The Displaced Nation

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

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 Two of her lively travel/travail-ogue; anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate. (Miss Part One? Find it here.)

We are now four days into April and my students and I have been to Paris and to several chateaux in the Loire Valley. Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I’ve been reminding them that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

That said, we’ve already had plenty of enjoyable moments, including the rare sight of a rainbow over the Château de Chambord. Our French tour director, Nathalie, suggested this as the title for my next book: A Rainbow Over Chambord.

And now we’ve made it to gentle, lovely Normandy and Brittany. Apples and butter, Camembert and cows. No drama, no high emotions today—not until we reach the D-Day beaches tomorrow. We’re in the land of crêpes and galettes.

And what would our nine days be without a rude French waiter—actually quite difficult to find these days.

Monsieur Méchant, my students call him. They’re using one of our vocabulary words! Mr. Mean.

While they’ve learned to appreciate some French delicacies (poulet confit, profiteroles, pork rillettes, chicken liver pâtéun croque monsieur), they occasionally fall back on the familiar.

“That may be the worst sandwich I’ve ever had.”

“Ah, so you’ve learned an important lesson, non? Never order a baguette called The American in France!”

We have reached Mont Saint-Michel, a spikey medieval stronghold and pilgrimage destination jutting out into the English Channel. I revel in the calm of its cloister, three arches of which are open to the sea.

This place looks like a French Hogwarts, and this would be the dining hall. Perfect.

Dozens of seagulls soaring overhead—look how cute they are up close!

So, Mont St Michel was first built in the 700s? That’s over 1,000 years ago!

“Your math skills astound me,” I say with a smile.

We amble down the steep, corkscrewed lanes of the abbey and then through the village below. As I point out the rustic La Mère Poulard Café, famous for its fluffy omelettes Normandes, we manage to bump, very literally, into a working film crew. They push us aside. Make way for the star.

“Hey, they’re shooting a film—wow, a French actress!”

“Do you know her, Madame Bohr?”

“I think it’s just a commercial or there would be more cameras, right?”

We stand and watch two takes, gawking from the sides of the cobblestoned footpath, as the thirty-something beauty performs a soliloquy on a cell phone. Our brush with Gallic fame for the day. I google the actress that evening—redheaded French actress with blue eyes. How many could there be? And there she is: Audrey Fleurot, of Les IntouchablesMidnight in Paris and a yet-unknown film shot on Mont St. Michel.

“I had no idea you spoke so much French, Madame Bohr. You can ask directions and read the signs and talk to our guides and order food. And you can even order wine!”

Thank God for that. J’ai la patate (I’m in the mood).
Brittany and Normandy

Our longest day

“I thought our room was on the first floor. She said premier étage, didn’t she?”

“Why do we need the elevator?”

“Because in France, the first floor is on the second floor. We talked about it in class, but now you’ll remember,” I say. 

Our coach puts dozens of kilometers of narrow country roads behind us, weaving past stone buildings in various states of disrepair. They’ve been here for centuries—long before World War II came close to obliterating them all. Houses, barns, stables, outbuildings, storage sheds, churches. Some appear to have come through the war unscathed, their bucolic charm intact. Others lie in pieces, barely recognizable under gold and milky lichen, thick grasses and specks of blue spring wildflowers.

Who were the people who lived here during the war? French country homes are rarely sold, customarily passed down through families, so it’s likely those who live here now, lived here in the 1940s, or at least their forebears did. Stories of Allied sacrifice and bravery were shared across generations, thus, many yards fly both French and American flags.

“Madame Bohr, it feels like we’re at the seashore.”

“We ARE at the seashore. We’re in Normandy, close to the D-day BEACHES,” I say. “Don’t you remember what Nathalie told us and what we discussed this morning? D-day, Jour-J, to the French, took place on the English Channel, La Manche. You’ll see where the battles were fought as soon as we get off the bus.”

I find the beaches of Northern France melancholy by nature: cold, gray, rocky. Add the D-day landings and my heart wants to break. There’s salt in the air, and humidity. Remarkable humidity. Seagulls scream overhead. The landscape at Pointe du Hoc, virtually untouched since 1944 and pockmarked with deep bomb craters, is dotted with dense, low-slung bushes of tightly packed yellow beach blooms. A tiny ginger-breasted European robin twitches its head in the brush, trilling morning song. The inexorable persistence of nature on such a blood-soaked bluff.

Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here seventy years ago? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?

It’s an emotionally gloomy day, despite blue skies and a crisp wind. We arrive at the Normandy American Cemetery, honoring the Americans who died in Europe during World War II, and the yellow roses have changed to spiky mauve and burgundy heather. I’ve visited this sacred spot multiple times, yet it never fails to make me cry. How could it not? Seeing the black and white photographs of the fresh, young faces of men—boys, actually—displayed on the walls of the Visitors Center is all it takes.

I reiterate to my charges Nathalie’s suggestion that each of them find a soldier from Maryland, or the state in which he or she was born, take a picture of the grave marker and research him when they return home. Say a prayer, be grateful, say thank you to him and his family.

My students gaze out over Omaha Beach to the English Channel and I wonder what they’re thinking, dreaming. Are they imagining a war that seems so very long ago? What was I thinking at their age? As I recall, it was always about the future. About all that lay ahead. Life yet to unfold. Now, however, with decades and so many of life’s major decisions behind me, I’m in the present, appreciating the privilege of sharing history with students, watching it come alive in their eyes.

As we stand on this promontory where what happened changed the world, my wish for my charges, as it is for my children: put the important things in relief and let the trivial falls aside. Appreciate what they have and what was secured for them on this cliff in France.

Omaha Beach

“Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?”

In the end, what will they remember?

The end of our nine-day trip looms.

I recall being enchanted, smitten, after my first taste of France. Have my students fallen in love as well? Have they caught the very same Francophile bug?

“Are we taking the metro or the RER into Paris?”

 “Bravo! You know the difference.” I applaud their progress.

There has been plenty of hilarity and silliness followed by moments of reflection and illumination.

Our final evening in Paris. A cruise on the Seine. Notre Dame soars, the river banks crawl with revelers, the Eiffel Tower glitters. My students shout with glee, their voices echoing, each time we glide under one of Paris’ many bridges.

“I’ve never laughed so hard.”

“I can’t believe I ate chicken liver. I really can’t believe I actually liked it!”

“This is the best meal I’ve ever had.”

“I’ll remember this trip for the rest of my life.”

“I’ll never forget how beautiful Paris is. I’m so sad we leave tomorrow.”

“I want to stay. When I come back to France…”

French music to my ears.
Eiffel Tower by Night

* * *

Brava, Madame Bohr! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this account of your travels/travails with your students. C’était très drôles! Like you, I also wonder whether this trip will have a long-lasting effect. If only we could track your charges over the next ten years: how many will take gap years, become expats? You’ve certainly done your bit to point them in the right direction! —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: (clockwise from top left) Audrey Fleurot à l’ouverture du Printemps du cinéma à l’UGC La Défense, by Georges Biard via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); Normandy cow and glass of wine via Pixabay; Tidal Plains from the Cloisters Mont St. Michel Abbey France, by amanderson2 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); La Mere Poulard, Mont St Michel, by John Mason via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and view of Mont Saint-Michel via Pixabay. Second collage: Normandy American Cemetery via Pixabay; and [untitled – Pointe du Hoc], by Scott via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of Paris by night via Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

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

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

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

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

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

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

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

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —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). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Against the wind, becoming a repatriate

Displaced creative Sally Rose

When Sally Rose first started this column, her most perplexing issue was where to go next after five years of being based in Santiago, Chile. But then a devastating personal tragedy struck and she had no choice but to return to the United States. In this month’s post, she reports on her transition. —ML Awanohara

I’ve been back in the United States for not quite two months. Back in New Mexico, where I’d lived twice before.

I’ve owned a condo here for the past two years, but I didn’t expect to actually live in it. It was supposed to be my pied-à-terre, my escape hatch, an occasional break from my real life, that of a perpetually perplexed peripatetic expat. Now, everything is topsy-turvy and, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be home.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (mistakenly attributed to John Lennon)

Repatriating wasn’t part of the plan, but circumstances change. In my case, death happened. As I wrote about in my last column, my son, Phillip, passed away in May. Instead of visiting with him, it’s all business now, taking care of whatever has to be done.

It’s a month on and I still haven’t seen Phillip’s fiancee. She’s working at a summer camp for children, out in the New Mexico wilderness. Our reunion will have to wait a while longer.

Am I glad to have a little hidey-hole to come back to? Maybe, but I’m hoping it will be a temporary measure in an otherwise peripatetic life.

Phillip would have understood. “If I wanted to just hang out with ‘Americans,’ I would stay in the United States.” I used to say that often, long before Phillip encouraged me to follow my dream and move to Chile.

In our first conversation about my going overseas, Phillip told me, “I’ve been wondering what’s taking you so long.” He knew, even before I’d decided, that I would become an expat.

The expat life is a kind of calling

A few months ago, I read an article about a woman who’d grown up in Portugal. As an adult, she moved to London and assumed the expat life. As I recall, she didn’t stay there very long, maybe a year, before moving back to Portugal.

She commented that she felt like a failure because her expat life in London didn’t work out.

Maybe failure is the wrong word. Being an expat isn’t for everyone. For me it was a kind of calling. When I went to Chile, I learned Spanish, taught many students, learned from many students, and created a family-like circle of friends.

Before I left Chile, the Universe brought several people, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, back around to say goodbye.

The neighbor, whom I had met in the laundry room when I was a newbie to Chile. She was the one who introduced me to Chilean sopaipillas, which are very different from Mexican sopaipillas.

Even after I moved out of my apartment in the Bellas Artes neighborhood of Santiago, I ran into the drum-and-flute band. In the late afternoons, they used to wander through the neighborhoods of Bellas Artes and LaStarria, busking for donations. I felt like they had come to tell me goodbye.

I ran into my original landlord, the famous Sr. A from my memoir, A Million Sticky Kisses, three times in the two weeks before I left.

Coincidence? Could have been, if you believe in it, which I don’t.

At my despedida, my farewell party before leaving Santiago, I looked at the faces of my guests and realized that two-thirds of them were Chilean faces. I smiled. I had created another life in another part of the world. Mission accomplished.
adios chile

Against the wind, becoming a repatriate

Once I arrived back here in New Mexico, it took two weeks for me to unpack. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and unpacking didn’t seem important.

By now, I’ve tackled everything except the three boxes that I had mailed back to myself. I threw them into my storage locker here at the condo complex. I wonder what’s in them, what part of my other life I considered important enough to save.

I’m struggling to get into a routine, some semblance of normalcy. No exercise regimen, no writing routine, no Pisco Sour debriefs with a bestie once a week. Not yet.

I’ve tried Pilates, my preferred form of exercise, but it’s different here. Instead of being a relaxed, gentle atmosphere of breath-work and stretching, like in Chile, it’s hut-hut-hut, military style. I don’t like it.

Pilates Now and Then

I’m taking the stairs to my fourth floor apartment, whenever I don’t have my hands full. It gives me a little cardio workout once or twice a day, but it’s not the same as doing Pilates. I miss it.

And don’t get me started on how I have to drive everywhere, or how much I dislike hot weather, or how difficult it is to make new friends in an old place.

Sandia Mountains vista

 

As I wrote about on my own blog, I feel like I’ve been yanked out of a familiar and beloved garden, leaving torn roots behind.

Last year, when I visited Scotland, I spotted this graffiti on the side of a building.

“The things I love are not at home.”

I wondered who wrote that and what that meant to them.
What were they thinking
I’m not sure where “home” is, but I know that the things that are most important to me didn’t get packed into those boxes that I shipped back to Albuquerque.

The things I love most aren’t “things.”

Let me leave you with this thought:
TrustthatanEnding

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed, and Now Grieving

* * *

Sally, Thank you for updating us. I know from personal experience how hard it is to repatriate but your circumstances make it even harder. I’m rooting for you! I’m also imagining that your restless, roaming spirit will not allow you to remain home for very long…but we shall see. —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 entertained herself (and us) by “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country, where she made her home for five years. 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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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The expat life is a craft you can practice, and there are bandaids, laughter & alone time when it doesn’t go well

Mrs EE Culture Shock Toolbox

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a seasoned expat, who like herself is an Adult Third Culture Kid, for some advice on handling culture shock. They also talk reverse culture shock.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’d like you to meet Mrs Ersatz Expat! You might recognize her from her namesake blog where she describes herself as “a 30 something global soul, a perpetual expat” and writes about her life in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan (the list goes on…). Her photo of the indoor beach in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, complete with water slides and beach volleyball court, will make you want to experience blizzards in a whole new way!

Mrs EE prefers to remain anonymous online (hence “Mrs EE”), seriously dislikes milky tea and harbors a love for gadgets which, according to her, improve “life disproportionately compared with their actual value.” Her blog even features a series of said useless doodads, with photos! They include washing machine covers, neck rings for babies, double eye-lid tape and chair socks.

Mrs EE was born into a global life. She grew up in several countries, including a stint in a scary-sounding boarding school in the UK. She kindly took the time to share some of her culture shock stories and experiences. Join us as we talk about cringe-worthy boarding school moments (including a close encounter with Marmite!), along with some self-preservation tips such as laughing your head off and remembering to make time for yourself…

* * *

A warm welcome, Mrs EE, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I am an Irish citizen born in the Netherlands to a Dutch (naturalized Irish)/Irish family. We lived in the Netherlands for two years after I was born and returned there for a further three short postings over the following 20 years. I also spent significant periods living with my grandparents in the Netherlands when my mother was very ill and receiving hospital treatment there. I probably had more personal and cultural connections with the Netherlands than any other country up until I was around 14 years old. After the Netherlands my family had postings in Norway, the UK, Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela.

I was in boarding school in the UK when my family moved to Nigeria and only visited them for school holidays. I subsequently went to university in the UK, where I met my British husband and started my career. Nowadays I have more personal and cultural connections with the UK (my parents retired there and my sister lives there) than any other country, and many people who meet me believe I am British.

A few years after our first child was born my husband and I were offered the opportunity to expatriate, and we moved to Kazakhstan. After that we spent 18 months in Malaysia (both East and West during that period), and we are now in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That makes a total of nine countries and I think 11 or 12 postings give or take. I have never lived in my passport country. I last visited Ireland five years ago.

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

All the time! The process of handing money over is always fraught. In some countries no one cares as long as they get it. In others, you put the money down and never hand it over. In yet other places you use only your right hand while others expect you to use both. I now have this habit of putting money down on the counter with my right hand—it seems to cover most bases.

handing over money

And I think you have some memorable stories about that British boarding school you attended?

The most cringe-worthy moment I ever had was on the very first day. I was 11 years old, joined mid-year and no one in my family had ever boarded before so I was rather at sea with the whole experience. My mother had dropped me off the night before and was on her way to meet my father in Nigeria. I knew the mail service was so bad I would not hear from them at all before I arrived, alone, in Lagos airport in three months’ time. I was rather scared and, although I had lived in England for the two years leading up to the move and attended an English school, I had lived with my parents so I was not truly culturally immersed in British food and traditions, let alone boarding traditions, which most of the other girls had heard about from their mothers and aunts.

I went down to breakfast and was rather bemused by being offered tea with or without sugar. While there was sugar on the table this was only for sprinkling on cereal (yes really!): we were not allowed to put that sugar in our tea. I asked for it with sugar and noticed with horror that it came with the milk already in. I am not allergic to milk but don’t have it often so it made me gag. At the same time I spread my toast with what I thought was chocolate spread. It turned out to be something called Marmite—a salty British sandwich spread for which the advertising tagline is you either love it or hate it. Well, I hated it.

The matron at the head of our table yelled at me for being greedy, taking food I wasn’t eating and, shaming me in front of all the girls, made me eat and drink every piece of food.

How did you handle that situation?

I finished my food and ran to the loos, when we were released for the five minutes before prayers, to be sick and burst into tears. I could not have a hot drink at breakfast for the entire two years I was in that boarding school, and I retain an abiding hatred for that woman and my time there.

Horrors of British Boarding School

THE HORRORS OF BRITISH BOARDING SCHOOL: Being offered milky tea with no sugar; tasting Marmite when you thought it was chocolate spread; and being shamed by Matron.

Would you handle the situation differently now?

If someone tried to do that to me now I would stand up to them, of course! If I saw someone doing that to a child I would be furious. No amount of cultural sensitivity to host cultures should require a child be shamed by a grown up, particularly when their parents are not around to defend them. Years later when my husband was a deputy house master and we were house parents, I came home from work to find the whole of the youngest year in our flat. They had committed some minor infraction for which they had been punished. They missed their supper and the Matron would not allow them to have any replacement meal. We cooked them bacon sandwiches and put in a formal complaint to the school.

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

It’s very hard to say, I moved so many times as a child that adapting to new cultures and expectations has become rather the norm for me. I wouldn’t say I exhibit any particular finesse as such but I do find that the transitions are less of a shock to me than to many of the people I meet because they are an integral part of my life rather than a once–thrice in a lifetime experience. That is not to say that I don’t experience stress, culture shock, bereavement at leaving a posting or any of those feelings that are the bread-and-butter of expat life. It’s just that I know to expect them and I know how they impact me. I also have an insight into how our children are feeling because I lived their life as opposed to just seeing them go through it.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Resilience! Expat life is hard, and you don’t become a craftsman overnight. You have to practice and get used to handling the unexpected, which gets thrown at you every day from the moment you get through immigration control and out of the airport. Some days will be unbelievably hard but, once you get through them, put away the toolbox and rest, and then get it out again and have another go. You have to be willing to take the hits, stand up and endure. Eventually, it will get easier.

I like the idea of taking the hits and moving on. Everyone should have Bandaids in their Culture Shock Toolbox.

That’s true, and you also need to know when you’re getting close to the end of your reserves and need some downtime. Whether it’s a holiday or a trip home to see relatives, time on your own or with your spouse and children, or even just a quick coffee with a friend (in person or over Skype), make sure that you get it. And you also have to make time just for yourself.

Finally, I would suggest cultivating a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at your mistakes rather than feel too bad about them. I remember one time, a month or so into our posting in Kazakhstan, we went to a fast food outlet in a food court and ordered four burger meals (we could not read the menu or order anything more complicated at the time). We were given five Danish pastries. I remember we sat there laughing our heads off to stop ourselves crying with frustration. Of course, by the time we left we could read menus, order specific food with variations and send it back if it was not to our liking and then we had to learn the process all over again in a new country!

Bandaids laughter time for self

POSSIBLE REMEDIES/FIXES: Bandaids, laughter, and self-care should be in every expat’s Culture Shock Toolbox.

That seems like sound advice! If you can laugh, your recovery from cultural mishaps will be much quicker, that’s for sure. And now can I ask whether you have any tips for handling reverse culture shock?

I have never gone home as such, but I do get a sense of this when we travel to the Netherlands. Of course we are not moving there to live so it’s not as intense but I do experience a wave of sadness that the country I grew up in effectively no longer exists. People behave differently, the TV programs are different, I no longer speak the language as easily, and many of the people with whom I spent most of my time are now dead. I feel out of time and out of place. I don’t think I would ever go back there to live, it’s too sad. My parents never returned to their native lands, choosing instead to settle in the UK where they had based our education. I think they realised that 30 years of expat life made it too hard for them to return.

How about if you end up back in the UK, where your husband is from and where you think of as “home”?

I am not sure what will help us transition back to life in the UK when we finally end our expat lives. I think a lot will depend on our children. We are currently debating whether or not to send them to boarding school in England when they’re older. If we do we will, of course, be back there far more often than if we don’t, and our children as well as our parents and siblings will help keep us far more grounded than if we had no family around. In the meantime, I make sure that Britain is not a distant country, reading a spread of papers and news magazines every day. The Internet has been a godsend in this regard. I remember as a child Radio 4 was on constantly and people would bring out tapes of CNN and the World Service which would do the rounds; a four-hour snapshot of the news. Papers and magazines were on circulation lists and as my father was promoted we got the papers more quickly. These days I can read the news as soon as it’s published, it’s truly fantastic.

Thank you so much, Mrs EE, for sharing your experiences so openly. What you say about resilience and taking time for ourselves is so true. We just have to look onwards and forwards while managing our own energy resources, and remember that it’s not only OK but necessary to take a break and treat ourselves with a little TLC. Bandaids, laughter and alone time should be in every expat’s culture shock toolbox!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any boarding school horror stories to share? Please leave them in the comments, along with any questions you have for Mrs EE.

Hm, there’s actually a question I forgot to ask her: why does she call herself “ersatz”, which means not genuine or fake? Is it because she is enjoying the expat life so much? On that note, I’ll leave you with her photo of chair socks:
Chair sox-515
(Who knew chairs could get cold feet, too?!)

For more entertainment of this kind, be sure to follow Mrs EE’s blog. She is also on Twitter.

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 posts.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top collage: Photos of England, Ireland, Holland and Jeddah from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Ersatz Expat and her blog branding (supplied). Next visual: “Money in hand” photo from Pixabay. Second collage: (clockwise from top left) Memories of boarding school, by jinterwas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); tea service photo via Pixabay; SHAME!, by Mills Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Marmite, thickly spread on toasted bread, by Kent Fredric via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last collage: Hammer and nail, solitary woman & laughter photos via Pixabay; and 流血後の親指 (Your thumb after an accident), by Hisakazu Watanabe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of chair socks is courtesy of Ersatz Expat.

TCK TALENT: The talented Lisa Liang goes to Asia with her one-woman show about growing up everywhere

TCK Talent in Singapore

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has a “first” and a “last” to announce in this post. She will tell us all about what happened when she took her show, Alien Citizen, to Asia for the first time. But she will also tell us that this is her last regular column for the Displaced Nation. Having known her for three years (we even met in person once, when her show was in New York), I will miss interacting with her as well as reading her columns. But as is characteristic of her, she has kindly recruited a replacement. The show will go on! —ML Awanohara

Greetings, dear readers.

As ML just said, this will be my last article for TCK Talent. I’ll be moving on to devote more time to my solo shows, workshops, and acting career.

Starting in September, the column will be carried on by Dounia Bertuccelli, last month’s multi-talented interviewee. I know the column will thrive under her charge.

As ML also said, for my last post I’ll be presenting an account of the journey I made to Singapore in April to perform Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey—my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage.

It was my first time taking the show to Asia. I performed it for Third Culture Kid (TCK) high school students and their parents (many of whom had also been TCKs), teachers, and administrators, at two international schools.

* * *

Two miracles occurred on the flights to Singapore: I was in no pain despite a lower-back injury, and Dan (my husband and techie extraordinaire) and I both fell asleep! We normally can’t sleep on planes no matter what.

Unfortunately, we also experienced something troubling: my ankles and calves swelled up alarmingly. We guessed that this might be due to my choosing the Chinese options at mealtimes, which were tasty…but perhaps a foolish decision on my part since I’m mildly allergic to MSG.

(For details on the health scare that ensued, read my blog.)

Landing in a tropical city full of gardens and great food

Swollen body parts notwithstanding, we oooohed and aaaahed when we arrived at fancy Changi Airport, but were too tired to linger. As the cab drove us through the city-state to our AirBnB apartment, we were impressed by the many tall buildings and the lushly green urban landscape.

After that evening’s health melodrama, we slept like the dead. We had a few days to orient ourselves, sightsee, and start recovering from jet lag. I was expecting the heat of Panama alongside the humidity, but Singapore felt more humid than hot. (We perspired buckets nonetheless.)

Our adventures during the first two full days included:

  • visiting the lovely, peaceful Chinese Garden…in the pouring rain…with one umbrella. (Dan had accidentally left his in the Uber car.) Despite the deluge, we were impressed by the Confucius statues and the Bonsai Garden.
  • taking the immaculate and orderly MRT (metro). We loved hearing the train’s prerecorded announcements in Standard RP English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.
  • exploring the interior of the enormous ION Orchard, a mall on Orchard Road. (It was still raining outside.)
  • ordering Malay and Indian food at a hawker stall in a mall near our AirBnB. (Singapore malls have food courts that serve the same scrumptious food you’d get at one of the famous hawker centres.)
  • trying a local dessert of shaved ice topped with red beans, black jello, and syrup—sort of a combo of Ice Kachang and Grass Jelly. Super-sweet!
  • experiencing Singapore’s favorite breakfast/snack at Toast Junction: kaya toast (sugar-coconut-buttered toast) served with two soft-boiled eggs, dribbled with a little bit of soy sauce, and a cup of hot coffee with condensed milk. Even if you’re not a fan of soft-boiled eggs (neither am I) or milk in your coffee (neither is Dan), we’re here to tell you that the whole combination is fantastic.

SHOWTIME #1 @ Canadian International School

On the first performance day we were up at 5:30 a.m. (The horror.) Our cab took us to Canadian International School in the pre-dawn darkness. In the impressively large and beautiful theatre, the school’s cheerful stage techie helped us to set up. I was warmly welcomed by a few faculty and admin members—and then the 9th through 11th graders started pouring in.

Showtime!

At first the audience was very quiet yet attentive. Some whispering began after 20 minutes and slowly grew louder until there was a low murmur toward the end.

Nonetheless, the students giggled and laughed at various appropriate places, and at the curtain call I heard a few hoots of appreciation along with the applause.

This was a relief because I rarely know how the show has been received until I take my bow. Afterward, drama teacher Julie and a slew of ATCKs (who are now moms to TCKs!) thanked me repeatedly for bringing the show to the school. I was especially validated by Julie’s appreciation of the script and performance since she’s a fellow theatre-maker.

As has happened after all of my performances, audience members approached to tell me about their own intercultural, nomadic lives and which parts of the show resonated the most for them.

One of them was a friend of a fellow Writing Out of Limbo author—thus proving how small the world is!

I loved hearing American accents from the non-US citizens and non-American accents from the US citizens. It made me feel like I was among my people, with that particular vibe of an international-school crowd, again.

My dear college friend Kikuko flew in from Tokyo just to see the show and flew back directly after, which blew my mind!

I learned later that the head of the school and the secondary school principal both enjoyed the show as well—always affirming to receive praise from the “top admin.” I will forever be grateful to Canadian International School for giving Alien Citizen its Asia Pacific debut.

As usual, my adrenaline was still pumping after the show, so Dan and I headed off to the Singapore National Museum. It had beautiful artifacts and displays, dense with information…and then we went home and crashed.
CIS performance

More marvels in this dot-sized city-state

On our day in between performances, we explored Little India. We saw our first Buddhist and Hindu temples, all of which were gorgeously colorful: Leong San See (Chinese Buddhist), Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (Thai Buddhist with a huge Buddha statue), and Sri Srinivasa Perumal (Hindu). Each was a marvel for uninitiated us. We also saw the Sultan Mosque, which was more modest than the mosques I’ve toured elsewhere, but very welcoming to visitors.

It was another warm day and the humidity began to take its toll. Still, I enjoyed seeing the brightly painted two-story houses all walled together (like the one-story ones you see in Guatemala and other Latin American countries), with open shutters on the upper floors like in Cape Town.

When the humidity became overpowering, it was a pleasure to duck into a 7-Eleven (!) that blasted air conditioning—a/c is paramount in Singapore. We had lunch at Muthu’s Curry, where the delicious food was served on banana leaves. After waddling out we took an Uber to Arab Street and walked by tons of shops on the pedestrian road. At Sifr Aromatics I bought some blended-in-person Shadowfax perfume, which I adore.

In between shows

SHOWTIME #2 @ Singapore American School

The next day we went to Singapore American School for my afternoon performance. The high school drama teacher, Tom, gave us a warm welcome. I would perform in one of three theatres on campus, which had a luxurious backstage area—aisles upon aisles of dressing-room vanity mirrors and a full bathroom! The school’s theatre techies were very professional and helpful.

During the performance, the audience was alert and even laughed heartily at a few points. Afterward, some audience members came up to praise the show and a faculty member gave me an emotional bear hug. (Every time an audience member shows that much appreciation, it’s a relief, because it highlights the show’s value for different people in different places even as time wears on. I never know if there’s going to be an expiration date.)

Again, it was especially validating to hear a fellow theatre-maker like Tom speak of the craft that goes into creating and performing a show like Alien Citizen. I’ve performed it so many times in non-theatrical venues that I’ve become resigned to folks who refer to the show as a “sketch.”

For those unfamiliar with my work: I perform over 30 characters (including myself at different ages), speak five languages in it, and take the audience through six countries while I’m all alone onstage…with no intermission…for 80 minutes. It’s my job to make it flow and feel intimate, but it has never been an easy one.

An old friend of my mom from my high school years in Egypt (it seems that everyone knows someone in Singapore) took Dan and me out for drinks and dinner afterwards to celebrate. We went to the American Club, which is humongous with several restaurants, a pool, library, convenience store, dry cleaner, and more—I’ve never seen anything like it. They make an excellent martini…
SAS performance

Final hurrah: Singapore

The next day: freedom! Now we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of the trip! We took the MRT to the old colonial district, where we visited the Merlion, Cavanagh Bridge, and the Asian Civilisations Museum. The latter had a fascinating shipwreck exhibit as well as a collection of gorgeous ceramics.

The next stop was Raffles Hotel for high tea. We each indulged in two servings of tiered tea trays of finger sandwiches, cakes, and tarts. The meal also included a buffet of dim sum (!), croque monsieurs, chicken pot pies, and scones. (By now you’ve figured out: I’m all about the food.) After stuffing ourselves to the sound of a musician playing musical theatre tunes on a harp, we peaked into the famous Long Bar. We decided against ordering an overpriced Singapore Sling and took an Uber home.

The following day we visited Chinatown. We loved the Chinese Heritage Centre, which recreates what a shophouse was like in the 1950s—very immersive and expertly done. There were tons of places to shop for knickknacks. We had lunch at Fill-a-Pita, my high-school-mate Hassan’s eatery, where he served us delicious vegetarian Egyptian/Middle Eastern food. Singapore is a true hub for international folk.

We then walked through the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which were lush and peaceful. (They are the only tropical gardens to be honored as a UNESCO Heritage site.) That evening we went to the famous Wee Nam Kee for a dinner of Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore’s wildly popular and yummy comfort food.

The next day we visited Liang Seah Street, which was recommended for its young vibe. I enjoyed seeing my surname on street signs! We returned to Chinatown to visit Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple, Thian Hock Keng, the interior of which reminded me vaguely of my extended family’s “big house” in Guatemala City (tiled floor around an open sky patio). We then walked to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple with its splendid interior. We were privileged to witness our first Buddhist service there.

That evening we went to the Night Safari, said to be the world’s first nocturnal zoo. Tip: get your tickets online to avoid a two-hour wait. It was fun to see nocturnal animals (and non-nocturnal animals, asleep) from all over the world as we were driven through on long trams. The elephants may have been the most thrilling sight. I had seen them and other animals on wildlife preserves in Kenya when I was 15, but that was a very long time ago. Alien Citizen’s final scene is set in Kenya, so there was a nice symmetry to seeing African animals on this trip.

On our last day we returned to Orchard Road. This time the sun was shining and we could see why it’s sometimes compared to the Champs d’Elysees or 5th Avenue. From there we went to the Peranakan Museum, which is basically the mixed heritage/multiracial/multicultural museum of Singapore. I felt very at home!

For our last adventure in the city, we took a Singapore River tour on a bumboat, the kind with a cheesy prerecorded commentary. I’m so glad we did, because we saw a completely different Singapore from the one we had been experiencing on the MRT and in cabs. It really is lovely along the banks of the quays and bays at twilight.

We capped the evening off by going to the Flight Bar at the Marina Bay Sands, a Vegas-style, three-towered behemoth of a hotel. Despite our sweaty, bedraggled appearance, we were given excellent service: they seated us at a perfect table overlooking both the bay and the city skyline. We toasted with my French “57” (its version of the drink that was originally served at the American Bar in Paris, later Harry’s New York Bar) and Dan’s Dark ‘N’ Stormy—overpriced but nonetheless a delightful VERY FINAL hurrah. After that celebratory toast, we managed to find one open restaurant, CoCo ICHIBANYA curry house, and gave that Japanese curry hell.

On our day of departure, after checking in at Changi Airport, we headed down to its ginormous food court and got our last kaya toast “Set A” at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. It was glorious. As we walked to our gate, we saw more of the deluxe airport, took pictures, and then had uneventful flights home. It took over two weeks to recover from the jet lag. It was worth it.

Final hurrah: TCK TALENT

It seems fitting for my last entry to be about Alien Citizen. I was first introduced to The Displaced Nation via an interview by amazing founder and editor ML Awanohara, when Alien Citizen was having its world premiere in Hollywood in 2013. ML asked me to write this column not long after the show’s first run ended, and it has been an honor to interview numerous fellow creative ATCKs for TCK Talent. They have all inspired, touched, and educated me. In the meantime, Alien Citizen has traveled around the USA on the college circuit, to festivals and conferences, and to private retreats and galas. It has also traveled the world to theatres, conferences, and international schools in Central America, Iceland, Europe, Africa, and now Asia. Furthermore, it was the catalyst for the workshops I now lead. We’ve come a very long way and we’re not even close to finishing the journey.

I feel privileged to have written for The Displaced Nation and am ever grateful to ML Awanohara for giving me the opportunity. Thank you, dear readers, for following along.

* * *

Thank YOU, Lisa, and the fondest of farewells! I will miss you. You really “got” what the Displaced Nation is about and over the years have showcased so many internationals who are now leading creative lives. You’ve also served as a shining example of that yourself, by reporting on the progress of your show—and several of those reports, like this one, have also been fascinating travelogues. I’m just so glad that the column you have created and shaped, highlighting the many talents of Adult Third Culture kids, will carry on in your wake. (Thank you, Dounia!) Meantime, please promise us you’ll come back to our fair shores from time to time for a visit—and perhaps even the occasional update post. Readers, please leave questions, comments, words of farewell😥😥😥 to Lisa below.

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. To keep up with Lisa’s progress, 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: Singapore cityscape and garden images via Pixabay;  Elizabeth Liang performing at the Canadian International School in Singapore, by Jacquie Weber (supplied); Alien Citizen (poster, supplied); and TCK Talent branding. Second visual: (clockwise from top left) Kaya Toast “Set A” breakfast at Toast Junction, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); MRT image via Pixabay; Lisa at the ION Mall, selfie (supplied); and Chinese and Japanese gardens, Bonsai section, Singapore, by R Barraez D’Lucca via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Third visual: Lisa performing at the Canadian International School in Singapore, by Jacquie Weber (supplied). Fourth visual: (clockwise from top left) Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple via Pixabay; Daniel Lawrence in front of Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, by Lisa Liang (supplied); Muthu’s fish head curry, by Krista, and Arab Street and Sunday lunch, by Bryn Pinzgauer—both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Fifth visual: Singapore American School dressing room, selfie (supplied); and Singapore American School long shot, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied). Sixth visual: (top row) Lisa at Flight Bar, Marina Bay Sands Hotel, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); and Elephant at Night – Night Safari Zoo – Singapore, by Glen Bowman via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) Lisa at the Merlion, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); one of many buddhas in Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, by Lisa Liang (supplied); (bottom row) Changi Airport departure, by Lisa Liang (supplied); High Tea, Raffles Hotel, by llbrarianidol via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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

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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.

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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