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Tag Archives: Enchanted August

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How I spent my summer vacation

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong Shannon Young quit her day job a year ago to become a full-time writer. Here’s the latest entry in her expat writer’s diary.

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s still blazing hot here in Hong Kong, but the kids are heading back to school and expats are returning from home leave visits to their families across the globe.

Speaking of school kids: In the tradition of every good elementary school student, I thought I would report to you on how I spent my summer vacation.

Every July since moving to Asia in 2010, I’ve boarded a plane for the US and headed to Arizona, where my parents and siblings live, or to Oregon, where my grandparents live. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I would enter a whirlwind of visits, barbecues, catch-ups, family dinners, appointments, Five Guys runs, overdue conversations, and late-night chocolate-chip-cookie-baking hangouts.

This year, however, I stayed put in Hong Kong. A friend was visiting during the two weeks when my whole family is normally in Oregon, and I knew I needed to focus on my writing in order to hold to my publication schedule. I was a full-time teacher for five years, but I gave that up a year ago, remember? As a writer, I get to keep working right through the summer!

All work…

I mentioned in my last diary that I’m taking a part-time teaching contract this fall. I don’t yet know exactly how the part-time hours will affect my writing schedule, so I’m buckling down to finish the remaining books in The Seabound Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic adventure series set at sea, as soon as possible, which as you know I write under the name Jordan Rivet. My goal is to have all four books out in time for Christmas. Over the course of the summer I finished, edited, proofread, formatted, and uploaded the full-length prequel Burnt Sea. It officially went live on August 30th!

Burnt Sea_live on Aug 30

I found that despite the stifling conditions of summer in Hong Kong, I wanted to work more and more, including on weekends. I typically write for five hours a day, five days a week, but adding in three hours or so on some Saturdays and Sundays helped to up my game. When it is hot and rainy by turns, installing myself in an air-conditioned coffee shop feels like the sensible thing to do!

Hong Kong summer collage

Photo credits (top to bottom): it’s been a long rainy life, by Jaume Escofet; Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery on Lantau, Hong Kong, by Robin Zebrowski, and Cafe, SOHO, Hong Kong, by Stephen Kelly; Rainy day in Hong Kong, by Jeremy Thompson. All via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This summer I also completed two substantial revisions of the final book in the Seabound Chronicles, one in July and one this past week. This included writing the actual ending scenes to the series, which was pretty cool. A few people are reading the draft right now, and I’ll be ready to dive into another round of revisions when I get their feedback in mid-September. The full series is weighing in at 306,000 words!

…and some play

Writing is a lot of fun, but sometimes it’s good to step away from the work to have other kinds of fun. I took a break to show our friend around (although she did some solo sightseeing as well). We got to revisit some of the great Hong Kong sites, fitting in jaunts to Lamma Island, Stanley, the Big Buddha, and other famous Hong Kong attractions–and eateries. I love any excuse to go to Din Tai Fung (a chain that originated in Taiwan, it specializes in soup dumplings).

Through the prompting of some very active friends, we also went hiking (taking one of the toughest walks in Hong Kong on what turned out to be the hottest day in 130 years!) and spent a weekend on Lantau, one of the large outlying islands. We stayed in an old village, very atmospheric, where we trekked through a river to get to a kite-surfing lesson and spent a day enjoying the waves at an out-of-the-way beach.

It was a nice reminder that Hong Kong is home to wonderful natural beauty, and it doesn’t actually take that long to escape the concrete jungle.

Hong Kong Natural Beauty

Photo credits: Kite-surfing beach on Lantau Island and view of the greenery (supplied).

…and some play/work

Another bit of fun was when Kevin Kwon, the author of bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians, now being made into a film, came to Hong Kong for a Q&A session at the KEE Club. The event was the first weekend in August, and any other summer I would have missed it. Instead, I got my book signed and listened to the charming and unassuming author talk about his work. (The visit was part of his tour for the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, which, incidentally, was announced in the Displaced Dispatch.) He told us he is working on the next installment in the series.

Kevin Kwan Talk HK

Photo credits: Kevin Kwan book cover art; Kwan at the KEE Club in Hong Kong (supplied).

Which reminds me that in addition to lots of writing, I crammed in time for plenty of reading this summer. Highlights included:

I’ve always read a lot, but I’m finding that it’s more important to carve out time than it was in the days when I had a long commute every day. I believe my upcoming part-time job will involve a fair bit of commuting, so I’m looking forward to having built-in reading time again. I read to learn and I read for enjoyment, and there are never enough hours in the day…

All in all, it has been a successful summer full of literary pursuits and unexpected adventures…

…with a plot twist!

It turns out I’m going back to the US after all! My husband noticed an eye-wateringly affordable Cathay FanFare, so just last week I booked a ticket home. I left on August 30th, so I was actually in the sky when the people who pre-ordered Burnt Sea saw the book pop up on their Kindles.

I’m looking forward to a quick visit that will mostly involve monopolizing the attention of my eight-month-old nephew. I’ll hang out with my siblings, eat a whole bunch of American food, and be ready to dive into the fourth draft of the Seabound finale when I return! I enjoy pushing through the work, but sometimes it’s important to step away and enjoy a bit of downtime, too.

But enough about me! What did you get up to this summer, Displaced Diary? What was your favorite summer read? Do you have any amazing adventures to report?

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet

* * *

Shannon, I must confess that I never made it all the way through a Tokyo summer, it was just too hot and humid! I’m impressed that you made it until August 30th. Readers, do you have any summer achievements worth sharing on your creative pursuits? Please leave in the comments. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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10 summer hacks picked up from an expat (& repat) life spanning Japan, the UK and the US


The summer ideal, so rarely achieved (apart from the cocktail), Public Domain CC0 via Pixar.

New York City, where I now live after years of being an expat on two small islands, the UK and Japan, had a particularly brutal winter in 2014. You would think I’d now be in the mood for summer.

But no. It hasn’t worked that way.

The moment the temperature and humidity levels skyrocketed here in the city, I realized my feelings about summer haven’t changed. Basically, and as expressed in this space before, I can’t stand it. Or, in the somewhat more poetic words of Swedish black metal trio Woods of Infinity:

Summer is not my friend. Satan, let it end.
Sunshine, hurting my eyes. Making my skin look like…argh.

Which brings me to today’s topic: summer hacks. What hacks have I picked up from the three countries where I’ve lived—Japan, the US and the UK—that can help me through summer’s doggiest days?


1) Avoid the sun at all costs.

Japanese women seem to have been the first to get the memo about avoiding sun damage. During the summer, which in Tokyo can be particularly brutal, most would not venture out in the heat of the day without a hat or a UV parasol, sometimes both. (Note: A regular umbrella will do in lieu a proper parasol.)

2) Carry a fan and a handkerchief.

If the heat becomes unbearably hot, say, when standing on the subway platform or getting into a car, one of the easiest ways to get cool is via a simple fan, either the kind that folds or an uchiwa. And if you find yourself perspiring profusely in a public place, try dabbing your face and neck with a handkerchief folded into a neat square. (When living in Japan, I used to find it entertaining to go into a department store and look at the vast array of handkerchiefs on display in the ground floor accessories. Every major Western designer has done one, meaning they’ve all had to struggle with translating their unique look into a small square of cloth. Who knew?)

3) Eat sparingly (cold soba) or else for energy (grilled eel).

On a hot and humid day, one of the healthiest meals is the simplest: a plate of cold buckwheat noodles, or soba, which have been cooked al dente. The noodles are dipped into a cup containing a special sauce (consisting of dashi, sweetened soy sauce and mirin), to which has been added fresh wasabi and sliced spring onions. Alternatively, if your body feels depleted during a heat wave, you can go to the other extreme and have a meal of unagi kabayaki, freshwater eel that has been glaze-grilled: it is served over white rice, typically with a cold beer to accompany. (By tradition, Japanese favor this meal from mid-July through early August, to counteract the lethargy and debilitation that occurs mid-way through their blistering summers.)

4) Drink plenty of cold tea and, for short bursts of energy, iced coffee with milk and a shot of gum syrup.

In Japan you can buy, at every convenience store, huge plastic bottles of green tea or oolong cha (my fave) to refrigerate so that cold tea (most people don’t ice it) is always on hand. You can also make mugicha: a caffeine-free barley infusion, said to be the “flavor of summer” in Japan and always served a room temperature. Before moving to Japan, I had never before tried iced coffee , where apparently the Japanese have been drinking it since the 1920s. Usually, it’s served in a glass to accompany or finish a restaurant meal—not in a plastic disposable cup (it’s impolite to eat and drink on the streets in that part of the world). Although hesitant at first, I became an immediate fan and was pleased to see it had caught on in the West by the time I returned. Now you can even get iced coffee in Dunkin’ Donuts. And, whereas I don’t usually add sugar to coffee, I will sometimes add to the iced version as I find my body needs that extra bit of energy to get from A to B. (In Japan, one always adds gum syrup, which dissolves much better than sugar, but it’s hard to find that here.)


5) If you can’t stand the heat, move to a cold dark box, aka a movie theatre.

Maybe it’s a New York City thing, but I’m thinking of Michael Maslin’s New Yorker cartoon showing a movie theatre with a marquee that says:


and a movie

6) Eat ice cream.

One or two scoops of freshly made ice cream in a dish or a regular sugar cone (nothing heavier or fancier) is one of life’s simple pleasures. Many people die in heat waves (no joke), so this is one to have, and keep, on your bucket list.

7) Seek invites to places where you can swim—in a pool, a lake, the ocean.

Nothing is more refreshing on a hot day than plunging into some cool water. Another tip is to put on a shirt or dress that is slightly damp—it will be dry by the time you reach the subway.

8) No opportunity to escape to a house in the Hamptons or equivalent? Have a cocktail.

See my still-relevant post of three summers ago on cocktails as mini-summer escapes to exotic locales, entitled Some enchanted drinking…


9) Seize the moment and go crazy.

British summer tends to be short and sweet—and blissful (not too humid). Should you have a day where the heat breaks and temperatures and humidity levels are bearable, EMBRACE SUMMER AS YOUR FRIEND. Now, British people go to extremes by stripping down, as noted in this recent post by Annabel Kantaria in her Telegraph Expat blog, hence risking sunburn and melanoma. (As an aside: Did you know we once did an interview with Annabel? Check it out if you haven’t seen it.) At the very least, perhaps you could pull off an impromptu picnic or bike ride, or else try to score an outdoor table at a popular restaurant or pub.

10) Have a cuppa.

Contrary to the Japanese and American customs, tea is drunk hot in Britain because it makes you sweat and therefore cool down. This hack is one of the more practical legacies from the days when the Brits occupied India. To this day, I will sometimes make a cuppa when I’m boiling hot. Think the science sounds dubious? Listen to this NPR story. In any event, tea is an important summer drink in all three cultures, for good reason. It sustains you. See my post on the virtues of tea-drinking.

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. What can you add to my list before that Woods of Infinity song starts haunting me again:

Awake at night again. No tears to weep and too restless to sleep. Thinking of all and nothing and got stuck in between.

Hurry, please! Any foods, drinks, rituals, Bacchanalian festivities or other hacks you’ve picked up from your lives of displacement? How about current films you’d recommend? SOS, I’m melting over here…

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Christmas in July & other Winter’s Tales from an expat Down Under

After sweltering through America’s hottest July on record, three of us Displaced Nation writers have been imploring the fourth, Tony James Slater, for some cooling stories from his newly adopted home of Perth, Australia.

I noticed a Christmas tree in my gym a couple of weeks ago. I wondered what the hell it was doing there, until some kind staff member — presumably on hearing me curse in the middle of the foyer — decided to enlighten me.

Christmas in July, the Aussies call it — for no apparent reason other than that most countries celebrate Christmas when it’s freezing cold outside, with snow on the ground and cards covered in penguins and polar bears decorating the mantle piece.

July is as cold as it gets in Perth. The temperature — sometimes — dips into the single digits overnight, and we wake up to a sensation overly familiar to a Brit like me: not wanting to get up because it’s warmer in bed!

Once upon a time, when I made my first visit to Oz from Thailand, all those years ago, I arrived (in my infinite wisdom) in June. At 6:00 a.m.

I had no idea Australia had seasons. From the postcards and other literature, I’d assumed it was the Land of Eternal Summer.

It was achingly cold, pouring it down with rain — and I was wearing a pair of shorts and a vest [tank top], because that’s all the clothing I owned!

I’m now super careful when advising my friends who plan on visiting: “Don’t come November to February,” I tell them. “It’ll be way too hot. You won’t be able to breathe.

But don’t come June to August either — it’ll be too cold! And all sensible Australians will be holed up inside with our mitts wrapped around a hot cup of Milo.”

Mmmmmm…. Have you ever had Milo? It’s a hot chocolate malt drink. I must say, it really hits the spot this time of year.

Storm warning!

We have our blistering hot summers, too, down in Oz. In fact, the whole country is geared around this inevitability. That may be why no one seems quite prepared for the winter.

It rains, of course — it has to, otherwise we’d be in an even worse state come summer. But no one here is quite ready for it when it does.

Take the Great Perth Storm of 2012, for example. Several weeks ago now, there was a severe weather warning issued. Businesses closed early. Employees scurried home, fearing what would happen if they were caught in traffic when The Big One hit. By the time it started raining, the streets were deserted – which was probably a good thing. Boy, did it rain! It rained, and rained, and the good folk of Perth cowered indoors, until…the rain stopped.

And that was it.

I honestly think half of them didn’t expect to survive it.

They were most upset when they had to drive to work the next morning, through rapidly drying puddles.

The four seasons in one day

But let’s not get carried away; to those of you fanning yourselves under an air-con unit, wishing you’d remembered to get it serviced before the heat-wave hit, I can sympathize — it’s not exactly cold here all the time.

Even in winter, the middle of each day is quite pleasant — probably what you’d call “beach weather” on most of the rest of the planet.

Charles Dickens’s description of an English springtime seems most appropriate:

It was one of those [March] days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

Have you ever worn a hat indoors?

Perhaps because of this, the houses here are built without insulation, and without any form of central heating. Most of them have a little wood-burning stove in a corner of the family room, but that’s it — and of course no double glazing!

Houses built like this in Europe would never pass the building code, but it seems that the housing industry here just doesn’t worry about it. Yeah, sure, they’re building houses that’ll be a bit cold in winter. But the owners can always wear a jumper! Or, as frequently happens when we visit my father-in-law in his house in the Perth hills, a scarf, gloves and a beanie…

In an unheated, un-insulated house at night, there are only two things to do — and one of them doesn’t really belong on a public forum like this. The other, of course, is to wear as many layers as you can — kind of like you’re going hiking in a blizzard — and try to keep exposed flesh to a bare (sorry!) minimum.

Of course, this being winter, you can find that blizzard. Just about. There’s nothing between the bottom of Australia and the top of Antarctica, so our southern seas get a little chilly around now. We have snow-capped mountains – okay, we have a snow-capped mountain. Sometimes…

But the scene over in neighboring New Zealand is a little frostier!

In fact, my sister is there right now, training to be a skiing instructor.

And because the architecture over there is mostly derived from what we have over here…her house also doesn’t have any heating either.

All things being equal…

I’m content to be cold once in a while. It reminds me of home — just a little, in a slightly-chilled-’till-the-sun-comes-up kind of way. Not like actually being back in England — where, even though it’s summer, I think it’s colder than here… I mean, did you see that beach volleyball tournament? Only in London could they import twenty tonnes of sand and play beach sports in torrential rain…in bikinis.

Now there’s a refreshing image!

So instead of feeling sorry for yourselves over there in sweltering America, please do feel pity for us over here. After the terrible inconvenience of our slightly chilly winter, we have plenty of other ordeals to face — like Christmas on the beach!

* * *

So tell me: would you rather be here — or where you are right now? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter: @DisplacedNation +/or @TonyJamesSlater. Now back to my nice mug of Milo before it gets cold — cheers!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad, who, too, has some stories to help alleviate the effects of the heat…

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Main image:  “Polaroids” are all from Tony James Slater’s collection: The Great Perth Storm of 2012; Tony’s wife, Roo, asleep in her dad’s house in the hills of Perth (2012); Tony & Roo celebrating Christmas on Cottesloe Beach, near Perth, Australia (December 2011).

Family visits — 3 universally acknowledged truths by Jane Austen

Summer is the time when displaced people often visit or are visited by their families, and because of the distances involved, this usually means more than just popping round for a quick cup of tea.

As easy air travel is a fairly recent innovation, it’s tempting to think of these lengthy visits as recent also. They’re not, of course. A hundred-mile trip by horse and carriage two hundred years ago to see family was as tiring as a flight from Heathrow to Sydney now, and visits would last several weeks.

It’s only the mode of transport that has changed, though.

Take it from Jane herself.

1. Eliza Bennet Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a displaced person in possession of a new abode in slightly exotic location, must be in want of visitors from home.

I feel sorry for Eliza Bennet. Despite marrying the richest man in Derbyshire and living in a house only slightly smaller than that county, she would always bear the burden of her awful relatives.

Even Pemberley wouldn’t have been big enough when they came to visit — and visit they surely would, as Jane Austen’s characters spent much time in the company of relatives scattered around England.

Evidently, it was dangerous to do otherwise – a visit with a mere friend to that iniquitous den, Brighton, resulted in social and financial ruin for Lydia Bennet when she eloped with Mr Wickham.

A decorous horse-and-carriage trip through Derbyshire with a respectable aunt and uncle, however, rewarded her sister Eliza with a good-looking (if emotionally constipated) husband, and her share of his ten thousand a year.

The moral, gentle reader: If you do not wish to be blamed for the consequences of young visitors searching for a good time with unsuitable handsome army officers, ensure that your foreign abode is in a quiet backwater where the only entertainment is weekly bingo in the church hall. Don’t live near a British bar in Ibiza. If you can find a house big enough so the raucous tones of your visiting mother cannot be heard by you or your neighbors, so much the better.

2. Mr Woodhouse Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that some people will never visit on your own territory, and when you visit theirs, it is never for long enough to keep them happy.

Some people will never visit you, believing flights only travel in one direction, or that you live somewhere foreign and unhealthy. It is, therefore, your duty to visit them, since you were thoughtless enough to move away in the first place.

Emma Woodhouse’s father fell into this category of people. Although his married daughter, Isabella, lived only sixteen miles away in London, he disliked visiting her because

“…the truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. It is a dreadful thing to have you forced to live there! so far off!–and the air so bad!”

Instead, to see her father, poor Isabella had to drag her entourage of five children to Highbury, where Mr Woodhouse would offer her a nice welcoming bowl of gruel.

She had nothing to wish…but that the days did not pass so swiftly. It was a delightful visit;–perfect, in being much too short.

Too short for her father, that is. Not Isabella. She was just being polite. Take it from me.

The moral, gentle reader: Bring your own bottle. You’re going to need it, especially if all your folks have to offer is gruel for supper.

3. Fanny Price Syndrome

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the longer you have lived away, the more foreign your home country will feel, and at some point you will ponder the issue of whether it is possible to go home again.

Fanny Price, protagonist of Mansfield Park, and a lesser-known heroine than Eliza Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, understood this better than most.

At the age of nine, Fanny was booted from her home in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park with her advantageously-married aunt, to make room for yet another baby in her own family. Desperately homesick and missing her beloved brother William, Fanny is the Cinderella of her adopted family, mocked by her society cousins, and used as whipping-girl and general dogsbody by her two aunts. It wasn’t quite Charles Dickens territory — Fanny was given proper food — but it wasn’t far off.

She did, however, have a raging crush on her cousin, Edmund. Enough said.

Regardless of Fanny’s feelings for her cousin, one might assume that she would one day be glad to leave her aunt’s house and visit her family in Portsmouth. When she eventually did, it was many years after her first arrival, and as her uncle’s punishment for refusing to marry Henry Crawford, an upper-class philanderer. The implication was that, just as Fanny had been raised in society by her uncle, so could she once again descend to her miserable roots if her uncle chose.

While Fanny’s visit in no way persuaded her to marry that cad, Henry, she did realize that her spiritual home was no longer with her parents and siblings. Her parents, whom presumably she had loved at one time, and who had never mistreated her, were a huge disappointment to her. She perceived her mother as

a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern.

So, conveniently forgetting the unkindness of her Aunt Norris and her cousins, and the indolent neglect of her Aunt Bertram,

[Fanny] could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Every thing where she was was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony — and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour.

The moral, gentle reader: Are you sure you can never go home — or are you, in fact, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

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Img: 1869 engraving of Jane Austen, based on a sketch by her sister, Cassandra Austen (WikiCommons)

RETURN TRIP: Even in Paris, expats can’t escape former lives: A celebration of displaced novelist Corine Gantz

As summer draws to a close, The Displaced Nation is reissuing some posts that, for one reason or another, have enchanted our readers. Enjoy these “return trips”!
This past spring, The Displaced Nation interviewed Corine Gantz, a popular expat blogger, about her newly published novel, Hidden in Paris. The action centers on a group of expat Americans trying to start their lives afresh in the City of Light. At that time, TDN was exploring the theme of Gothic Tales. We wanted Mme Gantz to tell us more about the premise at the heart of her book — the idea that people travel to other lands to escape their former lives. How does it usually play out: as a dream come true or as a recurring nightmare?

The Displaced Nation has been examining the “gothic” side of expat life over the past couple of weeks. Thus it may seem odd that today we have chosen to celebrate a book that takes place in La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Light” or “The Illuminated City”) by an author who lives near the City of Angels.

But looks can be deceiving — and the cover of Corine Gantz’s debut novel, Hidden in Paris, is quite a cunning ruse. It shows a Parisian balcony with French doors reflecting the Eiffel Tower, and a flower box bursting with hot-pink geraniums. What could possible be amiss within such a picture-perfect setting, you may wonder? Plenty, it turns out.

But before we get into that, let’s begin our fête in honor of Mme Gantz and her book. To put ourselves in the proper mood, we have prepared a special cocktail, a French 75. We’ve also gone all out with our canapés. There’s a savory gougère, brie en croûte, duck rillettes, chilled asparagus with mustard sauce, a Puy lentil salad — and, in honor of Mme Gantz, her family favorite, taramasalata on toast (see her father’s recipe below).

Okay, seats, please! Our honored guest has agreed to kick off the festivities by answering a few questions from The Displaced Nation team. After that, the floor is yours, dear reader.

Hidden in Paris coverYour new novel, Hidden in Paris, may not tell a gothic tale per se, but we think it relates to our theme because it centers on three women who are running away from their lives. Is that a fair assessment?
People who say they love to be scared amuse me. They have a fascination with horror flicks, they read vampire books, they ride roller coasters. Yet they might be the same people who walk great circles around a pile of bills or make every effort to avoid a difficult phone call. What can be scarier than real life?

I think there is a limit to what we can handle, and at some point the tendency is to want to run way, literally or figuratively. In Hidden in Paris three strangers — all American women — have reached the point of terminal discomfort, when tackling real issues feels more terrifying than running away abroad.

Lola is running away from her husband, Althea from an eating disorder, and Annie, although she pretends to be the most high functioning member of the group, is hiding the biggest secret of all. (Just to add some spice, there is also a male character, Lucas, who is hiding his love for Annie.)

People often fantasize that “elsewhere” — particularly Paris because of the attached notion of romance — will solve their problems, or at least make the problems go away for a while. Well, we long-term expats know better. Moving to another country brings great logistical changes to one’s life, which can distract you into thinking you’ve left your pathos behind, when, in fact, you’ve brought it along in your suitcase. Wherever you go, you bring your own personal gothic tale with you.

In the case of these three female characters, the disruptions to their routines, along with new encounters, bring them to the tipping point toward change.

The thing is, as in real life, my characters fight the change they need kicking and screaming, which makes for fun story telling.

Food is another obsession of ours at The Displaced Nation. We detect from reading an excerpt from Hidden in Paris that it also plays a big role in your book.
You detect correctly. For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

I grew up in France on my mother’s terrific cooking. But she is the type of cook who wants no help in the kitchen, so at age 23 I arrived in the United States never having cooked an egg. I was terribly homesick and depressed and needed to “taste home” again — so had no choice but to teach myself how to cook. The saving grace was that I had a copy of a recipe book filled with my mother’s recipes, so I proceeded to recreate the food, and jolly myself out of my depression. Cooking gave my life a purpose: it became my creative outlet.

I think the preparation of food can be extremely healing, meaningful and joyful. Food is, after all, the soul and spirit of a home. I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating, and when I’m not doing one or the other I’m telling stories where food turns out to be one of the principal characters.

You are a Française who has been “displaced” to the Los Angeles area for a couple of decades, where you live with your American husband and two sons. Does your novel echo that experience?
Had I landed on an alien planet I doubt I would have been any more confused and out of place. I understood none of the codes, none of the cultural references, of Los Angeles. I could not understand people or express myself — and I resented them for that.

Writing sprouted from this: the frustrated need for self-expression and communication. Like my protagonist, Annie, I had to figure out how to function, and I would be lying to say I functioned well. Also like Annie, I resisted my country of adoption for years. I did not have both feet in it. A part of me felt in limbo: I was standing by for my eventual return to my home country.

Twenty years later I don’t even feel French anymore, but no one here lets me forget I’m not American either. Americans seem fascinated with my Frenchness, as though it defines me. For example, it’s often about how I say things rather than what I say. Yesterday I was saying to a friend: “On the envelope my husband gave me for mother’s day there was a…” She interrupted and said: “Could you repeat that?” I repeated and she fell into peals of laughter: “I just love how you said the word ‘envelope’!”

In Hidden in Paris, I wanted to transpose my experience and reverse it. I wanted to bring American women to France and see how well they coped with that set of codes and cultural idiosyncrasies. That’s only fair, don’t you think? I’m a little miffed to report that they are more adaptable than I was.

You have a popular blog, Hidden in France, where you’ve been entertaining Francophiles and others with stories of the writing life, décor, food, family, travel and all things French. In fact, The Displaced Nation has featured one of your posts — about the time you fell into your swimming pool when the first day of spring brought heavy rains to the LA area. Tell us, has your blog had an influence on your writing? Also, why have you chosen the trope “hidden in”?
The blog has everything to do with my writing. Before the blog, I was a closet writer, ashamed that my English was too imperfect. The blog gave me a sense of just how forgiving and supportive readers were. I have readers now, and I have fans! Had I based my self-worth as a writer on agent rejections, I would have changed my hobby to fly-fishing. Readers are what make someone a writer.

The word “hidden” is significant only in the sense that I was hiding for years behind an alias as a blogger, and I just recently came out as writer for the world to see (speaking of fear…).

When it came time to settle on a title for the book, it felt natural to give it the same title as the blog — but I decided against it because there was already a memoir by that name. So Hidden in France became Hidden in Paris.

Finally, The Displaced Nation supports a fictional character, Libby, who is about to move from London to Boston with her husband. Do you have any advice for her?
Well, how about if I let my own fictional character, Annie — who moved from Boston to Paris to follow her own husband twelve years ago — speak to Libby directly:

Don’t do it, Libby! Kidding! Well I would suggest you have more babies, some siblings for your son, Jack, and fast. They will keep you busy and busy is the name of the game: no time to think! And if you decide against having more babies, then take on a hobby (such as cooking and eating) to keep your sanity without demanding that your husband become your everything for companionship, friendship and intellectual stimulation.

Don’t be like me in other words. Don’t forget that the man has a job and he is tired at the end of the day and nobody needs a needy wife. (Sorry for the harsh words, Libby, but this is the truth.)

You could also take a run-down house and remodel it. I did. You will have no skin left on your fingers but lifting bags of concrete makes for pretty shapely biceps. The remodeling might bring you to financial ruin but if that becomes the case, you will always have eating, which you can become very good at.

Without further ado, let’s pour the champagne for a toast to Corine Gantz. Tchin-tchin! And now, patient reader, it’s your turn. Questions, please, for this très gentille debut novelist… If you want to check out her book a little more, go to her author’s site, and to buy it, go to her Amazon page.

Taramasalata on toast — Corine Gantz’s family recipe
You will need:

  • one packet of smoked cod roe (seriously, can you even find this in the US?)
  • 8 tablespoons safflower oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Mix fish roe and lemon juice, then slowly beat with a fork and add the oil as you would do to make mayonnaise.Spread thinly on toasts and serve with very good champagne, et voilà! Très festif.

Images: Author’s photo; Hidden in Paris cover, artwork by Robin Pickens.

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RETURN TRIP: 5 lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice

August is finally drawing to a close — we hope you managed to have an enchanting time of it. Here is one more in our series of “return trips” to posts that, for one reason or another, enchanted our readers. Enjoy!
All three members of The Displaced Nation team have found Alice, of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass renown, a source of inspiration on our travels — seeing her as a kind of ultimate expat. Thus we decided to dedicate the month of June to Lewis Carroll’s “little heroine.” Kate Allison launched a series of posts on our Alice in Wonderland theme with 5 “lessons” Alice had allegedly learned from her adventures. It remains one of our most popular posts to date.

To kick off our Alice in Wonderland theme, we asked Alice if she had any advice for today’s Displaced Person:


Indeed I do. It might be many years since I fell down the rabbit hole, but human nature hasn’t changed. This is a little of what I learned:

1. Keep the golden key in your pocket at all times, and make a note of the emergency exits.

In another moment down went Alice after [the White Rabbit], never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

My first mistake was to plunge down the rabbit-hole without planning ahead. The adventurous life is all very well, but it’s good to have a bolt-hole, as well as a rabbit-hole, when you need to escape to the old and familiar.

My second mistake was to leave the key on the glass table before drinking from the bottle marked “Drink Me.” In your vernacular, that’s like buying a return ticket home for this evening, then discovering your passport expired six months ago. Be prepared for the unexpected, the peculiar, and the almost impossible.

2. No matter how hard you try contrariwise, at some point you will offend someone.

Evidently Humpty Dumpty was very angry… “It is a—MOST—PROVOKING—thing,” he said at last, “when a person doesn’t know a cravat from a belt!”

Oh dear! If only I had a shilling for every time I inadvertently offended one of the creatures in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass! Not knowing Humpty Dumpty’s neck-wear from midriff-wear; my compulsive mentioning of cats and dogs in the Mouse’s presence without considering that he and I might have a different perspective of these animals…the list went on and on.

In the end, I think the Red Queen’s advice was the best:

“Always speak the truth—think before you speak—and write it down afterwards.”

But still, I couldn’t help thinking:

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!”

3. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.” Different country, different rules.

The Queen of Hearts was the worst example of this:

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

I suggest if you are ever in this situation yourself, you employ more tact than I did. “Stuff and nonsense!” I said. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

Perhaps today a quick telephone call to your country’s embassy might be better.

Better still, acquaint yourself with the country’s rules before you go jumping on aeroplanes or down rabbit holes.

4. Go to a party or a Caucus-Race — don’t drown in your own tears.

“I am so VERY tired of being all alone here!”

The Caucus-Race proved to me that I could make friends with the most unlikely companions.

After a few minutes it seemed natural to Alice to find herself talking familiarly with them, as if she had known them all her life.

If you feel alone in your new environment, seek out company, even if it’s not the kind of company you’re used to. You might find your life is richer for it.

5. And finally: Keep a note of your name in your memorandum-book.

“Who are YOU?” said the Caterpillar.

Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

I spent a great deal of time in both countries wondering who I was now. Was I my little friend Ada, or Mabel, perhaps?

Tweedledum even suggested I wasn’t really there at all.

“You’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.”

“I AM real!” said Alice and began to cry.

Take a tip from me and write your name in a memorandum-book. Then keep a journal.

That way you will always remember who you were on any particular day.

And one day, people might read about you as they do about me.


Thank you, Alice!


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Budding Slavophiles, welcome to my kitchen’s-eye view of Russia

As we learned from her Random Nomad interview with us in May, Charlotte Day is torn between three countries: Australia, USA, and England. As if this weren’t enough, it turns out she harbors an obsession with Russia, going back to when she discovered classical Russian novels in 8th grade. Here she spins a travel yarn about the her month-long sojourn in Saint Petersburg this summer, where she studied Russian language while living with a homestay family. So, did the real Russia live up to Charlotte’s expectations, or had her overactive imagination led her astray? Let’s find out…

Bolshoi Kazachiy Pereulok is not a notable St Petersburg street. It is a bent elbow between Zagorodniy Prospekt and the Fontanka embankment.

Emerging from Pushkinskaya metro station, one walks past a travel agency of sorts, a faded basketball court and Kazachiy Bani, a green-tiled 24-hour bathhouse from which emerge oiled men, rubbing their hair with threadbare towels. Peering through the open door, one can just about discern a gleaming ticket window, half plastered over with out-dated rate notices.

In the crook of the elbow stands Number 9, a magnificent turn-of-the-century apartment building, with geraniums tumbling over the serpentine-patterned grilling of occasional balconies. The building’s green façade, tinged as if by an eternal sunset, smiles mournfully over the street — watching as beer bottles clink and smash on the pavement, cats stalk along beneath decades-old cars, and the high gates open and shut in a kind of eternal song.

The plaque outside Number 7 reads: “In this building lived and worked Vladimir Ilich Lenin,” and on a rack beneath, three red carnations wilt.

I lived for a month at Number 5 — past the automated bell at the gate; through the courtyard, painted a warm, yet exhausted, yellow; up the shallow, concrete steps; and behind two locked doors — in the home of Nadezhda Skarinova, her husband, Kirill, and their son, Vladimir.

Striking up an acquaintance with the Skarinovas

While in theory I shared a home with entire family, the two male Skarinovs managed to be absent for the majority of my stay. Kirill, a chemical engineer, offered a smile — sometimes a privyet (hi) — whenever we met in the hallway.

But as he left for work as I was getting up, and had dinner immediately upon returning home at 6:30, we saw very little of each other.

Vladimir, or Vova, had been a source of much speculation before I set off — in the way that only unknown 21-year-old sons can be — among my well-meaning friends and relatives. (I am only sixteen.)

But he turned out to be largely taciturn, spending his days facing a computer screen (he was studying to become a programmer).

We had one two-sentence exchange — when he helped me down with my suitcase, on departure.

The only stories I can spin about my month in Petersburg involve minutiae. Such had been my idea of the perfect adventure before I left for Russia, in anticipation of what it would be like to be free from parental dictates for the first time.

Indeed, I did very little.

Not prone to escapades, I spent my evenings, after class, wandering along the Griboedov Canal Embankment (where I saw a drowned corpse—lying, swollen, neglected, and only haphazardly covered by a tarpaulin), or taking the metro into a far-flung, neglected suburb to spend ten minutes looking at an exquisite church.

But if my journey had less geographical displacement than those of most adventurers, my nightly dinner conversations with Mrs Skarinova made up for the lack by advancing me along the path of greater understanding of that strange thing — Russia.

A series of stove-side conversations

The first time I heard a bang on my bedroom door, and a gruff mozhno uzhinat? (roughly, “is it possible to have dinner?”) at 8:00 p.m., I hurried a nervous da, closed my book, and sidled into the kitchen.

The news was on, as it would be every subsequent evening — the twin anchors of channel Rossiya speaking too quickly for me to understand, their journalistic jargon blending into an unvarying mumble.

There sat Nadya, looking terribly bored, with large bags under her eyes. She poured me some tea from the eternal teapot. (Russians make tea by brewing a pot, which can keep, it would seem, for over a week—and then pouring a small amount, diluted with hot water, into your cup.)

Kuritsa — normalno? She presented me with a plate. As it was chicken, I nodded in assent.

Sitting down opposite me, shelling sunflower seeds — aimlessly, it seemed — she began to comment on the news.

Before I knew what had hit me, we were traipsing through the hardships of the 1990s — lining up outside an empty supermarket, clutching a prescription for baby formula. Mothers would rush from work during their lunch breaks, Nadya said, to secure a ration of bread for their family’s evening meal. And she’d had to bring up the infant Vova without the help of her mother — who died in her early sixties, from exhaustion.

And this was not the only thread Nadya spun over the course of our four weeks together. Another was the Orthodox Church. Her grandmother, who had lived through both world wars and the Russian Revolution of 1917 — and consequently wasn’t afraid of anything — spirited her granddaughter off to a church to be baptized, at a time when any hint of religion could make you a social pariah.

As a member of the Komsomol (“because everyone was in the Komsomol then”), Nadya hid her crucifix under her pillow. She told me that when religion resurfaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, young couples longing for a church wedding were in a dilemma. How could they know if they had been baptized or not? Perhaps their grandmothers, like Nadya’s, had had it done in secret.

Nadya scowled as Patriarch Kirill appeared on the screen, leading a service in Kiev. His cardinal offense was the purchase of an expensive designer watch, several years back.

Many don’t like Patriarch Kirill so much… I’m an Orthodox person, but Patriarch Kirill… And he’s just one of the problems: for instance, why did they have to make Tsar Nikolai* a saint? What did he ever do? In his youth he was just a normal young man — women, alcohol, all that. What should I pray to him for? And his wife? Nothing wrong with her — German princess, worked in hospitals… And her little boy had that illness. But go to church and ask them for help? Yes, it was a tragedy, a crime — to kill all those children, too. Yes, the revolution oughtn’t to have happened. But Nikolai II a saint?

*With his family, Tsar Nicolas II, Russia’s last emperor, was recognized as a martyred saint and canonized as a passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981.

A samovar too big for the kitchen

On my last night in Petersburg, Mr Skarinova came into the kitchen bearing a large 1830s, wood-burning samovar — complete with chimney.

Nadya was not certain about this new addition to their lives.

It’s going to the dacha. No question about it. Wouldn’t fit in the kitchen anyway. And what am I going to do with a samovar like that? Put it in the bathhouse — na dachye. There’s no electricity in there.

The family had been to their dacha — a few hours south of the city — once while I had stayed at their apartment. They came back laden with berries: bitter and smelling of evergreen.

“All the men want to do there is drink,” Nadya told me one night. “I personally don’t drink — only wine. But Kirill…”

And another evening —

At least Kirill’s never come home drunk in the evenings. On holidays, yes — New Year’s… But the rest of the time — I don’t tolerate that sort of thing. What would have happened with Vova, a child, if dad kept coming home drunk? But it’s a common thing…

And judging by the beer bottles littering the street every morning when I walked to school, I doubt not that it is.

But this seems a catalogue of complaints — when my own experience of Russia was quite the reverse.

There was a moment when, crossing the Neva River on my last evening wander, I saw the spectral moon, blooming into fullness over the Winter Palace embankment.

And faced with that glut of unabashed beauty, I made an inarticulate noise — half of despair, half of exaltation — as people do in Russian novels. (It was only my English reserve keeping me from falling to my knees and weeping: the truly literary gesture.)

As it was, I left the next day feeling I would like to spend the rest of my life in Petersburg. But before I advance any further along that path, I must brave a winter without being killed by a falling snow drift. (“It happens,” says the Voice of Wisdom…)

But no matter how many tracks I beat in Russia, it is somewhat sobering to think of Nadya sitting, through endless reports of train crashes, patriarchal visits and state holidays, in that desperately uncomfortable chair, shelling sunflower seeds and passing the time.

img: The Skarinova kitchen, where Charlotte’s nighttime chats with Nadya took place.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post taking a parting glimpse at summer’s millinery enchantments, by our Alice awardee Sebastian Doggart.

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RETURN TRIP: Random Nomad – Charlotte Day, High School Student (Sixth Former)

While our writers take off on what they hope will be enchanting August breaks, The Displaced Nation will occasionally be reissuing some posts that, for one reason or another, enchanted our readers. Enjoy these “return trips”!
As youngsters head back to school, we’re reissuing a Random Nomad interview ML Awanohara did with Charlotte Day, a displaced teenager in England. Charlotte spent a chunk of her summer taking a Russian-language course in St. Petersburg and living with a Russian family. She has produced a travel yarn on her adventures, which will appear on Monday.

Born in: Sydney, Australia
Passports: Australia, UK and US Green Card
Countries lived in: Australia (Sydney): 1994-2001; United States (New York, New York): 2001-2010; England (Sevenoaks, Kent): 2010-present

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My father is Australian and my mother English. They split up when I was two. When I was six, my mother met and married an Australian who had been living in New York for thirty years. I was rather disgruntled about moving to the United States and for two or three years, remained determined never to accept it as “home.” At that time, I was deeply patriotic to my native country — though this sentiment has dissipated since.

Is anyone else in your immediate family a “displaced” person?
My mother’s family, originally from England, has long been displaced. My mother herself was born in Kenya, in 1961. Following the Mau Mau Uprising, her parents were forced to relocate, and my grandfather, presented with a choice between Australia and Canada, chose the warmer of the two countries. My mother spent her childhood bouncing between schools in England and Australia. She eventually grew so fed up with packing and unpacking, she decided to leave school at the age of 16. Her father agreed to the plan provided she spend a final year at the school in Switzerland his own mother had attended as a girl. My mother moved on from Swiss finishing school to work in London, Paris and Sydney. But she appears to have made New York her last port of call. Indeed, we had a fairly solid life in the city until I decided to take myself off to boarding school in England.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced over the course of your many displacements.
It must have been when I first arrived in New York as a six-year-old. I stepped out of the JFK arrivals terminal into a snowy March night. My stepfather was wearing a leather coat, the interior of his car smelled of leather — and the world outside the car window seemed an undulating stream of black and silver. Though it was the end of 2001’s warm winter, my Australian blood froze beneath my first-ever coat. And their apartment — that was all leather as well. It smelled of musk and cologne. Since that time, I have felt similar pangs of displacement, some of which lasted for considerable periods. But those first few moments in New York stand out as the most acute concentration of “displacedness” I have ever known.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
For the last five or so years in New York, I have felt more at home than I ever did in Sydney. I ascribe this to growing up: at a certain age, one can take possession of a city, know its streets, bridges, tunnels and transportation system. I was too young when I lived in Sydney to reach that kind of comfort level. But when have I felt the most like a New Yorker? Perhaps it was the last time I came home for the holidays, and took the 4 train uptown for the first time in months. At that moment I realized how much this train had been a part of my life — conveying me home from school every day for two years. My old life would always be waiting for me on the subway, ready for me to pick it up again. That’s something only a New Yorker could say!

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of the countries where you’ve lived into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Australia: A miniature wooden wombat figurine — a gift from my grandfather. It conjures memories of a childhood spent beating about the bush (literally) and fishing for yabbies at the dam in the company of audacious dogs who stuck their heads down wombat holes, to no good end.
From New York: A pair of fake Harry Potter glasses. These defined my first six months in New York — I even wore them to my first day of school. I think it is telling that even at the age of six, I was unwilling to give all of my real self to this new home.
From England: My school tie — representative of the alternative universe I seem to have entered. At boarding school, the sense of removal from reality can be disconcerting — especially after having spent a decade in the city I regard as the world’s capital.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on your menu?
I’d like to make you a Sydney breakfast: scrambled eggs, made with cream, salt and pepper and served on a bed of Turkish toast, with avocado and stewed tomato on the side (is this being greedy?). Our meal will be accompanied by a large “flat white”: what we call perfectly strong, milky coffee without excessive froth. I suggest we consume it overlooking a beach on a Sunday morning. At least, I assume The Displaced Nation has beaches?

You may add one word or expression from each of the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What words do you loan us?
From Australia: Daggy. I use this word all the time — and did not realize it was exclusively Australian until I was informed of the etymology. Apparently, it comes from trimming the soiled wool around a sheep’s bottom. Which part of this repugnant whole is actually the “dag,” I do not remember. (No, I’m not a proper Australian!) But as I understand it, “daggy” means sloppy in appearance or badly put together.
From New York: There are so many words, and most are second nature by now. However, I will choose grande-soy-chai-tea-latte because I still shudder to think of myself as the kind of person who can utter such a phrase, at great speed, with great insistence. In fact, I’m still in denial about my love for Starbucks: having known Sydney coffee, my standards should be higher.
From England: Banter. I still do not know the precise meaning of this word, but it seems to encapsulate everything that makes someone my age feel socially acceptable — and, of course, I have no banter whatsoever. I think it means the capacity for combining wit with meaningless conversation. But there are other components, too, which seem to me unfathomable.

Question: Readers, tell us what you think: should we welcome Charlotte Day to The Displaced Nation and if so, why? (Note: It’s fine to vote “no” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms you think we all — Charlotte included — will find amusing.)

img: Charlotte Day at her boarding school in southeast England

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6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you

Any wannabe expat/travel writer would do well to consult with Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, herself a novelist and former expat, before beginning their Great Works. Kristin offers a wealth of writing tips on Writerhead, a blog that she launched on April 1 of this year (which, coincidentally, was the same day we launched The Displaced Nation).

Of the helpful hints Kristin has offered thus far, I have many favorites, but if I had to pick one, it would be her post entitled “Write Wee.” In her breathlessly inimitable style, Kristin assures us that producing a multi-volume series on one’s overseas adventures is not the way to go:

Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.

Find one story and tell it.

Just it.

The only thing I would add is that in general, women are better at extracting such nuggets than men.

Actually, what got me started in thinking about the difference in travel writing styles of the sexes was a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Edwardian novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, who penned the much-loved work, The Enchanted April, about four women who escape to a medieval castle in Italy for a much-needed break from their routines.

For me, von Arnim typifies one of characteristics that makes women’s travel writing so special (no doubt there are many more!). As she wandered far and wide across Europe and America, she paid extremely careful attention to the details of her surroundings.

A forerunner of what today we’d call a nature freak, she could get lost in telling the story of watching a “nightingale on a hornbeam, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun…” — I quote from her largely autobiographical novel The Solitary Summer, about a woman, also called Elizabeth, who is anything but solitary. She has a husband, to whom she refers as the Man of Wrath, small child and household to care for.

Perhaps such descriptive powers are born of necessity. Women have little choice but to make the most of spinning tales out of the moments they snatch from lives that are otherwise spent ministering to the needs of others — even when they’re technically on vacation.

Having combed through the pages of The Virago Book of Women Travellers (ed. Mary Morris with Larry O’Connor), I think I may be on to something. I discovered any number of women travel writers with the power to enchant their readers by capturing in their works the moments, exchanges, and personal ephiphanies their wanderings have yielded.

Here are six whose “nuggets” continue to gleam for us modern-day nomads:

Frances Trollope (1780-1863)

Who was she? Mother of Anthony and like her son, a prolific writer of novels (34 in total!).
Key work: Domestic Manners of the Americans, a travel book that made her name, about the four years she spent pursuing opportunities in the United States after her family suffered financial setbacks.

At length my wish of obtaining a house in the country was gratified….But even this was not enough to satisfy us when we first escaped from the city, and we determined upon having a day’s enjoyment of the wildest forest scenery we could find. So we packed up books, albums, pencils, and sandwiches, and, despite a burning sun, dragged up a hill so steep that we sometimes fancied we could rest ourselves against it by only leaning forward a little. In panting and in groaning we reached the top, hoping to be refreshed by the purest breath of heaven; but to have tasted the breath of heaven we must have climbed yet farther, even to the tops of the trees themselves, for we soon found that the air beneath them stirred not, nor ever had stirred, as it seemed to us, since first it settled there, so heavily did it weigh upon our lungs.

Still we were determined to enjoy ourselves, and forward we went, crunching knee deep through aboriginal leaves, hoping to reach some spot less perfectly air-tight than our landing place. Wearied with the fruitless search, we decided on reposing awhile on the trunk of a fallen tree; being all comfortably exhausted, the idea of sitting down on this tempting log was conceived and executed simultaneously by the whole party, and the whole party sunk together through its treacherous surface into a mass of rotten rubbish that had formed part of the pith and marrow of the eternal forest a hundred years before.

We were by no means the only sufferers from the accident; frogs, lizards, locusts, katydids, beetles, and hornets, had the whole of their various tenements disturbed, and testified their displeasure very naturally by annoying us as much as possible in return; we were bit, we were stung, we were scratched; and when, at last, we succeeded in raining ourselves from the venerable ruin, we presented as woeful a spectacle as can well be imagined. We shook our (not ambrosial) garments, and panting with heat, stings, and vexation, moved a few paces from the scene of our misfortune, and again sat down; but this time it was upon the solid earth.

We had no sooner begun to “chew the cud” of the bitter fancy that had beguiled us to these mountain solitudes than a new annoyance assailed us. A cloud of mosquitoes gathered round, and while each sharp proboscis sucked our blood, they teased us with their humming chorus, till we lost all patience, and started again on our feet, pretty firmly resolved never to try the al fresco joys of an American forest again.

Flora Tristan (1803-1844)

Who was she? French reformer who campaigned for workers’ and women’s rights; grandmother to artist Paul Gauguin.
Key work: Peregrinations of a Pariah, about a trip she made alone to Peru to stake her claim to her family’s fortune.

Mr. Smith took me to the house of his correspondents, and here once more I found all of the luxury and comfort characteristic of the English. The servants were English, and like their masters they were dressed just as they would have been in England. The house had a verandah, as do all the houses in Lima, and this is very convenient in hot countries, as it gives shelter from the sun and enables one to walk all round the house to take the air. This particular verandah was embellished with pretty English blinds. I stayed there for some time and could survey in comfort the only long wide street which constitutes the whole of Callao. It was a Sunday, and sailors in holiday attire were strolling about; I saw groups of Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans — in short, a mixture from nearly every nation — and I heard snatches from every tongue. As I listened to these sailors, I began to understand the charm they find in their adventurous life… When I tired of looking at the street I cast a glance into the large drawing-room whose windows overlooked the verandah, where five or six immaculately dressed Englishmen, their handsome faces calm and impassive, were drinking grog and smoking excellent Havana cigars as they swung gently to and fro from hammocks from Guayaquil suspended from the ceiling.

Mary Anne Barker (1831 – 1911)

Who was she? Jamaica-born, England-educated author and journalist who with her second husband tried to run a sheep station in New Zealand (they later traveled to Mauritius, Western Australia, Barbados and Trinidad for his colonial appointments).
Key works: Station Life in New Zealand (1870); First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking (1874); A Year’s Housekeeping in South Africa (1880).

All this beauty would have been almost too oppressive, it was on such a large scale and the solitude was so intense, if it had not been for the pretty little touch of life and movement afforded by the hut belonging to the station we were bound for. It was only a rough building, made of slabs of wood with cob between; but there was a bit of fence and the corner of a garden and an English grass paddock, which looked about as big as a pocket-handkerchief from where we stood. A horse or two and a couple of cows were tethered near, and we could hear the bark of a dog. A more complete hermitage could not have been desired by Diogenes himself, and for the first time we felt ashamed of invading the recluse in such a formidable body, but ungrudging, open-handed hospitality is so universal in New Zealand that we took courage and began our descent. … We put the least scratched and most respectable-looking member of the party in the van, and followed him, amid much barking of dogs, to the low porch; and after hearing a cheery “Come in,” answering our modest tap at the door, we trooped in one after the other till the little room was quite full. I never saw such astonishment on any human face as on that of the poor master of the house, who could not stir from his chair by the fire, on account of a bad wound in his leg from an axe. There he sat quite helpless, a moment ago so solitary, and now finding himself the centre of a large, odd-looking crowd of strangers. He was a middle-aged Scotchman, probably of not a very elevated position in life, and had passed many years in this lonely spot, and yet he showed himself quite equal to the occasion.

After that first uncontrollable look of amazement he did the honours of his poor hut with the utmost courtesy… His only apology was for being unable to rise form his arm-chair (made out of half a barrel and an old flour-sack by the way); he made us perfectly welcome, took it for granted we were hungry — hunger is a very mild world to express my appetite, for one… I never felt more awkward in my life than when I stooped to enter that low doorway, and yet in a minute I was quite at my ease again; but of the whole party I was naturally the one who puzzled him the most. In the first place, I strongly suspect that he had doubts as to my being anything but a boy in a rather long kilt; and when this point was explained, he could not understand what a “female,” as he also called me, was doing on a rough hunting expedition. He particularly inquired more than once if I had come of my own free will, and could not understand what pleasure I found in walking so far.

Vivienne de Watteville (1900 – 1957)

Who was she? British writer and adventurer who accompanied her father on a safari in Kenya. After he was killed by a lion, she finished the trip on her own.
Key works: Out in the Blue (1927); Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (1937).

Finally, it was the boys themselves who pointed to the summit and said it was not very far.

Enviously, I admired the way they could climb. As for me, … I was badly spent; my knees trembled as I panted up through the reeling boulders. …

At last I climbed above the forest zone, passing beneath the last outposts — stunted trees ragged with beard-moss in whose chequered shade lay a carpet of tiny peas … whose blossoms were a lovely transparent blue. Above them flitted miniature butterflies, as though the petals themselves had taken wing. …

The top, when I at last reached it, was, after all, not really the top, and beyond a dipping saddle another granite head still frowned down upon me.

But meanwhile, below me the south side disclosed a grassing depression girt about by the two summits and bare granite screes; and amid that desolation the grass stretched so green and rural that you had looked there for shepherds with their flocks. Instead of which, on the far side of a quaking bog, I saw — grey among the grey slabs — two rhino.

… I drew to within forty yards of the rhino, yet they still looked like a couple of grey boulders as they browsed off an isolated patch of sere grass. …

The wind had risen to a tearing gale, and nosing straight into it I approached the rhino somewhat downhill. There was no chance of this steady blow jumping around to betray me, and it was strong enough to carry away any sound of my footsteps. Precaution was therefore unnecessary, and I walked boldly up to them. Just how close I was, it is hard to say; but I felt that I could have flipped a pebble at them, and I noted subconsciously that the eye of the one nearest me was not dark brown as I had imagined it, but the colour of sherry.

… he now came deliberately towards me nose to the ground, and horn foremost, full of suspicion. … In the finder [of my small cinema camera] I saw his tail go up, and knew that he was on the point of charging. Though it was the impression of a fraction of a second, it was unforgettable. …

… I read the danger signal, yet in a kind of trance of excitement I still held the camera against my forehead. Then Mohamed fired a shot over the rhino’s head to scare him, and I turned and fled for my very life.

M. F. K. Fisher (1908 – 1992)

Who was she? A preeminent American food writer, whose books are an amalgam of food literature, travel and memoir.
Key works: How to Cook a Wolf (1942); Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964); Dubious Honors (1988); Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1991).

Monsieur Venot was a town character and was supposed to be the stingiest and most disagreeable man in Dijon, if not in the whole of France. But I did not know this, and I assumed that it was all right to treat him as if he were a polite and even generous person. I never bought much from him but textbooks, because I had no extra money, but I often spent hours in his cluttered shop, looking at books and asking him things, and sniffing the fine papers there, and even sitting copying things from books he would suggest I use at his worktable, with his compliments and his ink and often his paper. In other words, he was polite and generous to me, and I liked him. …

In Monsieur Venot’s shop I learned to like French books better than any others. They bent to the hand and had to be cut, page by page. I liked that; having to work to earn the reward, cutting impatiently through the cheap paper of a “train novel,” the kind bought in railroad stations to be thrown away and then as often kept for many years, precious for one reason or another. I liked the way the paper crumbled a little into my lap or my blanket or my plate, along the edges of each page.

Mary Lee Settle (1918 – 2005)

Who was she? American writer, novelist and expat, one of the founders of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Key works: “Beulah Quintet” novel series (1956-1982), about the history of her native West Virginia (and hence of America); Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place (1991).

I hadn’t heard anything move, yet he stood there in front of me, smiling, quite silent, a large strong Turkish man, holding in his hand a small bunch of sweet wild thyme. He held it toward me, saying nothing, still smiling. There was something so gentle about him that I could not be afraid. I took the wild thyme, and I thanked him, in Turkish. He smiled again and touched his mouth and his ear. He was deaf and dumb. I still have the wild thyme, pressed and dried, kept like a Victorian lady’s souvenir of the Holy Land.

Dumb was the wrong word for him. There was no need for speech. He was an actor, an eloquent mime. I pointed to the atrium below and held my hands apart to show I didn’t know how to get down into it. He took my arm, and carefully, slowly, led me down a steep pile of rubble.

He mimed the opening of a nonexistent door and ushered me through it. He showed me roofless room after roofless room after roofless room as if he had discovered them. …

I think he had scared people before, and he was happy that there was someone who would let him show his house, for it was his house. Maybe he didn’t sleep there. I don’t know. I only know that he treated me as a guest in a ruin ten feet below the levee of the ground, and that he took me from room to room where once there had been marble walls and now there was only stone, where he was host and owner for a little while.

He showed me a small pool, held out his hand the height of a small child, and then swam across the air. All the time he smiled. He took me to a larger pool and swam again. Then he grabbed my arm and led me through a dark corridor toward what I thought was at first a cave. It was not. He sat down in an niche in the corridor, and strained until his face was pink, to show me it was the toilet. Then he took me into the kitchen where there were two ovens. …

For the first one he rolled dough for bread, kneaded it in air, slapped it, and put it in the oven. Then he took it out, broke it, and shared it with me. I ate the air with him. …

When I gave my friend, my arkadaş, some money, he kissed my hand and held it to his forehead, and then, pleased with the sun and me, and the fact that someone had not run away from him who lived like Caliban in a ruin, he put his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then I went down the hill to Ephesus. When I looked back to wave he had disappeared.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a tell-all from Kate Allison on what inspired her to create her fictional expat heroine, Libby.

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Random Nomads to the rescue! How to have an enchanted August (2/2)

Every year in mid-August, I swear I can still hear the beat of the taiko drums, even though it’s been years since I lived in Japan as an expat.

As I mentioned in my comment on Anthony Windram’s post of last week, the Japanese hold their Obon Festival in the dead of August. Appropriately, it’s the Buddhist version of the Festival of the Dead — when the dead are supposed to come back and visit.

That said, I have always thought of obon festivities as an attempt to arouse the living dead, which is what most people are after enduring the agonies of a Japanese summer. Just hearing the lively drumbeat can be revitalizing, getting one’s blood flowing again.

I am therefore personally curious to see how The Displaced Nation’s Random Nomads who live in Asia are doing. Are they managing to have some enchanting moments despite the heat — which, if anything, appears to be even more brutal in that part of the world than it was in my day? And what advice can they impart to the rest of us? (Besides the fact that compared to them, we shouldn’t really be complaining…)

Three of them got back with answers to these questions:
1) What has been your most enchanting moment of Summer 2011 thus far?
2) What has been your least enchanting moment?
3) Do you have any survival tips for people who can’t escape?

Please note:
a. You can read interviews with each of these three Random Nomads about their “displacement” by clicking on their names. They, and their lives, are fabulously inspiring regardless of season.
b. In Part 1 of this post, five US/Europe-based Random Nomads answered the same three questions. Check it out!

KIM ANDREASSON — Swedish passport; current home: Vietnam (Saigon)
Most enchanting:
Vacationing in my native Sweden with my wife. It was the longest time I have spent in my homeland in over a decade, and I have a new-found appreciation for the proverb: “Away is good, but home is best.”

Least enchanting:
Trying to do work while vacationing in Italy. An hour before an important conference call, the Internet went down at our 4-star hotel, and the hotel manager airily proclaimed, “That’s what usually happens when it rains.”

Survival tips:
We live in Saigon, where it’s basically 90 degrees all the time so there are only two options: stay inside and use AC; or if you go outside, wear light-colored clothes and drink lots of liquid.

EMILY CANNELL — U.S. passport; current home: Japan (Tokyo)
Most enchanting:
In spite of not being terribly interested in the rainforest or the quest to save it, I found myself smack dab in the middle of Borneo, Malaysia, on an Ecotour. Searching for the endangered orang-utans, we happened upon what became one of the highlights of my summer — and life. A pygmy elephant emerged from the trees, and just like the rest of us, he was hot. Slowly, he ambled in to the river where he proceeded to entertain us with his cooling down antics — scratching his ears on the trees, blowing water out of his trunk, and completely submerging himself while only 10 feet away from our boat. What a gift! I got out my checkbook then and there.

Least enchanting:
Getting up at 4:00 a.m. for the fifth time this summer in order to catch a 7:00 a.m. flight to somewhere. Once is okay, but five times?

Survival tips:
Currently I’m writing from the complete darkness of the guest bedroom, fan on high. Keep the curtains closed and the fans on high to circulate the air. When outside, wear a hat to keep the sun off the top of the head. It’ll do wonders.

JO GAN — U.S. passport; current home: China (Yuyao City, Zhejiang Province)
Most enchanting:
Since my summer is usually spent teaching high school and university students on their summer holidays, I usually don’t get many enchanting moments.  However, I did have one thing that was kind of nice.  After a long day at the language school, I walked down to the Yaojiang River that flows through the downtown area, with some fellow expat teachers and a couple of our adult students.  To our great surprise, white plastic chairs and tables had been set up all along the river underneath the willow trees. Cold beer and hot tea was being served, and there was a lone guitarist playing Chinese folk music for all to enjoy. We sat down and chatted, drank our beers, and watched the river float by with a slight breeze. The servers kept the beggars at bay so we were not hounded for money.

The best part of the evening was around midnight when they started shooting fireworks over the river.

It wasn’t a special occasion or even a special event — just the right mix of people and location, at just the right moment.

Least enchanting:
That would have to be when it rained for a month. I don’t know what was going on with the weather, but in the month of June I thought we were going to have to build an ark. It rained for three weeks straight every day without stopping. I didn’t want to do anything, but had to trek in the rain and puddles all the way to school every day. One day was particularly miserable because the electricity went out.  So it was hot and rainy, and we had no lights. I just kept thinking, why me?

Survival tips:
In the small Chinese city where I live, it’s the little things that count. Taking a trip around the city center in a rickshaw may cost you a little, but you get to sit back and survey the different things going on — and if that special person joins you, it can be romantic.

Another option is going out to the local parks every evening from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. to dance with the older locals. They are almost always playing some salsa or pop music and dancing the cha cha, or there’s some line dancing action. It is actually kind of fun to join them even if your are not in their age set. They always are excited to teach you their moves.

Lastly, we live close to Siming Mountain. You can take a trolley bus to the top and then float down the small river in a little orange raft. The river has added twists, turns and drops that make you scream out for your mama to help you. It makes for an interesting day, and you are bound to get wet and cool off.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, in which Anthony Windram debuts his new Agony Aunt column!

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