The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

For this fearless and feisty travel photography pro, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Steve Davey at a New Year's celebration in Laos, 2011 (supplied).

Steve Davey at a New Year’s celebration in Laos, 2011 (supplied).

A Picture Says… columnist James King is away this month, so ML Awanohara is pinch hitting in his place.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs!

Once again, I am the feeble stand-in for James King, who will be back in August. That said, I am happy to be the vehicle for bringing to you such an exciting interview subject: Steve Davey, a professional photographer who is also an intrepid wanderer around Planet Earth, with the creds to prove it. Steve has produced two best-selling BBC travel books, one about unforgettable islands to escape to, the other about unforgettable places that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

He has also written a photography book about festivals around the world as well as a guide to location photography.

And he has started up his own business leading travel-photography tours, about which a participant has written:

“Your love of photography and travel is infectious and I can honestly say I have never laughed or learnt so much on a holiday before!”

I recall that when I first stumbled across Steve’s photography site, I found him an amiable character—on his About Page he says is is a “crap sightseer” who is “more interested in how places work and often how they don’t, than in visiting monuments and museums.” I could also sense his insatiable curiosity about the wider world coupled with a certain fearlessness. This mix of qualities suggests not only that he takes great photos but also that he isn’t easily daunted.

Let’s find out if these impressions were right by giving Steve the floor.

* * *

Hi, Steve, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Let’s start in the same way James always does: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I was born in a small village near Bristol. I longed to head out and explore the world, and as soon as I was old enough I headed off around Europe on an Inter-rail pass. That year I got as far as Hungary. The following year I got even further—to Romania in the days of Ceausescu.

Which countries have you visited thus far, and have you lived in any of them?
I have been to almost ninety countries in the course of my work. Some of these, I have been to dozens of times. I am a compulsive traveler but have always been based in London, travelling where the work takes me. As you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve shot a couple of books for the BBC. Each of these required taking all the photos for about twenty-five chapters in a single year. For the Unforgettable Islands book, I did the equivalent of 6.5 times around the world on 99 different flights.

So you’ve never been an expat?
There are some parts of the world I’ve visited that I would love to have lived in, but my feelings about this are always changing. So I figure it’s best to base myself in London and have the option of returning to the latest place that has taken my fancy.

Well, I love London, so that’s fine by me. Which part of the city do you live in?
South London. Brixton. About the closest you can come to living in a foreign land but without leaving the UK. It is an eclectic area with a multicultural flavour. My local breakfast cafe is Eritrean. There is a large Caribbean market nearby and people of every culture. My daughter’s school is like a 1990s Benneton advertisement.

I lived in South London myself at one stage: Kennington. I remember Brixton well and can picture exactly what you are talking about.

“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.” —Alfred North Whitehead

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
Before starting, I should tell you that I love to photograph festivals. I love the chaos and the sheer exuberance of these events. They are when a destination comes alive and when a place is at its most characteristic for the people who live there (festivals are not put on for tourists). So I’ll be sharing three photos of the most memorable festivals I’ve had the honor of witnessing.

First, the Sonepur Mela (Cattle Fair) in the state of Bihar, India. I have attended a number of festivals in India, from the largest gathering of humans on the planet to remote gatherings in the Himalayas and elephant temple festivals in Kerala in the South, but the Sonepur Mela is one of my favourites. There’s a vast animal market including the Haathi Bazaar, where elephants are lined up for sale. There’s also religious bathing in the confluence of the rivers Gandak and Ganges. The Sonepur Mela attracts few tourists and I consider it one of the hidden cultural gems of India.

Sonepur Mela_India

Elephants for sale at Sonepur Mela in India. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Wow! I have a theory that it’s why we all travel: to see the “elephant.” Clearly, you’ve done that. So what’s next in the photo-fest, so to speak?
Next is one of a festival held by the Kalash people, who live in three remote valleys in the north of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. They trace their lineage back to the soldiers of Alexander the Great. They tend to have piercing blue eyes and fair skin. Animist non-Muslims, they drink, wear bright clothes, and permit men and women to dance together. This makes them rather unpopular in the region. Guarding this event were some 3,000 special forces commandos. Despite this, the festival atmosphere was lively and chaotic. It was one of the great privileges of my career to have experienced and photographed this event.
Kalash_Pakistan

The Kalash people have a handle on what it means to be festive. Photo credit: Steve Davey

Steve, you are opening new windows for me on the world. I never knew about this unique tribe of people in that part of the world. So what’s your last pick?
Last but not least is this incredible festival that takes place on Pentecost Island, one of the islands within the remote archipelago of Vanuatu, in Oceania. It involves the village menfolk hurling themselves from high towers, with their fall only broken by vines fixed to their ankles. I’ve wanted to photograph this ever since I saw the film of the so-called land divers shot by the great David Attenborough. I finally got the opportunity when working on the “unforgettable islands” book for the BBC. It was a humbling rite to witness, and I managed to shoot some stunning pictures, too! This photo represents for me the kind of doors that have been opened in my life due to being a photographer who specializes in travel. I have managed to witness, and take part in, so much more of the world than I ever would have done without a camera.

Vanuatu

The precursor to bungee jumping, but a lot more risky. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Truly, you have seen such a wide swathe of life’s rich tapestry. Being presented with what is clearly just a fraction of the photo evidence has been humbling for me.

“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Gustave Flaubert

Having seen your first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
It is a tough choice, so I’ll give you four:

I love India. I can’t get enough of the place. I love the utterly bewildering variety it offers. I have been all over the country and attended a number of religious festivals, including the Kumbh Mela—officially the largest gathering of humans on the planet. But that’s not all there is. Here is a shot of a Buddhist monk in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas:

Ladakh monk

A Thikse Buddhist monk blows a conch horn announcing prayers. Photo credit: Steve Davey

I first travelled to Laos years ago, soon after it opened up to foreign visitors. There were few roads up in the north, and the only way to get around was by boat. I love the country’s atmosphere, its people—and could not resist photographing this line of monks heading out at dawn to collect food, or alms.

Laos monks alms

The tak bat, or Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food (alms), in Luang Prabang. Photo credit: Steve Davey

I still love Morocco. It is the most crazy place that you can visit from London on a low-cost airline. Over the years I’ve noticed that the people have become less friendly to photography, making it more stressful to walk around and take pictures; but there are few places that excite me more than the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. Home to snake charmers, acrobats, fake dentists, herbalists, drummers and some of the best street food this side of Delhi. Electric!

Morocco

Don’t make the mistake of catching the snake charmer’s eyes! Photo credit: Steve Davey


I have to interrupt for a moment to say that of all the photos you’ve shared thus far, this is my favorite. Even though I’m not fond of rattlesnakes, it captures an atmosphere that is utterly different and seductive. Now, you said you had four?
The last one is my wildcard. I usually love hot, dusty places with people. Svalbard is my Achilles Heel. I love the cold, the wildlife and the stunning scenery. I have seen it from ships, by snowmobile and on foot. I love the ever-present danger, the midnight sun and the sense of true adventure.
Svalbard

Polar bear viewing in the crown of Arctic Norway. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Incredible! The Moroccan rattlesnakes definitely scared me, but, though I know I should also be scared of the polar bears, I can’t help thinking how cute they look.

“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” —Bruno Barbey

I notice that you often photograph people, whereas quite a few of the interviewees for this column stick to scenery. Do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
I seldom photograph people without approaching them and interacting with them in some way. Spend even a small amount of time with someone and you can come up with an engaged and atmospheric portrait. This is a difficult skill to develop, but once you have mastered it then taking people’s picture is a much less fraught experience and far more enjoyable for both the photographer and the person being photographed.

Here are a couple of examples where I’ve applied those principles:

A Sadhu (holy man) at the Ganga Sagar Mela (festival) in West Bengal, India; a pilgrim at the Korzok Gustor festival in Ladakh, Northern India.

Examples of Steve Davey’s people shots: A Sadhu (holy man) at the Ganga Sagar Mela (festival) in West Bengal, India; a pilgrim at the Korzok Gustor festival in Ladakh, Northern India.

“Eyes like a shutter, mind like a lens.” —Anonymous

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
I shoot exclusively on Nikon pro camera and lenses. I shoot either with the Nikon D3X, Nikon D800 or Nikon D810. I have a cupboard of pensioned off cameras, including a brace of F4s and a brace of F5s. Cameras don’t tend to hold their value: especially when I have finished with them. I am a believer in going for the utmost quality in work. To me this is the mark of a professional photographer, shooting with the best lenses and filters. I always shoot in the RAW format and post process with Adobe Lightroom.

I suspect I need to read your photography guide or take one of your tours to fully appreciate the wisdom of what you just said. But I trust you!

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.” —Anonymous

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
Working as a professional travel photographer is bloody tough. There are a lot of talented amateurs who shoot a few good shots and virtually give them away; and a bunch of fauxtographers who have the website and the business card but the only way that they can get work is to work for free in the hope that they can break into the industry. Best to work at something that makes you money and take photographs for pleasure. Taking pictures for love and not money is a dream for most of us professional photographers!

Thank you, Steve! It’s been a memorable virtual journey into corners of the world I didn’t know existed!

* * *

Readers, that was something else! I’d never even heard of some of these places before, and Steve has been to them several times over. What do you make of his vast range of travel experiences and photography advice? Any questions for him on on his photos or extensive travels? Please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Steve and his photography better, I suggest you visit his photography site. You can also follow him on Facebook. You may also be interested in checking out his travel-photography books:

Or why not consider joining one of his tours and getting some hands-on photography instruction? It would be an experience to go down in the annals!

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

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 and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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WONDERLANDED: “Shadows & Reflections,” by long-term expat Paul Scraton

Shadows and Reflections Berlin

Photo credits: (left) Rummelsburg Bay in Berlin via Pixabay; Volkspark Hasenheide, Berlin-Neukölln, by Zusammen via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) .


Just the other day we were “wonderlanded” in Berlin with British expat writer Paul Scraton. We found out what it was like to live “slightly on the edge of the scene”: in Paul’s view, “that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”

Today we hear from Paul again on the topic of displacement—only this time he will be speaking through a piece of his own writing. “Shadows & Reflections”* is a post he wrote two-and-a-half years ago for the British online forum Caught by the River, which, like Alice’s own story, was “born on a bankside.”

* * *

We are taking a train back from Munich to Berlin on a Sunday afternoon at the start of December, a six-hour train ride home that will take us through some of Germany’s most beautiful countryside at over a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. A few hours north of Munich, just over the old border between the former West and East of the country, the fields are covered in a light layer of snow, the forests engulfed in mist. Whenever the first snow flurries of the winter arrive it never fails to remind me of the day I moved to Germany, landing at a snowy Schönefeld Airport, still on high alert a couple of months after September 11th.

Train Ride to Berlin quote

Photo credits: (top) The scenery from the train window, by Paul’s partner, Katrin Schönig; “Keep the track focused!” by Axel Schwenke via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I did not imagine then that I would still be living in Berlin over a decade later, and that Germany would have become my home. Or is it? The Germans have a wonderful word that to my mind has no proper translation into English. Usually the word Heimat is turned into “homeland”—but it means something more than that, a feeling about a place that involves an almost spiritual sense of belonging even in the non-religious. It might be Berlin, or even a district of the city. It might be a stretch of the Baltic coastline, or a village in the north of Bavaria. It could be a certain landscape, a place of particular traditions and culture. Germany is a fractured country, only put together for the first time in 1871, and local, regional pride still runs strong.

Yes, Berlin and Germany has become my home over the past twelve years, but it is certainly not my Heimat… And at the same time, a handful of trips back to England over this year has made me realise that if it is not here, it might not be there either.

During the three trips, to London, my old stomping ground of West Yorkshire, and new discoveries in Northumbria, I realised once again that although there are certain elements of returning that are as comfortable as a favourite old jumper, being away means you miss certain developments and that marks you down as an outsider, whether it is a particular band an old friend is raving about, or a certain slang term that you start to notice being used on social media or in streamed BBC shows that you think you understand but you cannot be sure.

So in this year of journeys—to England, but also through Germany to the Baltic coast, the Oder River and the forests and lakes around Berlin—I reflected a lot on belonging and what it means to be home. When I first learned the word Heimat it made me think of certain places that meant something strong to me, but I realised—as I conjured images of the Welsh coast and mountains, the Yorkshire moors and dales, the Dock Road in Liverpool and the potato fields of West Lancashire—that this was more an exercise in memory and nostalgia than anything else. And the thing with memory and nostalgia is that even when you go back, return for a visit or even to stay, you realise that not only is the place subtly different than you remember it, but you are also not the same person as the one that was there before.

Heimat Two Seas

Photo credits: (top) “Choppy seas,” by psyberartist via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Baltic sea by Paul’s partner, Katrin Schönig.

Living in Germany for a dozen years has, of course, shaped and changed me. If I am looking for a shadow in these reflections, perhaps this is it. The paths you take always leave you the chance to wonder about those that you did not. If you are of a mind to spend much time with your memories and nostalgia, then you cannot help but reflect on how things could have been different. You cannot possibly know how you yourself would then have changed with a different job, a different house, perhaps even different people around you, except to know that you most certainly would have.

As the train rushes through the rolling landscape of Thüringen, just before the flatlands of the north, I think of how my appreciation of such scenes has changed over the past 12 years. From my list above you could work out that the landscape I grew up with, and which continues to touch me—of moors and mountains, wild cliffs and the white horses of the Irish Sea.

But over my time in Germany I have come to appreciate the very different landscape that surrounds me…the flat, melancholic beauty of the Baltic coast, the lakes north of Berlin and the pine forests that encroach on the city. And I realise I am happy to have learned to love something so different, that I need not continue any surely futile search for a Heimat that deep down I know does not exist. That is, perhaps, both the cost and the benefit of having grown up in one place and chosen to live and love somewhere else.

As the train reaches the outskirts of Berlin I look out of the window into the darkness, searching for the first glimpse of the Television Tower in the distance. Then I will know that I am nearly there. Home.

*”Shadows and Reflections” is republished here with Caught by the River’s permission.

* * *

Thank you, Paul, for this enlightening series of “wonderlanded” posts. Readers, I hope that by now you are, like me, full of wonder at Paul’s insights into a life of displacement similar to the ones many of us have led. 

As it happens, the very first issue of the new journal of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, of which Paul is founding editor, is out today. Please join me in wishing Paul a hearty congratulations! And, say, if you like what Paul has to say about place, why not think about subscribing? I would also urge you to follow his blog, under a grey sky… ~ML

STAY TUNED for the 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, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Wonderlanded in Berlin with British expat Paul Scraton, founding editor of the new “Elsewhere” journal

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

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Paul Scraton to Berlin.

Paul Scraton Wonderlanded for TDN 3

Paul says he isn’t intimately familiar with Lewis Carroll’s classic work—this despite having had a mainly English childhood. He was born and spent his early years in a market town just north of Liverpool; and, though his family moved around a fair bit in Paul’s early years—Wales, Canada, the south of England—they settled in Lancashire once he reached school age. At 18, he crossed the north–south divide to attend the University of Leeds.

But I feel justified in including Paul in this series first because he is most certainly displaced. Upon graduation from Leeds, he moved to Berlin, Germany, which is where we find him today, living with his German partner, Katrin, and their daughter. Apart from a summer spent in Dublin, the German capital has been Paul’s “home” for the past 14 years.

In addition, having studied Paul’s creative output, I think it is fair to say that for him, “elsewhere”—by that he seems to mean the great outdoors—is a kind of Wonderland. He never tires of exploring the area where he lives. He has served as a tour guide for Slow Travel Berlin and written two short books based on walks he has led in and around his adopted city.

Another place to which he has formed a deep attachment is Germany’s Baltic coast. Katrin spent much of her childhood on the the island of Rügen and in the Hanseatic city of Stralsund, and for about a decade, Paul has accompanied her on trips to the region.

Paul writes a regular series of “dispatches” about his various outdoor adventures—whether in Germany or the UK (which he still visits frequently)—for his blog, under a grey sky…

And now he has just released the very first issue of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, of which he is the founding editor.

Without further ado, let’s find out what it’s like to be “wonderlanded” with Paul.

* * *

Paul Scraton: Although it was quite a few years ago now, I can remember what it was like when I first arrived in Berlin and needed help with everything, from registering an apartment to opening a bank account. It was certainly challenging, even though Berlin is a city where many people speak English. And it is often only in the moving that you realise what aspects of life are different or not easily accessible compared to “back home”…and that can certainly make you feel lonely in a new city, a new country.

I did not have an internet connection in my first couple of Berlin apartments, and the English newspapers were expensive, so I relied a lot on BBC World Service. It is funny that this is not that long ago, but I imagine it is a different experience now with widespread internet access, social media and Skype.

I think the reason I first resisted the idea of Berlin or my life in another country as “wonderland”, besides a lack of familiarity with the books, is that by the definition of the Displaced Nation I am so often in this wonderland that it would never occur to me to frame it in that way. What I mean by this: when I am in Berlin I feel like I don’t quite belong, but when I go “back” to England having lived abroad for 14 years then I feel just as out of place. So it is something of a permanent state.

Despite this I can recognise that there are elements of life and my experience in Berlin (and beyond) after all these years that I still find curious…

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

Having just finished university with no real idea of what I wanted to do except to write, I did wonder whether Berlin was the right place for me in the sense that I felt a long way away from any community or other people doing something similar in English. But several of us built our own little network, and, with the influx of still more international creatives over the years, there is now a small but thriving community of English-language writers and other like-minded folk.

“But what did the Dormouse say?” one of the jury asked.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Berlin was its history and the stories contained within these streets. One of the questions I would often ask people when I met them was whether or not they had grown up in the east or the west, and their experiences of living in a divided city and country and also what they thought about the process of reunification. In more recent years I was involved with running eyewitness history talks with people who told their personal stories of living in the city during the Nazi era or the Second World War, or living under communism in East Germany or in the “island city” that was West Berlin. Sometimes people in the audience, who were mainly visitors from outside Germany, would ask questions that would make me worry that the speaker would be offended, but actually it never happened. The Germans were happy to answer even difficult questions about their past or that of their families. In general, this is one of the strengths of the German society—the extent to which they have acknowledged, come to terms with, and discussed, debated and learned from their history; and you see it with individuals as well.

“Curiouser and curiouser…”

I think what really struck me about moving to Germany was not any sense of culture shock, but that the differences to back home were subtle and needed time to be discovered. In Berlin especially people can be very direct… there is very little tip-toeing around the subject, which can be a bit disconcerting. The main thing I still haven’t really fathomed is Schlager music, and the assorted television shows that showcase it. Finding yourself in the middle of something like that is one of those moments where you really realise you are living in a place where there are certain cultural traditions you have no grasp of, and to which you may never have access.

Acquired tastes Paul Scraton

German tastes you may never fully acquire. Photo credits: “Wenn die Musi spielt,” by Bad Kleinkirchheim via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Giant gherkins, by Caitriana Nicholson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice…

My partner introduced me to good German pickled gherkins, and without her prompting I doubt I would ever have touched them. Now I quite like them.

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail…

I am fascinated by Germany’s Baltic coast. One of the reasons is that I am fascinated by the coast in general, I think because it is a place that combines (a) the sense of escape that comes with family holidays, the seaside resorts, and the break with everyday life; and (b) the danger, myths and legends of the sea itself. Most seaside towns have both beaches where people have spent many, many happy hours, as well as memorials to shipwrecks and lifeboat crews… This contrast or contradiction applies, by the way, to the coast of the UK as much as here in Germany. (See for instance my blog post about our visit to Lindisfarne, Northumbria.)

The allure of the coast: Heimat, Germany (top) and Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK. Photo credits: Paul Scraton and K.

The allure of the coast: Heimat, Germany (top) and Lindisfarne, Northumbria, UK. Photo credits: Paul Scraton and Katrin Schönig.

Another reason the Baltic is special is that it’s the place where my partner grew up. In the past ten years or so she has been taking me and my daughter up there. We are writing new stories for ourselves in a place that was very much a part of her childhood.

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

Now that you’re Wonderlanded with me, I must throw you a Mad Hatter’s tea party. This being Berlin, I will serve beer and bouletten (meat balls), a Berlin specialty, at the big table in our living room. We will listen to music and chat…and the guests will be friends, those who I don’t see enough of because of the way life seems to be. Not only those who are in England, and who I don’t see because of distance, but also those who live in the same city but somehow life gets in the way. But before we sat down for beer and meatballs we would have done a long walk together through the city or perhaps out at the lakes and the forests on the edge.

Bouletten and a walk. Photo credits: Bouletten mit Senf, by  Michael Fielitz (CC-BY SA 2.0); Grunewalk Forest by Paul Scraton.

Bouletten and a walk. Photo credits: Bouletten mit Senf, by
Michael Fielitz (CC-BY SA 2.0); Grunewalk Forest by Paul Scraton.

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Inevitably, you are a different person at 36 years old than at 22, and these changes would have no doubt happened whether I was in Berlin or had stayed in England. And if anything, being with my partner and our child probably had a more profound impact that simply the act of moving away. But I would say that work wise, in my writing and in creating our journal, Elsewhere, living in Berlin has been an endless source of inspiration. The number of interesting places and the stories they contain feels inexhaustible. I don’t think I would have become the writer I am, pursued the projects I am doing, or developed my work in the direction I have, without living in this city for the past decade and a half.

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

If you are like me, you will find yourself feeling out of place in your new home and out of place when you return to the old one. But there is nothing wrong with being slightly on the edge of the scene…that’s where the interesting stuff happens.

“I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth!”

Paul Scraton books and journal

Paul Scraton’s two short books and the first issue of the new journal he edits, Elsewhere.

Aside from the journal, the first issue of which we are launching this week, I am writing a book about memory, exploration and imagination on the German Baltic coast. As I mentioned, this is the area where Katrin grew up, and so the book combines my own travels and discoveries in the area with the myths and stories of the places along the coast as well as Katrin’s family history. I think coming at these places and stories as an “outsider” gives me a different perspective that informs and shapes the writing. Ultimately everything I am working on right now is concerned with the idea of “place”, and again, I think this interest has developed as a result of never quite feeling I belong wherever I may be…

* * *

Readers, I wonder if you feel like me, that you’ve enjoyed being “elsewhere” with Paul so much you feel a bit bereft now that our “tour” has ended… Do you agree the time went quickly? And what did you make of his Wonderlanded story? Please let us know in the comments. ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Paul writes about place.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits for opening image (clockwise from top left): Paul Scraton (supplied); image from “A line of wild suprise: Prespa, Greece,” one of the articles on the first issue of Elsewhere; “Alice,” by Jennie Park via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Hutschenreuther Garten Eden Cup & Saucer via Chinacraft.

WONDERLANDED: “Can you make me a Manhattan?” by A. Spaice

Can you make me a Manhattan Collage

Drink a Manhattan at Eat Me in Bangkok. Photo credit: “Alice 15,” by AForestFrolic via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Eat Me Restaurant, Bangkok; Manhattan cocktail via Pixabay.

A couple of days ago, we wonder-landed in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice. She told us falling down rabbit holes in Europe and Asia has sparked her imagination in untold ways—not least by convincing her that a Mad Hatter’s tea Party would not be complete without champagne and an opera singer.

Spaice ended her musings on the expat writer’s life on this fittingly dramatic note:

Knowing it’s the connection that I write for now, instead of the “art,” I’m moving into a different channel. I trust this current, because it feels good. It moves, it flows. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it even likes to dance.

Today she offers a sample of her work that seeks to connect with others who have wonder-landed and lived to tell the story—whether in words, photos, or other forms of creative expression. It’s an except from her short book Bangkok, which she produced as a kind of roman à clef after taking a trip from her current home of Phnom Penh to the Thai capital. Bangkok marks the first in an unconventional short book series she is planning, titled n+1.

Cover art for Bangkok, by A. Plaice.

Cover art for Bangkok, by A. Spaice

* * *

Excerpt from Bangkok

The story principally concerns Karin Malhotra’s attempt to reconnect with an old female friend in Bangkok, Thailand, the Land of Smiles, only to discover they are no longer that compatible. But in this passage, Karin is about to meet someone new, another displaced creative, a magazine editor who has professed an interest in her work…

“CAN YOU MAKE ME A MANHATTAN?” I asked, truly wondering. “Of course.” This was supposed to be the best bar on this side of Bangkok, according to the gay couple that seemed like good people to ask the day before. I wanted a comfortable place. Not too conspicuous, not too loud. But I didn’t expect it to have the kind of name it did. Eat Me.

Still, the guy from the magazine had said “yes,” to meet me there. I muttered something about the name and how I’d heard about it from a bunch of people (two being a bunch) and thought it could work for a conversation space.

He was taller than I’d pictured, and seemed like he might have been French, because of the two-kiss thing that the Europeans like to do when they meet you for the first time. For some reason, he was extremely close to the lips on the second one, but that was kind of flattering, in a way, because he had a rich dark musty scent and I rather liked it.

“So,” he said. “You’re Karin Malhotra. We meet at last.”

At last? Hadn’t we just talked online like, twice? Business conversation making, that was the agenda today.

“Tell me about what you do.”

Oh, boy. Here it was. The test. I hadn’t really prepared for this. I was going to have to wing it. Really, at the end of the day, pretty much everything good that’s come to my life has come of winging it, I realized. With that thought in the forefront of my mind, I got into character. “I make space. I know that might sound odd, but I was meant to be an architect. Designing physical spaces with bricks and glass and maybe new materials but not concrete because in Kyoto I got a giant magazine with Tadao Ando teahouses all in these sad greys which got me depressed for a while because the ones they have in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and stuff? They have these lovely bamboo colors and textures and earth tones. Which is better. Anyway, I didn’t become an architect for lots of reasons, the biggest one being that I don’t like projects that take more than three or four months to finish. With books, you know, you can take years to write books, but I got into eBooks and nothing more than like a two-hour read, you know? People like that. Short and sweet.”

“Uh-huh.”

“People like it because we are so time-poor right now. Modern people, that is. I’m talking about the malaise of the Western progressive world, where we have books and medicine but we have nothing to get happy about because our souls aren’t nourished properly in the time we’re growing up.

“What I’ve been doing, what I’ve just started since putting the brakes on my own design studio, which you’ll never believe this but is the second time I’ve done that. The first time I just felt compelled to do the same thing again, when we moved from Seattle to Durham NC. Durham is in North Carolina. Have you been there?”

“No. I rarely go to America. I can’t say that I’d ever want to live there, and visiting is a trial.”

“So you’re actually from…”

“Vienna.”

Oh. Memories of college.

Schubert.

Nabokov.

A bottle of Sauvignon blanc.

“Yes, I knew someone from your country once.” I stammered. I wanted to forget about that, but you can’t really forget about those ones you fall for at first sight. Why was I talking about that, though? That was weird. “He was a colleague.” A lie. But… so?

“Where did you work together?”

Shite. I was going to have to keep going with this one? “Oh, just a small firm in Tokyo. They did architecture, but had a base in Los Angeles. I thought I’d make it to Los Angeles because I knew my husband was big into the West Coast, drier air and all. But we wound up in Seattle. It took a while to get there from our time in Japan, though.”

“I love Japanese teas, they are the best.”

“I prefer Darjeeling to everything, personally. But I do love those whisks from those places they have in Kyoto.”

“Are your genetics from India?”

Wow. That was a first. No one put it that way before. Are my genetics from India?

“Yes,” I said. Not barking at them that I’m from the outskirts of Detroit. I hate the where-are-you-from question but I still ask other people, for some reason. I guess it’s habit? Smalltalk.

My bar companion brushed his dark brown hair with his hand, and I noticed that it had a few stray grays. This was interesting. When did I ever think men with gray hair could be attractive? This was news. Maybe it had something to do with turning almost-forty. A round number.

“I have never been to India,” said Glenn. He had a really long last name that I couldn’t pronounce, much less remember to spell. What was the custom in Austria when greeting someone? Was it two kisses like the French, or three like the Swiss? I tried to remember how it had been in those couple of weeks with

“But I intend to go. This winter, in fact.” Glenn was all business, and that reminded me to focus. Not on his hair and his hands and his blue eyes, so puzzlingly deep, but the agenda. “I have to get more writers from that part of the world.”

“You do?”

“Yes. We want to diversify the magazine. It’s far too European for its own good. I really want to bring in some new voices. From afar. From the East. That’s why I contacted you. You seem to have… an Indian-sounding name. I’m sorry… I guess I just assumed…”

“Oh, that’s fine,” I said, waving it away. The truth was it wasn’t fine. Why did my stupid name have to make me into an Indian person automatically? I’d been there enough times to know that the gender bias there is ridiculous and horrid and people aren’t nice within their families, especially to daughters. Goodness knows I’d put up with enough of that growing up with my mother. My complicit brother and father, standing by while she’d hurl psychological abuse upon stones. I hated thinking about those days, and pushed aside the thought as if it were one of Glenn’s locks. I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch his crown, to see if he might notice that kind of action. Just out of curiosity, I’d say, if he asked. Not trying to get with you or anything. Just like the look of you, and enjoy studying your features. High, strong cheekbones made him look a little feminine, but his hands were rough from, what? Magazine work couldn’t possibly be physical.

“Were you always in the publishing industry?”

He took a sip of a new drink that arrived, a tall slim glass that contained a mojito. Kind of a girly drink, wasn’t it?

“No,” he said. “I was a joiner in the past.” “A what?” “Joinery. It’s a kind of carpentry, but specialized. I trained in Germany for it, for about four years. That’s where I met my partner.” “Your… partner?” “He’s a joiner, too, yes.” He. I recalibrated, and quickly. “Ah.”

The waiter came around and saved me. “Another drink?”

* * *

Readers, what did you make of this portion of A. Spaice’s expat-life story? Among other things, I think she has nailed the down-the-rabbit-hole feeling of no longer knowing who you really are or anyone else is, once you have wonder-landed.

Interested to read more of Bangkok? It’s available for purchase at Gumroad and Amazon.

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, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Wonderlanded in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice

A Spaice Wonderlanded Collage

Tea in Bangkok and Yellow in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: A. Spaice.

Curiouser and curiouser! Residents of the Displaced Nation have always had a deep affiliation with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. We can identify with her experiences of falling down a rabbit-hole and stepping through a look-glass into a world where one doesn’t know, can’t even guess at, the rules of the game. Alice’s sense of discombobulation—which of us hasn’t had at least one pool-of-tears moment after moving to another culture?

By the same token, which of us hasn’t grown, and been stretched, in new and unexpected directions by our displaced lives of global residency and travel?

This year, to celebrate the 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I am hosting a new “Wonderlanded” series, beginning with today’s post.

Our very first Wonderlanded story is from A. Spaice, who has led a life of remarkable transitions after falling
d
o
w
n
the hole.

Spaice grew up in a rich Western country to be an engineer-artist, disappointing a lot of relatives who insisted (without invitation) that a more “normal” career would make life easier.

But this just pushed her to resent all sorts of social mores, sparking a journey that would never stop anywhere for more than six years. Her path cut a line to the Far East, looped Western Europe, and now, as we hear the details of her Wonderlanded story, Spaice writes from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, having assumed a few new layers to her creative identity as she continues to insist on looking inward to work out Alice’s big question:

“Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Without further ado, I give you A. Spaice!

* * *

Greetings, Displaced Nation readers! I look forward to telling you my story of how I became wonderlanded. But first, a few details about me. Before taking this new name, A. Spaice, I’d been happily writing under my own, mostly first-person essay style accounts and often set in foreign lands. It was fine. I got places. I enjoyed it. But then, I hit bricks. Through my writing, I’d wanted to tell my story and when that was done, I realized it was okay to stretch a bit, to try new things, maybe even third person. Crazy! So after a long time of not knowing one phase could end and a new one begin, I feel a reinventing going on, from within. This propels me, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that kind of inward push, and I know this is the kind of thing you need to have if you want to get it done and make it good. So I’m happy to make the transition, and let go of the old style.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Along the way I got surprised about something. My major in college was engineering, and I worked in architecture firms for a while, so it’s been fun playing with new concepts in my work, like torque and momentum, or the radiation heat transfer equation, that kind of thing. I’m going to have to find a way to use ! for factorial. I’m terribly excited, and I hope this energy will reverberate through in my just-born, about-to-become-something N+1 series. (Mathy, right? I kind of dig it.)

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

A year ago at this time I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had no idea what I was going to do for work or how I was going to “make it,” or if I’d need to abandon some old idea about what that even means, or something else. Among my possessions was an old copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, which, if you are traveling Asia and the kind of person who sizes people up by the amount of luggage they have, you wouldn’t have given me an ounce of attention because this thing is cement.

You Can't Go Home_Thailand

You can’t go home again; you’re in the Kingdom of Wonder! Photo credit: Book cover art; A. Spaice.

Thomas Wolfe was pretty roundly criticized, it says in the back notes of the book, for not being able to edit stuff himself and relying on people to help him cut things into a story-like form. But wow. His writing. It’s just…it’s so lovely and right on.

It was there with me in the suitcases, and it is here with me now, as I write. It’s been a comfort. I didn’t know anything about what was ahead (a bus ride to Siem Reap, then another to Phnom Penh, a welcome from some people social media introduced me to, and then, falling in love with Cambodia in an abstract way, because of the whole “Kingdom of Wonder” thing, but also, in general, its aesthetics (architecture, attention to symmetry, detail, and something… something I’m working on trying to capture and will stay until I can name). Ask me about the tuk tuk driver whose floor’s decked out with astroturf. A humor, a style, something else. Unpretentiousness, perhaps? Directness? Reality? Maybe it was this that made me feel, “Yes. Stay.”

But the book, that book being with me, that’s been an anchor. I keep it for comfort. I read it for love. I look to it to remember that yes, the road is ahead of you, that you can’t go back, that you just can’t fall upon some idyllic picture that isn’t real. Snap! You Can’t Go Home Again. And accepting that, right there, in the middle of the wondering, in the enchanting early evening hour of arriving on that long road from Chiang Mai to Phnom Penh, with sun reddening this sky, I knew. Something would work out. “I’ve got this. This is going to be just fine.”

An early “pool of tears” moment

Ireland. 2000. I was plonking myself into the countryside “indefinitely.” There were times out there on the farm in southwest County Cork that I wondered, “What the heck was I thinking?” I was still young then, and feared I was missing something. The city, the lights. A more familiar variety of arts and culture. What did I have in the hills? Views, rainbows, sheep, the grass-fed cow’s milk and Kerry Gold butter, sometimes shared by friends and neighbors in Union Hall and Dunmanway. Lots and lots of partying, but the honest kind, with board games and stories and singing and the craic. This was before the Internet era, so I have my doubts it would be the same now. But little by little, sticking around three years and a bit, you got to know the place and the people, and they got to know you. (A part of me is Irish, you know. From West Cork, like, so.)

“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone.

bathroom slippers anime

Through the Utsunomiya looking glass. Photo credit: Toilet Slippers, by Lloyd Morgan (CC BY-SA 2.0); Alice in Wonderland anime doll.

When I was in high school I did a Youth for Understanding exchange to Utsunomiya, Japan. I knew some things, like how you were supposed to bring omiyage so I had one small item each for my host brother, sister, father, and mother. I felt cool knowing you were supposed to leave your shoes in the genkan and wear slippers around the house. What I didn’t know was that when you go to the bathroom you change into special bathroom slippers.

I saw those, put them on, but forgot to change back into regular non-bathroom slippers and so entered the dining room, excited about all the new kinds of food. My host family was horrified. Awkward, but they made a printout of house rules, which they left on the kitchen table the next day. “Bathroom slippers are for the bathroom.” When I realized what had happened, I was redder than the cherry tomato atop the last night’s dinner salad.

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice.

Iced tomato smoothies. Saigon.

Recipe for a successful Mad Hatter’s tea party

I’d host it in a place with lots of windows, preferably floor-to-ceiling, maybe on the second floor of a well-maintained building with high ceilings. There would be just 16 people—I find this to be a magical number for gatherings, you can arrange guests in pairs and then change it up, into four sets of four. Also cozy. I love having people shift about when I throw a party, it changes up the energy, and gives it a tint of surprise. I would invite people of all ages and career types because there tends to be a lot of silos out here. There would be tea for everyone, and later, an impromptu concert, with an opera singer, and then, champagne. (The opera singer and champagne part actually happened once here, magic!, so I’d have that for my guests for sure.)

champagne and opera

This mad hatter entertains with champagne and opera. Photo credit: Champagne via Pixabay; singer via Pixabay

“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”

I think it’s weird when I go to California, say, and see people eating salads out of boxes. Noticed myself wishing there was more rice around San Francisco. I wondered, quite out of character, why women don’t cover their skin, especially when swimming. Isn’t that funny, when you’ve grown up in the West? Yet there are also the nice parts: people understand one hundred percent of what I say, and vice versa, and I can joke around, and it’s received, and I feel like my “old” self again. Remarkable.

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

But I also see now that I’m interested in other kinds of things and that my experiences have taken me to far edges, the kinds of edges that aren’t photographable, and these make me feel like I get along better with a traveled set, not necessarily those from a particular country, or style, or personality, or something else. I like the everykind, the mixitup. I like the sense of possibility and connect with those who also want to keep it open, not box it in. Maybe that’s why I’ve lost interest in identifying with a certain country, or any other kind of label, come to think of it, too. Disorientation is part of it, but it’s precisely because of the crisscrossings that I’m figuring out, slowly, who I am. And it’s this feeling, this waking-up feeling, that is why I wanted to connect with Displaced Nation because it’s here I see it’s not just me in this big pot of “Wait. What just happened?”

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

Trust the process.

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Okay. Well, moving from essays in high school to papers in college to, later, writing that has to go out on deadline, I’m finally able to say: I’ve got my voice. I know who the writer in me is. I’m confident, too, that this writer really wants to grow and stretch beyond previous boundaries, and that’s where this new thing, this thing I’m calling “N+1”, came from. A series of short books, based on the people I’m meeting in real time in the places where I go for three weeks or maybe two months at a time.

"In Bangkok" by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice's short book, Bangkok

Creative output from Bangkok. Photo credit: “In Bangkok” by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice’s first short book, Bangkok.

I’ve spent my whole life observing and taking notes, but it’s not the notes I’m referring to anymore. It’s not the pretty turns of phrase that I can feel like I can put in there, just, there!, or things I used to think made a person go, “I’m a writer!” No, it’s other stuff. It’s knowing that something you’re saying actually resonates. Connecting deeply with other people in small moments of sharing—that’s important to me. Words have a brilliant potency to make that possible, but they’re just one way. Knowing it’s the connection that I write for now, instead of the “art,” I’m moving into a different channel. I trust this current, because it feels good. It moves, it flows. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it even likes to dance.

After Bangkok I’ll publish a new piece set in Dalat. It’ll be the first thing I’ve written in third person. My best friend, and my go-to editor, is listening to me read this aloud, and nodding, and smiling. Switching gears, writing different. It’s a good, happy change.

* * *

Readers, how did you enjoy spending time being wonderlanded with A. Spaice? Did you find her story a curiosity or could you relate?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an excerpt from A. Spaice’s short book Bangkok!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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For this Salzburg-based New Englander and fine-art photographer, a picture says…

Kosovo selfie by Dave Long

Morguefiles; Kosovo selfie by Dave Long.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I am standing in for A Picture Says… columnist James King, who unfortunately can’t be with us this month. James left the choice up to me, so I’ve extended an invitation to Dave Long, a U.S.-born photographer living in Salzburg, Austria. I discovered Dave through his involvement with under a grey sky…, the personal Web site of Paul Scraton, a Brit living in Berlin, Germany. Paul plans to produce a quarterly journal called Elsewhere, as reported in a recent Displaced Dispatch.

(What, not a subscriber to our esteemed Dispatch? Get on the list NOW!!)

Dave specializes in commercial and fine-art photography, with an emphasis on dramatic landscapes, extreme sports and historical architecture.

I was further intrigued upon visiting his photography site, where I discovered he has just self-published a book called Daheim Away from Home, available on Blurb.com. Daheim is German for “home”, and Dave explains that after 15 years of living in Salzburg, a “city full of cultural and historical wonder,” he “has finally come to terms that this truly is his new home.”

He also says that he wrote the photo captions in a “mix of English and German that is the reality of everyday life for an expatriate.”

And now it’s time to meet Dave and hear which of his photos he thinks speak at least 1,000 words.

Hmmm… But are these speaking in German or English—or both?! Let’s find out, shall we?

* * *

Welcome, Dave, to the Displaced Nation. Let’s start as James usually does, by asking where you were born and when you spread your wings to start traveling.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts, USA. My folks split up when I was ten and I bounced between two houses every other day/weekend for several years. I think that set me up for the flexibility you need when traveling. After hosting an exchange student from Switzerland who ultimately became a great friend, all I wanted to do was go abroad and learn a second language. By the time I got to college, I was already looking into semester programs in Europe. After a few adventurous bus trips across America, I finally left U.S. shores in 1999. With snowboarding as a top priority in those days, I wound up in Austria.

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd…”

Is that where you’re living now?
Yes. Fifteen years later, two new languages and my own tricultural family, I am living in Salzburg, a small city nestled into the northern ridge of the Alps.

I think we’ve all heard of it thanks to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. But I’m curious, why did you choose Salzburg as your base?
The city is bursting with cultural flair, historic relevance, architectural splendor and immediate access to crystal clear lakes and imposing mountains. Not to mention the best of all four seasons. Basically everything a budding photographer could dream of. My wife, also from elsewhere, found a great education here, and we’ve both been fortunate to find good jobs. We’ve never had a reason to leave.

Wow, it sounds as idyllic as it looked in the film! I understand you’ve lived in Austria for 15 years. How many other countries have you visited during that time?
Nearly every country in the EU plus Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Tunisia. And, though I’ve only lived in Austria since leaving the United States, I’ve spent extensive time in Switzerland and in Kosovo on account of friends and in-laws.

“I’ve always longed for adventure/To do the things I’ve never dared…”

And now I’m excited to get into the substance of our interview, the photos, especially as I’ve been to your photography site and find your work pretty amazing. Let’s start off by having you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global residency and travel.
I’ve often traveled the Balkans, visiting friends and more recently, in-laws. I took this first shot in Prishtina, Kosovo, in 2007. It captures the moment when I realized that I would never have seen a United Nations SUV that had been dirtied by actual service in a war-torn region,had I failed to venture beyond my small town in New England.

“Peace Keeping Is Dirty Work,” by Dave Long

Definitely a “You’re not in Kansas any more” moment! What’s next?
High in the Alps, at a friend’s cabin in the forest, our mixed group of Austrians and Americans ultimately turned to light-painting after more than a few rounds of local Schnapps. I’ve found nostalgia to be a rare, but welcome, companion during my life abroad.

“Austria—Schnapps and Nostalgia,” by Dave Long

Having been abroad for as long as you, I can really relate to the nostalgia so wonderfully expressed in this shot. And your last one?
Playing lead guitar with an Austrian brass band to rowdy crowds at rural beer tent festivals was definitely not something I envisioned when I left home years ago. Had I known how much fun it is, I probably would have left even sooner.

"Austria—On Stage at Beer Tent," by Dave Long

“Austria—On Stage at Beer Tent,” by Dave Long

What a fabulous photo!

“These are a few of my favorite things…”

Moving on: Tell me the top three locations where you’ve enjoyed taking photos thus far—and can you offer an example from each place?
I love taking photos no matter where I am! If I had to choose, though, it would be:

  1. The Balkans, for their mysterious mountain landscapes, breathtaking shores and a tragic history you can often read from the walls of buildings;
  2. New England because I spent the first 20 years of my life there and now return as a traveler who views everything through the eyes of a photographer;
  3. And finally Salzburg, because it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo here.

And now for the examples. Here is Struga, Macedonia, in the late afternoon, which brings out the raw beauty of this historic lake town.

“Struga—Raw Beauty,” by Dave Long

Next I’ll share a photo of Lowell, Massachusetts. Growing up nearby, I never paid much attention to the red brick factories. Now they seem like original backdrops in Hollywood films about the industrial revolution or working-class boxing legends.

"Lowell—Brick Reality," by Dave Long

“Lowell—Brick Reality,” by Dave Long

Finally, I offer two from Salzburg. Here is one of an Austrian girl in traditional dress reaching out across space and time to grasp the hand of a boy from an immigrant family. (Unfortunately, that’s a politically sensitive topic here, and all over Europe, these days.) I captured it while testing a new lens at Salzburg’s version of the Oktoberfest (called Ruperti Kirtag).

"Salzburg—Time and Space," by Dave Long

“Salzburg—Time and Space,” by Dave Long

The second one is a staged photo shoot with an athletic friend of mine showcasing not only the unique layout of the city but the quality of life for those who live here. My friend claims it’s more fun to run through the cobblestone streets Mozart once roamed than on a treadmill in a stuffy fitness studio. (I don’t run so can only take his word for it.)

“Salzburg—The Runner,” by Dave Long

I love seeing the range of the places where you’ve been—definitely speaks to the displaced life! Okay, time to move on an ethical question. I know the last photo you shared was staged with a friend, but I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so?
I’d be concerned about a photographer who didn’t sense the importance of a subject’s privacy. That said though, some of the best street photos are those that capture a person’s candid nature. This sort of photography is difficult in Europe because the laws are extremely restrictive. I’ve found the best approach is to take the photo you see, then approach the subject in a friendly way, explain you’re a photographer and that the person has just created or been part of a unique/beautiful/extraordinary moment that you captured. If they ask, share the photo and if it works out, ask them to sign a model release so you can publish the photo later.

“How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?”

And now over to the technical nitty gritty. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
From 2005 to 2008 I was the editor in chief and co-founder of “packed magazine,” a free bimonthly magazine distributed at hostels all over Europe. We wound up acquiring a Sony a100 for the magazine, the first SLR Sony released after taking over Minolta. I’ve been a Sony man ever since, having owned the a700 and a77. I’ve also stuck to prosumer lenses from various brands because so far that’s all I’ve ever needed to get the job done. It’s always been important for me to have the full focal range from 8mm fish-eye up to 300mm tele in various forms of primes and zoom (those are aps-c focal lengths). I love my kit, but I’m keenly looking forward to building a new set based around Sony’s compact full frame a7 line of e-mount cameras and lenses. I’m slowly and stubbornly learning (admitting) that full frame bodies simply produce a level of quality that just isn’t possible with an aps-c sensor.

I’m not sure I followed that last part, but I’ll leave it to others, more technical than I am, to work out. What about post-processing software?
I only shoot in RAW format and post-process in Camera Raw, Photomatix Pro and Photoshop.

“I have confidence in confidence alone…”

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
For the traveler: Just do it! Seek the unknown. But also be open to the possibility of staying in a place that seems like it’s trying to keep you if it feels right. For the photographer: Enjoy the mid-day hours by not planning on taking any photos. At the most, snap some candid street photos and macro stuff as it comes. Explore the destination by day and keep track of places you’d like to shoot later during the golden hour or early next morning (with your tripod!). Also never return to your hotel/hostel/etc the same way you left!

Editor’s note: All subheds are lyrics from Sound of Music songs.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Dave’s experiences? If you have any questions for him about his European adventure and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Dave and his creative works better, I suggest you visit his photography site. And don’t forget about his book, Daheim Away from Home.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James King for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for more 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 and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EMERALD CITY TO “KANSAS”: Lynne Door on seeing the Wizard of Expat Life and returning home too early

Lynne Door Emerald City to Kansas Collage

The Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles); Lynne Door portrait, taken in her home (supplied).

Welcome to “Emerald City to ‘Kansas,'” a series in which we focus on expatriate-into-repatriate stories. Today’s subject is Lynne Door, a graphic designer and self-proclaimed “typophile” who runs her own business specializing in branding, web design and print. Originally from New England, Lynne is now based in California, but she also managed to squeeze in two years living, working and studying in Singapore. Let’s hear about how that overseas experience affected her life.

—ML Awanohara

To Oz? To Oz!

My boyfriend (now husband!) and I had been dating just a little over a month (I had known him for a year before that), but we knew there was something good between us. So when he received an offer from his company to work in business development in Singapore, we had an open and honest conversation and agreed it was something we both wanted to do together. We said: “Why not do this? Let’s have fun, let’s go do this and experience it together!” We couldn’t think of any reasons not to move, and if our relationship didn’t work out in the process, it would be okay, I would just fly home. At least we’d given it a shot. That’s why we were both willing to take the chance.

Follow the yellow brick road…

Well, the first feeling was, “Uh oh, I’m not a local anymore!” That felt weird and a little scary. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. Especially since I only knew English. Luckily, Singapore is Asia for Beginners insofar as one of the main languages is English. At least I could navigate down the yellow brick road so to speak and converse with the people I encountered along the way.

What have you learned, Dorothy?

I had the pleasure of both working and going to school in Singapore, so my experience was very broad. I worked for a local Singaporean advertising/design company while also attending LASALLE College of the Arts to continue my studies towards a graphic design degree. Every day I would go from encountering people within a corporate business environment to hanging out with a group of young, artsy students. I had never lived outside of the United States before and was completely enthralled. The whole experience gave me a much broader perspective on myself and others. Ultimately what I learned was no matter where you are on the globe, we’re all human and ultimately we all go about our day with the same intentions. It’s only geography—and a smile goes a long way!

Oh dear! I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas!

While working for the Singaporean company, I did experience an unusual business practice. “Scolding” is where managers shout at employees for doing something wrong in front of other colleagues and/or behind closed doors. For the manager it’s a way of getting everyone’s attention and reminding employees who is in charge and why mistakes won’t be tolerated. I remember my scolding like it was yesterday, the repeated shouts of “Why did you do this?”, “How could you do this?” and “What were you thinking?”. I was absolutely speechless. I felt perplexed and completely thrown off by such aggressive managerial behavior. After the incident, I told him I would have responded more positively had we sat and calmly talked about the situation with the team. Looking back, I think we both realized we had a significant culture clash.

I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?

LynneDoor_Singapore

Lynne with her Singaporean student friends at LASALLE College of the Arts, a cherished photo (supplied).

I made some great friends at the design school and discovered the world isn’t such a big place. I keep this photo of me with my classmates on my desk. I just love it! It was an amazing time for me and hold them all so dear to my heart.

Going so soon?…Why, my little party’s just beginning!

We stayed in Singapore just two years. While it felt good to return to California life, I don’t know if I’d agree that there’s no place like home. In the comfort of being “home,” I went back to my usual routines, shutting out my surroundings. Whereas in unfamiliar territory, you need to be present every moment: observing, exploring, absorbing, learning about all that’s around you, making decisions. That’s the beauty of travel, expat life and experiencing new places, it opens up the mind completely. It’s invigorating and stimulating in every way—mentally, emotionally and physically. I miss those feelings! And I believe it can’t happen any other way but when traveling to new, unknown places!

LynneDoor_PalmSprings

Lynne with her husband, Jim, at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs (supplied).

* * *

Thank you, Lynne, for being willing to be Dorothy and show us the yellow-brick-road you experienced in Singapore, as well as your mixed feelings about returning home. Having lived in Japan, I think I can relate to the “scolding” experience that took place in your Singaporean office. Definitely a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West moment! Readers, any questions for Lynne? If you’re curious about her design work, be sure to visit her design site, where you can peruse her personal collection of “wanderlust” photos. You can also follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Finally, if you need a cover for that book you’re writing, Lynne can help you with that as well! (She designed the cover for HE Rybol’s Culture Shock. HE Rybol is of course our Culture Shock Toolbox columnist.)

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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The Displaced Nation’s 4 wishes for birthday number 4 (no foolin’!)

Happy 4th Birthday to the Displaced Nation!

Photo credit: “Today I’m 4 years old,” by Emran Kassim via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Greetings Displaced Nationers, old and new.

How many of you have been with us from the beginning, could I see a show of hands?

Hmmm… Are there one or two hands out there? Thanks for sticking around! We’ve come a long way together since the Displaced Nation’s humble beginnings on April Fool’s Day 2011.

Actually, can you believe it’s been four years and we still haven’t run out of things to say about the displaced life?

We can’t!

Still, today is not for introspection. It’s a special occasion, a day to celebrate with cake!

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay.

And, although it’s not customary to do so, I’d like to reveal my four wishes for the coming year:

1) Reach a new milestone of 500 followers on Facebook.

For some reason we never tried very hard during these four years to get FB followers, and our numbers reflect this insouciance: we are now at 467. If any of you can help us find 33 more “likes”, we’d deeply appreciate. Of course we’d like to have even more than 500, but we’d be happy with that milestone for now. (We post on FB twice a day, and always strive to be amusing and/or thought-provoking…)

2) Have more people discover the new and much improved (if we say so ourselves!) Displaced Dispatch.

If you’re a subscriber, you’ll know that we’ve already celebrated our birthday in last Sunday’s issue by sharing the Danish idea of April Fool’s (no fooling’). Seriously (actually, I am serious), the Dispatch is now like chunky ice cream. It goes down smoothly but also contains six tasty morsels:

  • What to celebrate this week: Holidays and other commemorative occasions around the world.
  • While we were all on social media: New book releases and other milestones in the lives of international creatives.
  • TDN updates: Our past week’s posts.
  • Alice Obsession: Our latest discovery about Alice in Wonderland, whom we see as our muse.
  • Matters of debate: Contentious issues raised by various expat and travel bloggers over the past few weeks.
  • Surprising discoveries: Stuff we didn’t know before sifting through said sources. (Turns out: there’s a lot we don’t know!)

3) Deliver a fitting commemoration to Alice in Wonderland on behalf of the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s celebrated book.

One hundred and fifty years, really? That puts our four years in perspective! As long-time readers will know, the Displaced Nation has treated Alice in Wonderland as our special muse from the very start, beginning with Kate Allison’s brilliant “5 lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice.” For the past three years, we gave out monthly Alice Awards to a number of international creatives. For that matter, we also have a thriving Alice in Wonderland Pinterest board. But for this special year in Alice’s life, we are planning a special “wonderlanded” series, to be rolled out starting this month. (Know anyone who would be game to channel Alice from the perspective of someone leading a life of global residency and travel? We are open to suggestions. Send to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

4) Introduce a new look to the site.

Good news: I already have a theme picked out! Not-so-good news: I can’t seem to find the time to transfer the contents, resize the photos, and so on. (Blame the day job!)

* * *

And assuming I get another wish, to grow on, that one will be that we can always have a rich crop of international creatives as columnists.

Speaking of which, I’d like to give the first pieces of our birthday cake to Beth Green, Lisa Liang, JJ Marsh, Joanna Masters-Maggs, HE Rybol, and Shannon Young: The Displaced Nation would have little to celebrate were it not for the seven of you!!!

And if anyone out there is still with me, you deserve some cake as well. Thanks so much for your support.

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

Bottoms up, cheers, kampai—oh and thanks for all the prezzies! What prezzies, you may ask? Well, I assume that from now you’re going to:

And with that final pitch, I’m off to fetch another glass of champagne. Huzzah!!

STAY TUNED for more 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, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Ten years after “Expat Harem,” foreign women will have another say on expat life in Turkey

Tea in Gülhane Park[http://www.flickr.com/photos/wneuheisel/6493228113/ ], Istanbul, by William Neuheisel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Tea in Gülhane Park, Istanbul, by William Neuheisel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

When the Displaced Nation first started, Anastasia Ashman, an American living in Istanbul, was running a blog tailored to the needs of the “thinking expat.”

It seemed almost too good to be true: a group of women who were passionate about telling stories that illustrated the impact of the expat life on a person’s psyche. Had Anastasia rubbed a magic lamp to conjure up a kind of foreign harem? After all, her site was called Expat+HAREM.

In fact, as we soon discovered, the core contributors to the site had also been contributors to a book Anastasia had co-edited with Jennifer Eaton Gokmen, Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, which came out in 2005.

Anastasia has since moved on from Turkey, the expat life and the Expat+HAREM project. As she reported in a post to the Displaced Nation three-and-a-half years ago, she and her Turkish husband traded Istanbul for her native San Francisco because they thought that life in America’s high-tech city would “more closely align with a future we want to live in.”

Yet the work she created on the basis of her Turkish expat life has lived on in her wake.

And now two American expats in Turkey, Rose Margaret (Rose) Deniz and Katherine (Katie) Belliel, have announced their intention to produce a kind of sequel to Expat Harem, which is scheduled to be published later this year, to coincide with its 10th anniversary.

The title of the new anthology will be Sofra: A Gathering of Foreign Voices Around the Turkish Table.

As that title suggests, we’re shifting metaphors: from the harem to food. But no need for me to go on any further as Katie and Rose are joining us today to discuss their plans for the new volume. (Note to female expats who have lived in Turkey for at least a year: the window for submissions closes on April 1st!)

 * * *

Sofra Editors Horizontal

Meet Sofra editors Katie Belliel (left) and Rose Margaret Deniz. Photo credit: Journey Collective

Hi, Rose and Katie, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Before we talk about your plans for a sequel, let’s go back to the original work. Katie, I understand that you contributed a story to Tales from the Expat Harem. What did you write about?

KATIE: “A heart-broken Michigan girl finds closure in Bursa at an ancient Ottoman bath, nurtured by her would-be Turkish sister-in-law.” This line that introduces my story in the book sums up my piece nicely. It is about how my first journey to Turkey was for love. My return was also for love—but not for my failed relationship. It’s the story of how I returned for closure, but stayed for my true love, Turkey the country. At least, that is what I hope people understand when they read my piece ;)

How about you, Rose? I believe you were active in the book’s companion blog and online community?

ROSE: I was a frequent writer for expat+HAREM, the companion site for the book (it was Anastasia Ashman’s brainchild). For example, I facilitated a roundtable discussion that included nine female cultural ambassadors from around the world, called Dialogue2010. It was a live conversation on art, culture, and hybrid identity inspired by my post to expat+HAREM called Mapping the Imagination. We sought to create a living definition of hybrid identity and how one’s worldview literally shifts as a result of location.

Am I right in surmising there was something very special about the Expat Harem experience?

KATIE: Being a part of Harem was an incredible experience from beginning to end. I knew I could trust the editors with my story; we had a wonderful relationship. They inspired confidence in me, and really gave me the courage to keep writing even well after Expat Harem was published. I also find that I keep going back to the book, as different stories speak up at different times in my life. Right now, as a mother, I am particularly drawn to Maria Orhon’s story about her daughter. Two years ago, when we bought our new house, Annie Prior Özsaraç’s story about their house problems gave me a much needed laugh amongst our then house troubles.

ROSE: I remember reading the book around the time I moved to Turkey. So many of the stories struck a chord, especially as I was getting my bearings those first few years. It made a big impression on me.

The Harem book features stories by expat women, and this new book you’re working on, Sofra: A Gathering of Foreign Voices around the Turkish Table, is likewise calling for female contributors. What’s the thinking behind the “women only” approach?

KATIE: Both Rose and I were heavily involved in the sisterhood of Expat Harem: all-female writing groups, entrepreneurial initiatives, and other spin-offs. It seemed natural for Sofra to be another book featuring women expat writers.

ROSE: Yes, as Sofra is following in the footsteps of Expat Harem, we thought it important to continue the tradition of honoring women writers.

But are men’s voices unwelcome?

KATIE: We mean no offense to the guys. I’m sure they have wonderful stories, which we hope to incorporate in the Expat Sofra community. In fact, we want to open Expat Sofra’s companion blog to expats from around the world, male and female. Stay tuned, as these plans are evolving.

I understand that sofra means “feast,” and you are proposing to make the new anthology at least partly about food. I’m curious: what was your own food journey like in Turkey? Did you take to the food right away?

Turkish food

(Clockwise from left): Kokoreç, by William Neuheisel via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); big black Turkish [figs] , by naturalflow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) ; Istanbul: Ayran, by tomislav medak via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

KATIE: I was really hesitant about Turkish food at first, but then I just dove right in. Kind of like how I fell in love! There was no going back. There are still some things I just can’t eat or drink, like ayran (a milky yogurt drink) and kokoreç (intestines, usually lamb). I still try them on occasion, but they are just not for me! I have many favorites. Fresh figs are at the top—I look forward to fig season at the end of August/early September each year. Pazı, a kind of green, leafy chard, is my favorite vegetable, I eat it sauteed with onions and yogurt.

ROSE: Turkish cuisine is definitely a leap from the standard Midwestern fare of my native Wisconsin. I love cooking, though, and embraced the challenge of learning new dishes but adding a twist from my roots. My least favorite food experience would have to be the amount of service required when having guests over. It is more tiring at times than the meal! However, now I can say that my Turkish friends and family appreciate buffet style big meals at my house, and I don’t stress about every detail being perfect as I did in the past. My favorite food experiences are cooking with my friends and family. Nothing flavors my sofra better! Another thing I enjoy is sourcing my food locally. We get milk, butter, and eggs from our neighbors’ farm, and even turkey and chicken from time to time!

You are also conceiving of food as a metaphor for the expat life in Turkey, which can be sweet, bitter, tangy, or spicy. Regarding your own Turkey experience: what percent has been each of these taste sensations?

KATIE: Good question. I would argue that my experience here has been an equal part of all the tastes. There are beautiful and not-so-great parts of each flavor. But that is life, right? Even bitterness becomes a taste we crave if denied it for too long. So, I believe in appreciating the full flavor of whatever is put in front of me in the moment. Appreciating all parts of it for even if I don’t understand the taste then, I will understand it much later.

ROSE: Hmmm, I would say my life here has parts of each. Similar to motherhood, there are wonderful, sweet moments, and moments that are bitter. I would also add the combo of bittersweet to the mix! We are challenging our writers to pick one experience and match it with a flavor. You will have to wait until the book comes out to see which flavor I picked to portray.

On my one and only trip to Istanbul, I came away with a copy of the letters written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. As Anita Desai writes in the introduction, Although Lady Mary was well traveled,

it was Turkey and her first experience of a non-European, non-Christian civilization that provoked her most open and heart-felt admiration.

Do you see your book as having a further purpose of helping to explain Turkey to the West?

"Liotard Lady Montagu," by Jean-Étienne Liotard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Liotard Lady Montagu,” by Jean-Étienne Liotard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

KATIE: I am currently re-reading Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters. I read them before moving to Turkey. It’s nice to re-read them after living here for over a decade! Our book definitely seeks to show a different side of Turkey than is commonly portrayed by the media. What is the main thing every tourist says after their first visit here? “It’s not what I expected.” We want to show people a deeper, richer side of Turkey. In my opinion, the true side of Turkey.

ROSE: This region is still largely portrayed in a negative light. Expat Harem successfully challenged that by showing a different side, and we hope to continue that with Sofra. Not everything is positive, of course, we don’t want this book to be all cakes and flowers. We want to show a deeper side, an open portrayal of even bitter experiences that give lessons or show growth.

Who is the book’s primary audience?

KATIE: Our primary audience extends from the armchair traveler to the seasoned expat. The foodie to the culinary newbie. A little something for everyone, we hope.

Thank you, both. Talking so much about Turkish food has made me peckish. I look forward to seeing what you cook up in this new book. After our exchange, I’m anticipating a rich stew!

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about the Sofra anthology, or even if you simply wish to know how sofra is defined, I encourage you to visit the Expat Sofra site and/or follow the book’s progress on Twitter. And if you’re a woman who has had the pleasure of living (and eating!) in Turkey as an expat, then why not submit a piece to the new anthology? Only don’t forget, the deadline is coming soon: APRIL 1.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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An expat’s valentine to her adopted home is podcast series and now book

Kay Mellish Valentine CollageThe Displaced Nation aspires to be a home to international creatives. As such, we are fond of showcasing memoirs written by those who have spent large chunks of their lives abroad or novels that were in some way inspired by international travels.

Very occasionally, though, we come across an expat who has written a guide to life in their new country that strikes us as being highly creative. Not long before the Brazilian Olympics, for instance, we featured works by two expats living in Brazil because of having a Brazilian spouse: Mark Hillary’s Reality Check: Life in Brazil Through the Eyes of a Foreigner; and Meagan Farrell’s American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City.

Both authors felt justified in producing their own guides to Brazilian life because they’d noticed so many newbie expats falling into the trap of becoming an “exbrat” (to borrow Meagan’s term)—constantly complaining about Brazilian food, prices, bureaucracy, and crime and thus missing out on one of the world’s most fascinating cultures and friendliest peoples.

And both books, while offering practical information and advice, also communicated the authors’ affection, even love, for the land of carnival and samba, beaches and jungles—warts and all.

My guest today, Kay Xander Mellish, has composed a similar kind of ode to her adopted home of Denmark, which, too, has its attractions even if if Danes are far less sociable than Brazilians and their culture a great deal less lively.

Yet apparently not all visitors seem to appreciate the many appealing features of the country that was recently crowned the the world’s happiest, which is what led Kay to produce her podcast series, How to Live in Denmark, and now a book of the same name.

Born in Wisconsin and educated in New York City, Kay has lived in Denmark since 2000, speaks Danish, and after working in the corporate world has founded her own company to help Danish companies communicate in English. She hasn’t married into the culture but is a single mother bringing up a daughter.

Ironically, Kay’s valentine to Denmark has come out at a time when another foreigner in Denmark, the British journalist Michael Booth, is in the news for a book expressing disillusionment with the Scandinavian way of life. We’ll talk to Kay about that development as well.

But first let’s get to know her a little more.

 * * *

“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year”—Victor Borges, Danish-born American comedian

Hi, Kay! I once lived in England and then in Japan, and there were times in reading your book that the Danes reminded me of the English and the Japanese: easy enough to like but not so easy to love. Is that a fair description?
It can be difficult for outsiders to make friends in Denmark, because for Danes friendship is a serious business. A real friendship is a lifelong relationship, sometimes starting in kindergarten or even before – my daughter, for example, has a friend she “met” when they were four weeks old! The idea of casual chat with strangers is alien to Danes: they have to force themselves to do it, and it is nearly always uncomfortable for them unless a great deal of alcohol is involved. Once you are within their friendship circle, Danes are excellent friends, reliable, supportive and direct. But it is difficult to come into that circle. Danish society is based on trust, and it takes Danes a while to be sure that they can trust you.

HTLID_cover_and_hearts

Kay Xander Mellish’s book cover; random Valentine’s hearts and one kiss.

Humor is of course an important element in any long-term relationship, and your have subtitled your book “a humorous guide.” Tell me, are you laughing with or at?
With! Danes are very good at making fun of themselves; in fact, one of the highest compliments they can give a famous or accomplished person is that he or she has “self-irony,” or the ability to make fun of himself. By contrast, anyone who is selvfede (literally, “self-fat”) and thinks he or she is God’s gift to the world is held in contempt. So, in general, humor is not hard to come by in Denmark. You just have to be willing to make fun of yourself. Danes have an old tradition that if you’ve fallen down in public or otherwise made a big mistake or fool of yourself, you’re supposed to buy kvajebager (failure beer) for everyone who saw you. My book, which is based on a podcast series, is very popular among Danes, which it would not be if they could not make light of themselves. Occasionally I get a few crabby emails from people with Danish names, but not many. I’ve found a lot of Danes buy the book for their foreign friends.

“To be of use to the world is the only way to be happy.”—Hans Christian Andersen

Oxford Research recently published a study finding that 9 out of 10 expats enjoy living and working in Denmark and close to half choose to prolong their stay—mainly because of career opportunities. What makes Copenhagen’s work opportunities so loveable?
If you can get a job in Copenhagen, the working conditions and benefits are excellent. Most people work 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then go home to their families, so it’s common to see an office entirely empty by 5:00 p.m. And there is less of the cutthroat competition, both internally and externally within companies, that you see elsewhere in business life. You also have the ability to do work you will be proud of: Danes demand quality, so you rarely meet anyone who is incompetent. But getting a job is difficult, even for the Danes, and it is extremely difficult for foreigners who do not speak Danish. Many foreigners with only rudimentary Danish either work in the “caring professions,” such as state-sponsored jobs caring for the elderly or the very young, or in IT roles that there are not enough Danes to fill. If you are looking for anything else, besides the usual cleaning and waiting tables, plan for at least a 6-month job search, possibly a year.

“I’m afraid I have to set you straight…”—Michael Booth, Copenhagen-based British journalist

Meanwhile, the journalist Michael Booth has just published a book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
Denmark is a small country where everyone knows everyone, so I should start by saying that Michael Booth is the friend of a friend, although I have not met him myself. Michael has developed a great shtick for himself, which is running down the Scandinavian countries while continuing to enjoy their benefits. (The fact that Michael is a white male from a friendly country allows him to get away with this performance: I don’t want to even think of what the reaction might have been if such a book had been written by someone from the Middle East.) At any rate, his timing is excellent: it’s become fashionable, particularly in left-wing Western circles, to paint Scandinavia as a utopia, which it most certainly is not. Michael’s book is a strong antidote to that.

An excerpt from Booth’s book appeared recently in The Atlantic, where he says Denmark is “stultifyingly dull” and “boring” because of its “suffocating monoculture.” You don’t agree with any of that?
Personally, I don’t find Copenhagen dull, and this is from someone who used to live in downtown Manhattan and be very involved in the New York art and nightlife scene. I find Copenhagen sophisticated without being too intense. There is certainly less of a gallery or theater scene here, but by contrast people have more time to enjoy the arts events that take place.

“I come from a culture where you don’t divide it up [between] what you can do on TV and what you can do on film.”—Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen

You are a professional voice actor, and, unusually, your book is based on a podcast series. Since we’re talking about love today: which do you love more, podcasting or writing?
The podcast series was actually based on an old group of essays that had been mouldering on a rarely-updated website I started when I still I lived in New York. (In those days, the days before podcasts and before the web, I used to put up parts of my stories as flyposters in a graffiti format—but that was the 1990s!) When I came to Denmark, I wrote a few essays about the experience, but then I pretty much abandoned the site while working full-time at a corporate job while raising my daughter. The site was still online, and newcomers to Denmark kept finding these old postings and emailing me, saying how much I had helped them adjust to living here. I began to feel an obligation to help people just arriving in Denmark. It can be a difficult place to get used to. So when I left corporate life and was in the process of building my own voiceover business, doing the podcast How to Live in Denmark was a natural move. I soon found out that many people weren’t listening to the recordings at all: they were just reading the transcripts available on the podcast site. By this time, I was spending so much time on the podcasts that I needed to earn a little money off the project, so I turned the transcripts into an eBook. Customers then kept asking for a paper book, so I published one of those as well. Now we also have the Chinese version, and there are so many Syrian refugees in Denmark that there have been requests for an Arabic-language version, so we are working on that as well. I really feel it’s important for me to serve to others who may be facing the same challenges I once did.

“Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries, and you will have a fine pig and bad child.”—Danish proverb

Turning to your daughter: what do you love most about raising and educating a child in Denmark?
Children in Denmark given much more freedom and responsibility than children in many countries. My daughter has been riding the Copenhagen trains and buses alone since she was eight, for example. Even when they are very young, children are expected to sort out their own playground disagreements with little interference from adults. There’s no such thing as a “helicopter parent” here. Also, children don’t spend most of their childhoods trying to get into a good university, going to cram schools and trying to build up their CV with impressive-sounding activities. They relax; they have time to play, time to think, time to develop themselves and their creativity. There is very little standardized testing in Denmark and not many grades of any kind until the kids are 13 or 14. I think that’s a healthy way to go about things. My daughter enjoys living here; she enjoys her school, where there is very little pressure but the kids learn to put knowledge together in a holistic way, which I think will be much more useful for the future just learning how to spit out facts or repeat the teacher’s viewpoint back to her. Most importantly, parents in Denmark have a lot more free time to spend with their kids, since working hours aren’t particularly long here. So we do a lot of stuff together—sports, travel, crafts. I don’t know if I would have had the time and energy to do those things had I been a single mother in the US.

Do you think she misses out on anything by not being in the United States?
Of course, she’s missing out on the ethnic diversity of the US, as well as the ambition and drive and energy of living there. But she speaks frequently of going to college in the US, so she’ll have a chance to experience those aspects when she’s a little older.

“There was the constant, tinny squeak of a thousand rusty bike chains.”—Greg Hanscom, senior editor at Grist: “An American in Denmark”

You’ve now lived in Denmark for nearly 15 years, longer than many marriages last. If you had one irritating habit about the place you could change, what would it be?
I suppose it would the Danes’ general rudeness in public places. When someone brushes closely by you, or even runs right into you, there’s never an ‘Excuse me’ or the Danish equivalent. Instead, you get a sour look or a grunt that signifies “Why were you in my way?” Customer service in Danish shops or restaurants is not much better: in Denmark, the customer is always wrong. Some of the nonwhite foreigners I’ve met here assumed that they were being treated so badly because of racism or racial discrimination, but that is not the case. Sad to say, everybody gets bad customer service, even other Danes.

And if you and Denmark were to “divorce” and go your separate ways one day, what would you miss the most about it?
Probably the biking culture and the great mass transit. While I have a drivers’ license and enjoy driving a car, I love that I can hop on a bike and get anywhere quickly. No parking problems, no stopping to buy gas, and it’s a very easy and convenient way to keep fit. That said, bringing home groceries on your bicycle can be a headache. And trying to bring home fresh dry cleaning on your bicycle is the worst!

Thanks, Kay! It’s been a pleasure. Taking a closer look at your work, we see you’ve created an intricate valentine to your adopted home, full of love and irreverent humor, the perfect tribute.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Kay Xander Mellish and her creative output, we encourage you to visit her author site, like the How to Live in Denmark page on Facebook and/or follow her on Twitter: she has a personal account and a podcast/book account. Also please note that Kay was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards for an irreverent post explaining why public nudity is okay in Denmark, whereas public ambition is not.

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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