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JESS IN JAPAN: After all the hype, cherry blossom season underwhelms

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Jessica Awanohara in Tokyo (winter 2014); photo credit: Hiro Awanohara.

Jessica Awanohara moved from New York to Tokyo with her Japanese husband, Hiro, at the end of last year. What is it like to step “through the looking glass” and treat Japan as a home rather than a quirky place to visit? Jess keeps us abreast of her progress via this occasional column-cum-photos.

After a long, cold, all-around terrible winter, April is here, and in at least half of this beautiful world of ours, that means that spring has sprung! Crocuses are peaking through the nearly frozen plains of Central Park; monarch butterflies are beginning their multi-generational migration from Mexico to northerly climes; and in Tokyo, where I now reside, the most spectacular seasonal transition of them all—the blooming of the cherry trees, or sakura—has been taking place.

This being my first sakura season in Japan, I wasn’t entirely prepared for the national obsession with tracking when, where and how to best view the blossoms. In fact, for at least three weeks, sakura viewing was the only thing anyone talked about. Friends regaled us with stories of sakura seasons past, advising on the best and worst parks in Tokyo for beholding the spectacle of the storied blossoms. Like stock tips, they whispered these insights authoritatively, as though acting upon them would determine our very future.

I learned, for instance, that Inokashira Park, in the northwestern part of the city, was “too crowded, wild, and ‘diverse'” while Nakameguro, in the southeast, was the “ideal spot for a first-timer” like myself.

Meanwhile, the sakura craze was heightened by CNN-style coverage on TV. Whole segments of the morning and evening news were dedicated to maps, predictions, histories, and images detailing the slow ascension of blossoms from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

By the time the trees were showing their first buds, all I could think about was the prospect of attending a viewing party. In case you haven’t heard, celebrating under a fully blossomed cherry tree, a festival known as ohanami, is as eagerly anticipated as the blossoms themselves. All of Tokyo, it seems, comes out for marathon sessions of en plein air eating and drinking, presumably turning as pink as the flowers.

But as luck would have it, this year things would be different. Tokyo was soaked by two straight weeks of hard rain and cold weather. The delicate pink sakura petals were washed away before they were able to reach full bloom.

Braving these inclement conditions, my husband and I biked to a couple of nearby parks and well-known streets to soak up whatever we could (hopefully without getting too soaked!). But the grey skies and cold weather kept our spirits, along with the blooms, at bay. In fact, it was almost too depressing to document the mostly bare branches and paltry spray of revelers, but here, readers, are a few mementos of my first cherry blossom season in Tokyo:

Early sakura in Nakameguro; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

Early sakura in Nakameguro, alongside Meguro River, the recommended destination for newbies; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

At least someone is trying to get his party blooms on; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

At least someone (see man on curb) is trying to get his party blooms on; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

The actual best spot to view cherry blossoms this year, snapped on the way to an interview in Shinsen; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

The actual best spot to view cherry blossoms this year, snapped on the way to an interview in Shinsen; photo credit: Jessica Awanohara.

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Thanks, Jessica. Sorry to hear it was such a wash-out! Readers, Jess’s experiences raises a classic Displaced Q: How many of you have sought an iconic experience during your stay abroad that didn’t quite live up to your expectations?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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THE DISPLACED Q: With enough time and resources, what would you most like to learn in your adopted culture?


file0001883482933A long time ago, in a country far, far away, my nine-year-old self visited a museum in England. The American Museum in Bath was my first experience of anything American that wasn’t viewed on a black-and-white TV, and, while I recall finding the museum interesting, there was one particular exhibition that is still lodged in my long-term memory: the extensive collection of antique quilts.  Exquisite, detailed, and painstakingly hand-sewn by American women hundreds of years ago, these quilts and the stories behind them fascinated me.

How difficult can it be?

Fast forward a couple of decades, and there I was, newly arrived in New England. I’d worked out the day-to-day details of where to shop, where to bank, and how to order a pizza in a fake American(ish) accent so that it got delivered to the right address. Perhaps it was the amount of free time suddenly on my hands, or the impending arrival of another baby that put me in a domesticated mood, but when I received in the mail a brochure for adult education courses at the local high school, I signed up for Quilting For Beginners. I was in the heart of quilting territory, and I was going to make one of those big quilts. How difficult could it be, if women two hundred years ago made them by hand, by candlelight?

A newfound respect…

The course lasted for eight weeks. If I’d previously admired the Old American quilters whose handiwork graced the museum in Bath, at the end of those eight weeks they had achieved god-like status in my mind. It’s not as if I was a novice at sewing. My mother, an expert needlewoman and daughter of a tailoress herself, had taught me the basics long ago. But whereas I was making a small lap-quilt on an electric sewing machine, many of the much larger quilts I’d seen in Bath would have been made by hand;  the first American patent for a two-thread machine wasn’t issued until 1846.

…and an appreciation for our foremothers

In the same way I am in awe of Austen and Dickens writing without the help of even a typewriter, let alone a Mac, I am humbled to think of the hours these women spent in creating a textile legacy for their country’s future generations. The two month process of learning a craft associated with the part of the world where I was living made me appreciate aspects of the region’s history and early life, perhaps more than visits to American museums on this side of the Atlantic did.

The quilt I made is still here, draped neatly over a chair in the spare bedroom, a reminder of eight weeks  of cutting, pinning, sewing, and then unpicking when it all went wrong — but eventually finishing. Eight weeks of learning a new craft…and so much more.

Readers, what about you? What would you like to learn in your adopted country, and what else would it teach you?

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STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post!

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Image: Morguefile

The 12 Stodges of Christmas: Global foods to pack on the pounds this December!

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Today, we bring you a helpful list of the most stodgy, calorie-intense dishes that make their way onto holiday dinner tables around the world.

The way we see it, if you’re going to eat celery and spend all January on a treadmill — and it’s pretty much the law that you do — you might as well make December’s crime fit January’s punishment..

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love sent to me…

A Christmas Pudding from England. Also known as Plum Pudding or Plum Duff, although plums do not feature in the  approved list of ingredients, which includes assorted nuts and dried fruits, suet, and a small keg of brandy. The pudding is steam-cooked for approximately four days before being doused in more brandy and set alight at the dinner table. Accompanied by brandy sauce, brandy butter, and the contents of a fire extinguisher.

My True Love only sent one of these because of their extreme density. If Christmas Puddings were chemical elements, they would lie somewhere between osmium and iridium.

On the 2nd day of Christmas…

Two bowls of Kutia from Ukraine. Often the first dish in the traditional 12-dish Christmas Eve supper served in many Eastern European cultures, Kutia is traditionally made from wheatberries, poppy seeds, nuts, raisins, and honey. Apparently,  it should be made about two weeks in advance. Presumably by the time it is ready it has begun the fermentation process and so adds to the seasonal merriment.

On the 3rd day of Christmas…

Three servings of Julgrøt from Norway. Christmas rice pudding, made from rice, sugar, cream, ground almonds, and containing a single whole almond. The person who finds the almond wins a prize…perhaps a crash course in how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver.

On the 4th day of Christmas…

Four pieces of Stollen from Germany. It’s fruit cake, people. Fruit cake gets a bad press, particularly in the USA, as Anthony Windram pointed out on his own blog this week, but if you call it Stollen, it’s all Bavarian and Christmassy and wonderful.

On the 5th day of Christmas…

Five Mince Pies. A Christmas delicacy from Britain: small pies containing dried fruit, sugar, a healthy dose of brandy, and, if you’re going to do it properly, that weird ingredient suet again. Americans find it very difficult to wrap their heads around the idea of fatty bird fodder going into foods for human consumption, so when I offer my American friends my homemade mince pies, filled with made-from-scratch mincemeat, I wait until they’ve eaten a few before enlightening them that they’ve just eaten the contents of their bird feeder.

On the 6th day of Christmas…

Six buckets of KFC from Japan. Orders are placed two months in advance, and people line up outside the Colonel’s place to get their hands on this delicacy, which over the last 40 years has become a Christmas tradition in Japan.

“Our holiday sales are five to ten times higher than other months,” said spokesman Sumeo Yokokawa. “In Japan, Christmas equals KFC.” (ABC News)

A miracle of marketing by KFC, if nothing else.

On the 7th day of Christmas…

Seven Karelian Pasties from Finland. Originally from Russian Karelia, these pasties have a thin crust of rye or rye/wheat and a filling of barley, potato, buckwheat, or rice (the most popular modern filling.) Toppings include cheese, ham, shrimp, and slices of reindeer.

Yes, reindeer. I guess the buck — and Santa Claus — stops in Finland.

On the 8th day of Christmas…

Eight bibingka from the Philippines – a traditional Christmas dessert made from rice flour and coconut milk, baked in banana leaves. A generously-sized bibingka would serve four people. The bibingka made by residents of Mandaue in Cebu, in May 2011, would serve considerably more. It contanined 50 sacks of rice, 50 sacks of sugar, and the milk from 13,500 coconuts.

Now there’s a town that takes its holiday stodge seriously.

On the 9th day of Christmas…

Nine bread puddings from Puerto Rico. Bread Pudding can be found in many variations around the globe; this Puerto Rican version, made with coconut milk and sliced mango, manages to make the ultimate stodgy pudding into something exotic.

Having hankered after a Caribbean Christmas for more years than I can remember, I fear this dessert only serves to strengthen my resolve.

On the 10th day of Christmas…

Ten Bolo Rei from Portugal. Bolo Rei – King Cake. Crown-shaped cakes, encrusted with raisins, nuts, and crystallized fruit. Contains a small metallic toy and a fava bean. Whoever finds the fava bean is supposed to pay for the bolo rei the following year — talk about adding insult to injury.

On the 11th day of Christmas…

Eleven lussekatter from Sweden. These saffron and quark buns are eaten to celebrate Saint Lucy’s Day, the shortest day of the year which, according to the Julian Calendar, was December 13th. When the Gregorian Calendar changed this to December 21st, Saint Lucy’s Day defiantly remained on the 13th. The Swedes’ cavalier attitude to dates and solstices is why I don’t feel too bad about suggesting you eat these delicious morsels on January 4th.

On the 12th day of Christmas…

And finally, if your True Love has really showered you with all these carbs, the only thing he should be giving you on Day 12 is a year’s subscription to Weight Watchers.

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STAY TUNED for more Random Nomad highlights from 2012!

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Image: Woman Standing on Weighing Scale – stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

THE DISPLACED Q: Expats, repats, what’s the most outlandish tweak you’ve made to your Thanksgiving menu?

Since my repatriation to America, Thanksgiving has become my very favorite holiday here. This is partly because of a tweak that I make to the menu, but we’ll get to that later.

I wasn’t always so thankful for Thanksgiving. I only celebrated this American holiday twice while living abroad for many years, first in England and then in Japan — and to be honest, I didn’t really miss it.

Both celebrations took place when I was pursuing graduate studies at a British university.

The first time was for my very first Thanksgiving away from my family. I joined several other American grad students in preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to serve in the dorm. Our guests were mostly other international students who were curious to experience an authentic version of this quintessentially American custom — as I recall, there were very few Brits.

At one point, a rather bitter argument erupted between Anna, a Harvard-educated woman who was pursuing a higher degree in feminist studies, and Andy, a Georgetown-educated man who was doing an M.A. in politics.

Andy didn’t like the fact that Anna was carving the turkey, proclaiming to the assembled guests:

It can’t be Thanksgiving if a WOMAN is carving the turkey.

I don’t really remember what happened after that — whether Andy insisted upon taking over, or Anna stormed out of the room. But it did cast a bit of a pall over the proceedings.

The food, though, was a close facsimile to the meals I’d enjoyed at home. And the arguing part? That was something I could relate to as well.

And there was snow, which we could see through the huge dorm windows, covering the panoramic Constable (literally) landscape below.

Thanksgiving-on-the-Hill

The only other time occurred a few years later, when an American friend came to live in North London on a teaching exchange with the Harrow School.

He, too, was spending his first Thanksgiving away from home, so decided to host a potluck Thanksgiving dinner in his living quarters.

Again, I think the food was good, but as I recall, the guests, most of whom were English, thought that potluck was a funny way to do a formal dinner. And the setting wasn’t exactly conducive to re-creating a New World feast. Walking from Harrow-on-the-Hill station, we passed by boys in the quaint Harrow uniform, including black ties (allegedly they are still in mourning for Queen Victoria!).

My Thankgiving-less years

After that rather harrowing (sorry, couldn’t resist) experience, I stopped doing Thanksgiving. I married a Brit and we invariably went to his family for Christmas dinner, which — probably not coincidentally — resembles the Thanksgiving meal enjoyed by the Pilgrims. Turkey is the most popular main, cranberry sauce and all. (No pumpkin pie, though!)

Even when we moved to Japan, where there were more Americans, I didn’t reinstate the custom. It seemed too much like hard work competing at the international grocery stores for vastly overpriced frozen turkeys (specially imported for the occasion) and cans of pumpkin.

What’s more — and I probably should have mentioned this earlier — I’ve never been especially keen on turkey. Once, when I was an early teen, I got food poisoning from an undercooked bird, a memory I’ve found hard to erase.

Something else I forgot to mention is that although I enjoy cooking, I’m not a roaster or a baker. I have never achieved the requisite culinary skills to produce a Thanksgiving dinner on my lonesome — even to this day, when I’m living in the U.S. again.

Nor did I especially enjoy the production such a big meal entails. If I’m going to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, I’d prefer to be producing something a little less bland than a roasted turkey, such as a Madhur Jaffrey Indian spread.

New thought: Maybe going abroad gave me the chance to escape from Thanksgiving? I wonder…

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving…but for one tweak!

So it is strange, the inordinate fondness I now have for this late November holiday. I like it because, unlike Christmas, it’s secular, so you don’t have to hesitate in wishing someone a happy Thanksgiving. It’s also less commercial, consisting primarily of an elegant meal with family and friends (I’m good at tuning out football).

I even enjoy eating turkey more than I used to — especially the dark meat. According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s the sides that American people sometimes tweak. But I like the sides. My absolute favorites are the stuffing and mashed potatoes, in that order.

All of that said, I do feel compelled to make one major tweak because of my hybrid background. Instead of turkey sandwiches the day after, I prefer chirashi-turkey-zushi!!!

Chirashi is Japanese for “scattered” — a scattered bowl of assorted fresh ingredients. Most likely you have tried chirashizushi: a bowl of sushi rice topped with a variety of sashimi (raw fish) and other garnishes. (See #2 in the photo.)

What my (second) husband, who is Japanese, and I like to do, on the day after Thanksgiving, is to substitute leftover turkey for the raw fish.

Chirashi-turkey-zushi is tasty, fast, and easy to make — particularly if you can get ahold of:

  • microwavable Japanese rice (use two or three packets for four people)
  • chirashi seasoning mix, containing five vegetables — typically, carrots, lotus, bamboo shoots, and shiitake mushrooms — sushi vinegar, seasoning, and nori (seaweed).
  • Kizami nori (shredded seaweed), to use as a topping.

There are no hard and fast rules as long as you get the seasoning right. And in my (admittedly rather biased) view, turkey goes as well with that seasoning as raw fish does!

* * *

Okay, your turn to tell me: what’s your idiosyncratic contribution to America’s national feast? Or if you’re not American, what do you do to internationalize your native festive spreads this time of year? I’m all ears, and tastebuds…!

STAY TUNED for another Thanksgiving post, by guest blogger Kristin Bair O’Keeffe.

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THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels, have you ever run into horror in the midst of beauty?

We’re trading horror stories again today — about places that are otherwise considered beautiful. With all the violence in this planet’s history, almost every unspoilt view has been a battlefield at some point or other.

But instead I have a personal tale, about the beauty — and the power — of nature.

My wife and I have recently moved to Perth, Australia, to be close to her family. She grew up in a village surrounded by forest on the outskirts of Perth called Roleystone, in the same house her dad and three sisters still live in.

Heaven in the hills

Her hometown is an amazing place — far enough from the city that urbanites consider it part of the outback, yet close enough to have those things that make modern life so convenient, like mains water and electricity.

It’s a ocean of tranquility, a haven for wildlife from bandicoots to parrots to possums to kangaroos. All of them can be seen in the back garden of the family house, which is built into half an acre of steep, wooded hillside.

It is utterly beautiful.

To live in that house is to experience peace — at least until the possums start fighting on the roof! During the period when we lived with her family, I used to wake up every morning to bird-song and dappled light streaming in past the trees that shade the windows.

But then, in February of 2011, tragedy struck in the form of a raging bushfire. Most Australians have nightmares about bushfires at some point or other, but out here in the forest it becomes real all too often.

Fire is a way of life for much of the native flora; the cycle of summer burnings is so regular that seed pods from the honky trees only split when roasted in several-hundred-degree infernos. The vegetation is designed to burn, charring the outer layers of bark on trees that have adapted to cope with — indeed, have come to require — this treatment. Iconic Australian species like grass trees and gum trees couldn’t reproduce without fire to crack open their rock-like seed casings. It’s just another cycle: natural, predictable — and unstoppable.

Especially when it gets out of hand.

Because humans aren’t like those trees. The colonizers of Australia have learned to live with the harshness of its environment — but there’s one thing that can never be withstood, and that is fire.

Hell in the hills

The blaze that engulfed Roleystone was started by accident (as so many of them are). A local man, using an angle grinder outside the front of his house, caused the sparks that set the bush alight for miles around. In a matter of hours, the neighborhood was surrounded by fire, dozens of properties were ablaze, and street by street, as the fire advanced, residents were told to evacuate their homes.

My wife and I were back in England at the time, dealing with some issues of our own, so all I could do was scour the Internet for news while she studied Facebook for updates from her family and friends.

My wife’s father and her three sisters had packed their most precious belongings into the car. Photo albums went in first — the only truly irreplaceable things in the house, containing the last memories of my wife’s mum.

As the wind picked up and the flames grew closer, the next street over was evacuated by fire service volunteers. Helicopters thundered past overhead, carrying giant buckets filled with lake water.

My wife’s whole family sat by the radio, listening to the emergency broadcast, waiting for their street name to be announced; waiting for the call to flee.

It never came.

The wind changed again and the fire swept past less than half 500 metres away, incinerating the village on the other side of the hill.

My wife’s family never had to make the choice between leaving their home for good, and staying to risk their lives defending it. They were luckier than many of their neighbors — though thankfully all of them chose wisely. No one stayed, and no one lost their life.

What they did lose was absolutely everything else.

71 houses were burnt to the ground. Another 39 were damaged, along with two schools — and the main bridge into the village, which collapsed.

Almost two years later, the local landscape has started to recover. The legacy of the fires is, as always, new growth; everywhere new trees and under-brush is flourishing, dark green against the black. The charred portion of bark reaches three or four metres up the trunk of every tree, and still dominates the woodland when viewed from the road — but the trees themselves survived, and will prosper because of it.

Unlike the houses.

Now, we drive through that scorched, blackened forest almost every day. Houses have been rebuilt on many, but not all, of the vacant plots. Life has returned to normal in Roleystone, bordered as it is by charcoal-coated trees. It’s a reminder that living here, in such a volatile environment, is very nearly as dangerous as it is peaceful, beautiful and idyllic.

And so as not to end on a downer, here’s one of my favorite quotes from comic fantasy book writer Terry Pratchett:

Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.

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So, Displaced Nationers, share your stories with us! Have you visited any beauty spots that are tinged with horror? We’d love to know about them.

Let us know in the comments, or catch us on Twitter: @DisplacedNation

STAY TUNED for Monday’s guest post, a horror tale of a different kind.

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THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?

Tony+ScaryBoy_collageOn your travels, have you ever seen a ghost?

And if you have — who ya gonna call?

I know, I know, you saw that one coming!

Seriously, though, for today’s Displaced Q, I’m asking about your supernatural experiences. Between all of us, we’ve been to a lot of places. So if there’s any truth in spooks and spirits, some of us are bound to have seen them, right?

Getting into the spirit of things

Well, I’ve never seen a ghost; but that could well be because I’m about as psychic as a cheese. Seriously — I’m not what you’d call particularly sensitive. Even to the physical world around me, as my body can attest; it’s constantly covered in bruises from walking into walls, chairs, doors — anything that regular people have sufficient grace to avoid.

But I digress. Our topic today is ghosts, and I’m a big believer in them. Why is that, you may wonder — given that I haven’t had a particularly spooky encounter of my own? I’ve visited (allegedly) haunted pubs, and creepy castles by the bucketload (being a Brit has its advantages in this regard).

I’ve also been in tombs of many different kinds — from the long barrows of the old Celtic peoples to the chiseled-out mausoleums of Petra in Jordan, to the pyramids and underground catacombs of Egypt.

And … not a sausage!

You wouldn’t believe…

Yes, I’ve had those strange, hard-to-explain occurrences that I think everyone has at some point or other: doors opening on their own, things moving from one place to another; one time I was looking right at a mirror when it fell off the wall and smashed to pieces, after over a decade of hanging there unmoving!

More recently at my wedding, there were two important guests who were no longer with us. We invited them anyway, with our hearts and minds. Both were ladies who shared an obsession with butterflies, so we felt blessed by their presence when a pair of butterflies danced over our heads all the way through the ceremony!

And yet, I know such experiences are easy to explain. Maybe I want them to be paranormal in origin, but the logical part of my brain is too active. It soon rationalizes these kind of happenings until I feel foolish even mentioning them … so, generally, I don’t. (Unless of course, the Displaced Nation is doing a series of ghostie posties.)

The multilingual (and TCK) actor Robert Stack served as host of the TV program Unsolved Mysteries. As he once said:

I don’t mind UFOs and ghost stories, it’s just that I tend to give value to the storyteller rather than to the story itself.

Do ghosts escape from dreams?

But I do have dreams. Sometimes, when things happen, I swear I’ve already dreamt about them at least once. And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost.

Earlier this year I had to make that journey every expat dreads — back to my home country of England, all the way from Australia, to help look after a dying relative. It was my granddad, and we weren’t sure he was dying at the time, but whilst keeping vigil with him I had a dream that rang with prophecy. His wife — my grandmother — who had passed on almost ten years earlier, showed up in my dream, wandering about his house and looking under things. When I asked her what she was looking for, she replied that she was here to find her other half, and that it was somewhere in the room.

It was a curious dream, and a thought-provoking one, but not unpleasant. I had the presence of mind to tell my family about it as we prepared for another day caring for Gramp.

The doctors at the time were discussing weeks versus months, but he clearly had received his marching orders. He died that evening.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this, although I hope it will be the last; at least for a while. To have dreams of lost ones you first have to lose someone — and I’ve lost enough people this year to last me a lifetime.

That being said, I don’t think ghosts are evil, or vengeful spirits: just souls left behind, looking for something — or someone — they needed or cared for in life.

* * *

What do you think? Am I crazy?

To think that after all of my world travels, the most ghostly encounters I’ve had anywhere occurred back in my childhood home, in my bed.

Now that IS spooky!

So what about you folks? I’d love to hear your tales of what goes bump in the night. We’re coming up on Halloween, after all! In your travels, have you ever come across any restless spirits? Or had any experiences which made you think twice about them? Let me know in the comments!

Alternatively you can hit me up on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation. I look forward to hearing from you!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who writes books about dead bodies!

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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Image: Tony (L) and  Scary boy from MorgueFile (R)

THE DISPLACED Q: Expats & other globetrotters, what foods do you inflict on visitors from home?

I was a very finicky eater when I was growing up.

I would only eat beans on toast or fish-fingers.

Not beans with fish-fingers! Oh, no. In fact if beans touched the fish-fingers, the whole lot was all for the bin.

My poor mother must have been in despair.

Flash forward to the present day, and not much has changed…

Okay, so it has! Honest. I’m now prepared to try anything and everything — although my regular eating habits are not substantially more sophisticated. Well, I’ve added pizza to the mix, which I guess counts as Italian food.

So my question for you today, is this: what do you do when the roles are reversed, and your parents come to see you in a foreign land and rely on you for food? Do you inflict the local cuisine or look for a McDonald’s to tide them over?

The adventuresome Slater women

Now, my Mum has spent half her life trying to inflict a healthier diet on me, and I’d love to pay her back for that. Unfortunately she still has an infinitely more varied diet than I do, so there’s not much I can honestly try to inflict that would phase her.

As explained in my last Displaced Q, I once ate a peculiar insect dipped in soy sauce in Thailand, just to prove a point about my iron stomach. That may be why, when living in Thailand, I sometimes fantasized about getting my mother to try one of the deep-fried locusts they sell on the streets. First I would convince her it was a staple part of my new, healthier diet. And then I would watch carefully while she munched on it, seeing if she could keep it down. Just, you know, to get her back for all those times the beans touched the fish-fingers…

My only sibling, Gillian, has been traveling almost as long as I have, and is far more experimental when it comes to cooking and eating. Although I’ve never seen her eat insects either… But then, I can’t really blame her for all the horrible vegetables I was forced to consume as a young man.

Instead I’ll take revenge on my Dad.

The stick-in-the-mud Slater men

Because whilst it’s not his fault either, he is a very easy target.

He is not big on travel.

He is not big on foreign food.

Anytime he’s left to his own devices he invariably buys fish and chips wrapped up in a newspaper and eats it on his knee in front on the telly.

Sometimes for weeks at a time!

Bless him, he’s even more set in his ways in terms of food that I am. It took me a year to inflict pizza on him for the first time, and I’ve still never managed to convince him to try a nice pad thai.

The thing is, we both know what we like, and we’re both happy to stick with them.

It’s not the most exciting way to live, and certainly not the healthiest.

We’re both firm believers in this saying of Mark Twain’s:

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

So, our combined intake of junk food is worryingly high.

But just for a change, I’d like to inflict on him — and on all my family, given half a chance — the one thing I’ve eaten that might prove too much for all of them: guinea pig (cuy) in South America. Or possibly baby octopus in Thailand.

Just to see the looks on their faces… And to hear my Dad announce in no uncertain terms: “I’m not bloody eating that!”

* * *

So, now it’s your turn! What foods would you inflict on a visiting relative, and why? Or have you already inflicted some — and with what results?

Answers on a postcard to — no, wait! Stick ’em in the comments section below. We’re not in our childhoods any more; it’s the future!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who has eaten cuy and loved it! (She was one of the winners of yesterday’s Food Alices…)

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img: The Slater women chowing down at a Medieval banquet; stomachs of iron indeed!

THE DISPLACED Q: On your world travels, have you ever downright refused to try a new food?

Well, I’ve developed a reputation for having a cast-iron stomach as I’ve traveled around. I’ve never been shy to try new things, even though my own taste in food is pretty poor.

I ate a peculiar insect dipped in soy sauce in Thailand — mostly because I’d just finished telling my friends about this cast-iron stomach of mine, and they felt inclined to put me to the test.

On this occasion I passed — despite the stall holder who’d sold me the thing waiting until I’d taken a good healthy bite before pointing out that I wasn’t supposed to eat the wings and carapace. So why did he leave them on? Sadist. They tasted — and felt — like eating fingernails. Dipped in soy sauce, of course.

But I survived, and since then have graciously accepted all manner of disgusting foods — most notably, vegetables of all kinds, including (horror of horrors!) Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Blech!

I personally feel that there needs to be a very good reason before I refuse to at least try something. What would be cause for turning a food down? I’ll go with Woody Allen’s principle:

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead — not sick, not wounded — dead.

Known for my stomach of iron…

In many cultures, especially those found in Africa and Asia, refusing food (or drink) is considered to be an insult to the host. Well, I’m never one to insult my host — at least, not intentionally. What comes out of my mouth does enough damage by accident without me refusing to shove something into it.

Generally, I don’t refuse food.

I didn’t even refuse mansaf. At least, not the first time.

I was in Jordan with my wife, doing the touristy thing, seeing the sights. It seemed appropriate to try the local cuisine, especially as I’m all about embracing new experiences whilst traveling. Jordan was the first country I visited in the Middle East, and it promised to be something entirely different from what I was used to.

So we found a nice local restaurant, all tricked out with low benches and huge long tables for communal eating. The proprietor was waiting on us himself because it was a small, family-run establishment. I liked that — made me feel comfortable and safe.

He asked what we wanted to eat, and I told him I’d like to try something traditional, something that the local people ate. The menu was in English, but mostly featured Western food like burgers and pizza. I figured since I was in an authentic setting, I should try some authentic grub. The owner was more than happy to suggest something, and ordered me mansaf.

When it arrived, I caught a slight snigger from my wife, who had just been served her pancakes. In truth, it looked utterly revolting. But I had every confidence my iron stomach would prevail, and I’d soon be one cultural notch up on her and ready to boast about it!

…until it broke down!

The lamb (or possibly goat), still on the bone, was stringy and gelatinous. It had the consistency of those bits you cut off and throw away, the ones you can’t even bring yourself to feed to the dog because the very thought of them being eaten turns your stomach. It was a like a large knuckle joint, all sinew and cartilage and tendons… I had a feeling I’d been given a leg — Which, if you’ve seen a sheep lately, doesn’t do much to whet the appetite. But I ate as much of it as I could ferret off the bone, and then started in on the sauce.

The sauce was made of rancid yogurt. I’m serious – it said “rancid yogurt sauce” on the English menu, although I’m sure it translates into something less off-putting in Arabic. I didn’t want to think about how it was made, or about how impossible it would be to concoct something along these lines whilst adhering to any sort of health-and-safety principles. I just ate the stuff — or, as much of it as I could get down.

That night, my wife mocked me through the door to our en-suite bathroom as I locked myself in for the long-haul. I’d barely made it back to our hotel in time for the first heave.

Whatever it was I’d put into my body, it didn’t appreciate it and was doing it’s best to get rid of it; I spent the rest of the night kneeling on the bathroom tiles — you can get the picture.

Was the mansaf cooked right? Who knows? Was it poisonous? Well, my body seemed to think so. Will I try it again…?

Hm.

A few nights later, mansaf became the only food I have ever officially refused, on the grounds that there is no fun at all in projectile vomiting for several hours straight.

***

So! I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours! Do you have any qualms about refusing the foods offered to you on your travels? Have you ever done so? Or were you too much of a good sport so didn’t refuse — and regretted it later? (And what happened? Apart from, you know, the obvious…) Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who doesn’t eat to travel but travels to eat!

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THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the cheapest — yet tastiest — meal you’ve discovered on your world travels?

So what is the tastiest cheap-eat I’ve come across whilst traversing the globe? Not being much of a foodie, and being a writer, cheap — yet tasty — is what I’m all about.

Well, I hate to be boring and predictable — so I won’t be. Yeah, the street food you get in Thai markets is to die for when you’re hungry. Not only that but you can eat three full meals back to back for the price of a loaf of bread in Australia.

But that’s not what I’m going for. No, for sheer cheapness compared with mouth-watering deliciousness, I’m going to have to go with an old favorite: Indo Mi goreng, an instant-noodle brand produced by the world’s largest instant noodle manufacturer, located in Indonesia.

Not just any old noodles!

Now you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone off my rocker here. There are countless brands of instant noodles floating around out there, and they’re pretty much all unified by one thing: being rubbish.

Nutritionally rubbish. Tasteless. Processed. Crap.

But not these noodles! I ate them almost every day on my rejuvenating hike across Western Australia — mostly because they were light enough to carry in a full rucksack and impossible to mess up in terms of cooking. These ones are nice, super nice even. And when I went back to England recently and discovered I couldn’t buy them there, the wife made me order them wholesale! I think they came directly from Indonesia. Forty packet… Oh, yes, this is how much we love these noodles.

Even though we buy them in bulk, they still cost less than the postage!

All the Asians in my area of Australia buy them — either in ten-packs, or in the same giant box I had delivered to me in England. That’s how you know they’re good noodles — when your Malaysian housemates fill their shelves with them!

But I can’t devote this entire post to one brand of instant noodles, can I? Um…no. But I’m hard pressed to think of anything else that’s so delicious for less than 50 cents.

A case of “you get what you pay for”?

Well, Canadian athlete Joe Sakic spoke true when he said:

Any free meal is a good meal, you know?

Or did he? I’ve come across a few ways of getting free food in my time — from famous vegan soup kitchens in a hippie commune in Margaret River (Western Australia) to the delightful food they served me in hospital when I was selling my body to medical science (also know as being a guinea pig for medical testing). And none of these meals were especially delicious.

You know, they would shoot me full of weird, untested drugs, imprison me in a hospital for weeks at a time, make me sleep on rubber sheets and wake me every morning at 4:00 a.m. to take my blood.

But still, the worst thing about the whole experience was the food.

Free is only good if you don’t have to have it; being forced to eat isn’t great no matter the quality of the food. Which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t great.

Tastes that refuse to be acquired

Then, of course, there are the meals in foreign lands that people treat you to. In my experience, that can be risky.

On my last morning in South America, my Ecuadorian girlfriend took me for a surprise breakfast she’d been planning for some time.

She led me all through the suburbs of Quito, to a restaurant which was famous for one dish in particular: ceviche.

Now, I’m not a fan of seafood. I can just about choke down a fish-finger — as long as I can’t see the insides of it. Ugh!

Of course, this topic had never come up; one of the myriad disadvantages to starting a relationship when you don’t share even one common language. We communicated mostly in sign language, and the half-assed version of Spanish I was picking up.

So naturally, I’d never mentioned my intense dislike of seafood, in much the same way as she thought it would be too much effort to explain what her surprise was. As a result, neither of us knew what to expect until I lifted the lid on my service and saw what it was: namely, half the cast of Finding Nemo, after being put in a blender with some brown sauce and chillies…

I tried to eat it, honestly I did!

I didn’t succeed though.

At least, the bit I did eat came back up so rapidly we have to make our excuses and leave the restaurant at top speed…

So remember that, whilst free food is irresistible, you should always season your desire for a cheap eat with a little caution, especially when traveling. The old adage is true: there is no such thing as a free lunch (or breakfast).

There are few things worse than being violently ill in the middle of a country where no one speaks your language. Far from home. Far from healthcare you trust… And wearing most of your raw-seafood breakfast.

That is almost never a good look. :0)

* * *

So, that’s all from me on this particular displaced Q! Now it’s your turn! What experiences have you had in your search for cheap eats around the world? Any tasty morsels? Anything we should avoid? Any scrumptious stories…? We’d love to hear from you! You can also hit us up on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, the second part of a two-part travel yarn about two madcap Indonesian ladies who are taking Japan by storm!

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Img: The contents of Tony James Slater’s shopping bag, taken on 9 September 2012 in his current home of Perth, Australia.

THE DISPLACED Q: In your world travels, which Olympics athletic skill would come in most handy?

As I travel around, I often wonder what it would be like to be an Olympic-quality athlete. No, really! I do. I just LOVE the idea of pushing my body to extremes, of being all I can be.

I find it curious that the Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals in 1948 — the last time the Summer Olympics were held in London — commented afterwards:

All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make much fuss about that.

A humble sentiment, to be sure — but, hey, there’s something to be said for displaying your prowess at times.

The way I see it, the pursuit of excellence — in anything, from sprinting to eating a banana to waiting for a bus — should always be applauded. Why be average at anything when you can be great at it?

And if I haven’t managed it yet, that’s not for want of trying! Except in one area. Like many travelers and expats I know I find traveling rather thirsty work — and have developed the skill of lifting a pint, or a large gin and tonic, with the best of them!

But with the London Games soon upon us, I keep imagining all the Olympic-champion-level skills that would come in handy for your average traveler, if only we could enhance our bodies in certain ways.

For example:

CYCLING

As a powerful cyclist, you could transport yourself the length of a continent without ever having to squeeze onto a chicken-infested bus.

WEIGHT-LIFTING

That would help out when it came to backpacking – no need to ban your girlfriend from taking a hairdryer anymore! Just man up and shoulder the extra weight.

SAILING

Did you know sailing was an Olympic sport? (It was actually known as yachting for its first 100 years…)

Top-notch sailing skills would not only make international crossings a pleasure, but you might also be able to pick up a bit of work here and there — maybe even end up crewing a mega-yacht for the rich and famous! (I know someone who is doing this job at the moment. He reports it’s quite enjoyable…)

GYMNASTICS

For the life of me, I can’t figure out how diving or gymnastics could ever be useful. They’re just totally random skills that take a lifetime of effort to acquire and perfect, and are good for exactly two weeks in every four years, until you turn twenty and suddenly become too old. Well, I guess if you’re really lucky, you could launch a clothing label or a perfume brand to finance your travels.

TAEKWONDO and/or KARATE

Taekwondo and karate are both Olympic sports and both fiercely competitive (well, fierce when compared to, say, figure skating!).

Imagine the healthy glow of confidence you’d project strutting around the globe as one of the world’s top martial artists! Downtown in a strange city in the dead of night, you could nip out for a taco safe in the knowledge that any low-life waiting to mug you was about to get an education.

In all seriousness, though, I honestly believe that some self-defense training is essential for the modern traveler. Not so much because you might get a chance to use it, but just knowing some basic moves to defend yourself boosts your confidence a hundredfold. And people out to cause trouble can often tell this at a distance — just by watching the way you walk. They look for easy targets; if you don’t present one, you may never even know you were in danger.

WRESTLING

This could be the all-time winner for us traveling types. Last in line for a ticket? Only one croissant left at the deli? Wrestle your way through!

Caught without enough money after living it up in a posh restaurant? Try skipping out. The maître d’ will never see it coming…

Of course, traveling with bottles and bottles of baby oil is going to present its own challenges — not least when customs wants to know exactly what it’s for. Then again…you could always show ’em!

MARATHON

Ah, the Olympic marathon — traditionally the last event of the athletics calendar, with a finish inside the Olympic stadium, often within hours of, or even incorporated into, the closing ceremonies.

I’ve always fancied myself as an endurance athlete, as a marathon runner — if I was ever in the right place long enough to train for it. That kind of endurance, the ability to not give up even when it becomes impossibly hard — that’s the Olympic-level skill I value the most.

Because, as I said, traveling can be hard. It can be grueling, unpleasant, dangerous and occasionally downright painful!

But as is so often the case in life, if you can just see past all that to the bigger picture — can take a step back from the hardship of the moment and find the strength and positivity to carry you through — you’ll be able to go the distance.

You’ll be the one still traveling when all the others give up and go home; the one who perseveres with the difficult language, makes new friends from scratch and/or manages to fully integrate into an unfamiliar culture.

And that’s where the real rewards come from, the traveler’s equivalent of winning gold: being able to appreciate what you’ve achieved in spite of all the obstacles that were placed in your way.

Because, no matter how competitive some of us world travelers are, the fact remains that travel is not a race. You are only really competing with yourself — trying to see how many life experiences you can assimilate and how far you can go towards achieving your dreams.

And more often than not in that quest, slow and steady is the way to go.

* * *

So what do YOU think? Which areas of athletic prowess would you prefer to master, and why? Any Olympic skill is fair game (hahaha). Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Olympian author Wendy Nelson Tokunaga.

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img: Chronicling Tony James Slater’s attempts to become a gymnast, a martial artist and a weightlifter of note.

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