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WORLD OF WORDS: The travail of travel abroad with a group of middle schoolers (1/2)

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

What is it like to tour France with a bunch of American middle schoolers? It involves travel, for sure, but also no small amount of travail, as Marianne Bohr, who besides being a writer is a teacher of middle-school French, discovered this past spring break. This month we present Part One of her lively travel/travail-ogue; Part Two will appear in August. Anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate.

It’s departure day, Friday, March 25, and our long-awaited trip to France is about to begin. We arrive at Dulles with our navy and silver Education First (EF) backpacks, excited but subdued. The violence in Belgium just days ago hovers.

The exuberance of the youth I’m accompanying, however, quickly overcomes any pallor and my excitement rises. Delta whisks us from Dulles to JFK to begin the five-hour layover for our flight to Paris. My always-hungry adolescents make multiple trips down the interminable airport hallways in search of their next round of Panda Express, Shake Shack and Jamba Juice, despite my reminders that we’ll have dinner and breakfast on our flight.

While my charges explore, I stay put to watch a blood red sunset to the west. “It’s a beach sunset,” declares an adorable French youngster, face pressed against the terminal window. I’m grateful for his mellifluous chatter that readies my ear for the nine days of French to come.

We board the 767 and my Tylenol PM kicking in, I can’t wait to pass out for seven hours on my travel pillow, under a red felt blanket. My students are of a different mind.

“OMG! Mockingjay!”

“They have The Walking Dead. I can’t believe it!”

“Look at all these movies!”

“Are they FREE, Madame Bohr?”

“I am so binge-watching all night!”

So much for my entreaties to get some sleep.

“You’ll all be walking zombies yourselves tomorrow morning,” I lament. Full bellies notwithstanding, they speculate about what’s for dinner and plan their watching strategies.

An overnight flight between us and the exuberance of the evening’s departure, I awaken semi-refreshed to glum faces, tussled hair and bleary eyes. We snake for well over two hours through the post-Brussels passport control maze at Charles de Gaulle and then finally, after spying and retrieving a temporarily lost suitcase that has inexplicably landed in a pile of unclaimed bags, exit the confines of the terminal for our entry into France.

Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I remind my fellow travelers that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

Wide-eyed wonder abounds as we tour the City of Light.

“I saw the Eiffel Tower first!”

“Look, Notre Dame!”

“OMG, Nutella! Nutella crêpes! Nutella milkshakes!”

“Is she a supermodel? She’s definitely a supermodel.”

“He must be French. He’s wearing a scarf.”

Having endlessly extolled the virtues of a genuine French baguette—crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle, ever so slightly burned on the bottom—I suppose I’m to blame for two students buying two-foot-long baguettes and downing them as we stroll the boulevards. All part of the culinary adventure that is France.

“I thought the Mona Lisa would be bigger.”

“That statue’s just famous ‘cuz she has no arms.”

“Hot chocolate is only two euros! And they serve it with whipped cream!”

“I definitely want to study in Paris.”

“I just love the Seine. Can we do a boat tour?”

Paris impressions

A rainbow over Chambord

Time to leave the hurly burly of the city and her anxiety-producing, camo-clad, machine gun-wielding guards, for the Loire Valley. So many châteaux, churches and country pleasures await.

“Why don’t Chartres’ spires match?”

“Is the stained glass really 1,000 years old?”

“Did people actually live in these châteaux?”

“It’s freezing inside! But look at the size of the fireplaces.”

At Chambord we’ve escaped a quick spring squall just in time, retreating into a mellow-lighted salon de thé. In the shadow of the romantic castle, I’m enjoying a crêpe with a student: crème de marron (chestnut cream) for me, caramel du beurre salé (salted butter caramel) for him. We savor our final bites, the skies clear—and a perfect arc en ciel (rainbow) materializes from one horizon to the other across the grounds of the chateau.

Nathalie, our French tour director, stops at our table and suggests a title for my next book: A Rainbow Over Chambord.

Pourquoi pas? (Why not?)

“What are those huge trees?”

“Why is their bark peeling so much?”

“Are those trees in the square dead?”

“They look like angry old people shaking their fists.”

“Why do they cut off all their branches?”

I recall the first time I saw the closely pruned—pollarded—French trees in the seventies. They made me sad, looking as if they’d been abused, the barren sentinels barred from reaching their natural height and breadth. But as I learned back then, such drastic cropping yields lush lollipop trees in summer, providing thick, summer greenery and dense, cooling shade.

I explain to my students about the trees and this leads to discussions of French rationality and affinity for order, English versus French gardens, the philosophes, and the French penchant for debate.

All because of an angry black tree in a village square.

“I love this hotel!”

“The one in Paris was way too modern.”

“This one has charm.”

“Our room is so cool. It has a back door!”

On peut sortir? Can we go out, Madame Bohr?”

I steal away on my own after dinner—I leave through my own back door—to lose myself in reverie and take a solo look at the château. Azay-le-Rideau, built on a human scale, one of my favorites. Grand enough to be called a château yet small enough to be accessible. I imagine myself living there, tapestries warming the walls, carpets softening the floors, surrounded by a duck pond. On my own for a few minutes, I’m transported back to the ’70s, conjuring the feelings of the romantic young student I was. Smitten then; I’m smitten now. My beloved France.

Once again, time to board the bus. This time amid uncontrolled giggling. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” What’s going on?” I ask.

They can barely speak. “The bus driver. Peeing by the tree. I saw things I didn’t want to!” Cackles. Guffaws. Innocents abroad. Innocence in France.

Loire Valley Tour 1

Vous avez la patate?

“Our shower only has half a door!”

“Are all bathrooms like that in France?”

“The whole floor is soaked!”

“How much butter is in this croissant? Is it okay if I add more?”

Our Loire Valley tour continues. Each morning as we load the bus, our guide asks how we are.

Ça va? Vous avez la patate? Vous avez la pêche? Vous avez la banane? (Do you have the potato; the peach; the banana?)

Each is a clever way to ask: Are you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today? Oui, j’ai la patate. Every language has its apt idioms.

Students scrutinize the fashion of their French peers. While I see few differences, they are keenly aware of every one and school me on the distinctions.

Their shoes: “They just look like sneakers to me.”

Their jeans: “Everyone wears skinny jeans, even the boys.”

Their jackets: “They’re longer and actually match their outfits.”

Their hair: “The guys have a lot of quiffs.”

(What’s a quiff? It’s like a whoosh or a puff, they tell me. Oh, you mean like a pompadour? I say. My fashion eyes are definitely too old.)

The students negotiate the topiary labyrinth at Chenonceau, more interested in the grounds than the interior of the château. While they visit the donkey farm to the side of the sycamore-lined entryway, I discover an elegant orangery-style restaurant tucked behind the cafe. I’m off in a daydream, imagining a romantic dinner with my husband in the not-too-distant future.

Although this is my fourth visit to the castle (my first was in ’78 with Joe, as students freezing on motorbikes), Chenonceau never fails to charm. I send my stateside travel partner a text:

We must return and stay at one of the village’s ivy-covered inns; Chenonceau now has a gourmet restaurant!

The château boasts two magnificent gardens designed by the two women in King Henry ii’s life: one by the mistress and one by the wife. I choose the one that’s more shaded and compact, that of her majesty, Catherine de Medici. Daffodils, hyacinths and other early spring blossoms have made their way into full color, so different from the austere, pallid portraits of the queen inside the castle.

But the persona I assume is that of Diane de Poitiers—the beautiful, fashionista mistress of the king, twenty years his senior. The original cougar, I think with a chuckle; a fitting observation by a woman who just turned sixty. One day, some day, I’ll morph into Diane at a costume ball, despite the fact that her calculating ruthlessness is about as distant from my personality as I can fathom. But that’s what masquerades are about, no doubt.

The gardens are now under a soft, spring drizzle. I envision royal steeds trotting up the sandy lane to deposit me at Chenonceau’s drawbridge from a gilded coach. But I’m brusquely yanked back to the present as a student calls from behind a colossal planter:

“What time do we have to be back on the bus, Madame Bohr? Are we late?”

My travelers are astounded by the size of the four châteaux we’ve visited.

Wait ’til we see Versailles, I say.

“Versailles? I can’t wait to go to Versailles. Part of Kim Kardashian’s wedding was there!”

Some things my students say make me less proud than others.
Loire Valley Tour 2

* * *

Très drôles, Marianne! I love that you snuck in a Diane de Poitiers moment just before your charges brought you back to the 21st-century by bringing up Kim Kardashian’s nuptials at Versailles. So, did the sight of that rainbow over Chamboud compensate for your travails? And did any of your students show the potential for taking a gap year, or perhaps even choosing the expat life, one day? I can’t wait to read Part Two. —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had this kind of adventure with a group of young people abroad, and if so, were your travels full of travails? Do tell in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with She Writes Press. She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. First collage: Photos of baguettes, boat on Seine, and Mona Lisa via Pixabay; just how French, by thellr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second collage: Rainbow, Azay-le-Rideau, and Cambord via Pixabay; Crepes pomme/poire du caramel au beurre sale, by Cyril Doussin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Pollards, by Garry Knight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Bottom collage: (clockwise from top left) Chenonceau gardens, by Adam Kent via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [French boy with quiff], by Reims Media Agency via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kim Kardashian, by Eva Rinaldi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Diane De Poitiers (1499-1566), via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Writing in Finnish and English, expat novelist Emmi Itäranta creates fantasy worlds that feel palpably real

Location Locution Emmi Itaranta
Tracey Warr is here with a Finnish-born writer Emmi Itäranta, for whom displacement means living in another country (England) and writing dual-language dystopian novels. As a special note to long-time Displaced Nation readers, the book that had the greatest impact on Emmi as a child was Alice in Wonderland—until she discovered science fiction and fantasy.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Emmi Itäranta, who grew up in Tampere, a city surrounded by two lakes in southern Finland.

And if her childhood was spent in a territory located between Lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, she has chosen to spend her adulthood afloat between two languages, Finnish and English.

After earning an MA in Drama from the University of Finland and temping for a few years in jobs ranging from scriptwriter to press officer, she challenged herself to do an MA in Creative Writing in English at the University of Kent in the UK. As part of that course, she began writing her first novel, Memory of Water, working in English and Finnish simultaneously. As that title suggests, it’s set in a dystopian future where fresh water is scarce.

MoW US cover

England is now Emmi’s home: she has lived in Canterbury since 2007. But she continues to write fiction in both English and Finnish. (She speaks English at home with her Spanish husband.) Emmi feels that her books would be different altogether if she wrote them in only one language. In answer to an interviewer’s questions about the dual-language process that produced Memory of Water, she had the following to say:

I began writing the book in English because part of it formed my creative writing dissertation at the University of Kent, but early on I realised that drafting it in Finnish at the same time helped me polish the writing. The two languages seemed to support and inform each other. You get very, very close to the text when you work in two languages; translators often spot details that the author and editor may have missed. It is a slow process, and hard work, but ultimately I find it rewarding.

Emmi has now come out with her second novel. Published in Finnish in 2015, it has just now made its English-language debut in the UK with Harper Voyager, under the title The City of Woven Streets. The U.S. edition, to be published later this year, will be called The Weaver.
The Woven Streets The Weaver

The City of Woven Streets / The Weaver is a story about an island that is slowly sinking into the sea (if Emmi’s first book had too little water, this one has too much), and where dreaming is forbidden. It has elements of urban fantasy but its world has a feel of the past, rather than present or future. In a city where human life has little value, you must practice a craft if you want to stay alive.

Now let’s talk to Emmi about she gets her readers to experience these extraordinary settings.

* * *

Welcome, Emmi, to Location, Locution. Which comes first in your novels, story or location?

For my second novel, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, the location came first. I saw an imaginary city with its strange own internal laws and spent months writing scenes that simply explored the setting but were not yet connected by a story. This surprised me because in my first book, Memory of Water, the story and location were intertwined from the beginning. For that book, the first image that came to me was a young woman preparing tea in a dry future world. The story called for a specific location—far north, near the Arctic—and the location shaped the story.

For those who haven’t read Emmi’s first novel yet: The main character, Noria, lives near present-day Kuusamo, northern Finland, where she is learning to become a tea master in her father’s footsteps. By then Finland is ruled by an Asian superpower, and water for tea is a rare treasure.

Emmi, your novels have a strong sense of place. Can you tell us what techniques you use for evoking those feelings in your readers?

I try to imagine how the characters would experience the place through their senses. What are the shapes and colours surrounding them? How does the air smell and taste? How does the ground feel under their feet, what sounds does it make as they walk? What do they notice, what is relevant to them individually, but also as part of the community that inhabits this setting?

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those, but I would also add things like weather and seasons. Furthermore, I think a sense of history is important, in fiction just as it is in real life. Even if we don’t know the history of a location in detail, the feeling that there is one helps make it more plausible and gives it depth.

Did you have any real cities in mine when you created the city in The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets?

Yes, The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets is set in a fantasy world but to make it feel tangibly real, I used my knowledge and impressions of old European cities I have visited, mainly Prague, Venice and Dubrovnik.

Cities that inspired The Weaver

Three of the European cities that inspired Emmi Itäranta’s city in her latest novel: Venice (center); Prague (bottom right); and Dubrovnik (other three photos).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’d like to share a passage from the first chapter of The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets. It aims to create a sense of the surroundings my main character, Eliana, lives in, a world that is unfamiliar and recognisable at once:

I like the air gondola port because you cannot see the Tower from there: its tall, dark figure is concealed behind the wall and the buildings of the House of Webs. Here I can imagine for a moment that I am beyond the reach of the Council’s gaze. I like the port best at this hour, when the cables have not yet started creaking. The vessels are still, their weight hanging mid-air, or resting at the dock, or floating in the water of the canals. The gate cracks open without a sound. The wrought iron is cold against my skin, and the humidity gathered on its surface clings to my palms. The cable of the air route dives into the precipice, which begins at the rock landing of the port, and the city opens below. I walk along the landing close to the brink. It is steep as a broken bridge. Far below, the sharp edges of Halfway Canal cut through the guts of the island, outlining waters that always run dark, even in brightest summer light.

The sky has begun to fade into the colours of smoke and roses. The first light already clings to the rooftops and windows, to the glint of the Glass Grove a distance away. The flood has finally ceased to rise, and down in the city the water rests on streets and squares. Its surface is smooth and unbroken in the calm closeness of dawn: a strange mirror, like a dark sheet of glass enclosing a shadow double of the city.
The Weaver_quote

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

My stories tend to be set in the future or entirely fictional worlds, so you could say the settings are imaginary for the most part. However, I do use real places as inspiration and find that visiting them where possible really helps bring the fictional setting to life. For The Weaver / The City of Woven Streets, I looked at photographs and journals from my visits to different cities, particularly those with a long history. I’m always interested in trying to understand how different eras have shaped a place. So the end result becomes a mixture of imagination, history, memory and subjective experience.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many, but the first one that comes to mind is China Miéville and the strange geography of his novel The City and the City. It portrays two fictional cities that overlap, yet are distinct from each other with their own unique and recognisable features, cultures and complex unspoken agreements that define the border between the two. The setting almost becomes a character in its own right.

China Mieville The City and The City

Emmi Itäranta’s pick for a novelist who has mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Emmi, for your answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Emmi? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about her, I suggest that you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I loved hearing about the way Emmi’s imagination works, feeding on everything from linguistic differences to her travels within Europe. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Emmi’s author bio photo is by Heini Lehväslaiho. All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay except for 1) in top collage: Cherub (Canterbury, England), by Upupa4me via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and 2) in bottom collage: Author China Mieville at Utopiales 2010 (France), self-photographed, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. She also conforms to the image I have a “lovepat.” Because she is such a curious and creative person, the expat life (both the international and the domestic kind) suits her down to the ground, as I think you will see in this post. ML Awanohara

For an accidental expat like me, adventure is not so much reaching out for unknown as it is changing residences, and countries, every so often.

In my last post, I described my family’s move to Oman for my husband’s job. We returned to India at the end of 2000. Eight years later, we would have another country binge—but in this post I want to share with you what we did from 2000 to 2008, a time when our friends were constantly grumbling about needing an exclusive telephone diary for the Chopras’ constantly changing telephone numbers and area codes.

Within a year of our return to India, we were planning an extended trip to United States. My first visit had been in 1975 when, fresh out of college, I attended summer school in journalism at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. It was the era of the “Fs”: Flower power, Frisbee, Freedom…

Twenty-six years later, I headed to America again at an equally momentous time: the aftermath of the horrendous carnage of 9/11/01. My husband and I were visiting our daughter, who, having completed her undergraduate studies at UMass, Amherst, had enrolled in UMass Medical School, which is located in Worcester.

Grey and gloomy Worcester

Our port of entry was Boston’s Logan Airport. From there we made a two-hour train journey past New England landscapes to an unknown territory whose name is pronounced “Wuss-tur,” as in Worcestershire sauce (which originated in the English midlands town of Worcester).

Our brusque reception by the immigration authorities at Logan Airport had put us in a somber mood, which grey and gloomy Worcester—a “city created by and for the middle class,” as Adam Davidson put it in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine—did little to dispel.

During the late 19th century and after, Worcester had attracted fresh-off-the-boat migrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa who had left behind unwelcoming Boston to look for work in the cotton mills and steel works, some of them starting their own enterprises. The proximity to Boston helped industries to flourish, but World War II and rise of other industrial bases across the country led to the greyness we now saw all around us.

I recalled having read Daoma Winson’s novel The Fall River Line, a 90-year saga about the family of a New England matriarch who owns a Massachusetts-based steamship line running between New York and Boston in the late 19th century. But the city I saw before me was a mix of new and old three-decker rectangular homes alongside newer constructions of colleges and hospitals.

Imagine my surprise when, researching the city further, I discovered that out of its gloom had emerged something pink, lacy and romantic. Esther Howland of Worcester started up a business making valentines in 1857, the success of which earned her the epithet of “the mother of the American valentine”; you can see a large collection of her creations at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

Worcester can also claim the “Smiley” face, created by Worcester-born-and-bred graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball—another seeming contradiction; and there are many other firsts to the city’s credit:

  • the largest female workforce in the USA;
  • the first woman Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (she served in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet and had grown up in Worcester);
  • the first Bible and first dictionary printed in America (by one Isaiah Thomas, in the 18th century);
  • the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, also by Isaiah Thomas;
  • the first monkey wrench, invented by Loring and Aury Coes in 1840 (just thought I’d throw that in!);
  • the first commercially successful envelope-producing machine, invented by Russell Hawes in 1853; and
  • WORC, the first radio station to play a Beatles song in the United States.

I suppose adversity bred innovation and, as far as the Beatles went, a “thumbs-down” to the Boston Brahmins.

Once settled, we walked around Worcester Commons and past the Burnside Fountain with its Turtle Boy statue; along the crowded downtown streets including Shrewsbury Street (where can be found Little Italy) and the tree-lined avenues where there are many houses dating back to the late 19th-century; all over the “modern” UMass Medical School campus; and even out to the suburban Auburn Mall (I had to shop in Filene’s). We also ventured out to the shores of Quinsigamond and Indian Lakes.

Lake Quinsigamond (or the Long Pond) reflects the sensibilities of the city. Though a favored destination for water sports, rowing and boating regattas, it misses out on aqua “vitality”.

Worcester Mass Collage 2

Bustling Boston (& vicinity)

Worcester’s saving grace, for me, is that it’s only a step away from Boston and its famous landmarks…no, I would not be one of those people who prefers Worcester’s slower pace!

My favorite Boston spots include Faneuil Hall/Marketplace, incorporating Quincy Market, the Freedom Trail, Harvard University, and, further afield: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket the latter two accessible by ferry and good spots for celeb watching. I liked walking down Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street and gawking at the tony lifestyle and the boutique shops.

Boston and beach collage

There have been other visits to Worcester since then, in various seasons, as we continue our effort to appreciate small-town living. But on this first occasion, 15 days were sufficient, and from Worcester we jetted across to San Francisco to visit family. In this sense, we were conforming to the distinctive Indian habit of tagging family and friends across the globe to ensure hassle free board and lodging. (Thankfully, at least for the people doing much of the hosting, that concept is changing with Indian tourism opening up and more people traveling on their own.)

San Francisco, here we come!

San Francisco lived up to my “Alice in Wonderland” memories. Our days were devoted dawdling on Fisherman’s Wharf, trundling down Nob Hill in the cable car, watching the sunset from Golden Gate Bridge, driving around Palo Alto.

The quintessential university town had changed: there were more residences and start-up communities, shortening the distance between University and town. The path from Escondido Village (where I lived) to the journalism department (where I studied) did not appear intimidating as when I had first cycled on it.

San Fran Collage

The re-discovery journey had been pleasant except for an interaction with immigration officer on our return to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Having been assured by the travel agent of no extra charges, we had extended our return flight from San Francisco to Boston by two days. Hence our surprise when we were asked to pay $200 and, as we attempted to explain, the airline official countered with a complete dossier of our movements, the number of times we had cancelled our arrival to USA, the change we’d made to our flight schedule from San Francisco, etc., etc.

It was a case of pay the said amount or be barred from boarding the flight back to India. The disbelief came when I told my husband, in Hindi, to ask the name of the official or demand that we speak to her senior. She caught on and told us that we are most welcome, promptly giving us her name and declaring it would not change anything.

Left with no alternative, we promptly paid the contested amount and exited the country. Talk about “parochial” and “paranoid”! I suddenly remembered my Media and Broadcasting Prof. at Stanford, who, upon seeing me sit alone on the patio (I was finishing an assignment), apologised for the “parochial” attitude of my fellow students. (I told him I was fine.)

We did not stop visiting USA but, on the next occasions, we were prepared for the pat downs, security checks and x-rays. No hair sprays, body cremes, etc., and no loose talk. So, now when I am told “You have been selected,” I know it is not for a seat upgrade but for the body scanner.

Becoming Punekars

In 2004 we made another “small city” visit and, this time, a change of residence. There is no connection between Worcester and Pune, except that both are stress busters for concrete jungles: Boston and Mumbai, respectively.

Pune is an emerging “mega-city” said to epitomize the New India. It is also the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra, celebrating Maratha arts and crafts, music, and theatre. It has a proud history as the seat of the Peshwas, who were the ruling figures within the Maratha Empire, which was established by the legendary Shivaji, the Hindu leader who challenged the mighty Mughals. He was later held up as a hero during the rebellion against English rule and bid for Indian independence.

But returning to the Pune of today: it is very much a city on the go, with mushrooming high-rises, malls, and hotels. Its already congested labyrinth of shops, roadside stalls, and disintegrating colonial architecture is constantly expanding, with new enterprises such as education centers cropping up, and more and more “steel ants” (mopeds and two wheelers) running along its narrow lanes and arteries. (Public transport leaves something to be desired.)

The one constant between former eras and today are the majestic banyan trees, with their nebbish roots adding a spidery effect.

The city is being invaded by professionals and tourists from neighboring cities and states. A true Punekar (aka Punaite) will argue that, despite the onslaught of so many people, their city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the “dragonfly” energy and the attitude of the female residents who cover their faces with a scarf and slice through the traffic. (For me, this unique sartorial style is a silent tribute to “girl power”!)

Upon our arrival, we visited the famous landmarks including:

Pune is the city for seeing Alphonso mangoes piled high on roadside carts and market stalls. The mango mania does not stop at simply eating the fruit but has invaded thalis (food platters), desserts, ice creams and shakes, literally adding color to the local cuisine.

What I relish most is the ubiquitous Vada Pav, a vegetarian fast food consisting of a potato fritter. I often purchase one from a roadside stall that, according to my friend’s driver, is the “best Vada Pav in town.”

The mesmeric effect of life in this part of the world culminated in our purchasing a property up in the hills, on NIBM Road in Kondhwa, a fast-growing suburb of Pune.

And now here I sit on our lawn, under blue skies, a rarity in the part of India where I’m from. Later I will watch the sun descend deeper into the surrounding hills while dreaming of new places where we might be based in near future.

Pune India Collage

Not surprisingly, the seven-year itch surfaced and in summer of 2008 we jetted our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. The Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional nation and the other a place full of glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s mishmash of lingering British influences and Chinese opportunism must be what lures so many visitors, us included, to its crowded streets.

We came for a year and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get extensions stamped for two, three, seven years—and then permanent residency.

But more on that experience in my next post…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing this continuation of your story. It was refreshing to hear about the United States from an outsider’s perspective, and to learn all about Pune. And now I am eager to hear what you make of Hong Kong! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: (top row) Worcester, Massachusetts, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); photo of the Beatles and of Worcester’s buildings via Pixabay; (bottom row) Turtle Boy, by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Harvey Ball, by Michael Carroll courtesy Worcester Historical Museum; and Daoma Winston book cover. Third visual: Nantucket – Main St, by thisisbossi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Quincy Market, by Smart Destinations via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Boston – Freedom Trail, by David Ohmer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Cape Cod scene via Pixabay. Fourth visual: Cable car, Stanford U & Golden Gate sunset photos all via Pixabay; Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco, California, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last visual: (top row) Mangoes for sale in Crawford Market, Mumbai, by Anuradha Sengupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); warrior statue via Pixabay; A Crowd Gathers – Pune, India, by Ian D. Keating via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (same as bottom-row middle photo); Sunset at Sinhagarh, by Abhijit Kar Gupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Sukhadia’s open vada pav, by Krista via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [untitled – Banyan tree in Pune], by ptwo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Osho Ashram, aka Osho International Meditation Resort, by fraboof via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, when choosing tools for adjusting to a brand new culture, study the safety instructions

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

My guest this month is fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Amanda Bate, who co-founded the awesome #TCKchat, a bi-weekly event on Twitter that fosters conversation and provides insights and information for Third Culture Kids, in the spirit of mutual support.

(Some of you may remember Lisa Liang’s recent interview with Dounia Bertuccelli? She is one of Amanda’s co-hosts.)

Amanda was raised both in the United States and in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. Her interest in navigating multicultural environments started young—and now it has become part of her career. A product of international schools in Africa and of American universities, she currently works in higher education from a base in Richmond, Virginia. She has her own consultancy offering counseling for college admissions to Third Culture Kids. In addition, she directs a college access program, helping disadvantaged students understand their options for college. She is excited about all things related to higher education, travel, and cross-cultural experiences.

Amanda recently founded TheBlackExpat.com, which has been featured on the Wall Street Journal Expat, to address global mobility and black identity. As she told freelance writer Debra Bruno:

We highlight the rich, international experiences of the Black Diaspora with firsthand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross cultural living. (…) With the black perspective so limited in visibility, we want provide a stage for the voices of the growing number of black travelers to be heard.

What else is important to know about Amanda? Well, she has an endless love for mangoes, airport terminals and makossa. Hm…what’s that?! Read on to find out…

Also read on to see what she has to say about the tango, manners (or the lack), and methods of bonding over shared interests (without necessarily sharing a language!).

* * *

Hi, Amanda, and a warm welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I have lived in the United States and Cameroon. As you mentioned in your kind introduction, I grew up a Third Culture Kid, or TCK—so split my time from age 10 to 20 between both countries. I’ve been in the United States full time since 2000. I’ve also done some traveling in South America and Europe—and am currently navigating a possible move abroad.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

It’s probably the Third Culture Kid in me, but I actually worry about making a misstep in a new locale. I spend a lot of time observing before making any comments that could be misinterpreted. I’m careful not to embrace stereotypes about cultural practices or customs. On the occasions where I’m feeling unsure, I’ll consult with a trusted acquaintance privately. I’ve been in enough situations where other people have made borderline rude comments based on limited information—and desperately don’t want to follow in their footsteps, to extend your foot metaphor.

Can you give us an example?

I’m thinking of a time when I was in Buenos Aires watching an Argentinean tango performance. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and enthralling, but the man next to me, another American, didn’t agree. He leaned in to me while stating loudly: “Oh, they’re not doing it well enough. It’s not sexy. It’s not like how they do it in Dancing With the Stars!” Dancing with the Stars? Was he really comparing an indigenous dance form to something he had seen on an American reality show? I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything—but was embarrassed just the same!

tango and dancing with the stars

Yes, that example really argues for reading the instruction manual for the tools in one’s Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

You are right about studying the instruction manual! I tend to do research about a place before I travel. It helps to get at least basic information about the culture—especially food, music and sports—which can help me connect with folks. Once, while still in Argentina, a really friendly taxi driver, who happened to be from neighboring Uruguay, took me to the airport. His English was about as good as my Spanish. However, we were able to fully communicate over a common interest—football. I mentioned some of the Uruguayan footballers I knew, and his face lit up. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting that by his facial expression—but then he started mentioning the Cameroonian players he knew…and the conversation (helped by lots of hand gestures) took off from there.

Shared passion for football

Ah, yes, football, or soccer as the Americans call it! Always a good topic and at this moment rather timely, for those of us who are following Euro 2016… If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Whenever you’re in a new place, you’re struggling to take it in. Your previous experiences inform how you organize your world. You have a set of rules and routines that worked for you in those spaces. A new place has the potential to uproot that—more so if it’s very different from other places you’ve been. My advice would be to embrace your new location as it is, without condition. I think it’s easier. Otherwise, you’ll end up playing a game of comparison—and your new location will have the hardest time competing with your past home, of which you’ll have only the fondest memories. Besides, it keeps you from making new friends and having new experiences—which some day will become your fondest memories.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: What was it like for you? Do any experiences stand out?

Moving back to the United States after years of living in Cameroon was a rough transition, truthfully. My mind had fragmented memories of what life was like in America—most of which proved to be inaccurate. I was missing significant cultural references, the weather was colder than I preferred, and my family was far away, on another continent. Because my move correlated with starting university, I had a hard time adjusting. I was terribly homesick. I was calling my family every day. My phone bill was atrocious!

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Honestly, what helped me was connecting to my old friends, many of whom were going, or had already been, through the same or similar transitions. They provided much-needed support through it all. Talking about what you’re feeling is a good first step. No one can know what exactly you’re going through, especially if you’re good at hiding your struggles. Finding people who have been there helps—not just to vent but also to figure out some coping mechanisms.

Thank you so much, Amanda, for sharing your experiences with us! Research, consultations with trusted acquaintances, an unconditional embrace of your new place, and efforts to connect with empathetic friends…it’s all such great advice! Connecting with those who’ve been through similar experiences is, if I’m to be honest, one of the tools that has helped me the most. It might not change my situation but it gives me some much-needed context. Simply finding out that someone else has felt the same way makes me feel less isolated.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, have you ever plunged into a cultural situation without adequate preparation? Do tell!

To keep in touch with Amanda, I suggest you follow the monthly #TCKchat. #TCKchat is held twice at 15:00 GMT and 3:00 +1 GMT on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. (Amanada’s own twitter handle is @bateconsult.) And don’t forget to check out her new site, The Black Expat.

Wait, I almost forgot! Anyone still wondering what makossa is? Amanda has suggested the following for your listening enjoyment:

 

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

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Photo credits: Top visual: (top row) Toolbox and globe via Pixabay; Sobriety Test, by Eli Christman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Amanda Bate (supplied); (bottom row) images of Cameroon and instructions via Pixabay; The Black Expat logo. Second visual: Tango, by Gisele Pereira via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 4.21.08 Dancing With The Stars, by Robbie Wagner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: Luis Suarez celebrates his Gol to put Uruguay 1 – Netherlands 0, by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Dorge Kouemaha playing for Foolad, by Morteza Jaberian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Going home again due to a devastating personal loss

Displaced creative Sally Rose

We expats may sound like we’re living in a dream or fairy tale, but many of us have lived through nightmares, too. Last time we heard from Sally, her story was running along the lines of her wonderlanded interview for this site. Having spent five years in Santiago, Chile, she was in need of new thrills and was trying to figure out where to go next. But then, one day, just as she felt her plans were coming together, her entire world came crashing down. Sally, I commend you for her honesty in telling this part of your story. Readers, I hope you will join me in offering your condolences for Sally’s heart-breaking loss. —ML Awanohara

I went to church today. Just stopped in, as I’ve often done over the past five years. I’m not Catholic, but I like to sit and look at the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Basilica de la Merced in downtown Santiago.

It’s cool and peaceful inside, painted to resemble pink marble. There’s a center aisle and the pews are lined up on either side, in two sections, before and after the hanging pulpit.

The statue of the Virgin Mary is set into a niche behind the altar. The back of the niche is painted royal blue. She’s wearing a flowing, white cape and a silver crown.

I read somewhere that she protects the innocent by bringing them close and covering them with her cape. I love that idea.

Virgin Mary with Cape

The basilica always smells of floor polish and candle wax. The first three years that I lived in Chile, there was a caretaker who, every time I went in, was there, polishing the wooden floor with a buffing machine.

Nowadays, I still see him from time to time. Today he recognizes me and greets me cordially. I find out his name for the first time: Fabián. He agrees to let me take his photo.

Fabian floor polisher

At noon, on weekdays, the church chimes ring out, just after the cañonazo, the firing of the cannon at Cerro Santa Lucia.

For five years, at straight-up twelve o’clock, I heard “Boom!” And then, the sweet notes of a recognizable song. I don’t know what its title is, but like an old friend, it became familiar to me over time. I will miss it.

Everything is falling into place…

I arrived back in Santiago on April 1. My apartment lease was expiring on June 4, and I had decided not to renew it. Since, for the past couple of years, I’ve been traveling a lot and spending as much time outside of Chile as I have in Chile, it no longer makes sense to maintain a year-round apartment here.

My goal was to turn myself into a global nomad and visit several places every year, spending a few months in each one. Hyper-organized nerd that I am, I immediately went to work, selling off furniture and clearing out my apartment. Within two weeks, every stick of furniture had been sold. I felt like Wile E. Coyote in the old cartoons, left spinning around after the roadrunner whizzed by me.

Everything was falling into place, as if the Universe were whispering, “Yes, yes. This is the right move for you.”

Cleared apartment nostalgia

Nostalgia kicked in. And sadness, a sort of grief. I started missing Santiago, even though I’m still here. I started thinking of all the places I’d meant to visit, all the things that I didn’t get around to doing since I’ve been here. Wishing I had more time. Wishing I weren’t leaving. Wondering if I were doing the right thing, wondering where I’m going next, wondering whether I’ll ever be back.

I found an apart-hotel and got halfway moved in, expecting to be in Santiago until my usual “can’t-stand-the-heat” date of mid-September. Then, I would go back to the US to sort out some business and to spend time with my son and his fiancée, before heading out again to Parts Unknown.

…until the phone call no parent should get

That’s when the phone call came. That most horribly personal phone call that no parent should ever have to receive.

My son had died in the early morning of May 4. He was 34 years old. The coroner took his body away for an autopsy because why does a 34-year old die? He hadn’t been sick. Or had he?

He had been, but he had not told me. Because I was so far away, I wasn’t aware of his physical condition. Not that I could have prevented his death had I been closer. But if I had known, I would have tried.

In tribute to Phillip

In tribute to Phillip

So began another grief. Deep, heavy waves of shock and sadness and guilt that left me with almost no energy to continue doing what I needed to do. To finish moving out, packing up, and getting myself back to the States for an indefinite period of time.

Sooner now than I had expected. Not to see my son. The best I’ll be able to do is memorialize him. His fiancée and I will be getting to know each other without him, and I will be a “repat,” at least for awhile.

My suitcases are already bulging, but I will be taking back a small replica of this Virgin Mary, Virgen de la Merced. I hope that she brings me as much comfort from afar as she has in the church that’s named after her.

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed, and Now Devastated

* * *

Sally, I honestly can’t imagine the grief you must be feeling. You were planning where to go next, only to land on the dark side of the moon. Thank you for taking us on this part of your journey as well. If it helps to know, we are all here for you. We are privileged to share in your heart-felt tribute to your son, whom I feel certain was as remarkable a human being as his mother. —ML Awanohara

Born and raised in the piney woods of East Texas, Sally Rose has lived in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the “enchanted” land of New Mexico, and the Big Apple, New York City. Then she fell in love with Santiago de Chile and has been “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country since 2009, and living in that city for the past five years. But where will her next act take her? The author of a memoir and a children’s book, Sally has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Under pseudonym A.J. MacKenzie, Canadian expat couple set crime fiction series in 18th-century Kent village

Location Locution Mackenzie
Tracey Warr is back, this time with a Canadian couple who are practically British—to the point where they have even started writing quintessentially British crime fiction! **Who would like to win a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery set in Romney Marsh? Two copies on offer. Details below.**

My guests this month, Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, have written more than twenty non-fiction books between them, on subjects ranging from doing business in China and managing for success (Morgen) to medieval warfare and economic history (Marilyn). They are also the joint authors of The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346.

But today we’ll be talking about a work of fiction they have produced. The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel as a couple—and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Fiction writing is where their heart lies, and this novel is just the beginning of a planned series featuring a pair of unlikely sleuths: the tipsy Reverend Hardcastle and the widow, Amelia Chaytor.

Marilyn grew up in Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, while Morgen’s family come from northern British Columbia. They met at the University of Victoria, where both were studying history, and married two years later, taking two years out from university to work and travel in Europe before returning to complete their degrees. They were determined to come back to Britain and settle there if possible. “From almost the first moment of arrival, I felt at home here,” says Marilyn.

They came back to Britain in 1987, living in London and then for 12 years in Kent before moving to Devon in 2000. After nearly thirty years living in Britain, both are a little confused by the question, “What is it like to live abroad?”

For them, England is home; Canada is abroad, even though both still have strong family ties in the latter. Questions of ethnicity and belonging, for them, are complex. While both feel that Devon and England are home, they are also very much aware of being Canadians, immigrants.

That sense of being an immigrant, of being from somewhere else, was helpful when it came to the two lead characters of The Body on the Doorstep. Reverend Hardcastle knows his smuggling parishioners well, but is well aware he is not one of them. Amelia Chaytor is also an outsider, a widow still bitterly grieving, and craving solitude. The immigrant experience, say Marilyn and Morgen, taught them about the self-reliance and self-sufficiency, qualities they have passed on to their characters.

Growing up in northern Canada in the 1960s, Morgen lived an essentially pre-modern lifestyle without electricity, running water or most of the conveniences of modern life. That, he says, makes it easier to empathise with people living their lives by candlelight and drawing water from wells in late 18th-century England. Whereas Marilyn feels a little displaced: how did a medievalist end up writing novels set in the late 18th century? She is still looking for an answer.

* * *

Welcome, Morgen and Marilyn, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

We had to stop and think about this one, because we couldn’t remember! But probably it was the location, Romney Marsh, because that is so crucial to the book. Romney Marsh is a very distinctive and particular space, a flat open plain jutting out into the sea and fenced off from the rest of Kent by hills. In the early 19th century the Reverend Barham nicknamed the Marsh “the Fifth Continent” because it was so obviously different from the land around it.

This is a historical novel, set during the time of the French Revolution, and the themes involve smuggling, spying and the threat of imminent invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better location for this story; and to a large extent, the location shaped the story and became part of it.
Body on the Doorstep_cover_400x

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your novel? After all, the action takes place long ago.

For us, the key thing is to engage the senses. We like to do more than just describe the visual image of a place. We try to engage as many of the senses as possible, to make the reader feel as if they are actually there.

Sound is vital: the hiss of wind in trees, the suck and roar of waves on shingle beaches, the bleating of sheep, the sound of bees, the rattle of silver in the dining room. Sounds evoke very powerful images, as do smells: of mud, dung, fine wine, perfume, gunsmoke. One feels the glow of a fire, the hot sun on one’s face that causes sweat to break out, the bitter tang of a north wind bearing snow. And taste too: on a stormy day by the sea you taste salt spray on your lips. You taste the food you eat, from stale ship’s biscuit to quails with Madeira sauce. Combining all the senses can make people feel they are part of the scene, not just onlookers, and that is what we try to do.

Also, we tend not to stop and engage in long descriptions of landscape or scene. Most of our descriptions of the landscape/location are made while characters are on the move. Their interaction with the location is key. Those are okay if the landscape or scene is particularly important, or dramatic, but there is always a risk that you will interrupt the flow. We try to introduce a sense of movement into our descriptions.

Ideally, the scene should be dynamic, not static. Even it is just lambs jumping and playing in a meadow, there is something happening so that readers can focus their attention. Just as with the sensory details, the aim is to make readers feel like they have stepped through the looking glass. They are not just watching, they are there, participating.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Everything. We’re historical novelists, and everything about people’s lives can be used to give a sense of place, and most importantly, of place-in-time; that is, a particular place at a defined moment in time. So it is landscape, culture, food, dress, methods of transport, housing, drugs, servants, weapons; all the things that tell readers where and when the action is happening.

We also find weather an important scene-setter because weather affects mood so much; it can impact on the mood of the characters, and if we get it right, even the readers. Again, as historical novelists, weather is even more important because, except for the very well-to-do, there was no escape from it. There was no central heating, no rubber boots, no Gortex. People lived with the weather and in the weather, and experienced and felt it far more than we do now.

That said, it is really important not to go overboard and start sounding like an encyclopedia when describing a location. We have a term we use when we think we are indulging in too much description: “Reykjavik”.

Yes, we’d better explain that, hadn’t we? While travelling in Europe on honeymoon, during a very cold winter many years ago, we both read a thriller that happened to be lying around. In the course of the story, the hero is travelling on a plane from Washington to Moscow. Midway through the journey the plane lands in Reykjavik. There then follows a short essay on Iceland, its geography, history, economy, politics, culture and so on, all very accurate and detailed. We waited to see how the story would unfold in Iceland. Instead, the plane refuelled and took off again, without the hero setting foot on the ground! So, “Reykjavik” is code for “interesting detail which does not actually set the scene or advance the story”.
Reykjavic code

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

We’ll offer two, if we may, each of which illustrates a particular way of how we (try to) do it. In the first, the two heroes, Mrs Chaytor and Reverend Hardcastle, are driving back to St Mary in the Marsh. Mrs Chaytor has the reins.

They trotted briskly through Brenzett, and once past the village she whipped up on the long straight to Old Romney. The gig flew down the road, so fast that the rector had to hold onto his hat.

‘What puzzles you now?’ she called over the noise of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels.

‘Two men died that night, half a mile apart and within five minutes of each other.’

‘I see. You wonder if the two events might be related. Either your killer, or your victim, or both, might have had some connection with the smugglers.’

‘What other reason would either have for being out on the Marsh on the night of a new moon?’

‘I see your point,’ said his companion thoughtfully, shaking the reins and urging the horse to further speed. ‘It does not feel like a coincidence, does it?’

‘Over the years, I have learned to distrust the very idea of coincidence,’ said the rector, clutching again at his hat. ‘My dear Mrs Chaytor, there is a dray in the road ahead.’

There was indeed a dray in the road ahead, loaded with timber and drawn by two plodding horses. Mrs Chaytor touched the reins to guide the pony and, without slackening speed, pulled around the dray on the outside, one wheel running onto the grass verge, and then swerved back onto the road. The driver of the dray, startled out of his doze, yelled abuse after her. The rector stared at his companion, wondering where she had learned to drive. Thereafter he concentrated on holding his seat as they shot through Old Romney at a speed that left chickens squawking indignantly in the road behind them, and raced on towards the coast. Only on the outskirts of St Mary did she slacken speed, and she trotted the gig sedately up the high street towards the church.
Hold your seat Old Romney

Here, we’re trying to keep things moving. The emphasis is on both picture and speed; that’s the dynamic aspect we talked about.

In contrast, here is the scene where a group of smugglers are ambushed on the Marsh:

From somewhere up ahead there was a hissing noise, like a snake preparing to strike. Suddenly light exploded across the Marsh, an eerie, shivering, unearthly blue light that showed the scene before them in garish contrast. The light glowed off a column of men making their way silently across the Marsh, masked and hooded men with weapons cradled in their arms. Nearer at hand, other men crouched in the grass or in a ditch, their own weapons levelled.

The imperative here is different. Something very violent is about to happen. The scene is deliberately static; we give you detail of what you can see, so that you have it clear in your heads before everything explodes. We use the blue light of the flare to make the scene shocking and disturbing.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Very well, but not too well. You have to know it well enough to appreciate its distinctiveness, for your purposes, the things that make it stand out. That means visiting the place, of course, and not just driving through it. It is really important to get out and walk the ground, get your boots dirty, as anthropologists say. Look at the landscapes and the buildings, and talk to people: they will give you all sorts of details you will find nowhere else.

As historical novelists, we also need to get to know that place-in-time, which means stripping away the veneer of roads and bridges and power stations and housing estates and trying to work out what the places looked like in 1796. Documentary sources are a great help with this, as are maps. For example, Romney Marsh today is crossed by modern, tarmacked roads. In our period, as the geographer Hasted writes, apart from the high road from Appledore to New Romney and on to Dymchurch, most roads on the Marsh were distinguished from their surrounding fields only by the presence of a fence on either side.

But you can get to know a landscape almost too well. Again, there comes the urge to describe it in such intimate detail that you lose sight of the story. When that happens: time to call “Reykjavik!”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Lindsey Davis does a marvelous job with ancient Rome. Fountain Court, where her detective hero, Falco, lives, comes alive; we can see it, and hear its sounds, and smell its smells (she is particularly good with smells). Dorothy Dunnett made the Scottish borders feel like an old friend long before we ever visited them; years after first reading The Game of Kings, walking in Yarrowdale we expected to see Lymond and his horsemen sweeping over the hills. Dick Francis makes you absolutely feel like you are on the back of a horse. Andrea Camilleri evokes Sicily in the same way that Donna Leon evokes Venice; reading their books, you can close your eyes and you are there. But the master is Tolstoy. Be it a battlefield, a ball or a sleigh ride in a winter forest, he does it with both artistry and craft. He puts you there, in the middle of it all, as a participant. One can only admire.

Fave Books Mackenzie

AJ MacKenzie’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marilyn and Morgen, for your thoughtful answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marilyn and Morgen? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about A.J. MacKenzie, you can visit their author site and blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

BOOK GIVEAWAY***********
I have two free copies of A.J. MacKenzie’s new novel to give away to the first two readers to send the correct answer to the question: How many wheels does an 18th-century gig have? Please email your answers ASAP to traceykwarr@gmail.com
***********************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I love the way AJ MacKenzie bring the past alive in the Kent marshes. And to think, they are both Canucks! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the authors or downloaded from Pixabay, with the exception of: Two Gigs in Trouble, a painting by Thomas Rowlandson, located at Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)..

TCK TALENT: Dounia Bertuccelli, writer, editor, mentor and #TCKchat co-host

Dounia Bertuccelli TCK Talent

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is a TCK of Lebanese origin, who has lived almost everywhere apart from Lebanon!

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Dounia Bertuccelli, writer, editor, mentor, and one of the moderators of #TCKchat, a Twitter chat for TCK kids around the globe. I first met Dounia at the Families in Global Transition 2014 conference, where she was a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency scholar and I was performing Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey as the final keynote. Since then, Dounia’s writing and my show have had positive trajectories, so I feel like our paths are parallel.

Dounia was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents—but has never lived in Lebanon. Her father worked for a US-based company with branches around the world, and Dounia spent her childhood and pre-teen years in the USA (Wisconsin), Mexico, and the Philippines, and her teens in Australia and France.

As an adult, Dounia has studied/lived in the U.K., France and the United States. She earned her undergraduate degree in History/Geography at Institut Catholique de Paris (actually not a religious institute) and her BA in History at the Sorbonne. After taking a year to work, she enrolled in the University of Surrey in the UK to pursue an MA in European Politics, Business and Law. She worked in France again for a while. Her latest move was to Connecticut six years ago with her husband, who also grew up as a TCK, for his job.

It’s a pleasure to interview Dounia for The Displaced Nation.

* * *

Welcome, Dounia. Your peripatetic, multilingual childhood must have included so many adventures and challenges. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why? 
That’s a really great and interesting question! It’s also a tough one but here goes… As a teenager, I found the two years I lived in Australia to be the happiest and most carefree. We moved there from the Philippines (where safety was an issue, especially for foreigners), and our newfound freedom was exhilarating. As a teenager, it was the ideal place: it was safe, and we had sunshine, beach and friends. Initially it was a very difficult transition, but once I settled in, I loved it—and it remains a very positive memory. As an adult, I have been happiest living in Paris. It’s where I’ve felt the most sense of belonging. I still don’t feel 100% like I belong there and I can still feel like an outsider—but less so than everywhere else. Paris is beautiful, vibrant and truly taught me independence. I also met the love of my life there, and it is where my family has settled down, so it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
There is no black-and-white answer here. A lot of it comes down to the individual and their family background. I definitely identify with people who have similar cross-cultural/global-living backgrounds because there is an unspoken understanding and connection. But I also identify with those who come from a similar heritage and familial background. Not necessarily the same origin, but who were brought up with similar values and family ties.

“I long for somewhere,/ without knowing where.”

How do you like living in Connecticut?
It’s been a mixed experience. People have been nice and we live in a cute small town…but there is very little diversity and, although we may look and sound like everyone else, we are very different. That has made it difficult to meet people we connect with and to feel as though we belong. It’s also tough to live in a small American town after living in Paris for 10 years and having access to other European cities. And it’s definitely not easy being across the ocean from my parents and siblings.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer—and has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I have always written, but I don’t know if that comes from my TCK upbringing or if it’s just my character. I think writing has helped me process my TCK experiences, as it has helped me process most things in my life. I’ve always written to express myself, to put my thoughts and emotions on paper—through journals, prose and poetry. As I was growing up I wrote about everyday life, and also during every move, in airports between homes and everything else in between. I still do that and I think it’s definitely helped me process my experiences as an adult TCK.
Heart vs home

“And yet I long to settle,/ To put down roots.”

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve been in the same place for 5.5 years and that’s long. I’m ready for a change and to be somewhere new. But at the same time I’m not sure I want the constant upheaval of frequent moves. I think I would like to settle and have a home base, but only somewhere special to me and where I can also travel easily. Even if I settled down somewhere, I would need to travel frequently to feel the thrill of the unfamiliar, see new places and keep those “itchy feet” content.

Are you working on anything at the moment?
I have my ongoing work as a freelance writer and editor—I am the Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine. In addition, I’m working on a variety of projects: I’m a moderator for #TCKchat (a twitter chat for TCKs around the globe); I write the TCKchat column for Among Worlds; and I work with the Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency scholars as their mentor and editor (as you mentioned at the outset, it’s a scholarship program for new TCK/expat writers to attend and write about the Families in Global Transition Conference). You can find all my published works on my blog as well as on my LinkedIn page. It’s collection of non-fiction prose, poetry, occasional book reviews and photography.

* * *

Thank you so much, Dounia. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Dounia below. You can also follow her on Twitter, where you’ll be led into the monthly #TCKchats (#TCKchat is held on the 1st Wednesday/Thursday of each month with 2 sessions: 1st session at 15:00 GMT and 2nd session at 3:00 +1 GMT). And be sure to take a look at her creative works on her blog, the aptly named Next Stop.

Editor’s note: The two quotes are from Dounia Bertuccelli’s poem “Longing,” which was first published on her blog in 2014 and also appeared in Among Worlds (December 2015), a magazine for Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs).

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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Photo credits: Top visual: (top row) Eiffel Tower image via Pixabay; Coat of arms of the former university of Paris, France (Sorbonne), by Katepanomegas via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); Connecticut 1980 camper trailer plate, by Jerry “Woody” via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Dounia Bertuccelli (supplied); (bottom row) Lebanon via Pixabay; Selimiye Mosque (originally the Cathedral of Sainte Sophie), in Nicosia, Cyprus, by Chris06 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); and The Surrey Scholar in Guildford, by Mike Peel via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). Middle visual: House and heart images via Pixabay; Avenue des Champs-Élysées photo via Pixabay; Hartford, Connecticut by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Bottom visual: Writing and photography images via Pixabay.

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to swashbuckle your way into productivity (whether you’re a writer or not)

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong and aspiring writer Shannon Young officially met her monthly income target in April, and in May had already achieved that target in 20 days. How did she get so productive?

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s hard to believe it has already been two months since my last entry. The past five months have been exceptionally productive. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I wanted to get my new fantasy series off the ground by publishing the first two books within two months of each other. At that time, the first book, Duel of Fire, had just come out.

Well, I’m happy to report that Book 2, King of Mist, launched this past week!

First two steel and fire books

For this entry I thought I’d take a step back to tell you about how I stay focused now that I am self-employed and my deadlines are generally self-imposed. (Even if you’re not a writer but are one of those expats with a side-gig or remote career—I suspect many trailing partners fall into this category—my strategies may be useful to you as well.)

The other reason I want to talk about this is that I’ve had a rather unproductive week—at least from a writing standpoint. The weeks when I release a book, it’s way too tempting to spend all my time refreshing my sales graph. So I also want to remind myself what I do to stay productive in hopes that it will get me back in the groove.

So here it is: Shannon’s Productivity Plan or, given that I’m now writing swashbuckling fantasy: How to Swashbuckle Your Way into Productivity.

Keep regular hours.

I go to Starbucks every day at 11:00 a.m. and stay until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mood and feelings on any given morning do not dictate whether or not I show up for work. I’ve tried going in earlier, but I find that I don’t usually get in the zone until 11:00 anyway, so I don’t force it. (Between you and me, not having to get up early is the best part of being a writer!) I catch up on news and social media, read emails, and check sales stats over breakfast before I leave the apartment, so I won’t be distracted by those things when it’s time to get to work.

Don’t take weekdays off.

It’s all too easy to reward yourself with days off when you work for yourself. I honestly think the biggest key to my productivity is that I don’t take days off except on extremely rare occasions. If I finish a book or draft on Wednesday, I start the next one on Thursday. Starting a new project is hard. If you simply roll right into it, you get to keep your momentum, and don’t have time to feel daunted by the challenges a new project presents.

Do take weekends off.

Burnout is real. I want to sustain this career for the long haul, so I don’t work weekends unless I’m on a serious roll or approaching a big deadline. I’ll sometimes go to a café for a few hours on a weekend afternoon—but I treat that as a bonus (as I quite enjoy writing), rather than a necessity.

Use the chunky method.

I block out my to-do lists by week rather than by day. I find it’s a lot more effective to set a word-count goal of, say, 15,000 in a week versus 3,000 per day. That way if you have a rough day, you’ll have a chance to make it up. Feeling like you’ve failed or haven’t lived up to your expectations for yourself can kill your productivity.

This method is especially helpful for edits, which are much harder to divide up by word count. One day you might edit 20,000 words and the next you might only get through 10,000 with the same amount of time and effort. If you plan to finish a draft within a given two-week period, you have some leeway on your day-to-day progress.

This method also makes it easier to figure out when a book will be finished so I can reserve my editor and cover designer at the right time. I also often group related tasks and tackle them all at once. Don’t feel bad if you miss a task on any given day. And if you finish your tasks early in the week, you can get more writing done!

Use breaks strategically

I’m now at the point where I can write for 6–8 hours in a single day, but I do usually hit a wall around the 4- or 5-hour mark. This is when I eat a late lunch and sometimes switch to another task (like email) for a little while before jumping back into the book. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to control your Internet and phone usage. Keep it confined to your lunch breaks! I’ve written before about the importance of sustaining writing focus: it’s a muscle you have to exercise.

What if you get stuck?

I’m definitely in the “writer’s block is a myth” camp. I believe if you show up and keep working, you will eventually break through the wall. No existential angst required! However, sometimes you have days where it’s harder to get in the zone. When this happens I have three tactics that usually work:

1 – Stay in the chair.
Keep your usual working hours, even if you’re not getting much done. Chances are you will find your groove a lot sooner than if you give up and go home.

2 – Work on something else.
You’re writing more than one book, right? Switch to a different one. Work on your outline by hand. Do a different essential task. Make sure you’re still in your chair. Checking something else off your to-do list is a great way to get back the motivation you need to keep writing. This is the strategy I’ve been using this week. I prepared an audition script for the forthcoming Seabound audio book and listened to samples from dozens of narrators. It was really exciting to wake up to a handful of completed auditions this morning!

3 – Read something good.
This is the method for when all else fails. Nothing helps to get the juices flowing in your head like reading a good, fast-paced novel. Make sure you choose a story you can get lost in without your writer or editor brain getting in the way. I have a few trusted authors who I know will give me a satisfying reading experience, including Lindsay Buroker and Sarah J. Maas. This isn’t a time to try a new writer. Stick to your favorites when you’re stuck.

Set big goals.

I’ve written before about what keeps me motivated. I want to build a career that I can sustain indefinitely without having to get piecemeal teaching work. The thought of that keeps the fire alive, even when work becomes a slog. I’ve barely looked up from my computer for the past five months. But I’ve also finished and published three novels in that time, one of which I hadn’t even started before the beginning of 2016.

In April of this year, I officially met the monthly income target I established as a signifier of whether I was going to make it or not. In May I passed that milestone in 20 days. So I guess this is my job!

Thanks for staying with me, diary. Reaching this target has taken longer than I expected at first, but it has been a great journey. I still feel like I’m just getting started!

Readers, I hope some of these tips will be useful in your own writing or self-employment journey. Do you have any other productivity strategies you’d like to share?

Now it’s time to jump back in to Steel and Fire Book 3!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, I am definitely one of those people who needs to swashbuckle my way into  self-discipline, particularly when it comes to writing. I can always think of an excuse to procrastinate! I really value your advice, and am sure other readers will as well. Thank you, as always! ~ML

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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Photo credit: The swashbuckler was downloaded from Pixabay.

Upon moving to UK, American poet Robert Peake sees his verse takes flight


The last time I engaged in poetry—I mean, truly engaged in it, as in reading and trying to write some—was when I lived in Japan. I learned about haiku all over again and even adopted the local custom of composing renga (a chain of haiku poems, from which the stand-alone haiku was born) on New Year’s Day (in English, of course—there are limits!). It made me feel like a kid again.

Thus when American-born UK-based poet Robert Peake sent me a book of his poetry called The Knowledge, I was thrilled 1) to be reading poetry again (a habit I soon dropped upon repatriation) and 2) find it includes a sequence of poems, titled “Smoke Ring,” that reminds me of renga.

When I mentioned this to him, Robert said “Smoke Ring” is in a linked form similar to renga; it borrows loosely from the Western tradition of the crown of sonnets—though in the case of this poem, it’s “not a full crown but more of a tiara.” He added that many cultures have some type of inter-woven speech as a means to perhaps memorize, or at least come to terms with, shared experience.

But while “shared experience” conjures up an image of sitting around a campfire, “Smoke Ring” reports on an experience that is common to people who are living in countries where they might not be welcome at the fire. It begins in the immigration office and then takes us through the Big Smoke from the poet’s displaced perspective.

Thanks so much, Robert, for agreeing to share your work before our virtual campfire of Displaced Nation readers.

Readers, I invite you to be a kid again; as one reader says, Robert’s poems are about things “known in your heart and in your bones as much as in your mind.” Enjoy.

* * *

Smoke Ring

Home Office, Croydon

Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs,
steaming up my third latte this hour,
gasping into the air-conditioned lounge
of what could be an airport terminal.
The man wearing a topi beside me
forgets to breathe, then gasps, repeats,
while his daughters in the play area
build homes from coloured bricks.
The clerks shuffle paperwork cheerfully
red passport, blue passport, green passport,
brown, jobsworth elves who know the list
of who gets Christmas, who gets coal.
My number up, I flash a tight-lipped smile,
Should I stay or should I go? Stuck in my mind.

Should I stay Clapham Junction

Clapham Junction

Should I stay or should I go? stuck in my mind,
the doors tweet shut with a rubbery thud.
I’d beg for forgiveness, but begging’s
not my business as the train glides away,
to float its fanning delta of branch lines.
Too little, too late, in the middle of a place
never meant to be anyone’s final destination.
Here it all comes together, here it splits
wide apart. One more change, explains a dad
to son, tugging him across the platform.
Crowds weave together, and people disappear.
I step back from the edge, into the slipstream.
The train is gone, the moment past, but still
the ghosts remain, black shadows cast.

The ghosts remain

Soho

The ghosts remain, black shadows cast
on brick, mist over neon-lit cobblestones.
Hard Road is playing the bar next door
There must be something in the air…
The exhaust pipe of a Hackney carriage
respires to the beat of its diesel drum.
In from the glowing tip, it lulls
then curls from a working girl’s nostrils.
Visibly at east, the smoke lounges
in all directions, spreading its arms.
Here is the city’s grit-flecked embrace.
…been dying since the day I was born.
Part your lips, and breathe in slowly,
drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air.

Brick Lane Market

Drawing up the sweet, unhealthy air
from sizzling woks, flat bubbling crepes
we ogle falafel, smirk at t-shirt slogans,
finger the dyed silks and leather bags.
Huguenot chapel turned Russian synagogue,
now a Bangladeshi Mosque, the moon and star
wink down at our worldly commerce
from the smokestack of a silver minaret.
Every brick a different shape and shade,
pecked by the acrid air, specked with colour
from a rattling can, even graffiti is for sale—
Street art area: pay up or close your eyes.
Burning ghee and mustard oil, hissing paint.
Close both eyes, and follow the scent.

Close both eyes

Canary Wharf

Close both eyes, and follow the scent
of marsh grass, salt rope, barnacled wood.
Oil lamps puff, pipe down their leaden light.
Tusk-like, whale ribs embrace a building site.
Spire of Narwhal, great barge upended, now
sea monsters rise up smooth, in cubic glass—
the streets scrubbed clean of tidal mud,
the Thames runs clear as lymph without its blood.
New brick, poured cement, tarmac’s dull sheen,
cranes pick the horizon where gulls pocked the sand.
Shoe black, suit cleaners, flower shop for guilt,
security guards aim mops where coffee is spilt.
From a top-story balcony, an underwriter plans his grave
while admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze.

While admiring the skyline

Blackheath

While admiring the skyline, its rich amber haze,
sun scalds the mist in an oil slick of light
reminding us the ocean is never far, reminding us,
like Turner, like Messiaen, in saturated tones.
Street lamps peer over us, considering our gait, where
the gibbet posts once dangled a peepshow of bodies,
betraying flesh to bake and rot its carmelised smell,
the gloaming air turned treacherous, picking rag from bone.
Beneath our dew-spotted feet, the earth grinds its teeth.
Sealed away like embers in the furnace of the heath,
plague pits chew ancestors’ memories to tar,
the pocked bodies smelt, give off obsidian heat.
Over the vale, the mist descends, sherbet and blue.
Beneath the surface, darker matter stirs.

Beneath the surface

Published with the permission of Nine Arches Press.

Robert Peake is an American-born poet living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry series, bringing poets together from around the world for live online poetry readings and conversations. He also collaborates with other artists on film-poems, and his work has been widely screened in the US and Europe. His newest collection, The Knowledge, is now available from Nine Arches Press.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! NOTE: Robert Peake is a Dispatch subscriber: that’s how we met!! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Collage at top of page: (top row) Maggie Taylor – Blue Caterpillar (Alice in Wonderland, 2007), by cea + via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Smoke Rings, by David~O via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). The two photos of Robert Peake at the English Falconry School, supplied, were taken by John Eikenberry. Should I stay…: Clapham Junction yard (2), by Les Chatfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “The ghosts remain…”: Soho Smoke, by konstantin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0. “Drawing up the sweet…”: Food stalls at Brick Lane’s Sunday Upmarket, by Brick Lane Food via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Close both eyes, and…”: Reflections on Canary Wharf, by Gordon Joly via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). “While admiring the skyline…”: Blackheath sunset, by rip via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). “Beneath the surface…”: The UK Border at Heathrow Airport, by Danny Howard via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works


This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of Expatclic.com, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.

 

Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

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