The Displaced Nation

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

Lene thru the looking glass

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

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

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

* * *

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

Everything. She said everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My body remembers them

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

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

Is this how it will end?

Can she be the queen of hearts

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

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

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

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

Please, please, don’t make me.

There, there.

Please, don’t.

There is no other way. You know it.

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

The doorknob is cold in my hand.



I open the door.

Cold doorknob

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

Excerpt from Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir, by Lene Fogelberg

* * *

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

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

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

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


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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Affliction story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

skirt and shoes Alice in Wonderland

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

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

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

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

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

Nasi Goreng Hold the Chili

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

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

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

Tropical Tea Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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 expat writer who has photographed everything from the Gulf of Alaska to her own back garden, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs! “A Picture Says…” columnist James King is still away, so I am filling in again. But the good news is, he approves of the columns I’ve produced thus far! I know I’ve enjoyed spending time with the previous two guests, fearless and feisty photography pro Steve Davey and fine-art photographer Dave Long.

And today I’m excited to introduce Madeleine Lenagh, an American who, having lived in Holland for more than four decades, has made it her base for an impressive range of creative pursuits.

Madeleine Lenagh moeraki

A photo of Madeleine Lenagh taken in New Zealand, among the magnificent Moeraki Boulders.

I first heard about Madeleine from Springtime Books, which published her memoir, Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance, several months ago.

As those who perused our summer reading recommendations may know, Madeleine’s book was one of my picks. I was intrigued that she chose to tell her life story using poetic vignettes and commentary by archetypes from Nordic mythology and fairy tales.

From the title of the book alone, it’s possible to discern that that Madeleine is in touch with nature at an almost spiritual level. She looks to the stork to deliver her soul (in ancient Egypt, a drawing of the stork served as the hieroglyphic for “soul”). And if you read the book’s prologue, you’ll see that her view of nature includes mermaids—as evidenced by the prologue’s very first sentence:

Three mermaids play in the huge rolling waves, splashing and diving in the curling spray.

It comes as little surprise, then, to discover that besides being an author and blogger, mother and grandmother, and life coach and counselor, Madeleine is a shamanic practitioner. She has been influenced by Dutch shamanic teacher Daan van Kampenhout, whose method fosters connections with helping spirits and ancestors.

What I didn’t realize, though, is how much Madeleine loves to travel and take photographs. She even has her own photography site.

Now let’s see what other worlds Madeleine can conjure up for us with her photos!

* * *

Hi, Madeleine, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’ll start the same way as James, by asking: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings (an apt metaphor in your case, given your fondness for storks) to start traveling?
Hi, ML, thank you for inviting me to take part in this column. In answer to your first question: I grew up in Westport, Connecticut. When I was two years old, my stepfather was sent to Europe as a Naval attaché to the NATO. For three years, we lived in Paris, Bad-Homburg, and London. We returned to Westport when I was five. Although I have few memories of those early years, I believe my love of traveling was born then.

So you didn’t end up being raised as a Third Culture Kid?
No, I didn’t leave the United States again until I was 21, when I coaxed my family into giving me a trip to Europe for my 21st birthday. I traveled all around Western Europe and down into former Yugoslavia. At the end of the summer, I was in The Netherlands and my money was running out. I didn’t want to go home yet and found an au-pair job for six months.

Which countries have you visited thus far, and of those, which have you actually lived in?
My travels have taken me all through Europe, as well as to India (Rajasthan), Indonesia (Java and Bali), Costa Rica, and New Zealand (South Island). I believe that Canada and Alaska deserve a separate mention as they are beautiful and remote parts of the world. But, apart from those few years when I was a small child, I have only lived in the United States and The Netherlands.

It’s interesting to me that you chose to make The Netherlands your home for your adult life. What made you settle there in particular?
When I became an au pair in The Netherlands 45 years ago, I sold my return trip ticket to buy winter clothing. Somehow I never got around to leaving. It often amazes me that I, a lover of wild places in nature, could feel so comfortable in this relatively “tame” country. There were key moments in my life when I asked myself, so where am I going now? But there was always more reason to stay than to go. Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul describes, among other things, my struggle to put down roots and find a sense of permanency.

“She will always love the sea…” —from the Prologue to Passage of the Stork

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?
Occasionally I arrive somewhere and think, I could live here. One of those places was South Island, New Zealand. I love the wild remote land, the warm friendliness of the people, and the ever-changing scenery. The photo I have chosen here is the perfect arch of a totally deserted beach in the Catlins, way down on the southern end of the island.


Untainted by the modern world, the Catlins are the kind of place where a mermaid might appear. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Wow, that’s the kind of place where it would be easy to imagine mermaids! I have only been to New Zealand’s Northern Island, but even there, I felt that it attracts people who want to get away from it all…
Along the same lines, another place I would be seriously tempted to live, if it weren’t so cold and dark in the winter, is Alaska. I love the pioneer spirit of the people who live there. My brother runs nature tours out of Paxson, which is located in one of the prettiest spots in the state. To the north of the Denali Highway, one sees the dramatic Alaska Range, with its snow-capped peaks and glaciers. An outstretched tundra lies to the south. However, the photo I have chosen, of a fishing boat near the shore, was taken down on Prince William Sound, during a day cruise in 2010. I like the muted colors, with only the bright splash of red on the boat to off-set the fog.


While cruising through the calm, protected—and mysterious—waters of Prince William Sound. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Ooh, I really like this photo. So moody and atmospheric… Though I’ve never been to Alaska, I picture it as having this kind of mystique. Where are you taking us next?
This summer I traveled back to the New England of my youth. I realized how much at home I feel there, in spite of having left 45 years ago. Those of you who have read my book know that I have a special relationship with storks. One of the things they reflect about me is their migratory nature, feeling at home in more than one place. I love this photo of a white stork, taken near my home in The Netherlands, doing its special bill-clacking dance as it returns to the nest.


Time for a spot of beak-clapping, says this Dutch stork. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Hm, until now I have always associated storks with the arrival of babies. But after hearing what you have to say, I may start thinking of them as the avian counterpart of the serial expat!

“I lie on my stomach, hearing gossamer wings rush by.” —from the Prologue to Passage of the Stork

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?
I’m actually going to pick three new places for you. The first one is India. It is a riot of color and ornate decorations, a photographer’s paradise. The photo I have chosen illustrates this perfectly: a group of children posing for me in the “best room” of their desert compound near Jaisalmer.


Colorful life in India’s Thar desert. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

I also have a special relationship with Norway (disclosed in my book) and I love photographing birds. Up in the Lofoten archipelago, I had the unique opportunity to photograph white-tailed sea-eagles. I’m very proud of this shot, catching the bird just as it had landed on a rock.


A white-tailed sea-eagle touches down on this untouched land within the Arctic Circle. Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

Finally, though I’ve taken you far afield, my last pick for favorite photography locations is my own garden! I love the simple beauty of the nature I find there. A perfect illustration is this photo of a spider web covered with droplets of fog.


Is it a spider web or the finest lace? Photo credit: Madeleine Lenagh

I love that you’ve taken us back to your own garden! It makes me think of a fellow New Englander of yours, Emily Dickinson, who took companionship as well as inspiration from her garden in Amherst.

“You can cage a bird, but you can’t make him sing.” (French-Jewish saying)

Going back to your photo of the children in India, I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
I am very reserved about taking photos of people, especially in other cultures, and will only do so if they have given me permission. Usually, asking people if you can take their photograph is a wonderful way of making contact with them and often leads to spectacular portraits. The photograph of the children in India is a good example. I love how the two sitting girls (unmarried and therefore veiled) unveiled their faces for the photo.

When did you become interested in photography and what is it about this art form that drew you in?
I believe I have photography encoded in my DNA. My grandfather was taking brilliant photographs in the 1920s. My mother never went anywhere without her 1953 Leica. My Norwegian father (caution: book spoiler!) was a cinematographer. I started taking photographs (and working in a darkroom) when I was about 18 years old. I believe that I was originally drawn in by the fact that it required no real motor skills and I was dreadful at drawing! I’ve always had the urge to express my feelings in some creative fashion, whether it be writing, photography, painting, or dance. Currently, my greatest motivation to photograph is to share the beauty of the natural world with others; to draw them into the same sense of awe and majesty that I feel when I’m in touch with nature.

“Listen to all, plucking a feather from every passing goose, but, follow no one absolutely.” (Chinese saying)

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
Most of these photos were taken with earlier cameras but, at the moment, I use a Canon EOS 6D, a full-frame camera. My favorite lens is a 70-200mm f 2.8 lens. I have been using a 2x extender to get up to 400mm, but recently decided that it slows down the focus too much so I will be looking for a good telephoto lens soon. I find that, as my experience grows, I grow more and more fussy about my equipment! I photograph in RAW format and process the images in Adobe Lightroom.

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
I suppose the most important advice is just to go out and photograph the things you love. Good photography takes practice and more practice. Study the manual of your camera and don’t be afraid to experiment with settings. Study paintings and sculpture by the artists you admire, to develop a sense for light and composition. As I develop as a photographer I find myself growing more and more critical of my work. It’s not just about showing the things I’ve seen or taking good photos. It’s about taking great photos that show a unique moment.

And I think the most important advice to any aspiring photographer was voiced by Pablo Picasso:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Thank you, Madeleine! I appreciate your sharing a selection of photos that illustrate your deep connection with nature. I’m impressed that you can find so much beauty and wonder on your own doorstep as well as on your travels to the world’s most unpopulated and unspoiled places.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Madeleine’s travel-photo experiences and her photography advice? Please leave any questions or feedback for her in the comments!

If you want to get to know Madeleine and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her author site and her photography site. You can also follow her on Facebook (she posts her latest photos) and Twitter. But to really get to know Madeleine, I recommend getting her book, Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul. You’ll never look at storks, or mermaids, in the same way again!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture unexpectedly beautiful moments of life in other countries


As the summer wears on—and I’m wondering what I am doing working long hours in a big city while everyone else seems to have escaped to beaches or mountains or on other adventures—I’m returning to my series based on the ideas of pop philosopher Alain de Botton. As those familiar with his work will recall, de Botton maintains that art can provide relief from as well as solutions to one’s angst.

But does the art we expats produce play a role in improving people’s lives? That’s what this series of posts explores.

No doubt, the works of international creatives has some appeal to what global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own.” (Expats currently number around 230 million, or about 3 percent of the world’s population.)

But are the works expats produce too specific to their own situations, or do these works, too, speak to broader life problems?

De Botton outlines six specific ways art can respond to human needs. My last post examined his first principle, that art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories. I offered some examples of how international creatives have preserved precious moments of their lives in other countries in their works, not only for themselves but for posterity.

Today let’s look at de Botton’s

PRINCIPLE #2: Art can give us hope. Simple images of happiness touch us. We tend to be moved by small expressions of beauty—not because we are sentimental but precisely because so much of life is not pretty.

The example de Botton cites is Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, (or Nymphéas), a series of around 250 oil paintings that depict the French impressionist’s garden at Giverny. Monet painted the series during the last years of his life, while suffering from cataracts.


Nymphéas, 1915, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

De Botton is of course stirring it up by insisting that beautiful art serves an important purpose. Artists of today seem to be in a race to outdo each other in the outrageous stakes. I’m thinking of Damien Hirst, who built his reputation on artworks displaying dead animals, or their parts, in formaldehyde tanks. Providing a respite from the ugliness of life is the last thing on his mind. Likewise for Jen Lewis, who uses her own menstrual blood to create abstract designs. Provocative, yes, but not my idea of beauty.

Returning to de Botton’s second principle: which expat artists have excelled at producing the kind of beauty that provides relief from life’s less pleasant aspects? (Who are our displaced Monets?)

By way of an answer I’ve arranged a small “exhibition” of works by four visual artists, three painters and one photographer, all of whom have been affiliated in some way with the Displaced Nation. As de Botton has done at several museum exhibitions, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I’ve experienced upon viewing these artists’ works.

#1: “Lost on a Mountaintop,” by Candace Rose Rardon


POST-IT: Those of us who have traversed international boundaries carry in our hearts the fear that we may someday lose our way—literally, of course, but even figuratively, with no family or old friends around to serve as mentors or sounding boards. Candace Rose Rardon shows us the flip side: how glorious to be lost on the top of a mountain range with the world stripped down to pines, sun, wind and hills, ready for you to paint your own scenes on it. Even a stay-at-home curmudgeon could be struck down with wanderlust, at such a prospect. Candace is a writer, sketch artist and illustrator without a location. She tells stories about the world through her words and watercolors.
OUR CONNECTION: Candace was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards.
SEE ALSO: Candace’s blog, The Great Affair; and her first book of travel sketches: Beneath the Lantern’s Glow: Sketches and stories from Southeast Asia and Japan.

#2: Les Mimosas de Mesubenomori,” by Julie Harmsworth

POST-IT: My first (and only) visit to Nagasaki, made while I was living in Japan, had a lasting impact. To this day I carry around images of the damage wreaked on that city from my visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum. But for Julie, who moved to Nagasaki from the United States to teach English, the city was the place of her rebirth as an artist. She often walked to this local park, and this painting is her tribute to its flowering mimosa trees. For a moment her painting makes me forget the pain this city endured, along with the horror for war it engenders. Though one can never lose sight of the darkness, it’s possible to be touched by these simple, beautiful trees.
OUR CONNECTION: We are mutual blogging admirers. Julie, btw, has now moved to France, where she continues her work as a fine artist (hence the French title of her painting).
SEE ALSO: Julie’s portfolio site.

#3: “Russian Market—Phnom Penh,” by A. Spaice

POST-IT: I’ve never been to Phnom Penh but imagine it might be a variation on other Southeast Asian cities (Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Saigon) I’ve visited. From reading descriptions of the Russian Market, which lies in the southern part of Cambodia’s capital city, I can certainly picture it: a narrow warren of stalls, crowded, busy and sweltering, full of the kinds of goods you see in all of the markets in that part of the world (though apparently at better prices), everything from handicrafts to fake Swiss watches to pirated software to designer clothes considered unfit to be shipped abroad because of small flaws. The global economy at its finest! But what does writer and sometime photographer A. Spaice offer us? A glimpse of a splendidly isolated flower and flower-to-be. Such a beautiful reminder that the “I shop therefore I am” credo of Asia isn’t all there is to life!
OUR CONNECTION: A. Spaice was our first international creative to be “wonderlanded” (read her interview and an excerpt from her short book, Bangkok).
SEE ALSO: A. Spaice’s Design Kompany site and weekly e-zine.

#4: “End of the Drought,” by Antrese Wood

POST-IT: The Pampas grasslands of Argentina are one of the most fertile areas in the world. When a drought occurs and its crops are destroyed, not only farmers—but also does the rest of the world—suffers, as world food prices are nudged higher. Antrese’s painting of the grasslands landscape “after the drought” reminds us that even when nature gives the earth and its inhabitants a terrible beating, the rain returns eventually and the beauty of the landscape is restored. If a glimpse of such beauty helps us forget the pain even for a moment, then perhaps it is possible to regroup and carry on. (Note to self: Come back to this painting once the dog days of August have arrived.) An American married to an Argentinian, Antrese has been living in Argentina since 2011.
OUR CONNECTION: Antrese was one of the interviewees in our long-running Random Nomad series. At that time she was about to embark on an ambitious project, “A Portrait of Argentina.”
SEE ALSO: Her portfolio site and her podcast series for artists, SavvyPainter.

Note: All four artists’ works are reproduced here with their permission.

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that capture unexpected moments of appreciation for life’s beauty? I know that writing about these works helped to lift me out of my late-July funk, but did you, too, find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

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WONDERLANDED: “Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered,” by expat writer Sally Rose

bewildered bewitched and bothered

Photo credits: (Row 1) Cheshire Cat, by thethreesisters via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (Row 2) Alice in Wonderland Cosplay, by Michael Miller via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Other photos supplied.

A couple of days ago we were Wonderlanded in Santiago, Chile, with American expat writer Sally Rose. She nearly had us twirling in teacups as she took us on a tour of the curiouser and curiouser aspects of her adopted home.

Today we have a chance to sample Sally’s writing and its distinctly wonderlanded quality with this excerpt from her recently published memoir, A Million Sticky Kisses, which recounts her early days as a volunteer English teacher at a not-so-well-off school in Santiago. How does Sally write about being a stranger in a strange land? NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’ve titled this passage “Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered” as that seemed an apt way to describe the scenes Sally depicts.


* * *

Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered (Part 2, Chapter 7 of A Million Sticky Kisses, by Sally Rose):

I got up early the next morning because the supervisor had granted me permission to attend the meeting which started at 8:00am. I was at the Metro station by 7:30, where the free newspaper hawkers were setting out stacks of papers. As I walked by, I started to take one from a stack. The male hawker slapped his hand on top of the paper to hold it down. I looked at him as he let out a rapid stream of Spanish, but I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. I tugged again at the paper. “¡No!” He would not let me have it.

“No entiendo. ¿Por qué?” I don’t understand.

From the corner of his eye, he glanced at me. ¡Gringa! I saw him almost relent for a second before tightening his stance as he started explaining again. I listened hard, but without success. He was one of those Chileans that I could not understand at all.

Finally, the woman, who was guarding the other free paper, came over to me and, like she might explain to a 5-year-old who was just learning how to tell time, she pointed to my watch and made a quarter circle with her finger. I understood her, but couldn’t believe it.

“¿Ocho menos cuarto?” 7:45? I had to wait until 7:45 before I could take one of their free papers? She nodded her head.

I realized that it wouldn’t do any good to try and finagle it. This was one of those mysterious Chilean customs that made no sense to a gringa, especially a gringa living in New York, where the papers sat in huge stacks and you could take as many as you liked.

As I walked away, bewildered, I noticed that there were several people already forming a line, willing to wait 15 minutes so that one of the hawkers could hand them a newspaper. They watched our exchange closely to make sure that I didn’t get a newspaper before they did.

I couldn’t wait 15 minutes, not if I wanted to be on time for the meeting. Not that I expected it to actually start at 8:00, but She-Who-Can-Never-Be-Late didn’t want to risk it. I descended the Metro steps without getting my newspaper after all.

"Out of time" street art, which has now been painted over (supplied).

Sally may be in Chile but she doesn’t want to be late! Photo credits: “Out of time” street art, which has now been painted over (supplied); Suivez le lapin blanc, by thierry ehrmann via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Incredibly, the meeting started at 8:05. The supervisor was a no-nonsense Chilean who spoke excellent English. I mostly just listened, but Marisol [Sally’s colleague, a Chilean English teacher] told me later, “I think she was nervous around you.”

Then, she added, “Jacqueline [another gringa English teacher] would really like it if you went to her classes today. The supervisor has given her another bad mark. She has received bad marks all year. Without telling her that they will not have her back next year, they have interviewed three other people to replace her. Yesterday, BAY-ACHAY-ESSAY [nickname for Victor Hugo Salinas, head of the English volunteer program] knocked at her door and told her that someone else would be teaching her classes that day. Then, a job applicant took over her classes while poor Jacqueline had to stand and watch.”

Her teaching skills needed improvement, but I almost could not comprehend the cruelty of this. I trudged off to find Jacqueline. Her classes, and now her career at this school, were a lost cause.

After school, I was invited to go with the chorus to the annual Christmas concert at a nearby cathedral. Students from each of The Network’s schools participated. My kids were partnered with girls from the adjacent high school.

We left in a large van from the school, zigging and zagging down narrow backstreets to arrive at the church just in time. We hurried the kids in to find our pews. In the 90-degree heat, my clothes clung to me, but inside the church, it was blissfully cool and smelled of candle wax and furniture polish.

I sat with one of the mother chaperones and kept an eye on the kids. In our chorus were eighteen girls and one boy. They were the only ones wearing their “every day” uniforms, the same gray sweat suits that they wore to school. Choir members from the other schools had on school uniforms, as well, but they were cleaner, dressier, and more expensive.

White shirts, navy pants for boys and white shirts with navy jumpers for girls. I had never seen my kids in any uniform except the sweat suit and I wondered if my school might be the poorest in The Network.

Behind me, I heard commotion and turned to find little girls pushing off and sliding from one end of the well-buffed pew to the other. I gave them a look that included an arched eyebrow and they settled down again, giggling.

The concert began with “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” in Spanish. My kids were next. I didn’t recognize their song, but it was beautiful with their voices echoing strong in the vaulted cathedral. They accompanied the song by clapping their hands in flamenco-style rhythm while the youngest girl pinged on a triangle.

Sally doesn't mind her kids being in sweat suits when they perform well (photo supplied).

Sally doesn’t mind her kids being in sweat suits when they sing beautifully (photo supplied).

Out of the twenty or more songs, I only recognized five. The rest were traditional Chilean Christmas songs.

Afterward, going home later than usual, the train was crowded. A man entered after me and moved past me. Then, he called attention to himself by bumping into me as he moved in front of me again. “Permiso,” he said as he circled around. I thought he would be getting off at the next station since he stood by the door, but instead of facing the door, he turned around to face me.

All this moving around put me on guard. I was holding my purse, my school bag, and my sweater when I felt something funny going on with my purse. I looked down and saw a sweater hanging over the top of it. His sweater. Then, I felt something fiddling with the zipper. His hand?

Quickly, I moved away to the middle of the car, out of his range. Keeping my eyes on his, I felt around inside my purse to make sure everything was still there. I glared at him with mal de ojo, the evil eye, until he jumped off at the next stop.

Metro and evil eye

You have to have an evil eye on the Santiago Metro if you don’t want to be pickpocketed. Photo credit: Metro Universidad de Chile, by Guillermo Perez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thanks, Sally! I love it, especially the section where you descend into the Metro muttering the equivalent of: “I’m late, I’m late, for an important date.” And your mal de ojo (evil eye) powers must be on a par with the Queens of Hearts’s “Off with your head!” Also, I’m glad your version of Wonderland includes children’s music.

Readers, what do you think? Has this excerpt from Sally’s book made you want to read more? If so, you can order A Million Sticky Kisses from Amazon or Good Reads. You can also visit Sally’s author site, where she keeps a blog and/or stay social with Sally by following her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. And of course you can also express appreciation for Sally in the comments below. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Wonderlanded in Santiago with Sally Rose, expat writer, teacher and (above all) learner

Photo credits: Santiago (top) and New York City via Pixabay; Sally in Chile & Sally's Alice in Wonderland  painting by Russian artist. (supplied).

Being Wonderlanded with Sally Rose means going from the City That Never Sleeps to the City of Madhouse Parties. Photo credits: Santiago (top) and New York City via Pixabay; Sally in Chile & Sally’s Alice in Wonderland painting by Russian artist. (supplied).

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

This month we travel
the hole with Sally Rose to Santiago, Chile.

At first glance, Sally may not seem to have a strong connection to Alice in Wonderland, having been born and bred in the piney woods of East Texas. But I assure you her life has taken the kinds of twists and turns that would give Alice some serious competition.

First, Sally faced the struggle of getting out of a conservative small town in Texas, which simply didn’t have enough Mad Hatters in it to satisfy her curiosity. As she says in the introduction to her recently published memoir:

At night, I’d lie awake and listen to the whistle of the midnight train as it passed through like clockwork. I always pondered where it might be going. In my imagination, it was always somewhere “exotic” and exciting. Where to tonight? Chicago? New York? Out West?

Once she was old enough to leave home, Sally tried living in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, and the “enchanted” land of New Mexico—only to make her way, eventually, to the East Coast and New York City, where she dreamed of writing the Great American Novel.

But even the Big Apple wasn’t enough to sate her restless, adventuresome spirit. Soon it was time to expand her horizons again and go abroad. Having been to Chile on a holiday, she signed up for a volunteer program teaching English in Santiago.

At last she had stepped though the looking glass! From the moment she arrived to live in Santiago, she found herself struggling with both language and culture, along with a whole host of unfamiliar characters—from avaricious school owners to boisterous school kids. She was a “stranger in a strange land.” Would she get out alive and unharmed, with her wallet safe (no joke!). Perhaps if she hadn’t been the recipient of a million sticky kisses, as her memoir is titled, she would have exited her Alice in Wonderland story by now, screaming “Off with their heads!”

But instead she embraced the adventure and has now become a permanent resident of Santiago, a displaced creative. In addition to A Million Sticky Kisses, which chronicles her earliest encounters with her Chilean students, Sally has also produced a children’s book, Penny Possible, about a Golden Retriever named Penny who trained for two years to become a therapy dog for an Iraq war veteran (proceeds are donated to Warrior Canine Connection). It has been a No.1 bestseller on Amazon.

Oh, but wait! A rabbit just darted by. Let’s follow Sally and hear about her Adventures as a Gringa Teacher in the Wonderland of Santiago de Chile…

* * *

Sally Rose: Thanks, ML, and thanks, Displaced Nation readers, for accompanying me on this trip to my special version of Wonderland. As ML mentioned, I was born and raised in East Texas, in a tiny little town. That means the northeast corner between Dallas and Texarkana. I’m not sure why I chose to incarnate in small-town Texas because I always had the feeling that I was a big-city girl, and I’ve since discovered that to be true.

My path to becoming a displaced national went like this: Texas-Louisiana-Texas-Louisiana-Oklahoma-Louisiana-Texas-New Mexico-Texas-New Mexico-New York-Chile.

I’d always wanted to try living in New York, and I’d always thought I’d live overseas. Everything before that was only practice.

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

I must have felt disoriented from the moment I was born. Though there were differences in each of the original four states (Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico), my life before New York was fairly homogenous, but nowhere felt like “home.” Now, I realize that most of my moves have been based on trying to find my tribe. Asking myself, “Where do I fit in?”

Though many people become disoriented by being “down the rabbit hole,” I thrive on feeling that little edge of uncertainty, on feeling puzzled.

Living in New York meant getting used to high rent-tiny apartments, walking and public transit vs. car culture, different (read: NY) attitudes, too many choices, and 7,999,999 other people, yet not being connected to any of them.

Once I got into the rhythm and pace of the city, I found it exhilarating. I called New York my temperamental mistress, but I eventually felt less disoriented there than anywhere else I’d ever lived.

In 2008, I came to Chile on a vacation. Call it karma, fate, or the planets aligning—but the moment I set foot in that strange land, I knew the time had come to follow my heart and make my dream of teaching abroad a reality.

I moved to Chile on March 1, 2011, ready to conquer the world and make a difference in someone’s life.

“Curiouser and curiouser…”

Three years before I made the move, I did several stints of volunteer teaching in low-income schools where the students were considered to be “at risk.” Vulnerables. My book, A Million Sticky Kisses, covers that initial period.

I learned so much about myself that, most of that time, I wondered who was teaching whom.

In Santiago, Sally is teacher but above all learner (photo supplied).

In Santiago, Sally is teacher but above all learner (photo supplied).

“But she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep…”

Once I decided to relocate to Chile, I had many moments of doubt, starting as the plane sat on the runway at JFK. Buckled in and staring out the airplane window, I had a moment of utter, can’t breathe, panic. What in the world was I doing? Leaving everything behind and moving overseas where I knew almost no one and barely spoke the language, what was I thinking?

Most “pool of tears” moments were followed by elation, the “I did it!” moments. Making the move, finding an apartment, getting my residency visa, opening a bank account, finally understanding enough Spanish to have a phone conversation, all counted as triumphs.

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

I haven’t changed my personal clothing style, which tends to be tailored and conservative. I actually enjoy wearing what I think of as the “Chilean granny uniform.” Wool skirt, wool sweater, wool scarf in neutral tones. And let’s not forget the sensible flats.

My short, red hair has earned me some long looks and possibly some judgment.

For young Chilean women, the hair style is long. Period. There are few exceptions. Once a woman is over 50, it’s acceptable to have shorter hair, but not spiky, red hair, like mine. This leads to suspicions that one is a lesbian, whether it’s true or not.

Sally doesn't care what Chileans think of her granny clothes & short red hair. Or does she? (Photos supplied)

Sally doesn’t care what Chileans think of her granny clothes & short red hair. Or does she? (Photos supplied)

“You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

It took me a long time to realize that you cannot be direct with Chileans. If you approach things openly and directly, they will often be embarrassed or offended.

This happened to me the first year that I was here. A teaching colleague had invited me to an asado, a BBQ, for Chile’s national independence day, Fiestas Patrias, September 18.

She invited me, but there were no details. What time did the party start? Would it be at her house or at her sister’s? Could she give me directions?

I sent her an email, asking these questions, but it went unanswered. I tried phoning her. She didn’t pick up. I texted her, Facebook messaged her, and phoned again, multiple times. She never responded to me and I ended up with no plans for the biggest Chilean holiday of the year.

Gringa alone on Fiestas Patrias. Photo credit: Bailando en la fonda, by Osmar Valdebenito via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gringa alone on Fiestas Patrias. Photo credit: Bailando en la fonda, by Osmar Valdebenito via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); inset: Sally Rose (supplied).

The following week at school, she was polite, but not friendly like she’d been before. When I finally found her alone one day, I asked her what had happened. “I waited to hear from you about the BBQ. Why didn’t you respond to my messages?”

Lo que pasa es…” What had happened is that her baby had been sick and the car broke down. Then, her sister had decided not to have the party, and so on and so forth.

“I understand difficult family situations,” I told her. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t let me know.”

She couldn’t explain this, didn’t seem to understand why it mattered nor why I felt disappointed.

Our relationship never recovered from this incident, and I was never invited again. She became distant; she avoided me. I lost a friend, but learned a lesson. To maintain Chilean friendships, I had to be less direct, or even silent, about many things, which is not my usual style.

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice…

A Chilean food I love? That’s a strong word. I’ve tried octopus—too rubbery. Cochayuyo (dried seaweed)—rubbery and sticky. No love lost there. I’d have to say that my favorite Chilean dish is Pastel de Jaiba. This is a crab casserole baked in an individual clay bowl. ¡Rico!

Pastel de Jaiba, Sally's favorite Chilean dish (photo supplied).

Pastel de Jaiba, Sally’s favorite Chilean dish (photo supplied).

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

Since my current home is approximately 55m, and my dining room table seats four people, this would be an intimate party. I would host a traditional Chilean once, with a twist or two.

Once is tea time in Chile. Not everyone observes this tradition, but many still do. Once has its roots in friends getting together for a nip in the late afternoon. In some stories, it was soldiers who began the tradition. In other stories, it was older ladies. Either way, they wanted to keep it a secret, so they called it once. The word in Spanish means eleven, after the eleven letters in aguardiente, fire water.

These days, alcohol is not usually served at once. Traditional once includes tea, bread with butter and jam, sometimes ham and cheese, and on special occasions, a cake. Chileans love sweets, and many cakes here are layered with manjar, a tooth-aching, caramelized milk filling, similar to dulce de leche.

I would use my best tablecloth and my English teapot. Manjar‘s too sweet for me, so I would serve a gooey, dark chocolate confection instead, and since I’m a gringa, I would serve a dry, bubbly espumante, in addition to the tea.

Wearing hats might be involved. Gloves, optional.

Is Sally Alice or the Mad Hatter here? (Photo supplied)

Is Sally Alice or the Mad Hatter here? (Photo supplied)

“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!”

My identity shift began in New York and has continued here in Chile. There is something empowering about moving into the unknown. When you start to have small victories, like navigating the subway or ordering in Spanish at a restaurant, you feel a heady success.

On the flip side, your mettle is tested on an almost-daily basis. Once you have proved to yourself that you can survive, evolve, adapt, and thrive, you get a glimpse of who you really are.

Sally in Disneyland teacup, in the days before she was wonderlanded (photo supplied).

Sally in Disneyland teacup, foreshadowing her experience of being wonderlanded (photo supplied).

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

It’s okay to not know where you belong. Change course if necessary. Accept that you may never fit in. If something doesn’t work, be flexible. Try something else. Reinvent yourself. The good news is that you’ve already done it once, and you can do it again.

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

Ironically, I often work best when I am confused, challenged, or depressed. Since none of these is the case at the moment, I’m distracted by life, in general, but I have two specific projects in mind.

The first is an illustrated children’s book. It will be based in Chile, using iconic settings, and the theme will revolve around two of Santiago’s one million street dogs. I call them Bruno and Roger.

I am also in the process of reviewing and editing a former project titled Well, Why Was I Born: The Romance that Never Was. Publication goal: 2017.

sally rose books

Sally’s great works: two in the bag and two to come.

* * *

Thank you, Sally! That was a jolly good trip, both entertaining and thoughtful. Readers, I wonder if you feel like me, that there was something very special about the experience of being “wonderlanded” with Sally in Santiago? Please let us know in the comments. ~ML

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

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


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.

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.


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!


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.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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.

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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
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.

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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.”


“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…”


Oh. Memories of college.



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!

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