The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

An expat’s thoughts on flying and the journey “home”


Photo credit: A Windram

This is my third attempt at writing this post. The previous two attempts were quickly aborted; I had tried drafting them during two separate flights back to the UK, but quickly gave up in frustration.

Flying—for me, at least—is not conducive to creativity (if hastily scribbled blog posts can be described as such). I can never settle on a flight, I can never forget that I am 30,000 feet above the earth trapped in a metal tube powered by 36,000 gallons of jet fuel.

But, of course, flying remains an occupational hazard for the expat. No matter how long you may have been away, the call home is at some point unavoidable. After an absence from “home” of nearly three years, over the last few months I’ve had to make two trips back. One for reasons pleasant; one for reasons unpleasant.

Flying, when you think about it, and when I am flying I find I would much rather not think about it (those 36,000 gallons of highly flammable jet fuel remain heavy on my mind), is astonishing. Indeed, it is so astounding that we have to go out of our way to avoid that fact and focus on the banal. The aviation industry is helpful on this point. You wait in a terminal, shitty retail and even shittier food your scant choices to kill time, but it helps numb you, I suppose. Makes you unthinking about the journey ahead, your entry into the heavens.

When I was flying back for more pleasant reasons I began reading French philosopher Michel SerresAngels: A Modern Myth. Serres opens his work with a fictional couple meeting at an airport. He a traveling inspector; she a doctor at the airport medical center. For Serres, the couple see angels when they look around the airport:

I see angels—which, incidentally, in case you didn’t know, comes from the ancient Greek word for messengers. Take a good look around. Air hostess and pilots; radio messages; all the air crew just flown in from Tokyo and just about to leave Rio; those dozen aircraft neatly lined up, wing to wing on the runaway, as they wait to take off; yellow postal vans delivering parcels, packets and telegrams; staff calls over the tannoy; all these bags passing in front of us on the conveyor, endless announcements for Mr X or Miss Y recently arrived from Stockholm or Helsinki; boarding announcements for Berlin and Rome, Sydney and Durban; passengers crossing paths with each other and hurrying for taxis and shuttles while escalators move silently and endlessly up and down . . . like the ladder in Jacob’s dream . . . Don’t you see—what we have here is angels of steel, carrying angels of steel, carrying angels of flesh and blood, who in turn send angel signals across angel air waves . . .

I don’t see any angels sitting around me in the terminal, and I don’t think our messages are worth conveying across the world. I would have enjoyed reading the Serres anywhere other than here, in a terminal.

“Business or pleasure?”

For the expat, the answer is neither. I am going home. I am leaving home. I am leaving the present. I am returning to the past.

On the plane, I put the Serres away and try to read a book (The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business, and Daily Life in the Roman Middle East) about a Roman lawyer journeying to Antioch. Over six months he slowly makes his way, noticing the slight changes in geography. Compared to that, what I am doing seems a cheat. I put the book away. I can’t concentrate enough, there’s slight lurch in the plane’s movement that suggests we are beginning to enter turbulence. I just try to watch Iron Man 3 instead.

I am going home. I am leaving home.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a TCK Talent interview by monthly columnist Elizabeth Liang.

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The Displaced Nation selects its top 5 chillingly atmospheric Halloween locations from literature & film

From greedy children holding up whole neighborhoods to blackmail as they seek a cheap fix for their addiction to stores selling cheap plastic masks and covering their aisles in fake cobwebs, I’ve always found Halloween to be tedious time of the year. Everything ends up looking more crappy than creepy. As the day lacks its own miserly Ebenezer Scrooge-figure I would be more than happy to fill the role.

Of course, that makes me a poor choice indeed to write a Halloween-themed post for The Displaced Nation, but we can all take solace in the knowledge that as I write this I have the lights in my living room turned off and I am ignoring the pleading of the legions of candy junkies knocking on my door asking for one last Hershey hit.

But enough whinging, Windram. Now for my picks for atmospheric locations that can send a chill down your spine:

1) Whitby, United Kingdom

Quite understandably Dracula is associated with Transylvania, but the Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby is also heavily featured in Bram Stoker’s novel as the site of Dracula’s shipwreck.

Stoker visited Whitby in 1890 and was struck by the atmospheric fishing town. It is easy to see why with the ruins of Whitby Abbey high atop the east cliff overlooking the town it is visually spectacular, which makes it a wonder why the Whitby portions of Stoker original novel have so often been ignored by filmmakers adapting Dracula. John Badham’s 1979 adaptation is one of the few movie Draculas to try and depict Whitby, though unfortunately even here the use of the Whitby storyline is disappointing as the Cornish coast in fact stood in for the Yorkshire coast. This adaptation also has Frank Langella as Count Dracula, so make of that what you will. It’s certainly not obvious casting, I’ll give them that.

2) Geneva, Switzerland

Sticking with a Gothic theme, let’s focus our attention on that other horror mainstay: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

Frakenstein was inspired by Shelley’s stay in Geneva, and large parts of the novel are also set there. Of course, modern, clean, ever-so-slightly-dull Geneva is not the inspiration, but rather the Villa Diodati, a country house on the shores of Lake Geneva. It is here that famously the Shelleys, Byron, and Dr Polidori challenged each other to come up with a horror story. From this challenge Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

For an appropriate bit of campy Halloween schlock, Ken Russell’s film Gothic (1986), which is about the events of that challenge, is well worth a watch.

Equally, Benjamin Markovits’ novel Imposture, about Dr Polidori and his writing of the short story “The Vampyre” during that same challenge, is recommended.

3) A field of susuki grass, Japan

This entry is something of a cheat. This is an entry about the 1964 Japanese film Onibaba (literally, “Demon Hag”), which has no specific setting beyond Medieval Japan; but it’s one of the few horror films I’ve found genuinely affecting.

This is a very brief and unsatisfying summary of the film, but during a civil war two women, one old and one young—living in poverty in an area thick with reeds—kill soldiers who find themselves lost near their home, taking their possessions to sell. The older woman is worried that the younger woman, who is having an affair with a neighbor recently returned from the war, will soon be leaving her so she will have to fend to herself. When the older woman kills a samurai wearing a demon mask, she pulls the mask off the corpse (his face is disfigured) and wears it pretending to be a demon so as to scare the younger woman. Once she puts on the mask, however, she is unable to take it off.

Wow, that summary really doesn’t do the film justice. The film’s director, Kaneto Shindo, was especially keen for the film to be shot in a field of susuki grass, which they found near a river bank in Chiba Prefecture. That setting really makes Onibaba visually arresting. Claustrophobic, but also surreal and languid, these grasses heighten the tension, which is why I feel justified in adding a susuki grass field in Japan to this list.

4) Maine, USA

Obviously this is in reference to the frighteningly prodigious novelist Stephen King, a Maine native and someone who in his work has made use of the fictional Derry, Maine.

With its atmospheric coastline, rocky and dramatic, it’s easy to see how it has inspired King in a similar way to how east cliff in Whitby inspired Stoker a century before.

5) Georgetown, Washington, DC, USA

Or, more specifically, the stone steps that are on M Street in Georgetown, which were made famous in the classic horror film The Exorcist (1973). May the power of Christ compel you to visit! Word of warning: The steps are pretty steep, so if you’re heart starts beating fast, it’s probably the cardio-vascular workout you’re getting rather than any ghoulish happening.

* * *

Readers, literature and film are of course packed with thrills and chills. Have I missed anywhere you think belongs in the Top Five? Let me know in the comments…

STAY TUNED for next tomorrow’s Halloween posts, and prepare to be scared!

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Thoughts on the Booker, and 5 Booker Prize winners for expats to read

salmanI passed a miserable morning at Barnes and Noble. Suffering a vexatious bout of man-flu and with teething baby daughter in tow, I thought a visit to my local bookstore might be cheering and – after three days stuck at home – a pleasant change of scenery. I was wrong. Almost as quiet as a morgue, a few pensioners sipping overpriced Starbucks coffee, a handful of stragglers who sit reading in the fiction aisles, but who appear not to be purchasing anything. I noticed books on angels reduced to clearance, kitten calendars for 2014, a survivalist magazine, and, most disturbingly of all, a whole display table given over to the writings of Bill O’Reilly.

For the tens of dozens of O’Reilly books there, I could find only one copy of Bring Up the Bodies, the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize.

That may change in my little corner of American suburbia after last week’s announcement that the Man Booker Prize would be expanding its selection criteria to include American writers from 2014 onwards. Of course, the future eligibility of American writers for the Booker does not open the Pulitzer for British writers; like our extradition treaty with the US, it is not an entirely equitable agreement.

In the interest of fairness, I should add that this change to widen the Booker from being a prize for British and Commonwealth (as well as Irish and Zimbabwean) authors is not just about including Americans, although you would be forgiven for thinking that was indeed the case if you had read any of the handwringing articles in the British press over fears that the Yanks will end up dominating the prize in future. Instead, there is a compelling case to be made that this is a necessary change. That as there is so much interesting writing in English being written all over the world, it would be wrong to discount it on account of the writer’s passport.

As Sophie Hardach wrote in The Atlantic, as English becomes more inclusive so too must the Booker, and in doing so better reflect the increasing diversity of the UK. ” All over London, Spanish-staffed coffee chains sit next to West Indian chicken stalls and Turkish hairdressers. Britain is becoming more like America: a magnet to migrants from all over the world. This includes migrant writers, and not ones just from former colonies.”

ritesofpassageOf course, the more cynical have pointed that all laudable claim for being inclusive are  just a smokescreen and the change in eligibility is an attempt to counteract the recently created Folio Prize set up to compete with the Booker and which is open to writers in English regardless of their nationality.

Anyhow, being aware of the nature of this site, I thought I would include five Booker winning novels that I feel might be interesting for an expat to read.

Midnight’s Children (1981) – Salman Rushdie 

Not just any Booker winner, but the winner of the Booker of Bookers, a sort of literary equivalent of Countdown’s champion of champions tournaments. A magical realism take on Indian independence, it is a richly evocative novel with a main character and narrator whose life is intertwined with that of his home nation.

The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) – J.G. Farell

The second novel in Farell’s loose Empire trilogy detailing the decline of the British Emprire. Based upon the Indian rebellion of 1857, it is, at times, a surprisingly funny novel.

Rites of Passage (1980) – William Golding

Living thousands of miles from home is easy in the jet age. That 6,000 mile journey can be traversed in a ten hour flight. The account of a young British artistocrat’s journey on a warship as he makes his way to Australia in the early 1800s may give current expats pause for thought.

oscarThe Inheritance of Loss (2006) – Kiran Desai

A fairly recent winner, one of the major plots in this work follows the journey of Biju, an illegal immigrant in the US.

Oscar and Lucinda (1986) – Peter Carey

Like Rites of Passage, this novel also tells the tale of a young Englishman traveling to Australia in the nineteenth century, don’t let that fool you, however, as they are both very different novels. My personal favorite of Carey’s works.

“Unenthusiastic about enthusiasm”: On Sarah Lyall, the relief of being a returning expat, and never getting over the feeling of cultural discombobulation

CulturallyDiscombobulatedFor today’s post ML Awanohara (doyenne of this particular piece of the interweb) suggested that Sarah Lyall‘s recent piece in The New York Times (“Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”) might provide me with a suitable topic to chisel out a post for the Displaced Nation.

I’ll be honest and admit (though I never articulated this to ML) that I was rather resistant and a tad unenthusiastic to the idea. I’d previously skim-read Sarah Lyall’s book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and found myself irritated by her observations about her life as an American transplant to London.

In short, I didn’t enjoy it. I was left uncharmed and felt it had about it an omnipresent smug tone.

Bill Bryson did it best

Recently, I’ve had a similar reaction with British academic Terry Eagleton‘s new book, Across The Pond (goodness, even the title sounds like another sub-Bryson knock-off), about his thoughts on living in America.

So I’m an equal-opportunity offender on this matter.

Perhaps foreigner-writing-about-their-adopted-home is a sub-genre that is not for me, which is unfortunate considering that’s the very subject of my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated (now that I think of it, it sounds like a sub-Bryson knock-off, too). Having read Lyall’s article, I suppose she would call this attitude typically English: at once self-loathing and arrogant.

So I decided I would ignore ML’s suggestion and instead write another Capital Ideas post. As I was about to start writing it (well, start thinking about writing it, if I’m going to be entirely honest), I noticed in my inbox an email from my wife telling me to read this article.  Like Sarah Lyall, Mrs W is an American who has spent time living in London before returning to the US.

Putting my initial reservations to one side, I decided to see just what I was missing.

I must admit, Sarah’s right about L.G.

First, a little bit of background: Sarah Lyall has been The New York Times London correspondent for 18 years. Her article this week was about her repatriation to her home country.

I’ll be honest. Unlike when I read her book, The Anglo Files, I found myself more charmed by her writing and observations. This could be the result of the shorter form of a newspaper article, my mellowing, or far more likely our common enemy that is Loyd Grossman—Sarah’s wish on first moving to the UK was that she wouldn’t end up sounding like her more famous compatriot.

Readers who have not spent any considerable time in the UK are probably oblivious to L.G.’s existence. A television presenter (who was host of the original MasterChef, which other than name bears scant resemblance to Fox’s Gordon Ramsey vehicle) as well as a range of pasta sauces (I’ve no idea why, given that he’s not a chef), Loyd Grossman is in possession of the oddest transatlantic accent. It’s preppy New Englander meets Sloane Square yuppie, and just hearing it makes you want to declare class war.

For all of us in clear and present danger of one day developing a transatlantic accent, Loyd Grossman is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale.

…and about us?

Sometimes when I am reading a foreigner’s perspective on the British, I am struck by how awful we sound—a complete bunch of miserable bastards that have developed a carapace of irony and delight in popping positivity like it were a balloon at a child’s birthday party.

Is it any wonder Sarah got a bit fed up with our lack of enthusiasm:

…Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities—straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters—and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.)

Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.

“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

After reading this piece, my wife said that she’d forgotten that so much of my personality was cultural. “I thought,” she said, “that it might be time for you to have some therapy, but then I realized you’re just British—no amount of therapy can fix that.”

* * *

I’ve not experienced what it is like to repatriate yourself back home. I do know, however, that many of you have. Do let me know in the comments below what struck you about moving back and what you missed about the adopted country you left.

On a Royal Future and the Royal Spawn

photo(1)From a Brit-in-America perspective

Good writing returns to you; it can illuminate moments or thoughts that you have an imprecise grasp on.

Over the last week, as an Englishman in America, I’ve had to avoid discussion about that news, that little baby. Though I wish him personally the best of health, my issue is more about his future, that it has been mapped out from the moment of conception as the head of state, my head of state on account of his lineage.

I’ll admit that outing myself as a small “r” republican (though I’m in two minds as to whether that is the right description for me as I don’t confess myself as being overly thrilled that any of the current crop of British politicos being invested with the title of “President”—even if that office is largely ceremonial) seems churlish when I’m dealing with the natives here in America who keep bringing that news up to me.

Anyway, the piece of writing that I’ve been returning to over the last week, a piece that acts as a counterpoint to some of the more banal Royal Baby conversations that I’ve have to endure in the United States, is Hilary Mantel’s essay for the London Review of Books: “Royal Bodies”. Surprisingly, it managed to achieve something very rare indeed—it’s a piece of literature that has also been written about in the British tabloid press.

Of course, the British tabloids don’t turn their attention to literary matters because they admire the style, but because they have the opportunity to manufacture a controversy. This case was no different. Mantel’s humanizing essay (initially delivered as a lecture and is mostly concerned with Anne Boleyn) about the mundane demands that we place on royalty was spun as FRUMPY WRITER DISSES OUR KATE. Politicians are always eager to jump on a popular bandwagon and provide an empty soundbite, so it was of little surprise when Cameron and Miliband joined in the critique.

If, however, any of those outraged had bothered to read the essay they would have found that this double Booker-prize winning author has taken an even-handed and nuanced view on royalty.

There is one insight of Mantel’s in particular that I’ve been returning to over the last week. I must admit that as a very recent father myself, I am a little resentful of the coverage—a little resentful that one baby has a future mapped out for it based not on any meritocratic qualities he might have. Mantel gets to the root of the issue when she says that we entrap our royalty, condemning them to live as exotic creatures within the shabby, carpet-fraying world of British institutions.

Poor George, one week old and his life will be measured out in an endless procession of hospital openings, civic events, and all those bloody awful Royal Variety Performances. The French, by comparison, were merciful to their royalty: they just guillotined them. We make ours watch Joe Pasquale.

If you haven’t read Mantel’s essay, at least read this passage, where she compares royal persons to pandas:

I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.

A few years ago I saw the Prince of Wales at a public award ceremony. I had never seen him before, and at once I thought: what a beautiful suit! What sublime tailoring! It’s for Shakespeare to penetrate the heart of a prince, and for me to study his cuff buttons. I found it hard to see the man inside the clothes; and like Thomas Cromwell in my novels, I couldn’t help winding the fabric back onto the bolt and pricing him by the yard. At this ceremony, which was formal and carefully orchestrated, the prince gave an award to a young author who came up on stage in shirtsleeves to receive his cheque. He no doubt wished to show that he was a free spirit, despite taking money from the establishment. For a moment I was ashamed of my trade. I thought, this is what the royals have to contend with today: not real, principled opposition, but self-congratulatory chippiness.

And then as we drifted away from the stage I saw something else. I glanced sideways into a room off the main hall, and saw that it was full of stacking chairs. It was a depressing, institutional, impersonal sight. I thought, Charles must see this all the time. Glance sideways, into the wings, and you see the tacky preparations for the triumphant public event. You see your beautiful suit deconstructed, the tailor’s chalk lines, the unsecured seams. You see that your life is a charade, that the scenery is cardboard, that the paint is peeling, the red carpet fraying, and if you linger you will notice the oily devotion fade from the faces of your subjects, and you will see their retreating backs as they turn up their collars and button their coats and walk away into real life.

Of course, all of the above is written with the benefit of thinking about these issues for a full week. My initial thoughts as featured on my personal blog were a little harsher. For completeness, I include them below.


Thoughts on the Royal Spawn or why I hate it when Americans attempt to engage me on the Royal Family

When I was 14 my Dad died, something that nobody—outside of immediate family and friends—gives two shits about. A few years later, a guy who I’ve never met loses his mother. All very sad, but acquaintances and strangers here like to bring up this death in conversation and tell me about how sorry they are for his loss.*

In my late-20s I got married. All very nice, but again, nobody—outside of immediate family and friends—really gives a flying monkey toss about it. Why should they? A little bit after me that guy I’ve never met and who’d lost his mother got married himself. Great for him, I wouldn’t begrudge him his happiness, but yet these same curiously odd people who corner me at parties and insist in trying to engage in small talk when silence really would be preferred tell me about lovely his wedding.**

A few months back, I became a father. It has been earth-shattering to me, but beyond immediate family and friends, nobody really gives a fuck. Now that guy I don’t know, who lost his mother and had a wedding, has also become a father. I’m not surprised by the news as over the last few months overly familiar troglodytic morons when they hear my voice have been asking me how his wife is doing with the pregnancy.***

I’ll be clear, only if they name him Eadwig, Harthacnut or Rylan will I be interested in the royal sprog—though fair play to the fetus for landing himself such a cushy gig.

Commiserations to Carol Ann Duffy , who is now going to have write an excruciating poem.

For the next month I will be trying to live clandestine in the US in order to avoid having excruciating conversations with people who get really excited about nonsense like this. I think I’ll put on a French accent.

*In fairness, strangers might be stopping him to tell him how sorry they are about my loss.

** Again, in fairness, he is probably cheesed off with the number of people droning on about my wedding to him.

*** If we ever meet, we’re going to laugh about this. Complete strangers were constantly asking him about how my wife’s pregnancy was going. Must be some crossed wires, we’ll say.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the first in our TCK TALENT series.

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Image: MorgueFile

Are Brit international creatives better than their Yankee counterparts?

NYC_Awindram_pmWhen Chariots of Fire screenwriter Colin Welland won his Oscar in 1981, his acceptance speech began with him somewhat obnoxiously and ungraciously proclaiming: “The British are coming!”

Unlike Paul Revere, this wasn’t intended as a dire warning to fellow Americans, but was rather a British boast about perceived creative superiority over the transatlantic cousins.

Ultimately, the renaissance of British cinema that Welland envisaged did not materialize, but though that particular “British invasion” did not in the end occur, the US has since . . . oh, let’s say since 1812 . . . endured a number of British invasions: from Dickens’s arrival in Boston in 1842, to Oscar Wilde’s statement to a US customs officer that he had nothing to declare but his genius (which I would certainly not advise anyone that they should try to use that line in JFK), to the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 (considered the beginning of the British Invasion in music).

If David Carr’s recent column in the New York Times, entitled “British Invasion Reshuffles U.S. Media,” is correct, then we may be in the grip of another one. The genesis for this piece has been John Oliver‘s recent, perfectly competent portrayal of a bamboozled substitute teacher on The Daily Show.

Carr’s contention is that at the moment “everywhere you look in the United States media landscape, you find people from [Britain]”:

Piers Morgan came from Britain to take over for Larry King, the Wall Street Journal is edited by Gerard Baker, a British newspaper veteran, and the chief executive of the New York Times is Mark Thompson, who spent his career at the BBC. Anna Wintour has edited Vogue for more than two decades and, more recently, Joanna Coles took over Cosmopolitan, which defines a certain version of American womanhood.

NBC News recently looked to the mother country for leadership and found Deborah Turness, the former editor of Britain’s ITV News. ABC’s entertainment group is headed by Paul Lee, also formerly of the BBC, and Colin Myler, a Fleet Street alum, edits the New York Daily News.

The list goes on, but the point is made: when it comes to choosing someone to steer prominent American media properties, the answer is often delivered in a proper British accent.

But, as the title of this post asks, the British better at being international creatives than their American counterparts? Are we more fearless?

The examples that Carr puts forward are compelling, even if we may have to suspend our imagination and hope our stomachs do not turn too much in allowing Piers Morgan to be considered a “creative.”

However, I am unconvinced in a post-Leveson world that there is inherently anything better or more attractive about British media operators when set alongside their American counterparts.

Of course, that does not alter that it is inarguable that New York media finds itself with a number of prominent Brits.

Carr hits on one of the main reasons for this — London:

“Los Angeles, New York and Washington all have their domains, while in Britain, there is only London, a place where entertainment, politics and news media all live in the same petri dish.”

In an increasingly international world, a world in which the super elite can be found in a select number of super cities, it is only to be expected that large New York media empires would be selecting from a fairly small pool. They’ll look to New York and London — the two major English-speaking super cities.

It is perhaps a complete misconception that for the purposes of this question we think in terms of America and Britain, as if to make out an otherness between each party, when they share status as super city elites.

The true “other” would be the newspaper man from Minnesota or the TV station manager from Louisville. I know from my own anecdotal experience of MBA grads from top US business schools that the majority that I know are in New York or London. This is just the new normal — it is hardly surprising that it is reflected in New York’s media executives.

It is also noticeable to anyone who has spent any time in the UK that while a struggling, gasping industry, print media is more alive in the UK at present than it is in the US.

The result of this is that they are a large number of British candidates that would be attractive to US companies in the position to headhunt a new executive.

A final factor is the attraction of “success” in the US for Brits. I don’t say this lightly, but take a look at Piers Morgan’s twitter account . . . I know, I know . . . awful, isn’t it? However, a quick look through a random selection of Morgan’s twitter will soon reveal a man who enjoys boasting — or if I’m being more generous, teasing — other British celebrities who have no profile in the US.

Success in the US seems greater, somehow. There is a pull there that is irresistible. There is romance to it. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” What do all the many American CEOs heading boardrooms in London get to sing to themselves?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with our featured author of the month, Rosie Whitehouse.

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

img: awindram

Love Living Overseas: An interview with Michelle Garrett aka The American Resident

Displaced Nation Blog - Michelle Alnwick 2In April’s Alice Awards we featured expat blogger Michelle Garrett (an American who has made a home for herself in Britain). She won an “Alice” for her most recent column in Expat Focus, in which she asked readers whether their experience living abroad has inspired them to write a book.

Michelle’s column certainly struck a chord with us here at The Displaced Nation as well as leaving us intrigued and wanting to know more. Regular readers know that we always like to focus on expat writing and highlight it, whether it be Jack the Hack’s tips or our lists of the best books for, by and about expats.

Michelle revealed in that post that she is working on not one but two expat-related books: the first, a helpful guide for unhappy expats called Love Living Overseas; the second, a novel. Today Michelle has kindly agreed to answer my questions about why so many expats find themselves blogging or attempting to write books, as well as her own writing plans.

We enjoyed reading your article at Expat Focus about whether expats necessarily have to write expat books. Why do you think so many people who live abroad feel like writing a book about the experience?
Humans are storytellers. It’s how we share experiences and how we learn. Blogs and self-publishing have opened up a new way of storytelling and when we experience something life changing, as many expats do, we want to tell the story and many of us do so through these mediums. Our stories may be in the form of autobiography or a fictionalized account of our experiences.

Some books are less about the story and more about tips or self-help. These books are often written by expats who have had a hard time with culture shock and once they move through those difficult months or years they feel compelled to help others.

Do expats have something unique to say?
As with any type of book writing, people need to really research the market before they can know if they have something unique to contribute. I do come across expat books, whether stories or books of tips where the author doesn’t seem to have done their research, and the story or information is nothing new or exceptional. However, the nature of the expat niche means there are a variety of ways to spin a story and many different angles to pitch tips, so there should be a wide variety of expat literature for our shelves!

In my research for Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats, I have tried to read the best examples of books in the expat niche, and then see how I can best contribute to that collection.

What are the best examples in the genre, in your opinion?
This list is by no means complete, but among my favorites are:

Expat Women: Confessions, by Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth: a valuable book in that these are real questions people have asked (some quite gritty) and many of them I’ve not seen covered in other places.

Living Your Best Life Abroad, by Jeanne A Heinzer: a wonderful book for those of us who need a bit of step-by-step guidance for learning how to do just that: live our best lives abroad.

The Expert Expat, by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman: a fantastic resource covering almost every aspect of the relocation process, including pets, children, and safety—they even include tips for keeping in touch when you move on again.

Tell us more about the two books you are working on.
Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats to be published this autumn, is intended for accompanying partners as well as those expats who have moved to the home countries of their foreign partners. I was once an unhappy expat and wanted to share what I’ve learned through my experiences and research. It’s a book I wish I’d had in the early days—a shortcut to expat happiness!

The book will contribute to the existing expat literature by taking advantage of the Internet in a new way, really using the strengths and opportunities of the Internet to my and my readers’ advantage.

The other book I’m working on is a novel about an American expat who is tired of feeling worthless. She married a British man to escape her dull life, but it hasn’t worked out and she is left adrift in Britain. She is sure there’s more to life than what she’s experiencing, and is equally sure she doesn’t deserve it. On impulse she accepts an invitation from a friend who is driving across the country and needs a companion for the journey. When she reaches their destination, she takes advantage of her anonymity to start a new life with a new identity, only to realize she is actually discovering her true self. I’m playing with the idea we expats often discuss about moving to a new place and taking advantage of the fresh start.

Would you ever consider writing a memoir or “life map,” as Judy Dunn calls it?
Definitely, but perhaps only for my entertainment, not for public consumption! I LOVE the term “life map” by the way—what a great description.

Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
I love creating books that help others.

When I first brought my new blended British family (7 of us!) to Minnesota, where I grew up, I realized that they would enjoy the experience more if they knew a bit more about Minnesota so I created a booklet of interesting facts. (Did you know that Minnesota and Great Britain are approximately the same square miles?)

And I am really enjoying writing Love Living Overseas because I truly feel it will be a helpful book.

But I also love inventing stories and playing with allegory and symbolism.

What are the biggest challenges of each genre?
I think the biggest challenge for non-fiction is providing information in a captivating way. Tips and facts can be dull—even helpful tips and facts.

As far as fiction goes, I find it challenging to create a believable story that moves people, but it’s a challenge I love.

We notice you are featuring quite a few writers on your own blog, The American Resident, of late. What lessons have you picked up from them? Take, for instance, your interview with the Aussie novelist Allison Rushby, who’s written a travel memoir: Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite. What was the most interesting thing she had to say?
Allison was lovely to work with and very interesting to correspond with regarding writing and expat life. One of my favorite comments of hers on writing Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite was:

… it’s very rare to write a memoir that is 100% true to what happened. It’s not that you lie to the reader, but sometimes events need to be shifted around in time and so on for the story to work—to be cohesive and to make sense in a story-like format. I was worried about doing this at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how the book just wouldn’t have made sense if I hadn’t done it.

* * *

Thanks, Michelle! Readers, that’s some sound advice from Michelle about not assuming your expat experience is unique and researching the market first. Do you have any follow-up comments or questions for her? (Want to learn more about Michelle? Follow her blog, The American Resident, or on Twitter.)

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

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Michelle Garrett

5 things de Tocqueville can teach expats to US

LibertyI imagine that over the last two or so years the rapid rise of the iPad and other tablet devices has led to a decline in the use of toilet libraries, by which I mean those little collections of books many people keep in their bathrooms for those leisurely times when they have a particularly challenging movement to sit through (perhaps you have your own toilet library. Feel free to share your favorite reads in the comments below).

My own toilet library shows me to be a rather self-righteous, aspiring autodidact. Among my little pile can be found Empires of the World by Nicholas Ostler, The Oxford Book of English Poetry, and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. The books are all left there in the rather grand belief that in the privacy of the privy I might finally learn something. That’s all gone to pot since I got an iPad as I now simply read twitter or play Football Manager on there instead. The books are, sadly, left mostly unread.

One book that should be added to the above trinity – and one that I have fitfully gone through in the last few years – is de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. When I moved to the US it seemed, unsurprising enough, a cornerstone text that I should familiarize myself with.

For those who don’t already know, Democracy in America  is a study in American society by an aristocrat from Normandy, Alexis de Tocqueville. He journeyed to America in 1831 when he was sent, along with Gustave de Beaumont, to look into the American penal system, although natural curiosity led to both men investigating a lot more than just prisons.

Book II of Democracy in America, in particular, can move me away from reading twitter and reading an actual book. Its short chapters mark it as perfect for inclusion in any toilet library, and it is extremely perceptive into America and Americans. With that in mind, here’s 5 thing that de Tocqueville can teach expats to the US

Warning: de Tocqueville scholars should look away now. No insightful analysis will be found here.

5. An outsider can bring an interesting perspective to US society

Yesterday two of my least favorite people met on CNN, Piers Morgan and Alex Jones (what incidentally is the collective noun for gits?). Jones, a conspiracy theorist firebrand, was behind the recent campaign to have Piers Morgan in light of his views on gun control. Jones screamed “1776!” over and over again at Morgan as well as calling him a “redcoat”. Morgan’s views on gun control aren’t particularly out-of-the-ordinary within the mainstream media, but his foreignness means that, for some, it is doubly offensive when he attacks a text (the second amendment) that they consider sacrosanct.

Morgan clearly is not a modern de Tocqueville, but it is worth remembering that your own outsider status allows you to see US society with fresh eyes and that you can, respectfully and tactfully, challenge certain assumptions.

4. Regardless of how irritating it is when misused, theoretically American exceptionalism is a fascinating, even wonderful, thing.

Most non-Americans understandably roll their eyes when US politicians, particularly when seeking election, proclaim the US as the greatest country in the world, a country unlike any other that is innately superior. That most US political rallies don’t end with a rousing chorus of “America, f#@k yeah!” from Team America is surprising.

However, the first person to describe America as exceptional was de Tocqueville, and in his writings you’ll find that there is much talk of America as a democratic society as opposed to those Monarchic, aristocratic societies of the Old World. It serves as a reminder that America, for all its faults, is founded upon impressive ideals. The main idea underpinning exceptionalism is not American superiority, but that it is qualitatively different from other nations, the first to build an identity based upon its independence. We can certainly debate that this exceptionalism is no longer the case, but in de Tocqueville’s period I do not think it a contentious claim – indeed, it’s an exciting and invigorating thought.

3. Cynicism need not be the default mode for the Western European dealing with America.

It’s easy to be weary when dealing with American life and Americans. They can be unabashed, earnest, loud. The default mode, of which I am very much guilty of, is to mock and sneer and snark about many aspects of American life. The phrase “only in America” is often invoked for some of the worst aspects of American life, de Tocqueville shows that “only in America” can also be positive.

2. “Never mind the quality, feel the length.” A reminder of the sheer size of America.

The America that6 de Tocqueville visited is half the size that the country is now. But the America of the 1830s was a still a vast land and Democracy in America is, in its own dry way, a travelogue to a new land of strange sights. New expats to the US would do well to remember that they don’t just have a country to discover, but a continent.

1. The gift that keeps giving.

The first thing that you many notice about Democracy in America is that it is a hefty tome. For those expats blogging about life in US, you need never worry that you’ll be short of material. The US really is the gift that keeps giving. Look at dear departed Alistair Cooke, he managed to keep ploughing this particular field for over 60 years. You may never fully understand this country, but you can have an interesting time coming to terms with it.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on reads to tickle the expat’s imagination and intellect.

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Image: Awindram

An expat in America’s thoughts on Boxing Day

BoxingDayinBritain_collage_3You can never satisfactorily explain Boxing Day to an American. The day sounds comical to them; just another ridiculous Commonwealth quainitism, like fortnights and elevenses.

The true origin’s of the holiday’s curious sounding name are decidedly murky. Over the years various origins have been asserted, the most popular being that this was the day the lord of the manor gifted boxes of money to servants on his estate. If you are interested these origins are detailed in this article from Snopes.

There is nothing, in particular, you need to do on Boxing Day. No unusual traditions to be observed. Stores (similar to the American Black Friday) open early for the sales, and sport also seems to be a familiar theme in Boxing Day throughout the world. In the UK a full fixture list is played by the football league, in Australia the boxing day Test is a modern cricketing tradition, and in Canada they watch hockey (although they seem to do that the other 364 days of the year, too).

There may, however, be some local eccentricities. In my hometown, there is such a thing as the Boxing Day dip. A frankly ludicrous tradition, it involves some peculiar people (possibly with deep-seeded psychological issues) in fancy dress who run into the freezing north sea for the aforementioned “dip”. It’s not something that ever appealed to me, hypothermia never has, but it was always fun — of a sort — watching those foolhardy enough to try it.

One of the joys of Christmas is the build-up, the sense of anticipation, and yet it is over so soon. Boxing Day plays the important role of stretching out the holiday. Give the day a name, you make it something different, you set it apart from the ordinary, even if the name you give it is a silly one. Boxing Day acts as the downer, the Christmas Xanax, for the previous day’s frenetic, festive high. It’s a day for the post-bacchanalian slumber, of leftover turkey transformed into a curry or made into sandwiches, of bad Christmas TV, of lingering on the end of the holiday, of easing back into the mundane.

I am reminded of W.H. Auden‘s Christmas poem, For The Time Being (Auden, btw, was born in England but later took out American citizenship):

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.  But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.  The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this.  To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

STAY TUNED for an installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby.

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Images by Awindram

DEAR MARY-SUE: Reconnecting with old friends (the year in review)

Mary-Sue Wallace, The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, is back. Her thoughtful advice eases and soothes any cross-cultural quandary or travel-related confusion you may have. Submit your questions and comments here, or else by emailing her at

There’s chestnuts roasting on an open fire (well, baking in my Jenn-Air 48″ Pro-Style gas oven) and I’m sipping on a glass of eggnog while listening to Michael Buble’s take on some Christmas classics Yepsiree, it’s a Mary-Sue Christmas!!
Christmas is an important time for the ol’ Wallace homestead. Hubby really goes all out with the Christmas lights and we’re now something of a seasonal event in Tulsa. People come from all over the state to see hubby’s lights. Must say, I’m not happy when I see the electricity bill.
Anyhoo, on with the final column of the year (time hasn’t just flown this year, it’s broke the sound barrier. It’s like that Austrian Lee Majors who fell from space in a Red Bull balloon).
Now, I know from you regular readers that one thing you’re always asking me about is what happened to those who wrote in to me. Did they follow my advice (yes, if they had any sense). Well, as it’s the end of the year, let’s see, shall we?
First up is Sharon who wrote to me for advice on whether spending time at an ashram in India was necessary for her spiritual enlightenment. (She had just read the book Eat, Pray, Love.) I advised her to go for a hike or take up watercolors (she lives in Texas), or if she just wanted to escape, sure, take a plane trip to India. Here is her story since then:“A lot has happened since I sent you that letter in January of this year. I took your advice and went on a hike rather than going off to an ashram. Unfortunately, during the hike, I got a nasty snake bite. After eight months in a deep coma, I finally woke from it at the end of August. Every day is now a blessing, and I’ve come to the realization of what I want to do in my life. That’s why in the new year, I am off to India where I WILL join an ashram. Why, I figure, let my fear of what other people think get in the way of me living my life.” 
Lot of snakes in India, Sharon … a lot of snakes
* * **********************************************************************************
Another letter that received a lot of votes was the one from Lars in Los Angeles. He couldn’t fathom what it meant when someone in that fair city wished him a Happy Anti Valentines Day. I told him it was a sign he should get the heck out of LA and move to Tulsa. Did he take my advice? Let’s hear his story:

“I did come out and visit Tulsa to see whether I could make a life for myself out there. I had a look round … let’s just say it gave me a whole new perspective on life in LA.”

Your loss, Lars.* * **********************************************************************************
There were also some votes from Patti in Plymouth who wondered what she should do with a gift of a jar of Marmite from her host family. I told her not to worry as it probably wouldn’t make it past customs. But is that what happened?“Actually, I did get past customs with my Marmite jar. And you know something else? Everyone hated it. I however douse it all over philly cheesesteaks.”

They’re going to run you out of town, sweetie.

That’s it from me this year, dear readers. Here’s hoping your misery and confusion keeps me occupied in 2013 as I was in 2012! God bless us all!
STAY TUNED for next week’s post, some more Random Nomad highlights.

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