The Displaced Nation

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Category Archives: Memoirists

Live your life, take chances—raise alpacas? A curious expat tale that has yielded a book-worthy yarn

Seriously Mum Collage

(Clockwise from top) Alan Parks with a friend’s alpaca; the converted olive mill where he and his partner, Lorna, now live; Brighton Pier, scene of their former abode (photo credit: Photo Monkey via Flickr Creative Commons).

The most amazing thing about the expat memoir penned by my guest today, Alan Parks, is not simply its title, though Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is quite a doozy.

It’s not even the zaniness of the alpacas that appear throughout the narrative: Bermuda, Cassandra, Lily, Baby Rafa… BTW, they are just a few among many animals Alan and his partner, Lorna Penfold, keep. (There’s a tally of how many and what kinds at the start of each chapter.)

No, the most amazing thing about Alan Parks’s memoir is that fellow expats, particularly fellow Brits (but also one German), are the villains of the piece—the least trustworthy of all the people he and Lorna have encountered on their madcap adventure. I say “madcap” as I think the decision the couple made, six years ago, to abandon their home in Brighton (in their native UK) for a renovated olive mill near Montoro in Spain’s Córdoba Province, which is within the autonomous territory of Andalusia, to raise alpacas justifies my choice of that adjective.

From the book’s beginning, Alan’s instinct is not to stick with the expat community—as he puts it:

I don’t think we would have mixed with many of these people at home, so we should not feel forced to by circumstances.

And boy does that instinct prove right! While the Spanish merely think he and Lorna are crazy (so far as they’re concerned, the British pair may as well be raising giraffes!), their fellow Brits are out to take advantage of them in all kinds of ways. And despite Alan’s better instincts, his limited Spanish at times gives him little choice but to get involved with some pretty unscrupulous characters.

Mind you, the Spanish don’t always come off well either, especially when it comes to their treatment of animals. In light of Mahatma Gandhi’s proclamation—

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

—it would not be too far fetched to say that the animals are the book’s true heroes. They are what keep Alan and Lorna going in face of a seemingly unending series of challenges. In tribute, Alan gives various pets a voice at the end of occasional chapters. (It’s sad when they lose them, though.)

But the reason we are assembled here today to give Alan himself a voice in telling us about his book, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already. It’s done super well on Amazon for a reason: it’s terrific! And please LEAVE A COMMENT at the end of this post to be eligible to win a FREE COPY. (Alan has kindly agreed to give one of his books away: your choice of alpacas or donkeys! And there may also be prizes for runners-up!!!)

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SeriouslyMumAlpaca_bookcover_dropshadowWelcome to the Displaced Nation, Alan! Between you and your partner, Lorna Penfold, you have produced three memoirs about your life in Spain. There’s the book we’re featuring today: Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?. There’s also the sequel: Seriously Mum, Where’s That Donkey? And Lorna has just now published From Sequins to Sunshine: Year One. Tell me, what has made the pair of you so prolific?
The books were never planned. Two years ago, after being told many times that I should write a book about our adventures, I decided to give it a go. Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? was the result. It started out being called Bloody Hell, What’s an Alpaca?—an exact quote for how Lorna’s daughter, Frankie, responded when we told her about our plans. But the use of the word “hell” hindered sales in the US. After I released the sequel, we thought people might like to read Lorna’s point of view. She had started a blog when we first moved here, so we turned her posts from the first year into an e-book. So far the reaction has been good.

What was the impulse that led to your packing it all in and moving to the South of Spain?
Lorna was a dance teacher in the UK and I used to work in retail. Lorna developed a condition called sarcoidosis, which made working difficult. One day we were talking about the possibility of her giving up work, and I suggested moving to Florida, but that was too far away. I blurted out “What about Spain?” Crazy really, as I had never ever been here.

Hey, craziness is what makes the world round! And how about this idea of raising alpacas, where did that come from?
We had heard about alpacas in the UK and thought that would be a good business for us to get in to (it wasn’t).

Okay, seeing as I know nothing about the alpaca business, what makes it so challenging?
An alpaca is not a cheap animal, yet you can’t eat it, and it doesn’t produce milk to drink. You make money by selling them to other breeders. But sales, and the selling price, have gone down since the world financial crisis.

What about their wool?
We try to sell as much of our alpacas’ wool as possible to local people who spin, knit and use it for crafting, but the market here in Spain is miniscule and postage costs prohibitive.

Do Spanish people think you and Lorna are crazy for your devotion to these animals?
People in Spain have never heard of alpacas. To a Spaniard, a goat is a much more useful animal.

Why do you still keep your alpacas if you’re not making any money on them?
For one there is no one to sell them to, and for two, they are part of our family and we love them. We also like it when people come and stay at our farm and can experience walking and feeding the alpacas. And finally, if there were no alpacas, there would be no books.

Ah, yes, the books. We’ll get to that, but first let me ask another alpaca question. The New York Times had an article last year talking about llamas being good pets. I think the alpaca is meant to be the llama’s quirky cousin. So is the same true of them?
It depends….they are no good if you want an animal to pet and stroke. But if you have an acre of land and you need the grass kept short, they could be good. Bear in mind, though, that they need to be kept in groups of at least three!

Out of the grey skies of England and into the frying pan of Spain

Moving right along to the weather: having been an expat in Britain myself, I can imagine you were keen to leave behind its grey skies and unpredictable climate. But were you aware that the interior of Andalusia, where you were headed, is the hottest area in all of Europe?
We didn’t find out about this area being called “The Frying Pan of Spain” until much further down the line. We were sorting some paperwork at the Spanish Embassy in London, and a lady said to us, “You do know they call it the Frying Pan of Spain, don’t you?” In the summer it can easily hit 45 degrees during the day. Siestas are a necessity.

Can you give us some sense of how you spend a typical day in your new life versus when you lived in Brighton?
In Brighton I was often out the door at 7:30 a.m. and got back home about 7:00 p.m. Lorna worked in the evenings, often not returning home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Also, she had to work a lot of Sundays, so we never got to see each other. In Spain our life is much more relaxed. We spend our days looking after the animals and maintaining the house, and we are now together 24/7. You could say we went from one extreme to another.

I understand you met Lorna on the Internet. How long had you known each other before hatching this plan to live in Spain?
We had been together for four years and living together for three before we made the move, so we at least knew we could live together.

Did starting up a totally new life in a foreign land put a strain on your relationship or draw you closer?
I wouldn’t say our relationship has ever been strained, although as you can read in our books, we have been through some tough times together.

Be careful what you wish for…

Having read your book, I know there were quite a few moments in Spain when you felt like a bit like aliens, but which moment stands out as your most displaced, when you wondered if you’d made a mistake?
I think our “What are we doing here?” moment came after about 18 months. We had spent all our money with an English builder renovating our new house in the sun, and we experienced the worst Spanish winter rains for a hundred years. It turned out the builder was a conman and all the roofs he’d built started leaking. On top of that two of our alpacas died in the months before. I remember us standing in our kitchen as water cascaded from the ceiling. We were both in tears.

Wow, a literal “pool of tears” moment! But I know you also have things you love about your new life. Can you tell us about your least displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in Spain’s Frying Pan rather than your native UK?
Andalucia feels like home to us now, although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when we turned the corner. I think we are most aware of it when we are sitting outside having something to eat and drink with friends at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of August, wearing only a t-shirt. That is what life is about, not whether or not you can afford the latest version of the iPad!

Would you say you’ve assimilated to the point where returning to the UK gives you counter culture shock?
Lorna visits the UK regularly as she now has three grandchildren that weren’t even thought about when we first moved here. I have not been back for five years but will head back for a weekend in June to visit my relatives and attend a diamond wedding celebration for my grandparents. In all honesty, I am a bit nervous about it, I am not looking forward to being in crowds. Here in Spain we live in the countryside outside a small town and some days we do not see a single person. Plus in June, I only ever wear shorts and a t-shirt, but in the UK I may need jumpers (sweaters) and trousers.

An Amazon bestseller in Travel with Pets and Travel in Europe

Moving on to your e-books: why did you decide to self-publish?
I wrote my first book just as self-publishing was really taking off. I submitted the manuscript to one publishing house, got a thanks-but-no-thanks letter back, so decided to publish it myself.

Are there any drawbacks to self-publishing?
As a self-publisher, the hardest part is clicking the button to publish. A traditionally published author has that taken away from them, and even if they get mixed reviews they have the backing of the publishing house. We are responsible for everything, from cover, to content, to editing mistakes. If there are problems, or mistakes in the manuscript, that is our fault.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Initially I thought it would appeal mainly to other alpaca breeders, but I have had emails from readers all over the world who say they’ve enjoyed reading about our Spanish adventure. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the response to Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? I just had to write the sequel, Seriously Mum, Where’s that Donkey?

Your book has done very well on Amazon. Do you do a lot to promote it?
I run a FB group called We Love Memoirs, which has over a thousand members, all of whom enjoy books like mine. The best way to promote is by word of mouth. If somebody recommends your book to their friend, nothing beats that. As a self publisher I am actually against the Amazon Select program, where you make your book available exclusively on Kindle. My books are available on Amazon but also everywhere else: iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and even smaller retailers.

What’s next—more books?
I would like to release a third book this year, and Lorna has years 2 and 3 in her From Sequins to Sunshine series to work on.

How are the alpacas doing?
The alpacas are good, and if all is well, we may have some babies at the end of the year.

SONY DSC10 Questions for Alan Parks & Lorna Penfold

Finally, I know that both you and Lorna have become avid readers while living in Spain, so I’m curious to hear both of you answer a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Alan: I’m not sure I have ever read a truly great book. The books I read tend not to get put in that category. Lorna: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Alan: I also have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I didn’t have the same reaction Lorna did.
2. Favorite literary genre: Alan: Comedy memoir. Lorna: Everything except horror.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Alan: I haven’t been on a plane for six years. Before it would have been an old fashioned book, but now I would read on a kindle app on my phone. Lorna: Always a paperback (whatever I happen to be reading).
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read: Alan: Mine, of course! I think it would do him the world of good to find out that people can be happy living a more simple life, with less materialistic ideals in life! Lorna: Mine of course, just to give him a look at a day to day life of a “normal” working class person.
5. Favorite books as a child: Alan: The “Adventure” Series, by Willard Price.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction: Alan: Jack West Junior, who appears in a book series by Australian author Matthew Reilly. Lorna: Mariam from A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Alan: Peter Mayle. Lorna: Khaled Hosseini.
8. Your reading habits: Alan: I read in bed at night, and a lot in the summer. Lorna: I read lots in summer as we do not watch television at all then. Plus other times of course.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Alan: Anything by Matthew Reilly, it would be like Indiana Jones on speed. And my own book of course. Lorna: My partner’s book Seriously Mum, what’s an Alpaca?
10. The book you plan to read next: Alan: Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly. Lorna: The next on the shelf, whatever it is!

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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Alan? Hey, it’s not every day you get to discuss the world’s most captivating camelids! And don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Seriously, Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is available from Amazon(among other venues). Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit its companion site, like the book’s Facebook page (and be treated to lots of cute alpaca pix!) +/or follow Alan on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!<!–tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)–>

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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Does an expat life in Los Angeles ever go according to script? Read Tim John’s memoir to find out…

Tim John Hollywood CollageFor many of us, the calling to the expat life is not really a calling at all, but more of a vague (albeit rather deep-seated) need to escape our surroundings in search of adventure. We have no idea of what we’re looking for until we’ve arrived at a place and put down roots. Even then, we still have the mentality of drifters, and it take us a while to access our muses.

My guest today, the screenwriter Tim John, does not belong in that mould, as soon becomes clear from the first few pages of his new book, Adventures in LA-LA Land, an account of the seven years he spent in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenny, and their two young daughters.

You see, Tim plunged into his particular expat adventure with the script already written, both literally (he had a project in the works) and figuratively. Heading for Hollywood was Plan B after he lost his job with a London advertising agency during the recession of the early 1990s, and started dabbling in screenwriting.

The late Christopher Hitchens, another English writer who chose to be based in the United States, once described LA as a city “mostly full of nonsense and delusion and egomania.” But in the script Tim had written for himself and family, it was LA-LA Land—a place where they could have it all, great climate, a house with swimming pool, and (hopefully) big money.

So did Hollywood feed Tim’s creative muses (and fill his coffers) in the manner he expected? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I read it, and found myself surprisingly moved by the story of a man who lives for the movies. In fact, the pace can be likened to that of a roller coaster ride—fun but also harrowing at times.

On that note, it’s time to welcome Tim to the Displaced Nation to talk about his book. And just a heads up: Tim will be “screening” the comments for the person who leaves the best pitch for why they’d like to read it. That lucky individual will be under contract for a free digital copy!!!

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AdventuresinLALALand_coverHi, Tim, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell me why you decided to write a memoir about your years in Hollywood?
I’d read so many books about how to write a Hollywood screenplay, but never found one that also told you what it was like living there, so I decided to write my own, based on the seven years I lived there with my wife and two daughters.

Have you thought about turning it into an actual script for a movie?
I would love to turn it into a screenplay, too.

I understand you lived in LA from 1991 to 1998. I’m curious why you produced the book so long after the fact?
I’m not really sure why I waited so long to write it, possibly because I’ve been doing more and more teaching over the last couple of years and I’m often aware that students often don’t get taught important skills that are crucial to being successful as a screenwriter, such as being able to pitch and how to balance writing life with social life and family life. I thought that relating my experiences could be useful for others. If nothing else, they could learn from my mistakes as well as my successes!

In the end, the movie (of my life) was about…

Has your perspective on the experience deepened with time?
I suppose gaining some distance in time and geographically helped me to see Hollywood from a more objective perspective.

What impact did your writing about the experience have on you?
Definitely part of it was cathartic, to process the bizarre experience.

You worked in advertising for a while. When exactly did you catch the movie-making bug?
I worked a copywriter and then as a creative director—both of which are extremely useful if you want to go into film as they teach you so much about writing for a particular audience and how to write pithy dialogue and how to edit, etc. I always loved film mainly because it was such a great escape. As a kid, The Jungle Book was a big favorite. Mutiny on the Bounty and Lawrence of Arabia got me pretty scared, as did that spider in Doctor No!

Yes, I recall your mentioning in the book your fear of spiders when you found yourself face to face with a black widow at your house in LA. I’m still shuddering at the thought of being bitten by a brown recluse, by the way!

Was there a single epiphanic moment?

Your book is chockerblock with what we like to refer to on this site as “displaced moments” as a result of your encounters with not just deadly spiders but also shrieking peacocks, rats, snakes, and even some neighbors who believed in extraterrestrial burglars—and that’s before we get to the highly venomous creatures who populate the Hollywood film industry. Does any one moment stand out as your most displaced?
Wow. There were many moments when I thought “What on Earth am I doing in this bizarre place?” One that sticks out in my professional life was that time I went to pitch to Disney and the exec said “Great to meet you guys, we’re looking for some comedy writers” and I self-effacingly said: “Then you should meet these guys I play tennis with—they’re hilarious.” None of the execs could see I was joking and at the end of the meeting, the development girl took me aside, discreetly handed me a business card and said: “If you continue to have self-esteem issues, see my shrinkshe’s fabulous!”

That makes me think of Johnny Carson’s line: “In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” And I think the Northridge earthquake of 1994 displaced you and your family rather literally.
Yes, the whole house rattled and creaked for over forty seconds and there were waves in the pool.

Ah, the pool… You also talk about how much you loved the weather, having a pool, and taking drives to some fabulous scenery. Can you pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in LA-LA Land rather than your native UK?
There were so many great moments. Personally, living in that sunshine, with a pool, a hot tub, etc., along with plenty of money and also plenty of free time (even though you’re constantly thinking of ideas to pitch), seems like a dream for anyone who’s come from the UK climate and ever struggled to make ends meet. It’s like living in a vacationuntil you realize it will all collapse if you don’t sell your next idea, and you’re going to have to sell it far sooner than you expected because the cost of living is very high, especially when you factor in things you’d never had to pay for before, such as earthquake insurance. Never forget that “writer” is only one letter away from “waiter”.

Professionally, when you get to chat with famous stars and talented directors and they take your comments seriouslythat feels unreal but also great. Probably the greatest moment for me was just before I moved to LA, being able to go to the tenth birthday party for George Harrison’s film company, HandMade Films. For anyone English, I think having a chat with a Beatle tops it all.

What did you and George chat about?
I’d worked on two screenplays for his company, so we talked about that. The funniest thing, I thought, at the company’s birthday party, was when George and Ringo joined the band playing on stage. If anyone requested they perform a Beatles’ song, George said: “I don’t know that one.”

In the end, the film was about spirit…

I understand you found LA a culture shock.
Wow, there are so many things that are culturally different about living in the UK and living in America, especially in Hollywood, which many Americans find totally unreal, too. Ones that really stand out: the almost constant sunshine for a start. The smog levels on bad days. The way so many Americans are so welcoming, where so many Brits can be snooty and suspicious. The way so many Americans are optimistic and so many Brits are pessimistic (or maybe more realistic than many film people). I never forgot that Hollywood has been described as “the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

I know you decided to leave LA in part because of your mother’s health and in part because of your daughters’ education. The family, particularly your daughters, didn’t want to go. What were the biggest adjustments?
Tiny parking spaces, terrible weather, high cost of living but a wonderful sense of humor. I did miss my irony in LA. We also hadn’t realized quite how much UK house prices had rocketed during the period when we’d sold ours to live abroad!

What do you think were the chief benefits you and your family derived from being Los Angelenos for a time?
I’m sure that our seven years in LA and coming home taught us all to adapt to change. My elder daughter had enjoyed an ice skating career in the US, which didn’t continue in the UK. But at least she learned that if you set goals and envision yourself achieving those goals, it will seriously boost your chances of success. The rest of us learned that you can probably have all the things you’d like in life—you just can’t have them all at the same time!

Looking back, what was your single most professional achievement during your time in LA?
Not one single thing; rather, it was learning the craft and how to work with industry people sufficiently well to be able get regular work from the studios (but not all the time!).

How do you make a living these days?
Right now, I’m rushing out to give six hours worth of lectures on dialogue to students at Bournemouth University. I also teach on and off about creative writing in general and about writing for advertising, at various universities: Bournemouth Uni, where I teach part of the MA in Advertising, at Southampton Solent, where I do some spots on Advertising and some on Screenwriting, to students at all levels, and at the Arts University in Poole, where I teach adult classes in all sorts of writing. But teaching is just part-time. I also do some freelance copywriting. And most of my time goes into writing screenplays still!

Do you still feel like a Los Angeleno in some respects?
Only in that I have several great friends in LA and I feel totally at home with film industry people. I probably see myself as neither totally British any more or completely Californian. I’m obviously some sort of mongrel.

Writing for publication: A different animal?

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
The hardest part was the guilt I occasionally feel for what I see as building up all the family’s hopes by showing them a few years of a dream lifestyle, then waking them up from that dream by saying we have to go back to the harsh reality of living back in the UK. BUT, as mentioned, the family all feel really lucky to have had those seven great years and have made all those extra friends without staying away from their old friends and family for so long they felt like strangers. (That’s what they tell me anyway. I have an extremely supportive family!)

Why did you decide to self-publish?
Because I’d had two books published by a big publisher many years ago and never felt they did much to promote them. My agent said most publishers only push big brand names and my wife had a friend who did very well self-publishing a memoir, so I thought I’d give it a go.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people? Is it mainly for wannabe British scriptwriters like yourself, or do you think it has broader appeal—for instance, to any Brit who might be thinking of living in America?
I hope the book will appeal to anyone who likes a laugh, to anyone who is interested in a family fish-out-of-water story and to anyone who wonders how you can make it in the film business. There’s plenty in there about the American school my wife taught in, the ones the kids went to, about my eldest daughter making it as an ice-skating champion… It’s by no means just about the movies, but, as I mentioned earlier, it will show you far more about how to make it as a screenwriter than books that simply tell you about the script, the formats, and nothing else.

Of all the advice you transmit to wannabe Hollywood screenwriters, which is the most important?
Make sure you enjoy the writing process as much as possible. Don’t pin everything on whether you sell it or it gets made. Enjoy the small triumphs, such as writing a great scene or even a great line of dialogue. All the little triumphs can add up into a pretty rewarding experience. And never forget that you may well learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

What’s next for you in terms of creative projects?
I’ve just finished a UK thriller “Living in Sin”; I’m currently doing a re-write for a sci-fi project for a Californian director, and I have a UK drama that I wrote written with a writing partner, Jon Rolls, for which the producers have just this week started looking for a top director and cast—I’m still going for it!

10 Questions for Tim John

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing—and in your case, also film-watching—habits:
1. Last truly great book you read / film you watched: Paper Towns, by John Green; The Way Way Back (2013), directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
2. Favorite literary / film genre: It varies enormously but I’d say “comedy drama” for both (eg, Little Miss Sunshine).
3. Reading/film watching habits on a plane: I only ever read paper books and magazines. Generally I watch films on long flights—but nothing involving flights in danger. I’m a nervous flyer. I can never sleep.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, or film you’d require him to watch, and why: War and Peace, so he’s fully aware what Russians can do if stirred up. No films to recommend—I’d rather he kept his eye on world news!
5. Favorite books/films as a child: The Secret Garden; The Jungle Book and Bond movies and then Paper Moon when I was slightly older. Also the musical Oliver.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction/film: Heroines: Victoria Wood as a writer; Kathy Bates as an actress. Heroes: No book heroes apart from Bilbo Baggins (when I was ten); in film, the cheeky little boy in Cinema Paradiso and later Léon in the film of that name.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Woody Allen, as I’m nearly always amazed at how inventive he can be and how, against the odds, he so frequently gets cross-genre movies to work, certainly during his Crimes and Misdemeanors period.
8. Your reading/film-watching habits: I don’t read that many books as I find it hard to give authors the benefit of 50 or 60 pages to get into it. I far prefer books that grab me almost immediately, but with their style and outlook on life, not with purely mechanical plot like Dan Brown or John Grisham. I find those stories generally too thin to keep reading. I frequently start books and leave them if they don’t hold my interest. As far as films go, I go to the cinema at least once a week. I also watch endless boxed sets: generally US drama such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, House… I really got into The Bridge and Spiral. My worst DVD marathon took place in the early series of 24, when I watched 13 episodes over a single weekend.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: On Mermaid Avenue, a great American novel that I’ve optioned and written a screenplay from.
10. The book you plan to read next / film you plan to watch next: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green; currently, I don’t have any films I’m looking forward to watching.

* * *

Bravo, Tim! If we ever host the Displaced Oscars, something we’ve been threatening to do for some time now, you’ll definitely be receiving a statue.

So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Tim, or PITCHES for why you’d like to read the book? Don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Adventures in LA-LA Land is available from Amazon. Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit Tim’s writer site, like his book’s Facebook page +/or follow him on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s (month’s) fab posts!

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

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This expat arrived in the tropics without any saucepans—but then cooked up a potboiler of love, horror and adventure!

LDF in DR Collage

Las Mameyes, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (Morguefiles); Lindsay de Feliz (her own photo).

My guest today, the author Lindsay de Feliz, was scuba diving in the Maldives when one night she found herself on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean gazing up at the stars, the warm water lapping up against her toes.

She thought about life, love and the meaning of the universe. And then she had an epiphany: she no longer wanted the life she had made for herself in the UK. She would leave her husband of ten years, her cats, her house, her cars and her successful career, and buy a one-way ticket to Paradise (she hoped).

“What about your saucepans?” her mother responded upon hearing of this momentous decision. Possibly she was thinking her daughter had gone potty, but instead of saying that, she talked about the set of expensive pans she and Lindsay’s father had bought her for her birthday and Christmas the previous year.

Lindsay did not pack her saucepans and, when she accepted a job as a diving instructor in the Dominican Republic, was glad she didn’t—especially once she’d settled down with her Dominican boyfriend, Danilo. His son, who lived with them as well, had a habit of throwing pans in the bin because he didn’t like washing them.

Yet her mother’s question stuck in her mind, and she decided to write a memoir called What About Your Saucepans?, which was published last year.

I am thrilled to have the chance to talk to Lindsay about this memoir today, which I found an extraordinarily gripping read. Although Lindsay finds her pot of gold in terms of a man who loves her and a life on her own terms, it all goes to pot at a couple of points. And how she copes with these setbacks is as interesting as anything she has to say about the details of life within the country that has the distinction of being the most visited in the Caribbean (though her account of Dominican life is compelling, too).

And now, before we start, can you hear me banging on a saucepan as I yell out: BE SURE TO LEAVE A COMMENT; YOU’LL HAVE A GOOD CHANCE OF WINNING A DIGITAL COPY!

* * *

Saucepans-Cover_pmHola, Lindsay. ¿Que lo que? Can we start, please, by having you tell us what prompted your decision to write a memoir after a decade of living in the Dominican Republic?
I used to send monthly emails to friends and family about what I was doing and many of them said that I should write a book. I know people often say this, but the longer time went on the more the idea started to grow on me. However, the major prompt was when I was shot by a couple of burglars I’d apprehended at the gate to my home. The bullet passed through my throat and then went straight through my right lung. I made it to the local hospital being carried, then draped over the back of a motorbike, and eventually in a car. After a botched tracheotomy, I was taken to a hospital in the capital, where they put in chest drains. I went home after 12 days.

Wow! So being shot was what motivated you to write about your expat life?
There were lots of things I couldn’t remember about the incident—to this day, my recollections of it are a bit fuzzy—so I asked those who helped me what happened, and then wrote it all down. That became a chapter in the book, and then I filled in before and after.

C5 Bullet stuck in my back 2 weeks after the shooting

The bullet went through Lindsay’s lung and got stuck in her back. Here it what it looked like two weeks after the shooting (Lindsay’s own photo).

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead? I ask because your memoir almost reads like a novel. I felt as though I get to know all the characters and missed them when I put the book down.
No, I never thought about writing a novel—my life was like a novel!

I understand the life you left behind in the UK was somewhat more mundane. Can you describe a typical day?
Typically, I would drag myself out of bed at around 5:30 a.m. in the dark. Get showered and dressed in a power suit making sure high heeled shoes and jewelry matched. Wrap up warm and walk 20 minutes to the train station. Train to Central London. Tube to the city. Another tube to Canary Wharf. Total journey time around two hours assuming no delays, which there often were. Work out in the gym and then walk or train to the office. Work all day long, maybe lunch at The Ivy with agencies or journalists, then the same journey home again, getting home around nine and falling into bed to do the same thing the next day.

What was the trigger (so to speak) that made you decide to pack it all in and become a scuba diving instructor?
I adored scuba diving in tropical places and managed to go a few times a year and it just seemed daft to work so hard to pay to go diving when I could dive all the time and earn enough to live off doing something I loved.

How did you end up in the D.R., of all places?
I started off in the Maldives, then went east to Asia, found it impossible to obtain work permits so ended up in Menorca, an island in the Mediterranean belonging to Spain. I decided I should learn Spanish as I already spoke French and German (as an instructor, the more languages you can speak the better). I wanted to get back to the tropics and a job came up in the Dominican Republic, so off I went.

Every pot will find its lid

February is a month for celebrating romance and love. How did you meet Danilo, the Dominican man who became your second husband?
I had seen him around, but I wasn’t even thinking about a relationship. My plan was simply to learn Spanish then head for Costa Rica and work as an instructor there as the diving was supposed to be excellent. One night at a bar Danilo was there and offered me a lift home on his scooter.

Was it love at first sight?
No, although he was seriously cute. But once Dominicans decide that you are the one, they are like Rottweilers and never let you go! He pursued me with a vengeance.

Lindsay&family

A happy family, Caribbean style: Lindsay with her husband, Danilo, and two sons.

Your courtship led to a ready-made family (his kids) and marriage. Was that a difficult decision?
Not at all. Danilo moved in with me after a couple of weeks courting—as I said they move fast, and as soon as he moved in I was called his “wife” (the vast majority of Dominicans don’t actually get married they just live together but are known as husband and wife). He moved his three children in a week later. We were like that for three years, so most of the big cultural adjustments had already taken place—and there were many, which I discuss in the book. He gave me what I wanted in terms of doing everything to make me happy and to make my life easier, and most of all he made me laugh.

But isn’t “happily ever after” particularly challenging for those of us in cross-cultural marriages?
I must admit, due to the fact we were from such different backgrounds I doubted that we would ever become soul mates, in the way you dream of as a child. However, over the past couple of years—we have now been together for 12 years—he has become my media naranja, as they say here—my half an orange—and is totally my soul mate, my best friend and more. Much I think is due to fact that he is now at university, so we have more “intellectual” conversations, and my Spanish is now much more fluent than it was in the early days. We still laugh all the time and I could not contemplate life without him.

If ifs and ands were pots and pans…

Looking back over the decade you’ve lived in the Dominican Republic, what was your most “displaced” moment: when you thought, what’s a nice girl like me doing in a place full of superstition, political corruption, thievery, and the many other cultural quirks you mention in your book?
You are right, there are many—so many I don’t know where to start. Maybe squatting down to have a pee in the sugar cane fields, taking photographs of dead people in their coffins as their families wanted a picture and had no camera, going into a store and being asked to wait while they catch a rat, going to a jail to get prostitutes out, delivering a baby to a Haitian women on the mud floor of her hutand of course having been shot, which, although I didn’t realize it at the time, meant being taken to hospital draped over the back of a motorbike because there are no ambulances or emergency services where I live.

Goodness, that’s quite a selection! Can you also pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were much more comfortable living in that place than in your native UK?
I feel like that every day now as I have become totally adjusted to Dominican life. Dominicans call foreigners like me aplatanado—literally, “like a plantain banana,” signifying we’ve become one of them. Nowadays I don’t care what I wear, no make up, material possessions are not important, I don’t get annoyed if the car is scratched—a whole different set of values to those I had before. Instead of dragging myself out of bed, I leap out, happy to see what the day has to bring. I go downstairs and look across at the mountains and watch the sun rise drinking fabulous Dominican coffee. I have never been happier. I talk in the book about my search for joy. Those moments of pure joy that you experience occasionally. Now here I have them every single day. No one could ask for more.

Could you ever live in the UK again?
No, I could never live in the UK again. In the D.R., there are very few rules, which, while it does give rise to some problems, also means one has the freedom of being able to park wherever you want, smoke a cigarette where you want, not wear a seat belt if you choose not to, and so on. I love that. Also, in the UK, Danilo and I have experienced racism—groups of youths making monkey noises on the trains—because I am white and he is brown. I could never ask him to suffer that. Here we have never been made to feel uncomfortable.

Does your husband feel the same way?
My husband loves the organization in the UK, the fact that people queue, the lack of litter in the street and the trains. But even if we did want to live in the UK, we couldn’t as the new immigration regulations mean that I would have to earn a salary I could never earn, and he would have to speak pretty fluent English, which would be very hard for him.

Panning for a publisher

Moving on to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
The first draft was easy. I tend to think for days about what I want to write—in bed before I go to sleep, when I am walking the dogs… I wait and wait and wait until I am bursting to write it down. It is so satisfying when you actually write then. Just like when you eventually find a toilet when you have been dying for a pee for ages. The hard bit was changing it to incorporate what the publisher and editor wanted. They wanted me to write much more dialogue, which I found hard, and to talk about things I didn’t really want to talk about. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and in a memoir you really need to tell the truth. They were right, of course, and the book was much much better as a result; but it was difficult for me to describe all of the emotions.

You published with Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing. How did that happen?
The path to publishing was not an easy one. I wrote to literary agents and publishers, and some said no and others told me to get it edited and then resubmit—which I did, but it all cost money. I think in some instances they were just helping out their editor mates as they all said no even after I resubmitted it. In the meantime, I’d started a blog of the same name, which began to build me an audience ready for when the book came out. In the end I found Jo Parfitt, who directed me to a great editor, Jane Dean. Between them they knocked me and the book into shape.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Originally, I had in mind people who were interested in the Dominican Republic. Yes, it has been reaching them, but it is constant work to make sure you find them and tell them about the book. Luckily, the reviews have been fabulous and those who read the book have said that everyone should read it, not just those who like the DR.

I agree, I think it appeals on many levels, not just to those with an interest in the Caribbean.
Thank you for saying that. Apart from being about life in the Dominican Republic, it’s a love story, a horror story, it has adventure, and I like to think that it might make some people reevaluate their lives and what is important to them.

Do you have any advice for others who are writing memoirs and hoping to publish them?
Firstly, write the memoir. Do it. It is great fun and also cathartic. Never stop writing at a point where you are stuck or it takes ages to pick it up again. Stop when you know exactly what you want to write next. I would also say don’t give up when you are looking for a publisher, just keep at it. It must have taken me over a year at least to find Jo. And when I did she set me targets to achieve, which gave me a purpose and a goal. You must also be honest with yourself as to whether people will be interested in your story and what it can do for them, not just what it might do for you. And finally, don’t be arrogant and precious when your editor and publisher suggest changes. They know the market a million times better than you. Take their suggestions on board. In the end it will produce something much better than you could on your own.

10 Questions for Lindsay de Feliz

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, a historical novel about the Mirabal sisters, who opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
2. Favorite literary genre: Murder mystery
3. Reading habits on a plane: I haven’t been on a plane since Kindles and such like came out(!). But I used to read novels—the latest Patricia Cornwell or Tom Clancy—which I would buy at the airport.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Mine. Because I know he would enjoy it, it would make him smile and help him to understand all of the Dominicans in the USA. He would also enjoy the part about Dominican politics. I can just see him reading bits of it to Michelle in bed in his stripey pajamas and them both laughing.
5. Favorite books as a child: Enid Blyton‘s The Famous Five series; the What Katy Did series by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, under her pen name Susan Coolidge; Heidi; and books about horses and ballet dancers. As I moved into my teens I loved Georgette Heyer books.
6. Favorite heroine: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: This is someone who hasn’t yet published a book so I hope that counts: Aisha Ashraf. Her writing simply blows me away and I could never write like she does. I am a story teller and she has a way of touching your heart. I would love to meet her one day.
8. Your reading habits: I don’t read as much as I would like now. However, when the electricity goes off (which it does here quite a lot) I grab a book and devour it. I also read books online by other Summertime authors which they send to me.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Mine again! I know it would make a great film. My dream is to go to the Oscars. I just need to make it happen.
10. The book you plan to read next: Linda Janssen’s The Emotionally Resilient Expat. She is another Summertime author, and I am really looking forward to getting into this one.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lindsay. Readers, what I love about Lindsay is her attitude. Some of us might think that she went out of the frying pan (a life she could no longer stand in the UK) and into the fire (getting shot in the Caribbean), but she doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, as she explains in the book, after surviving the shooting, she has even more purpose in life and even more devotion to her adopted home.

So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Lindsay? Do you think you would react in the same way to hardships?

And don’t forget, there’s a copy of the book to be won for the best comment! NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, What About Your Saucepans? is available from Amazon, Apple iTunes, Kobo and Barnes and Noble. And you can also start following Lindsay on her blog, of course!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby, told from the point of view of her husband, Olivera rare treat! (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Trevi Fountain blesses American woman’s coins, granting her true love, a new life abroad, and now a book (we’re giving it away!)

Catherine Tondelli book signing photoWhile an expat in Japan, I mastered the ritual of tossing coins into the offering box, or saisenbako, at the Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple while clapping twice (to attract divine attention) and then making a short prayer.

In the West, of course, we toss coins into fountains and make a wish, but I’d never been one for doing that.

I might start trying it, though, now I’ve read Catherine Tondelli’s memoir, Three Coins in the Fountain, which recounts the luck she had in finding a mate the moment she tossed three coins into the Trevi fountain in the Città Eterna.

Sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood film, doesn’t it? Except, wait a minute, that film has already been done (in the 1950s)!

And it’s real life we are talking about here, not the movies.

Besides, Tondelli has kindly granted me three wishes:

  1. She will answer some questions about her memoir as well as her writing process (see below).
  2. She will GIVE AWAY TWO COPIES (hard copy or Kindle) to the two readers who toss in the best comment below.
  3. She will make the book available for free download for a short period—to be revealed at some point in our weekly Displaced Dispatch. (What? Not a subscriber? SIGN UP NOW!)

Before we start, I should mention that Tondelli’s book has been likened to another book recounting travels in the wake of divorce: Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. But for me, a half-Italian American, Tondelli’s more restricted itinerary makes a a lot more sense. Who needs India and Bali when you can easily get the whole package—great food, a renewed faith in relationships and family, and love—in Bella Italia?

Like me, Tondelli is half-Italian, and I like to think it’s that ancestry that made her realize the truth of Madonna Louise Ciccone’s assertion: “Italians do it better.”

* * *

3-Coins-in-Fountain-by-Catherine-Tondelli_dropshadowWelcome, Catherine. I read your book not long after I’d finished Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend, which we featured in this space this past November. But that was an autobiographical novel based on Jackie’s marriage to an Italian man. So here’s my question: did you ever consider telling your story as fiction, or perhaps using it to develop a film script for a romantic comedy?
I originally thought about writing it as a novel, but my story was so unique and it gave so much hope to women who have given up all hope of ever finding the man of their dreams after 40 years old. Most people would never believe that stories like this really do happen and that true love will find you as easily as tossing some coins in a fountain. I also felt that many people could relate to my crazy stories of growing up in a large family. In the 1960s it was normal to have families of seven or more children; but, with the exception of Cheaper by the Dozen, there is very little written about large families. You have a lot of crazy stories when you grow up with ten siblings!

Yes, I noticed in the press release for the book that you grew up in Chicago as one of 11 kids who were left behind by a deadbeat, jazz musician dad. Can you tell us a little more about your relationship with the man who bequeathed you the surname “Tondelli”? After all, he features in the book quite a bit as well.
I had a very challenging relationship with my father and harbored resentment towards him for many years. I was only 12 years old when he walked out on my mother. It had a huge impact on the relationships I had and the men I chose. A daughter’s first bonding with any man is with her father: he is her first boyfriend, role model for the men she chooses. We often repeat what we know rather than what we want: we need “familiar,” even if it’s unhealthy. I kept choosing unsuitable men until fate stepped in and finally tossed me a “get a good man” coin to throw in the Trevi fountain.

Did you and your father ever reconcile?
I didn’t speak to him for twenty years. We finally reunited when I was attending a conference in Las Vegas and he was a musician playing on the strip. I called him and we had dinner together. We hugged and kissed at the end of the evening: it was a huge healing moment in my life. I was never as close to him as I was to my mother but we had a good relationship up until the day he passed away one year ago. Writing about him also helped me to heal.

Sono pazzo di te (I’m crazy about you…or am I just crazy?!)

Now turning to the man who would become your husband, the handsome and irrepressible Fausto. Since romance is a big part of what your book is about, I’d like to recount the first moment when the pair of you set eyes on each other. Newly divorced, you were traveling in Italy with your mom and had by that time reached Rome and the Fontana di Trevi, where your mother handed you three coins and urged you to wish for a nice man to come into your life. At that very moment, you heard an Italian man say: “Eeffa you wanta your wish to comb true, you avv to trow the coins witah your layft (h)and as eet’s closer to your (h)art…”
Yes, and then he asked if I knew “de meaning of da tree coins”:

“Da first coin, you find your love in Rome, da second coin, you return to Rome and the t(h)ird coin, you marry in Rome.”

And that’s what happened: he and I fell in love, I returned, and we got married.

Chi ama me, ama il mio gatto (Whoever loves me, loves my cat)

Jackie Townsend entitled her book “Imperfect Pairings” because she thinks Americans have an idyllic view of cross-cultural marriage with Europeans, thinking it sounds very romantic—whereas the reality tends to be culture clash after culture clash. You seem to believe in the romance while also acknowledging there were hurdles along the way. After you got over assuming Fausto was gay, you suspected you might be just one in a long line of fountain pick-ups. And even after he at last won your trust, you and he had to struggle to get used to each other’s habits. He did not take well at first to sleeping with your beloved Siamese cats, for instance.
Three Coins is not your stereotypical girl-on-holiday-meets-man-of-her-dreams-and-lives-happily-ever-after. Yes, we did meet on my trip to Italy, but falling in love and moving to Italy was the last thing I’d expected. I came to Italy only after I had worked for three years in London and only when finding a good job in Rome. And when he proposed, I called my sister.

I like that you put a map at the beginning of the book, showing all the destinations you and Fausto traveled to together, before you decided to live in the same place. I presume Italy and Italian culture were an adjustment?
Even though I grew up in an Italian American household, the cultural learning curve for me was huge.
My mother descends from Irish stock, and Fausto couldn’t believe his ears when I told him my Irish grandmother had put money aside in her will to host a luncheon following her funeral for all her friends and family. When his father passed away, we went down to the morgue to say our last goodbye and then off to the church and finally the cemetery, all within two hours. No lunch, no funeral home, no photographs—it was all too fast, no time to mourn to grieve with family or friends. A real Mork & Mindy moment for me.

Was that your most displaced moment: when you thought, what’s a nice girl like me doing with an Italian?
That’s one, and another would be the Christmas after we moved into our new palazzo in Rome. I went to our five neighbors in the building and brought them Christmas cookies I made and a bottle of Spumante. Fausto looked at me with all my plates of cookies and bottles of Asti in my hand and said: “My love, what are you doing??” I went on to explain that we always bring something over to the next door neighbors in America for Christmas. He just stood there and smiled and said “We don’t do that in Italy.” I said, well, we’re going to start now!

Can you also pinpoint your least displaced moment, the first time you realized you felt much more comfortable with him and in Italy than you do with a man from your own culture in the U.S.?
I think it was when there was a Lazio (Rome) football game on TV and instead he took me to see a classical music concert at the Auditorium. He wasn’t telling me all night how much he was giving up for me…he really enjoyed the concert! I am a big baseball fan, not soccer. I was thrilled.

Non si serra mai una porta che non se n’apra un’altra (When one door closes another opens)

Moving on to the writing of the book: What was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Being constantly turned down by traditional publishers. Also, people I knew who already had books published weren’t very encouraging. Luckily, I didn’t let them get me down. After shopping it around for about six months, I decided to self publish. I realized with all my marketing and PR experience I could do a better job then they could in promoting my book in getting it to the right audience.

I see that you’ve listed Francesca Maggi as a co-author. How did that relationship work?
I was lucky as she was an editor and also an author and a friend. She had just published Burnt by the Tuscan Sun, and I asked for her help on the editing process. I gave her my manuscript and she polished and refined it pointing out my weaknesses and suggested options to strengthen those areas. She was instrumental in getting the flow right and helped with the technical elements. She was a natural choice for me as we share a common love of Italy and America, and she knew my husband well.

Can you offer any advice for others who are writing memoirs and hoping to publish them?
Don’t get discouraged. Publishing a book is not easy but if you have a good story, you now at least have options to get it out there. I love this quote by women’s fiction writer Jennifer Weiner:

The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence—the ability to make yourself work at your craft, every day—the belief, even in the face of obstacles, that you’ve got something worth saying.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
I really thought the target would be women between 20 and 60 (I do get a lot of emails from women like myself, and am happy they can relate), but I have been amazed at how many men also have written to me to say how much they enjoyed reading it. Obviously anyone who loves Italy, old-time romance, or stories of expat life in Europe would find it entertaining.

What do men like about the book?
I’ve had some nice comments from men who said that they were taking notes on Fausto’s techniques… Many of them also grew up in a large family. Also, Fausto was still a bachelor at 50. His story, too, can be inspiring!

Living La Dolce Vita

In your book you question whether Americans have their values in the right place given that we take so little vacation compared to people in Europe. Have you continued to feel this way about the U.S. since marrying Fausto and settling down in Rome?
Two years ago I decided to live like the Romans do and started working for myself so I could spend more time in the US visiting family and friends and also have more time to enjoy La Dolce Vita.

Do you think you could come back to live in the United States? What would be the adjustments?
After living in Italy for more than 12 years it would be very difficult for me to return to live in the US. Fausto and I have discussed moving back to California as he also acts in film and there are many more opportunities, but then we thought: how can we go and live in a city where they close the restaurants at ten o’clock? It would be very difficult to replace our lifestyle in the US. That said, I would love to transport the US postal office here as Italy still doesn’t have postal stamp machines. I bring my book and my computer now when I go to the post office as I know I’ll be spending the day there.

10 Questions for Catherine Tondelli

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Blood from a Stone, by Donna Leone, part of her crime series set in Venice.
2. Favorite literary genre: Biographies or autobiographies: real-life stories are always so much more interesting than anything you could make up. That said, I also enjoy reading fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I usually have long flights as my mother lives in San Diego and I fly from Rome three or four times per year to see her couple that with all the travel I do for my work (am working on events in Dubai, Nairobi, Singapore and London at the moment). I always have three or four books in my library at home that I wait eagerly to put in my carry-on bag for my long, hopefully peaceful journey. I am old fashioned and still like to feel the paper when i read a book.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Jimmy Carter’s book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. I believe that Jimmy Carter has been one of our great leaders yet he is so humble. He was my 95-year-old grandmother’s favorite president. He tells us that for example the USA gives far less foreign aid to developing countries than most people imagine. And, much of this aid goes to certain select countries whose loyalty we are trying to buy rather than because we want to help the poor. The book opened up my eyes to understand how we are perceived internationally. It will give Obama a good reminder that values and morals are more important than being powerful.
5. Favorite books as a child: Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
6. Favorite heroine: I have many but at the moment it is Malala, the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban and survived.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Beatrix Potter. I loved her books as a child, and she was also one of the early pioneer woman who broke the male barrier in publishing.
8. Your reading habits: I like to read in bed with my two Siamese cats (Stella and Luisa) on my lap.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Three Coins in the Fountain, of course!
10. The book you plan to read next: E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, by Pam Grout. She provides experiments that prove our thoughts really do create our reality.

* * *

Thanks so much, Catherine. Readers, your turn! Any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Catherine? What would YOU wish for with your three coins, having heard her story? Come on, Valentine’s Day is coming! Surely, someone out there aspires to be the next heart wearing the valentine of the Frank Sinatra song?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s TCK TALENT column, by Lisa Liang.

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Mark Hillary delivers reality check to gringos who moan about Brazil, in self-published book (2/2)

Mark Hillary Part 2 CollageIn Part 1 of my interview with Mark Hillary, a fellow Brit and amigo in São Paulo, we learned about what spurred him to write a book called Reality Check: Life in BRAZIL through the eyes of a foreigner.

A lively discussion ensued about what makes Brazil such a contentious country for expats (short answer: it’s a country of extremes).

Today I’ll ask Mark about his decision to publish Reality Check as an e-book. As I mentioned last week, Mark is well published in his chosen field of technology and globalization. He is a HuffPo columnist and has also blogged for Reuters about British politics. But Reality Check represents his first venture into the Amazon e-book platform.

I was curious about why he chose this route and also had some questions about his reading and writing habits generally.

* * *

Mark, Reality Check isn’t the first book that you’ve written. Can you tell us something about your other books?
It’s actually my tenth book. I used to be quite a senior IT manager in a bank, managing people all over the world. I had already started contributing articles to technology magazines while I was at the bank, and eventually I was sent off to India to help the company build up a big new office in Bangalore. I was hiring hundreds of technical team members and then trying to sell their services bank to other sections of the bank. It was quite an experience, especially as it occurred right at the beginning of the big push to India by many technology companies.

I wrote a book about it all, which was published by the respected German publisher Springer and well received in journals and newspapers such as the FT.

After that I carried on writing about the connection between work, technology, and globalization.

It’s impressive that you can span the range from big IT questions to a foreigner’s take on life in Brazil.
I’m interested in many areas, which is probably why my three times at university have included courses on computer science, business and management, and psychology. My earlier work on outsourcing naturally led me to how companies are changing and globalization, and this has naturally led onto my writing about being an expat. If there’s a connecting thread, it’s work and the changing nature of work in our time. That said, I wouldn’t want to only ever comment on a single topic. Life is a lot more complex than that.

You decided to release Reality Check in the Amazon Kindle format. Why did you make that decision?
I’ve been asked that question a lot. Six of my books were published using traditional publishers, and three were self-published via Lulu. And now, with the Brazil book, I’ve used the Amazon Kindle format. I went into some detail on the pros and cons of each of these methods in a recent Huffington Post article, but in short the important thing to remember is how the publishing market is changing. Obviously there is still a lingering sense of kudos with the traditional publishers. A novel published by Penguin is still seen as “better” than something self-published, but it doesn’t have to be. The platform and process of publishing itself has just been democratized and made available to all.

If you know how to write and you can market your work to an audience, then it is much faster to publish with Amazon or Lulu. And, not only can you reach a global audience instantly—you earn a far greater percentage of the sale price.

In the case of Reality Check, I wanted it to be available around the world as quickly as possible, and Amazon has a great system for doing that. Plus you don’t actually need a Kindle: iPads and phones are all being used to read this book.

Do you think it helps that you already had a following through your writings and other books?
Reality Check has has been in the Amazon top 20 books about Brazil since publication on September 1st, and yesterday when I checked, it was the number one book about Brazil and number two book about South America. So people have been noticing it.

I think it does help if you already have a following. It used to be that publishers and agents acted as the gatekeeper, so readers could be confident a book that ended up in the shops was good. Now anyone can publish any old rubbish, so there is no longer that guarantee of a published book being any good.

The much-celebrated poet Seamus Heaney is a good example. He has been lauded as one of the greatest writers of the past century, and he had plenty of work published by traditional publishers. But he was self-publishing new work before his recent death.

Do you plan to make Reality Check anything other than an e-book?
I’m planning to also release a paper version of the book, but it will not be until the second edition—planned to come out just before the World Cup football competition in June next year.

Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment?
The present one is about my own experience of ghostwriting. I’ve written for ambassadors and company CEOs, and I once had to help astronaut Neil Armstrong add a few jokes to his standard Apollo 11 speech. The work I have written for others to be delivered in their name has often, but not always, gone down well, and I wanted to explore that. And in the tech area, I’m working on a book project that aims to be a graduates’ guide to how you get a job in a job market where nobody wants to pay you a salary.

10 Questions for Mark Hillary

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that we’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:

1. Last truly great book you read: I recently read all of Ira Levin’s novels back to back—all great; but I’ll go for Paul Trynka’s biography of David Bowie, which I just now finished.
2. Favorite literary genre: Dystopian novels: Burgess, Orwell, Ballard.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I read fiction and non-fiction and always carry my Kindle because it’s so much better for travel than lugging around a lot of books. This week I was on a plane and I read The Default Line, by Faisal Islam—about the financial crash of 2008 and what has happened since.
4. The one book you’d require David Cameron to read, and why: Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The new global revolutions, by Paul Mason. It’s a study of the various riots, uprisings and protests around the world, particularly in 2011. I think the UK has more unrest to come because living standards and earnings are in decline—the people are going to kick off again one day.
5. Favorite books as a child: Those by Roald Dahl, though everyone seems to think he was actually a nasty piece of work in real life.
6. Favorite heroine: Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was her only book and she never courted any publicity. It challenged racism over 50 years ago and still retains its power today.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Oscar Wilde. He wrote 20th-century books and plays in the 19th century and despite his sad downfall, is still remembered and loved today.
8. Your reading habits: I mostly read in the evening. I don’t watch TV, other than for movies so that gives me more time. I tend to read one or two books a week unless I’m traveling a lot then it’s more just because of the endless time spent in airports or on buses.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard. Life after the oceans have risen and the world we know now is flooded.
10. The book you plan to read next: Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke—already on the Kindle waiting for me.

* * *

Readers, any more questions for Mark? He may sound a bit intimidating, but in fact he’s very approachable and happy to answer any questions about e-publishing. (Though he doesn’t write fiction, he also has views on publishing platforms for novels.) Meanwhile, if you’re interested in Reality Check, you can purchase it on Amazon. I would also recommend becoming a fan of its Facebook page and following Mark on Twitter: @MarkHillary

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by another Englishman who is also an expat albeit in California: Anthony Windram.

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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images: Mark Hillary surrounded by his traditional books and his e-book cover.

Don Quixote & Sancho, John Steinbeck & Charley…Olga & George? A travelogue for the expat annals (plus we’re giving away a copy!)

Olga Vannucci CollageWhen I first stumbled across Olga Vannucci’s memoir, Travels with George, I wondered whether the title alluded to John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley, about his road trip across America in the company of his French standard poodle, Charley.

Turns out, I got it right. Born in Italy, Olga went to Brown University and currently lives in rural New Jersey. As she tells it, she was driving through Doylestown, Pennsylvania, one day when Steinbeck’s travelogue popped into her head, and she knew she wanted to call her book “Travels with George.” When she announced this to her son (the “George” of the title), he said: “So I’m the dog?”

As you can gather from this story, mother and son make quite a pair.

Olga says she’s no Steinbeck, though she does prefer a plain and honest writing style. Also like Steinbeck, she had the desire to see her native land again.

So, how did she find the Italy of today: did she still fit in? And what did her sidekick, George, the blonde all-American kid, make of his mammina‘s homeland? Did he enjoy these escapades or feel puzzled by his mother’s motives? Perhaps the story he saw himself in wasn’t Steinbeck’s at all, but a modern Italian version of Don Quixote, in which he occupied the role of a skeptical Sancho Panza?

Olga has kindly agreed to give away one copy of the book to the reader who is keenest to find out the answers to these questions (see giveaway details below).

But before we get into that, let’s talk to Olga and hear some more about the travels that inspired her to put pen to paper…

* * *

Travels with George Book CoverCiao, Olga! Let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us more about your decision to take a trip to Italy with your young son and write about it.
I was born in Italy (Milano), lived in Brazil two different times as a child, and came to the United States to attend college. I’ve been here ever since. When my son was seven years old, I realized suddenly that I hadn’t been back to Italy in ten years, and I went, taking him along. I thought he would learn about Italy and acquire a feel for what it’s like. I also hoped he would learn some Italian. I don’t know how much of that was accomplished, but I loved showing him around. We went back four more times over the course of six years (he is now 14). I wrote the book about those trips: a mix of travelogue, personal history, and little anecdotes, with some humor.

What impact did writing about the experience have on you—did it help you process your childhood memories?
It was wonderful to see the locales of my childhood again. At this point, my memories are either indelibly fixed or just gone—for instance, I can remember clearly sitting on the steps with my friends Sassello, in Ligurio, as I recount here:

[My sister and I] had two friends in Sassello, two girls the same age as [us]—Paola and Maria Elena. They spent their summers thirty meters from where we spent ours, and we spent hours and hours of every day together.

[George and I] walk by the steps where we used to sit. I expect to see them, I expect them to be there, but they’re not. No one is. It’s all the same, but it isn’t.

Did you also learn something about yourself, in taking these excursions down Memory Lane?
I did find out about my current self through the book, but primarily from what others told me my words said about me—for example that I’m kind, funny, and honest. It was also interesting to hear from others about the things that they could relate to in the book, ranging from the more profound to the totally mundane situations. That was amazing, to realize that what I wrote spoke to others.

George’s ordeal

Do you think it will help George someday, in understanding part of his heritage that might not otherwise be accessible?
George has not read the book because, he says, “I was there, I don’t need to read about it.” I do hope and trust that both the experience and the writing will be a part of him, that he will consider the book a gift.

What was your most displaced moment when you & George were touring Italy, when you thought of yourself as a stranger within your homeland?
I always struggle with whether I am Italian or, at this point, American, or, more likely, not really either one. What makes me feel at home in Italy is the fact that it’s largely so unchanged. What makes me feel displaced is that the people of the older generation, my parents’ generation, who are the people I particularly associate with Italy, are passing. They’re my biggest connection with Italy, and they will soon be gone. After that, I may feel displaced…

I gather you don’t feel nearly as comfortable with younger generations of Italians?
Yes. I’m not sure why not. Possibly because the younger generation is doing its own thing and is more all over the place, unlike the older, which has stayed put.

What was your least displaced moment, when it all seemed to make sense for you and George to be there—that you fit right in?
On all the trips we visited my aunt, my mother’s sister, and stayed at her house, where we slipped naturally into being part of the family. I had coffee with her in the morning, we planned meals, I helped her water her garden, George fed her goldfish, and we watched television in the evening.  There was not an ocean or even a smidge of formality between us.

I love the description you provide of your aunt in the book:

My aunt is a lovely person, she’s beautiful and she likes to dress well. She’s 80 now, and she still looks good in her clothes, she wears fashionable clothes. She is cheerful and tells funny stories. She loves to do stuff and see people, she’s chatty. She’s fun to be around.

In that same passage, you mention the “recurring nightmare” of finding food that George likes to eat. What was the most challenging thing about traveling with a young child?
I did not realize how jarring the experience would be for George. To me, Italy is pleasant, and while I knew it would all be new to him, I didn’t realize how different it really was. Being in a completely unrecognizable place where he didn’t understand the language was way outside his comfort zone. I also probably didn’t verbalize things enough. I could have prepared him more and explained things better.

The other thing about traveling with a small child is that I, as the adult, had to be “on” 100% of the time.  Not only did I have to plan and handle everything, but I also had to manage him and make sure I didn’t lose him, which was something I actually worried about, and when I became stressed I had to try to hide it so he wouldn’t become stressed, which I didn’t do very well. He’s very perceptive.

What do you think he took from the experience?
The knowledge that he can survive a terrible ordeal… Possibly I took him on a few too many hikes up hills. It wasn’t always fun and idyllic. I do believe that the trips will serve as a foundation for him to understand that the world is large and diverse and for him to appreciate differences.

The potential perils of writing about one’s offspring

What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
It was hard to write about others and protect their privacy at the same time, particularly with my son. I find him very amusing, but he doesn’t intend to amuse me, and he is sensitive to it. He thinks I’m making fun of him, basically. So I’m always walking that line, writing about him, but trying to be respectful of him.

I understand you decided to self-publish the book. Why is that, and do you have any advice for other writers who opt for self-publishing?
I made some attempts to get an agent but ultimately I went with self-publishing because I didn’t have the patience to wait. What I like about self-publishing is that it’s all mine, I created the book cover, I chose the font, I decided to favor the comma over all other punctuation, and it’s been incredibly fun and very rewarding.

There are so many options today to publish and distribute and get the word out, and it can be done without a big financial investment. All you need is the investment of time. Given that this is your passion, you want to spend your time on it anyway. And there are so many people who are open to help. I would encourage other writers not to be afraid to ask. Putting your thoughts out there to share with others is a gift, and people respond very kindly.

What audience did you intend for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
I thought it was a mother/son book, which it is, but it’s very much a book for people who love Italy, who have been there, or who plan to go. My writing is very direct and the book is written in the present tense, so readers feel like they’re there along with me. It combines some very personal time in Italy–with family or revisiting places of personal significance—with visits to the big tourist destinations like Venice and Rome.

Are you working on any other ambitious writing projects?
I am working on a book about traveling with George in America. It’s not an organized itinerary, it’s just places we’ve been or will go to. Mostly in the northeast, plus San Fran and Arizona. It’s still in the infant stages, this project. But I promise it will be extra funny!

10 questions for Olga Vannucci

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, about growing up in Africa.
2. Favorite literary genre: Definitely travel!
3. Reading habits on a plane: I don’t like to fly so I bring an easy-reading book that I know will keep me engaged, and paperback so it’s lightweight.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: He has such a tough job. I would wish, not require exactly but only wish, for him to read a book that his daughters like, so he can have a topic of conversation that they can share and enjoy. He will then tackle his job rejuvenated.
5. Favorite book as a child: Mary Poppins—the P.L. Travers book and the Disney movie, too. I think I had it in both languages. It was just magical, different, not at all like my daily life with my mother and sister.
6. Favorite heroine: Martha Gellhorn, who was a great journalist and writer. She was married to the literary giant Ernest Hemingway yet always retained a strong sense of herself.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I would like Calvin Trillin to take me out to eat in New York, in the Village, to all his favorite eating places. It might take several days because he has a lot of favorite eateries. I would like to hear all about Alice, about his daughters, and about his long and brilliant career.
8. Your reading habits: I read in bed every single night, and I have been reading more during the day recently. I’ve been deliberate about carving out more time in the day, when it’s otherwise easy to get caught up in other activities.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Any book that takes place overseas, so I can see the place in which the events take place.
10. The book you plan to read next: Hard to tell… I have a stack of some thirty books in my bedroom, and I’m not sure which one is next. I may need to devise a lottery system to determine the reading order…

* * *

Grazie tanto, Olga! Your story certainly sounds amusing while also saying something profound about parent-child relationships and the quest to go home again. Something to rival the wisdom of Steinbeck or Miguel de Cervantes, for sure.

Readers, it’s time for you to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Olga Vannucci’s book, by entering a comment below. Olga says she will favor comments that tell her why you’d like to read about her and George’s adventures.

Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on September 28, 2013.

To read more excerpts from Travels with George, go to Olga Vannucci’s author site. You can also keep up with her on the book’s very active Facebook page. Also feel free to order the book from Amazon.com.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s quota of Global Food Gossip. Rumor has it, Joanna Masters-Maggs has something particularly tasty in store for us!

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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Images: Olga Vannucci and George, interspersed with Italian scenery. Of the George photos, Olga writes:

Let me provide the audio from George: “Where are we going? How much longer? I have something in my shoe. I want to go back. Why are we doing this? Do you know where we are? Do you know where we’re going? Mammaaaaaaa!”

Meet author Rosie Whitehouse, who trailed her spouse into a war zone (and enter to win her book!)

Rosie Whitehouse CollageOne of the expressions I picked up from living in England for many years is “Keep the home fires burning.” For some reason, that expression, along with the WWI song from which it comes, is running through my head as I contemplate talking to today’s featured author, Rosie Whitehouse (click here to hear it being sung):

Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.

For me, Rosie is an up-to-date version of what the songwriters had in mind. Educated at the University at London, with a career as a BBC journalist, she chose to stay at home with her children and keep the house warm and welcoming, and the family’s spirits up, while her husband, the journalist Tim Judah, went off to report on various wars for The Economist and other newspapers.

Rosie even went the further step of moving the family home to be closer to Tim for a time. Ironically, she kept the home fires burning in the very place where World War I began, the Balkans. She flew out to a crumbling Bucharest—it had been knocked down by the notorious Ceaușescu, whose secret police killed hundreds during Romania’s 1989 revolution—with one child in tow and another one on the way.

Then, when it seemed possible that her own home could go up in flames as war spread across the former Yugoslavia, Rosie did not give up. She stayed for a total of five years before returning to London, by which time “keeping the home fires burning” was second nature both for her and the couple’s five kids (Tim carried on covering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Congo).

Having revived her career as a freelance journalist, she decided to write her first book: Are We There Yet? Travels with my Frontline Family—a copy of which we’ll be giving away! (See details below). The book is a tribute to families who have been “burners of the home fires,” whose emotional pain tends to go unheralded. It is also, in her words, “quite funny.” (Hey, growing up in Bucharest, Belgrade, Croatia and Bosnia can be fun!)

By now you must be as curious as I am to meet the intrepid Rosie Whitehouse and learn more about what motivated her to seek out such an unusually displaced (at least by most of our standards!) life. I note that she has an Irish mother—perhaps that explains it?! (I’m thinking Queen Boudicea…)

* * *

AreWeThereYet_cover_dropshadowHi, Rosie. In your book you say that your husband’s journalist colleagues in Romania, all of whom were single, were shocked to hear he had a two-year-old son and another child on the way. Did people often tell you you were crazy?
Yes, lots of people thought I was crazy.

As a former journalist with a background in Russian studies, do you think you felt a tinge of envy for Tim’s opportunities—which made you want to be on the scene?
Not really, as I would not have been able to cope with going to morgues and so on.

I know you’re going to challenge our definition of “displacement,” but I’ll go ahead and ask: what was your most displaced moment during your stay in the Balkans—when you had to explain Daddy’s muddy boots (he’d been walking in a mass grave), when you visited empty supermarkets, or when you heard the first shots of the conflict in Bosnia while strolling around Sarajevo with the kids?
Those things were reality so in that one doesn’t feel displacement. Quite the opposite in fact. I was intimately plugged into life and death at those moments.

How did you keep yourself sane?
I coped with stressful moments by bunkering down. I wouldn’t send the kids to school and cuddled up with them instead. As long as I shut my front door, where ever I am and whatever is going on, and it is just us, I am able to feel at home.

But getting back to your question about displacement: My best moment in a foreign country was when I saw my mother drive off in a taxi in Bucharest and realizing that apart from my two year old son I didn’t know a soul in the country (my husband was away in Albania for weeks). Wow, at last no one to tell me what to do! Freedom!

More seriously, most displacements do not happen by choice, and my most displaced moments have been as a result of this. I recount a story in the book when I took the kids to Berlin ten years ago. My mother-in-law was born there but fled in 1933 as she was Jewish. The family settled in Paris. As a result I have half French children who speak fluent French and we don’t speak a word of German.

It was a rather stressful visit as we searched for old family homes, one of which the family were still trying to reclaim. My daughter Esti got a headache. I pointed to the department store and suggested that we go in to buy an aspirin. It was Wertheims. My mother in law’s mother was a Wertheim and was murdered in Aushwitz. Esti said:

What, first they give me a headache by stealing the department store and murdering my great granny–and now I am expected to go in and buy an aspirin to make it better? You have to be kidding!

That’s displacement.

Child-rearing on the frontlines

What was the biggest challenge about having children with you on the frontlines?
The biggest challenge was often the simplest thing such as getting them something to eat and getting hold of baby milk.

Did anything surprise you?
Life never ceases to surprise me where ever I am and what ever is going on. The terrible things and the good things always amaze me.

What do you think the kids got out of the experience?
The kids learnt a lot. My eldest son, Ben, would ask about why there was no food in Romania. For me it was a matter of telling simple tales of communism and 1917. For him it began a life-long interest in Russia. He is following in his father’s footsteps.

My eldest daughter, Esti, would like to work for an NGO like Human Rights Watch.

For all of us, it drew us closer together. We are a tight-knit family.

I’ve heard of war reporters feeling bored when they come back to “reality” in their home countries. Did your family experience any of that after five years in the Balkans? What was it like to go “home” again?
Going home is just as difficult as moving to a new country. By the way, the wars didn’t stop either after we got back. My husband has since covered lots of wars and famines including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Congo.

Writing a book, but from the backlines

After you left the Balkans, it took quite a few years before you decided to write the book. What was the catalyst?
It was during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was standing in the supermarket and they had just installed a TV with a live feed from Iraq by the checkout. Some soldiers were running across a street in Basra, where some of the heaviest fighting took place, followed by a reporter and camera man. All of their faces were clearly visible. My husband was in Baghdad covering the story for The Economist. I had actually popped out for five minutes of fresh air before the bombers took off from the UK and the countdown to the blitz on Baghdad began.

I realized, to my horror, you could be buying a packet of frozen peas and watch your husband killed in front of your eyes. I know this thought had never entered the mind of the supermarket manager who had simply installed the TV to attract customers.

That evening I found my ten-year-old glued to a grainy grey screen showing an image of Baghdad as the cruise missiles were expected. What do you say? I had to make dinner and she had to do her homework. The UK had a huge debate about the war and the way it was covered, and I felt nobody knew what it was really like to be part of it and a kid to boot.

I also found that very quickly after the Berlin Wall came down that people forgot in Western Europe just how hard life had been under communism, especially in Romania and Albania. No surprise in that, really, as since 1945 most people in Western Europe just forgot the East existed.

I also found people in the UK quick to judge and condemn people in Southeastern Europe as being violent and prone to war. I wanted them to realize we are no different. That is why I’ve also included a chapter on Ireland in the book.

And I wanted to describe the multicultural experience of bringing up half-French, half-Jewish, part-Irish children in various countries, something I found fascinating.

Was it also part of your mission to show others what it is like to be married to, the child of, a war reporter?
Yes, not just to a war reporter but also those who are married to soldiers—especially those who are part-time soldiers and live in the community.

Did you have any personal motives in writing the book, to help you process what you’d been through and to provide your children with a record of where they’d lived?
No, not really. I didn’t write it for us but to make people think about what was going on. I am sure that the kids will appreciate it when they are older.

What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Getting time to do it. I often wrote with my computer on the kitchen side as I was cooking dinner, which was good as I could hear kids talking; and as I was writing about them, it helped to have them there doing their thing.

Did you find it easy to find a publisher for the book?
No it was hard. publishing is a tough business. I started my own publishing company, Reportage Press, which closed a few years ago. Are We There Yet? is on Amazon as a self-published download these days. We also have a number of journalist friends who are taking the self-publishing route quite successfully.

What audience did you intend for the book? Did you think it would also appeal to other kinds of expats, who don’t go to war-torn countries?
Yes, there is a large expat element to the readership, and I know the book has touched the hearts of women feeling lonely and bewildered in a new country. I have been hugged and kissed by quite a few of them. One lady said reading the book had saved her marriage. I’m not sure it was me, but I hope I helped her realize it wasn’t so bad being lonely in London. It is hard being in a strange country with children. It is you who have to interpret it for them and as you are far from the family support group and friends, it is inevitably all up to you to be their world. It’s a tough job. That said, the book is far from serious. It’s actually quite funny.

Can you give us some examples of humorous moments in the book?
The kids are a laugh a minute, so whatever was going on they would often say or do something funny. For example:

For me the market in Piaţă Amzei is the focal point of life in the city centre [of Bucharest]…

“Let’s see the old ladies with the cheese. Come on!” shouts Ben as he darts out of the pushchair and into a smelly covered hall, where they sell heaps of yellowy looking curds, which are akin to feta.They are covered in flies.

The old women with their long black skirts and headscarves beckon him over and offer him little crumbs. He watches their lips and toothy grins with fascination. They look unnerving, like witches with crunched up dirty teeth, but he doesn’t run away. He has come deliberately to stare at them. He studies an old lady’s face carefully as she says something he can’t possibly understand. He is like his father, never frightened of anything and intrigued by the smallest thing. He loves the bizarre and the quirky.

* * *

“Where’s Mr Parking? Why doesn’t he find us a space?” asks Ben as we drive up and down the street outside our flat. Ben loves Mr Parking. I can’t see him anywhere.

Mr Parking is the man who organises the parking lots outside Belgrade town hall. It’s an elegant 1880s building that was once the royal palace and is right next to our block of flats. For a tip, he lets us park in the lots reserved for local officials. I haven’t seen him for weeks and have to be careful where I put the car, or we’ll be towed.

“I think he has gone back to Bosnia to fight, Ben.”

“What!” Ben is horrified.

“Why? I want to park the car. Doesn’t he want to stay here?”

“No, I expect he wanted to go home and defend his village.”

“Where is his village?”

“He’s from eastern Bosnia, the bit between here and Sarajevo [Bosnia’s capital city]. He told Dad he comes from Kamenica. It’s in one of the last bits there that’s still under Muslim control.” It’s a village close to the town of Srebrenica [the town where a massacre took place in 1995, said to be a crime of genocide].

“What! He’s a Muslim?” Ben is amazed: “But he looks like everyone else!”

“Of course, he does! You don’t look different if you’re Muslim. Bosnians look the same whether they are Muslims or not.” My mother has just sent him a book about the Crusades.

“I thought Muslims looked like Arabs.”

Are you working on any other ambitious writing projects?
I would like to write an expat guide to Britain. I spend a lot of time explaining Britain to people as I live in an expat world in the UK to a certain extent as my children have been or go to the French Lycée, and we have a lot of foreign friends who live in London.

Ten Questions for Rosie Whitehouse

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Malaparte is on my mind as I am driving to Ukraine. His book on the 1941 invasion of Russia is unforgettable.
2. Favorite literary genre: Novels
3. Reading habits on a plane: Nothing. I am too tense on a plane as I hate flying. If I am calm enough I love to look out of the window.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: My son Ben’s book on Russia: Fragile Empire: How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin. It’s a great portrait of contemporary Russia. I am his mum—what else am I supposed to say to this one?
5. Favorite books as a child: I loved Little House on the Prairie but above all I loved the stories my dad used to tell me.
6. Favorite heroine: She doesn’t have a name. She is one of the millions of women who have struggled to keep their families together against the odds. These are the mums who keep the world turning.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I always wanted to meet William Shirer. He must have had an extraordinary experience living in Berlin at the start of World War II. Perhaps the ultimate expat experience! I suggested an interview programme with him to BBC World Service in the 80s but they didn’t have the cash to send me to America to do it. A pity as he died after that.
8. Your reading habits: I read a lot. If you want to write you have to read. I also have to read a lot for work.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: None, really. If you love a book, the last thing you want is for it to become a film as you have the pictures in your head and they are your pictures not someone else’s.
10. The book you plan to read next: Vasily Grossman‘s An Armenian Sketchbook is in my suitcase. I love Grossman. He is a fantastic writer. If you haven’t read Life and Fate, you have really missed out.

* * *

Thanks so much, Rosie! Personally, I found your story very moving and think we should confer on you a “home fires” medal for all you’ve achieved!

Readers, it’s time for you to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Rosie Whitehouse’s book. Rosie is giving away ONE COPY and will favor comments that tell her why you’d like to read the book.

Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on August 2, 2013.

Rosie Whitehouse is a parenting journalist and mother of five. She is one of the UK’s leading experts on family travel. She has written widely on family matters and traveling with children for The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Family Circle, The Economist, and others, as well as for the Web sites B4Baby.com and Raisingkids.co.uk. She has also spoken at events and on television and radio on parenting matters, promoting her travel books and her autobiography, Are We There Yet? Travels with my Frontline Family. You can follow her latest adventures at http://www.rosiewhitehouse.co.uk/.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post in our Olde vs New World series, by guest blogger Claire Bolden.

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Images (clockwise from left): Rosie Whitehouse at “home” in London; Ben and his baby sister, Esti, living it up on the balcony in Bucharest (July 1991); Ben trying on his dad’s new bulletproof jacket, with Rosie’s mother in background (Belgrade, May 1992).

Getting carried away with author Lisa Egle on a magic carpet, or is it a chicken bus? (Win a copy of her travel memoirs!)

Lisa E Collage for TNBack in the days when my nieces were small—and I’d just repatriated to the United States after quite a few years abroad—I got to know them again through long bouts of playing make-believe at my mother’s (their grandmother’s) house.

We particularly enjoyed Magic Carpet. We had our own home-made version. Adorning ourselves in Grandma’s silk scarves, we would plonk down on her quilted bedspread for a flight of fancy, à la Arabian Nights (not for us the Disney version!):

Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.

I trust this anecdote will explain why I’m so excited about hosting new author Lisa Egle today. It’s Magic Carpet time again, and this time I get to be the kid, listening to Egle tell of the off-the-beaten-track adventures that are captured in her travel memoirs, Magic Carpet Seduction.

Hey, we even have prizes! Two of our readers will be the lucky recipients of a copy of Egle’s book (see giveaway details below). The giveaway is now over! 😦

Hmmm… The only thing is, I suspect that before we board the Magic Carpet, Egle will ask us to ride on a chicken bus. (Leave the silk scarves at home, girls!)

* * *

MagicCarpetSeduction_cover_pmHi, Lisa! I won’t need too much persuasion to be seduced by your writing. I’m already a follower of your travel blog, ChickyBus. And I know you’re an American like me, living in New Jersey. Why made you decide to travel in the first place?
After taking short solo trips in the U.S. back in the 1990s, I went on a two-week group tour of Egypt and thought it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I then went on another tour, of Ecuador, which turned out to be a life-changing experience (for many reasons, including the fact that I moved there a few months later). While living in Ecuador, I began to travel independently and realized how much I enjoyed it. From that point on, I entered the ranks of “travel addicts.”

How many countries have you been to at this point?
In total, I’ve been to 36 countries, on five continents. I was an expat twice: in Ecuador for a year and half and in Spain for a year. Recently, I spent two months in Indonesia.

And home is now New Jersey?
Yes. I’m a full-time ESL professor at a two-year college in Bloomfield.

I don’t get it. Is a “chicken bus” magical?

Where does the epithet “Chicky Bus” come from?
“Chicky Bus” is the name of one of the stories in my book. It’s about a quirky 12-hour “chicken bus” ride I took in Central America that led me to have epiphanies about living in the moment. When I started my blog, I thought “ChickyBus” would be a cool domain name—one that related to travel and one that people would remember. I also liked it as a blog concept. I’m the “driver” taking readers—”passengers”—on “rides” with me, allowing them to experience the same random moments and unexpected journeys that I do.

There’s also a deeper meaning, however. “Chicky bus” is a metaphor for my unique style of travel—being in the moment while venturing off the beaten path and taking risks (nothing too crazy, of course). It refers to that place of magic and self-discovery that I find wherever I go.

Why did you decide to publish some of your travel stories as a book?
Years ago, while blogging about general topics on a site called http://www.gaia.com, I began sharing travel tales. The feedback was incredibly positive; people were inspired and entertained by what I wrote and said they felt like they were right there with me. After a while, I decided to go all the way with it, to write more stories and to compile them into a book—four major “rides” to different regions of the world (and a total of 9 countries: China, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon).

Are any of your chapters based on blog posts?
Interestingly, none of the stories are based on blog posts. I wrote most of the book before I started ChickyBus. There are, however, a few stories (simplified versions) on the blog that came from the book.

Mostly magical connections

We like to talk about “displaced moments” on the Displaced Nation. We can see you’ve experienced your fair share: from close encounters with Carpet Casanovas in Turkey, to meeting with a hermit in the Lebanese mountains, to experiencing political intrigue in a Chinese classroom, to receiving a marriage proposal on that infamous chicken bus in Nicaragua. But we still have to ask you: which is the MOST displaced moment that you’ve included in this book?
The moments you mention were truly unique ones and—believe it or not—I didn’t feel as displaced as one might think. Because I was in the moment and going with the flow, I felt quite comfortable and that I was where I needed to be.

There were a few instances, however, in which I did have that “displaced” feeling—the most extreme of which occurred in China.

It was 1999 and I was teaching English at a university in Changsha in Hunan Province, which was definitely considered off the beaten path back then. For most of my time there, I was in a deep state of culture shock. I struggled with many things, from freedom of speech issues to getting to know my students. There were many “displaced moments”—and even days. Fortunately, after a while, things leveled out and went more smoothly.

So from what you’ve just said, I guess there is a lot of competition for your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you actually belonged with all of these characters you discovered off the beaten track?
One of my least displaced moments (and possibly favorite) was when a friend and I ended up spending the night with a Mexican family we barely knew. They’d invited us over for lunch. We were planning to take a bus to another city that night because we had to fly home from there the next day. It got later and later and because we were so comfortable, we didn’t want to leave. We ended up staying (and sleeping in two very tiny beds, slightly larger than coffins) and having a wonderful time being part of the family.

P.S. A little Boone’s Farm wine went a long way in helping make us even more comfortable…

Don’t exit until the rug has made a complete stop!

Okay, time to get off that chicken bus and onto that magic carpet. On your post announcing the book’s publication, you say:

So imagine that my book is the equivalent of an invitation to a Bedouin lounge of sorts. If you decide to join me, we’ll get comfy on the cushions and share some tea (or coffee or whichever beverage you like). When you’re ready, I’ll start telling you my favorite travel tales—and together, we’ll take a magic carpet ride.

Why did you choose this metaphor, and indeed use “magic carpet” in your title?
When I was a kid, my friends and brother and I used to sit on the front porch and listen to my mother telling us stories. Years later, I found myself doing the same thing with friends and later, on a blog. Then, I spent time with the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, Jordan. We told our own stories while sharing tea and sitting on the sand under a tent or on a cushion inside a house. In retrospect, I believe that the “invitation” into the Bedouin lounge has something do with each of these experiences.

Re: the title, when people see the words “magic carpet,” the freedom to travel anywhere, magically, usually comes to mind. Also, “Magic Carpet Seduction” is the name of one of the stories in the book. It’s about two men, seemingly different, trying to sell me a carpet and what happens I see through their each one’s sales pitch/ploy.

Also in your blog post announcing the book’s publication, you confess to being exhausted. (I confess to having had similar feelings after long games of Magic Carpet with my nieces!) What was the most challenging part of the writing process?
Mostly, it was finishing the book, editing it and formatting it while maintaining my blog and my full-time teaching job, and being on social media. At times, it was difficult to prioritize and I often felt burnt out.

Overall, however, I would say that editing took a lot out of me. There were a few times when I thought I was finished with a certain stage of the process; then, I’d realize that I wasn’t. Having said this, that is where I learned the most and what helped me become a better writer. So, in the end, it was a positive experience.

Capturing the magic of self-publishing

Why did you self-publish the book?
I took this route mostly because I wanted creative control; I believe the book is unique and slightly nichey. Also, I didn’t want to have to spend a lot of time pursuing an agent and traditional publisher. Mostly, I wanted to get the book done my own way and on my own schedule.

Can you offer any tips for others who are contemplating going down this path?
My best tips for anyone who’d like to self-publish are:

• Hire a professional editor and a proofreader—two (even three) people. Also, get a critique done before you pass the manuscript on to an editor. It’s important because each editor has his/her own specialty and will probably catch something another didn’t.

• Have a cover professionally designed. I know there are ways to do this cheaply or yourself, but it’s worth spending money to do this right since the cover is first thing that people see when searching for a book.

• Have your blog (and social media accounts) set up/established before you publish the book. I’ve seen many people do it the other way around. They finish and publish their book, then set up a blog and join Twitter. Many aren’t sure what to do—they just tweet about their book and don’t interact with others. This tends to hurt them more than help them.

• Don’t give up. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I wanted to quit just because of the sheer amount of work (blog, social media, the book itself, etc.) You can burn out very easily and, if you’re not careful, your health can suffer. Keep going, though, and you’ll cross that finish line!

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
I’ve always envisioned the audience as:

  • armchair travelers and those who take tours and fantasize about breaking away
  • other independent travelers/expats
  • non-travelers with an interest in countries often in the news
  • anyone curious about the cultural perspective/insights of a female American traveler.

Is it reaching those readers?
I don’t know the customer demographics yet, but I know that a few men have written reviews on Amazon—and that makes me happy. As is the case with ChickyBus, the book is for people of all ages and both genders. It’s definitely not just for women.

I see you’ve opened your own publishing company and are working on some more ambitious travel-cum-writing projects. Can you tell us some more about that?
I set up a small publishing company for a number of reasons, including accounting and taxes. More than that, I thought it made sense because I will be publishing more books and hopefully, a collection of travel tales written by others. This is a longer-term goal, but definitely something I’m considering for the future.

Are you already working on your next book?
I’m currently working on a trilogy about Native American-style healing journeys in the U.S. (in the Northeast and the Southwest). After that, I’ll hopefully wrap up the rough draft of a book about life-changing experiences I had in Ecuador. That, like the trilogy, would fall under a “spiritual travel” genre.

10 Questions for Lisa

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Grey Wolves and White Doves, by John Balian
2. Favorite literary genre: Political thrillers; travel literature.
3. Reading habits on a plane: (what kinds of things do you tend to read and by what means?) Now, because I own a Kindle, this is much easier. I usually have several books to choose from: one I’m sure I’ll love and lose myself in and—a few that I’m curious about. One thing I love to do on a plane (and during my trip) is keep a journal. During my return flight, I re-read the journal and re-experience the trip. I almost always do that and love it!
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Hmmm. That’s a tough question. Maybe my book? I’d want him to see that there are Americans who embrace the rest of the world, despite the media’s distortions of it. Also, I think my book would show him how travel, the way I approach it—focusing mostly on meeting the locals—can help people to connect in a very real way and to overcome cultural misconceptions, ultimately helping make world peace more attainable. Another reason I’d want him to read it is because I think it would provide good escapism since it’s quite humorous. He’s got a tough job and might enjoy it for the entertainment value alone.
5. Favorite books as a child: The Outsiders, a coming-of-age novel by S.E. Hinton; and Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks.
6. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is no longer living: Aldous Huxley
7. The writer, you’d most like to meet, who is still alive today: Daniel Keyes
8. Your reading habits: I have a pretty short attention span, so there are many books that I start to read that I don’t finish. However, if a book really gets my attention, then I can’t stop. It becomes something I look forward to and put aside other things to do. Unfortunately, since I started my blog a few years ago, I’ve been reading less than previously. I spend more time reading other blogs and articles than reading actual books. When I seem to read the most is when I’m traveling and find myself without Internet. I end up loving it, too.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A cyber suspense I’ve written about two women who “meet” on the Internet and what happens when the bond they’ve formed takes a dysfunctional and frightening turn. It’s now in rough draft form (about 15,000 words), but I’m hoping to publish it on Amazon (just for Kindle) in a few months.
10. The book you plan to read next: Actually, there’s a book I’m itching to finish reading—and that’s Shantaram. I always start it and then get interrupted. It’s a very long book (over 900 pages). I think Gregory David Roberts is an awesome writer. His storytelling ability—the way he writes dialogue, how he describes characters, settings and situations, and the way he uses metaphor—makes his experiences incredibly real to me.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lisa! That was absolutely magical, a carpet ride to write home (to my nieces) about! And that chicken bus? It wasn’t half bad! 🙂

What about you, readers? Has she seduced you?

Lisa Egle writes a blog, Chicky Bus, the concept of which is “finding yourself off the beaten path.” Over the past three years, it has been recognized on two “Top 100” lists of independent travel blogs. Egle is also Assistant Professor of ESL at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, where she teaches students from all over the world, especially Latin America and the Middle East. She holds a BA in Social Sciences from New York University and an MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Lisa recently published a humorous piece in OH SANDY! An Anthology of Humor for a Serious Purpose (sales of which help victims of Hurricane Sandy), and an article on one of her quirkier adventures in Indonesia in LifeLift, the Oprah.com blog. She received an honorable mention in the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Contest, in the Inspirational category.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by guest blogger Elizabeth Liang, who will be updating us on her one-woman play about the TCK life, Alien Citizen.

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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Images (clockwise, starting top left): Lisa at the home of her Cirassian-Jordanian friend, Souzan, with whom she was staying before the latter’s move to New Jersey(!) [this photo is in the book]; Lisa at a wedding in a Minangkabau village in Sumatra (hey, you can’t attend without posing with the bride and groom); Lisa camping in San Blas, Panama, during rainy season and a full moon (a displaced moment, to be sure, as the local Kuna indigenous believe that a full moon equals a curse); and Lisa after being recruited to be on a famous TV show in Damascus, which aired during Ramadan afforded an opportunity to meet one of the most famous actors in Syria—Qusai Khouli (she is wearing a late 1800s outfit, in case you were wondering). The painting in the center is “The Flying Carpet,” by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880), courtesy Wikipedia.

For author Lana Penrose, expat “curveballs” come in threes

curveballToday we welcome back best-selling Australian author Lana Penrose, who last visited us in December to commiserate with those who were spending the holidays separated from their dearest and no longer nearest. Today’s occasion? The publication of Lana’s third memoir on her life abroad in Europe. Wait, did I just write “third”? Yes, this indefatigable Aussie managed to get a trilogy out of her expat experience, and is here today to explain.

—ML Awanohara

I’ve been asked to explain what motivated me to write my latest mini-memoir Addicted to Love, and it’s a very good question—one that I pose to myself often, particularly while in the throes of insomnia.

ToHelasandBack_dropshadowFor the uninitiated, I’m the author of To Hellas and Back, which chronicles my true-life tale of following the love of my life to the ends of the Earth (Greece) only to wind up losing my mind.

I then Nutbushed over to the UK to work for a world-renowned pop star and in the process wrote Kickstart My Heart, which details my attempt to negotiate my newly single life à la Bridget Jones—only with an axe through her head. As the book’s subtitle says: “A carnival of dating disasters”.

KickstartmyHeart_dropshadowNow these two books are rife with comedy, tragedy and my own human failings, so why scoop out what’s left of my heart and smear it across my shirtsleeve?

Like I said … a very good question.

More to the story…

The truth is that my story absolutely did not end with me leaving London to re-sample Greece after again being lured by love’s enchantment. In fact what happened next is something that I’ve kept close to my chest because it was downright shocking. I spent considerable time deliberating over whether I should share it at all.

AddictedtoLove_cover_dropshadowBut as many of you displaced writers know, the problem with being an author (one of the many!) is that you can’t seem to stop writing. And life has been more than accommodating in throwing me the odd curveball, the sort of material I feel compelled to purge away with my pen.

And so Addicted to Love was born: a mini-memoir that proves once and for all that truth really is stranger than fiction.

It’s set on the beautiful Greek island of Kythera, where I faced an impossible situation that I can’t go into here without issuing a spoiler alert … but rest assured that it’s gripping and you’ll digest it quite quickly, because it’s been described as “a page turner.”

Finally, an answer (of sorts)

But back to the original question: What motivated me to write this book? Well, thankfully (and unfortunately), experience has shown that there are many people who go through similar triumphs and tragedies to mine, particularly while traversing the globe. I like to connect with such people, and book writing is my way of holding out a hand and saying: “What—you, too?”and “You’re not alone.”

To Hellas and Back, Kickstart My Heart and Addicted to Love form a trilogy of the victories and pitfalls I experienced as an everyday person hurdling life abroad.

Each book can be read as a stand-alone, but I (predictably) suggest that you start at the very beginning to understand the depths of where I wound up.

* * *

Hey, Lana—you wound up here, at the Displaced Nation! That’s not the depths, surely? Readers, any questions for Lana or words of support? If you’re not familiar with Lana’s works, you can find the entire trilogy on Amazon or Smashwords. And don’t forget to follow her advice and begin at the beginning: by going to hellas and back!

Sydney-based (and no longer displaced) author Lana Penrose has had various incarnations, including music journalist, record company promotions gal, music television producer and personal assistant to an iconic pop sensation whose name shall never be revealed unless she’s subjected to Chinese water torture. She also once worked with the now-infamous Simon Cowell, which she today finds really odd. You can read more about her and her works on her author blog and/or follow her on Twitter: @LanaPenrose

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we’ll be revisiting one of the earliest themes on this blog, Alice in Wonderland, but from the perspective of an international creative.

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Image: MorgueFile

Born to run the Shikoku Pilgrimage—and write a book about it (which we’re giving away!)

AMY ChavezWe dedicate today’s interview with distance runner Amy Chavez to those affected by the Boston marathon bombings. Our hopes and prayers and encouragement are with you.

When it comes to long-distance running, I couldn’t put it better than the American cowboy Will Rogers once did:

We can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

I simply haven’t got the necessary strength, both physical and mental, for that kind of endurance test.

Is it any wonder, then, that I’m feeling intimidated by the prospect of talking to Japan-based expat Amy Chavez about her 900-mile run around Shikoku Island? We’re talking ultramarathon here.

The redoubtable Amy hails from Ohio but has lived in Japan for many years, where she is a well-known writer and columnist for the leading English-language newspaper, the Japan Times.

In 1998, she spent five weeks during March and April running the traditional pilgrimage on Shikoku Island. In essence she ran a marathon per day (sometimes more). And although the weather and conditions were pleasant enough—it was cherry blossom season—it was cold at night, and there were many mountains, though the roads were the worst part “because pavement is hard on the feet, knees, etc.”

Last month Amy published a book with Volcano Press about her record-breaking adventure (almost needless to say, she was the first person to accomplish this feat), Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Englightenment—a copy of which we are giving away!!! (Details below.)

But first I want to find out more about what motivated her on her epic—and energetic—journey, including any challenges she faced in writing her book.

* * *

Pilgrimage-Cover_pmSo, Amy, I understand you decided to run the 900-mile-long Shikoku Pilgrimage after being laid off by the university where you were teaching in Japan. What made you think that running vast distances might be the answer?
Physical challenges have a certain appeal. I was interested in the physical journey, as I think most foreigners are when they walk the pilgrimage the first time.

But you didn’t walk it; you ran it!
For some reason I have never discovered the joy of walking. I dreaded the thought of walking 900 miles, the distance from San Diego to Oregon. But running is somehow different. When people go running, it’s not unusual to run 10 km or more, three or four times a week. People hardly ever do that walking. Instead, they walk around the block and come back. Runners don’t do that. We’re in for the long haul.

Did making this journey allow you to see Japan in a new way?
I was able to see Japan much more objectively. I went from being in my own little world where everything was centered around me—thus when my world crashed, so did I—to being an observer of Japanese culture in the framework of the pilgrimage. So there was a fundamental shift from being a part of the university, where the students and the university relied on me, my teaching skills, and my commitment, to being part of the pilgrimage that didn’t really care whether I did those things or not. The pilgrimage doesn’t care whether you show up or not, whether you complete it or not, whether you understand how it works. In other words, it’s not about you at all. So suddenly you’re on the other end, trying to understand what it is that the pilgrimage is trying to give you, on its own terms, and what you can learn and take away from it.

What was your most displaced moment on the journey?
I’d never felt displaced in Japan until I lost my job. It was a very big thing for me because I had put so much time, effort and love into that job. Suddenly, without warning, I was let go, all because I was a foreigner. I just couldn’t get my head around that. So the journey started as a result of this unnatural feeling of being displaced. The people who had treated me like family had suddenly tossed me out on the street. I was searching for ways to deal with my feelings toward Japan and Japanese people.

“The person who starts the race is not the same person who finishes the race.” [Marathon sign]

How did your feelings toward Japan evolve once the journey got underway?
I was able to see the pilgrimage as this microcosm of Japanese culture. If you’re ever wondered why the Japanese do things or act a certain way, you can find out through this historical context of Buddhism, and the Shikoku Pilgrimage which has been walked for over a thousand years. The purpose of the pilgrimage—to reach enlightenment—has never wavered over the centuries.

You became less and less displaced?
Doing the pilgrimage is often referred to as entering a mandala. You have to leave your safe, secure world and cross over into an unknown world where you are no longer in control. Once you accept this, and surrender yourself to the pilgrimage, you will no longer feel displaced.

Wise words! How long did it take before you surrendered?
It happens for different people at various parts of their pilgrimage but for me, this happened about one third of the way through, or two weeks into, the pilgrimage. Suddenly everything fell into place. I had finally learned to go with the flow and let things happen to me rather than trying to control things that happened to me. We are so used to taking control of our lives: we plan our trips down to the finest detail, we budget monthly, weekly and even daily, we get the right job. But life doesn’t care how much you’ve planned. Life continues to throw us curve balls—your car dies, you come down with an illness, you lose your job. Despite our steadfast planning, that’s not how life works.

It’s is not how the pilgrimage works either. Despite your intentions to do something a certain way, the pilgrimage will constantly present you with challenges—things you’d never planned on. Once you surrender to the ways of the pilgrimage, you no longer feel displaced. You no longer struggle with the elements, the terrain or nature. Instead, you become one with them.

Not surprisingly, this is one of Buddhism’s life metaphors as well.

Another ultramarathon—writing the book

I believe you chronicled your Shikoku adventure in the Japan Times?
Actually, I wrote six columns for the Japan Times. I also kept a diary, but that was separate from the columns.

Once you’d decided to write a book about the experience, what was the greatest challenge?
Time. It takes an enormous amount of time to write a good book. It’s all consuming, a full-time job. On top of that, I still had my weekly deadlines for the newspaper and other publications I write for.

Your book is coming out 15 years after you made the pilgrimage. Why the delay?
It’s not unusual to have so many years between a story and a published book. There’s the year (or longer) it takes to write, there’s the year-long (or longer) search for a publisher, the six months negotiation with the publisher(s), and then the two-year process from book contract to published book. So already five years has passed, and that’s with no bumps along the way.

Then there’s also timing. No one was really interested in my story at the time I did it. But things have changed drastically since then. NHK has had a popular TV series about the pilgrimage, previous books about the pilgrimage have run their course and gone out of print (thus creating a demand for something new), and ultra-running has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

Did you derive any new insights from revisiting the adventure?
That’s another reason I think you see so many books that are published a decade or so after they happened is because people often need distance before they can really understand their own journey. How can you talk about how an experience has changed you, or changed your life, if you haven’t had time to prove that it really has? Time gives one perspective. And with time comes wisdom. I was just reading a book the other day and couldn’t help but think it would have been so much better if the writer had waited a decade or so tell his story. He, nor his writing, had matured yet; his book had no arc, it offered no wisdom.

So while I wish my book could have been published a long time ago, I know it’s a much better book because I waited.

What audiences do you intend for the book?
There are three: those interested in Japan, those interested in Buddhism, and those interested in running. The book was officially released in March, and the reviews are just beginning to come out, so it’s too early to tell if those are the audiences the book will attract.

How about people who don’t know Japan—would they enjoy it, or would you be running circles around them?
You would have to have some innate interest in other cultures to get the most enjoyment out of the book—which I think most Displaced Nation readers have. But even if you are only interested in people’s amazing feats and accomplishments, you should enjoy the story, too. It is an adventure travel story about a girl who ran 900 miles that happens to take place in Japan.

Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage sounds like a hard act to follow. Are you working on any other ambitious travel projects that will one day be books?
I have an original hand-written diary of my great-great grandfather’s journey through Japan’s Inland Sea to the Philippines on a ship in 1900. In 2004 I decided to trace his journey in a sailboat. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short when we had to be rescued at sea, and we lost the boat. Determined to finish the trip, however, we bought another sailboat and set out again in 2012. This time we finished the trip despite dodging four typhoons, two tropical storms and running into a reef. I haven’t decided whether the title of the book should be Little Titanic or Storm Girl.

What do you think?

Love it! (Hmmm … the limb doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

10 Questions for Amy

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
Last truly great book you read: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It’s always the last great book I read.
Favorite literary genre: Adventure travel, memoirs.
Reading habits on a plane: E-books only. Whatever is stacked up still waiting to be read. I also read tons of magazines.
The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Any book on the current farming industry and feedlots. Save the cows!
Favorite books as a child: Anything about horses.
Favorite heroine: I admire Nora Ephron.
The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I’d like to go fishing with Ernest Hemingway.
Your reading habits: Mostly non-fiction. More and more creative non-fiction. A little bit of fiction.
The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I’ve learned that books and film are completely different genres, so don’t dare compare them.
The book you plan to read next: Right now I’m reading The Annotated Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn. Next I’m going to read Strength Training Past 50. (Hey, you asked!) Oh, I might read Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young, before the strength training one, but I haven’t decided yet. Oh, I just remembered, my Dad wants me to read A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, so I better read that one next.

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Readers, now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Amy Chavez’s book. Please leave a comment telling us about a physical challenge you’ve set for yourself, preferably in an international setting, and what it taught you. Extra points if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!!!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on May 2, 2013.

Readers lucky enough to live in the LA area: Amy will be signing books and meeting readers at the LA Times Festival of Books April 20 held on the USC campus, Los Angeles. Look for her in the Kinokuniya booth from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. Copies of her book also available for purchase. April 21, she will be speaking at the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo from 1:00 p.m. Public welcome.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post and for a post on Friday about 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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Images: Amy Chavez; Meditating Cat (a character in the book); and Daruma Doll (drawing by Deborah Davidson)—all supplied by Amy Chavez, with permission granted by Davidson. The other two images—of the running feet and the cherry blossoms—are from morguefiles.

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