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

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

Various Dublins

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

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

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

Cultural challenges

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

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

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

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

Love of disguises

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

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

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

The domestic expat

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

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

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

At the beginning of the novel, Mackey says:

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

No safe harbors

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

Kennedy introduces the housing site to us as follows:

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

Why French speaks to international creatives

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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

FIFA World Cup Collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My top three reasons for fanning football are:

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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And the May 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

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

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

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

Today’s post honors May’s three Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) CHRISTINE GILBERT, blogger, American traveling mom & expat in Barcelona

For her post:  “Why it must suck to be a parent in the US,” on her blog, Almost Fearless
Posted on: 16 May 2014

So we’re traveling across the US after living in Mexico for nearly a year and half, on our way to Europe. … [W]hen we drive to New Orleans it starts. Suddenly I am a bad parent.

… I admit, I am a permissive parent. My basic rules are this: it has to be safe and it can’t infringe on other people. … In short, my children are feral beasties but if required they can sit nicely and say “Please and Thank You” (or at least I try to get them to do that).

But I’m an American, so I have strong opinions about the idea that I have the RED WHITE AND BLUE, PATRIOTIC RIGHT to raise my children however I see fit, whether that’s homeschooling them and teaching them to speak in Klingon or letting them climb trees and juggle knives. Back off.

Citation: Christine, we never cease to enjoy a good round of the old debate about moral relativism (because no parenting method is objectively right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of all parents) versus moral universalism (a universal parenting norm applies to ALL parents regardless of age, background, ethnicity, etc.)—especially when relayed from the perspective of an expat, and one that writes as entertainingly as you do. While our own inclination is towards tolerance, we would ask you to bear in mind Alice’s “agony of terror” when she first meets the Duchess and her pig-baby. An “unusually large” saucepan flies by the baby’s head and almost take its ear off. “Oh, PLEASE mind what you’re doing!” Alice cries, to which the Duchess responds, in a hoarse growl:

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

Now, do you identify with Alice or the Duchess? It’s a bit of a moral quandary, correct? What’s more, we’d be curious to hear if your views change at all after living with your family in Barcelona, Spain, for a while. One of us has learned firsthand of a case of an American who is bilingual in Spanish. She brought her two young daughters to Spain last summer to learn Spanish, only to discover, to her considerable consternation, that they were less obedient than Spanish kids in the playground. (No saucepans, please! We’re simply trying to make the world go round faster…)

2) Jon Langford, blogger at BBC America’s “Mind The Gap” and British expat in Manhattan

For his post: Are You Australian?: A British Expat Discusses Mistaken Nationality in America
Posted on: 5 May 2014

Communicating effectively with Americans through a thick Yorkshire accent on a daily basis can be both confusing and traumatizing.

Even though my life would be made significantly easier if I adapted my speech a little, I simply can’t bring myself to say things like war-der, toe-may-do and vie-dah-min. Not that there’s anything wrong with speaking this way, it’s just I’d rather wade through the conversational swamp than surrender my Yorkshire tongue for the sake of convenience.

Citation: Jon, your take-no-prisoners attitude towards preserving your Yorkshire accent, even at the expense of being misunderstood, strikes us as being a trifle, if we may be so bold, bloody minded. (Hey, they don’t call it Yorkshire-stubborn for nothing!) While we can appreciate your need to hold up the side for God’s Own Country, we wonder if you are coming across almost like the Hatter does in Alice in Wonderland. As you may recall, Alice feels “dreadfully puzzled” when he makes a remark that seems “to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.” But while her response is to say, as politely as she can, “I don’t quite understand you,” our fear is that New Yorkers may dispense with such courtesies and simply blurt out: “You talkin’ to me?” As you have no doubt discovered by now, they take pride in being found the rudest of all rude peoples of America. (Hmmm….has the Yorkshireman met his match?)

3) NIENKE KROOK, blogger and Dutch expat in London

For her post: Bologna Italy: Why you don’t need a map to explore this city, on her blog, The Travel Tester
Posted on: 29 April 2014

Ditch the map in Bologna. Like any classic Italian city, the whole joy of a visit to Bologna is getting lost and losing track of time and space.

Citation: Nienke, we congratulate you for being so willing to let go of your Type A personality while traveling in Italy. especially when exploring a city of Bologna’s ample charms. We would, however, suggest just one small addition to your declaration: “Ditch the map and the watch in Bologna.” If one must carry a timepiece in Italy, let it be the Hatter’s, not the White Rabbit’s! As you may recall from reading Alice in Wonderland as a kid (they read it in Holland, right?), the Hatter and Time do not get along. His watch is frozen at six o’clock. Fascinated by this revelation, Alice says: “Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?” Yes, indeed, it is, Alice. In Wonderland you can always have tea and cakes, while in Italy you can always feast on a bit of the sweet life, or la dolce vita, just as long as all five senses are open to the possibility. To repeat (which we think may be necessary for a Type A person), pleasure and indulgence do not come from checking one’s watch!

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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THE LADY WHO WRITES: Your novel finished, it’s down, down, down into KDP Select Freebie Land

LadyWhoWrites_brandThe Lady Who Writes, Meagan Adele Lopez, is paying us her monthly visit today. Once again, she’ll be doling out some practical advice, based on her own experience, for expats and other international creatives who are engaged in writing novels using the material gathered from their novel, shall we say, life stories. Meagan is a repeat expat in the UK (last time Bristol, this time London). Besides writing, her talents include acting, blogging, and crafting ads for social media.

—ML Awanohara

Okay, Displaced Nation-ers who are also wannabe novelists. Let’s say you’ve followed all my advice up to this point. You’ve gone through the work of reading similar genres before you start writing—perhaps even started up your own book club. You’ve dined on a daily basis with your characters. You’ve rehearsed your book trailer and have opted to publish your novel yourself. (I will go through the steps of the self-publishing process in the next post.)

So now, what about marketing that baby to the masses?

At the top of your list should be a free e-book promotion.

Only, don’t follow my example.

Do what I say, not what I did!

I was told to plan 30 days in advance—I started planning the giveaway of the novel I wrote based on my own expat adventures, Three Questions, the night before.

Once you sign up with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select, giving Amazon exclusive rights to publish the electronic version of your book for 90 days, you have five days to promote your book for free over that period. Most people tell you to use just two or three days at most, your first time. I used four.

Some things I did right: I waited until I had some strong reviews of the book posted before offering it for free. And after the promotion started, I tracked the book’s rankings and didn’t give up until I’d reached my two goals:

  1. Earn a spot on the coveted Amazon Best Sellers in Kindle Store, Top 100 Free list.
  2. Break five figures (XX,XXX) in downloads.

But, to reiterate, I didn’t plan the freebie promotion; I did it by the seat of my pants. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure about the benefits of giving away my book for free. I was afraid the freebie would “devalue” my book—which was silly because it wasn’t selling more than a few a day anyway.

I also had to overcome my fear that I was giving Amazon too much power. However, my Barnes and Noble Nook e-book wasn’t selling at all, so in the end I figured I might as well enroll in KDP Select for three months, even if that meant I couldn’t make it available through any other outlets, including publishing extracts on my blog.

How to get that new novel of yours noticed

First, the hard facts: Amazon has 3,000+ new titles going for free nearly every day. The competition is tough.

As I fell down, down, down into KDP Select Freebie Land, I obsessively read every post I could find with tips on how to make it a success. (Hey, A for effort!) FYI: One of the best articles I found was on Novel Publicity & Co.: “KDP Select free days: Targeted advertising is the key to success; here’s a list of resources.”

Besides learning that I should have been planning the promotion a month in advance—giving “free Kindle ebook” websites at least three weeks’ notice about my intention to offer a freebie for a few days—I quickly realized that I would need to dedicate a LOT OF TIME peddling it over that period through every available avenue: my social media networks, family and friends, and some of the dozens of sites that announce free e-books.

I had missed out on the top site, Pixel of Ink, which requires at least 30 days’ notice. But I did manage to get listed on some of the heavy hitter free e-book blogs, with thousands and tens of thousands of followers—the ones that the majority of free Kindle seekers go to (they come up first in Google searches).

Here’s where I submitted FOR FREE:

  • Digital Book Today: They have paid and free promotional opportunities. I submitted my novel for free via the form on this page, which requires you have at least 10+ reviews with an average of 4+ stars rating. They posted my novel, but the site’s founder, book industry veteran Anthony Wessel, wasn’t too happy at my last-minute submission—again, please don’t do what I did!
  • eReader News Today: I was supposed to submit three days before the beginning of the promo, and in order to be considered, you have to have a high rating in your reviews for them to post it. My mom happened to notice it was up—as she subscribes to their Facebook page—and mine was the first on their daily listing!
  • Freebies4Mom: This site is under the radar compared to the others. It’s run by stay-at-home mom Heather Fernandez. She has over 300k fans on Facebook. That’s A LOT of mommy fans. I believe her site pushed my novel over the five-digit download mark.
  • Kindle Nation Daily (PAID): They offer a Free Book Highlighter Service (scroll down to the bottom). I took $30 out of my Kickstarter money to participate. It was worth it.

Here’s a few more sites that picked me up, which you might consider submitting to (should you follow my advice and plan well in advance):

  • This is another site that sends daily email bulletins to subscribers listing free e-books in categories of interest.

Last but not least, these sites tweeted about my novel and might also be useful to you as indie authors:

  • The aforementioned Digital Ink Today (@DIGITALInkToday): This popular site has 30.2k Twitter followers.
  • Masquerade Crew (@MasqCrew): Site founder Mark Lee currently has 34.6k Twitter followers.

The all-important numbers

Before the book promotion, I was selling at my peak three e-books per day. I never reached higher than #300,000 on Kindle’s bestsellers list. The night before I launched the book, I was ranked about 1,500,000 in Amazon’s e-books—insignificant.

During the promotion, my book gained in momentum each day. Though conventional wisdom advises giving up after two days, I just couldn’t do it. The way I saw it, the more days I was ranking, the more exposure I was getting. To start again from ZERO in a few weeks seemed pointless.

At the end of the first day, I was already #57 in the Kindle store’s free Contemporary Fiction, but hadn’t yet ranked anywhere in the entire Kindle store.

The end of the second day, I was getting closer! I was now just under the top 200 within the entire Kindle store, and had climbed to #16 in Contemporary Fiction.

Over 3,000 people had downloaded the book so far.

But it wasn’t until the third day (a Friday) that extraordinary stuff started happening. This is when the websites started posting about my book, and the downloads became fast and furious.

When I hit #8 in Contemporary Fiction, and saw my name next to THE John Grisham—it was certainly a shock, and made me realize just how many people now had their hands on my novel.

I finally ended the promotion on Saturday night—with over 11,000 downloads just in the United States (the UK hit didn’t garner nearly as many). At its peak, my novel hit #28 in the entire Kindle Books and #6 in Contemporary Fiction—I had accomplished my goal!

The immediate aftermath—any sales?

The big question was, would I make any money after the promotion was over? I was, after all, giving the book away for free.

My ranking disappeared for a few hours, and when it reappeared, my novel was certainly higher than it had ever been. Three days after the promotion ended my novel remained within the top 3,000-5,000 paid Kindles. I sold more in those three days than I’d ever sold before in the same time frame.

On a side note, the day after the promo ended, I received my first negative review and a second great review. Unfortunately, the first reviewer didn’t take the time to read the entire book (that’s another blog post altogether—ouch, it hurt!); and the second reviewer pleaded with people to finish the book. YES, PLEASE!

Time to recap: What would I do differently?

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have

  • taken more time to plan, and put more thought into the audiences to reach out to.
  • jacked up the price the day before the promotion (value would have seemed better to those getting the free download).
  • seeded the community with teasers.

But overall, I was extremely happy with how it turned out, and highly recommend it to other indie authors. Hey, you never know, you might be able to turn those downloads into a book deal!

And now, without further ado, here’s Novel Writing Tip No 4 for International Creatives:

Heed (at least some of) the wisdom of writers who have gone before you and plan a freebie promotion campaign for Kindle a few weeks in advance, not the the night before; commit to working hard on the promotions, and tracking your numbers, for the duration.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of this latest advise of Meagan’s? Did you ever imagine you’d be giving away your precious novel for free? And do you have any further questions for Meagan, THE LADY WHO WRITES, any topics you wish she would cover in future columns? Please share in the comments…

Meagan Adele Lopez grew up in the U.S. with a Cuban-born father and American mother, and at one time enjoyed an acting/casting career in Hollywood, something you can detect in the beautiful trailer for her novel, Three Questions. Her day job these days is in social media advertising. To learn more about Meagan, go to her Web site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s announcement of our March “Alice” winners!

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For this globe drifter and Adult Third Culture Kid, a picture says…

Rachel Kanev Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles; Rachel (right) with her friend Sara experimenting with make-up and photography with the help of a bottle of wine (or two?) and some props (photo credit: Rachel Kanev).

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

My guest this month is 24-year-old Rachel Kanev. She has a Bulgarian father and German Jewish mother but grew up in England, where she studied French and Chinese languages. She feels she got “…caught somewhere in between” these many cultures:

With my Jewish nose, Bulgarian skin and English accent, I at once belong to British, East German, Bulgarian, Jewish, French and Chinese cultures and yet to none of them at all.

Her grandmother, by contrast, lived in Berlin for decades but was more English than Tetley tea.

Indications of Rachel’s escalating identity crisis are borne out in the images that bombard you upon reaching her engaging blog, Global Drifting, in which she says she is drifting across the globe in hopes of stumbling upon enlightenment…

* * *

Hi, Rachel. I’m pleased your globe-drifting has taken you to the shores of the Displaced Nation, which gives us the opportunity to discuss your photo-travel experiences. For one so young you’ve travelled a fair bit, but where were you actually born?
I was born in my mother’s hometown of Berlin, at the traffic lights on the way to hospital. My mother said I looked like a hedgehog that day, and my family still calls me Igel (“Hedgehog” in German). A few months later, the Berlin Wall came down and one year after that, we all moved to England.

So you were a Third Culture Kid in Britain. When did you spread your wings to start travelling?
My nursery and primary school classes were filled with international children. Eugenia—a Spanish girl from Madrid with long black hair and a passion for witchcraft and the Greek goddess Athena—soon became my best friend. In the momentary way that often strikes a child, I was devastated when she left me to return home for good. So, at the tender age of nine, I boarded a plane alone, in my size 1 shoes, to visit Eugenia in Spain. As I began my first solo journey, I experienced a thirst for discovery, which, as yet, has not been quenched. Since that first adventure, I have visited Italy, Holland, France, Austria, Switzerland, Réunion Island and China. I plan to step (in my now size 5 shoes) into Morocco and perhaps Israel this coming summer.

What do you love so much about travel?
I love travel because everything is new and unknown; we share no past and perhaps no future with the things we see and people we meet. The errant wanderer therefore has no choice but to revel in the present.

Will I ever get over the pull I feel to both of these places?

Despite your age, I think I can put you in the category of seasoned traveller. Tell me, what inspires your decision to travel to particular places?
My inspiration comes partly from a love of languages and partly from the idealistic images of France I painted in my head when watching French films and listening to French music, which I did while revising for my exams at university. Aided by the amazing Erasmus, that towering figure of the Renaissance, I had taken a university year abroad in the island paradise of Réunion, near Africa. It’s a French overseas department so qualifies for the European Union’s Erasmus Programme, which finances students to spend up to a year of their university courses in a university in another European country. But it wasn’t until after finishing university that I had a chance to visit France itself. I meandered through southern French villages like an aimless hippie, reveling in its rural chic.

I understand you also have a passion for China?
Chinese was my third language at university. After graduating, I remained in England saving pennies as a waitress to finance spending a year in the land of silk. I lived in a city about an hour from Beijing.

I’m curious: where are you right now and what are you up to?
Right now I’m back living in my English hometown of Cambridge, selling nutritional products to vitamin-mad French and German customers—and saving up for my next Chinese/Moroccan/Spanish/Israeli adventure this summer. As I look out of the window, I am visualizing being there already, far from the Land of Vitamins C and D!


No use crying over spilled wine! Rachel in the cellar of a now-defunct winery near Perpignan, France; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

Hmmm… I think I detect something of the entrepreneur in you, alongside your intrepid traveller’s spirit! And now let’s have a look at a few of your favorite photos from your travels to France and China.
Sure! I took this first photo in a wine cellar in a small hamlet near Perpignan, some way off the coast of southern France. I’d been helping out, but it was late December, and there was very little work left. Besides, the winemaker, whose name was Bernard, had gone bankrupt due to the stresses of organic farming. Our main task for the day, as his helpers, was to pour bottle upon bottle of wine down the drain as he looked on bemoaning the demise of the modern world. It proved a good way to get skillful with a corkscrew!! And I think poor Bernard appreciated our efforts quite a lot. Just think if he’d drunk all that wine in his cellar, it would have sent him spiraling into an even deeper fit of depression…


China’s Longji (Dragon’s Backbone) Terraced Rice Fields are so named because of their resemblance to a dragon’s scales; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

The next photo provides a glimpse of the glorious Dragon rice terraces of Longshen, in China’s Guangxi province. Amazing terraces stretch as far as the eye can see. I visited some years ago and remember being in awe at the combination of nature’s beauty and the skillfulness of the human hand. I had quite an adventure ambling through the fields with two of my Chinese friends. We got lost and at one point envisaged spending a cold night cuddled up to the cows. In the end we reached our hostel, at the top of the terraces, by nightfall. I returned again last year and was saddened to see that the beauty of the fields has been marred by the greedy hand of tourism. Huge plastic cable cars now transport visitors to the top, and the local villagers are paid to dress in traditional clothes.


A French farmer, another Barnard; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

Last in this series we have another Bernard who stumbled into my traveller’s path. This Bernard is an 80-year-old farmer with whom I lived on my own for a week. His farm is an hour away from the nearest town and is completely self-sufficient. He grows his own organic vegetables and was fit enough to hack up the ground with a pickaxe when the underwater pipes burst (ironically, I had left the home of Bernard number 1 because his pipes had burst and the water system needed to be repaired, only to be faced with more burst pipes at the home of Bernard number 2!).

I love the first photo just because it looks as though you’ve broken into someone’s cellar and are drinking all the wine!! The dragon terraces appear so surreal to me because they are so different to the flat rice fields of Thailand, where I live. I wish I could see them one day. I know you take a lot of photos and these next four, I believe, have a special significance for you. Can you explain?

Not all who wander are lost…

The following is a photo I took of a photo of Bernard number 2, which was taken some fifty years ago, when his newly polished army boots took their very first steps away from the small village on the outskirts of the Pyrenees, where he was born. He bid farewell to the farm he’d grown up on and to the parents who’d raised both him and the thriving trees and crops that had formed the backdrop to his childhood. By the time I encountered Bernard, nature had outlived his parents but their legacy remained. He is now a beekeeper and organic vegetable farmer, tending to the very same trees and plants that his father and his father’s father had cared for. Though he has no human family, the trees you see in my other photo of Bernard (above) appear to me to be his forefathers; they are equally his children.

Bernard as a young man

The French farmer Bernard as a young soldier; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

The next photo was a fluke as I managed to capture an ad for Longines watches showing Kate Winslet just as the sun was setting. In that fleeting instant, one can see Shanghai’s varied transportation, high-rise buildings and red lanterns—that curious amalgamation of Western modernity and Chinese traditionalism that is everywhere around you in the city.


A British beauty, a Swiss watch and a Shanghai sunset; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

Cambridge is my home town and I think of it much like a family member, having watched it age and evolve just as it has silently witnessed me grow and change. I love its grandiose architecture, endless greenery, and the way winter and spring intertwine in front of the University’s palace-like structures that are fit for if not a queen then the rulers of academia, to which I never belonged.


The dreaming spires of Cambridge; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

Here my sister explores the labyrinth-like forestry of a park near where we live in Cambridge. It has amazing multi-coloured plants I have never seen anywhere else before and huge trees that watch over you like silent giants. I like this photo because she looks like Alice in Wonderland with her long, thick flowing locks!


The great outdoors near Cambridge, UK; photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

Is photography sometimes a moral decision?

I love your explanations as they show us the profound effects a picture can have on its creator, something the viewer can never fully appreciate. Tell me, do you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
For me, the morality of taking photos of strangers has always been ambiguous. I think of it whenever I see photos of human suffering. I believe I have the right to use my camera to record the world but without intruding on it. At what point does the power of images and the need for education and understanding through the push of a button and flash of a light become intrusive and affect the lives of others in a negative way? I’ll give you an example from my own experience. The Western media has focused almost exclusively on China’s explosive economic growth when in fact 1.6 million people (11.8 percent of the population) still live below the poverty line. When taking the train, part of me would like to photograph the dirt-covered, barefooted children asleep on newspapers or the train door frozen from the inside as passengers are left to deal with the icy temperatures of the North (-37°C). But feeling intrusive, I refrain.

Do you also feel self-conscious in Asia?
It’s difficult being subtle, given the colour of my hair and skin, and the stamp on my passport. Noticing me walking the streets of China, many Chinese will assume, quite rightly, that I am Western but quite wrongly that I must therefore have dollar bills rolling from my body like a central bank printing press. Often I do not wish to fuel their prejudices by whipping out a digital camera, however small, before their eyes.

As a resident in Thailand, I can empathize with those views, especially the general Asian misconception that all Westerners are rich. Although this can be annoying, I do believe these views are changing for the better, as the younger generation becomes more socially aware through travel and better education. Now let’s turn to the technical stuff. Some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I have a small Samsung camera that fits neatly in the palm of my hand. It’s nothing fancy and often leaves something to be desired in terms of quality, but it was a birthday gift years ago and has sentimental value, having been my only travel partner across unknown lands. Whatever it lacks in lens quality, Windows Photo Gallery makes up for in magical editing power!

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Wander through villages, peel garlic with a farmer, shake hands with a prince, run through jungles, leap into waterfalls, swing across the rainforest wilderness and lose a leg to the marble rocks—see the world and allow the world to be seen. Travel, live, eternalize what you see with a photo.

Great non-technical advice, Rachel, that’s right up my street! I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your fascinating story in this interview.

* * *

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

And if you want to know more about Rachel Kanev, don’t forget to visit her blog, Globe Drifting. You can also follow her on Twitter or even shoot her an email.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!


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

sharon lorimer chicken hat

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

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

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

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

Cock a’ Leekie Udon, anyone?

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

* * *

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

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

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

Which came first, spices or travels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struttin’ her stuff on Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

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

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

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

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

1) TONI HARGIS, author, blogger, and British expat in Chicago

For her post:  “Learn to Take a Compliment, Brits in America” in Mind the Gap, a resource blog for British expats in America on
Posted on: 18 April 2014

Many British teachers admitted that they and their students found it very hard to fill in applications for American colleges because they were asked for “accomplishments and strengths” as well as academic achievements. As one contributor put it, U.K. teachers “are not very good at waxing lyrical about [their] students other than in academic terms.”

Citation: Toni, what an absolutely marvelous post! Only don’t you think you should have promoted your credentials a little more? After all, you’ve written a book called The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States, the contents of which we expect could be useful to Bashful Brits. Actually, you do refer to the book in passing—but don’t provide the title or a link. Hey, never miss an opportunity to blow your own trumpet! But listen, as you insist upon being so self-effacing, we feel justified in presenting you with this inspirational passage from Through the Looking Glass, where a banquet is being held in honor of the diffident Queen Alice, who can’t quite believe she’s been made a queen:

[Alice] didn’t see why the Red Queen should be the only one to give orders; so, as an experiment, she called out “Waiter! Bring back the pudding!” and there it was again in a moment, like a conjuring trick. It was so large that she couldn’t help feeling a little shy with it…; however, she conquered her shyness by a great effort, and cut a slice and handed it to the Red Queen.

“What impertinence!” said the Pudding. “I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!”

It spoke in a thick, suety sort of voice, and Alice hadn’t a word to say in reply: she could only sit and look at it and gasp.

“Make a remark,” said the Red Queen: “it’s ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!”

One last word of advice, if we may: Should you feel at all embarrassed about accepting an Alice, rest assured, a simple “thanks” will do. No need to curtsey… Notably, this last accords with what the point you make at the end of your excellent (as well as thought-provoking!) post:

…when someone praises you, your spouse, your children, your dog or your house, a simple “Thank you” will both suffice and move the conversation swiftly along without too much excruciation on your part.

Again, as the Red Queen puts it to Alice: “You ought to return thanks in a neat speech.”

2) Anthony The Travel Tart, Australian travel addict and blogger

For his post: “You Know That You’ve Been Living in Japan Too Long When…,” on The Travel Tart
Posted on: 18 March 2014

You know that you’ve been living in Japan too long when…

  • A room the size of a cubic metre feels rather large.
  • Capsule hotels feel quite spacious.
  • Wide open spaces freak you out.

Citation: Anthony, we assume you met quite a few expats during your time in Japan. Because your inference that the longer a foreigner stays in Japan the stranger he or she becomes is spot on (and one of us speaks from a too-long experience of having lived in that small-island nation). Picture for a moment what happens to Alice after she enters the White Rabbit’s house and downs the contents of the “Drink Me” bottle:

She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney.

This is actually a case where one might prefer to be Alice rather than an expat. She at least has the ability to drink potions or eat pieces of mushroom to change her body size. But many gaijin remain permanently stuck in the White Rabbit’s house (not for nothing has Japan achieved notoriety as the “rabbit-hutch nation”). Downing the contents of a bottle of Suntory whisky or taking a bite of a matsutake (pine mushroom, prized for its spicy aroma) won’t make the blindest bit of difference. Oh, and incidentally, it’s arigato, not origato, but that’s okay as it means you didn’t stay too long—though you may want to add “correcting other foreigners’ Japanese” to the list.

3) MATT HERSHBERGER, writer and blogger at A Man Without a Country, and 4) British dialect coach ANDREW JACK

For the post: “A quick video guide to the accents of the British Isles”, by Matt Hershberger on Matador Network, which features Andrew Jack’s brilliant video (produced by Philip Barker).
Posted on: 20 April 2014
Snippet: Matt, who once lived in England, says:

As an American, I can’t even replicate the accents properly, so if I tried to ask for help distinguishing an accent from a British friend later, the best I could hope would be that I’d sound sort of like Stewie Griffin, and nothing like the accent I’d heard.

Citation: Matt, we take your point that when venturing abroad to a country where they speak the same language, it is most disconcerting when you can’t understand what people are saying because of their heavy accents—a true “through the looking glass” moment. (We fear that Brits may have some of the same troubles in the U.S., but let’s face it, you’d expect that in a country of this size, not of one as tiny as Britain.) We appreciate that you highlighted the video of Andrew providing 14 regional accents from the British Isles in 84 seconds: how awesome is that? As one of the YouTube commenters says, “good for ignorant North Americans”—some of whom, me might add, may plan to be (or have already been) expats in the UK. And we appreciate it even more when recalling that Poor Alice had no interpreter for the White Queen’s methods of communication:

“My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!”

Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam-engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.

“Oh, much better!” cried the Queen, her voice rising to a squeak as she went on. “Much be-etter! Be-etter! Be-e-e-etter! Be-e-ehh!”

The last word ended in a long bleat, so like a sheep that Alice quite started.

*  *  *

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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Live your life, take chances—raise alpacas? A curious expat tale that has yielded a book-worthy yarn

Seriously Mum Collage

(Clockwise from top) Alan Parks with a friend’s alpaca; the converted olive mill where he and his partner, Lorna, now live; Brighton Pier, scene of their former abode (photo credit: Photo Monkey via Flickr Creative Commons).

The most amazing thing about the expat memoir penned by my guest today, Alan Parks, is not simply its title, though Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is quite a doozy.

It’s not even the zaniness of the alpacas that appear throughout the narrative: Bermuda, Cassandra, Lily, Baby Rafa… BTW, they are just a few among many animals Alan and his partner, Lorna Penfold, keep. (There’s a tally of how many and what kinds at the start of each chapter.)

No, the most amazing thing about Alan Parks’s memoir is that fellow expats, particularly fellow Brits (but also one German), are the villains of the piece—the least trustworthy of all the people he and Lorna have encountered on their madcap adventure. I say “madcap” as I think the decision the couple made, six years ago, to abandon their home in Brighton (in their native UK) for a renovated olive mill near Montoro in Spain’s Córdoba Province, which is within the autonomous territory of Andalusia, to raise alpacas justifies my choice of that adjective.

From the book’s beginning, Alan’s instinct is not to stick with the expat community—as he puts it:

I don’t think we would have mixed with many of these people at home, so we should not feel forced to by circumstances.

And boy does that instinct prove right! While the Spanish merely think he and Lorna are crazy (so far as they’re concerned, the British pair may as well be raising giraffes!), their fellow Brits are out to take advantage of them in all kinds of ways. And despite Alan’s better instincts, his limited Spanish at times gives him little choice but to get involved with some pretty unscrupulous characters.

Mind you, the Spanish don’t always come off well either, especially when it comes to their treatment of animals. In light of Mahatma Gandhi’s proclamation—

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

—it would not be too far fetched to say that the animals are the book’s true heroes. They are what keep Alan and Lorna going in face of a seemingly unending series of challenges. In tribute, Alan gives various pets a voice at the end of occasional chapters. (It’s sad when they lose them, though.)

But the reason we are assembled here today to give Alan himself a voice in telling us about his book, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already. It’s done super well on Amazon for a reason: it’s terrific! And please LEAVE A COMMENT at the end of this post to be eligible to win a FREE COPY. (Alan has kindly agreed to give one of his books away: your choice of alpacas or donkeys! And there may also be prizes for runners-up!!!)

* * *

SeriouslyMumAlpaca_bookcover_dropshadowWelcome to the Displaced Nation, Alan! Between you and your partner, Lorna Penfold, you have produced three memoirs about your life in Spain. There’s the book we’re featuring today: Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?. There’s also the sequel: Seriously Mum, Where’s That Donkey? And Lorna has just now published From Sequins to Sunshine: Year One. Tell me, what has made the pair of you so prolific?
The books were never planned. Two years ago, after being told many times that I should write a book about our adventures, I decided to give it a go. Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? was the result. It started out being called Bloody Hell, What’s an Alpaca?—an exact quote for how Lorna’s daughter, Frankie, responded when we told her about our plans. But the use of the word “hell” hindered sales in the US. After I released the sequel, we thought people might like to read Lorna’s point of view. She had started a blog when we first moved here, so we turned her posts from the first year into an e-book. So far the reaction has been good.

What was the impulse that led to your packing it all in and moving to the South of Spain?
Lorna was a dance teacher in the UK and I used to work in retail. Lorna developed a condition called sarcoidosis, which made working difficult. One day we were talking about the possibility of her giving up work, and I suggested moving to Florida, but that was too far away. I blurted out “What about Spain?” Crazy really, as I had never ever been here.

Hey, craziness is what makes the world round! And how about this idea of raising alpacas, where did that come from?
We had heard about alpacas in the UK and thought that would be a good business for us to get in to (it wasn’t).

Okay, seeing as I know nothing about the alpaca business, what makes it so challenging?
An alpaca is not a cheap animal, yet you can’t eat it, and it doesn’t produce milk to drink. You make money by selling them to other breeders. But sales, and the selling price, have gone down since the world financial crisis.

What about their wool?
We try to sell as much of our alpacas’ wool as possible to local people who spin, knit and use it for crafting, but the market here in Spain is miniscule and postage costs prohibitive.

Do Spanish people think you and Lorna are crazy for your devotion to these animals?
People in Spain have never heard of alpacas. To a Spaniard, a goat is a much more useful animal.

Why do you still keep your alpacas if you’re not making any money on them?
For one there is no one to sell them to, and for two, they are part of our family and we love them. We also like it when people come and stay at our farm and can experience walking and feeding the alpacas. And finally, if there were no alpacas, there would be no books.

Ah, yes, the books. We’ll get to that, but first let me ask another alpaca question. The New York Times had an article last year talking about llamas being good pets. I think the alpaca is meant to be the llama’s quirky cousin. So is the same true of them?
It depends….they are no good if you want an animal to pet and stroke. But if you have an acre of land and you need the grass kept short, they could be good. Bear in mind, though, that they need to be kept in groups of at least three!

Out of the grey skies of England and into the frying pan of Spain

Moving right along to the weather: having been an expat in Britain myself, I can imagine you were keen to leave behind its grey skies and unpredictable climate. But were you aware that the interior of Andalusia, where you were headed, is the hottest area in all of Europe?
We didn’t find out about this area being called “The Frying Pan of Spain” until much further down the line. We were sorting some paperwork at the Spanish Embassy in London, and a lady said to us, “You do know they call it the Frying Pan of Spain, don’t you?” In the summer it can easily hit 45 degrees during the day. Siestas are a necessity.

Can you give us some sense of how you spend a typical day in your new life versus when you lived in Brighton?
In Brighton I was often out the door at 7:30 a.m. and got back home about 7:00 p.m. Lorna worked in the evenings, often not returning home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Also, she had to work a lot of Sundays, so we never got to see each other. In Spain our life is much more relaxed. We spend our days looking after the animals and maintaining the house, and we are now together 24/7. You could say we went from one extreme to another.

I understand you met Lorna on the Internet. How long had you known each other before hatching this plan to live in Spain?
We had been together for four years and living together for three before we made the move, so we at least knew we could live together.

Did starting up a totally new life in a foreign land put a strain on your relationship or draw you closer?
I wouldn’t say our relationship has ever been strained, although as you can read in our books, we have been through some tough times together.

Be careful what you wish for…

Having read your book, I know there were quite a few moments in Spain when you felt like a bit like aliens, but which moment stands out as your most displaced, when you wondered if you’d made a mistake?
I think our “What are we doing here?” moment came after about 18 months. We had spent all our money with an English builder renovating our new house in the sun, and we experienced the worst Spanish winter rains for a hundred years. It turned out the builder was a conman and all the roofs he’d built started leaking. On top of that two of our alpacas died in the months before. I remember us standing in our kitchen as water cascaded from the ceiling. We were both in tears.

Wow, a literal “pool of tears” moment! But I know you also have things you love about your new life. Can you tell us about your least displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in Spain’s Frying Pan rather than your native UK?
Andalucia feels like home to us now, although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when we turned the corner. I think we are most aware of it when we are sitting outside having something to eat and drink with friends at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of August, wearing only a t-shirt. That is what life is about, not whether or not you can afford the latest version of the iPad!

Would you say you’ve assimilated to the point where returning to the UK gives you counter culture shock?
Lorna visits the UK regularly as she now has three grandchildren that weren’t even thought about when we first moved here. I have not been back for five years but will head back for a weekend in June to visit my relatives and attend a diamond wedding celebration for my grandparents. In all honesty, I am a bit nervous about it, I am not looking forward to being in crowds. Here in Spain we live in the countryside outside a small town and some days we do not see a single person. Plus in June, I only ever wear shorts and a t-shirt, but in the UK I may need jumpers (sweaters) and trousers.

An Amazon bestseller in Travel with Pets and Travel in Europe

Moving on to your e-books: why did you decide to self-publish?
I wrote my first book just as self-publishing was really taking off. I submitted the manuscript to one publishing house, got a thanks-but-no-thanks letter back, so decided to publish it myself.

Are there any drawbacks to self-publishing?
As a self-publisher, the hardest part is clicking the button to publish. A traditionally published author has that taken away from them, and even if they get mixed reviews they have the backing of the publishing house. We are responsible for everything, from cover, to content, to editing mistakes. If there are problems, or mistakes in the manuscript, that is our fault.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Initially I thought it would appeal mainly to other alpaca breeders, but I have had emails from readers all over the world who say they’ve enjoyed reading about our Spanish adventure. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the response to Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? I just had to write the sequel, Seriously Mum, Where’s that Donkey?

Your book has done very well on Amazon. Do you do a lot to promote it?
I run a FB group called We Love Memoirs, which has over a thousand members, all of whom enjoy books like mine. The best way to promote is by word of mouth. If somebody recommends your book to their friend, nothing beats that. As a self publisher I am actually against the Amazon Select program, where you make your book available exclusively on Kindle. My books are available on Amazon but also everywhere else: iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and even smaller retailers.

What’s next—more books?
I would like to release a third book this year, and Lorna has years 2 and 3 in her From Sequins to Sunshine series to work on.

How are the alpacas doing?
The alpacas are good, and if all is well, we may have some babies at the end of the year.

SONY DSC10 Questions for Alan Parks & Lorna Penfold

Finally, I know that both you and Lorna have become avid readers while living in Spain, so I’m curious to hear both of you answer a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Alan: I’m not sure I have ever read a truly great book. The books I read tend not to get put in that category. Lorna: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Alan: I also have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I didn’t have the same reaction Lorna did.
2. Favorite literary genre: Alan: Comedy memoir. Lorna: Everything except horror.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Alan: I haven’t been on a plane for six years. Before it would have been an old fashioned book, but now I would read on a kindle app on my phone. Lorna: Always a paperback (whatever I happen to be reading).
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read: Alan: Mine, of course! I think it would do him the world of good to find out that people can be happy living a more simple life, with less materialistic ideals in life! Lorna: Mine of course, just to give him a look at a day to day life of a “normal” working class person.
5. Favorite books as a child: Alan: The “Adventure” Series, by Willard Price.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction: Alan: Jack West Junior, who appears in a book series by Australian author Matthew Reilly. Lorna: Mariam from A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Alan: Peter Mayle. Lorna: Khaled Hosseini.
8. Your reading habits: Alan: I read in bed at night, and a lot in the summer. Lorna: I read lots in summer as we do not watch television at all then. Plus other times of course.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Alan: Anything by Matthew Reilly, it would be like Indiana Jones on speed. And my own book of course. Lorna: My partner’s book Seriously Mum, what’s an Alpaca?
10. The book you plan to read next: Alan: Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly. Lorna: The next on the shelf, whatever it is!

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Alan? Hey, it’s not every day you get to discuss the world’s most captivating camelids! And don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Seriously, Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is available from Amazon(among other venues). Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit its companion site, like the book’s Facebook page (and be treated to lots of cute alpaca pix!) +/or follow Alan on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!<!–tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)–>

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

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4 observations after 3 years of holding up a mirror to expat (& repat) life

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, I wrote a post in celebration of the Displaced Nation’s third birthday, which occurred on April 1st.

For three years we’ve held up a mirror, as it were, to what we’ve been calling the displaced life, writing and commissioning posts on what motivates people to venture across borders to travel and live.

During the past three years, here’s what our looking-glass has revealed:

1) We aspire to be the fairest of them all.

If our site stats are anything to go by, the Fountain of Youth myth is still alive and well. We may not be searching for water with restorative powers on our travels, but we never tire of reading about Jennifer Scott’s top 20 lessons she learned from Madame Chic while living in Paris, TCK Marie Jhin’s advice on Asian beauty secrets, or my post summarizing beauty tips I picked up on two small islands, England and Japan (three of our most popular posts to date). Heck, even 5 tips on how to look good when you backpack still gets plenty of hits.

2) We mostly just want to have fun.

The popularity of two of Tony James’s Slater’s posts—one listing his five favorite parties around the world and other other telling the tale of his attempt to overcome language barriers in pursuit of an Ecuadorian woman—suggest that good times and love still rank high on the list of reasons why people opt for the road much less traveled. That said, some of us worry about going too far with the latter, if the enduring popularity of my post four reasons to think twice before embarking on cross-cultural marriage is anything to go by.

3) But we love hearing stories about international travelers with a higher purpose.

Most of us do not venture overseas in hopes of changing the world, but we are inspired by tales of those who once did—how else to explain the golden oldie status of 7 extraordinary women with a passion to save souls? And our fascination with the international do-gooder of course continues to the present. Kate Allison’s interview with Robin Wiszowaty, who serves as Kenya Program Director for the Canadian charity Free the Children, still gets lots of hits, as does my post about Richard Branson and other global nomads who delve into global misery. Perhaps we like to bask in reflected glory?!

4) Last but not least, we think we know things other people don’t.

Indeed, the most common phenomenon that has occurred when holding up our mirror to international adventurers is to find our mirror reflected in theirs, and theirs reflected in the lives of people they depict, ad infinitum, in a manner not unlike a Diego Velázquez painting (see above). In my view, this mise en abyme owes to the conviction among (particularly long-term) expats that in venturing so far afield, they have uncovered things about our planet that are worth examining, reporting, and creating something with, be it a memoir of what they’ve experienced (think Jack Scott’s Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey, Janet Brown’s Tone Deaf in Bangkok, or Jennifer Eremeeva’s soon-to-be featured Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow), a novel based on their overseas adventures (think Kate Allison’s Libby’s Life or Cinda MacKinnon’s A Place in the World), and/or an art work that springs from what they saw and felt when living in other cultures (eg, Elizabeth Liang’s one-woman show about growing up a TCK).

In short, although many of us can relate to Alice’s feeling of having stepped through the looking glass, we also aren’t afraid to hold up a looking glass to that experience. I often think of Janet Brown telling us she almost went home “a gibbering mess” upon discovering that her Thai landlord was spreading salacious rumors about her, but the point is, she survived to tell us about the experience in her gem of a book. Surely, that’s the kind of hero/ine Linda Janssen has in mind for her self-help book The Emotionally Resilient Expat?

* * *

No doubt there are even more insights our three years of running the Displaced Nation have revealed, but I’ll stop here to see what you make of this list of traits. Does it strike you as being accurate, or perhaps a bit distorted? (Hmmm… Given this site’s proclivity for humor and sending things up, how can you be sure this isn’t a funhouse mirror and I’m not pulling your leg? Har har hardy har har.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Home is where the hearty food is

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

This month: Joanna despairs over the modern inability to enjoy the simple foods in expat life.

UPDATE: Due to popular request after this post first went live, Joanna has included her recipe for the Beef and Guinness Pie she made for her St. Patrick’s Day party. Read on!

* * *

“It’s a bit samey,” said The Husband as he cast his eye over this latest piece. “Just you telling everyone how we ex-pats are up our own arses over food.”

Fair point — but I can’t help grinding the same old axe.  I think that there is a lot of up-arseness the world over when it comes to food.  Am I alone in being so irritated by people who call themselves “foodies” as though there is some sort of originality in their love of eating?

The truth is everyone loves good food, but not everyone is lucky enough to get it that often. Have you ever met someone who smugly tells you that they have expensive tastes, as though no one else has ever wanted an Aston Martin or a Chanel suit? The very reason these things are desirable is because they are expensive and out of the reach of most. “Foodyism” isn’t much different. “Foodies” are just a bunch of people trying hard to be special, but they’re no different from anyone else.

The sad result is that we have lost the confidence to love regular everyday food that speaks, truly speaks, of the place where we find ourselves.

Drizzle with pomegranate coulis. Post photo to Facebook. Serve immediately.

It’s the same the world over. No one cooks simple food for one another anymore. If we cook, it has to be restaurant worthy, or at least it has to look it. Those who can’t cook that way get hopelessly behind and become the kind of people who never invite back for a reciprocal dinner at their place.

The more cookery programmes there are on our screens, the less we cook. These shows present cooking in a way that sets us up for failure. Recipes and presentation are so dauntingly complicated that often we don’t bother at all. When we do successfully follow a complicated recipe, we are so proud of ourselves that we post photos of it on Facebook (along with other irritating posts charting our kids’ successful routes to medical school.)  We know it annoys others but we just can’t help it. “Look at me! look at me!”

The expat is particularly prone to Food Narcissism. It’s just too easy and too tempting to show off unusual items we have seen in far-flung places. Or the exotic meals eaten in little places we have found in some unfashionable part of town. No one back home is going to know that the food stall we just happened upon has been featured in KL Expat Today, or Foreign Workers in Caracas, or some such publication.

Gosh, I even irritate myself and it takes an intolerable level of smugness to be able to annoy yourself.

Comfort food shouldn’t be a source of discomfort

A few weeks ago I decided to get in touch with my Irish side and host a St Patrick’s day party. I agonized for a long time over what to serve. Many of my guests surprised me by not knowing what St Patrick’s Day celebrations entail. There was even a soupçon of concern over where to find green cocktail frocks, which only served to intensify my preoccupation with the menu. Although I reassured my guests that they were to wear anything green that they could find at home and were absolutely not to go out and buy a fancy frock, I realized I too was complicating what should be a fun and easy supper. It was horrible to realize that I was afraid to serve Irish food in case it was too simple and that my cooking might be seen as a bit dull, basic even. There I was, actually trying to tart up the Irish recipes to a degree where they would be indistinguishable from French ones. Little piles of salmon on delicate rounds of soda and individual servings of boxty (a sort of Irish rosti) piled up and garnished with drizzles of sauce.

It was in dealing with the matter of the emerald-green silk dress hunt that I realized where my own lack of confidence in real food was landing me. How ridiculous. Instead of serving simple and comfortable food, I was trying to turn it into something fancy.

The question hung in my mind in Green, Orange and White letters: “Why?”

Why indeed?

Giving myself a metaphorical slap around the chops, I got a grip, squared my shoulders, and returned to basics. I would serve the food I grew up with. Irish Stew, Soda bread with salmon, and Beef and Guinness pie.

Oh all right, not the pie. My mother wasn’t keen on making pastry at all, citing hot hands as her excuse, but actually we all knew she would rather settle down to a glass of Guinness and watch a simple stew take shape than hand-make pastry. But the rest, you get my meaning. The memories flooded back. The stew in a big, cream enamel pan on the hob, the warm soft “stocklike” aroma of cooking lamb on its bone with plain old carrots and potato punched up with plenty of pepper, white pepper, and of course the resulting condensation on the kitchen windows.

Culinary childhood in a bowl.

When in Rio, shop and cook as the Cariocas do

We expats often live behind a two-way glass where we do not socialize with the people around us. Barriers — language, cultural, time, work —  impede us. Yet the rare glimpses into the everyday life of the places where we live create the most special and evocative moments. Food produces some of the strongest memories. Memories of great restaurants are one thing, but home cooking is another thing altogether, being a part of the fabric of everyday life.

I was lucky enough to have a maid when I lived in Brazil. At the time I thought I was lucky to have someone to help with the housework and kids, but in retrospect, I realize that she represented so much more than that. She made a Maria-shaped hole in the glass I lived behind, bringing some of the everyday world of a Carioca (someone born in Rio) into my kitchen. Every Monday, Maria would arrive ready to cook up a few days’ supply of black beans. These shiny black nuggets were blasted soft in a pressure cooker, then cooked with onions, a large pile of garlic and a few bay leaves then cooked long and slowly into rich and satisfying stew.

The secret to getting a great flavor into these beans is the addition of salted pork extremities to the mix. Ears, trotters, tails, you name it, are all used. As they break down in the cooking they have a thickening effect too. I had seen great piles of waxy, white and vaguely familiar items in the meat sections of supermarkets, but had given them a wide berth. Under Maria’s tutelage, I got over my silliness and grew to appreciate their value as they became an intrinsic part of my shopping list.

The best times were when couve was available. Couve, or collard greens, deep green palm-like leaves, which she would roll up and finely slice and stir fry with garlic and seasoning and nothing else. A pharmacist once told me that folic acid isn’t really needed for expectant mums in Brazil. The combination of the beans with the couve produces a cocktail of minerals easily absorbable by the body and priceless in reducing the risk of spin bifida. Is there anything not to love in Brazil’s national dish?

The black bean memory doesn’t include a fancy restaurant to boast of. No little food stall tucked away in the back of a very “local” area of town. Here was just a woman producing basic home food with the intention of filling an empty belly until the next day. These memories are more evocative of life in Rio to me know than my endless photos of Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain. Maria made my experience of the place.

Cooking is for life, not just for Instagram

So, despite all my talk, I haven’t been able to circumvent the curse of expat “showing offness”. For what I seem to be saying is that anyone can book a couple of weeks in Rio and see the sights on a safe and comfortable air-conditioned bus tour, but to have really experienced the place you need memories akin to the memories of childhood. Maybe; or perhaps the truth is a little kinder? Simple home cooking is an everyday experience. There is no need to photograph it or put it on Facebook because it happens all the time. It’s as common as teeth-cleaning or walking the kids to school. Because of that, we experience it directly and fully, since we are not watching from behind the tiny lens of a camera, video, or smartphone. Instead, it is the comfortable and expansive background of life which seeps into us, unnoticed, to become a collection of memories; memories that can be triggered by a kitchen aroma, or by the way a woman holds a knife to crush a bulb of garlic.

After all, if a plate of madeleines inspired seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, perhaps I can be forgiven for the sameness of my own little bits of writing.


“So,” I expect you are asking, “how did the Irish food go down?”

Well — since you ask — rather well, actually. All eaten and, I hope, enjoyed, particularly the beef and Guinness pie. It a good thing that hot-hands skipped a generation. So I raise my glass of black velvet (Guinness and Champagne – a disaster for both drinks, but much fun) to simple home cooking. Slap a pan of stew on your tables, and put out a couple of bumper size pies and let everyone dig in.

I, for one, will be repeating the experience.

* * *

Beef and Guinness Pie My Way

(“My Way” includes metric measures — if you prefer to measure in cups or ounces, this conversion website will be useful.)

First make a beef and Guinness stew. This needs to be done a day in advance.

  • 1kg grams stewing beef
  • 30 grams flour
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 2 large chopped onion
  • 2 large chopped carrot
  • 500 ml of Guinness
  • 300 ml of stock – a good homemade beef stock will pay you dividends
  • but water will do if needs must.
  • Handful of stoned prunes, chopped finely (finely) these will add depth of flavor but, ideally, not change the texture of the stew.
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Cut meat into 2.5cm cubes and roll in seasoned flour.
  2. Heat oil and quickly sear the meat in batches putting the sealed meat on a plate to one side.
  3. Heat a little more oil and add onion to pan. Cook slowly and gently until the onions almost caramelize
  4. Return the meat to the pan and add any left over flour with the carrots, Guinness, stock and bay leaves.
  5. Bring the whole to a boil then cover and simmer for two hours. Traditionally this would have been cooked on the hob, but I think it is easier to pop the stew into a casserole with the lid firmly in place and cook at 140°C or 275°F for at two hours. At this point add the prunes, stir well, recover and cook for a further half hour or until the stew is thick.
  6. When the stew is ready, remove from the oven and wait until it is cool enough to place in the refrigerator overnight.

The Pastry

I used to make a puff pastry for this pie, but I recently tried a Nigella Lawson recipe for pastry, which she gives for her chicken pot pie. It is a firm textured, but buttery pastry, which is ideal for a robust beef pie.

  • 375 grams of plain flour (all-purpose)
  • 226 grams of cold butter
  • 3 eggs (one will be used for gluing and glazing purposes only)

(This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.)

  1. Put the flour and cubed butter into a metal tray and shake to evenly distribute it over the metal surface. Place in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes (Nigella exhorts us not to skip this stage since this is the step that makes the pastry so easy to handle and so delicate. She’s so right!
  2. While the pastry is chilling, beat two of the eggs with two tablespoons of cold water and place in the fridge.
  3. Next, place the flour and butter into a processor and pulse until you have a fine mixture. Do this quickly, don’t be tempted to overwork the mixture as the texture will suffer. Add the eggs while the processor works until the mixture starts forming a ball, then stop.
  4. Now you can divide the dough into two, press flat, cover with cling film and chill.

This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.

Putting it Together

This is the part I like most, putting my homespun stew between two sheets of the Divine Ms Lawson’s pastry. I have yet to become bored by the idea.

  1. So, roll out the pastry to line whichever tins you wish to use. Please do use metal dishes, as you will neatly side-step the problem of a soggy bottom.
  2. Fill with the cold stew.
  3. Use the remaining egg to seal together the bottom and top of the pie and to brush the top.
  4. Place on a metal tray in an oven pre-heated to 200°C (400°F) for 20 minutes. You can protect your pie from burning, until the last minute, with foil, or you can pop it in naked and white-knuckle it.

I really hope you enjoy it!

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

Related posts:

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


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