(Clockwise from top) Alan Parks with a friend’s alpaca; the converted olive mill where he and his partner, Lorna, now live; Brighton Pier, scene of their former abode (photo credit: Photo Monkey via Flickr Creative Commons).
The most amazing thing about the expat memoir penned by my guest today, Alan Parks, is not simply its title, though Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is quite a doozy.
It’s not even the zaniness of the alpacas that appear throughout the narrative: Bermuda, Cassandra, Lily, Baby Rafa… BTW, they are just a few among many animals Alan and his partner, Lorna Penfold, keep. (There’s a tally of how many and what kinds at the start of each chapter.)
No, the most amazing thing about Alan Parks’s memoir is that fellow expats, particularly fellow Brits (but also one German), are the villains of the piece—the least trustworthy of all the people he and Lorna have encountered on their madcap adventure. I say “madcap” as I think the decision the couple made, six years ago, to abandon their home in Brighton (in their native UK) for a renovated olive mill near Montoro in Spain’s Córdoba Province, which is within the autonomous territory of Andalusia, to raise alpacas justifies my choice of that adjective.
From the book’s beginning, Alan’s instinct is not to stick with the expat community—as he puts it:
I don’t think we would have mixed with many of these people at home, so we should not feel forced to by circumstances.
And boy does that instinct prove right! While the Spanish merely think he and Lorna are crazy (so far as they’re concerned, the British pair may as well be raising giraffes!), their fellow Brits are out to take advantage of them in all kinds of ways. And despite Alan’s better instincts, his limited Spanish at times gives him little choice but to get involved with some pretty unscrupulous characters.
Mind you, the Spanish don’t always come off well either, especially when it comes to their treatment of animals. In light of Mahatma Gandhi’s proclamation—
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
—it would not be too far fetched to say that the animals are the book’s true heroes. They are what keep Alan and Lorna going in face of a seemingly unending series of challenges. In tribute, Alan gives various pets a voice at the end of occasional chapters. (It’s sad when they lose them, though.)
But the reason we are assembled here today to give Alan himself a voice in telling us about his book, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already. It’s done super well on Amazon for a reason: it’s terrific! And please LEAVE A COMMENT at the end of this post to be eligible to win a FREE COPY. (Alan has kindly agreed to give one of his books away: your choice of alpacas or donkeys! And there may also be prizes for runners-up!!!)
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Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Alan! Between you and your partner, Lorna Penfold, you have produced three memoirs about your life in Spain. There’s the book we’re featuring today: Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?. There’s also the sequel: Seriously Mum, Where’s That Donkey? And Lorna has just now published From Sequins to Sunshine: Year One. Tell me, what has made the pair of you so prolific?
The books were never planned. Two years ago, after being told many times that I should write a book about our adventures, I decided to give it a go. Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? was the result. It started out being called Bloody Hell, What’s an Alpaca?—an exact quote for how Lorna’s daughter, Frankie, responded when we told her about our plans. But the use of the word “hell” hindered sales in the US. After I released the sequel, we thought people might like to read Lorna’s point of view. She had started a blog when we first moved here, so we turned her posts from the first year into an e-book. So far the reaction has been good.
What was the impulse that led to your packing it all in and moving to the South of Spain?
Lorna was a dance teacher in the UK and I used to work in retail. Lorna developed a condition called sarcoidosis, which made working difficult. One day we were talking about the possibility of her giving up work, and I suggested moving to Florida, but that was too far away. I blurted out “What about Spain?” Crazy really, as I had never ever been here.
Hey, craziness is what makes the world round! And how about this idea of raising alpacas, where did that come from?
We had heard about alpacas in the UK and thought that would be a good business for us to get in to (it wasn’t).
Okay, seeing as I know nothing about the alpaca business, what makes it so challenging?
An alpaca is not a cheap animal, yet you can’t eat it, and it doesn’t produce milk to drink. You make money by selling them to other breeders. But sales, and the selling price, have gone down since the world financial crisis.
What about their wool?
We try to sell as much of our alpacas’ wool as possible to local people who spin, knit and use it for crafting, but the market here in Spain is miniscule and postage costs prohibitive.
Do Spanish people think you and Lorna are crazy for your devotion to these animals?
People in Spain have never heard of alpacas. To a Spaniard, a goat is a much more useful animal.
Why do you still keep your alpacas if you’re not making any money on them?
For one there is no one to sell them to, and for two, they are part of our family and we love them. We also like it when people come and stay at our farm and can experience walking and feeding the alpacas. And finally, if there were no alpacas, there would be no books.
Ah, yes, the books. We’ll get to that, but first let me ask another alpaca question. The New York Times had an article last year talking about llamas being good pets. I think the alpaca is meant to be the llama’s quirky cousin. So is the same true of them?
It depends….they are no good if you want an animal to pet and stroke. But if you have an acre of land and you need the grass kept short, they could be good. Bear in mind, though, that they need to be kept in groups of at least three!
Out of the grey skies of England and into the frying pan of Spain
Moving right along to the weather: having been an expat in Britain myself, I can imagine you were keen to leave behind its grey skies and unpredictable climate. But were you aware that the interior of Andalusia, where you were headed, is the hottest area in all of Europe?
We didn’t find out about this area being called “The Frying Pan of Spain” until much further down the line. We were sorting some paperwork at the Spanish Embassy in London, and a lady said to us, “You do know they call it the Frying Pan of Spain, don’t you?” In the summer it can easily hit 45 degrees during the day. Siestas are a necessity.
Can you give us some sense of how you spend a typical day in your new life versus when you lived in Brighton?
In Brighton I was often out the door at 7:30 a.m. and got back home about 7:00 p.m. Lorna worked in the evenings, often not returning home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Also, she had to work a lot of Sundays, so we never got to see each other. In Spain our life is much more relaxed. We spend our days looking after the animals and maintaining the house, and we are now together 24/7. You could say we went from one extreme to another.
I understand you met Lorna on the Internet. How long had you known each other before hatching this plan to live in Spain?
We had been together for four years and living together for three before we made the move, so we at least knew we could live together.
Did starting up a totally new life in a foreign land put a strain on your relationship or draw you closer?
I wouldn’t say our relationship has ever been strained, although as you can read in our books, we have been through some tough times together.
Be careful what you wish for…
Having read your book, I know there were quite a few moments in Spain when you felt like a bit like aliens, but which moment stands out as your most displaced, when you wondered if you’d made a mistake?
I think our “What are we doing here?” moment came after about 18 months. We had spent all our money with an English builder renovating our new house in the sun, and we experienced the worst Spanish winter rains for a hundred years. It turned out the builder was a conman and all the roofs he’d built started leaking. On top of that two of our alpacas died in the months before. I remember us standing in our kitchen as water cascaded from the ceiling. We were both in tears.
Wow, a literal “pool of tears” moment! But I know you also have things you love about your new life. Can you tell us about your least displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in Spain’s Frying Pan rather than your native UK?
Andalucia feels like home to us now, although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when we turned the corner. I think we are most aware of it when we are sitting outside having something to eat and drink with friends at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of August, wearing only a t-shirt. That is what life is about, not whether or not you can afford the latest version of the iPad!
Would you say you’ve assimilated to the point where returning to the UK gives you counter culture shock?
Lorna visits the UK regularly as she now has three grandchildren that weren’t even thought about when we first moved here. I have not been back for five years but will head back for a weekend in June to visit my relatives and attend a diamond wedding celebration for my grandparents. In all honesty, I am a bit nervous about it, I am not looking forward to being in crowds. Here in Spain we live in the countryside outside a small town and some days we do not see a single person. Plus in June, I only ever wear shorts and a t-shirt, but in the UK I may need jumpers (sweaters) and trousers.
An Amazon bestseller in Travel with Pets and Travel in Europe
Moving on to your e-books: why did you decide to self-publish?
I wrote my first book just as self-publishing was really taking off. I submitted the manuscript to one publishing house, got a thanks-but-no-thanks letter back, so decided to publish it myself.
Are there any drawbacks to self-publishing?
As a self-publisher, the hardest part is clicking the button to publish. A traditionally published author has that taken away from them, and even if they get mixed reviews they have the backing of the publishing house. We are responsible for everything, from cover, to content, to editing mistakes. If there are problems, or mistakes in the manuscript, that is our fault.
What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Initially I thought it would appeal mainly to other alpaca breeders, but I have had emails from readers all over the world who say they’ve enjoyed reading about our Spanish adventure. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the response to Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? I just had to write the sequel, Seriously Mum, Where’s that Donkey?
Your book has done very well on Amazon. Do you do a lot to promote it?
I run a FB group called We Love Memoirs, which has over a thousand members, all of whom enjoy books like mine. The best way to promote is by word of mouth. If somebody recommends your book to their friend, nothing beats that. As a self publisher I am actually against the Amazon Select program, where you make your book available exclusively on Kindle. My books are available on Amazon but also everywhere else: iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and even smaller retailers.
What’s next—more books?
I would like to release a third book this year, and Lorna has years 2 and 3 in her From Sequins to Sunshine series to work on.
How are the alpacas doing?
The alpacas are good, and if all is well, we may have some babies at the end of the year.
10 Questions for Alan Parks & Lorna Penfold
Finally, I know that both you and Lorna have become avid readers while living in Spain, so I’m curious to hear both of you answer a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Alan: I’m not sure I have ever read a truly great book. The books I read tend not to get put in that category. Lorna: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Alan: I also have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I didn’t have the same reaction Lorna did.
2. Favorite literary genre: Alan: Comedy memoir. Lorna: Everything except horror.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Alan: I haven’t been on a plane for six years. Before it would have been an old fashioned book, but now I would read on a kindle app on my phone. Lorna: Always a paperback (whatever I happen to be reading).
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read: Alan: Mine, of course! I think it would do him the world of good to find out that people can be happy living a more simple life, with less materialistic ideals in life! Lorna: Mine of course, just to give him a look at a day to day life of a “normal” working class person.
5. Favorite books as a child: Alan: The “Adventure” Series, by Willard Price.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction: Alan: Jack West Junior, who appears in a book series by Australian author Matthew Reilly. Lorna: Mariam from A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Alan: Peter Mayle. Lorna: Khaled Hosseini.
8. Your reading habits: Alan: I read in bed at night, and a lot in the summer. Lorna: I read lots in summer as we do not watch television at all then. Plus other times of course.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Alan: Anything by Matthew Reilly, it would be like Indiana Jones on speed. And my own book of course. Lorna: My partner’s book Seriously Mum, what’s an Alpaca?
10. The book you plan to read next: Alan: Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly. Lorna: The next on the shelf, whatever it is!
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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Alan? Hey, it’s not every day you get to discuss the world’s most captivating camelids! And don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…
And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Seriously, Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is available from Amazon(among other venues). Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit its companion site, like the book’s Facebook page (and be treated to lots of cute alpaca pix!) +/or follow Alan on Twitter.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!<!–tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)–>
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The borderless concept of ex-pats runs in my blood, but never seems to get off the couch. My ex-pat friends have had many adjustments and travails, but prefer the lifestyle. Not sure I would do it alone, but these stories get me excited all over again… I’m downloading… thanks for the inspiration to write my own “I’m an ex-pat in my own land” story…
Aw thanks Nancy. I think it is within us all to do amazing things in our lives. How great would it be to look back and think “I have done everything I wanted to, and got the maximum from this life!”
In my family’s case, my parents spent their 2-year “honeymoon” (in the 1930s) high in the Andes Mountains of Peru on an engineering jobsite, with llamas for company. They then expatriated themselves and me (6 weeks old) and sister, 4 years, to the Dominican Republic where we had a coconut plantation on an isolated beach far from real roads, electricity, vehicles (and what else am I missing?) We were home-schooled in the back yard with lizards for company; my mother kept her rotting llama-hair carpet until it disintegrated. Me? I survived all that and just finished my own memoir (pub date Sept 2014), titled: “The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean.” Thus – worthy of winning your giveaway! Rita Gardner
Hi Rita, that sounds very interesting! Are you on Facebook? You should pop along to my Facebook group (mentioned above) and say Hi.