Tracey Warr is here with a fellow British novelist Stephen Goldenberg, with whom she’ll soon be appearing for a book talk in Villefranche-en-Rouergue. It’s one of France’s most beautiful villages and the setting for Goldenberg’s latest mystery novel.
Greetings, Displaced Nationers.
My guest this month is fellow novelist Stephen Goldenberg, who was born, and has lived most of his life, in London. He now lives for a portion of the year in south-west France, a location that inspired his latest novel, Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive.
Goldenberg studied Law at Oxford University; but because of his love for reading great literature, he went on to train to be an English teacher. For the next 35 years he taught English in London secondary schools and became one of the first school teachers to introduce the subject of Media Studies.
Since taking early retirement, Goldenberg has written and published three novels and renovated an 18th-century stone-built farmhouse in the village of Calcomier in the Aveyron, a region of southern France named after the Aveyron River. He and his partner, Sue, have lived in the house for around five months a year for the last ten years. They try to be as involved as possible with the community, including helping out at the annual village fete. The house, Stephen says, is a perfectly peaceful place to write, especially on the small shaded terrace down by the river.
In addition to Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive, which came out last year and, as mentioned, is set in rural France, Goldenberg has self-published two other novels of suspense, both set in Britain: The Lying Game (Matador, 2012) and Stony Ground (Lulu, 2007). He says that his latest book reflects his fascination with the laid back rural French lifestyle and the lives of the many British expats who live there permanently.
What’s next? Goldenberg will be back on his home turf. His next novel, The Autobiography of an Invisible Man, takes place in London and is based on the life of a man who occasionally modeled for the displaced Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.
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Welcome, Stephen, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?
For Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive it was definitely location. For my other novels, it’s been the story first followed by the assumption that it’s automatically going to be set in and around London because that’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life. But it was my partner, Sue, who suggested that I should set my next novel in south-west France since, by then, we’d had the house near Villefranche de Rouergue for six or seven years and were beginning to feel at home.
Your main characters are English expats?
Once I had my location, it was obvious to me that my main characters would be English expats who had relocated to rural France from London. And then, I decided that they would have made this move for the wrong reason—namely, because they were having troubles with their relationship and decided that a dramatic change of location and lifestyle would solve their problems. Also, at about the same time, the murder of an English expat, Jacqueline Wilson, who lived not far from us, had hit the headlines and gave me the idea of writing a murder mystery novel involving an Englishwoman who had recently relocated to the area.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
For me, sense of place is always created through a very light touch approach. I’m not one for masses of detailed description or massive amounts of research. A cumulation of small details can create a strong atmosphere. I particularly like to include the slightly quirky or unusual. For example, my use of a real café/restaurant in Aurillac called L’Abside, which is in a strange building grafted on to the side of a church.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Much as I’m a lover of food, especially the cuisine of south-west France, it doesn’t play much of a role in my novels. In the case of this novel, it was very much about culture—especially the experience of expatriates trying to adapt to the language and culture of their adopted country in circumstances that are far from ideal. As far as the landscape is concerned, I wanted to write something that reflected my experience as a big city dweller getting used to the radical difference in moving to a small village in rural France.
Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?
Jeremy had lost track of what day of the week it was until he drove into Villefranche at lunchtime and saw that the restaurants were crammed full. Of course. Thursday. Market day. He zigzagged around the stallholders in the Place Notre Dame packing their produce into vans, skipping out the way of the municipal dustcart hoovering up the fruit and vegetable detritus. He climbed the steps up to the terrace on the far side of the square and surveyed the café’s outdoor seating area, firstly to check that there was no-one there that he knew and, when he was sure of that, to find an empty table.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
If it is the main setting, then the answer is very well. Even though I don’t include that much description in my actual writing, I need to have a clear sense of exactly where my characters are. However, I do not believe in doing too much research for novels and, sometimes, I slip in settings that I hardly know at all (e.g., Decazeville in the present novel) just because it was the most convenient town between Villefranche and Aurillac.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Location isn’t something that particularly attracts me in choosing which novels to read and often, I find writers who are too heavy on atmospheric description off-putting. But there are two writers who, I think, use location really well. Thomas E. Kennedy is an American who lives in Copenhagen and sets his novels there. It’s a city I’ve never been to but, thanks largely to his writing, I hope to pay a visit soon. And then there’s one of my all-time favourite writers, Richard Russo, whose novels are set in small town upstate New York. I visited the area a couple of years ago and, because of his writing, found it strangely familiar.
Stephen Goldenberg’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place
Thanks so much, Stephen, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.
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Readers, any questions for Stephen? Please leave them in the comments below.
As ML mentioned at the outset, Stephen and I will both be talking about our recent novels in Villefranche-en-Rouergue, France. The event takes place on 21 April 2017 at the English Library. All Displaced Nationers are welcome! For further details, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Stephen Goldenberg and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site.
À bientôt! Till next time…
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Thank you so much, Tracey and Stephen! I find it intriguing that Stephen tries not to over-research location, even when using an adopted home as a setting. He is right that it’s a balance, and authors can get carried away describing place. —ML Awanohara
Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.
‘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.
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!
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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!
The Displaced Nation aspires to be a home to international creatives. As such, we are fond of showcasing memoirs written by those who have spent large chunks of their lives abroad or novels that were in some way inspired by international travels.
Both authors felt justified in producing their own guides to Brazilian life because they’d noticed so many newbie expats falling into the trap of becoming an “exbrat” (to borrow Meagan’s term)—constantly complaining about Brazilian food, prices, bureaucracy, and crime and thus missing out on one of the world’s most fascinating cultures and friendliest peoples.
And both books, while offering practical information and advice, also communicated the authors’ affection, even love, for the land of carnival and samba, beaches and jungles—warts and all.
My guest today, Kay Xander Mellish, has composed a similar kind of ode to her adopted home of Denmark, which, too, has its attractions even if if Danes are far less sociable than Brazilians and their culture a great deal less lively.
Yet apparently not all visitors seem to appreciate the many appealing features of the country that was recently crowned the the world’s happiest, which is what led Kay to produce her podcast series, How to Live in Denmark, and now a book of the same name.
Born in Wisconsin and educated in New York City, Kay has lived in Denmark since 2000, speaks Danish, and after working in the corporate world has founded her own company to help Danish companies communicate in English. She hasn’t married into the culture but is a single mother bringing up a daughter.
“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year”—Victor Borges, Danish-born American comedian
Hi, Kay! I once lived in England and then in Japan, and there were times in reading your book that the Danes reminded me of the English and the Japanese: easy enough to like but not so easy to love. Is that a fair description?
It can be difficult for outsiders to make friends in Denmark, because for Danes friendship is a serious business. A real friendship is a lifelong relationship, sometimes starting in kindergarten or even before – my daughter, for example, has a friend she “met” when they were four weeks old! The idea of casual chat with strangers is alien to Danes: they have to force themselves to do it, and it is nearly always uncomfortable for them unless a great deal of alcohol is involved. Once you are within their friendship circle, Danes are excellent friends, reliable, supportive and direct. But it is difficult to come into that circle. Danish society is based on trust, and it takes Danes a while to be sure that they can trust you.
Kay Xander Mellish’s book cover; random Valentine’s hearts and one kiss.
Humor is of course an important element in any long-term relationship, and your have subtitled your book “a humorous guide.” Tell me, are you laughing with or at?
With! Danes are very good at making fun of themselves; in fact, one of the highest compliments they can give a famous or accomplished person is that he or she has “self-irony,” or the ability to make fun of himself. By contrast, anyone who is selvfede (literally, “self-fat”) and thinks he or she is God’s gift to the world is held in contempt. So, in general, humor is not hard to come by in Denmark. You just have to be willing to make fun of yourself. Danes have an old tradition that if you’ve fallen down in public or otherwise made a big mistake or fool of yourself, you’re supposed to buy kvajebager (failure beer) for everyone who saw you. My book, which is based on a podcast series, is very popular among Danes, which it would not be if they could not make light of themselves. Occasionally I get a few crabby emails from people with Danish names, but not many. I’ve found a lot of Danes buy the book for their foreign friends.
“To be of use to the world is the only way to be happy.”—Hans Christian Andersen
Oxford Research recently published a study finding that 9 out of 10 expats enjoy living and working in Denmark and close to half choose to prolong their stay—mainly because of career opportunities. What makes Copenhagen’s work opportunities so loveable?
If you can get a job in Copenhagen, the working conditions and benefits are excellent. Most people work 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then go home to their families, so it’s common to see an office entirely empty by 5:00 p.m. And there is less of the cutthroat competition, both internally and externally within companies, that you see elsewhere in business life. You also have the ability to do work you will be proud of: Danes demand quality, so you rarely meet anyone who is incompetent. But getting a job is difficult, even for the Danes, and it is extremely difficult for foreigners who do not speak Danish. Many foreigners with only rudimentary Danish either work in the “caring professions,” such as state-sponsored jobs caring for the elderly or the very young, or in IT roles that there are not enough Danes to fill. If you are looking for anything else, besides the usual cleaning and waiting tables, plan for at least a 6-month job search, possibly a year.
“I’m afraid I have to set you straight…”—Michael Booth, Copenhagen-based British journalist
Meanwhile, the journalist Michael Booth has just published a book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
Denmark is a small country where everyone knows everyone, so I should start by saying that Michael Booth is the friend of a friend, although I have not met him myself. Michael has developed a great shtick for himself, which is running down the Scandinavian countries while continuing to enjoy their benefits. (The fact that Michael is a white male from a friendly country allows him to get away with this performance: I don’t want to even think of what the reaction might have been if such a book had been written by someone from the Middle East.) At any rate, his timing is excellent: it’s become fashionable, particularly in left-wing Western circles, to paint Scandinavia as a utopia, which it most certainly is not. Michael’s book is a strong antidote to that.
An excerpt from Booth’s book appeared recently in The Atlantic, where he says Denmark is “stultifyingly dull” and “boring” because of its “suffocating monoculture.” You don’t agree with any of that?
Personally, I don’t find Copenhagen dull, and this is from someone who used to live in downtown Manhattan and be very involved in the New York art and nightlife scene. I find Copenhagen sophisticated without being too intense. There is certainly less of a gallery or theater scene here, but by contrast people have more time to enjoy the arts events that take place.
“I come from a culture where you don’t divide it up [between] what you can do on TV and what you can do on film.”—Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen
You are a professional voice actor, and, unusually, your book is based on a podcast series. Since we’re talking about love today: which do you love more, podcasting or writing?
The podcast series was actually based on an old group of essays that had been mouldering on a rarely-updated website I started when I still I lived in New York. (In those days, the days before podcasts and before the web, I used to put up parts of my stories as flyposters in a graffiti format—but that was the 1990s!) When I came to Denmark, I wrote a few essays about the experience, but then I pretty much abandoned the site while working full-time at a corporate job while raising my daughter. The site was still online, and newcomers to Denmark kept finding these old postings and emailing me, saying how much I had helped them adjust to living here. I began to feel an obligation to help people just arriving in Denmark. It can be a difficult place to get used to. So when I left corporate life and was in the process of building my own voiceover business, doing the podcast How to Live in Denmark was a natural move. I soon found out that many people weren’t listening to the recordings at all: they were just reading the transcripts available on the podcast site. By this time, I was spending so much time on the podcasts that I needed to earn a little money off the project, so I turned the transcripts into an eBook. Customers then kept asking for a paper book, so I published one of those as well. Now we also have the Chinese version, and there are so many Syrian refugees in Denmark that there have been requests for an Arabic-language version, so we are working on that as well. I really feel it’s important for me to serve to others who may be facing the same challenges I once did.
“Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries, and you will have a fine pig and bad child.”—Danish proverb
Turning to your daughter: what do you love most about raising and educating a child in Denmark?
Children in Denmark given much more freedom and responsibility than children in many countries. My daughter has been riding the Copenhagen trains and buses alone since she was eight, for example. Even when they are very young, children are expected to sort out their own playground disagreements with little interference from adults. There’s no such thing as a “helicopter parent” here. Also, children don’t spend most of their childhoods trying to get into a good university, going to cram schools and trying to build up their CV with impressive-sounding activities. They relax; they have time to play, time to think, time to develop themselves and their creativity. There is very little standardized testing in Denmark and not many grades of any kind until the kids are 13 or 14. I think that’s a healthy way to go about things. My daughter enjoys living here; she enjoys her school, where there is very little pressure but the kids learn to put knowledge together in a holistic way, which I think will be much more useful for the future just learning how to spit out facts or repeat the teacher’s viewpoint back to her. Most importantly, parents in Denmark have a lot more free time to spend with their kids, since working hours aren’t particularly long here. So we do a lot of stuff together—sports, travel, crafts. I don’t know if I would have had the time and energy to do those things had I been a single mother in the US.
Do you think she misses out on anything by not being in the United States?
Of course, she’s missing out on the ethnic diversity of the US, as well as the ambition and drive and energy of living there. But she speaks frequently of going to college in the US, so she’ll have a chance to experience those aspects when she’s a little older.
“There was the constant, tinny squeak of a thousand rusty bike chains.”—Greg Hanscom, senior editor at Grist: “An American in Denmark”
You’ve now lived in Denmark for nearly 15 years, longer than many marriages last. If you had one irritating habit about the place you could change, what would it be?
I suppose it would the Danes’ general rudeness in public places. When someone brushes closely by you, or even runs right into you, there’s never an ‘Excuse me’ or the Danish equivalent. Instead, you get a sour look or a grunt that signifies “Why were you in my way?” Customer service in Danish shops or restaurants is not much better: in Denmark, the customer is always wrong. Some of the nonwhite foreigners I’ve met here assumed that they were being treated so badly because of racism or racial discrimination, but that is not the case. Sad to say, everybody gets bad customer service, even other Danes.
And if you and Denmark were to “divorce” and go your separate ways one day, what would you miss the most about it?
Probably the biking culture and the great mass transit. While I have a drivers’ license and enjoy driving a car, I love that I can hop on a bike and get anywhere quickly. No parking problems, no stopping to buy gas, and it’s a very easy and convenient way to keep fit. That said, bringing home groceries on your bicycle can be a headache. And trying to bring home fresh dry cleaning on your bicycle is the worst!
Thanks, Kay! It’s been a pleasure. Taking a closer look at your work, we see you’ve created an intricate valentine to your adopted home, full of love and irreverent humor, the perfect tribute.
Season’s greetings again, Displaced Nationers. And welcome back to our end-of-the-year bookfest!
Pass the eggnog!! (She takes a swig…)
Moving right along (hic!). In the first part of this BOOKLUST WANDERLUST series, posted yesterday, our BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist Beth Green and I presented a list of 2014 expat books in the categories of Travel, Memoirs, and Cross-cultural Challenges.
In Part Two, we present our last three categories (hic, hic—hey, it’s the holidays!):
Books in each category are arranged from most to least recent.
Unless otherwise noted, books are self-published.
Contributions by Beth are in green (most appropriate, given her surname!).
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Colour of Maroc: A Celebration of Food and Life (Murdoch Books, October 2014) Authors: Rob Palmer and Sophie Palmer Synopsis: A collection of Moroccan recipes, both traditional and contemporary, interwoven with stories and anecdotes inspired by people, food and travel experiences as seen through the eyes of Rob, an Australian photographer, and Sophia, his French/Moroccan wife. Expat Credentials: Rob first met Sophia in Sydney, who had freshly arrived in Australia from France. They were both on a food photo shoot for an ad agency. Fascinated by her half-Moroccan (she was born in Casablanca), half-French heritage, he was only too happy to join her on an extended tour of Morocco, which resulted in both marriage and this book. How we heard about: Social media.
Cucina Siciliana: A taste of the authentic Sicilian flavors (August 2014) Author: Wanita Synopsis: Wanita shares recipes she has collected from her elderly neighbor, her mother-in-law, and Italian friends she has made during her six years in Sicily—recipes that have passed down from generations, several of which, she suspects, have never been outside Sicily! Expat creds: Wanita met her Sicilian husband on the Internet. After a 3-month online romance, he visited her in California; two weeks later, she accompanied him back to Sicily to get married. They now have an infant daughter. How we found out about: We’ve pinned several of her Sicilian recipes to our IT’S FOOD! board.
My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (Ten Speed Press, April 2014) Author: David Lebovitz Synopsis: A collection of 100 sweet and savory recipes that reflect the way modern Parisians eat today, combined with Lebovitz’s personal stories of life in the world’s culinary capital. The book also features lush photos of Paris and of Lebovitz’s kitchen. Expat creds: Lebovitz is an American pastry chef who has been living the sweet life in Paris for a decade. Before moving to France, he made his name at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, with celebrity chef Alice Waters as his mentor. How we found out about: We are among his throngs of followers, keeping up with him any way we can: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, his monthly e-newletter… My Paris Kitchen (his 7th book!) has been named best cookbook of the year by Amazon.
The Edible Atlas: Around the World in 39 Cuisines (Canongate, March 2014) Author: Mina Holland Genre: International cookery Synopsis: Not just a cookbook, The Edible Atlas introduces readers to the cultures behind the flavors and looks at why people eat what they do. Expat credentials: Mina Holland, from the UK, has lived both in the USA and in Spain. She’s the acting editor of Guardian Cook. How we heard about:Titles about food always catch our eye, and the idea of traveling around the world a mouthful at a time? Tantalizing! A review in Guardian Books first brought it to my attention.
THIRD CULTURE KIDS
The Worlds Within, an anthology of TCK art and writing: young, global and between cultures (Summertime, November 2014) Editors: Jo Parfitt and Eva László-Herbert TCK Credentials: As the editors point out, that this is a rare book BY third culture kids, not about them. Synopsis: Your mother is Swiss, your father is from the Philippines and you have so far lived in five countries, none of them your passport country. Who are you? Where are you from? Where is home? And what did you eat for breakfast? If you are a friend, this book will guide you. If you are a teacher, it will enlighten you. If you are a parent, it will spell it out for you and if you are an employer, it will convince you. Here they are, the cultural chameleons, the young global nomads, the TCKs—Third Culture Kids—from around the world, telling you their story. How we heard about it: Initially from a Facebook post. Word is spreading fast on social media. One of the coolest things about this book? It features TCK art as well as writing.
The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad Book 5) (Penguin, August 2014) Author: Tana French Genre: Mystery Synopsis: In Book 5 of the Dublin Murder Squad series, two detectives are given new information about a cold case—a boy’s murder on the grounds of an exclusive school for girls. (A)TCK credentials: Tana French was born in Ireland but grew up in Italy, the USA, and Malawi during the years her family traveled with her father’s career as a development economist. How we heard about it:I’m an avid reader of murder mysteries and fell in love with this series by French last year. In fact, I wrote about her Dublin Murder Squad series, and how it deals with issues of displacement, for my first Booklust, Wanderlust column.
Home Leave (Hachette, June 2014) Author: Brittani Sonnenberg Genre: Expat fiction Synopsis: In a story that mirrors the author’s own life as a TCK, an expat family’s daughters search for their own identity and confront tragedy. (A)TCK credentials: Sonnenberg was born in the USA but lived in the UK, Germany, China and Singapore as a child and teenager. She now lives in Berlin and treats Hong Kong as her second home. How we heard about it: ML is always on the hunt for a good book about TCKs, so when she mentioned having read a review of the book last summer in the New York Times, I agreed to write a column about it.
They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth about the French (Thomas Dunne Macmillan, December 2014) Author: Piu Marie Eatwell Genre: Multicultural nonfiction Synopsis: A series of entertaining mini-essays examines the stereotypes of French life, so beloved of the British in particular, only to discover that many are completely false. Expat credentials: Eatwell, of mixed Asian and British descent, went to France for a long weekend one August summer holiday many years ago, and never left (how could she, with a surname like that?). After graduating from Oxford University, she trained first as a BBC television producer and then as a lawyer. Over the years she has worked as a documentary film maker, barrister, teacher, mother, and—most recently—full-time writer, both in London and Paris. They Eat Horses, Don’t They? is her first book. How we heard about: Eatwell’s book is the winner of the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Amazon’s Multicultural Non-Fiction category.
Moving to Spain with Children: Essential reading for anyone thinking about moving to Spain (November 2014) Author: Lisa Sadleir Genre: Expat self-help Synopsis: Spiced with the author’s own heart-warming anecdotes, the book aims to help you arrive at the same place her own family is now—but in half the time: living and loving family life in Spain! Expat credentials: British born Lisa Sadleir is mother to two young, bilingual children. Educated in the UK and France, she has been a resident in Spain for over 23 years. She works as an independent relocation advisor and personal property finder. How we heard about: Social media.
Paris in Love (Chronicle Books, November 2014) Author: Nichole Robertson Genre: Photography Synopsis: A photographic love letter to Paris from the author of the best-selling Paris in Color, capturing the hidden corners and secret moments that make Paris the most romantic city in the world. Expat credentials: After a successful career in New York City as a writer and creative director for ad agencies, Robertson moved to Paris, which rekindled her love of photography and led to creating a series of prints and now books celebrating her relationship with the City of Light. How we heard about: Social media.
At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life (Simon & Schuster, October 2014) Author: Jennifer L. Scott Genres: Beauty/Fashion, How-to, Home Improvements Synopsis: In this follow-up to her best-selling Lessons from Madame Chic, Scott has divided the book into two sections: 1) Chez Vous: exploring how to get your home in order and how to love it again; 2) Les Routines de la Journée: covering the pleasures of the morning, the pleasures of the afternoon, and the pleasures of the evening. Expat credentials: Once upon a time, Scott was a college student living with a “chic” family in Paris, France, and her books represent her attempt to translate all that she learned from that European experience into her American lifestyle. How we heard about:I interviewed Scott about her first book just before it was picked up by Simon & Schuster, and have been a big fan of hers ever since. (Her interview still gets lots of hits!)
How to Live in Denmark: A humourous guide for foreigners and their Danish friends (July 2014) Author: Kay Zander Mellish Synopsis: Life as a foreigner in Denmark, one of the world’s most homogenous countries, isn’t always easy. In this book, based on her popular podcast series, Kay Xander Mellish offers a fun guide to Danish culture and Danish manners, as well as tips on how to find a job, a date, someone to talk to or something to eat. Expat credentials: An Wisconsin-born journalist, Mellish has lived in Denmark for more than a decade. How we heard about: Mellish’s humorous and somewhat irreverent take on expat life caught our attention about a year ago, when she posted a story about the first woman to guard the Royal Palace at Amalieborg, who was fired not for being a prostitute but for refusing to follow orders and stop moonlighting—a post for which Mellish earned her one of our coveted (?!) Alice Awards. We were pleased to learn she’d published a book, and plan to feature it soon.
So, you’re moving to Australia?: The 6 essential steps to moving Down Under (June 2014) Author: Sharon Swift Genre: Self-help Synopsis: Swift has distilled her formula for a successful international relocation into a 6-step process, outlined in this book for those making the big leap from the UK to Australia. Expat credentials: Since her birth in Singapore to a British father and Singaporean mother, Swift has lived across five continents, experiencing life and cultures of 14 countries. Her move to Sydney from London in 2005 was her 18th international relocation. She lives in Sydney Inner West with her husband, both now Australian citizens. How we heard about: Pinterest.
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Your turn again, readers! Have you read any of the above works and if so, what did you think of them? And can you suggest other works to add to these three categories or to the ones presented yesterday? Beth and I look forward to reading your comments below.
From Beth: Intrigued by some of these titles? Go ahead, download a few! ‘Tis the season to support the output of other international creatives.
Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Heidi. As the TCK child of an American Air Force dad and a Danish mom, you’ve lived in North Carolina, Turkey, Washington state, and Germany. Can you tell us a little more about the chronology of the moves?
I was born in Seattle and moved to Turkey at the age of six months. The next years until I was 11, I was in North Carolina and Germany, with summers and holidays in Denmark. Since college, which was at Stanford, I have lived in NYC for grad school, Connecticut for law school, and now I split my time between the East and West Coasts.
Do you remember being happier in one place in particular?
I was pretty happy in all the places where I grew up—I was still very young. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.
Repatriations can be the hardest moves of all for TCKs, and repeated repatriation can be particularly tough, so I’m curious to know if this was true for you whenever you returned to the United States.
I had never thought of the moves as “repatriations” but that’s interesting. I think when I was very young I wasn’t aware of a lot of difficulties. But when we finally moved back to the States when I was 11, it was very difficult. I was at an age of awareness. I felt more like an immigrant. It was so interesting to me that I had an idea of what America was when I lived overseas, and I learned quickly that America didn’t operate the way I’d imagined it from far away.
“We family.”—African-American proverb
Tell us about your summers and holidays in Denmark with your mom’s family.
It was awesome for me—in particular because my mother raised us speaking Danish and English. I am forever grateful that I have both languages. It made me infinitely closer to my aunts and cousins, whom I adore. As an adult, it’s been interesting to see how Denmark is changing. I remember going back when I was in college. I hadn’t been in ten years. My cousins had Copenhagen boyfriends, and they’d laugh whenever I talked. It wasn’t because they didn’t understand what I was saying, but they found my country accent strange. I guess I sounded like someone from Birmingham, Alabama, visiting NYC. It’s English, but it sounds very different. For years after that visit, I have often wondered whether certain traditions or sayings I learned were in fact Danish or just my mom’s own quirks.
Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures? Or are you like many TCKs who are more likely to identify with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given that we’ll identify with them, either.)
I identify myself as an Afro-Viking—that is a small but growing demographic, by the way! In terms of who I am most likely to identify with—well, I think for many years in my adulthood I was very interested in finding other “mixed” friends. I wanted to know how they negotiated being multiracial and multicultural. I have found that I still have that affinity, but now I am more drawn to people who have the same career interests, who are moving on the same path at the same rate.
Studies have shown that TCKs have similar identity issues and struggles to children of mixed heritage. You and I are TCKs of mixed heritage, which makes our identities more layered than most, and makes for quite an identity struggle during adolescence. And sometimes there are shifts. I was culturally Guatemalan when I was very little, but that hasn’t been my main identity for decades.
I haven’t shed any of my identities—I feel like I’ve added on to them over time. I remember in college I was essentially “passing” as Latina. I lived in the Hispanic-theme dorm, took Spanish classes and became the second-vice-chair of the Latino Electrical Engineering Society. I liked the idea that in latino culture they had already thought about the idea of the mestizo. So I added that on to my identity. And then when I moved to NYC I found that people thought I was what they were. Bangladeshis thought I was Bangladeshi, Puerto Ricans thought I was Puerto Rican, Greeks thought I was Greek. I’m not any of those things, but I feel like the fact that people see me as part of their own tribes has added another layer to my identity: a layer of belonging.
“He hath need of his wits who wanders wide.”—Old Norse proverb
I can relate: I was very pleased to be mistaken for Turkish when my husband and I honeymooned in Turkey. As an adult TCK, do you ever suffer from “itchy feet,” which make you want to move (locations, jobs, etc.) frequently?
You got me. I actually live on two coasts—flying back and forth every few days. I fly more than 100,000 miles per year. I can’t stay still. The same has been true for my career: I’ve been a Hallmark greeting-card writer, a journalist, a lawyer, a life skills trainer to NFL and NBA players, a podcaster, a festival producer and now a writer. Who knows what’s next?!
I often wonder if ATCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their peripatetic childhoods. Meanwhile, a peripatetic childhood fosters so many incredible experiences and thus stories to tell! Did your TCK upbringing influence your desire to become a writer?
My TCK upbringing has been great fuel for my writing, but it’s not the reason I wanted to become a writer. I do remember having a special feeling about writing as a child because of my upbringing—I loved to write letters. I’d write letters to the friends I moved away from and to my family—they were always far away. I was the kid who would save money to buy stationary and stamps.
But isn’t it fair to say that your choice of topic for your debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was influenced by your TCK upbringing and mixed-race heritage?
The story is autobiographical only insofar as it is about a biracial and bicultural girl growing up in the Northwest. I guess that is to say: the confusion of the character is a confusion I experienced. But the story—about a girl who survives a family tragedy—well, that was inspired by a real story I’d read in the news many years ago.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was fantastically well received. Did you learn something pivotal about yourself and your TCK upbringing in the process of writing it?
Oh gosh. I learned so much. I am still learning—in particular as the book reaches students in high school and college as required reading. I’m always so interested in the ways in which readers identify their own “displacement” with that of the main character, Rachel. I think the TCK experience is one of being an outsider in all places—and, strangely, that feeling is universal, familiar even to those who have grown up in one place their whole lives.
On your author site and your blog, Light-Skinned-ed Girl, as well as on your Mixed Experience Podcast, you mention that you’re working on a second novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
The new novel is still a work in progress. I’m on the verge of finishing a good complete draft at last! All I can say about it is that it’s about my obsessions again—about identity, and race and culture and grief; it’s about beauty and connectedness. Hopefully it’s something folks can relate to.
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Thank you, Heidi! I wish you all the best in your endeavors, and feel confident you’ll soon be repeating your amazing successes. I understand you’ve got the Mixed Remixed Festival coming up in mid-June here in LA, which will celebrate the stories of the Mixed experience through films and books—something Displaced Nationers would love to hear more about. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Heidi below.
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 an “Alice Award” to a writer or other kind of creative person who we think has 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 October’s four Alice recipients.
Starting with the most recent, and this time with annotations, they are (drumroll…):
1) CATHY TSANG-FEIGN, American psychologist in Hong Kong, specializing in expat psychology and adjustment issues
[Benjamin is a marketing buyer who was transferred to Hong Kong on a two-year contract. Having been through the phase of “elation,” he now finds himself in phase of “resistance,” with “transformation” and “integration” yet to come.]
Benjamin is getting annoyed by the frantic pace of life in Hong Kong, the indirectness of Chinese people in business, the crowds and difficulties in being understood. He is frustrated at the narrow choice of English-language entertainment on television or in cinemas and theaters. He finds himself missing his old friends, favorite foods, and the ways of doing things back home. Many foreigners in this [resistance] stage tend to associate only with others from their own country. They constantly compare everything to “back in England” (or New York or Frankfurt). Such people remain separate from the local community and establish their own secluded, privileged society. Many expatriates remain in this stage until the day they move back home.
Citation: Dr. Tsang-Feign, we wonder if in addition to Benjamin (who is presumably fictional) you might consider treating Alice in Wonderland as a textbook example of the four phases of acculturation? As you may recall from your own reading of Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice’s elation at falling down the rabbit-hole is rapidly followed by a period of resistance to the wonders found beneath. Down, down, down—Alice’s fall eventually culminates in unlocking a door to a passage through which yields the sight of the most fabulous garden. And her first taste of Wonderland is equally delightful: a drink that has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.” However, it is not long before Alice begins to resist the local community:
“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
Still, and as the latter statement attests, even at the height of her resistance Alice shows some potential for “transformation.” And though she never quite achieves “integration” before leaving Wonderland—she always feels a bit what we like to call displaced—her sister predicts that she will forever cherish the memories of her adventures. We can only speculate, not being psychologists ourselves, that this progress is owed to her not having had the opportunity to isolate herself with other Alices, to her having had a solo, and singular, set of experiences. Does that seem a fair assessment?
2) ANONYMOUS BLOGGER at Midwest to Midlands, who describes herself as “an American from the Midwest married to a Brit living in the English Midlands”
… it has taken me a while to get back on track since returning to England from out visit in the States. What do you do when you need to get yourself in gear? This time for me, some action was needed, or rather lack of action and enjoying the English countryside.
Citation: M-to-M, we love the idea of getting over the often-rough transitions from homeland to adopted land by doing nothing and simply immersing yourself in your surroundings—we only hope you realize how lucky you are to have landed in the Cotswolds, which has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. (If you lived in, say, smog-covered Shanghai, this technique would have required more imagination.) In fact, your photographic record of your desultory wanderings—first stop, a magnificent house or two made of Cotswold stone; next stop, a tea room; next, a window-box; next, a shop; next, a tree covered in golden leaves; next, an 18th-century house with an American letterbox—put us in mind of this charming passage from Lewis Carroll’s classic:
“I should see the garden far better,” said Alice to herself, “if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it—at least, no, it doesn’t do that—” (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), “but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose—no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.”
For her post: “Thoughts on Leaving Pakistan” (her first post in a year-and-a-half, since she and her husband moved back to Pakistan from the United States, and just before they left for a new adventure in Spain) Posted on: 4 October 2013 Snippet:
It was a parallel universe, where we all lived free, modern lives, like citizens of a free, modern country, utterly disconnected from the “other” Pakistan, the bigger Pakistan, and for all intents and purposes, the “real” Pakistan. Yet perhaps it was our only survival, the only way to keep sane and creative and happy for those of us who chose to live in our native country.
Citation: Manal, your deep love for your native land shines through your many beautiful photos and stories—as does your frustration about its “overwhelming religiosity and self-righteousness.” We are glad that, unlike Alice, you were able to get out of “that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains” from time to time. And a very pleasant little Wonderland it sounds, that part of Lahore where people meet up in New York-style cafés for mocha cappuccinos, and have children who dress up for Halloween and parties where alcohol flows freely. By the same token, we can appreciate how happy you were to leave this “schizophrenic” life for Madrid. Readers, we will hear about Manal’s latest adventures this month as she has agreed to be one of November’s featured authors!
Shortly before I arrived in Denmark in 2000, one of the famous guards outside the queen’s palace at Amalieborg was fired.
… She was the first woman to guard the Royal Palace at Amalieborg. … Unfortunately, this young lady also had a part-time job. She was a prostitute. She would guard the palace by day and run her business out of the royal barracks in the evening.
… But she was NOT fired because she was a prostitute. She was fired because she’d been ordered by her commander to stop moonlighting after her side-job was first discovered, and she did not stop. … She was fired for not following orders.
Citation: Kay, we don’t know which experience is stranger: Alice’s discovery that the Queen of Hearts has cards for guards, or yours that Margrethe II had a prostitute for a guard. But leaving that matter aside, what’s even stranger in both cases is that the rules by which a guard’s behavior is judged are far from transparent, even after an explanation is offered. The Danes you queried about the incident told you that as far as they were concerned, even a Queen’s guard can do what she wants in her private time; but insubordination is unacceptable: off with her job! Likewise, when Alice asks a couple of the Card Guards why they are painting the roses, she gets this response:
Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began in a low voice, “Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a RED rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the Queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know. So you see, Miss, we’re doing our best, afore she comes.”
We expect you can empathize!
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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 these weekly sources of inspiration. Get on our subscription list now!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment on blogging from JACK THE HACK.
Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance whether you’re one of our 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!
Today we welcome expat crime writer JJ Marsh to the Displaced Nation. JJ grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. Having at this point lived in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France—she finally settled in Switzerland—JJ certainly belongs in our midst! But what makes her even more special is that she has offered to impart her knowledge to other international creatives about the portrayal of “place” in one’s works.
Currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs (on loan from Interpol), today JJ begins a new series for us, entitled “Location, Locution.” In the opening post, she will answer the questions she plans to ask other displaced authors in future posts.
JJ, we are positively THRILLED (in more ways than one!) to have you as a new columnist. Welcome! And now to get to know you a little better…
Which comes first, story or location?
Story, always. Or at least the bare bones of the plot. Then I audition various places before beginning to write. I have to know the setting, even before populating the novel with characters. The place IS a character. For example, once I knew the victims would be corporate Fat Cats in Behind Closed Doors, the first in my Beatrice Stubbs series, I looked around for a financial centre with the right kind of atmosphere. Turns out my home town of Zürich fitted the bill and even gave me the title.
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I’d say by really looking at it and digging deep. Not only that, but try to look at it from the perspective of your reader. It’s no coincidence that in many European languages, one asks for a description using the word “How”.
Wie war es?
Yet in English, we say “What is it like?” We want comparisons to what we know. I actively chose to use a foreigner arriving in a strange country/city, so as to look at it with new eyes.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
I start with the senses. We notice sights, sounds and smells first, and add to our impressions with tastes and textures, all the while comparing them to our expectations. Food and drink are essential, as they reveal something of the region but also much about the characters. Cultural differences have to be treated with great care in fiction. Lumpen great dumps of information are poison to pace. But subtle observations can be woven into the story, provided they are relevant. I’ve just abandoned a book set in Rome which was clumsily pasted chunks of guidebook against a sub-par Eat, Pray, Love plot. The reader wants to be immersed in the world of the book, not subjected to the author’s holiday snaps.
While I am awed by that achievement, I don’t think I could do it. I need to ‘feel’ the place and also, to understand the people.
My nomadic past and interest in culture led me to study the work of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars. One of their models is to analyze culture like an onion. The outer layer is Symbols—what represents the country to outsiders/its own people? The next is Heroes—who do the people worship and venerate? Peel that away and explore its Rituals—on a national and personal level. At the centre of the Onion, you will find its values, the hardest part of a culture to access. But that’s where the heart is.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
The recent UK horsemeat scandal amused me, as it’s part of the average menu in Switzerland. Here my combative detectives, one Swiss, one British, have just finished lunch.
Beatrice patted her mouth with her napkin. “Herr Kälin, your recommendation was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed that meal.”
“Good. Would you like coffee, or shall I get the bill?”
“I’ve taken up enough of your time. Let’s pay up and head for home.” Beatrice finished her wine.
Kälin hailed the waitress. “I wasn’t sure you’d like this kind of farmer’s food.”
“Farmer’s food is my favourite sort. Solid and unpretentious. Not the sort of fare they would serve in those crisp white tents at the polo park.”
Kälin let out a short laugh. Beatrice cocked her head in enquiry.
“It would definitely be inappropriate at the polo park, Frau Stubbs. We’ve just eaten Pferdefleisch. Horse steak.”
Thank you, JJ! Readers, any further questions to JJ on her portrayal of “place”, or authors you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. You may also enjoy checking out the first three books in JJ Marsh’s Beatrice Stubbs series:
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.
Why? Because we got to get ourselves prepared for 2014—that’s why!
What’s happening in Copenhagen 2014? Only the greatest thing ever! I’m talking Eurovision.
Oh dear, that was two weeks ago. Are you still withering on about that? Excuse me, if I’m still on a Eurovision high. And who wouldn’t be after the winsome, elfin like charms of Emmelie de Forest winning it for the Danes with her delightful song, “Only Teardrops.” I’ve been listening to it for two weeks straight. Having won this year’s Eurovision, Denmark will be hosting next year’s tournament giving us the perfect opportunity to go over and visit the Danish capital.
To be honest, I’m not that big a fan of Euro pop. What a sour puss! Still, there’s plenty of things for you to enjoy while I’m off getting my Euro groove on.
Such as? Grab a bike and cycle around the city.
Well, that sounds like a nice and easy way to tour around. It is! Copenhagen really is a bike friendly city. Some companies that you can rent from can be found here. In fact, you can cycle all the way to the statue of Hans Christen Andersen’s Little Mermaid, which sits on a rock in the harbor—it’s quite the tourist attraction, if a little underwhelming, but you don’t like to say as the locals are so pleasant and you don’t want to hurt their feelings as they really are proud of it.
You really are a true diplomat, aren’t you? If you find yourself really charmed by the Hans Christian Andersen theme then you can also visit the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale house. It’s operated by Ripley’s Believe it or Not!—so perhaps is best enjoyed if you’re bringing the kids. Although to be honest, just wandering around the New Harbor district is like stepping into one of the famed Danish writer’s stories.
And what about more adult-orientated options? Then you might want to consider visiting Freetown, Christiania—definitely best not to bring the kids if you’re going there.
What is it? A self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood of about 850 residents—well, that’s how it’s described on Wikipedia, though you might know it best as a commune.
Hardly sounds like a tourist spot. It is a fascinating place to visit in order to see the community that has grown up in the area. Just don’t—to be glib for a change—buy any of the brownies.
So I really should go there to soak up the atmosphere but not inhale it? Exactly.
Anything else other than fairy tales and hippies for me to see? I’ve two recommendations for you and they both involve Carlsberg.
The beer people? Yes.
Great. What are they? Well the first is to visit the Carlsberg brewery. They have a Visitor’s Centre located at their original brewery that will detail the history of this famous beer . . .
. . . But will I get a sample of their product? I wouldn’t countenance recommending the Visitor’s Centre if they didn’t hand out samples.
So it’s probably the best Visitor’s Centre in the world? Yes, very droll. The cost of your entry fee is good for one sample and, considering the high cost of food and drink in that part of the world, it really is the cheapest drink you’ll find in Copenhagen, unless someone offers you a bottle of something in Christiania.
Probably best that I don’t try and pronounce that after a couple of pints of Carlsberg. True.
What is it? It’s an art museum. Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of the Carlsberg brewery, amassed a vast collection of art that he gifted to the state. It has one of the largest Rodin collections in the world. It really is a wonderful place to lose yourself in.
Other recommendations? If you love a bit of royalty, then the Amalienborg Museum allows a glimpse into the regal side of Copenhagen. The Amalienborg itself (a square on which four identical palaces are located) is an amazingly relaxed place to visit and cycle around considering it is an official residence for the Danish royal family. I’d also recommend the Museum of Copenhagen for a fascinating overview of the history of the city.
What should I read? Well, Denmark’s golden age is marked by the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Do you want fairy tales or existential philosophy? The choice really is yours. More recently, Peter Hoeg is a Danish author who has had considerable international success with his novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Karen Blixen (who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen) is unarguably the most acclaimed Danish novelist of the C20th. Her best-known work, Out of Africa, is perhaps not the most evocative novel for someone planning a trip to Copenhagen on account of its Kenyan setting, but irrespective of that it is still very much worth your time.
Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!
When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.
It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.
I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.
Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees
A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)
Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…
Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.
Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)
Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)
It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.
Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?
WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!
1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers
This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:
1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia) SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.
2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden) SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.
3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton) SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
2) Best Foreign Displaced Film
This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:
1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes) SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.
2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila) SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:
[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch) SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:
The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
3) Most Displaced Director
This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:
1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:
Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.
2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:
Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress
This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:
1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:
His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.
[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.
[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.
2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.
3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
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Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
But, not so fast. There’s a rookie on the scene that is taking on the veteran. I refer to the Danish crime series, The Killing, which is currently airing on AMC.
Now, what do the Danes know about crime — apart from suicide (regicide, too, if we go as far back as Hamlet)? Well, I’m here to tell you that this “smorgasbord thriller” has fast achieved cult status in the UK and now the US. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in her New York Times review:
It’s unnerving how well the Nordic sensibility fits a genre that for a long time seemed indisputably and inimitably violent and American, particularly given that Sweden, Norway and Denmark have homicide rates that suggest that they have more mystery writers per capita than murders.
Having become a a diehard (haha!) fan of the Danish noir series after a couple of episodes, I’ve been thinking about it of late in the context of The Displaced Nation. What happens when a TV series becomes expatified? Can we who have chosen to displace ourselves to other countries glean anything from its acculturation process?
Here are three hardboiled observations:
1) America is not Britain.
I was an expat in the UK for many years so am fated to have this thought nearly everyday: America is not Britain. Still, it’s gratifying to have it confirmed by third-party sources. Gratifying and, I must say, somewhat surprising given how quickly the UK appears to have become Americanized since I left. (I mean, pub grub now includes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches! That would NEVER have happened in my day!)
Here’s the thing: the UK imported the original Danish series, entitled Forbydelsen, and simply added subtitles. Which completely makes sense to me — yes, I remain that anglicized.
But for an American audience, of course, subtitles won’t do. Thus AMC hired Veena Sud to come up with an adaptation. Sud moved the action to Seattle, which, she says, is the “closest American city, viscerally, to Copenhagen.”
2) Sud is right: Seattle is as creepy as Copenhagen.
Who knew that Seattle could be so creepy? Certainly not me. Though I’ve never had the honor of visiting that Pacific Northwest city, being an East Coaster I have always held a romantic view of it. At one point I even thought of Seattle as a place I might like to live in some day — especially as the people are reputed to behave with greater decency towards each other than us competitive, dog-eat-dog New Yorkers.
But The Killing has quashed this “domestic expat” fantasy of mine, at least for now.
It underlines a truth we’ve been exploring recently on The Displaced Nation: horrific crimes can happen anywhere, even in settings where people are bending over backwards to be pleasant to one another.
3) But the series also addresses themes that transcend national borders, at least in Western countries.
Setting is important — one of the reasons for the series’ popularity in Britain is that so many people coveted the female detective’s classic Feroese sweater, and I think some fans of the AMC production enjoy watching a crime drama that takes place in Seattle, not New York or L.A.
But if setting is a crucial hook, it’s by no means the only reason The Killing has captivated viewers beyond Denmark and made such a killing for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
The show also addresses themes of widespread concern to Western countries: most notably, the fact that even in our supposedly civilized societies (we don’t have female genital mutilation! we don’t have honor killings!), many young women continue to be victims of violence.
The killing to which the title refers is that of a teenage girl, and each each one-hour episode depicts 24 hours in the police investigation, during which we are able to observe the impact of the tragedy has had on the girl’s family, her community, and the people involved in the investigation.
Another theme running through the series is xenophobia: the distrust American and European societies have for Muslim immigrants. America has yet to process the legacy of 9/11, while the Danes are still reeling from the incident involving cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. (To this day, he receives death threats for his cheeky portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.)
For better or for worse, this Danish crime thriller holds up a mirror to Western culture and shows how easy it is for us to pin the murder of the girl on the Muslim teacher. It eerily reflects the times we live in — perhaps its most chilling facet.
Question: Do you have an experience with a TV show or series that made you look at your own and/or other cultures in a fresh light?
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FOR, BY & ABOUT DISPLACED CREATIVES
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About The Displaced Nation
The founders of The Displaced Nation share a passion for what we call the "displaced life" of global residency and travel—particularly when it leads to creative pursuits, be it writing, art, food, business or even humo(u)r.