The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

A clueless immigrant’s 5 expat highlights for the year

I am not doing well with the passing of the years: they are over at an alarming rate. That we are already coming to the end of 2012 fills me with anxiety and dread. So perhaps I am not the best person to be in charge of one of those prerequisite “best-of-the-year” lists that fill up space this time of year. Nonetheless I have revisited my 2012 posts on The Displaced Nation to come up with my personal expat highlights for the year. Do join me on my existential journey.

1. “Travel for excitement, not enlightenment”

We started 2012 with a look at travel and moving abroad as a search for spiritual enlightenment. While I may possibly in the minority among this blog’s readers in finding the Elizabeth Gilbert idea of travel patronising, irritating, and misplaced, I do think travel is important. It (when done properly) broadens the mind; it can also be the most exciting thing you can do in your life. But — let’s be clear — in of itself buying a Virgin Airways ticket does not nourish your soul. That can be done much closer to home.

Now most of us can’t be as amazing as Pico Iyer — that’s just the burden we have to carry through our lives. We can’t just move to rural Japan and fetishize solitude. We will still spend our evenings in the grocery store, our weekends in the mall, they will still be those 2.4 children and those bloody traffic jams — as David Byrne sang, “same as it ever was.”

What I am going to do try and do in 2012 (and yes even though it’s mid-January I still feel it is early enough to mention resolutions in a post) is to take advantage of technology to find some solitude. I’m not going to posture by lighting an incense stick as if the path to personal enlightenment lies in sniffing in something called Egyptian Musk. What I am going to do is take advantage of the quiet moments that my everyday life provides by sitting and concentrating at a task and deriving satisfaction from that. It may be by learning programming, a foreign language, or taking advantage of the sheer, vast number of books that are now available for free on Google books. In this well-known brand of coffee shop while Tony Bennett plays to me and the tattooed man and the policeman and the baristas return to talking about the smaller one’s mother-in-law, I have on my iPad access to a library of books greater than the Bodleian — reason enough not to throw the iPad across the room when I’m annoyed by Iyer.

2. What to wear for an Independence Day party

Being British I always find Independence Day just a little bit awkward. Choosing appropriate clothing is always something of a dilemma.

Finding the Target employee that looked the most patriotic — the telltale signs are a sensible haircut, good posture, and a strong jaw line — I asked where I might find the most patriotic T-shirts in store. Leading me to a selection of T-shirts featuring the stars and stripes, it was difficult for me to contain my disappointment with this somewhat anemic selection.

“Hmmm, do you have anything more patriotic?” I asked.

The patriotic youth seemed a little confused, a look that made him seem increasingly un-American.

“I was,” I said, “looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Something more OTT. I was kinda hoping you’d have one where Jesus is cradling the Liberty Bell while a bald eagle looks down approvingly?”

3. London Olympics

In 2012, I was swept up by the Olympics far more than I anticipated. What I did not enjoy, however, was the poor coverage I had to put up with by NBC which revealed their own awkward world view.

The Games have made me homesick. My usual cynicism is no match for the enthusiasm of my London friends, all of whom seem to be attending events (if Facebook is anything to go by) while I sit watching it in one of the dullest towns in California. The opening ceremony elicited in me a mixture of pride and embarrassment — and as such, perfectly encapsulated for me what it is to be British. The ceremony also irritated Rush Limbaugh — so clearly job well done on Danny Boyle‘s part there.

4. Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

The release of a new documentary film about the French con man, Frédéric Bourdin, led to my favorite discussion of the year: what sort of expat are you, an imposter or a chameleon?

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

5. Donkeys and elephants: The US Presidential election

Here in the US, 2012 was marked by the presidential election. As a resident alien, a domestic election is an interesting thing as you have one foot in and one foot out.

It’s a strange feeling waking up on the morning of an election in the country that you live, and not voting. Equally, it’s a strange feeling posting your ballot in an election 6,000 miles away as I did in the last British election in 2010.

What are some of your expat highlights of the year? If you have a blog, feel free to leave links to a favorite blog post you may have written.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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Expats, do you play with your identities? Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

Pretending to be a dead child is the cruelest trick you could play on a family.

Insinuating yourself into their lives, claiming falsely the intimacy and bonds that only exists between immediate family — mother and son; brother and sister — and to convince them that that son, that brother, that they feared murdered, has returned. There was, it transpires, nothing to worry about all along. You were fine. You are alive.

To succeed in such a deception scarcely seems possible. It sounds like the plot of a mystery novel, but it is, in fact, chillingly true. We have ourselves a real-life Talented Mr Ripley.

This post is concerned with the case of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old brown-eyed Frenchman who convinced a Texan family, the Barclays, that he was Nicholas, their missing blue-eyed teenage son and brother.

A conman, a fantasist, a sociopath, Bourdin already had a history of impersonating destitute children when in 1997 he convinced authorities in France and the US that he was the unruly child who at aged thirteen had disappeared from the Barclay family in San Antonio, Texas. The police presumed Nicholas was dead until Bourdin concocted a tale that the child had been snatched by a pedophile ring and brought to Europe. Bourdin lived with the Barclay family for three months before a private investigator revealed the truth.

With the release of the documentary film, The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, the story of Bourdin has returned to the news. The film, a success at Sundance, is now in limited release in the US. Bourdin’s masquerade is so hard to believe, and so stranger than fiction, that it is of little surprise that is perfect material for a documentary.

This is not, however, the first time that the story of Bourdin has been depicted on the cinema screens. In 2010 a fictionalized account entitled The Chameleon was released, directed by Jean-Paul Salomé.

To be honest, The Chameleon is a disappointing film that despite being based on the most compelling of true-life tales is never itself compelling. (For anyone in the US who might be interested, it is available for streaming on Netflix.)

A better use of your time may be spent reading about Bourdin in David Grann’s essay “The Chameleon,” which belongs to his essay collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. This is where I first came across the story. The essay is actually available on The New Yorker Web site and I can’t recommend it enough.

Why, however, have we chosen this topic for The Displaced Nation? Well, we think that The Imposter is a film that you may be fascinated by, but we also think that there’s something about Bourdin’s tale, undeniably horrific and callous as it, that resonates with an expat audience. How did this man with his French accent convince others that he was an American teenager? In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Bourdin stated that there was an unspoken collusion on the part of Nicholas Barclay’s mother, Beverly Dollarhide — that she knew damn well that this was not her son:

Most people who go to church don’t believe in God, very few of them really believe, but somewhere deep inside they try to convince themselves there is a God. It’s the same thing for the Dollarhide family. It happened exactly the same way.

Bourdin throughout his life has cruelly taken playing roles to an extremity. Despite being jailed for identity fraud after it is was revealed that he was not Nicholas Barclay, he continued to pass himself off as teenagers. In 2004 he claimed to be a Spanish adolescent whose mother had been killed in that year’s Madrid train bombings. The next year he again pretended to be a Spanish orphan, this time claiming that he lost his parents in a car accident.

While none of us play roles to that extent, this imposter and chameleon aspect of Bourdain’s personality is — though I am aware that I over-reaching here somewhat to make a point — reflected in many of our lives as expats.

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

What about you? What sort of an expat do you find yourself to be. In your adopted home, do you find yourself, at time, to be a chameleon? Or are you more an imposter?

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a list of travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!

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DEAR MARY-SUE: One expat’s horror story is another’s delight

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 thedisplacednation@gmail.com

Shoot! Is it October already? I don’t know how the time flies. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of fall. Who would be living in Tulsa. It just gets grey here, no burnt ochres like in Vermont. In fact, I wouldn’t know a burnt ochre if I saw one. Is it like a vole (please don’t feel the need to write in. I’m not that stupid. I know it’s not a rodent). Anyhoo, on with this month’s questions.

Dear Mary-Sue,

I can’t resist asking you: how does the Wallace household celebrate Halloween? I can imagine it’s quite an occasion!

– Ian (a British fan of yours) in Iowa

Dear Ian,

Well I can tell you that we don’t celebrate Halloween like the Larsons across the street. She gives out fruit to the kids in the neighborhood. Why would you even do that? It’s just cruel, isn’t it?

No, it’s a time of excess over at the Wallace household. That’s why I wake up the day after Halloween and don’t have to worry about finding the trees outside my house covered in toilet paper.

I buy plenty of Reese’s peanut butter cups because who doesn’t love them? I hear in Europe they have what they call food mountains when they have too much of a particular food source, well let me tell you that the Wallace household ends up with a Reese’s peanut butter cup mountain come Halloween.

You should come along and grab yourself a treat.

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Dear Mary-Sue,

My wife and I have lived in the United States since last May, and I must say, she is throwing herself into the life here with considerable vigour. She is now talking about hosting a Halloween party for some of our fellow expats, and inviting a few of our American neighbors. She has suggested that she and I dress up as an Elephant and a Donkey, in celebration of the American election season. No pun intended, but that would make me feel a bit of, well, an ass, to use the local dialect.

I wonder if I could talk her into going as a Milkman and Pregnant Lady instead? At least that would be true to our native (British) culture.

– Stephen in St. Louis

Dear Stephen,

So let me guess this right regarding your Halloween costumes, your wife was to be satirical and you want to be lewd? Gee, what is it with you Brits. You always think your jokes are funny and yet they always just seem to be about sex. Just go as something horror related and stop trying to over think it. If you really want to be true to your native culture why not go as King George III. Bam! Yes, I went there.

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Dear Mary-Sue,

My husband writes mystery books for a living. He and I have decided to live in England for a few years while he does research on his latest story. He insists that we look for an old isolated cottage somewhere deep in the heart of the countryside, where he can be free to write. But I feel certain that those oldy-worldy thatched roof places may be haunted. And what if I have to stay in a house like that on my own, should he be called up to London to meet his agent or give a talk.

Do you think I’m strange to be so afraid of (admittedly English) ghosts?

– Susan of Savannah, Georgia, soon to be of Suffolk, East Anglia

Dear Susan,

If you’re going to be living in East Anglia I’d be more concerned with the living than the dead. They’re a scary in-bred bunch, though coming from Georgia you should be able to handle it. I kid, I kid…well not about East Anglia.

*****
Dear Mary-Sue,

Do Westerners see Western ghosts, Chinese see Chinese ghosts, and Africans see African ghosts, or can we see each other’s?

– Just Curious

And does Just Curious see ghosts of low intelligence?

*****

Dear Mary-Sue,

When I first saw the farmhouse in Tuscany that my husband and I are now renting while we look for a place to live for our retirement, I thought to myself: Frances Mayes, eat your heart out! However, we’ve just now found out from one of our neighbors that a murder took place here about ten years ago — and ever since, the house has always been rented to expats. I’m thinking we should consult with the local Catholic priest about whether he could perform an exorcism — casting out evil spirits and all that. But my husband says, don’t be silly — it just adds to the atmosphere.

What do you advise?

-Victoria of Vulterra (formerly of Wellington, NZ)

Dear Vicky,

First thing I would be doing is renegotiating a lower rental fee and not thinking about calling the local Padre.

*****
Dear Mary-Sue,

In my opinion, Asian ghosts are far freakier — and hence scarier — than Western ones. Especially the Japanese kind. I mean, what’s a vampire compared to a wailing Asian woman with a very pale face and long, jet black hair? Actually, I’m scaring myself even as I write this…

– Ted of Tsukuba (formerly of Texas)

Dear Ted,

Yeah, I mean Casper has nothing on the Krasue from Thai legend. Now that’s freaky. I’d like to see Stephen in St Louis go to his party dressed as that.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.) If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EXPAT MOMENTS: Decorative Gourds

So summer ends, at least where we are, and we mark that with another Expat Moments.

The debate over whether aesthetics are universal or encultured is answered definitively in the high aesthetic value North American women place in “decorative” gourds.

Bubonically bucolic, these hideous, misshapen vegetables appear in supermarkets and at farm stands every autumn. The gourds I’m looking at have ridges, bumps and warts that cover the rind completely. Staring at these, my thoughts aren’t of pumpkins and butternut squashes, but of a diseased, pustule-covered body part. The talon-like stem of the gourd is dark, almost black. These . . . things . . . these devil squash would be better placed in a jar of formalin and displayed in the Hunterian alongside Charles Byrne’s skeleton and other morbid curiosities, instead they are arranged into wicker baskets and called seasonal centerpieces.

This post was first published on Culturally Discombobulated.

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post.

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EXPAT MOMENTS: Finding your tongue

Continuing our food-themed posts of September, here’s an Expat Moments post on unexpected encounters with local cuisine.

Kyoto reveals itself to you, a source of delight for the curious of spirit. Alien yet unintimidating, you lose yourself in this ancient city, confused and disoriented as only a contented traveler can be.

But with all that wandering comes hunger. You look around for a restaurant to try. You aren’t entirely sure where precisely you are. It’s not that you’re lost, you know you are somewhere near the centre. You can see in the mid-distance Kyoto Tower. You know you only have to walk in the direction of the tower to find yourself back at your hotel. It’s by no means late, but everything here seems to close unfathomably early. Nothing appears to be open. You had expected the streets at night to be awash with neon advertising hoardings in kanji, but that is not the case here. Your assumptions again proved incorrect.

You spot a salaryman, the only other person on the street apart from you, and see him go into a small building. You follow, but stop at the doorway of the building. There are no windows for you to peer through. There is no sign. You can smell something intoxicating inside, but is it a restaurant? Is it the entrance to an apartment complex that the salaryman lives in? Is it something altogether more illicit that you would be ill-advised from entering? Curiosity combined with hunger gets the better of you and you step into the building.

Walking through the hallway, you discover that it is a restaurant, a tiny one. In the center of the restaurant is an open kitchen where a chef cooks. Who you immediately assume (though why you assume this, you’re not entirely sure) is his daughter serves the food. Three salarymen are sitting there, eating and smoking. The assumed daughter smiles at you. She goes over to the side of the room and rummages through her menus looking for that English copy that they had made. When she has finally located it, she hands it to you with a smile and the only English phrase she will say to you other than a “thank you” as you leave. “For you,” she says, and hands you a laminated menu.

You take the laminated menu. Reading through it, you notice that there is only the one ingredient that they cook – beef tongue (gyutan). Not what you were expecting, or what your stomach was grumbling for. The assumed daughter smiles expectantly at you. You smile back and pick from one of the dozen gyutan dishes available and you wait. The smell of the cigarette smoke from the salarymen irritates you, gets in your chest. As you wait, you read through that laminated menu again and notice that they have included a print-out of the English language Wikipedia page on gyutan, saying hat it only became popular during the occupation after World War 2. You read on, irritated that the Japanese still allow smoking in restaurants, not knowing that you are about to eat one of the most unassuming — but most delicious — meals in your life. Beef tongue, grilled and served with rice.

Assumed daughter and father will say “thank you” as you leave, but you have no Japanese to tell them how much you loved what they offered. All you can give is awkward smile and utter an even more awkward, tongue-tied attempt at “sayonara”.

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post.

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DEAR MARY-SUE: Can you tell me how to stomach other countries’ bizarre food obsessions?

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 thedisplacednation@gmail.com.

Well, this month I’ve been asked to deal with your food-based queries. That’s pretty easy for this gal! I love to chow down. Not in a Paula Deen kinda way, you understand, but I sure do love a refined meal and am pretty well known on the Tulsa culinary scene.

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Dear Mary-Sue,

Fermented salted herring — how does that sound to you as a national dish? [Not great. Think roadkill cooked up in the finest Ozarks tradition sound preferable, if I’m being honest – M-S]  As an American living in Northern Sweden, I have yet to acquire the taste let alone abide the smell. However, a friend at my new church has invited me to a party where they’ll be serving surströmmingsklämma — that’s a sandwich made with slices of surströmming (the name for this fish — quite a mouthful, too, though at least it’s not fermented!) between two pieces of the hard and crispy kind of bread they love so much up here. The bread is buttered and there is a further layer of boiled and sliced or else mashed potatoes.

What to do? Do I accept my friend’s invitation or pretend to be busy “settling in”?

– Mary-Louise from Umeå, Sweden

Dear Mary-Louise,

You don’t have to pretend to be Anthony Bourdain if you don’t want to be. Look at Samantha Brown, she travels all the world and never once leaves her comfort zone or experiences something new.

Also, you’re in Sweden, not some village in the third world where they are honoring you by offering you a slice of roast anteater rump. I’m sure you won’t be insulting anyone by politely declining. Just be graceful and say you’re not big into fish.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I know you’re very pro-USA, but as an English expat who has just spent his first summer in the United States, I haven’t been able to get the hang of some of your summer desserts.

Take, for instance, strawberry shortcake — overly sweetened strawberries on a sweet biscuit, which should actually be called a scone. Whose bright idea was that? I guess that person hadn’t heard of strawberries and cream?

Moving right along to that traditional American Girl Scout favorite, s’mores. The chocolate and graham crackers are fine, but a roasted marshmallow — that’s OTT. Please, sir, can I have no-more?

I could go on about the American obsession with eating ice cream in a wide variety of sickening flavors, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with chocolate and vanilla (okay, strawberry, too, if you like) — but I’ll stop there.

Here’s the thing, old girl [??????? M-S]. I would love to tell my various American hosts that nothing beats a tall glass of Pimm’s on a summer’s day, and a slice of summer pudding, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t go down too well.

Nigel of Nevada

Dear Nigel,

Old girl??! Why, aren’t you a little slice of honey pie? I’d certainly like to beat you with a tall glass of Pimms. It actually isn’t too difficult to get hold of a Pimms cup here in the land of the free. As for the rest of your letter: yeah, we like our desserts to be sweet. What a surprise!

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I’m originally from Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada, and am teaching English in Korea. The other day one of my students went so far as to tell me that the reason the Korean economy has gotten strong is because they all eat so much kimchi.

I wanted to tell him that I think there’s something strange about a nation being so obsessed with what is essentially spicy fermented cabbage.

I mean, can’t they think of anything else to brag about?

– Sally from Seoul

Dear Sally,

First Mary-Louise’s problems with fermented fish and now this. I don’t know what it is with foreigners and fermentation — seems crazy to me. The Mary-Sue rule is that unless you’re fermenting something that I can make into a mimosa or margarita, then it’s best not to bother.

My hubby, Jake, is always going off to the Korean barbeque in town. If the owner is sending back all the money he makes off dear ol’ hubby, well, it’s probably that that’s keeping the Korean economy strong.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

Oh. My. God. Do people really eat this stuff? I’m an American student staying with a British family as part of a semester abroad, and they SERIOUSLY just offered me the most foul-tasting stuff imaginable on toast. I thought I was going to spit it out. I mean, it was soooo salty! And then they presented the jar to me as a GIFT! What am I supposed to do with it?!?!?!?

– Patti in Plymouth

Dear Patti,

I’m assuming you’re talking about Marmite. I wouldn’t worry too much, it probably won’t make it past customs when you return to the land of milk and honey.

Mary-Sue

___________________________________________

Anyhoo, that’s all from me readers. I’m so keen to hear about your cultural issues and all your juicy problems. Do drop me a line with any problems you have, or if you want to talk smack about Delilah Rene.

Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She is the best-selling author of Traveling Made Easy, Low-Fat Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, The Art of War: The Authorized Biography of Samantha Brown, and William Shatner’s TekWar: An Unofficial Guide. If you have any questions that you would like Mary-Sue to answer, you can contact her at thedisplacednation@gmail.com, or by adding to the comments below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by Jack Scott.

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EXPAT MOMENTS: A Question of Sport

As this summer, for me at least, has been a summer of sport, I thought I would continue this Expat Moments series with a post I originally put in 2010 on my own blog Culturally Discombobulated. They are thoughts I had while watching a San Francisco giants baseball game. That season the giants would go on to win the World Series, and the fans celebrating outside my apartment elicited a sound like that of a dying whale.


I’m in AT&T Park, San Francisco. It’s the top of the 4th innings and the San Francisco Giants trail the Arizona Diaomondbacks 6 – 1. It is little surprise therefore that the atmosphere in the stadium is tetchy. The main object of the crowd’s impatience is the Giant’s pitcher Barry Zito who to use a British expression is “having a ‘mare.” Even to me – a man who could write everything he knows about the art of pitching on the back of a postage stamp – it is apparent that Zito is a player struggling with confidence and that’s affecting his ability to settle into a rhythm. Within minutes of the game starting he had allowed Arizona to wrest the initiative. That disaster of a first innings would see Arizona score 6 quick runs – now they’re hoping to add more. Zito is in trouble again as he preps himself to pitch at Reynolds. Young has already walked and LaRoche hit a single. There’s an unpleasant air of expectancy in the ground as Zito pulls his left arm back readying himself to throw. It doesn’t feel as if the crowd expect much from this pitch – at least not heroics from Zito. There’s a palpable feeling of a crowd readying itself for disappointment, a collective anxiety over the failure they anticipate. Crack!! It’s a sweet hit from Reynolds. The crowd groans in anguish. Jesus, they knew it, they just knew it was going to happen. As the groan turns into boos, Young, LaRoche and Reynolds pass home plate. Arizona Diamondbacks 9 – San Francisco Giants 1.

A few minutes later and Zito is “relieved”, to use a baseball term, by Ramirez, another of the Giants’ pitchers. Relieved: to free from anxiety, fear, pain – that sounds about right. Zito trudges off the field disappointed. Some of the crowd feel the need to make their feelings known. “You suck, Zito!!” Despite the anger of those shouting, as someone used to English soccer fans, the language the baseball fans employ is clean – unimaginative even. For me, I am disappointed that Zito is off. He is one of the few players I’d bothered to read about before the game and was vital in my attempt to try and pass as being vaguely knowledgable about the Giants. I feel disconnected from the rest of the crowd; alone in the communal. Various things have confused me. I don’t get why the National Anthem was performed by a guitarist who looks Will Ferrell done up as a generic rock star for an SNL sketch. I don’t get why the Giants came out to Radiohead’s Idoteque; surely the oddest choice of song to get 30,000 people pumped up? And then there’s the game itself, following it takes effort. Though I think of myself as a sports fan, this game is not my sporting heritage and mythology. I am having to start from scratch, learning new rules and new idols. Though some aspects of the game are familiar, for me it is still the Other, it is still foreign. I feel like a Christian pilgrim worshipping in a mosque. This feeling is made worse (or better) by the opportunity for contemplation and reflection that the game allows. It is in that respect that I find baseball most like cricket – quick bursts of action punctuated by long periods of anticipation, the moments where it pleases me to sit and think.

And as I think, I’m reminded of an old teacher of mine. He was American, first-generation. Possessing both an Ivy League and Oxbridge education he was smart, but not overbearing about it, and though now mature in his years he had the height and broad shoulders of a man who back in college must have made for a hell of a footballer. To my mind, he was like a character out of a Philip Roth novel. And here at AT&T Park, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with him, a conversation that hadn’t really registered much with me at the time, but now a few years later is striking a chord. Like so many American stories, it centres around a child’s grievances against their father. In this case, my teacher told me about how he had unfairly resented his immigrant father for not understanding or enjoying the same sports as he did. Unlike his friends’ fathers, his didn’t play catch with him in the backyard or explain the rules of baseball or football. When it came to sport they spoke different languages: the son spoke in the vernacular of the New World, of Red Sox and Yankees, of touchdowns and home runs; the accented father could only speak of the weird and unknown – of Dynamos and Red Stars. And so my teacher, as a boy, would observe his friends and their fathers and how they bonded over sport. Fathers teaching sons how best to catch, how best to bat. When they did this, they would mention how the Babe gripped the bat, how DiMaggio hit the ball, without knowing it they were passing down an ocular history of American sport, a sense of identity ever bit as important as tales of Washington or Lincoln. To my teacher’s young self, his father was failing in the very purpose a father was meant for. He wasn’t giving him this rites of passage that all the other fathers were giving their sons. Heck, if a father can’t show you how to throw a curveball, just what use is he? Today, I feel like that father.

For me, dealing with sport in America is like having a whole idiom and vocabulary removed; I feel emasculated even. All those useless little facts and figures that I know about sport are useless here. No one knows of Dixie Dean or has an opinion on the relative merits of the Duke ball against the Kookaburra ball. Where once I was confident with the sports round in a pub quiz or in a game of trivia pursuit, it’s now my weakest subject and to be avoided at all costs. When a discussion turns to Roger Clemens or Brett Favre I have to Wikipedia them to remind myself just who they are and what sport they play. I try to learn a few facts so I have something that I can at least talk about. For this Giants game, by rote I have learnt the following: that the Giants were until 1957 the New York Giants after which they oved to San Francisco; that since leaving New York they have failed to add to their tally of five World Series; that game 3 of the 1989 World Series against local rivals Oakland Athletics was disrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake; that Giants pitcher Barry Zito has a teddy bear collection and is the nephew of Dallas actor Patrick Duffy. But they’re just random facts that I have learnt, it’s not as if I have an opinion about any of these sports. And if you don’t have dumb sports opinions then it is difficult to connect with 90% of American males. What noticeable about my time here is that I’ve found that I don’t get along with American men as much as American women. Put a group of men together and talk quickly descends into discussing the minutiae of sport. When that happens I find I have little to say and so for the most part keep quiet.

I am going to try and change that. I often feel that I’m only in America when I step out of my apartment. Thanks to the web, my apartment remains de facto British soil where I can still listen to British radio, read the British papers and watch British sport. By that token, I remember coming across a photograph of Kim Philby; it had been taken late in his life when he was exiled in Moscow. Behind him, you could clearly see a bookshelf, and on the shelf where fat, yellow volumes of Wisden – the cricket lovers bible. That image has stuck with me. Though Philby had defected to the USSR and had betrayed his country, he still couldn’t escape the trappings of his Britishness – nor I guess did he have any intention of. I imagine Philby struggling to explain to his KGB handlers about just how important Test cricket is and resenting them for their indifference. And I’m guilty of that too, isolating myself culutrally from those around me. I need to make a concerted effort to change that and understand American sports better. With the baseball season getting to its interesting stage and the football season about to start, it seems an opportune time to make a greater effort to learn this new (for me) language though I will still, from time to time, talk of Dynamos and Red Stars.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post where Kate will be reviewing a chocolate app.

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Images: by Anthony Windram.

Dear Mary-Sue: Expats face tough come-down after Olympics high

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 thedisplacednation@gmail.com.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! That’s been the chant in the ol’ Wallace homestead these last two weeks. We took on the world and we whopped its ass — just as it should be. All very exciting — and some of those swimmers! Well, let’s just say they can come round to Mary-Sue’s pool to practice their doggy paddle anytime they want.

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I was watching the closing ceremony of the London Olympics last night, and at one point the commentator said that it was a great tribute to British individualism and creativity. But why don’t we just go ahead and call it eccentricity? Because that’s what it is, right?

Former expat in Britain, now happily repatriated to USA

Dear Former Expat,

Hmm, if my understanding of British culture is correct, and bear in mind that I am no expert like Mary Carillo, but I don’t think there was enough cross-dressing for it to technically count as British eccentricity.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

At the conclusion to the London Olympics, Sebastian Coe said: “Britain did it right.” But then why were the Spice Girls involved in the closing ceremony?

A happy repatriate to the USA after several years in Britain

Dear AHRTTUASYIB,

How many years were you in Britain and yet you never learned their famed sense of irony? Two weeks Mary Carillo has spent there and she has got it all sorted. Shows what you can do if you apply yourself.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I’ve been watching my home country, Britain, host the Olympics for the past two weeks, and now I’m really homesick. What’s the cure for this? (I’m allergic to chicken soup.)

Ben in Boston

Dear Ben,

Epcot, British pavilion. Just like being in Britain, but with actual customer service!!

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I noticed that the great Brazilian footballer Pelé made an appearance in the closing ceremonies when Britain was handing over the Olympics flag to Brazil for the next Summer Games in 2016. As you may or may not know, Brazil will also host the World Cup in 2014. As much as I like the Olympics, in my opinion, that’s a far more important and prestigious event — even though America, my new country, doesn’t participate. Would you agree?

Pablo from Pittsburgh

p.s. Viva España!

Dear Pablo,

No.

Mary-Sue is all about those tasty swimmers. Is Ryan Lochte (yeah, he’s an idiot, I know) going to be at the World Cup? Thought not. Pelé may have been a great soccer player, but all I know about him now is that he does commercials for Viagra. Give me Lochte any day.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I noticed that one of the Displaced Nation writers, Anthony Windram, was criticizing the NBC coverage of the Olympics. He even went so far as to call Bob Costas the “ugly American.”

Though I now live in England, I’m sure it couldn’t have been any more partisan than what I witnessed over here on the BBC.

Wasn’t Windram just being churlish and if so, why was the Displaced Nation giving him so much “air time”?

Bob from Britain

Dear Bob,

I agree Windram is a blight on this site. I actually have to deal with him. I ask for Ryan Lochte and they send me that chump Windram. I wanted a wet athlete and they give me a wet fish. He called Bob Costas ugly, I know which one I’d rather wake up to on a cold winter’s morning.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

At one point during the Olympics, tensions between Kiwis and us Aussies here in the Netherlands reached an all-time high because they were winning more medals than we were. But all’s well that ends well, or at least that’s the way I and my fellow Aussies see it: we finished 10th, with 35 medals (of which 7 were gold), as compared to their 16th-place finish with 13 medals, of which 5 were gold. However, some Kiwis continue to lord it over us despite these stats. Until now, we all got on quite well. How can we repair the rift?

Ethan of Emmeloord

Dear Ethan,

Wait, Australia and New Zealand are different countries? Well, I’ll be a monkey’s Aunt!

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Dear Mary-Sue,

Why did NBC show Russell Brand singing but not Ray Davies?

Baby Boomer in USA

Dear Baby Boomer,

As one of the 800,000 people to have experienced at first hand the debauched ways of Mr Brand, I can attest that while his whole Pied Piper aesthetic is unusual, his spindly body has an unusual sexual-voodoo pull on others. I’m guessing that Russell was awarded a gold in bedroom gymnastics by Mr Costas, and that Costas then made sure Russell was included in the final broadcast. Ray, by contrast, probably wasn’t able to be heard by the 17-year-old athletes, like Missy Franklin, who were screaming in excitement for One Direction.

Mary-Sue
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Anyhoo, that’s all from me readers. I’m so keen to hear about your cultural issues and all your juicy problems. Do drop me a line with any problems you have, or if you want to talk smack about Delilah Rene.

Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She is the best-selling author of Traveling Made Easy, Low-Fat Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, The Art of War: The Authorized Biography of Samantha Brown, and William Shatner’s TekWar: An Unofficial Guide. If you have any questions that you would like Mary-Sue to answer, you can contact her at thedisplacednation@gmail.com, or by adding to the comments below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post with some cooling thoughts for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who, after sweltering away under the summer’s record heat waves, need a boost to get through the remainder of August.

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To live the Olympic Ideal, I need to stop watching the Olympics

So the Olympics continue and with it my continuing — and ugly — obsession with the American broadcasting network NBC is laid bare.

Now if I were being fair — and I so rarely am — I would admit that NBC does have a nifty, free Olympics app that is a pretty decent way of keeping track (terrible pun, sorry) of what is happening, but all the goodwill that engenders in me evaporates as soon as I turn on the TV for my nightly fix.

Having already vented in a previous post, I should clearly give this issue a rest, but in all honesty the snide, masochistic side of my personality adores being able to shout each night as the bland features of Bob Costas (a face you forget even while looking at it) illuminate TV screens across the USA.

Six hours a night I’ve been yelping, tutting, and admonishing the TV. My long-suffering wife deals stoically with my piggish behaviour. It starts with my local NBC affiliate, who are staging all their Olympic coverage from the nearby Thunder Valley Casino — because as everyone knows, if you want to see Olympic specimens you head to the lobby of a casino. Once in a while, they cut to Deirdre Fitzpatrick, who each day provides pointless, meandering ten-minute videos of herself wandering round London — Rick Steves is positively Bruce Chatwin-like in comparison. A choice example saw our Deirdre (make-up immaculate, of course, but in that female US newcaster’s way, whereby its effect is disturbingly artificial and it’s impossible to gauge what her true age is) by a footpath on the South Bank. “Everywhere you go, there’s an impromptu performance,” she says as the camera zooms in on a man playing an acoustic guitar. Deirdre, it’s called busking.

But then comes the main event as we cut to Bland Bob Costas. You may even get to see a little bit of sport, but not too much as Mary Carillo is then wheeled out for 15 minutes each night to give a patronising look into some aspect of British life that would even make VisitBritain cringe. She is not quite at Deirdre levels of annoyance, but then poor Deirdre’s day often seems to involve finding an American tourist to talk to, or the most embarrassing old British codger that she can find to interview. Mary, however, has access to various echelons of British society to paint her twee picture of my homeland. I was particularly irate when only the last lap of the 10,000m race was shown — we then moved on to Mary fronting a 15-minute video about bagpipes in Glasgow. I understand that the race had been shown live earlier in the day, but I don’t think anyone was tuning in that night for a piece about the modern renaissance of bagpipes. If this has any place — and that is a big if — it is on The Today Show (which, too, has camped out in London for the duration of the games), not on the actual evening highlights.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin in establishing the modern Olympics probably did not envisage how mass media throughout the 20th century would transform the games, and certainly did not foresee how social media is transforming them again. In the interests of his Olympic Ideal, it seems utterly wrong that I am spending my time moaning into the void-like Internet, rather than celebrating the likes of Usain Bolt, Oscar Pistorius, and Jessica Ennis. I will take a deep breath, count to ten, and smile when Bob beams that ineffectual smile of his when coverage starts. Or perhaps I’ll try and figure out how to get the Canadian coverage of the games.

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Bob Costas as the ugly American: NBC and the Olympics

Yesterday’s post was on the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Here in the US, I was able to watch it (hours after the rest of the world) on NBC.

I hadn’t planned to write a post about the Olympics and the opening ceremony. In fact, I was vehemently against the idea when it was suggested to me. However, as the days have gone on, I’ve found my attitude softening.

They are two reasons for this.

Firstly, the Games have made me homesick. My usual cynicism is no match for the enthusiasm of my London friends, all of whom seem to be attending events (if Facebook is anything to go by) while I sit watching it in one of the dullest towns in California. The opening ceremony elicited in me a mixture of pride and embarrassment — and as such, perfectly encapsulated for me what it is to be British. The ceremony also irritated Rush Limbaugh — so clearly job well done on Danny Boyle‘s part there.

The second reason I’ve decided to backtrack on my decision to blog on the Games is I am enduring the NBC coverage. Those of you spending too much of your time on Twitter have probably already noticed that the channel has been receiving a fair amount of criticism for its decision to time-delay the opening ceremony, its cutting of the “memorial” wall tribute from the ceremony as they didn’t feel it relevant to a US audience (yeah, because NBC knows what’s relevant to a US audience), its role in the suspension of journalist Guy Adams from Twitter, and the really awful library-esque studio they’ve set up for Bob Costas. Each night Bob reminds me of the narrator from The Rocky Horror Show. Oh God, do you think he’s got pantyhose under that desk?

This is the second Summer games that I have watched in the US, so I am not surprised that NBC in its prime time slots edits the games more like a reality show, such as American Idol, than an actual sporting event. They are filmed inserts galore highlighting particular favored US Olympians giving us a look into their struggles and achievements, their family dynamics, and ideally some terrible (juicy) tragedy that has befallen them.

What has really irritated me, however, has been NBC’s commentary. I understand that Trevor Nelson had some role in the BBC commentary during the opening ceremony, so in the interest of fairness I imagine that was pretty dire, too; but it was disappointing to see Matt Lauer, Bob Costas and Meredith Vieira prove so adept in their roles as ugly Americans.

On behalf of those blessed without NBC, I re-watched the opening ceremony and parade of nations this morning. I give you the following comments from said broadcast:

On London mayor Boris Johnson

By the way if you think he’s been so busy, he couldn’t get a haircut — this is his haircut.

Actually, fair enough.

On British English

A billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — will watch at home on what they call “the telly” around here.

On the reveal of the giant baby

I don’t know whether that’s cute or creepy. — Matt Lauer

Coincidentally, I had the same thought on seeing Meredith Vieira.

On Tim Berners-Lee

If you haven’t heard of him — we haven’t either.

Yes, Meredith, let’s revel in our ignorance.

On various countries

Australia was famously settled as a penal colony in the late-1700s.

Belgium, as you know, is homeland to IOC President, Dr Jacques Rogge, who competed as a sailor for them three times in ’68, ’72 and ’76.

We’re meant to know that, but not about Tim Berners-Lee?

Central African Republic is made up of more than 80 ethnic groups and they each have their own language, which I’m guessing makes subtitles at the movies a major undertaking.

Jesus Christ, it’s like watching the games with your unfunny uncle.

And that leads me perfectly to Croatia: their flag-bearer Venio Losert is the goalkeeper of the handball team. This is a sport that just doesn’t have a great foothold in the United States, but if you’re looking for a way to get a medal in the Olympics it would be a good sport to take up.

Yup, the US doesn’t play it, so handball must be a piece of piss.

On Kim Jong-Il and golf

Bob Costas: Matt, as a golfer you’d know that North Korea’s greatest athletic achievement belonged to the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who, according to his official biography, carded 11 holes in one. Not over a lifetime, but over the first he ever played. I’m guessing the ones off the windmill and the clown’s nose were especially impressive.”

Matt Lauer: Sure, you joke. You’re not going to vacation there.

Bob Costas: Unlikely.

Feel free to contribute to my Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to send Bob Costas to North Korea for his vacation.

On badminton coverage

Bob Costas: If you’re looking for badminton coverage, and who isn’t, you’ll find it on our cable networks and streaming live on nbcolympics.com throughout the games.

Matt Lauer: Let’s not make light, this is not your backyard, picnic variety badminton. This is tough stuff.

Bob Costas: No, that shuttle cock moves at “daunting” speeds!

Like those competing in handball, the badminton players should be thankful Bob Costas isn’t playing their easy-peasy sport. Bob can also bitch-slap Chuck Norris.

On various countries

Djibouti — now, there’s a few countries whose names simply make you smile. Djibouti would win the gold medal in that category. Maybe Cameroon taking the silver.

Don’t leave us in suspense, Matt. Who comes in bronze?

Germany is next. Long-time Olympic power, the medal count has slipped in recent years, so they’ve now returned to East German-style Olympic schools to better train their young athletes — but they’re quick to point out their talking about the positive aspects of such a program.

Thank God, for a moment I thought they’d brought the Stasi back.

Madagascar — a location associated with a few huge animated movies.

The Maldives are the lowest country on earth. A couple of medals here might boost them up a little bit.

A few medals will sort out the rising sea levels!

Next is Pakistan. While world leaders keep a wary eye on this country, of much less importance Pakistani athletes to keep an eye are likely to be found in field hockey.

Seamless, Bob. Absolutely seamless.

Winston Churchill once described the African nation of Uganda and its lush landscape as the pearl of Africa. Of course, Churchill never met Idi Amin.

On the speed of the Parade of Nations

Bob Costas: I don’t know if you can sense this, folks, but we’re having to edit through our notes. We have never seen a parade of nations move at a clip like this.

Matt Lauer: Just means we get to the United States and Great Britain a little earlier.

Bob: Tsch, we have to sit through all these other countries.

On athletes smiling

As all these Olympians enter, smiling and quickly, I think part of this is in deference to the 86-year-old Queen who made — along with James Bond — one of the great entrances in Olympic history earlier.

I mean, what other reasons are there for an athlete to be smiling at making the Olympics?

On London pubs and football

You’ll see signs in the windows of London pubs sometimes saying no football jerseys allowed because the mere sight of the wrong jersey can ignite a brawl. But nobody is in a brawling mood tonight.

That ending is worthy of Alan Partridge. Also, as someone who has drank in far more London pubs than Bob Costas and Matt Lauer, I have never seen such a sign.

.

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