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

sharon lorimer chicken hat

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

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

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

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

Cock a’ Leekie Udon, anyone?

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

* * *

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

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

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

Which came first, spices or travels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struttin’ her stuff on Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
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 BBCAmerica.com
Posted on: 18 April 2014
Snippet:

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
Snippet:

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.

Epilogue

“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!

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

THE LADY WHO WRITES: Even before you write the last word of your novel, start rehearsing the book trailer!

LadyWhoWrites_brandApril blossoms (and showers) are here, which means it’s time to welcome Meagan Adele Lopez, aka The Lady Who Writes, back to the Displaced Nation. 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. In this monthly column, she is doling out advice to international creatives who are contemplating writing a novel about their novel, shall we say, life experiences.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers. I wonder, how many of you caught ML’s interview with British screenwriter Tim John, posted at the end of last week? Tim spent seven years as an expat in LA chasing the dream of selling scripts to Hollywood studio executives and producers. Reading about his (mis)adventures got me thinking about my own Hollywood days—as well as about book trailers, a pet topic of mine.

Like Tim, I tried to make it in Hollywood for a time: first as an actress and then as a casting agent. I poured what I learned from this experience into creating Dell, the heroine of my first novel, Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers. As anyone who has read it will know, the novel is about the developing love between two young people who have only met each other once, by chance, on a night out in Las Vegas. The love interest, Guy, is from England, while Dell is from America. And the complication is that neither are willing to give up their life plans. Dell is on route to Hollywood to seek her fame and fortune, while Guy is heading to Africa in search of adventure.

Perhaps this portion of my background also explains why, the first time I saw a book trailer, I knew I had to have one for my novel. The trailer was for One Day, by English novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls. By my count, Nicholls actually created a total of four “One Day” book trailers. Here is one of them:

I had never seen a book trailer before, and this one made a strong impression on me. I thought: Gosh, this book I’m about to read is going to be turned into a film—and I’m one of the lucky few who gets to read it before the movie comes out.

In fact, when the movie did come out—with Anne Hathaway playing the female lead—it was a flop, even though Nicholls had also written the screenplay. (The consensus among critics on Rotten Tomatoes is that the movie “lacks the emotion, depth, or insight of its bestselling source material.”)

What the *&%$ is a book trailer?

Good question. A book trailer is akin to a movie trailer. It’s an advertisement for the book in visual form. I saw it as another way to reach my audience—another way to inspire and motivate potential readers to buy the book.

But now that I’m in the position to hand out advice to wannabe novelists, I recommend you start thinking about your book trailer even before you finish writing.

Many writing coaches will tell you to read your book aloud before submitting it to an editor for review. It gives you a sense of where you need to improve the dialogue, shorten sentences, change words, and so on. (See Joanna Penn’s post: “7 Reasons Why You Should Read Your Book Out Loud.”)

But I would add that acting out your book trailer in advance can also be helpful. Book trailers are generally scenes, or splices of scenes acted out from the novel. Preferably, the book trailer will end on a cliff hanger. If no one wants to know more, then what’s the point?

By the way, should you feel a tad peculiar acting out scenes from your novel, be sure to remind yourself that Charles Dickens, who was drawn to the theatre and dabbled in acting, had no qualms about acting out the characters he was writing in the mirror and then describing what he saw in his novels.

Should you actually make a book trailer?

Some of you may be nearly finished with your Great Work and wondering: what’s the ROI (return on investment) for a book trailer? “Investment” is exactly the right word. Your trailer will need to be high quality. If it looks like a cheaply made home video, no one will care to learn more. What’s more, they won’t share it with their friends, which is the way to best way to clock up more sales.

I did a lot of research but never found any studies that make the ROI case for book trailers. Similar to billboard advertisements or TV commercials, there is no solid way to measure why people bought your product or how many took action after seeing an ad. As one of my favorite author bloggers, Allison Winn Scotch, has written:

No one knows what the hell sells books.

In fact, I can’t see any demographic data (besides the country they are from) on the purchases made on my novel. (I wish Amazon would change that.)

In the end, though, I decided to spend $1,500 on my book trailer (used from the money that I raised on Kickstarter for turning my book into a film). I researched how much the big companies were charging compared with the indie companies, and got my number.

Perhaps because of my background in film, I knew that I wanted a book trailer as a marketing tool in addition to everything else I was doing: guest blogging (including on this site!), email marketing, social media marketing, book signings, giveaways (including on this site!), PR, etc.

I had a secondary reason for making one as well—I figured it would be a great way to get the eye of a publishing house or agent. All they have to do is click “Play” and watch for two minutes to see if the story intrigues them.

If I were measuring purely on book sales, I can tell you that my book trailer currently has 921 views so far. If every single person who watched the trailer bought my paperback book, I would have made my money back.

Perhaps it’s just another tool for making a book stand out from the crowd. Or maybe I just really enjoyed making it… But I should let you judge for yourself:

And now, without further ado, here’s Novel Writing Tip No 3 for International Creatives:

While in the process of writing your novel, ask yourself: Which scenes would go into my book trailer? And don’t be afraid to act them out, even if you have to play all the parts.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of this book trailer idea of Meagan’s? Do you see the value in having one, or at least in rehearsing as though you might have one someday? 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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Up, up and away: The Displaced Nation turns three today (no foolin’!)

TDN Birthday CardWal-lah! The Displaced Nation is turning three today. Yes, our birthday is April 1st—no foolin’!

To celebrate, we would like to invite you to a virtual “hot air balloon” party.

Yes, a hot air balloon party—no foolin’ on that score either, though you could have fooled me as I had never heard of such a party until a day or so ago. Back in my day, when I still celebrated birthdays, ordinary balloons would suffice. As Winnie the Pooh once put it:

Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.

But surely they can be even less uncheered with a hot air balloon—or so I’ve come to be persuaded.

What’s more, I’ve come to realize that hot air ballooning represents most of what we’ve been up to on this site over the past three years. Here are the three observations that led to this considerable epiphany:

1) We are full of hot air.

I won’t point the finger at anyone in particular. We are all guilty. But if I had to start somewhere it might be with:

2) But we’ve steadfastly adhered to our goal of putting air under the wings of international travelers and residents.

Just because we’re full of hot air, doesn’t mean everyone else has to be. Tellingly, our most inspirational posts tend to be by our current crop of columnists. They produce monthly tales of international residents who’ve used their time creatively. Who can fail to feel uplifted when reading about individuals like:

And these are just from the past month! Thank you, JJ Marsh, James King, Lisa Liang, Joanna Masters-Magg and Meagan Adele Lopez (her column comes up tomorrow!) for the critical part all of you have played in keeping us afloat.

On this note, Kate Allison deserves special mention for keeping us entertained with her serial expat novel, Libby’s Life, for the entire length of this voyage. She recently posted its 90th episode! The thought of writing that much fiction online is enough to puncture anyone’s balloon, but not Kate’s!

3) We go wherever the wind takes us.

As regular readers will realize by now, we don’t really steer the balloon, because, well, we can’t. And to be honest, we never had any particular destination in mind. We started out with monthly “themes” of global residency and travel, in hopes we would one day land in an island full of great wealth and fantastic inventions, the kind of place where our themes could become memes. Everyone there would say, how right you are, we international travelers are all writing our own versions of the Alice in Wonderland story! Let’s have a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to celebrate. As a matter of fact, let’s turn it into an island-wide holiday!

As it turns out, however, we have yet to share the fate of retired schoolteacher Professor William Waterman Sherman. We have not yet found (or founded?) the utopian displaced community of our dreams. Thus, on our second anniversary, we rebranded ourselves as something a little tamer: a “site for international creatives”: fiction and nonfiction writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and activists.

But we kept two categories that pay tribute to our original concept: Pot Luck and Just for Laughs. And to this day, we enjoy lurching towards the odd (you can say that again!) thematic post. We just can’t help ourselves! As most regular readers know, we still give out monthly “Alices” to those with a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of life as a global resident or voyager. And, just last month, we embraced a new heroine for the repatriate challenge many of us have faced: Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz!

Is it any wonder we are throwing a Hot Air Balloon Party?

* * *

I’ve just now heard that the band has arrived. They’re called The Fifth Dimension—what could be more appropriate for take-off?! Up, up and away!

Hey, even if you’re not a balloonatic yet, we guarantee that this is the most fun you’ll ever have in a wicker basket. (And perhaps the most fear…)

Before leaving, let’s all raise our glasses. Here’s to another good year aboard the Displaced Nation Thermal Airship! Three cheers! Hip, hip, hooray!

Readers, if you have any posts that you particularly enjoyed in the past three years, please let us know in the comments. We can see if we can produce more of the same (depending on which way the wind blows, of course).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post from The Lady Who Writes.

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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Does an expat life in Los Angeles ever go according to script? Read Tim John’s memoir to find out…

Tim John Hollywood CollageFor many of us, the calling to the expat life is not really a calling at all, but more of a vague (albeit rather deep-seated) need to escape our surroundings in search of adventure. We have no idea of what we’re looking for until we’ve arrived at a place and put down roots. Even then, we still have the mentality of drifters, and it take us a while to access our muses.

My guest today, the screenwriter Tim John, does not belong in that mould, as soon becomes clear from the first few pages of his new book, Adventures in LA-LA Land, an account of the seven years he spent in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenny, and their two young daughters.

You see, Tim plunged into his particular expat adventure with the script already written, both literally (he had a project in the works) and figuratively. Heading for Hollywood was Plan B after he lost his job with a London advertising agency during the recession of the early 1990s, and started dabbling in screenwriting.

The late Christopher Hitchens, another English writer who chose to be based in the United States, once described LA as a city “mostly full of nonsense and delusion and egomania.” But in the script Tim had written for himself and family, it was LA-LA Land—a place where they could have it all, great climate, a house with swimming pool, and (hopefully) big money.

So did Hollywood feed Tim’s creative muses (and fill his coffers) in the manner he expected? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I read it, and found myself surprisingly moved by the story of a man who lives for the movies. In fact, the pace can be likened to that of a roller coaster ride—fun but also harrowing at times.

On that note, it’s time to welcome Tim to the Displaced Nation to talk about his book. And just a heads up: Tim will be “screening” the comments for the person who leaves the best pitch for why they’d like to read it. That lucky individual will be under contract for a free digital copy!!!

* * *

AdventuresinLALALand_coverHi, Tim, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell me why you decided to write a memoir about your years in Hollywood?
I’d read so many books about how to write a Hollywood screenplay, but never found one that also told you what it was like living there, so I decided to write my own, based on the seven years I lived there with my wife and two daughters.

Have you thought about turning it into an actual script for a movie?
I would love to turn it into a screenplay, too.

I understand you lived in LA from 1991 to 1998. I’m curious why you produced the book so long after the fact?
I’m not really sure why I waited so long to write it, possibly because I’ve been doing more and more teaching over the last couple of years and I’m often aware that students often don’t get taught important skills that are crucial to being successful as a screenwriter, such as being able to pitch and how to balance writing life with social life and family life. I thought that relating my experiences could be useful for others. If nothing else, they could learn from my mistakes as well as my successes!

In the end, the movie (of my life) was about…

Has your perspective on the experience deepened with time?
I suppose gaining some distance in time and geographically helped me to see Hollywood from a more objective perspective.

What impact did your writing about the experience have on you?
Definitely part of it was cathartic, to process the bizarre experience.

You worked in advertising for a while. When exactly did you catch the movie-making bug?
I worked a copywriter and then as a creative director—both of which are extremely useful if you want to go into film as they teach you so much about writing for a particular audience and how to write pithy dialogue and how to edit, etc. I always loved film mainly because it was such a great escape. As a kid, The Jungle Book was a big favorite. Mutiny on the Bounty and Lawrence of Arabia got me pretty scared, as did that spider in Doctor No!

Yes, I recall your mentioning in the book your fear of spiders when you found yourself face to face with a black widow at your house in LA. I’m still shuddering at the thought of being bitten by a brown recluse, by the way!

Was there a single epiphanic moment?

Your book is chockerblock with what we like to refer to on this site as “displaced moments” as a result of your encounters with not just deadly spiders but also shrieking peacocks, rats, snakes, and even some neighbors who believed in extraterrestrial burglars—and that’s before we get to the highly venomous creatures who populate the Hollywood film industry. Does any one moment stand out as your most displaced?
Wow. There were many moments when I thought “What on Earth am I doing in this bizarre place?” One that sticks out in my professional life was that time I went to pitch to Disney and the exec said “Great to meet you guys, we’re looking for some comedy writers” and I self-effacingly said: “Then you should meet these guys I play tennis with—they’re hilarious.” None of the execs could see I was joking and at the end of the meeting, the development girl took me aside, discreetly handed me a business card and said: “If you continue to have self-esteem issues, see my shrinkshe’s fabulous!”

That makes me think of Johnny Carson’s line: “In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” And I think the Northridge earthquake of 1994 displaced you and your family rather literally.
Yes, the whole house rattled and creaked for over forty seconds and there were waves in the pool.

Ah, the pool… You also talk about how much you loved the weather, having a pool, and taking drives to some fabulous scenery. Can you pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in LA-LA Land rather than your native UK?
There were so many great moments. Personally, living in that sunshine, with a pool, a hot tub, etc., along with plenty of money and also plenty of free time (even though you’re constantly thinking of ideas to pitch), seems like a dream for anyone who’s come from the UK climate and ever struggled to make ends meet. It’s like living in a vacationuntil you realize it will all collapse if you don’t sell your next idea, and you’re going to have to sell it far sooner than you expected because the cost of living is very high, especially when you factor in things you’d never had to pay for before, such as earthquake insurance. Never forget that “writer” is only one letter away from “waiter”.

Professionally, when you get to chat with famous stars and talented directors and they take your comments seriouslythat feels unreal but also great. Probably the greatest moment for me was just before I moved to LA, being able to go to the tenth birthday party for George Harrison’s film company, HandMade Films. For anyone English, I think having a chat with a Beatle tops it all.

What did you and George chat about?
I’d worked on two screenplays for his company, so we talked about that. The funniest thing, I thought, at the company’s birthday party, was when George and Ringo joined the band playing on stage. If anyone requested they perform a Beatles’ song, George said: “I don’t know that one.”

In the end, the film was about spirit…

I understand you found LA a culture shock.
Wow, there are so many things that are culturally different about living in the UK and living in America, especially in Hollywood, which many Americans find totally unreal, too. Ones that really stand out: the almost constant sunshine for a start. The smog levels on bad days. The way so many Americans are so welcoming, where so many Brits can be snooty and suspicious. The way so many Americans are optimistic and so many Brits are pessimistic (or maybe more realistic than many film people). I never forgot that Hollywood has been described as “the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

I know you decided to leave LA in part because of your mother’s health and in part because of your daughters’ education. The family, particularly your daughters, didn’t want to go. What were the biggest adjustments?
Tiny parking spaces, terrible weather, high cost of living but a wonderful sense of humor. I did miss my irony in LA. We also hadn’t realized quite how much UK house prices had rocketed during the period when we’d sold ours to live abroad!

What do you think were the chief benefits you and your family derived from being Los Angelenos for a time?
I’m sure that our seven years in LA and coming home taught us all to adapt to change. My elder daughter had enjoyed an ice skating career in the US, which didn’t continue in the UK. But at least she learned that if you set goals and envision yourself achieving those goals, it will seriously boost your chances of success. The rest of us learned that you can probably have all the things you’d like in life—you just can’t have them all at the same time!

Looking back, what was your single most professional achievement during your time in LA?
Not one single thing; rather, it was learning the craft and how to work with industry people sufficiently well to be able get regular work from the studios (but not all the time!).

How do you make a living these days?
Right now, I’m rushing out to give six hours worth of lectures on dialogue to students at Bournemouth University. I also teach on and off about creative writing in general and about writing for advertising, at various universities: Bournemouth Uni, where I teach part of the MA in Advertising, at Southampton Solent, where I do some spots on Advertising and some on Screenwriting, to students at all levels, and at the Arts University in Poole, where I teach adult classes in all sorts of writing. But teaching is just part-time. I also do some freelance copywriting. And most of my time goes into writing screenplays still!

Do you still feel like a Los Angeleno in some respects?
Only in that I have several great friends in LA and I feel totally at home with film industry people. I probably see myself as neither totally British any more or completely Californian. I’m obviously some sort of mongrel.

Writing for publication: A different animal?

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
The hardest part was the guilt I occasionally feel for what I see as building up all the family’s hopes by showing them a few years of a dream lifestyle, then waking them up from that dream by saying we have to go back to the harsh reality of living back in the UK. BUT, as mentioned, the family all feel really lucky to have had those seven great years and have made all those extra friends without staying away from their old friends and family for so long they felt like strangers. (That’s what they tell me anyway. I have an extremely supportive family!)

Why did you decide to self-publish?
Because I’d had two books published by a big publisher many years ago and never felt they did much to promote them. My agent said most publishers only push big brand names and my wife had a friend who did very well self-publishing a memoir, so I thought I’d give it a go.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people? Is it mainly for wannabe British scriptwriters like yourself, or do you think it has broader appeal—for instance, to any Brit who might be thinking of living in America?
I hope the book will appeal to anyone who likes a laugh, to anyone who is interested in a family fish-out-of-water story and to anyone who wonders how you can make it in the film business. There’s plenty in there about the American school my wife taught in, the ones the kids went to, about my eldest daughter making it as an ice-skating champion… It’s by no means just about the movies, but, as I mentioned earlier, it will show you far more about how to make it as a screenwriter than books that simply tell you about the script, the formats, and nothing else.

Of all the advice you transmit to wannabe Hollywood screenwriters, which is the most important?
Make sure you enjoy the writing process as much as possible. Don’t pin everything on whether you sell it or it gets made. Enjoy the small triumphs, such as writing a great scene or even a great line of dialogue. All the little triumphs can add up into a pretty rewarding experience. And never forget that you may well learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

What’s next for you in terms of creative projects?
I’ve just finished a UK thriller “Living in Sin”; I’m currently doing a re-write for a sci-fi project for a Californian director, and I have a UK drama that I wrote written with a writing partner, Jon Rolls, for which the producers have just this week started looking for a top director and cast—I’m still going for it!

10 Questions for Tim John

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing—and in your case, also film-watching—habits:
1. Last truly great book you read / film you watched: Paper Towns, by John Green; The Way Way Back (2013), directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
2. Favorite literary / film genre: It varies enormously but I’d say “comedy drama” for both (eg, Little Miss Sunshine).
3. Reading/film watching habits on a plane: I only ever read paper books and magazines. Generally I watch films on long flights—but nothing involving flights in danger. I’m a nervous flyer. I can never sleep.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, or film you’d require him to watch, and why: War and Peace, so he’s fully aware what Russians can do if stirred up. No films to recommend—I’d rather he kept his eye on world news!
5. Favorite books/films as a child: The Secret Garden; The Jungle Book and Bond movies and then Paper Moon when I was slightly older. Also the musical Oliver.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction/film: Heroines: Victoria Wood as a writer; Kathy Bates as an actress. Heroes: No book heroes apart from Bilbo Baggins (when I was ten); in film, the cheeky little boy in Cinema Paradiso and later Léon in the film of that name.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Woody Allen, as I’m nearly always amazed at how inventive he can be and how, against the odds, he so frequently gets cross-genre movies to work, certainly during his Crimes and Misdemeanors period.
8. Your reading/film-watching habits: I don’t read that many books as I find it hard to give authors the benefit of 50 or 60 pages to get into it. I far prefer books that grab me almost immediately, but with their style and outlook on life, not with purely mechanical plot like Dan Brown or John Grisham. I find those stories generally too thin to keep reading. I frequently start books and leave them if they don’t hold my interest. As far as films go, I go to the cinema at least once a week. I also watch endless boxed sets: generally US drama such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, House… I really got into The Bridge and Spiral. My worst DVD marathon took place in the early series of 24, when I watched 13 episodes over a single weekend.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: On Mermaid Avenue, a great American novel that I’ve optioned and written a screenplay from.
10. The book you plan to read next / film you plan to watch next: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green; currently, I don’t have any films I’m looking forward to watching.

* * *

Bravo, Tim! If we ever host the Displaced Oscars, something we’ve been threatening to do for some time now, you’ll definitely be receiving a statue.

So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Tim, or PITCHES for why you’d like to read the book? 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, Adventures in LA-LA Land is available from Amazon. Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit Tim’s writer site, like his book’s Facebook page +/or follow him on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s (month’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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THE LADY WHO WRITES: Wannabe novelists, prepare to dine with your characters daily

LadyWhoWrites_brandToday we welcome back Meagan Adele Lopez, aka The Lady Who Writes—a repeat expat in the UK (she now lives in London). Besides writing, her talents include acting, blogging (during her first UK stint, she kept the blog “The Lady Who Lunches”), and crafting ads for social media. In this monthly column, Meagan is doling out advice to international creatives who are contemplating writing a novel about their novel, shall we say, life experiences.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers—especially those of you who identify as wannabe novelists, similar to my own situation several years ago.

Maybe you recognize the following scenario. You are sitting down to write the novel that you’ve been dreaming about writing for years, which will in some way be based on the exotic life you have lived as an expat or overseas adventurer. You know, the one that will win you the Pulitzer Prize, make you famous, and have some currently unknown actor playing a part that will change his life forever in the film version of your book. You know this because you’ve played it all out a gazillion times in your head.

I’m not here to tell you that won’t happen. Because it could, and dreams are extremely important to have. There are too many nay sayers out there, and I will not be one of them. If E.L. James, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling can do it, then why the heck can’t you?

What I am here to say is that you better love your idea.

No. Actually, you better be close to obsessed with your idea, and the world you’re about to paint, and the characters you are about to give oxygen to—because they will take over your life.

Hey, you’re planning on having sequels and a huge following? Then loving this idea is almost an understatement.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”—William Wordsworth

I know too many authors who write what they think will make them famous; or what they think is really popular on the market right now; or about this newspaper article that seemed like it would make a good detective story.

And there are plenty of writers who make a living out of writing trendy stories.

In my opinion, it’s a waste of time. I don’t want to read from an author who isn’t interested in his own story, and why would you want to commit the next year of your life to something you’re only half-interested in?

If anything, it will slow you down, weigh you down, and potentially turn you off from the whole novel-writing exercise, never to return again.

Writing is laborious. Creativity is maybe 20 percent of the craft (and I am probably being generous here). The rest is hours upon hours of digging through your writing for discrepancies in the storyline, editing, and finding inconsistencies in character developments.

If this is your first novel, you would be lucky to have an editor who will do all of that for you (and I do recommend you hire one for the final cuts).

This will be your baby that you will need to make perfect before you send it off to any agencies, publishing houses, or even to your beta readers (if you decide to self-publish).

“If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn’t show up.”—Dr. Seuss

Displaced Nationers, I know how much you enjoy seeking out new food experiences on your travels, but how do you feel about your characters sitting with you at the table? You will be hard pressed to find a successful fiction writer who doesn’t eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with their characters, and then dream about them.

To sum up, here’s Novel Writing Tip No 2 for International Creatives:

Before you start writing your novel, ask yourself: Do I want to spend the next year eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and dreaming about these people’s lives you’re about to create?

* * *

Readers, how do you feel about Meagan’s notion of your characters accompanying you to daily meals? Do you relish the idea, or does it give you indigestion? And do you have any 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 personal site.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Travel - Map Of The World  By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Travel – Map Of The World
By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Note to Libby readers: this week, you can download Libby’s Life: Taking Flight FREE at Smashwords.com. Simply enter the coupon code RW100 at the checkout to get your discount. 

*

This week’s Libby’s Life comes from Oliver.

The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.

“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”

As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”

*

“Oliver?”

Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.

I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.

“I’m here, love.”

“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”

“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”

“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days.  “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”

“Sounds great.”

Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.

A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.

“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”

Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.

A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.

Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.

“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.

“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”

I briefly close my eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”

Not to mention suspicious.

A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.

“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”

“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.

“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”

“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”

This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.

“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”

And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.

There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.

She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.

“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”

*

It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.

But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.

I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.

“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”

I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.

I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.

I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.

“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”

The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.

Yes. My mother heard me, all right.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #91

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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