 minutes to marinate and 10 minutes on the grill. Delicious.

Struttin’ her stuff on Blurb

Moving back to the two books: Why did you choose to publish them on Blurb?
Blurb makes self-publishing easy, and it’s ideal for coffee-table-style books that feature photography.

Yes, I know you’re a keen photographer, but was there a learning curve for taking photos of food?
I’m a professional photographer, but there’s a learning curve with any new project. The most important thing to remember when you start to make books is that printers need higher-resolution shots than websites. You have to print a hard copy with Blurb, even if you don’t want to sell it. Make the shots good enough so that you can display it in your home or give it to family and friends. The other thing I had to learn is that I have to shoot with the book in mind. I had some old chicken shots I wanted to use for the Coop du Monde, but the resolution was wrong and they looked out of place. In the end we had to work from the concept to create a cohesive book. In fact, my husband shot the front and back covers.

I see you’re getting into video more and more these days, and that Coop du Monde includes a teaching video.
I always find it easier to replicate a recipe if I have watched someone else do it first, don’t you? Yes, the video is embedded in the ebook.

What’s the biggest challenge in putting together a cookbook?
My biggest challenge is writing down recipes. I cooked for years without documenting any of it and even today, I still forget to write down what I’ve done. I have an app but it hasn’t really helped me solve the problem. I never cook to a recipe and I don’t really want to. It spoils the experience for me.

What audience do you have in mind for your photo cookbooks, and are they reaching those people?
The most popular post ever on the Art of the Expat blog is “Indian Meat and Potatoes” (it centers on a keema recipe that’s from From the Global Scottish Kitchen, which, believe it or not given that keema is Indian, includes pomegranates!). Food tends to be more accessible than other topics. People are always looking for ways to incorporate and understand other nations’ cuisines, especially ones they usually can’t have unless they eat out. I thought the Brits would like Coop du Monde because of their love of roast chicken, but most visitors to my blog are Americans. More recently, we’ve had a lot of Swedish visitors…but presumably they are also fans of chicken.

What’s next—more cookbooks? Other creative projects?
My husband and I are planning lots more live broadcasts at doshebu.tv focusing on news events and expat topics. On the creative side, I’ve started to write another screenplay. I think this will give me the outlet for creativity that I need when I get depressed about troubleshooting code!

* * *

Thank you, Sharon! Readers, don’t be too chicken to leave questions or comments for Sharon. Or perhaps you’d like to suggest a roast chicken recipe that you’ve enhanced with spices or other exotic ingredients? Just think, if Sharon were to include it in her next Blurb book, what a coup it would be…

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!

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