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

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Photo credit: A Windram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Business or pleasure?”

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

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

I am going home. I am leaving home.

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

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TCK TALENT: Wendy Laura Belcher, best-selling author, memoirist, and distinguished scholar of her adopted cultures

wendy-l-belcher-tck-collageWelcome to the third installment of “TCK Talent,” Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids who work in creative fields. As some readers may recall, Lisa—a Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent—has written and performed a one-woman show about being a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. It debuted in LA in the spring, and I had the pleasure of seeing it during its too-short run in New York City last month. It was stupendous!

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers, and thanks, ML, for that vote of confidence in my work. But it cannot compare to the output of today’s guest, a woman of extraordinary talents. Wendy Laura Belcher is a professor of African literature at Princeton University as well as a published memoirist, produced playwright, popular workshop leader, and author of the best-selling Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.

Wendy grew up in Ethiopia, Ghana, and the USA, and has been a writer since childhood. Her most recent book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought on the Making of an English Author, is a finalist for the African Studies Association’s 2013 Ogot Award (to be announced in Baltimore at the end of next month).

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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Wendy, and thank you for joining us. I’ve known you for years and yet don’t know as much as I should about your TCK childhood, so am happy to take this opportunity to learn more. You are the daughter of an American dad and a Canadian mom. What’s the story behind why your family moved to Ethiopia and Ghana?
My father is a physician and my mother always loved to travel, so she convinced him to move to Ethiopia. Her idea was that he would teach and do clinical work at a public health college in Gondar, and she would be the college librarian. My first memories are of Ethiopia. I moved back to the US when I was 14. But my specific geographical trajectory is as follows: Philadelphia (birth), Boston, Seattle, Gondar (Ethiopia), Seattle, Accra (Ghana), Seattle, and South Hadley (Massachusetts). After that I lived in Tamale (Ghana). Then back to Washington DC, Accra, Los Angeles, Princeton, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and now Princeton again.

That’s an impressively peripatetic life! When and where were you happiest while growing up?
As a child, I loved Ethiopia the best, perhaps because it was the first place my family went and perhaps because, as a child who loved reading, it seemed like a magical place. There was a castle in my backyard as well as oxen threshing grain like in the Bible. On the throne was a descendant of King David. From a child’s perspective, it was like living in a book.

How did you find your first “repatriation” to the United States, at age 14?
I never got used to Seattle, it was very parochial in the 1970s when we moved there, and the weather was too gloomy for someone who had spent a significant part of her childhood in the tropics.

At home, but without a role, in Africa

Has your relationship to Africa evolved as an adult?
As an adult, I settled in the US and not Africa, returning to Africa only a few times until 1997, after which I started going every third year or so. Since 2009, I’ve gone every year to Ethiopia. I thought I might settle in Africa, but as an adult my relationship with Africa was more vexed.

That is, what could my role in Africa be as a white American woman?

I wasn’t particularly interested in “helping,” as it seemed to me that Africans were perfectly adept at solving their own problems and only didn’t do so because of all the “help” they received from the West.

But also, I was in a bind. In the US I often didn’t feel a strong sense of calling in my work, but I felt more satisfied emotionally. In Africa, I felt a strong sense of calling in my work, but I was often lonely.

The problem for me as an adult in Africa as a single woman without children was the lack of female friendships. In the 1980s and 1990s I found it difficult to find in Africa other career women like myself with whom I would have something in common.

One of the reasons I’ve found it easier to return to Ethiopia and have done so regularly in the recent past is that I’ve found some good Ethiopian female friends.

Where do you think of as “home” these days?
My mother always thought that my father never really had a sense of home as a particular place, because he had an identical twin brother. It was the presence of one other human being from the beginning that meant home was someone to him, not somewhere. He didn’t really know what loneliness was, she thought.

I may be somewhat similar albeit for different reasons. I don’t think of anywhere as home.

I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and loved many things about it, but I mostly think of it as a place where my network of affection is. It isn’t the place so much but the people who make it a kind of home.

At the same time, I still have good friends in Seattle, and my family of origin is still there, so it is also a kind of home.

Are you like many TCKs in finding yourself drawn to people of similar backgrounds?
Almost all my friends are people who live straddling some boundary: either geographically, being from elsewhere or spending significant time outside the US, or racially (growing up as minorities). I am almost never in a room with people who mostly look like me.

Writing calls from an early age

I often wonder if TCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their itinerant childhoods. Did your TCK upbringing influence a) your desire to be a writer and b) what you wrote about?
Growing up in Africa, I was surrounded by literary culture. In Ethiopia, a country with a 3,000-year-old written civilization, people read illuminated manuscripts on sheepskin bound with wood. In Ghana, hand-written epigrams adorned most vehicles, and my father’s Ghanaian colleagues traded bon mots in Latin. At school, I would pick a promising library shelf and work my way through it from left to right. I wrote my first novel when I was nine, titled Shipwrecked at Silver Lagoon. I had set myself the task of writing the best title for a book ever and, after I came up with this, decided it was too good to go unwritten. It was about two English girls in the 17th century who, after their ship is wrecked off the American coast, go on to discover what happened to the disappeared colony of Roanoke: it had moved into an underground, underwater kingdom. The book ground to a halt on page 40, perhaps because, as I tried to articulate issues that were all too real to me (the loss of home and the entry into the hybrid colonial world), my imagination foundered on the demands of the adventure form.

After that, I wrote for my middle school and high school newspapers, where I was the editor.

I was shy, partly due to all the moving and not being sure how to fit in, so I spent most of my time reading. Reading allowed me to immerse myself in a world where I could watch and not be watched (or judged). It also allowed me to develop skills in “reading” people and situations, which is essential to surviving so much moving.

HoneyfromtheLion_coverTell us what drew you to write your memoir, Honey from the Lion: An African Journey, when you were in your twenties.
I had enough credits to graduate from Mount Holyoke in three years so I spent my junior year back in Ghana. While working for a nonprofit organization that was spreading literacy and translating the Bible into local languages, I spent a weekend in a village with an Irish Bible translator. A series of events transpired, the impact of which was so powerful I decided I wanted to write about it. It was a gift: the story was so fascinating that I didn’t worry about writing it. Even if I wrote it poorly, I thought people would find it compelling.

Do you ever go back to the memoir now, and if so, does it resonate very differently due to the passage of time?
I can’t bring myself to read the book now. It seems like a different self wrote itsomeone who was more religious for one.

Congratulations on Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson being selected as a finalist for a prestigious academic award. Please tell us what inspired you to write the book.
Belcher_AbyssiniaSamJohnson_coverIn 2002, I was talking with an Ethiopian friend about reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, an eighteenth-century fiction he wrote about an Ethiopian prince. This Ethiopian friend surprised me by saying that he had read the book and quite liked it. When I asked him why, he said the book was “very Ethiopian.” I started to correct him, but then I began to wonder if he could be right, if a book written by a European could be Africanin particular, if it could be animated by African discourse. It’s my hope that my book will be convince others about the importance of African thought to the European canon.

From offering TCK courses at Princeton to helping junior faculty

At Princeton you teach courses that I wish had been offered when I was in college, like “Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods” and “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models.” You also teach workshops around the world to aid faculty in publishing academic articles. Please tell us the countries in which you’ve taught the workshops.
The workshops have taken place in Norway, Sudan, Malawi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Canada and all over the USA.

What led you to teach academics about how to write for publication?

belcher_writingyourjournalarticle_coverI did two master’s degrees in the early nineties and I struggled in writing my classroom papers. What did these professors want and why did some papers succeed and others didn’t? I decided not to go on for a doctorate and when people asked me why, I said I just didn’t feel like I got the hang of being a graduate student and in particular about how to write in graduate school.

To my surprise, I found that most other graduate students felt the same way and were as confused and uncertain as I had been. Then UCLA Extension asked me to teach a writing class. I had always sworn I would never teach, but I think you grow when you do things you are terrified of, so I agreed and found that three of my first six students were academics looking for help with their writing.

UCLA Extension agreed to let me restructure the next class around writing for academic journals. The restructured class was a massive success and changed my life.

Within a few years I was teaching “Writing and Publishing the Academic Article” twice a year at UCLA to graduate students, where the class was in great demand, as well as at other universities and institutes around the world. I wrote the workbook Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success for people who could not take the workshop.

Turning back to your writing, can you tell us what you are working on at present?
I have several writing and translation projects; here are the top three:
1) The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Translation of the Earliest African Biography of an African Woman. Thirty years after the death of a revered African religious leader who led a successful nonviolent movement against European incursions, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) wrote this vivid book, full of dialogue and drama. The original text, which was written in 1672 by Africans for Africans in an African language, is unknown in the United States (Walatta Petros does not have a Wikipedia entry, for instance). Thanks to the Fulbright US Scholar Award that I held during my third year at Princeton, I was able to spend ten months in Ethiopia devoting myself to archival research. I worked on the translation with Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar and translator of Ge’ez. We believe it will electrify the fields of early modern and gender studies.
2) The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an Ethiopian Idea. Those familiar with the sixth century BCE biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon may be surprised to hear that there is also an Ethiopian version, variations on which have in fact circulated for centuries, far beyond the Ethiopian highlands. According to the medieval text Kəbrä Nägäśt, the biblical Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman—the wisest, the wealthiest, and the most powerful woman in the world. Tricked by Solomon into sleeping with him, she gives birth to their biracial son, who later takes the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia forever. My book traces how the Ethiopian tale came about and the impact it had on not just literature but the world. The emergence of the religion of Rastafari is one of its most far-reaching effects…
3) A Wardrobe of Selves: The Literature of Transnational Childhoods. Based on my life experiences, observing those of my TCK friends, and reading lots of memoirs, I am thinking of writing a book about memoirs by those who have spent their childhood crossing boundaries (in terms of culture, nation, state, language, gender, school, etc.). It would attend to how the narrators like Barack Obama, John McCain, Edward Said, Eva Hoffman, Gloria Anzaldua, Diana Abu-Jaber, Alice Kaplan, Gene Luen Yang, and Mohsin Hamid construct meaningful identities through narrative. These writers—usually considered separately, as part of American ethnic literatures like Arab American, African American, Asian American, or Latino—often negotiate the intricacies of identity in similar ways and should be considered together. That is, this would be a broad comparative project on diasporic memoir in the context of American ethnic literature.

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Thanks, Wendy! You are so prolific, it’s an inspiration to all of us creatives! If we could accomplish just a fraction of what you’ve already done, what a life we’d be leading! Readers, any questions or comments for the amazing Wendy? Please leave them below. And…see you next month!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we hear from an international traveler who has started up her own business in New York City, catering to expats.

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: Wendy Belcher; Wendy with her brother in front of a castle in Gondar, Ethiopia; detail from the cover of Wendy’s latest book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

6 Alice-in-Wonderland themes for creatives abroad to explore in their works

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

Call us zany, but when we first started this site two years ago, someone (no, not me!) had the bright idea of picking a literary or historical figure and using that person as a source of inspiration for a month-long series of posts.

June 2011, for instance, was Alice in Wonderland month; July, Pocahontas month; September, Robert Persig month; and October, Julia Child month.

You’ll never guess which one of these themes proved most popular: why, Alice of course! What international traveler or expat hasn’t experienced the sensation of stepping through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole? Like Alice, those of us who venture beyond borders must furiously navigate the new environments we uncover. Also like Alice, we are prone to feeling lonely and a bit sorry for ourselves on occasion.

Most expats can also relate to Alice’s gradual loss of self-identity. As she confesses to the Caterpillar:

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you see.”

In today’s post, I propose to revisit Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece for themes that are worth exploring from a creative angle. Here are six that I find myself thinking about a lot, when trying to parse my own expat experience (an American, I lived first in England and then in Japan). WARNING: Tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat!

1) The old adage about trusting your gut doesn’t always work when it comes to your actual gut.

ALICE PASSAGE: In Alice’s Wonderland, a jar labeled “Orange Marmalade” is not actually a jar full of orange marmalade.
APPLIES TO: Expats in Japan, who are always biting into pastries in the hopes of tasting chocolate and tasting azuki bean paste instead. Indeed, should you ever be in need of an Alice-like culinary experience, Japan has got to be your place. There’s the wasabi Kit Kats, of course. And how about the time when Carole Hallett Mobbs’s friend in Tokyo bought a sandwich with a lumpy filling? As Carole reported in her guest post for us:

A gentle squeeze sent a whole cooked potato shooting across the room.

ANOTHER ALICE FOOD PASSAGE: Fearing the contents of the “Drink Me” bottle may be poison, Alice is pleasantly surprised:

it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.

APPLIES TO: International travelers who venture to remote spots and are pleasantly surprised by the local cuisine. Actually, you don’t even have to be somewhere remote. Tokyo was where I developed a fondness for hirezake (hot sake with fugu fin) — talk about poisonous cocktails! And travel author Janet Brown told us she dreaded trying fried grasshoppers while living in Bangkok,  only to find she liked them as much as popcorn! But even dedicated locavores, such as Jessica Festa, can have an Alice moment from time to time. I’ll never forget the story about her first experience eating cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador. As she tells it, she saw it on the grill and thought it resembled her childhood pet, Joey. Repressing her better instinct not to eat anything she grew up playing with, she took a bite and said: “Holy crap, this is delicious!”

2) Communications with others and in general are far from satisfactory.

ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice is “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was, saying good-bye to her feet, she cries “Curiouser and curiouser!”—and then feels surprised that “for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.”
APPLIES TO: Native English speakers living in a non-English speaking country. Their English inevitably morphs into the version the locals speak; spelling, too, deteriorates, and doesn’t come back.

ANOTHER ALICE MISCOMMUNICATION: Alice repeatedly offends the creatures in Wonderland without even trying.
APPLIES TO: Anyone who finds themselves “tone deaf” in Bangkok, as the aforementioned Janet Brown once did. (NOTE: Applies equally to those struggling to learn other Asian tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.) As she explained in her interview with us:

The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck.

3) Committing to another country can sometimes mean altering your body size (or wishing you could).

ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice first lands in Wonderland, she finds herself too large for the doorway out of the dark hall into the beautiful garden.
APPLIES TO: Anyone over 5’5″ living in Japan, Korea or Southeast Asia, who has to keep their head down when entering traditional dwellings for fear of getting a concussion.

ANOTHER BODY-CHANGING ALICE MOMENT: At the instruction of the Caterpillar, Alice tries eating portions of mushroom he’s been sitting on, which make her grow and shrink.
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who find themselves going back and forth between the obesity epidemic in United States and almost anywhere else in the world, where people simply eat less and walk more. While living in Tokyo I soon reached my lowest body weight ever without even trying: all those meals of clear soup, rice, veggies and fish. Now that I’m back in America, I weigh ten pounds more, while in England I was somewhere in between…

4) People in other countries have their own relationships with Father Time.

ALICE PASSAGE: Alice experiences the full gamut: from the White Rabbit dashing about with his stopwatch for fear of being late for an important date, to the slackers at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, who waste time “asking riddles that have no answers.”
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who’ve had the chance to live in Southern Europe, South America, or other places notorious for their laid-back approach to time, as well as in Germany, Switzerland or Japan where people pride themselves on their punctuality. Compared to Japan, I found England a Southern European country. When I was living in Tokyo and visiting the UK during summers, I was always late to appointments because I’d forgotten that trains don’t run on time (or at all). And most of the time, I had their sympathies. Whereas in Japan, I swear a White Rabbit must be in charge of public transport. You can set your watch by the trains! No excuses for lateness…

5) The laws and practices of another land can take some getting used to.

ALICE PASSAGE:

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

APPLIES TO: Anyone who displaces themselves to a country with a radically different life philosophy. For instance, as an American I found that one of the biggest challenges of getting used to England and then Japan, the two small-island nations where I lived, was that I could never quite accept the natives’ stoicism. As I wrote in the first of my “Lessons from Two Small Islands” posts:

Where the citizens of each of these countries saw grace, strength, endurance, and perseverance, I saw passivity, masochism, fatalism and pain. “Why is everyone bowing so readily to their fates?” I would ask myself repeatedly.

And, though I never committed an act of “queue rage” while standing in line at the post office in the English town where I lived, I came pretty close—especially when watching others who’d come in after I did get served before me.

On those occasions, I felt like crying out: why don’t we try a serpentine line instead?

And what about all those expats living in countries with byzantine immigration laws? Apparently, Alice’s own home, the UK, is among the worst. As we learned from interviewing New Zealander Vicki Jeffels, it essentially tells any wannabe immigrants: “Off with your heads!” Even if you’re from the Commonwealth! Still, at least they no longer discriminate… (Jeffels sorted out her visa problems in the end but has since repatriated.)

6) “Pool of tears” moments eventually build resilience.

ALICE PASSAGES: Alice goes from “shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep” to holding her own in Wonderland (see #5).
APPLIES TO: Well, really all of us. In the previous incarnation of the Displaced Nation, I had a Random Nomads column in which I would interview expats or veterans of international travel and ask them to describe their “most displaced” and “least displaced” moments. Many had difficulty with the former request, I guess because they felt uncomfortable going down the Rabbit Hole and examining their hearts more closely. The American Brian MacDuckston, though, was the rare exception. His “pool of tears” moment was his very first day of work as an English teacher in Japan. He somehow managed to get on the wrong train (every foreigner in Japan’s nightmare) and ended up in a “depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand.” He was late for his first class and wanted to quit. Since then, however, he has emerged as one of the leading experts on Japanese ramen. Last we heard, he’d been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched his first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. Way to go, Brian, in treating that screaming railway worker as a Jack of Spades!

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So, are you ready to inject a bit of Alice into your Great Work on the voluntarily displaced life? And can you think of any more inspirational passages from Lewis Carroll? (No doubt there are more, and I will think of some of them as soon as I post this.)

Meantime, the Displaced Nation will continue its tradition of awarding “Alices” to writers who capture the curious, unreal side of the displaced life—only we will now be awarding one per week, via our Displaced Dispatch. What, not a subscriber yet? CLICK HERE NOW—or off with your head! Recommendations of posts (your own, other bloggers’) for Alices are also warmly appreciated. Please send to ML@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our Old World/New World series.

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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CAPITAL IDEA: Singapore: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Singapore.

Wait a moment, isn’t that an island? Well, it’s actually made up of 63 islands, but Singapore is, in fact, a city state.

Like the Vatican? There’s fewer Cardinals, but yes, the Vatican is an example of another city state.

All I know about Singapore is that chewing gum is illegal. As a confessed chewing gum addict, I think I’ll have to pass on this one. Some forms of therapeutic gum is allowed.

So I can get hold of gum? If a doctor or dentist sells it to you for health purposes, then yes.

What else is banned? Candy? No, in fact, when I was last there I noticed that Singapore immigration put out bowls of hard candy as you went through passport control.

That’s definitely preferable than dealing with Homeland Security.Isn’t it?

This still isn’t quite explaining why I should visit. Well, being a well developed, self-contained city state, it’s easy to get a sense of Singapore quickly and it’s easy to get around.

So I should go because it’s convenient? No . . . Well. . . Yes, I suppose it is. Everything is easy and doable. You won’t have aggressive taxi drivers trying to trick you over fares as you leave the airport. It’s a very well-run state. That’s interesting to see, and it means some of the more stressful elements of travelling, aren’t such a problem here.

Wouldn’t that be primarily due to Singapore’s soft authoratinism? Hey, I thought you only knew about the gum?

I’m smarter than I look. Considering your looks, that’s not too difficult, but to answer your earlier question, yes, Singapore’s laws can be draconian at times, and it’s these laws that make it, on the surface, a well-run state that you’ll feel very safe in for the duration of your visit.

What else do I need to know? Well, being a financial and business center for the region means that there’s a large number of European, American, and Australian expat communities in Singapore. 40% of Singapore’s residents are foreigners. Accordingly, no matter where you’re from, you’ll find something or someone to remind you of home. What’s also useful to remember is that English is one of Singapore’s four official languages. Don’t assume that that means that everyone speak it, but a large number of Singaporeans do, which does make it a more convenient destination in terms of being understood than most other Asian destinations.

Will I be able to understand Singlish? You’ll have better luck understanding a drunk tramp screaming at you on Sauchiehall street. The Singapore government strongly discourages Singlish, but personally we find it charming and a rich part of Singapore’s identity.

Okay, so if I do decide to go, what should I do there? If you’re with young children then you need to make a visit to the Singapore zoo? They do an amazing night safari.

Really? The zoo? I was expecting an answer a little more imaginative than that. It is a nice zoo, though. You can also visit the botanical gardens that houses one of the world’s largest orchid collections.

Orchids? Don’t mock. You can see an orchid dedicated to Princess Di AND one dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.

Umm. . .sounds thrilling. The must-do is checking-out Orchard Road.

What’s that? It’s the main road through Singapore. It’s the social epicenter where people come to…and forgive me for using this phrase…shop til they drop.

Are they that into shopping in Singapore? Yes. Orchard road isn’t shop after shop, it’s high-end mall after high-end mall. It needs to be seen to be believed. For a not quite so high-end retail experience, but just as fascinating, visit the Mustafa Centre in Little India. You’ll be able to find anything in this department

I thought this site had cultural pretensions. All I’m hearing about is shopping, zoos, and flowers dedicated to Maggie bloody Thatcher. One of our favorite museums can be found in Singapore.

What would that be? The National Museum of Singapore. They really do an excellent job of presenting the island’s history. It will you a marvellous grounding in the Singapore. Once you’ve finished there you can head over to Raffles for a Singapore Sling.

Wasn’t Raffles a gentleman thief? You’re thinking of a different chap. This Raffles, is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles a member of the East India Company who founded the city of Singapore. The Raffles Hotel is named after him. It’s an ornate colonial hotel that is worth a visit. It was also here that the cocktail the Singapore Sling was invented.

What’s in it? Gin, Cherry Heering, Bénédictine, and fresh pineapple juice. It’s a very attractive pink color. Drink it in the Long Bar. Bowls of peanuts are also provided in the bar, you’re expected – nay encouraged – to throw the peanut shells on the bar floor. It’s the only place in Singapore you’re allowed to litter. The Long Bar was a favoured hang-out of Ernest Emmingway and Somerset Maugham.

What other food should I try? Kaya toast is my favorite. Kaya is a fruit curd made from coconut and sugar, spread it on hot buttered toast and at with a runny, soft-boiled egg – it’s heaven. Also, if anything is made with pandan – be it bread or cakes – then gobble it down. Pandanus leaves make the most mundane item delicious. You should also go to Clarke Quay to try Chilli Crab, and Little India for some Fish Head Curry.

Fish Head Curry? Sounds gross. It’s an experience, and one I didn’t find unpleasant, though I don’t think I’d want to make a habit of it. The eyes are the best bit.

Should I eat durian? I would say, yes. It’s an experience, you should try it.

What’s it like? Initially, it tastes rather pleasant. There’s a creamy custard taste. It’s the second taste that may make you retch. I’d describe that second taste as being a mix of raw onions, halitosis, and burnt dog hair. In my experience, you may want to try it first as an ice cream flavor before you build up to the real deal.

What should I read? For fiction, A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, King Rat by James Cavell, and Far Eastern Tales by Somerset Maugham. For history, try A history of Singapore, 1819-1988 by C.M. Turnbull.

Thanks, I’m off to try and find some durian ice cream. I’ve had garlic ice cream, can it be any worse? Careful what you wish for.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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Image: MorgueFile

CAPITAL IDEA: Paris: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction). As it’s Valentine’s Day we thought it only right to take a look at the world capital of romance – Paris (not very original — ed.).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Paris

Paris, Texas? Um, no.

Don’t be too quick to judge. I hear it’s lovely. I’m sure it is. I liked the movie, if that helps.

Not really. So I guess you’re this is all about the other Paris — the city of love? That’s the one.

Ahh, so this is an easy Valentine’s Day tie-in post? I’m disappointed. Could you have not gone with something a little more left-field for a romantic destination? Such as?

I dunno. Cardiff? Sacramento? Sometimes it’s best to stick with the tried and tested.

Why should I go? I think the British expat writer Lawrence Durrell put it well when he wrote the following about Paris:

The national characteristics … the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.

But I heard Paris can send a man mad. You’re probably thinking about the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and the perils of consuming too much absinthe.

No, I mean modern-day tourists. Ah, then you’re probably thinking about Paris Syndrome; it is, in the words of Wikipedia, a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals (primarily Japanese tourists) when they visit Paris. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others.

Sounds weird. It is. One of the contributing factors is that many Japanese visitors have an idealized image of Paris as the city of romance and sophistication and trying to reconcile that image with the rude and noisy metropolis they instead encounter is simply overwhelming.

Um, so you’ve written a guide extolling me to go to Paris as it’s Valentine’s Day and Paris is the city of romance and at the very same time you’re also telling me if I go with that expectation I could break down with a psychological disorder? Amazing. You know this would never happen in Sacramento. True, they are no reported cases of Paris Syndrome affecting visitors to Sacramento.

Well, if I go — and I manage not to break down with a psychological disorder — what should I do? The obvious tourist checklist is taking a walk along the Seine, having a wander around Montmartre, making a visit to Notre Dame, climbing the Eiffel Tower, and catching an unsatisfactory glance of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

But I thought this site (and this nascent series) prided itself on shying away from the obvious? We do, we do. If you’re looking to uncover the “hidden” Paris you can take that suggestion literally and go to the Catacombs.

I see what you did there. Merci beaucoup! Catacombes de Paris were built following the removal and evacuation of the Saints Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) in the late 18th century as the medieval cemetery was no longer sanitary and was considered the cause of numerous infections in the area. On a related note, you may want to read Pure (2011), by the somewhat displaced English novelist Andrew Miller — about the breaking up of the cemetery.

Thanks for that, but can we move onto a different topic? I don’t think visiting catacombs is a particularly romantic move on my part. Do you have any romantic suggestions? I know a couple who spent the weekend trying to find the best macaroons in the city. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you may want to give that a try. Laudree is famous for theirs — in fact, they claim to have invented them, so you may want to start there. Another macaroon purveyor definitely worth trying is Pierre Herme. Indeed you’ll do well to resist eating all their pastries and sweets.

You’re going to try and convince me to go on a guided walk, aren’t you? You seem obsessed with them. I do think walking around a city rather than hopping from metro to taxi is a better way of getting to grips with a city, and if you can do that with a knowledgeable guide, so much the better. I’ve heard good things about Paris Walks, so you may want to give them a try. Alternatively, we are living in the age of smart phones. If you don’t want to be with a tourist crowd (and I totally understand why that may be the case), then why not download a walking tour direct to your phone? Invisible Paris offers three walking tours for you to download that are absolutely free. The walks highlight aspects of the city that other guides ignore.

What’s a must-do? Embrace the cliche and go for an evening stroll along the Seine.

Is it easy to get around? Yes, the Metro system makes getting round the city easy. As a visitor it’s well worth purchasing a Paris Visite Pass, which allows you access to all of the city’s public transport

And where’s good to eat? Any recommendations? It’s Paris. You won’t struggle for decent places to eat. You know the drill when it comes to avoiding tourist traps.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on Paris, then you may want to give Graham Robb‘s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (2010) a try. Also worth a look for the befuddled foreigner trying to make sense of the city is The Sweet Life in Paris, by displaced American food writer David Lebovitz — it tells the story of his move to Paris. For a solid historical overview of France’s capital city, try The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), by British historian and TCK Alistair Horne. And for a work of fiction sometimes the obvious is the most appropriate — and that’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”), by Victor Hugo.

What should I watch? You can go all New Wave cool and watch The 400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut), Breathless (1960, dir. by Jean-Luc Godard), or Bande à part (1964, also dir. by Jean-Luc Godard). The antithesis of these is the Old Hollywood glamor of An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincente Minnelli). Of course, what I’d really advise you to watch is one of my all-time-favourite movies — Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, dir. Marcel Carné). In fact, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, watch it tonight!

But I have reservations at the Sizzler tonight! The Sizzler?

Hey, it’s Valentine’s. I thought, why not splurge? Hmmm, maybe Paris isn’t right for you after all.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post on Monday.

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“We read to know we’re not alone”: 1st-ever litfest for expats & random nomads

The displaced writer Hazel Rochman once said that reading “makes immigrants of us all”:

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.

That must be why author interviews have played such an important role in the entertainment mix provided by The Displaced Nation since our founding one year ago.

A book that enables us to escape to a new world without buying a plane ticket? Bring it on!

A book that makes us feel at home in another part of the world? There’s nothing we crave more.

We’ve also taken authors into our confidence who, as St. Augustine once advised, treat the world as their book, rather than staying put and reading only one page. Because of their own peripatetic ways, these writers have much to say to the rest of us nomadic types about how to make sense of feelings of isolation, ennui and displacement.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

We read to know we’re not alone.

In honor of The Displaced Nation’s first anniversary, as well as in the spirit of World Party Month, I would like to propose the first-ever Displaced Nation literary festival featuring authors who have been interviewed or in some way featured on the site during the past year.

“We read to know we’re not alone”: THE FIRST-EVER LITERARY FESTIVAL FOR EXPATS AND RANDOM NOMADS
Note: The following is a tentative line-up. It includes previews of the kinds of insights we can expect to glean from such an extraordinary gathering of expat literati.

We anticipate the festival to extend from a Sunday night to a Thursday morning, with an opening night gala and a couple of closing events. Click on the headlines to go to the event descriptions for each segment:

OPENING NIGHT GALA EVENT

It seems only fitting that we offer something totally mad on our opening night. We will screen Alice in Wonderland, the 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, which was partially restored by the British Film Institute and released in 2010. (NOTE: You can see portions of the film in a video specially made by Anthony Windram during The Displaced Nation’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme month.)

The film is memorable for its use of special effects: Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and then growing too large in the White Rabbit’s home, getting stuck and reaching for help through a window.

The film matches our theme of “We read to know we’re not alone” — could anyone ever feel lonelier than Alice did at such moments?

But here’s the new twist: the screening will feature a live accompaniment by Seremedy, the displaced Swedish visual kei band this is now making such a sensation in Japan, reacting musically and without any rehearsal beforehand, to the silent film in front of them. Unique, spontaneous — and perhaps even terrifying, given that the band’s (male) lead guitarist, Yohio, looks like an anime version of Alice.

DAY ONE: “We’re not alone” — We have each other

Iranian Childhoods, Inspiring Stories

TONY ROBERTS and ASHLEY DARTNELL each spent portions of their childhood in Iran. Roberts has produced a novel based on his memories of that time, Sons of the Great Satan, which we featured on this blog about a year ago. Dartnell, who has yet to be featured (we hope she will!), released her memoir, Farangi Girl, last year (it was recently issued in paperback).

Roberts and Dartnell have in common the status of being so-called third culture kids — growing up in a third culture not common to their parents (Roberts’ parents were American and Dartnell was the product of an American mother and British father). They also have in common that they were enjoying their lives in Tehran until something terrible happened — the memory of which affects them to this day.

In Dartnell’s case, it was the sudden collapse of her father’s business (her parents subsequently split up), whereas for Roberts, it was the experience of being evacuated because of the American hostage crisis — suddenly, he was back at the family’s small farm town in Kansas, having no idea of where his friends had gone.

TCKs experience such traumas in isolation (Roberts continued to feel isolated well into his adulthood). Roberts and Dartnell, who have never met before, welcome the opportunity to forge a new connection over their common displacement.

PERFORMANCE: “The White Ship,” by Ethan Kenning

Ex-folk singer Ethan Kenning — known as GEORGE EDWARDS when performing with the former psychedelic rock band H.P. Lovecraft — will give a special performance of “The White Ship,” a song based on a mystical tale by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (from whom the band took its name), about a vessel sailing on a sea of dreams. Critics have described it as “baroque, Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelia at its finest.”

Multicultural Marriage Boot Camp

Two Wendys — WENDY WILLIAMS and WENDY TOKUNAGA — will answer questions about the benefits as well as challenges involved in marrying someone from another culture.

Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love and has coined a term, “GloLo,” to refer to this phenomenon. She was last week’s Random Nomad and has also been a contributor to The Displaced Nation with the post: “Why expat is a misleading term for multicultural couples” — a topic big enough to be a festival theme in its own right!

Wendy Tokunaga, who was one of The Displaced Nation’s 12 Nomads of Christmas, recently published Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, consisting of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships.

GloTinis will be served — those in particularly challenging unions may wish to order theirs straight up.

Romance Across Borders: Fairytale or Myth?

JANE GREEN, a prolific writer and one of the founders of chick literature, will interview MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ and MICHELLE GORMAN — both of whom have produced first novels exploring the idea of looking for romance in other cultures. Lopez is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (self-published, October 2011), about a cross-cultural romance that blossoms through the asking of three questions; and Gorman, of Single in the City: One girl, one city, one disaster waiting to happen (Michael Joseph, 2010), about an American who goes to London in search of love and the perfect life.

The Displaced Nation recently featured Lopez on our site and will feature her tomorrow in a guest post. We have yet to interview Gorman but would like to — especially as she recently self-published Misfortune Cookie, about a young woman who moves to Hong Kong to be with her boyfriend.

Both women relied heavily on their own autobiographies to produce these first novels. As Lopez said in her interview with Tony James Slater:

Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did!

But is it the stuff of chick lit? No one is better placed to judge this than the displaced author Jane Green (she is now an expat living in Connecticut). As early readers of The Displaced Nation will recall, Green “came in” for a chat during our coverage of last year’s Royal Wedding — she had just produced a multimedia book celebrating the young royals as an example of a “modern fairytale.”

Though Kate and Will aren’t from different cultures, they might as well have been since Kate — unlike the Prince’s mother, Diana — does not come from a royal lineage. But from Green’s point of view, this is what is makes the couple modern — and why their marriage is likely to last:

I loved discovering just how unusual William and Kate are: grounded, humble, and thoroughly modern, eschewing much of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the wedding of Charles and Diana.

One Person’s Home — Another Person’s Nightmare?

BARBARA CONELLI, who lives in Manhattan for half of the year and Milan for the other half, will interview SHIREEN JILLA, whose first novel was set in the Big Apple.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her Italian grandmother, Conelli qualifies as the ultimate Italophile. Last year she published Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita last year — her first book in a three-part series about the Italian grasp of the “good life.” When asked by Kate Allison to explain the differences between her two homes of Milan and New York City, Conelli said that New Yorkers need to learn the Italian art of taking the time to actually live:

We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

On this point, Jilla would certainly concur. After spending three years in New York as an expat when her husband was BBC’s North America correspondent, Jilla came away thinking that “New York is a city populated by control freaks.”

But, unlike Conelli, Jilla found this control freakery sinister — which was what inspired her to write a novel that depicts the city as, as one critic said, “a teeming pit of vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

In the online discussion we hosted of Exiled, Jilla commented on how culturally different New York and London are — despite New York not being seen as a particularly adventurous posting among the expat crowd. She went on:

New York in fact reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

Hmmm… It will be interesting to see what Conelli, whose series includes a book on Rome’s joyful idleness, makes of that!

Are Expats Defined by Their Boundaries — or the Lack? James Joyce Unplugged

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, and the novelist JOANNA PENN will join forces to discuss the topic of whether being an expat necessarily entails producing “expat” literature. In a post published last year on The Displaced Nation, Windram noted that although James Joyce spent most of his adult life in continental Europe, he continued to write about his home, Ireland:

If we were to be glib, we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.

Likewise, Joanna Penn, who has been a TCK and an expat, does not self-identify as an expat writer and sets her novels at least partly in Oxford, the city she calls home. She does feel, however, that wanderlust is a big part of what fuels her to write thrillers set in various countries, as she explained in a comment on a post deconstructing a post of hers on what “home” means to writers.

DAY TWO: “We’re not alone” — Global activism

Travel for a Purpose

For this event, we hope to engage the world-famous novelist BARBARA KINGSOLVER to interview ROBIN WISZOWATY, who is Kenya program director for the Canadian charity Free the Children and the author of a memoir targeted at young adults on her own experience of living in Kenya, My Maasai Life.

Kate Allison interviewed Wiszowaty during the month when The Displaced Nation explored the topic of global philanthropy.

Around the same time, Allison also wrote a post on Kingsolver, exploring the idea that her novel The Poisonwood Bible was intended an allegory for what happens when you barge into someone else’s culture thinking you know everything and they know nothing.

Notably, Wiszowaty could almost have been a Kingsolver character in the following incident that occurred during her initial two months in Nairobi, as reported to Allison:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighborhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

Wiszowaty, of course, came around and now thinks constantly about what she can do for Kenya. We expect that Kingsolver, who funds a prize for authors of unpublished works that support social change, will approve; but will she also offer a critique?

PERFORMANCE: “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side,” by Pete Wentz

Fall Out Boy’s PETE WENTZ will do a performance in which he puts passages from his 2004 book, The Boy with a Thorn in His Side, to music. The book chronicles the nightmares he had as a child.

Wentz is a supporter of Invisible Children, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the cause of child refugees in Uganda. He once participated in an event called “Displace Me,” in which 67,000 activists throughout the United States slept in the streets in makeshift cardboard villages.

(Notably, Wentz has also earned his chops as world traveler. Before Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in late 2009, it made an unsuccessful bid to the only band to play a concert on all seven continents in less than nine months — unfortunately, weather conditions prevented them from flying to Antarctica.)

Why Feisty Heroines Need Not Always Be Named Pollyanna, Calpurnia or Hermione

Melbourne-based author GABRIELLE WANG writes books under the Penguin label targeted at young adults in Australia. Her heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang, who fell into writing accidentally — she had planned to be a book illustrator — loves to use her imagination to create characters who are historically plausible yet never show up in history books. One such character is Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she has a magical, transformative experience that makes her proud of her cultural heritage.

Another such character is Poppy, a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century.

Wang told us she was able to draw on her own background to portray how Poppy might have felt:

I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street.

The Search for Paradise

The search for paradise has been underway for as long as human history. Understood as an idyllic realm located at an exact spot somewhere on the earth, and yet as a place separated from the world, the possibility of reaching paradise has aroused the curiosity of travelers over many centuries and continues to do so.

MARK DAMAROYD, who has lived in Thailand for the past several years, subscribes to the idea that paradise is indeed what many men have claimed it to be since time immemorial: life on an exotic island, with sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut trees, and with an exotic, much younger girlfriend. That is why, as he told us in an interview last summer, he had Koh Samui in mind when creating the island setting for his first novel — the aptly named Pursuit to Paradise.

Coming from a somewhat different direction is JACK SCOTT, whose memoir — Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey — was reviewed at the end of last year by Kate Allison.

In it, Scott tells the story of how he and his civil partner, Liam, left the rat race in London behind to live in Bodrum, Turkey. A picturesque spot on the Mediterranean with a temperate climate, the city was their vision of paradise.

Naturally, though, things were not that simple. The couple soon encountered another rat race — the expat one. To quote directly from Scott’s book:

Sad people, bad people, expats-in-a-bubble people. They hate the country they came from; they hate the country they’ve come to. This was my social life. This is what I gave everything up for. This was Liam’s bloody Nirvana. We were the mad ones, not them.

PERFORMANCE: “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave

NICK CAVE is a distinguished musician and songwriter from Down Under. He took the title of this song from a line in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, referring to the vengeful hand of God. According to the lyrics: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”

Cave has also occasionally dabbled in literature. As one reviewer put it, his first novel “reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created.”

Ghosts of Nations Past and Future

In honor of Dickens’ bicentenary, Displaced Nation contributor ANTHONY WINDRAM will give a spirited reading of his favorite passages from A Christmas Carol (already explored in a post), followed by a discussion of whether Scrooge’s displacement could inspire the planet’s wealthiest people to behave more humanely. To quote from one of the comments made on Windram’s original post:

If such a man as Scrooge can displace his lust for money with a love of humankind — and an awareness of other people’s suffering — then does that mean there’s hope for the 1%?

Through the Looking Glass: Delhi & Bangkok

JANET BROWN, author of the travelogue Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and DAVE PRAGER, author of the travelogue Delirious Dehli, will discuss the need for travelers to do more than the usual amount of preparation when entering cultures that are very different from one’s own, on a par with Alice’s Wonderland.

As Brown explained in her interview with us, travelers to Thailand can be “tone deaf” because Thai is a tonal language and it’s easy to make mistakes. But they can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style:

“You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dog food and ought to go home and rectify that at once.

Whereas for Prager, one of the points about living in Dehli is that you may end up deaf as there are always people, animals and vehicles around.

In conversation with Anthony Windram, Prager admitted that getting used to America again — he and his wife now live in Denver — hasn’t been easy:

What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone.

WRITING LAB: What (Not) to Write

Expat writing coach par excellence KRISTEN BAIR O’KEEFFE will explore techniques to develop your writing skills and help you find which world, of your many worlds, you want to write about, and how to get started.

Last summer’s post “6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you” was officially dedicated to O’Keeffe for delivering these pearls of writerly wisdom during her “Expat Writing Prompts” series:

Writing a multi-volume treatise is NOT the answer. Of this, I am sure.
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
Just it.

DAY THREE: “We’re not alone” — Eat, drink, be merry & look good

Classy and Fabulous: French Style as Universal Norm

The French may be under fire for how they treat immigrants, but expats continue to thrive there. For this event, the classy and fabulous JENNIFER SCOTT, author of Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris — which has been a runaway success (it’s now under contract by a major publisher!) — will set out to prove, as she did last month in an interview with us, that no one can edit down their clothes and belongings as well as the French can.

The equally classy and fabulous ANASTASIA ASHMAN, co-editor of The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey — and participant in our “Cleopatra for a Day” series last month — will serve as discussant. Two of the cultural influences for Ashman’s wardrobe are Southeast Asia (she once lived in Malaysia) and Turkey (she was an expat in Istanbul for several years). She does, however, adore French perfume!

Which Came First, Story or Recipe?

It’s food — so that means France again! ELIZABETH BARD, an American who lives in France with her French husband, and her opposite number, CORINE GANTZ, a Frenchwoman who lives near LA with her American husband, will explore why food is so central to the works each of them produces.

Bard is the author of the best-selling Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes. So did she ever think of writing it the other way around: recipes with a love story? Here’s what she told ML Awanohara in their conversation last autumn:

When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Gantz can no doubt relate. When we featured her novel, Hidden in Paris, last summer, here’s what she said when the topic of food came up:

For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

Fans of Hidden in Paris, please note: Gantz has just now released a playful cookbook featuring 20 delicious dishes that were described in mouth-watering details in the novel.

Moderating the discussion between Bard and Gantz will be the well-known novelist JOANNE HARRIS. Harris, who was born over a sweet shop in Yorkshire to a French mother and an English father, rarely misses an opportunity to bring food and drink into her novels — the most famous example being Chocolat.

Displaced Storytelling Circle

Verbal antics, stories, music and more. Highlights include readings by

  1. Displaced Nation contributor TONY JAMES SLATER, from his highly entertaining travelogue, That Bear Ate My Pants! Adventures of a Real Idiot Abroad.
  2. Displaced Nation interviewee ALLIE SOMMERVILLE, from her wry memoir Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller. (Allie, please read the passage about the campervan being too wide for one of the Spanish streets!)
  3. Displaced Nation nomad KAREN VAN DER ZEE, from her collection of expat stories. (Miss Footloose, please tell us the ones about the crocodile and the couple in the Roman restaurant!)
  4. Founder KATE ALLISON, from The Displaced Nation’s weekly fiction series, Libby’s Life, which as you may have noticed, is now up to 46 episodes. (Kate, be sure to read the one where you introduce Sandra, Libby’s MIL from hell!)

The Art of Drink: Ian Fleming

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, will talk about the role of food (and especially drink) in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, on which he did a post last year:

The Bond of the novels isn’t solely a martini drinker. He’s always one to try anything local that’s on offer. In Jamaica he’ll drink a glass of Red Stripe, in the US he’ll have a Millers Highlife beer. Throughout the novels Fleming uses food and drink to convey an alien culture, demonstrate social status, show Bond’s mood and his sophistication and ease with the world.

An array of drinks — not only shaken martinis but also bottles of Heineken!– will be served. Green figs and yogurt, along with coffee (very black), will be made available to anyone who is still suffering from jetlag.

Enchanted by Wisteria: Elizabeth Von Arnim Unveiled

Displaced Nation founder (and the author of this post!) ML AWANOHARA will read her favorite passages from the collected works of travel writer Elizabeth von Arnim, on whom she wrote a post last year. As she pointed out then, Von Arnim was fond of the idea of a woman escaping her marital, motherly and household duties in the pursuit of simple pleasures such as gardens and wisteria. A magical Italian castle — such as the one featured in her best-known novel, The Enchanted April — can also be a tonic.

CLOSING NIGHT + BONUS EVENT

To close the festival, we will screen both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a critique from CHRIS PAVONE, author of the new novel The Expats. Pavone will discuss whether:

  1. it was really necessary for Hollywood to produce its own (non-subtitled) version; and
  2. all the female-perpetrated violence cropping up in film and on TV of late presages a “fourth wave” of feminism.

Pavone is well qualified to judge the latter as his novel (not yet featured on TDN!) is an offbeat spy story with a female protagonist — a burned-out CIA operative who moves to Luxembourg. Apparently, this was the kind of thing Pavone thought about when he was trailing his spouse in that cobblestoney old town.

And, just when you thought it was all over, we bring you a final treat: a chance to hear from the historian SUSAN MATT, who recently published Homesickness: An American History to much fanfare in the thinking media. Matt disputes the stereotype of Americans as westward wanderers by showing that Americans are returning to their homeland in greater numbers — that’s if they ever leave at all. (Our ancestors must be turning over in their graves!)

* * *

So, shall I sign you up? And can you think of any additional topics/authors/performers who ought to be featured? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s guest post from Meagan Adele Lopez, on the differences between American and British wedding celebrations.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Thoughts on beauty — and chinos

As regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware, The Displaced Nation always likes to have a monthly theme around which its daily posts pirouette. This month’s theme sees us turning towards the world of fashion.

That leaves me in the somewhat awkward position of having to foist a fashion article onto you all. I confess, and again regular readers won’t be surprised to learn this, that this is not a topic that I am well versed in, I am a skinny guy that has never worn skinny jeans. My own fashion tips begin and end with the advice that you cannot go wrong with a chinos and shirt combo. The shade of beige in the chinos varies and so does the color of the shirt, which can range from powder blue to salmon pink — but that’s still not very exciting, is it?  So unless you want to dress like an ITN foreign correspondent, I’m not really the person to whom you should be paying attention when it comes to fashionista matters.

Perhaps sensing my uneasiness with this topic, it was suggested by others here at The Displaced Nation that I might want to write about whether there is a universal idea of beauty.

This seemed like a better idea than my posting about fashion. I could, I quickly realized, start the article with the old cliché about how “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Once that was out of the way, I could suggest that beauty is subjective, doing so by trotting out all those usual cultural differences — very appropriate in the context of The Displaced Nation — that confuse a modern Westerner: the Kayan Lahwi tribe in Burma whose female members wear brass coils around their neck to give the appearance of an elongated neck; the ancient Chinese practice of feet binding; the Essex facelift.

Once that was done I planned to counter the idea of different cultural ideas about beauty by positing that beauty standards are in fact objective — that perhaps Plato was right and beauty exists in his perfect forms. This new point of view would necessitate trotting out the evolutionary psychologists who have conducted studies on infants as young as two months, showing that they gaze at faces judged more attractive longer than the faces of those judged ugly. This, the psychologists contend, could suggest that beauty is indeed innate, that they are objective standards. As babies tend to cry when they see me, it would also prove conclusively that I am one ugly fecker. I would then have ended the article by referencing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” (“beauty is truth, truth beauty”) in an effort to look more learned than I am.

However, that line of argument didn’t seem so convincing. As I tried writing that post, I kept catching sight of myself in the unfortunately huge mirrors that make up the sliding closet doors in my room. They are huge and as this is rented accommodation I can’t do much to change them. So as I typed away, I would keep seeing my reflection and think hmmm, its probably bad karma for you to be pontificating on beauty, Windram. So with that in mind, I think it’s probably fairer to nudge you in the direction of the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time — specifically, the episode that discusses the history of beauty as a philosophical topic — while I go off and iron my chinos.

STAY TUNED for an interview with Random Nomad Annabel Kantaria.

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CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Albert Schweitzer, early humanitarian & medic without borders

Fifty years ago, “Albert Schweitzer” was a household name. Nowadays it is hard to find anyone who knows who he is. But given our current theme of looking at those who’ve displaced themselves on behalf of humanitarian causes, today I would like to resurrect this great man for the purpose of honoring him with a membership in our Displaced Hall of Fame.

Were he still alive, Schweitzer, a brilliant theologian and musical genius who received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy known as Reverence for Life, might not be all that flattered.

Then again, considering that he chose to spend much of his time living simply and without pretension in Africa, is it too far fetched to think he’d “get” what the Displaced Nation is all about? He might even have a good wheeze at learning of his elevated status among our citizenry…

A displaced early life

Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Alsace, which at that time belonged to the German Reich (it would change hands four times between France and Germany over the next 75 years).

According to Professor J. Rufus Fears who has lectured on Schweitzer for the Teaching Company:

Alsatians are their own people — neither French nor German, though they like to say they eat as much as the Germans and as well as the French.

Did being born an Alsatian give Schweitzer a head start on leading a displaced life? It’s tempting to think so. Curiously, although he spoke two languages — actually, three: Alsatian (a dialect of German), German and French — he professed not to believe that anyone was ever truly bilingual. He maintained that a person’s true native tongue could be discovered by asking:

What language do you count your change in when you give someone a dollar bill?

A displaced career

For our ceremony inducting Schweitzer into the Displaced Hall of Fame, we would do well to choose one of Bach’s organ works. While still in his twenties, Schweitzer distinguished himself not only in his chosen field of theology, but also as an organist and musicologist who specialized in Bach.

He wrote two early works that established his reputation in both of these fields: The Quest for the Historical Jesus (German, 1906; English translation, 1910), arguing that Jesus was human, not divine; and J.S. Bach (enlarged German edition 1908; English translation, 1911), a study of the life and art of Johann Sebastian Bach.

As if being an accomplished theologian and notable organist weren’t displaced enough, while still in his twenties, Schweitzer decided he would go out into the world and devote his life to humanity rather than remaining locked up in the cloisters of academe.

Upon turning 30, he shocked and horrified his parents and friends by declaring his intention to become a medical student in preparation for the life of a physician in French Equatorial Africa.

While studying medicine, he married Helene Bresslau, who although a scholar herself, became a trained nurse in order to share her husband’s life in Africa.

In 1913 the couple set sail from Bordeaux for what today is Lambaréné, Gabon.

The conditions the Schweitzers faced were desolate in the extreme. The climate — characterized by fiercely hot days, clammy nights and seasonal torrents of rain — was appalling. Besides the usual diseases, the natives were suffering from leprosy, dysentery, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness, malaria, yellow fever and animal wounds.

But the couple persisted through thick and thin (including a period of being interned during World War I), setting out to build a hospital on the grounds of the Lambaréné station of the Paris Missionary Society (they would later move the hospital to an even more remote spot).

Eventually, Schweitzer’s wife went back to Europe to raise their daughter, while Schweitzer himself carried on working in, and on behalf of, this remarkable medical facility until his own death in 1965. By then the compound had grown to more than 70 buildings, 350 beds and a leper village of 200, and the hospital was staffed by 3 unpaid physicians, 7 nurses and 13 volunteer helpers.

(It still exists today as the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, one of the leading research centers in sub-Saharan Africa training African doctors in the treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.)

Schweitzer, who passed away in the hospital itself, was buried next to the Ogooué River in a ceremony attended by hospital workers, lepers, cripples and other patients.

An epiphany of hippopotaman proportions

Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be a small recompense for the injustices committed by the African Continent’s European colonizers. In a sermon preached in 1905, he proclaimed:

Oh, this “noble” culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color or because they cannot help themselves.

By the time he dedicated his life to serving the natives of Africa, Schweitzer could no longer make the intellectual case for Jesus’s divinity. The French had recruited him to work in their mission as a physician not a pastor (somehow a Lutheran who didn’t believe in Christ was just a little too displaced!). Yet Schweitzer remained deeply spiritual. He wanted to find a philosophy that would persuade others to displace themselves to the most desolate places on earth, just as he had done — separate and apart from a proselytizing mission.

While on a boat trip on the Ogooué, Schweitzer noticed a herd of hippopotamuses swimming in the water, and thought to himself: what purpose does the hippo serve? He decided that the spirit of the universe had made this creature — and that this was reason enough to treat it with respect.

From that point on, he promoted the idea that man, in his quest for dominance, should never forget the need to show reverence and awe for all living creatures.

For Schweitzer, such a belief should suffice as motivation to reach out and help others who are less fortunate than oneself. You can almost sense his relief at discovering this philosophy from the epilogue he attached to his major autobiographical volume, Out of My Life and Thought:

Two observations have cast their shadows over my life. One is the realization that the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering, the other that I have been born in a period of spiritual decline for mankind.

I myself found the basis and the direction for my life at the moment I discovered the principle of Reverence for Life, which contains life’s ethical affirmation.

His Reverence of Life philosophy further led him to warn against man destroying animals (what we know today as “animal rights”) as well as his environment — he was an early environmentalist, who predicted that man “will end by destroying the Earth” (Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring to him).

Schweitzer tried to put these principles in practice in all sorts of ways, but the two examples I like best are his refusal to teach his pet parrot how to talk (talking would lower its dignity), and his decline of an offer by a foundation to replace his dug-out canoe with a motorboat for fear it would pollute the Ogooué River.

Schweitzer’s relevance for today’s global nomads

In his lecture on Albert Schweitzer, Professor Fears insists that this early humanitarian still speaks to us. I agree and would add that he positively shouts to those of us who’ve chosen to live much of our lives abroad. For a start, we can find inspiration in his refusal to follow a conventional career path (a quality that, by the way, drove the bureaucrats in charge of French Equatorial Africa crazy).

But the really impressive thing about Schweitzer, of course, is his unconquerable spirit, his desire to do good. Despite living through two world wars, he carried on believing in mankind’s potential to treat life, in all its forms, with the reverence it deserves.

Even after World War II, when Albert Einstein called on him to speak out against the atom bomb, he did so despite his better instinct to get involved in politics (and suffered the fall-out of having funds withdrawn from his hospital when the FBI and CIA began persecuting him for his anti-nuclear-arms-race position).

The way I see it, we expats and “internationals” are perfectly positioned to understand where Schweitzer was coming from. Our travels have taught us that life, whether human or animal, deserves respect no matter where one is on the globe.

But how do we share this knowledge? What do we actually do with it?

As mentioned in my post on Richard Branson at the start of November, for some of us it’s challenge enough to cultivate our own gardens and hope that in doing so, some of our attitudes will rub off on others.

But Schweitzer, whom Fears calls a “living testimony to goodness,” clearly believed in the need to do more. And after a month of celebrating those who’ve done more — see our profiles of Adria Schmidt, Jennifer Lentfer, Matt Collin, and Vilma Ilic — I’m prepared to concede he is right.

To give the redoubtable Albert Schweitzer the final word:

I have always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s reflections on global philanthropy by third-culture-kid columnist Charlotte Day.

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The Displaced Nation’s Halloween post is…mysteriously displaced!

Kate Allison was supposed to post today, for Halloween…but then, pouf, she vanished without a trace!

How very strange, we think you’ll agree…

Her topic was going to be Halloween costumes for expats. Given her offbeat sense of humor, none of us would have been the least bit surprised had she suggested we dress up as:

  • Dorothy, staggering around with a sign that says “I’m not in Kansas any more.”
  • Pocahontas &  John Rolfe — suitable for cross-cultural, bi-racial couples with large age differences.
  • Mary-Sue Wallace, to give ourselves a break from feeling displaced for a few hours.
  • A giant red snail, to signal enthusiastic support for the slow-food movement that began in Italy and is s-l-o-w-l-y spreading around the world.
  • Marcel Proust, carrying a madeleine and looking very displaced.

But instead of speculating what Kate might have written about, perhaps we should be spending our time wondering where she has gone. ML Awanohara and Anthony Windram have a few hypotheses — do let us know if you can think of any others!

  1. She enjoyed a repast of the seven deadly dishes from around the world, overdosed on snake wine, took a nap to recover, and hasn’t yet woken up.
  2. She is out flying on a broomstick with her fictional sidekick, Libby — or, even more likely, with Libby’s nemesis, Melissa (and they are evilly plotting Melissa’s next move on Libby).
  3. She was the victim of some sort of gothic expat tale — either a trick-or-treater dressed up as Hannibal Lecter, who thought she looked tasty and got carried away; or else some sort of natural disaster, such as a bizarre October blizzard, leading to widespread power outages.

Kate, chills are running down our spines as we fantasize about all the spooky things that might have befallen you on this All Hallows’ Eve. New England is not the same as Merry Olde, as no doubt you and your English family have discovered…

Of course, knowing you as well as we do, you may simply be playing a prank by not treating us with one of your posts.

But if that’s not the case and you truly have been spirited away, send us a signal, and the citizens of The Displaced Nation will perform some incantations on your behalf over a bubbling cauldron — a molten mix of Marmite, Fluff and chocolate, with the odd tongue-in-cheek thrown in…

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, introducing November’s theme, on those who displace themselves on behalf of those less fortunate.

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Image: MorgueFile

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