The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Enchanted August

RETURN TRIP: Seven deadly dishes — global grub to die for

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”!
Some months ago, The Displaced Nation explored the theme of Gothic tales — the idea that many of us return from our world travels with some horrific stories to tell. That’s assuming we return at all, of course. Displaced Nation writer Kate Allison contributed this piece on deadly dishes as part of our “It’s Food!” category. It’s one of our most popular posts to date.

A Briton abroad spends a surprising amount of time defending his native national cuisine. I remember going to a steak house in Connecticut where the waitress, upon taking our order and hearing our accents, said brightly, “From England, huh? I hear you don’t get anything good to eat over there. ” When she brought the filet mignon to the table, she did so with the pitying smile of one delivering alms to the starving.

British super-chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver may be taking the US by storm, but still this delusion of bad food persists. To which I say: whatever the perceived faults of English cuisine, at least no one has to take out extra life insurance before eating Yorkshire pudding.

Yet there are quite a few delicacies from countries without this dismal food reputation, where a top-up premium might be useful before you take that first bite.

In ascending order of danger or toxicity:

7. Snake wine – Vietnam, Southeast Asian, Southern China.

An assortment of herbs, small snakes, and a large venomous snake are steeped for many months in a glass jar of rice wine, then consumed in small shots for medicinal purposes. Fortunately, the ethanol renders snake venom harmless.

6. Surströmming – Sweden.

Fermented Baltic herring. Stored in cans, where the fermentation continues, causing the cans to bulge. In 2006, Air France and British Airways banned surstromming from their flights because they said the cans were potentially explosive. According to a Japanese study, the smell of this Scandinavian rotten fish is the most putrid food smell in the world.

5. Fried tarantula – Cambodia.

Tarantulas, tossed in MSG, sugar, and salt, are fried with garlic until their legs are stiff and the abdomen contents less liquid. The flesh tastes a little like chicken or white fish, and the body is gooey inside. Certain breeds of tarantula have urticating hairs on their abdomen, which they use for self-defense. If the spiders are not prepared properly – i.e., if the offending hairs are not removed with a blow torch or similar – these hairs can cause pharyngeal irritation in the consumer.

4. Sannakji – Korea.

Small, live, wriggling octopus, seasoned with sesame and sesame oil. The suction cups are still active, so bits of tentacle may stick to your throat as you swallow, especially if you’ve had one too many drinks before dinner. The trick is to chew thoroughly so no piece is big enough to take hold of your tonsils. Some veteran sannakji eaters, however, enjoy the feel of longer pieces of writhing arm and are prepared to take the risk.

3. Stinkhead – Alaska

Heads of salmon, left to ferment in a hole in the ground for a few weeks. Traditionally, the fish was wrapped in long grasses and fermented in cool temperatures, but then someone discovered Baggies and plastic buckets, which increase the speed of the process. Unfortunately, they also increase the number of botulism cases.

2. Casu Marzu – Sardinia

Made by introducing the eggs of the cheese fly to whole Pecorino cheese (hard cheese made from sheep’s milk) and letting the cheese ferment to a stage of terminal decomposition. Locally, the cheese is considered dangerous to eat when the maggots are dead, so you eat them live and squirming. As the larvae can jump six inches in the air, it is advisable to cover your cheese sandwich with your hand while eating to prevent being smacked in the face by grubs. An alternative is to put the cheese in a paper bag to suffocate the maggots, then eat it straight away. The maggots will jump around in the bag for a while, making a sound, I imagine, not unlike that of popcorn in the microwave. Although the European Union outlawed this food for a while, it has since been classified as a “traditional” food and therefore exempt from EU food hygiene regulations.

1. Fugu (Puffer fish) – Japan

Considered to be the second most toxic vertebrate in the world, puffer fish is a delicacy in Japan, but preparation of the food is strictly controlled, with only specially trained chefs in licensed restaurants permitted to deal with the fish. Fugu contains tetrodotoxin, a poison about 1200 times stronger than cyanide, which is most highly concentrated in the fish’s liver — the tastiest part. Sadly, for gourmets who like to live life on the edge, fugu liver in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984.

Question: What is the most adventurous dish you’ve ever eaten?

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Enchanting European escapes at the hands of Woody Allen, BBC & Jersey Shore(!)

I could easily have gotten in a crabby mood this summer while watching everyone (who’s anyone) escape the heat of New York City while I stayed put.

But what saved me, in addition to cocktails, were all the enchanting images of Europe on the big and small screen.

I could live vicariously through the works of film directors and TV producers who have packed up casts and crew and moved to foreign locales — all for my viewing pleasure.

So what if their works weren’t exactly exploring the kinds of themes that citizens of the displaced nation care about? We’re talking escape and enchantment here, and that means pleasant scenery, surely?

Woody Allen’s postcard Paris

Take, for instance, the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. I haven’t seen it yet but the trailer already has me in love with the idea of an escape within an escape, particularly as it involves Paris.

Woody’s hero, Gil, a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson, gets to escape to Paris — pretty nice even if he’s going as the guest of his pushy fiancée and her frightful parents. Especially as he gets to escape from them by traveling back in time to the sizzling city of the 1920s.

There he hobnobs with the brilliant expat crowd of that era, including on the American side, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Cole Porter, and on the European side, Picasso, Salvador Dalí and T. S. Eliot.

In the course of this time-travel adventure, Gil picks up writing advice from Papa Hemingway and even has an affair with Picasso’s fictional mistress, played by the enchanting French actress Marion Cotillard.

But let’s get back to the scenery, which, to be honest, sounds like the real star of the film — or as one film critic put it:

What an enchanting movie — almost as enchanting as its location.

And indeed, the City of Light has never looked more glorious, from the opening montage of narrow streets, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, to the vistas unfolding before Gil on his warm spring evening strolls.

Yes, it’s a mostly touristic view of the city, but that’s precisely what I’m after while living through a spell of hot, humid weather in New York City.

And speaking of New York, I’m further inspired that a kid from Brooklyn — someone who has always struck me as NOT being displaced — can abandon his hometown so completely in his twilight years. Woody Allen now seems to favor photogenic foreign locales for his films — e.g., London in Match Point and Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Rumor has it that this is because New York has become too expensive and he’s found some European investors.

But even if Allen wasn’t yearning for it, he certainly seems to have been stimulated by his change of surroundings. I for one am still chuckling over Penélope Cruz’s constant defiance to speak English in front of her ex’s (American) girlfriend in VCB. Has Allen elicited that level of comic performance in an actress since Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? I personally don’t think so, and Oscar agrees with me!

The BBC’s postcard Rome


This summer PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! carried a new crime series, Zen, produced for the BBC by Left Bank Films. The title refers to the hero, a Venetian-born Roman police detective by the name of Aurelio Zen (“Zen” is a Venetian way of shortening the surname “Zeno”).

Originally the creation of British crime writer Michael Dibdin, Zen attempts to bring justice to modern-day Italy whether the authorities — politicians, the Church, the Mafia — want it or not. (They don’t — and to make matters worse for poor Zen, his bosses, too, side with the outlaws.)

Now, Dibdin was as English as they come but he led a peripatetic life and wrote the Zen books after being an expat in Italy for four years, where he taught at a university in Perugia.

So we have him to thank for the chance to see some of Britain’s handsomest actors wearing sharp suits, talking sexy, and frolicking about in the Roman sunshine. I kept waiting for Rufus Sewell, who plays Zen, to wink at me as if to say, aren’t I lucky to be on this Roman holiday instead of making yet another London-based crime drama?

He even gets a dishy Italian girlfriend, played by the Italian actress Caterina Murino (see above clip).

As New York Times TV critic Gina Bellefonte observes,

The [Zen] films deploy a light comic sensibility and graphics that suggest a ‘60s caper. They situate us in a Rome where the weather always seems heavenly, blouses are always unbuttoned suggestively, and no lunch transpires without multiple courses and repeated instances of sexual innuendo. Risotto is eaten; cigarettes are smoked; espresso is consumed; public displays of lust are evident. There is little resistance to cliché in all this, but the cliché is so visually appealing that you’ll feel like a spoiled child if you complain.

Not to worry, Gina, I’m not complaining! A 1960s caper is exactly the kind of enchantment I’ve been so desperately seeking this summer.

Jersey Shore’s postcard Florence


Okay, I know I’m stretching the picture-perfect postcard idea here, but the fact is that MTV’s hit reality series — about eight housemates who spend their summers in a summer share on the Jersey shore — has opened its fourth season in Florence, Italy. It premiered on August 4.

And that’s a lot more enchanting than Seaside Heights, NJ, or Miami (where Season 2 took place) — I say that having never been to Seaside Heights or Miami, but still…

Ostensibly, Snooki, Vinny, and the rest are in Florence to find their Italian roots.

They certainly aren’t there to meet the natives, try the food, or tour the Uffizi or the Duomo. As New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley has it:

The road signs point to Florence but they should read “Welcome to the Jersey Shoro.” … Even in Florence, the producers are determined not to let anything under the Tuscan sun melt the parochial insularity of “Jersey Shore.”

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t enjoy the setting, does it? Call me a snobbo, but watching Snooki, Sammi, Deena and Jenni negotiate the cobblestone streets of Florence in their six-inch leopard skin stilettos makes me appreciate the city’s quaint beauty even more.

And MTV has already announced that in the fifth season, the gang (many of the whom in fact hail from Staten Island or other outer NYC boroughs) will return to Seaside Heights. So for now, viva Italia — that’s what I say!

QUESTION: Can you recommend any more TV series or films that can serve as eye candy for the travel-starved this summer?

YouTube clips: Midnight in Paris trailer 2011, by MoviePediaTrailers; Rufus Sewell — Zen — Vendetta (2011) — Drinks, PrairieGirl1000; and Jersey shore season 4 sneak peek, by TheAdam419.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a reprise of our popular post about seven deadly dishes — apparently, we didn’t kill enough of you off the first time around! 🙂

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The Displaced Nation’s monthly themes — witty, wacky, wise, all or none of the above?

Before drawing up the charter, as it were, for The Displaced Nation in April, the site’s two Founding Mothers — Kate Allison and myself — and its one Founding Father, Anthony Windram, engaged in some vigorous debate over what the site’s “categories” should be.

We had met through our blogs. What topics did we all have in common?

One of them was easy: cultural discombobulation, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Windram’s blog title. Except we had now come up with a new term: displacement.

Now what do we mean by “displacement” in the context of global travel and residency? My favorite analogy is to an old-fashioned fruit slot machine — but where each fruit is assigned a national identity. I suspect, for instance, that my two colleagues, both of whom are Brits who are living in the U.S., sometimes have days when they spin the reels and get two gooseberries (British fruit) and one cranberry (American fruit) — meaning they’re feeling a lot more British than American. Whereas for me — an American who has lived in both the UK and Japan — I’ll often get one cranberry, one gooseberry and one mikan (Japanese fruit), an outcome that makes my head spin, as I simply don’t know where or who I am. That, btw, is what’s known as hitting the jackpot in our displaced world!

Thus the category What a Displaced World was born, the default category for most of our articles.

Speaking of fruits, food was another obvious category. It was something that had drawn the three of us together in the first place. Indeed, Kate Allison’s blog — Marmite & Fluff — even has food (two of her favorites) in its title.

For this category, we came up with It’s Food! — which, if less than original, we hope does the job thanks to the exclamation mark.

Around the time we spoke about starting this blog, Kate was beginning to serialize a fictional account of a trailing spouse, Libby, on her blog. She proposed moving Libby’s Life to the new site, and we came up with the category It’s Fiction! Libby now shares that real estate with our posts consisting of interviews with novelists who’ve written about the expat life or travel.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and the category Random Nomads sprung out of our decision to have me continue the interviews with expats and repats I’d started on my blog, Seen the Elephant. If “nomad” was obvious, the three of us felt that “random” worked well with it, since we’re constantly bumping into — actually as well as virtually — the kind of people who strike us as being interesting because of their displacement.

As for the Displaced Hall of Fame, this came about because of Anthony Windram’s desire to explore the writings of famous people who’ve been displaced both in centuries past and our own time. While he has a bent for the classics — and has chosen to feature literary giants such as Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce in his posts — Kate and I have occasionally expanded the category to include celebrity types, ranging from the actress Mia Wasikowska (a Third Culture Kid) to the model India Hicks to the chef Jamie Oliver.

The “monthly theme” idea

But then once the blog got underway, we decided that in addition to these categories, we enjoyed organizing our posts around monthly themes, rather like a magazine (the fashion issue, the cheap eats issue, the summer issue, etc.).

This came about rather by accident as Kate Middleton and Prince William’s nuptials took place around the time we launched, prompting us to do a series of Royal Wedding posts focusing on what a global event this quintessentially British occasion had become.

Other initial themes were:

  • Domestic expats — the idea that you didn’t have to go abroad to feel displaced (apt in these economically troubled times), anchored by Kate Allison’s The domestic expat.

But then something (we’re not quite clear what) happened, and our thinking morphed again. We started exploring themes based on particular characters, historical and literary, that have inspired us, as well as books:

And September will be — wait for it! — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance month, a series of posts inspired by Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 philosophical novel.

Some say they like the way we cover themes, while we suspect others find it rather zany.

How about you, what do you think? And if you’re pro-theme, can you suggest any you might like us to cover?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on films and TV series that take vacations to other lands.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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A glowing moment of enchantment in a displaced summer

Continuing this month’s theme on Enchanted Summer, contributor Anthony Windram weighs in with his opinion.

Elizabeth von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April, was right in selecting April as the month of enchantment. Spring charms me in a way that summer doesn’t. The budding boughs are full of fresh scents, to borrow from Christina Rossetti, and the land restores itself. Nature, in a universe governed by entropy, pulls off a majestic conjuring trick.

By contrast, I find summer a little unenchanting. Let’s face it, it’s not a good time for the English. We can’t really be trusted with summer. We should be banned from it, it’d be for the best. Pack us all up and send us to the Arctic for three months. That way we might avoid the collective fever that descends upon us where we dehydrate our bodies with copious quantities of lager and show off our sun blistered skin and bad tattoos.

So, as you probably have gathered, I’m not much of a summer fan and that hasn’t changed having now lived in places that have actual, proper summers as opposed to England’s illusion of a summer. I can usually be found in the summer months (when not enjoying a self-imposed seasonal exile in the Arctic) wandering from one airconditioned building to another. If I do have to venture out into the heat, I only do so after liberally applying sunblock (factor 100).

But this post is about enchantment with the summer, and it’s only when the sun has set and the temperature has lowered that such moments have occurred. I share Simon Wheeler’s thoughts on the sounds of crickets. To me, it’s a foreign sound. A memory of childhood holidays abroad. Hearing that rhythmic sound each evening reminds me that I am in a foreign country, and as I listen the everyday mundanity of my setting dissolves away.

I am not, despite what this post might suggest, an amateur entomologist. If anything, I have an immediate revulsion with most creepy crawlies, but my second summer enchantment also involves them and like the music of the crickets it was a fleeting moment that stripped me of cynicism and returned me to childhood. It was my first summer in the US, I was in my in-laws’ garden. I was listening to the crickets and feeling very happy with myself when an insect flew past me, its lower abdomen pulsating a yellow, illuminiscent light. I knew the answer, but I couldn’t be certain as I had never seen one before. “Is that a firefly?” I asked.

And where there had been one, there was another, and then another. Looking around, thrilled in the same way I would have been as a child, it seemed that there was a swarm of fireflies captivating me utterly — a glowing moment of enchantment in the summer evening.

DISPLACED Q: What’s your most enchanting memory of a summer spent in your adopted homeland(s)?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s discussion of The Displaced Nation’s themed posts.

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Random Nomads to the rescue! How to have an enchanted August (1/2)

Ah, summer — what power you have to make us suffer…and like it?!

I don’t know about you, but I’m not liking the mid-August dog days very much. For a start, I’m getting tired of watching my own two dogs panting instead of playing.

Thus I’ve turned to The Displaced Nation’s Random Nomads to help me find things to like during the remaining weeks of Summer 2011, which doesn’t technically end until September 23.

Besides asking them to report back on how their own summers have been, I begged them to share some tips for escaping one’s surroundings at times when one can’t manage a physical escape. I recall from my own expat days (in the UK and Japan) that global residents develop superhuman-reserves of stamina (the Japanese call it gaman, or “enduring the seemingly unendurable with patience and dignity”) to sustain them during less-than-pleasant interludes.

And I wasn’t disappointed — no less than five USA/Europe-based Random Nomads have come to my rescue! They’ve answered these three 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?

And next week, we’ll hear from three more, all of whom hang their hats in Asia.

NOTE: If you haven’t read the interviews with these five people about their “displacement,” be sure to do so by clicking on their names. They, and their lives, are fabulously inspiring regardless of what season it is!

BALAKA BASU — USA passport; current home: USA (New York City)
Most enchanting:
Swimming at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The water out there at Gunnison Beach is green and gorgeous; the waves are gentle and warm, and they lap round you like a soft embrace. Over in the distance, you can see the skyline of NYC, wrapped in haze. It’s truly lovely, the closest you can come to the Caribbean in the metropolitan area, I think.

Least enchanting:
WASPS (the insects)! They built five(!) hives in our car, and we had to suit up in full sleeves, veils and boots — full-on winter armor in heat-stroke inducing weather — to kill them with poison as they boiled out of their hives. Not cool. Not cool at all.

Survival tip:
Find a cheap(ish) hotel with a bar and an outdoor pool — someplace no tourist would ever visit. Bring towels, bathing suits, a great beach read, and plastic cups — and pretend you’re on beachfront property in some place awesome: e.g., “Jamaica” without the plane ticket.

VICKI JEFFELS — New Zealand passport; current home: England (Tadley, Hampshire)
Most enchanting:
England had a couple of days of really tropical weather back in July — I loved it. For a brief time there was the lingering smell of BBQ wafting around our neighborhood, and I was even able to lie down on a towel in the garden and safely fill up my vitamin D reserves. Ah, bliss!

Least enchanting:
The following week the temperatures plummeted and it looked as if that was all the summer we were going to get.

Survival tips:
Ah yes, right down my alley! Many of my neighbors and friends were finding it really difficult to sleep in the humid weather, not helped at all by the BBC advising everyone to close their curtains! Whaaat? When you find it difficult to sleep, I advise a tepid (not cold!) shower to lower the body temperature before sleep. If possible (I know it’s not always possible), take a dip in a swimming pool — that’s ideal.

PIGLET IN PORTUGAL — English passport; current home: Portugal (Algarve)
Most enchanting:
To date, there are two special moments. Can I have two?

Yes, OK. Great!

Actually, one is magical and the other enchanting. Both slightly predate the summer months, but the effects still linger.

The most magical moment was the birth of our first grandchild, Lily-May, on the 28th of April in France. We drove as if possessed for two days from Portugal across Spain to the South of France to see her. Although I am not maternal by nature (I’m more of a practical Mom), when I held her in my arms for the first time, my heart melted. As recorded on my blog, she’s adorable!

The most enchanting moment was when I was singing to her and she gave me a big smile. Poor little thing — my singing is not that tuneful; I think she felt sorry for me!

Least enchanting:
The least enchanting because most worrying moment of Summer 2011 was the way our daughter’s health deteriorated after giving birth. Despite various consultations with doctors about the excruciating pain and the ongoing urine infections she was experiencing, they just prescribed antibiotics rather than trying to find the root cause. The local GPs were totally clueless! However, the answer quickly became apparent once her husband insisted she go to hospital for a proper examination. The maternity ward doctor, upon examining our daughter, quickly discovered that medical compresses, now rotting, had been left inside her! Once these were removed, she began to recover. But had they remained, I have since been informed septicaemia would have set in, with devastating consequences for both our daughter and breastfed baby granddaughter.

Survival tips:
This is difficult because adverse weather conditions to some could be absolute heaven for others. Weather, I tend to take as it comes as it is out of my control.

My own great escape would not be from the weather but from tourist areas. Living in a tourist area myself, I have renamed tourists “terrorists” because many leave their manners and consideration for others at home. They literally do “terrorize” the locals!

 Personally, I love wild and natural places far away from the mass concrete high-rise hotels, with rows of sun beds and parasols lining the beaches.

My idea of heaven is to take a picnic, a bottle of chilled white wine, our comfy chairs and a parasol down to one of the unspoilt beaches for a “sun-downer.”

Yes, there are other people there in July and August, but we all seem to appreciate the luxury of freedom from tourists, and peace…

So, if you are coming to the Algarve on holiday please check out some of my
“secret beaches.” I can show you how to escape the “maddening” crowds!

JACK SCOTT — British passport; current home: Bodrum, Turkey
Most enchanting:
Bodrum is the most secular and modern of Turkish towns. It’s where people come to escape the conformity of everyday Turkish society. Normal social rules don’t apply. However, scrape the surface and you will find magic of a different kind.

This summer, we were visiting a friend, a thoroughly modern Millie, who lives just a few hundred meters behind the bustling marina with its luxury yachts and raucous watering holes. Her home is set within a traditional quarter of whitewashed buildings huddled together along narrow lanes.

As we approached her door, we noticed an elderly neighbor dressed in traditional livery of floral headscarf, crocheted cardigan and capacious clashing pantaloons. She sat cross-legged in a shady spot of her bountiful garden and was busy plucking a fleece.

Being city boys and largely ignorant of country ways, we asked our friend what the old lady was doing. She was preparing the wool for hand carding, straightening and separating fibers for weaving on the spinning wheel she kept in her house.

She hummed as she plucked, happy under the cool of an ancient knotted olive tree and doing what women have done in Turkey for millennia.

Now you don’t get that in Blighty.

Least enchanting:
We were wandering down Bodrum’s bar street, a procession of cheap and cheerful bars and hassle shops.

We normally rush by; casual shopping in Turkey can be a bruising experience best only tried by the foolish and heroic. The cheaper outlets employ aggressive teenagers in tight, bright, white shirts to drag gullible punters in from the street. A firm refusal elicits a bellicose riposte. The posher shops employ mostly female staff whose sales technique is softer but no less annoying. Speculative browsing is unbearable when tailed by KGB-trained assistants and you are made to feel like a serial shoplifter.

On this occasion my partner, Liam, popped into a corner shop to buy some cigarettes. Keen to use the local lingo, he asked for them in very passable Turkish. The po-faced assistant looked at him blankly. Liam repeated the request. Another blank look. After a brief standoff, the assistant relented and repeated the order in English. He threw the cigarettes at Liam, snatched the payment and slammed the change on the counter.

Welcome to Turkey, where hospitality greets you at every corner. I know there are arse-holes in every country — but next time we’ll just shout loudly in English.

Survival tips:
During the height of the summer we’re like camp vampires and only venture out after dark. Earlier in the season we found ourselves sweltering in 40+C (104+F) heat with no air conditioning. Because our pretty little cottage has 18-inch thick stone and concrete walls it took us weeks to find a technical solution. In the meantime, I received a host of suggestions to help us through the sleepless, sweaty nights. I’d like to share a few:
• Wrap a gel-type freezer pack in a wet tea-towel and apply it to your hot bits (and watch them shrink).
• Buy a floor-standing industrial fan (but nail everything down).
• Bathe your feet in an ice bucket (and develop frostbite).
• Take a cold shower (except the cold water is hot at this time of year).
• Sleep on a wet towel (and rot the mattress).
• Decamp to the roof (and get eaten alive my mozzies).
• Emigrate to Sweden?!

SIMON WHEELER — English passport; current home: Slovakia (Plavé Vozokany)
Most enchanting:
I love the sound of the crickets chirping. Whenever I left for holidays from England as a kid, that sound always meant I was away and exploring. Now I have them every summer’s night, and I still cannot get used to it. I still get that thrill of being in a new place…

Least enchanting:
Mosquitoes — they love every bit of me!!!

Survival tip:
I’m afraid I need a physical escape from our 35C (95F) “phew, what a scorcher!” summer. Fortunately, one is available in North Slovakia — in the Tatra Mountains, on the border between Slovakia and Poland. Just a stunning part of the world, very quiet, largely undiscovered, a place that exudes old-fashioned peace. Being that bit higher in altitude, the temps are perfect.

 

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Displaced Q on enchanting expat summers.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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RETURN TRIP: Travel author Janet Brown channels Alice in Wonderland’s “tone deaf” adventures

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”!
June was “Alice in Wonderland” month in The Displaced Nation, and the enchanting travel author Janet Brown came to our online tea party. She answered ML Awanohara’s questions on the curious and unreal aspects of her life in Thailand. Last time we checked in with Janet, she was in the process of moving back to the States. Will her counterculture shock prove to be another Alice adventure? We hope to hear back from Janet in the coming months.

As you may have noticed, The Displaced Nation has gone Alice-in-Wonderland mad since around the first of June. To take just a few examples:

And now, to top that all off, the extraordinary travel writer Janet Brown is paying us a visit. Brown could almost be a stand-in for the Lewis Carroll heroine herself, having published a book on travel to and life in Thailand called Tone Deaf in Bangkok, to much acclaim.

“Tone deaf” — it puts one in mind of poor Alice’s plea to the Mouse, “I didn’t mean it…But you’re so easily offended, you know!”

But if Brown sees herself as tone deaf, her readers regard her as anything but. Here is a sampling of her reader reviews on Amazon:

It has been ages since I have loved a piece of travel literature…, and so when I read TONE DEAF IN BANGKOK, I was thrilled. This is a good travel book, and it is a good book, period.

I am not a traveler, nor do I typically read travel books. Shame on me, I know, but here’s the thing: … The author brought Bangkok to life in a way that made me want to go there, yes, but it was her own story that captivated me and kept me turning the pages. Now I’d read anything Janet Brown writes!

Janet Brown’s TONE DEAF IN BANGKOK is a travelogue, to be sure. Yet it is more, so much more. It’s also an investigation into how dislocated we can become by ourselves, by our priorities and by all that we demand of the cultures in which we live. … That she has a gift for spotting the universal in the exotic makes this collection all the more profound.

Janet Brown has graciously agreed to answer some of my Alice-related questions. After that, dear reader, I urge you to chime in!

Before we go down the rabbit-hole, can you tell me a little bit more about your background?
My parents turned me into a gypsy before I was two, by taking me on their journey by jeep from New York City to Alaska when the 49th state was still a territory and the Alcan Highway was still an unpaved trail into the frozen north. I have wandered ever since, most recently in Southeast Asia with Bangkok as my home, writing down the stories I encounter as I explore. My books include:

Maybe because I’m so steeped in Alice-of-Wonderland lore this month, I think of you as Alice Personified. To what extent can you relate to Alice’s sense of disorientation? Going back not just to the first time you went to Thailand but also when your family dragged you to Alaska…
I was 18 months old when my family moved to Alaska from Manhattan. I coped with any displacement issues by making my mother read my favorite book over and over again — a truly saccharine Little Golden Book called The New Baby. The main character had the same name as I so that was the big attraction — all about me! My mother swears she can still recite it verbatim after having two martinis.

Alice came to mind constantly in my first months in Bangkok — and frequently thereafter. I knew I’d gone through the looking glass — or had entered the postcard — and asked myself often if that experience had been as painful for Alice as it often was for me.

Can you describe your worst “Pool of Tears” moment in Bangkok, where you wished you hadn’t decided on living there?
I’ve tried to make light of that time when I wrote about it in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, but it nearly demolished me. When the manager of my apartment turned me into Ryan’s Daughter by listening in on my phone calls and then entertaining the neighborhood with highly embroidered versions of my life — and when people fell silent when I walked down the street and began gabbling excitedly after I’d passed — I felt as though my life had been stolen from me and I shut down to the point of hypothermia. If my students hadn’t helped me find a new neighborhood, I would have gone home a gibbering mess.

Thailand is renowned for its distinctive cuisine. Was there anything that carried an “Eat me” label that you felt hesitant about at first, but then discovered you loved?
I’ve written about durian in Tone Deaf, how I thought its smell in the market was sewer gas and then how I was forced to taste it, with happy results. Fried grasshoppers were another thing I didn’t warm to at first sight and then liked as much as I do popcorn — they have much the same crunch and texture.

By the same token, were there any foods that you thought might be good but then didn’t acquire a taste for? (For Alice, of course, that was the Duchess’s over-peppered soup.)
One night I stopped to buy green papaya salad from a food cart to take home for supper. There was something in a little plastic bag that looked like a sort of relish, so I bought that, too.When I opened it at home a smell of rot filled the air, but remembering the delightful surprise that durian had proved to be, I took a generous spoonful. It was pla ra — fermented fish, a Northeastern Thailand culinary staple that is meant to be added and mixed judiciously with the salad, not eaten like peanut butter. There wasn’t enough toothpaste in the world to rid my mouth of that thoroughly foul taste.

As already mentioned, Alice finds it’s easy to offend the creatures in Wonderland without even trying. Why did you choose the expression “tone deaf” for the title of your book on Bangkok?
“Tone deaf” can be taken quite literally. Thai is a tonal language with five different tones giving meaning to every word. Use the wrong tone and at best you’re incomprehensible, at worst shocking. The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck. Another pitfall is confusing the word “near” with the word for “far” — they are the same sound, differentiated by a crucial tone.

But travelers to Thailand can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style. As a Thai-American friend has observed, the important things are what remain unsaid. “You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dogfood and ought to go home and rectify that at once. Subtlety is the hallmark of Thai communication, and is often expressed through a quirk of an eyebrow or a famous Thai smile, which has at least one hundred different meanings — including disdain or outright menace.

Describe the biggest faux pas you’ve made since settling in Bangkok.
Oh, how to choose — it’s impossible not to make faux pas every second because Thai etiquette is demanding and complex. The one that makes me cringe most is in my first week when I set off on my first solo bus ride. I was clutching a twenty-baht note, which like all bank notes in Thailand bears the countenance of the King. He is revered to the point of near godhood in his kingdom and his picture is always elevated to the highest spot in a room — nothing is above the King. But I was fresh off the boat and when I dropped my money and it was caught in a little breeze, I put out my foot (the lowest and most ignominious part of the body) and stepped on the picture of the King’s face to secure my bus fare. I was too clueless to pick up on the ripples of horror that this caused others at the bus stop, but now I writhe when I remember this.

“Off with her head!” as the chief royal in Alice’s story is wont to proclaim. Actually, never mind your head. Your mention of your foot makes me think of how physically awkward Alice feels around the creatures in Wonderland. As a farang in Bangkok, do you often feel self conscious?
I’m short and dark in a family of pale-skinned people, so I was used to being an anomaly from early childhood. In Bangkok, if I dressed like a Thai woman and wore sunglasses and walked slowly, I felt as though I blended in. But one day I walked down a quiet street on my way to a class, and someone looked up and said, “Look at the foreigner.” “How did she know?” I asked my class of teenage girls. “Your hair,” they said. “No, lots of Thai women have dyed their hair brown,” I replied — to which they responded: “Your nose.” It was my big American nose that gave me away every time — and since I hate pain and surgery, I just had to accept that.

Have you tweaked your personal style at all so as to fit in better?
Yes — I adopted the conservative “Don’t show your bare shoulders” school of dressing that prevailed in Bangkok when I first arrived and slowed my pace to that of the women around me. I learned to keep my facial expression as bland as I possibly could to achieve the quiet Thai “public face,” and I ironed everything, including my Levis. Now women are much more casual in the way they dress but I’m still stuck in the cultural mores of the 90s. To foreign women who live here now, my introductory years in Bangkok seem like fiction — things have changed so drastically in the past 16 years.

Time for a quote from the Cheshire Cat: “…we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Can you relate?
Riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi down a crowded city sidewalk, buying a glass of Shiraz to take with my popcorn into a movie theater, being drenched to the bone during Thai New Year’s — this is actually the most difficult question you’ve asked so far because at this point it all seems normal.

If you were to hold your own Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Bangkok, whom would you invite, and why?
Anais Nin, because she would love the unbridled hedonism of this place, Evelyn Waugh because he would satirize the expat scene so well, Ho Chi Minh because he could help put together the revolution that is needed here, Emily Hahn because she has always been my role model since I first read her when I was twelve, and Elvis because in Bangkok he is still the king.

Alice becomes aware that Wonderland is turning her into a different person, unrecognizable to the one she used to be. Has your identity has shifted in fundamental ways since living in Bangkok?
This is a very complex question — I’ve written one book about it and am working on a second one, Almost Home. I’m always drawn back to the US because my children are there. Seeing them for two weeks a year doesn’t work for me. Once I get back to the US this time around, I’ll return here but plan to spend the bulk of my time near family in the Pacific Northwest. I won’t know how much I’ve been changed by this recent incarnation in Bangkok until then. Ask me again in several months.

Can you offer any advice for newcomers to Bangkok, who aren’t sure who they are any more?
Tone Deaf in Bangkok and my next book, Almost Home, are where I directly address the challenges of feeling like an Alice in Thailand. In addition, the recently published Lost and Found Bangkok, for which I wrote the text, may be helpful for newcomers. It’s a book in which five different photographers — two American men, two Thai men (both from Bangkok), and one Taiwanese-American woman — show the city they live in. New arrivals can look at the photos and see some great places to get lost — and find out who they are — in this Wonderland-like city.

img: Janet Brown with friends at an all-you-can-eat DIY barbecue at a huge restaurant under a bridge in Bangkok, by Will Yaryan.

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Some enchanted drinking: Summer cocktails that send you round the world

After spending many a summer in England (summer, what summer?) and Japan (beyond brutal!), I now live in New York City, where summers can best be described as a hot mess.

As the dog days set in, I’ve been known to sing out: “Drinks, glorious drinks! Don’t care what they look like!”

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Well, the part about my singing aloud is true — we’re all barking mad in this city, especially around mid-August.

And the part about drinks being glorious is also true —  what could be more glorious than an icy cold drink that cuts through the moisture-laden air, offering the possibility that this steam bath may end one day.

(I’m talking about alcoholic drinks, of course — anyone of a puritanical frame of mind can slake their thirst at one of the city’s fancy new portable water fountains, connected to fire hydrants.)

But the part about not caring what my drinks look like — that’s simply not true. For me, the ultimate summer refreshment is a well-made, well-presented cocktail.

As Penelope Wisner writes in her introduction to Summer Cocktails: 50 Tantalizing Recipes,

Everything matters: the taste of the spirit, the taste of the ice, the temperature of the drink, and the look of the drink.

My drinking history, in brief

During my expat years, I would happily down a half pint of lager in the pub with my English friends, or drink Kirin beer and sake on outings with my Japanese office mates.

That all changed when I moved back to my homeland.

Maybe it’s in my cultural DNA. The cocktail — a mixed drink with two or more ingredients, one of which must be a spirit — is one of America’s more inspired culinary accomplishments.

Or could it be my actual DNA — one of my earliest memories is of asking my father if I could chew on the lemon peel he put in his night-time martini.

In any case, not long after I became a resident of New York City — home of speakeasies and the only city I know of with a cocktail to its name — I was driven to drinking…cocktails. Particularly during summers.

You see, I’ve never been one of the lucky ones who can escape to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore.

Instead of the sea, sun, sand, and sky, I’ve had to grapple with sweat, smog, dirt, and skyscrapers.

Now, I could have gone the conventional route and drowned my sorrows in a beer. But why do that when a cocktail is so much pleasanter, and can transport you to places you’d rather be in — places much more exotic than an overcrowded beach?

Cocktails are a trip

My hunt for the transcendent cocktail experience has yielded several noteworthy finds, among them:

1) The mojito at Victor’s Cafe on West 52nd St. A single sip transported me to 1950s Havana, where I found myself salsa dancing with a Ricky Ricardo-look-alike. (And that was before I’d sampled the roast suckling pig!)

2) The vodka martini in the Russian Vodka Room, also on West 52nd St. I thought I was in Moscow from the moment I entered this swanky establishment, greeted by the sight of a curved bar at which many natives are downing shots, and behind which are these enormous jars of flavor-infused vodkas. Once I’d tasted my martini, I was well on my way to an enriching cultural experience. Oh, so that’s how they get through daily life in Russia. It all comes down to homemade vodka and to music — sublime combination! (Misha Tsiganov, a prize-winning jazz pianist who studied in St. Petersburg, is the bar’s official piano player.)

3) The classic martini at Angel’s Share, a tiny gem of a bar in the East Village. This drink made me feel I was in Tokyo again, even though I wasn’t really a cocktail person there. The Japanese bartenders had the mix, shake and stir down to an art form — which is soooo Japanese. And no one is allowed to stand at the bar — ditto. But by the time I’d polished off my divinely-inspired drink, I’d left Japan far behind for heaven itself — an effect enhanced by a ceiling mural that appears to have been inspired by Botticelli’s playful cherubs.

4) The Negroni at The Smith on 3rd Avenue. The Negroni — one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari — is said to have originated in Florence in 1919, the invention of one Count Camillo Negroni. The first time I sampled one at the bar at The Smith, I fancied I’d become E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch at the very moment when she witnesses a murder on the Florentine streets, and is about to faint. (Where is George Emerson when you need him?) You see, the Smith version is anything but aristocratic: it packs quite a punch.

Next up? I hope it will be the Mexican martini, which I read about it in the New York Times last month. Basically, it’s a margarita served in a martini glass, with olives on a spear.

The drink is said to have been introduced from Matamoros, Mexico, just across from Brownsville, Texas, when a bartender from Austin visited there and was served a margarita in a martini glass.

It has since become Austin’s signature drink. Being Texan, it’s twice as large as a regular drink, so customers are given the cocktail shaker and urged to pour the drink themselves.

I haven’t been to Austin — and would love to go (though preferably not in the summer). I reckon a Mexican martini may be just the ticket…

The only issue is, the drink hasn’t really made it out of Austin yet.

So if you happen to hear of any Austin expats working behind Manhattan bars (yes, that’s how they’d refer to themselves), be sure to inform me.

For now though would you kindly join me in a refrain of “Drinks, glorious drinks, wonderful drinks!”

QUESTION: Can you recommend some summer cocktails you think have the makings of a mini-escape?

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CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Joy in the place — Elizabeth von Arnim

The novelist Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) wrote many enchanting books, all of which were autobiographical to some extent, linked to persons or places she knew.

But does that necessarily mean that Elizabeth — born Mary Annette, nicknamed May, she called herself “Elizabeth” upon becoming a professional writer — led an enchanted life?

Yes and no. By all accounts, she was an enchanting person herself, constantly delighting other people with her sharp wit.

She also kept enchanting company: E.M. Forster was tutor to her children, Katherine Mansfield was her adopted cousin, and H.G. Wells was one of her lovers.

Displaced almost from birth (she was born in Kirribilli Point, Australia, and then moved to England at the age of three), she made a life-long habit of flitting from one enchanting locale to the next.

Having spent her formative years in London, she moved to Pomerania in Prussia (Germany) for her first marriage, where she raised five children.

Upon the death of her husband in 1910, she made her home in the Valais, Switzerland, living in a glamorous house, Chalet Soleil, which she’d built from her riches as an author.

With the failure of her second marriage, Elizabeth zigzagged between homes in the United States and Europe.

She died in Charleston, South Carolina.

A full measure of sorrows

But a peripatetic life isn’t always a charmed one, as many of us expats and former expats can attest. As her life progressed, Elizabeth experienced a full measure of sorrows.

Her first marriage — to a domineering Prussian count — wasn’t particularly happy. She nicknamed him the Man of Wrath, and they separated several years before his death.

Her second marriage, to Frank Russell, elder brother of Bertrand, was even more miserable (he proved to be a despotic egoist).

Her only true love she met when she was 54 — and he was nearly 30 years younger. (They never married.)

She also suffered the grievous deaths of a daughter and a brother.

By the time she died, Elizabeth was estranged from most of her children, crippled with arthritis, and almost forgotten by her adoring public.

Her only devoted companion was her dog, Billy.

Escape artist par excellence

But despite these tribulations, Elizabeth remained throughout her life, in the words of gardening writer Deborah Kellaway,

a steadfast hedonist, firmly suppressing sorrows. … Her journals and letters repeatedly record moments of happiness, usually associated with sunny days.

As Elizabeth once wrote in a letter to one of her daughters,

“What I really am by nature is an escapist.”

Thus what we can learn from Elizabeth’s life — and from her many autobiographical books — is the art of escaping into happier worlds.

As Kellaway explains:

[The heroines of her novels] escape from richness into the simple life, or from conventional home life into foreign travel; they escape from houses into caravans.

The most famous example, of course, is Elizabeth’s 1922 novel, The Enchanted April — from which we’ve taken our theme of enchantment on the blog this month.

As everyone knows who has read that book — or, more likely, seen the 1992 film or the 2003 Broadway play — four women who share only their unhappiness and a love of wisteria flee 1920s London and converge in Portofino, Italy, on a magical medieval villa overlooking the Mediterranean.

Simple pleasures are the best?

But while Italian castles can certainly be a tonic — if offered one, I’d be off like a shot — what most people don’t know is that Elizabeth was equally fond of much simpler escapes. In the first two books that made her reputation as a writer, the heroine escapes her marital, motherly and household duties by venturing into a German garden, set in a wide landscape.

Here is the most lyrical passage from the second of these, The Solitary Summer (1899):

Yesterday morning I got up at three o’clock and stole through the echoing passages and strange dark rooms, undid with trembling hands the bolts of the door to the verandah, and passed out into a wonderful, unknown world. I stood for a few minutes motionless on the steps, almost frightened by the awful purity of nature when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep, and there is nothing but the beauty left. It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless, grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. …

It was wonderfully quiet, and the nightingale on the hornbeam had everything to itself as I sat motionless watching that glow in the east burning redder; wonderfully quiet, and so wonderfully beautiful because one associates daylight with people, and voices and bustle, and hurrying to and fro, and the dreariness of working to feed our bodies, and feeding our bodies that we may be able to work to feed them again; but here was the world wide awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me…

A lovely garden at just the right time of day — as I know from my own experience of enduring many city summers*, that’s all it sometimes takes to escape into happiness.

*On that note, I’d like to recommend a walk on the High Line in early morning or late afternoon, to anyone living in or traveling to New York City this month…

QUESTION: What does it take for you to escape the dog days of summer into happiness: a trip to Italy, a walk in the garden — or something else?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, on our new weekly newsletter, The Displaced Dispatch.

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The Enchanted August: Finding vacation enchantment in a displaced world

In Friday’s Classic Displaced Writing post, featuring David Foster Wallace’s essay about a trip on a Caribbean cruiseliner, Anthony Windram gracefully led us into this month’s vacation theme of “The Enchanted August.”

Our August theme is inspired by The Enchanted April, the 1922 book by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which four women, strangers to one another and variously dissatisfied with their lives in post-World War One London, spend four weeks together in an Italian castle. Distanced from their usual habitats and placed in magical surroundings, they each gradually become the person they would aspire to be, rather than the armor that time and circumstance has created.

Now obviously we can’t all spend the summer in a Tuscan castle to cast off our external personae and discover our inner selves, and perhaps that is just as well: if we base our expectations upon the glowing results in The Enchanted April, our hopes are likely to be dashed.

Realizing this, the TDN team this month will be helping our readers to find other, smaller ways to rediscover the person inside — the inner enchantment — rather than the exterior of a person now defined by a displaced lifestyle.

We will look at less exotic sources of enchantment to be found in less idyllic vacation situations — a stay-cation at home, for example, or (as often constitutes a holiday when you’re a displaced person) a lengthy visit with relatives.

We will also practice what we preach this month, and take a break ourselves: August will feature shorter posts as well as a few reissues of some popular early posts which newcomers to the site may have missed, along with a few posts summarizing what we’ve done with the site so far, soliciting your feedback.

So enjoy the sunshine or snow! Wherever you are this August, we hope you have an Enchanted one, and feel a little of the joy that Lotty Wilkins, heroine of The Enchanted April (and now of TDN’s Enchanted August), feels on her vacation:

“…this was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”

“The Enchanted April” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, etc. The 1992 movie of the same name, starring Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence, is available on DVD.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Classic Displaced Writing post on Elizabeth von Arnim.

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