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Tag Archives: Christmas

Top 10 diverting holiday posts for expats and world travelers

Top 10 diverting holiday posts 2015

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, when all through the house, creatures were stirring…because they had jet lag!

This is how I imagine many of you expats and world travelers may be feeling at this point in the holiday season. If that description fits—or even if you’re simply remembering with a mix of relief and nostalgia (as I am) how you once were in that category—the following “holiday” posts may give you a much-needed injection of Christmas spirit. At the very least, they may divert you long enough so that you can sleep again.

I’ve chosen some of them with the thought of bringing you back to Christmases past, when your world was more predictable; others because I think they help to provide perspective on your present life of travel and adventure; and still others to stimulate thoughts about what kinds of Christmases we globetrotters can look forward to in future.

Posts (pun intended) of Christmas Past

1) Dreaming of a white Christmas? Check this out, Lonely Planet, by Roisin Agnew (14 December 2015)
Are White Christmases becoming a thing of the past because of global warming? Some of us may be losing sleep over this question ever since the climate summit was held in Paris. Visions are now dancing in our heads of melting ice flooding the world’s major cities. Also keeping some of us awake is the strongest El Niño in 50 years, which has brought mild, humid weather to North America. Today, Christmas Eve, it’s 70°F in New York City! Meanwhile, the UK and Ireland have been experiencing the ravages of Storm Desmond. Don’t despair yet, though. According to Roisin Agnew, there are still a few places with a reasonable probability of snow this year. (Agnew is a journalist at Lonely Planet Online and founding editor of Guts Magazine, for new Irish writers.) Try this quiz before reading: Which is the one state in the United States with a near 100% chance of a White Christmas?

2) Rick Steves’ European Christmas (Rick Steves Christmas pledge special, published on YouTube May 14, 2014, but an evergreen, so to speak!)
In this hour-long TV special, European travel authority Rick Steves invites his American audience to accompany him back to the old country, to the original Christmas customs that various immigrant groups brought to the United States.

3) The Sweet and Sticky Story of Candy Canes, by Rebecca Rupp, National Geographic Online (22 December 2015)
How did candy canes come into being? We actually don’t know very much about them—but can make an educated guess that they’re a displaced European treat. Read this, and visions of sugar plum-flavored candy canes may dance in your head when you at last drift off…

Posts of Christmases Present

4) Americans Try Norwegian Christmas Food (A production of the Embassy of the United States in Oslo, 21 December 2015)
Witness the somewhat goofy reactions of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo as they try traditional Norwegian Christmas dishes such as lutefisk, smalahove, cabaret and more. Comments Siobhán O’Grady of Foreign Policy magazine: this short video “looks more like it belongs on Buzzfeed than on the diplomatic mission’s YouTube channel.” Hey, but at least it fits with the YouTube tradition of posting videos about people sampling other cultures’ foods for the first time.

5) Rupert the Expat Reindeer (UKinUAE, 14 December 2015)
Another embassy video! This one is part of the British Embassy in Dubai’s effort to ensure that British expats in the UAE behave themselves in the run-up to Christmas. Inspired by the Johnny Marks classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the lyrics follow the story of a group of expatriate reindeer who get a crash course in getting to know the local laws, customs and climate the hard way. They learn about alcohol licenses, drinking in public, wearing appropriate clothing and the use of offensive language. No red noses, guys, okay?

6) “On a Christmas visit, expat thoughts turn to ‘going home,'” by Nicolas Gattig (Japan Times, 23 December 2015)
If you’re one of the expats who has gone all the way home for Christmas, will you also use it as an opportunity to consider whether you will go home for good: as in, repatriate? Nicolas Gattig has returned to San Francisco with with that in mind, only to find himself wondering whether he, and the city, has changed too much for a 2016 reunion…

Posts of Christmas Future

7) Life as a modern expat: Happy (virtual) holidays, by Melanie Haynes in the Local Denmark (14 December 2015)
Some expat families still choose to juggle complicated travel schedules—and will go to any length to set up a family Christmas tree, even if they find themselves rendezvousing in a place like Roatán (see Julia Simens’s recent post). But relocation expert Melanie Haynes has decided it’s time her child got used to celebrating virtual Christmases with his extended family. She and her husband are Brits but have become permanent expats in Copenhagen. Both sets of grandparents are expats, too—one in France and the other in the United States. She now arranges to have her son open his Christmas gifts from his grandparents on Skype “so they can share his delight firsthand.” The way she sees it, her family is simply building a new tradition:

As a child, my husband and I held Christmases that followed a very familiar and lovely pattern with all our family coming together for the day. Now, Christmas for us and our son is very different but just as special.

Is the Haynes’s virtual Christmas the wave of the future?
8) Happy Holidays! (BostonDynamics, 22 December 2015)
Now it’s time to look even further into the future, when technology leads us to the point where robots have inherited the Earth. How will robots, and the last remnants of homo sapiens, celebrate? According to a tech firm in Boston, Santa and his reindeer will still be delivering presents—but don’t be surprised if Santa is female!

9) Star Wars Should Give Power to the Dark Side, by Scott Meslow (The Week, 23 December 2015)
While we’re on such cosmic themes, it’s time to contemplate whether the universe portrayed in the new Star Wars, easily the biggest of this Christmas’s blockbusters, has enough moral nuance. As we who’ve traveled the world know perhaps better than anyone else, every country on Planet Earth has shades of gray, so why should other planets and galaxies be any different? Hollywood scriptwriters, however, remain blissfully unaware, having chosen to sustain a world where good guys have blue lightsabers and bad guys have red ones.

As Meslow puts it:

Compare Star Wars to Game of Thrones, which forces the viewer to interrogate their perspectives on heroes and villains until the lines between them barely exist. There’s no reason Star Wars can’t do the same.

Post of Christmas Past, Present & Future

10) A Christmas WISH LIST, by Cinda MacKinnon (22 December 2015)
Cinda MacKinnon and her novel, A Place in the World, have been featured several times on the Displaced Nation. As the book’s title suggests, anyone who grows up among several cultures, as Cinda did, or who has chosen an adult life of repeat expat experiences (as I have), may have trouble finding their place in the world, especially at Christmas. However, the final wish on Cinda’s list, for peace on earth, is one that belongs to all people, however displaced—and to Christmases past, present, and future. I for one am extremely grateful for that reminder, Cinda!

* * *

So, readers, if you are still reading at this stage and haven’t drifted back to sleep, does that mean you have other posts in mind that should be on the list? Do tell in the comments! And to all of you who celebrate Christmas: on behalf of the Displaced Nation team of writers, I’d like to wish and yours the happiest of times on December 25th. Oh, and don’t forget to extend the celebration into Boxing Day, a lovely tradition I picked up while living in the UK!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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And the December 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post hono(u)rs our four Alice recipients for December 2014. Listed in order of most to least recent, they are (drumroll…):

1) Lani Cox, half-Thai expat in Chiangmai, Thailand

For her comment on a post: “Dealing with Loneliness Abroad (and at home),” by Mary, former expat in Japan and blogger at The Ruby Ronin. (NOTE: Lani’s own blog is Life, the Universe and Lani.)
Posted on: 9 December 2014

2) Amanda Mouttaki, American expat in Morocco and blogger

For her post: The NOT-SO-NICE Side of Expat Life to her blog, MarocMama
Posted on: 25 November 2014

Alice Connection:
Pool of Tears Quote

LANI: “When I first moved to Thailand, … I was deeply confused over what I was expected to do and where I was supposed to go and basically get the help that I needed for my visa. So, I spent the day crying into my pillow! It didn’t help that we lived by this horrible electrical monster thingy and had squatters outside our window.”

AMANDA: “I cried. And cried. And cried. Over nothing specifically…”

Citation: Lani and Amanda, is it any wonder we have associated your writings with Alice in Wonderland’s “pool of tears” moment? Let us begin by saying how much we admire you both for overcoming the feeling of shame that comes with realizing, and admitting to others, that even “great girls” cry.

Lani, it seems that you blamed yourself, thinking that Thailand shouldn’t have confused you so much since you were raised in the United States by a Thai mother (she’d married an American soldier she’d met during the Vietnam War). But that of course is silly, especially as she didn’t teach you any Thai language (knowing some Thai would have helped with getting your visa sorted). On the other hand, maybe it’s good she didn’t teach you the language, you might have been further disappointed. (We speak from experience, having been Brits in the US or Yanks in the UK.)

Amanda, you say you didn’t want your readers to think you were complaining, especially when so many of them find your story romantic—and it is romantic, meeting and falling in love in fairy-tale fashion on the streets of Marrakesh. In any event, becoming catatonic over nothing specific sounds perfectly normal to us. We’re just glad MarocBaba was there to give you a hug—more than Alice could count on!

3) Kevin Lynch, American expat in Hong Kong

For his interview: “My Airbnb year in Hong Kong: ‘Big fat American’ discovers hidden sides to the city”, by Vanessa Yung, in the South China Morning Post
Posted on: 5 December 2014
Big Alice Quote

“Part of it is I’m a big fat American, which makes things even smaller. It’s just such a different scale of living. Just when I’m used to it—I don’t even take pictures of most of the small things any more—and then something will surprise me.”

Citation: Hats off to you, Kevin—even the Mad Hatter is removing his—for deciding to forgo Western digs to stay in Airbnb accommodation during your first 14 months in Hong Kong, a city that is challenged for space and known for its cramped accommodations. Recall that Alice, who isn’t fat, found the White Rabbit’s house a bit of an uncomfortable fit. You are right, of course: serviced apartments for expats don’t afford many opportunities to meet the natives even if they do have taller ceilings, longer beds, fatter sofas, and proper cutlery. Kudos to you for learning how to tilt your head when standing up in the low-ceilinged rooms and to sleep “in the fetal position” when beds are too short. You had the kind of Hong Kong experience not usually available to the generous of flesh.

4) Amanda van Mulligen, British expat in Holland, blogger, and one of the contributors to the new book Dutched Up! Rocking the Clogs Expat Style

For her post: “My Love Hate Relationship with Sinterklaas” to her personal blog, Expat Life with a Double Buggy
Posted on: 4 December 2014
Mock Tortoise SongAlice Connection:

“Now, I’m all for a good sing song. I’ll croon away with the best of them. But Sinterklaas songs get tedious sang at the top of a child’s voice for weeks on end.”

Citation: Amanda, surely a song repeatedly begging Sinterklaas to leave something nice in one’s shoe or boot is preferable to a song about green soup, such as the Mock Turtle sings to Alice? That’s after she had to withstand the Lobster Quadrille, with repeated refrains of:

Will you come and join the dance?
So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,
Will you, won’t you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you,
Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

But we do appreciate your attempt to convey the strange, Wonderland-like experience of raising children in a country other than the one in which you grew up. And we grant that you’re not as lucky as Alice, who was saved from having to hear the soup song in its entirety by the announcement of the trial, whereas for you the Sinterklaas din carries on until May! Sinterklaas bloody kapoentje indeed.

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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TCK TALENT: Nina Sichel, writer, editor, and guiding light on the Third Culture Kid experience

Nina Sichel_TCK TalentElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Nina Sichel, co-editor of the seminal TCK / global-nomad anthology Unrooted Childhoods, which includes essays by several famous TCK writers such as:

  • Pico Iyer: “I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case”;
  • Isabel Allende (she fled her homeland for political survival); and
  • Military brat Pat Conroy: “Each year I began my life all over again . . . and I think it damaged me.”

In addition, she co-edited the TCK / global-nomad anthology Writing Out of Limbo—to which I contributed. Thank you, Nina, for the hard work you did on my first published essay!

Nina grew up in Venezuela and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Nina. I understand that you grew up in a multicultural household as a TCK in Caracas—the daughter of an American mom and a German-Jewish dad. With Thanksgiving around the corner, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming holidays. Did any particular holiday traditions or celebrations take precedence over others in your household as you were growing up?
My father had to leave Germany when he was 11 and grew up in Uruguay. He seldom spoke about his childhood. He came to the U.S. for college, and, after marrying my mother, lived in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before settling in Venezuela. After all of those moves, his identity was not at all tied to nationality, and, like so many other choices in his life, citizenship was a matter of practicality. So national holidays were completely unimportant.

What about your mother?
My mother was a nostalgic American—more so when she was in Venezuela than when she was anywhere else. But she was an expat, and U.S. national holidays were not celebrated in that country. My parents’ friends were multinationals—our social circle was not defined by nationality. And, even though my father’s sister and mother, Uruguayan citizens by then, lived in Caracas, close by, we were secular Jews, only going to synagogue on the High Holidays and mostly not even then. We had an abbreviated seder, we lit candles at Chanukah. That Jewish identity, more ethnic, perhaps, than religious, was important to my parents. Yet we had very little religious training. I think things were assumed more than instructed… I remember going to summer camp in the States with Jewish girls from Long Island—and feeling I had absolutely nothing in common with them.

Did you celebrate other holidays?
We had a Christmas tree with lots of presents and sang carols. Santa Claus came till we were too old for him, but there were still gifts afterwards. We dressed up for carnaval, and the Easter bunny came to visit us. Hmmm… I’ve given you a long answer to what should be a simple question—but then, some things are not so simple. Like composite identities.

I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela…

Writing_Out_of_Limbo_coverWhich brings us to your wonderful essay, “Outsider,” which appears in Writing Out of Limbo. You mention in that piece that there was a lot of turnover among your friends at your international schools. Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
I never knew, from one school year to the next, which of my classmates would actually be back. I don’t remember ever talking about it; this was normal, nothing remarkable. I remember a few friends who left with advance notice, and I tried to keep in touch with them—pen pals during a time when letters would take one or two weeks to reach their destinations. Those friendships faded over time. Quite a few friends were sent away to boarding school once they reached high school; sometimes they’d be back for summer vacations, but by then I’d usually be in the States. There were also, of course, quite a few children whose parents would stay in Venezuela indefinitely, till retirement and after. And then there were the kids who rotated in and out every couple of years, many of whom were Americans. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the ones who stayed as long-term residents were from the ones who rotated in and out. And how difficult it is to make general statements about any of this—there are layers and layers of outsiderness, not just one sort of expat or TCK identity.

Have you still got friends from that period?
I’ve kept strong ties to some friends from my youth, and to me this is very special—they are more like family than friends now. I’ve learned to invest deeply in relationships I hope will last, perhaps because the chances are so fleeting. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to contact some people from my past via the Internet, and rekindle friendships from long ago, and learn how TCK life has affected them, their choices, their lives.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us…

After an entire adulthood in the USA, tell us what you still miss about Venezuela. I’m also curious to know how many of those things can still be found there, and how many are connected to memories of family and/or friends who are no longer there?
Though I have lived my adulthood in the U.S., my parents remained in Venezuela, and I went back often to visit until they passed away. The place changed—all places do—and I also changed. My memories now are interwoven with nostalgia for what was or might have been. But there are also tangible things. Venezuela is a beautiful country, and there are things about nature I miss. I miss smells—that thick Caribbean salt air, the tangy grass. I miss tropical light, and will miss it more and more now that we’re approaching winter here.

Nowadays, do you feel at home in the United States?
I do feel “at home” in the States in general; just not rooted in any particular place. As you know from my essays, I’ve lived in several places. I lived in a small town in upstate New York, then Manhattan; I lived in the Deep South two different times; in rural Michigan; in West Palm Beach and then urban Miami; and now I live outside Washington, DC. In the smaller towns, what I missed was diversity—of language, ethnicity, experience, culture. I had to seek it out in the people I befriended and the kind of work I chose to do. But even in the cities, I felt outside the mainstream. Remember, coming to the States was not coming home for me; it was immersion in a different culture.

Unrooted_Childhoods_coverIn Unrooted Childhoods, your co-editor, Faith Eidse, writes about her yearning “for thick gumbo-limbo roots.” Do you sometimes wish your roots were deeper in this country?
I remember being fascinated by a friend’s roots in the Deep South that went back many generations. As my family does not have that history, it was something new and rather foreign to me, an oddity. But it was not something I wanted, as it felt too confining, to be defined by your predecessors that way.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or are you the kind who prefers to have a home base and travel only for pleasure?
Yes yes yes. All of the above. o I have to choose?

You mentioned longing to find other people with the experience of having lived overseas. Have you found that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs in creative fields—or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I tend to fall in love with people, with aspects of people, and am constantly surprised that all my friends don’t automatically feel the same about each other as I feel about each of them! So, yes, I think it’s about that resonance that you mentioned, but it’s a different resonance in each person, a different connection I respond to. In any case, I never knew about TCKs or ATCKs until I began to work on Unrooted Childhoods.

I want to choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here…

Like other ACTKs including myself, you were drawn to the craft of writing as a means of self-expression. Is there a particular piece that you think expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? And where can we read it?
I’m not going to choose among my babies, but anyone who is interested can read my essays in Unrooted Childhoods and Writing Out of Limbo. I also wrote much of the introductory material in both books. There was an essay of mine published recently in Brain, Child Magazine, titled “Leaving,” which many of the readers of this column will surely respond to. And I’ve been posting short blogs on the Children’s Mental Health Network website, to inform readers about issues concerning TCKs.

We both lead workshops for people who want to write about their own lives. Tell us what got you started as a memoir workshop leader.
I’ve always felt torn between creative expression and nurturing others—as though I had to choose, as though the work I’d always done (teaching, counseling, raising children) wasn’t already a combination of the two. When I moved to the Washington, DC area, I developed the memoir and other writing programs I currently offer and am always expanding the menu of choices. The workshops are theme-based, and range in topic from creative change and transformation to intercultural exchange to turning points to writing about place to parenting to… I had a program that I developed once specifically for au pairs, which I’d like to offer again at some point. I keep the workshops small, intimate, supportive. We do not engage in critiquing—most of my writers are beginners in memoir, and need to both give and receive positive feedback to grow into the writers they are becoming. I feel honored by their trust, in bearing witness to their journeys.

It’s wonderful that you enjoy helping others make the most of this genre. Of course a good example of that is Unrooted Childhoods, which is a book of memoirs by people who grew up in multiple countries.
Memoir is a wonderful genre, open to many forms, and helping writers find their voices, their unique expression, their subject, is a joy for me. There are strands in life that one thinks of as separate, and I have figured out a way to braid them together. There is so much self-discovery in the process—I can’t tell you how many times students have told me, “I had no intention of writing about that. And I’m so glad I did.”

Where can people find those workshops?
My regular memoir-writing workshops are offered through Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, outside Washington, DC. I’ve offered other types of reflective writing programs in various community and art centers in the area, and am open to offers elsewhere. I’m happy to share more detailed information upon request.

Thank you, Nina, for sharing the story of your creative life with readers at the Displaced Nation. So, any questions or comments for Nina? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

*All subheds are quotes from Nina’s essay for Brain, Child Magazine, “Leaving” (April 2014).

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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

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And the December 2013 Alices go to … these 2 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up. Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager. Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement to their advantage, as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors December’s two Alice recipients.

Starting with the most recent, and this time with annotations, they are (drumroll…):

1) LAURENCE BROWN, British expat in Indiana and blogger at Lost in the Pond

For his post: “7 British Christmas Songs That Somehow Never Made it Big in the US” 
Posted on: 27 November 2013
Snippet:

Growing up in the United Kingdom, one of the more memorable elements of Christmas was the music that bombarded the airwaves day-in-day-out from November onward. And I’m talking huge hits, many of which shot to number one and continued their popularity some twenty, thirty, perhaps forty years after their release. And yet, as I embark on my sixth Christmas in the United States, it has come to my attention that these same hits—ones I initially assumed were likely just as big in the U.S.—are nowhere to be heard.

Citation:  Frankly, Lawrence, we were so busy lamenting the lack of attention given to Carols from Kings that it hadn’t yet dawned on us that Americans are also missing out on Cliff Richard crooning “Christmas time, mistletoe and wine…” And you have a point: Why would anyone States-side wish to hear yet another rendition of Andy Williams singing “Everybody knows some turkey”—yep, that’s you, Andy!—”and some mistletoe/Help to make the season bright…” when they could break it up with Cliff from time to time? And you are so right, the song’s Christian overtones would not go amiss in this part of the world. (Forgive the aside, but does anyone in Indiana know the words to the Robert-Burns-poem-converted-to-New-Year’s-dirge “Auld Lang Syne”, or is that a lacuna as well? Genuinely curious…) We congratulate you for uncovering some prime through-the-looking-glass territory. It’s jolly difficult to have a proper holiday if the music is missing or doesn’t sound right, as anyone who spends Christmas in Vietnam will tell you—there the bands in the restaurants serenade you with things like: “Have yourself a merry little Crease-mass.” And as Alice herself found out when she joined the Mad Hatter for what she thought would be a proper tea party:

“’Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!’

You know the song, perhaps?”

“I’ve heard something like it,” said Alice.

“It goes on, you know,’ the Hatter continued, “in this way:—

‘Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle—'”

2) JULIE FALCONER, travel writer and social media consultant, Californian based in London, and blogger at A LADY IN LONDON

For her post: Lady’s Expat Holiday Blunders
Posted on: 28 November 2013
Snippet:

I picked [a cracker] up, pulled both ends, popped out the surprise gift and paper crown, and looked up to find everyone at the table staring at me in horror. It was one of a long series of expat moments when I knew that I had done something wrong, and that nobody was going to tell me exactly what.

I gently set the cracker and its contents down, flashed my most sheepish “sorry, I’m a foreigner” smile, and waited. Slowly, each person at the table picked up one end of a cracker, offered the other end to someone else, and played a little game of tug of war. So that’s what I did wrong.

Citation:  Julie, we are sorry to have to inform you of this, but it’s time to crack on with the old cracker techniques because, crackpot as it may sound, crackers have arrived over here in the United States, at Target no less! Though the difference is that you have to show your driver’s license when you buy them because they are technically “firecrackers.” Now that’s crackers, if you ask us! Now, we do hope the English friends who witnessed their rather unfortunate self-cracking episode were a little more tolerant than Alice’s Red Queen (perhaps they thought it fitting in this era of selfies?) and let you keep the surprise gift and paper crown. In which case, you can count yourself a little luckier than our poor sweet heroine:

“You look a little shy; let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice—Mutton; Mutton—Alice.” The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!”

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award?  We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a TCK Talent interview by Lisa Liang!

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Never fear, Santa McNabb is here, with a sack full of Middle Eastern spy thrillers!

Alexander_McNabb_santa

Expat author Alexander McNabb (his own photo)

I’ve always thought of international creative Alexander McNabb as a person who wears many hats, including (but hardly limited to) those of software package salesman, magazine publisher, journalist, radio commentator, literary conference chair, digital communications strategist, and writer of international thrillers. Wait, I almost forgot: talented chef. (In fact, I first discovered him through his now-defunct collective foodie blog, The Fat Expat. Note: The recipes are still available.)

And to this lengthy list I must now add a fur-trimmed Santa hat.* As faithful readers may recall, Alexander visited the Displaced Nation around this time last year, bearing gifts consisting of his first two Middle Eastern spy thrillers: Olives: A Violent Romance and Beirut: An Explosive Thriller.

And here we are again, mid-December, and there he is trudging towards us with a huge sack full of shiny new toys, consisting of the third and final book in what he has branded as his Levant Cycle: Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy.

What is more, he’ll be GIVING AWAY ONE COPY to the reader who makes the best comment below, as well as DISCOUNTING ALL THREE BOOKS on December 21 and 22 (code available only to Dispatch subscribers).

Readers, I have just finished reading Shemlan, and I can heartily endorse it as a PERFECT READ for the holidays: well written, well paced, and as one of his readers put it in her Amazon review “so very le Carré.” And if you’re a person who loves international travel, you will find yourself learning quite a lot about a part of the world that for many remains a black box.

But enough of the hype. The time has come to welcome the Wise Man and let him do the honors of presenting his latest offerings.

* Alexander, if you don’t like what I’ve done to this photo, I’ll remove the beard, but the hat stays!

* * *

McNabb Giveaway CollageTwo olives, and some extra-dry wit

Hello again, Alexander. First I want to congratulate you on producing three thrillers on the Middle East in relatively rapid succession: Olives, Beirut and now Shemlan. When you first started writing Olives, did you have any idea that two more books would follow?
No idea at all.

Can you remind us of the Olives plot?
Olives centers on a character called Paul Stokes, a young British journalist who travels to Jordan to work on a contract magazine project for the Jordanian Ministry of Natural Resources, which is working on privatizing Jordan’s water network. He falls in love with Aisha, his “minder” from the Ministry. Her brother is bidding against the British for the privatization. Gerald Lynch, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer, turns up and blackmails Paul into spying on Aisha’s family.

As I began to envision a second book, I had in mind a sort of interlinear gloss to Olives, which I was going to call (don’t ask me why!) The Olive Line, showing Lynch’s side of the story. In Olives we always see Lynch through Paul’s very jaded eye (rarely do we like those blackmailing us), while there is a whole other story in there of Lynch negotiating with the Israelis and Jordanian intelligence and figuring out how all three intelligence agencies with vested interests in the water resource issue (the Israeli, British and Jordanians) can work on this together.

But then Beirut happened, almost by accident. All my books have started with dreams, which is sort of cool.

Hmmm… I rather like the idea of The Olive Line.
I’m messing around with a screenplay of Olives, which incorporates some of that material, but it’s on the back burner ‘cos I’ve started writing another book. I can’t stop, it’s like a bad habit.

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me! So tell me: has writing three books based around the Middle East, where you’ve lived for 25 years, helped you to process your own experiences in the region, or is it complete escapism?
I’m sure a lot of my experiences have filtered in there in one way or another, but it’s really about escapism. I’ve stolen people, situations, scenery and feelings of course. It’s true that writing makes thieves of us. But I’ve never been shot at or killed any Albanian hookers, let alone slept with gorgeous madams from Rue Monot [a nightlife street in Beirut]. The world is probably a safer place now I’ve got all that stuff out of my system, but there’s more in there pounding on the gates to get out.

Yes, I can definitely sense that writing has brought out your suppressed desires, especially when it comes to the character of Gerald Lynch, that gritty British spy who appears in all three books and has some definite Bond-like traits. For example, he appears to enjoy women, food and drink, and never meets a firearm he doesn’t excel at using.
Bond? Nah. My British spy in Olives was originally a Terry-Thomas kind of character called Nigel Soames, a sort of gingery spook. He’s got a cameo in Shemlan. This character wasn’t working for me, and I had a business meeting with a big Irish businessman from a rural background in Dubai called Gerald who, during the meeting, uttered the immortal line: “I don’t like being called Gerry. I’ve been twenty years escaping Gerry blablabla” (I can’t tell you his surname). I left the meeting punching the air—Gerald Lynch had just come into being. He’s the anti-Bond. He never uses gadgets, and his idea of sophistication is a servee [shared taxi] and a beer in a shady bar… And he has got SUCH a big authority problem…

401px-James_Nesbitt_July_2008

James Nesbitt. Photo credit: Richard Redshaw, Wikimedia Commons.

You said you’re writing a screenplay for Olives: have you got anyone in mind to play Lynch?
I played a game of “Which film stars would play your protagonists?” with some writer friends a couple of years ago and it was then I realized the only person who could play Lynch would be Irish actor James Nesbitt. Nesbitt is very good at portraying the dark, violent side of characters, and since we played that damn game, he and Lynch have morphed.

Gold, frankincense—and now myrhh

Moving on to Shemlan, which I’ve just finished and very much enjoyed: did you find it any easier to write than the other two books? Did you learn things that you were able to apply?
Oh, yes, you learn. When Olives was published, I was forced to come to the realization that not only was there a third person suddenly involved with my relationship with my books, but that I wasn’t actually welcome in the room anymore!

It’s about you—the reader—and the book, if it works, should never reveal any mark of my passing. It’s like hotel rooms. Every day someone is living in that room, frequently someone new each day—but you never, ever want to see any trace of the others. That hair in the bath, that stain on the sheets. Revolting. Books are the same deal—if you ever catch sight of me, I’ve failed—and you’ve been rudely yanked out of the misty springtime mountainside above Beirut back to wherever you are sitting and wanting not to be…

I’ve been amazed at how much people question books as well—I’d never been conscious of it myself, despite being a lifelong bookworm—but people ask me questions like “Why did Lynch do this?” or “How did Paul do that?” or “Why did you kill so and so?” and you realize they have immersed themselves, invested of themselves, in the world you made up. That’s pretty humbling, to tell the truth.

I’ve also learned loads from my editors. You get to come to terms with your quirks and bad habits and eradicate them. I have a list of lazy words and silly phrases I use too much and I do a search for them and find better ways of putting it.

Let’s talk about Shemlan the place, “a Christian village in a Druze area” as you explain in the book. Can you translate that for the uninitiated?
Shemlan is a village in the Chouf mountains above Beirut. Like many other villages in this area, it is inhabited by Druze families, which is a form of Islam that diverged from the mainstream centuries ago, but also Christian families and perhaps Sunni Muslims. Lebanon is a patchwork of faiths and sectarianism is really part of the national DNA—to the point where even the roles of the national leadership are assigned on sectarian lines.

Why did you name the novel after that place?
Purely because the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) was there—the “British spy school.” It really existed! (I was originally going to call the book “Hartmoor”, but heard of Sarah Ferguson’s plan to release a novel of that name and thought I’d be best getting out of her way.) It’s also the only one of the three novels with decent search engine results built in—I own “Shemlan” on Amazon, for instance, when you search for it. Crespo owns “olives”—I’ll never forgive them for it!

In the latter part of the book, we travel with Lynch to Estonia.
Estonia sort of just happened because of the man Lynch is chasing: Dmitri, a Russian military intelligence operative turned modern-day hood. I made him Estonian, and then I went there on holiday and fell in love, love, love. Tallinn is magnificent, fun, sexy and gloriously historic.

A window on the Middle East

The events you portray in Shemlan are extremely violent. The Middle East is of course known for its violence, and it’s said that all major Western empires have become unraveled there. Why do you think the area brings out the worst in everyone so to speak?
It’s Lebanon’s tragedy to possess remarkable beauty and wealth and constantly squander both. The wealth is agricultural as well as creative and intellectual. I think it’s the washing up of the world’s revealed religions, the clash of interests over resources such as water and, of course, the thorny issue of Israel (and the side effects of America’s involvement in that country and the region as a whole). Add corrupt, lazy governance, some good old-fashioned despotism and a legacy of home-made post-colonial lines slashed on a map and you’ve got yourself a nice potboiler! I’m amazed I seem to be one of very few people setting novels in an area as fascinating, complex and just plain screwed up, to be honest!

Your readers who are based in the Middle East, including some natives, have praised your novels for getting the political details right. Did you do a lot of research?
There’s a lot of research there, but not so much into the politics, which is something that’s just a part of everyday life and conversation in these parts, but certainly into whizzbangs [firearms]. The water crisis that drives Olives is very real, for instance—as are the Oka missile warheads in Beirut—the Soviets actually “lost” 180-odd of the blasted things—and so is MECAS (the “spy school” in Shemlan). You can land a helicopter with no engine, kill someone using champagne and drive a two-tonne truck across the Baltic Sea—all of these are true and the result of quite a bit of research. I do try hard not to let that show too much—I’ve always hated books where the hero hefts his 8.2 calibre Poon and Nargle semi-automatic gas-powered carbine with the double hefted shoulder randomizers—you know, where the research is paraded with a pub bore’s infinite, dreary precision.

Leaving aside the whizzbangs for a moment (I’m way out of my depth), I’d like to move on to the love affair between the British diplomat, Jason Hartmoor, and a Lebanese woman from Shemlan, Mai. When Jason leaves Beirut because of the Civil War, he also leaves Mai, to his everlasting regret. He writes her letters, in which he pours out his heart out, including all his work frustrations. Believable?
There are two romances in the books, that between Paul and Aisha and then that between Jason and Mai. In Jason’s case, it’s as much about frustration with his subsequent marriage to a fellow Brit, Lesley, which is just horrible. And it’s about his yearning, his sense of loss at having left Beirut and being in the situation where he can’t go back. Mai understands him, is sympathetic and an intelligent correspondent who is easy to talk to, where Jason’s own wife is contemptuous of him. But —of course—as we find out, things are never quite as simple as they seem…

Words to the wise on self-publishing

I noticed on your blog that you decided to end your relationship with your agent because of his feedback on this book (or the lack). Can you say a little more about that?
He didn’t feel he could “shop” the book to publishers and I thought that was pretty useless. I mean, not even trying. What’s the point of having an agent who basically says he can’t be bothered to try and sell your book? If he doesn’t feel he can sell a thriller set in the Middle East, then we’re never really going to get on, are we?

I know you worked in editing. What is your editorial process?
I always do a number of edits, both by myself and in response to beta readers and then, of course, it goes for professional editing. In the case of Shemlan, Gary Smailes at Bubblecow did the edit and a fine job he did, too. He also cut 30,000 words from the manuscript, which left some reconstruction work to do, but he had made a valid structural point and I accepted that yes, I had to rebuild the West Wing if the house was going to work. My best beta reader (now everyone else is going to hate me) is a chap called Bob Studholme, who is actually an English lecturer in a university here. He’s very good at “yep, that works; nope, that doesn’t gel” feedback, which is what you really want. And Katie Stine proofread the edited MS and found no less than 230 flubs still in there. She’s a fantastic proofreader. And, yes, it takes all that to polish a manuscript if you’re going to take publishing seriously!

Now that you’ve finished The Levant Cycle, what’s next? And can we look forward to your return here next December?
I’ve just started on a new book that’s set in the UK, about a woman who can’t remember what happened to her when she was working as a teacher in Iraq (that might change to Southern Lebanon). She comes back to the UK to teach here in an institute for talented kids and finds her life starts to unravel as the amnesia fades. Her friend is a journalist who sets out to find out what happened to her before she loses her mind completely. I might junk it after a few chapters and move on to something else, but that’s the current plan and I’m enjoying writing it so far!

10 Questions for Alexander McNabb

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: I’ve just finished re-reading The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson. Oh me oh my but that book is glorious. Stark, brooding and oppressive—but glorious!
2. Favorite literary genre: I don’t really have one. I’ll read almost anything – except dystopian paranormal chick lit with vampires. I avoid that.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I tend to watch films on the plane and never at any other time. 99% of my reading now is on my Kindle.
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read, and why: Ulysses by James Joyce. Because it would cause him great pain and therefore gladden me.
5. Favorite books as a child: Oh dear. Confesses. I loved Enid Blyton‘s Famous Five books. By the time I was eight I’d moved on to The Bridge over The River Kwai. I was a terrible bookworm. I once got a detention for reading Scottish author Alister Maclean‘s The Way to Dusty Death during an English class. It had a lurid cover and I hadn’t even bothered to cover it in brown paper. I recently re-read the book, incidentally, and was angered at how utterly crap it was. Awful, awful stuff. Proper shocked at just how bad a piece of writing had become a big bestseller back then.
6. Favorite heroine/hero: I always liked Smilla in the Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and Kristen Scott Thomas in the film version of The English Patient… For heroes: Bertie Wooster.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Lawrence Durrell. He was an atrocious human but a writer of genius. And an expat, though he preferred to be thought of as cosmopolitan.
8. Your reading habits: Kindle all the way. Capricious. I’ll read a good book anywhere. Waiting rooms, toilets, bed, hanging upside down from a tree, I don’t care.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Olives, without a doubt! As mentioned, I’m working on it…
10. The book you plan to read next: There are several lined up on my Kindle and it could be any one of them—or something I stumble across on Amazon. That’s the wonderful thing about Kindles—the next book is just a click away!

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Thanks so much, Santa McNabb. Does anyone have any COMMENTS for this right jolly old elf? Hurry, before these special offers go up the chimney! The winner of Shemlan (for best comment) will be announced in our January 3rd Displaced Dispatch. And the CODE FOR ALL THREE BOOKS will be in the Dispatch published this weekend, on Saturday the 21st, GOOD FOR JUST TWO DAYS: DEC 21 & 22!!!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some last-minute suggestions for expat and international travel e-books to buy for the holidays, including, of course, this one!

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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An expat in America’s thoughts on Boxing Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 by Awindram

For a Third Culture Kid, birthday candles are easier to come by than the Christmas kind

Tiffany Xmas Collage_dropshadowBorn to German parents in the United States who later moved the family to the UAE, Tiffany Lake-Haeuser learned very quickly that unlike birthday candles, Christmas candles only happen if you’re living in the right place. She joins us today to tell her tales of Christmas Past, in New York and the UAE, and Present — in Germany. (Hmmm…what will Christmas Future will hold for Tiffany — the world having already been her oyster in so many ways?!)

— ML Awanohara

There have been two events I have always looked forward to since I was a little girl, my birthday and Christmas. Luckily for me, those are perfectly spaced so that in the summer I have my birthday and in the winter I have Christmas.

My fascination for the two events was different, though. My birthday was special to my family, my friends and me; the decorations were left up for a day and it ended almost as quickly as it started. I generated most of the excitement, with others joining in.

Through my travels I have come to learn that this is not the case with Christmas — which is a group affair. At least half the Christmas spirit depends on the people around you and the widespread anticipation of that one magical night or morning.

Although I am German, I was born in New York City, and that’s where I remember having my first Christmases.

New York’s love affair with Christmas

I think no city does Christmas decorations like NYC.

My family lived in Battery Park City, and I remember when I was just a little kid going to the Winter Garden Atrium in the World Financial Center, and seeing that huge light switch that turned on the lights on the an enormous Christmas tree.

Later, when I was a little bigger, I recall walking the city streets in my coat and mittens and hat and feeling in every bone of my body that Christmas was coming.

Of course my German family celebrated a little different than the Americans. In Germany we celebrate on Christmas Eve; families get all dressed up and have a nice dinner before opening all their presents.

But when I was younger I didn’t notice this difference. It was only much later, back in Germany, when our American friends came to spend Christmas with us, that I noticed this (and other) differences.

Discovering Weihnachts

Now that I’m back living in Frankfurt, I keep thinking how much more old fashioned and traditional Christmas seems in Germany compared to in America. We take pride, for instance, in our hand-crafted ornaments and their old-style workmanship — the kind you can buy at our Weihnachtsmarkt. Not for us the fantasy luxury windows of Bergdorf’s.

Christmas in Germany is tied very closely to religion. We don’t say “Happy Holidays” here. And we emphasize nativity scenes in our decorations. My family has its own little crèche — and on Christmas Day my older sister and I get to add Baby Jesus.

But probably the most striking difference of all is that we don’t really have Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas (“Nikolaus”) visits German children on December 6: we put our boots in front of our door, and they get filled overnight. This tradition commemorates when Nikolaus gave a cold, homeless man his coat.

It’s true we do have Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus), but the concept came from outside and is part of popular German culture. Das Christkind (Christ Child, or Baby Jesus) visits on Christmas Eve with presents.

…but after an Emirati interlude

Before repatriating to Germany for the second time, my family lived in Abu Dhabi. I was 13 then and for me, Christmas temporarily lost part of its appeal. There was no cold, no snow and barely any Christmas trees.

Believe me when I say, you don’t understand the importance of a Christmas tree until you don’t have it anymore. Instead, we had a little metal frame that was supposed to represent a Christmas tree.

The cold I used to have a love-hate relationship with in New York (Germany, too) was now non-existent; and though I didn’t exactly miss it, it did take away a big part of the anticipation of the holiday — of the winter solstice.

With very few people around you getting excited for Christmas, it was much harder to even remember that Christmas was nearing. It snuck up on you and then disappeared, much like birthdays — but without any of the accompanying fanfare.

* * *

Living in Germany had renewed my awareness of Christmas traditions and the sense of community they bring. Nowadays I actually enjoy the build-up to Christmas as much as Christmas Eve or the day itself — the markets and the decorations. For me, this is what makes this age-old holiday so much more than a time to give presents.

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Readers, especially those who are Third Culture Kids, or TCKs, can you relate to Tiffany Lake-Haeuser’s competing visions of Christmas? She would love to hear your comments. You can also follow Tiffany on her blog, Girl on the Run.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s displaced Q, on stogy holiday foods.

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 from top left): Candles in Tiffany Lake-Haeuser’s German home, Christmas 2011; birthday candles (Morguefiles); the crèche in Tiffany’s home, Christmas 2011; Bergdorf Goodman Christmas windows, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons; the rare Christmas tree in Abu Dhabi, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons; the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (Morguefiles); and Tiffany in front of the tree in her German home, Christmas 2011.

DEAR MARY-SUE: 6 jolly holiday tips for expats (& other global wanderers)

Image courtesy of bulldogza / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of bulldogza / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

Woo! That’s Thanksgiving over and I am still full to busting. Oh readers, your Mary-Sue has been one greedy piggy, she is one stuffed turkey — but it was all worth it as she had a lovely time with her family. Yes, she is one mucho happy Mary-Sue.

My oldest child and middle child were back home for the holidays and so I got to feed them and my three lovely grandkids — bliss. Even my youngest was able to extract himself from World of Warcraft and his basement room to join us for dinner.

We had a great time watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on NBC. Other than the Kermit balloon, my favorite part was watching those delightful Kidz Bop Kids sing on a float. Don’t you just want to feed their adorable little faces full of cranberries and mashed potatoes? I do!

And then there’s Matt Lauer hosting the parade. Mmmmh, mmmmh. I know what I am giving thanks for this year. . . Matt’s dreamy eyes. After watching SkyFall this weekend, I think that when Daniel Craig hangs up his tux, Matt’s the guy to replace him. Not only has he got the looks, but you believe he can kill a man. . . with his bare arms!

Anyhoo, enough with my wild thoughts and on with all your problems!

Based on the thousands of similar questions I receive this time of year, this time I am doing something a little different, spicing things up, by issuing a list of six tips for any of you expats and others out there who find the holidays befuddling.

Here we go! Mary-Sue’s top 6 tips for having an amazing holiday!

1) FOOD — BE CREATIVE WITH YOUR LEFTOVERS

Dear Mary-Sue,

We are still trying to work out what to do with all this leftover turkey from our first American Thanksgiving. We’ve got turkey sandwiches coming out of our ears at this point. Can you think of anything more creative?

— A Swedish family in New England

Yes, nothing gets you out of the holiday spirit than eating dreary leftovers. Try and think outside the box. Why just have the leftovers for food? That’s the sort of dreary thinking of a Rachel Ray. Sandwiches, curry, it’s all boring. What you could do with your leftover turkey is use it to make an arts and craft project. It’s a great way of getting the kids or grandkids involved in the holidays, too. Think of the turkey carcass as your canvas and really go to town on it with some acrylic paint. Or why not take that turkey and make a seasonal ottoman with it — the perfect way to put your feet up while watching Hallmark Christmas movies!  

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2) WEATHER — HOW TO GET THAT CHRISTMAS FEELING

Dear Mary-Sue,

I’m finally in the Northern hemisphere for Christmas, and it doesn’t feel much different than this time of year in Perth, where I come from in Australia. Temps have yet to get below freezing; and as I’m sure you know, we had a hurricane in late October.

Sigh! Will I ever be able to have a white Christmas?

– Aussie in Baltimore

Living in Oklahoma, I can relate to this. To really get that fun, cosy Christmas feeling when temps aren’t as low as you would like, do what I do: wear tops that expose your midriff. When you get a kidney chill, that’s when you know you’re doing things right.

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3) ROMANCE — FOR A TRULY GREAT HOLIDAY, KEEP THINGS ROMANTIC

Dear Mary-Sue,

My Japanese girlfriend keeps hinting that I should give her a ring on Christmas Eve. By that I don’t mean a telephone call but a diamond. I told her I’m not Japanese (they have a thing about getting engaged at the end of the year), but she says Christmas engagements are also popular in the West.

Actually I always thought of her as my iki jibiki (walking dictionary — Japanese is an extremely difficult language), but if I do decide to get engaged, should I be using their cultural norms? What’s wrong with her learning ours?

Then again, there is the Cold Stone Christmas Cake I could get…

– American in Tokyo

Ah, nothing like getting pressurized into a proposal — that always works out for all involved. I like this Cold Stone Christmas cake idea, but I suggest you do an old-school version of it. I know that it is traditional in England to hide coins in the Christmas pudding and then a child eating the pudding either chokes to death, cuts open their mouth or ends up a penny richer. I suggest you do something like that and hide the ring deep into a seasonal, suet-y pudding. If she chokes, breaks any teeth or cuts her mouth, then you’ll know it wasn’t meant to be, and can renege on the proposal.

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4) GIFTS — DON’T BE A SCROOGE McDUCK

Dear Mary-Sue,

I was looking forward to being in the US instead of the UK for Christmas as I thought it might mean buying fewer gifts for friends and relations, but now I learn that everyone expects a hand-out in New York City, from the doorman to the garage guy to the hairdresser. Who knew? And how much do I owe all these people I don’t know?

– Newbie British expat in New York

You can give them an actual gift instead of money. I find signed copies of my book (“Treat Every Day Like It Counts. . .because it does” by Mary-Sue Wallace, published by PublishAmerica) and a signed, framed photograph does the trick. Don’t have your own book published? That’s okay, you can just give them a copy of mine.  

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5) TRAVEL — USE THE HOLIDAYS TO VISIT FAMILY

Dear Mary-Sue,

We are expats in Singapore, and my husband thinks we should use the week off between Christmas and New Year’s to travel within Southeast Asia, instead of going home to the United States to be with our families. But isn’t that what Christmas is about — family? And how can we possibly celebrate Christmas in a non-Christian country?

– The better half of an American exec in Singapore (we’re originally from Georgia)

Actually, it’s about baby Jesus, not your family in Georgia. However, I begrudgingly take your point that it’s nice to be with your family when thinking about baby J.C. You can travel to your family over the holidays, not away from them.  

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6) HOLIDAY ENTERTAINMENT — WHEREVER YOU ARE IN THE WORLD, CONSULT YOUR LOCAL LISTINGS

Dear Mary-Sue,

I’m an American in the UK and would like to experience the best of Christmas/New Year’s traditions here. Besides Scrooge, what are they?

– Linda of London

I live in Tulsa, OK. Do they not have Time Out in London? They probably have some tradition with those Beefeaters at the Tower. Yeah, they eat beef at the Tower every Christmas Eve. It’s a very quaint ceremony — be sure to go to it — or, whatever.

* * *

That’s your dose of Mary-Sue for November. God bless y’all!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad, a chap who is ever-thankful for his expat lifestyle.

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CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Dickens — A Christmas Carol


As no points are being handed out for originality (at least, I hope not) this particular edition of Classic Displaced Writing will be yuletide-themed and our text of choice is going to be Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

I know what a surprise, right?

I am working on the assumption that I needn’t relay to you the basic plot of A Christmas Carol. We’re all familiar with it. Even those who have never picked up the book (and shame on you if you’ve never read it — no matter how good The Muppet Christmas Carol is) will be familiar with the story beats of A Christmas Carol. It has been retold, inverted, and reemphasized since its original publication (168 years ago yesterday, if you are interested). It resonates beyond the Victorian canon, becoming more like a modern myth or fairy tale.

But other than reminding us all of the yuletide season, why feature A Christmas Carol on what is after all an expat-focused blog? Ebenezer Scrooge is most certainly not a character from expat literature, he doesn’t head off to Tuscany to harvest lemons / grow olives / farm terrapins. There’s no cultural misunderstandings with the locals as Scrooge enjoys his year in Provence. Indeed, other than a brief excursion into the English countryside with the Ghost of Christmas Past, this is tale that is contained in the City of London, not venturing beyond the square mile.

So is it just the mulled wine talking or do I have one eye on SEO that leads me to featuring A Christmas Carol in this irregular series? Well, while I may be guilty on both counts there, in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge we have a man who is displaced. Not geographically, but emotionally. The story of his redemption is the story of his realignment with humanity. This is the man we are first introduced to at the beginning of the novella. A man whom beggars, and children, and dogs avoid. He is presented not as a man but as an elemental force, a malevolent wind that blows through Cornhill.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.

By contrast, at the end of A Christmas Carol we have the iconic scene of the reformed miser who with a new-found joie de vivre leaps out of his bed, throws open his window and commands of a passing boy to tell him what day it is. One of the most noticeable aspects of the reformed Scrooge is his ability to now joke with others and find humor in life. It is with laughter and good humor that we show that we are not displaced but are integrated with others. “There is nothing in the world,” writes Dickens, “so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.”

To return to the scene of the reformed Scrooge awakening on Christmas morning, Alistair Sim with his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 film adaptation does an excellent job of depicting the delirious glee and humor of the reformed Scrooge. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the last action we see of Scrooge is him playing a practical joke on Bob Cratchit.

But he was early at the office next morning. Oh, he was early there. If he could only be there first, and catch Bob Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.

And he did it; yes, he did! The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Scrooge sat with his door wide open, that he see him come into the Tank.

His hat was off, before he opened the door; his comforter too. He was on his stool in a jiffy; driving away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o’clock.

“Hallo!” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”

“I am very sorry, sir,” said Bob. “I am behind my time.”

“You are?” repeated Scrooge. “Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.”

“It’s only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. “It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again; “and therefore I am about to raise your salary!”

Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post by our monthly third-culture kid columnist, Charlotte Day.

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