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LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

WONDERLANDED: Will I have a hard or a soft landing?—two excerpts from “Olivia and Sophia,” by expat novelist Rosie Milne

Will I have a hard or a soft landing? Photo credits: Like Alice in Wonderland you can go into the rabbit hole, by expat painter Frank Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Inset: Book cover (supplied).

Yesterday we were Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, a veteran member of the publishing world, a blogger on Asian books, and a novelist in her own right. This post, which I’ve titled “Will I have a hard or a soft landing?”, consists of two excerpts from Rosie’s about-to-be-published historical novel, Olivia and Sophia, which concerns the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. 

Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives. They are:

  • Olivia Devinish, a raffish beauty with a scandalous past. Born in India and raised in Ireland, Olivia accompanied Raffles, who was her second husband, to West Java, where he was serving as governor. She got ill from the island’s harsh conditions and died at age 43. Raffles erected a memorial to her that stands to this day, in what is now the Bogor Botanical Gardens.
  • Sophia Hull, no beauty, but curious and intelligent and eager to embrace the opportunity of an exciting life abroad. Born in London, of Irish descent, she met and married Raffles when he was on leave in England after becoming a widower. The couple then sailed for Bencoolen (Sumatra), where Raffles had been appointed governor general—making Sophia the first white woman to venture into the Sumatran interior. This was the period when Raffles founded the British trading post of Singapore. The couple returned to England in August 1824 because of Raffles’s ill health. He died two years later, one day before his 45th birthday. Sophia then dedicated herself to writing his biography.

According to the book description, Rosie Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”

And, importantly, for us Displaced Nationers, she also provides a sense of what it was like to be a trailing spouse in an earlier era. Do these two Victorian ladies feel as though they were falling down a rabbit hole, uncertain of where they’d land and whether the landing would be hard or soft? Let’s find out…

* * *

Excerpt from Olivia’s diary

Olivia writes this diary entry on board the Ganges, the ship on which she is sailing from London to India. I think it expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole in a self-explanatory way.

Sometime, someplace on the ocean

I remain confident the year is 1805, and I am aboard the Ganges, but I write as my heading sometime, someplace on the ocean ’cause sailing across the nothing, nothing, nothing, and yet more nothing of the sea has addled me about both calendar and map. The map I have quite lost track of. At dinner I say my daily toast to happy sight of the next land, and I think: where is that next land? Which is to say: where are we? With no landmarks to watch for by day, and, by night, not being able to read the stars, I am as ignorant now of place as must be the fishes swimming in the waters beneath me. The calendar too, is becoming hazy to me. The tyranny of breakfast at eight, dinner at two, tea at six, and supper at nine keeps me abreast of the hours, but when I think of day and date ’tis as if one of our chilly sea fogs has reached its fingers into my mind, so I no more know whether ’tis Monday, Saturday, Wednesday, or Sunday, than I c’d say our position on the globe.

Olivia Raffles as Alice

Photo credits (top to bottom): Frigate in fog via Pixabay; detail of Here be Dragons map; Down the Rabbit Hole, by thepeachpeddler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Olivia Raffles portrait.

Excerpt from Sophia’s diary

Sophia writes this diary entry on board the Mariner, the ship on which she is sailing home from India. It, too, expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole…

August 1824, the Mariner, off the Cornish Coast

And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land … I have had my first sight of Home for nigh on seven years. Tho’ in the Eastward Old England sometimes seemed to me unreal, like a dream of Home, and not a literal place on the globe, Cornwall is now crouched in the angry sea to our starboard, and is just as real as sharp granite rocks will allow. I hardly know how to say how I’ve changed since last I saw England. I sometimes feel so disunited from that Lady Raffles who sailed eastward on the Lady Raffles I can scarce think we are the same person – I cannot recall her, it sometimes seems, and must judge she was mistaken to think she ever could return Home. More, I scarcely know how to say who I am now, what I am, what manner of person? As for Tom, now turned of forty, lit now only by shadows of his youthful fires, he says he feels just as wearily jumbled as me, just as uncertain how to begin to make sense of all that has happened these past seven years, if indeed any sense can be made of our lives at all, and he says it is a puzzle to know whether his two sojourns in the Eastwood enabled him to put on, at various times, a new self, as a man may put on a new coat, or if, while in foreign climes, he became more than ever the man who first left, and now returns, to Old England.

Photo credits: Land's End, Cornwall[] via Pixabay; Sophia Raffles portrait; Down the rabbit hole by Colin Smith[] via the Geograph Britain and Ireland Project (CC BY-SA 2.0) [].

Photo credits: Land’s End, Cornwall via Pixabay; Sophia Raffles portrait; Down the rabbit hole, by Colin Smith via the Geograph Britain and Ireland Project (CC BY-SA 2.0).

* * *

Thank you so much, Rosie! I like the way you’ve juxtaposed these two excerpts, one showing the first wife setting out on a Far Eastern adventure, the other showing the second wife confronting the prospect of going home again. In fact, Sophia writes something that is extraordinarily akin in spirit to Alice’s statement:

I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

Readers, what do you think? Do these trailing spouses have it harder than their modern-day counterparts, or can you draw a reasonably straight line to today? And have these two excerpts from Rosie’s new novel made you want to read more? Olivia & Sophia, published by Monsoon Press, will be available as a paperback in Asia and Australia on November 1. You can also visit Rosie’s Asian Books Blog and/or stay social by following her on Twitter. And of course you can also express appreciation for Rosie in the comments below. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life

Liza Perrat visualIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels.

Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator.

Spirit of Lost Angels tells the story of Victoire Charpentier and her courage in facing injustice and abuse in revolutionary France. Wolfsangel (due out in November 2013) follows Victoire’s descendant, Celeste, who finds that under Nazi occupation, the personal is political.

*  *  *

Which comes first, story or location?
So far, for me, it has been location. I’m enthused, enthralled or nostalgic about a place, and want to use it as a backdrop around a story. In the case of my current novels, the location has become as much a character as the real-life ones.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
My novels are set in the French rural area in which I live, which makes it much easier to evoke atmosphere. I take loads of photos of the countryside, the people and the buildings, during each different season. The local historical association has lots of sketches and documents on what it looked like through the ages. As I walk the dog, I jot down descriptions of sunrises, sunsets, stormy light, fruit on the trees, snow on the hills, flowers in spring and the icy river in winter.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Landscape, culture and food, certainly. But most of all, for me, it is the people who create a sense of location. Often, the people are the place. Also language, especially expressions, plays a part. Architecture too, gives a feel for a place. Smells also, create a sense of location.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Intimately well. I’d have trouble creating a believable atmosphere if I’d not been to a place, or at least read widely on it.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
Many reviewers of Spirit of Lost Angels commented positively on the atmosphere created of La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, during the late 1700s:

… I found the scenes of cruelty in the Salpêtrière Asylum painful to read – not because of the way in which they were written, but simply to have been shown such unpalatable truths …

… the section of the novel concerning Victoire’s stay in La Salpêtrière vividly illustrates what a horrible experience it must have been…

… part of the reason I waved to savour this book so much was because of the scenery and the settings…

The book vividly depicts the violent and inhumane methods doctors used to “treat” mental illness at Salpêtrière. To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story- descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time. Introducing an urge to learn more, dear readers, is the mark of excellent historical fiction.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Ones that come to mind:

  • Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. Even more amazing as, apparently, she’s never been to the wilderness snowscapes of Canada.
  • Joanne Harris’s Chocolat evokes the small French village.
  • Nikki Gemmell’s Cleave and Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, describe so well the desolate landscape of central Australia.
  • Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife brings to life 1950s East End London.
  • Emma Donoghue’s Room brilliantly portrays an entire existence in a single, small room.

Thank you, Liza!

Next month, my guest on Location, Locution will be Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym and Eleven Minutes

* * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing

steven conte visualIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  Steven Conte, the Melbourne-based author of The Zookeeper’s War. The setting is the Berlin Zoo, 1943. An Australian woman, Vera, and her German husband, Axel, the zoo’s director, struggle to look after the animals through the air raids and food shortages.

In 2008, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, then worth A$100,000. The Zookeeper’s War has been published in Britain and Ireland and translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant, book reviewer and university tutor are some of the jobs with which Steven has supported his writing.

*  *  *

Which comes first, story or location?
For me this depends on the project. The city of Berlin was definitely the initial inspiration for The Zookeeper’s War, in particular the atmosphere of enclosure and entrapment which I sensed there three years before the Berlin Wall came down. While I chose to set my novel in the Berlin of WWII, the Cold War tensions I had witnessed there in 1986 helped me to imagine what it might have felt like to live through the twelve terrifying years of the Third Reich. It was only after the novel was published that I realised I had chosen a setting which has powerful, indeed mythic, associations for many readers (some other examples being New York, Paris, London and, in the east, Hong Kong and Shanghai).

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Stimulating the reader’s senses is the most reliable way, though in a realist narrative a character needs psychologically plausible reasons to notice his or her environment, a difficult ask if focal characters are already familiar with their surroundings. Selecting a focal character who is a newcomer to the setting is one way to emphasise place. Another is to take the focal character on a journey. In The Zookeeper’s War I chose a setting which aerial bombing destroys day by day, compelling the characters to keep on noticing their surroundings.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, provided that accounts of them belong in the story and ring true to the narrative voice. Ideally, descriptive detail reveals as much about the focal character or narrator as it does about setting. In contrast, “unanchored” description can sound like passages of travel writing or anthropology.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
In the following passage from The Zookeeper’s War the heroine, Vera, walks through Berlin the morning after an air raid:

In the Mitte, the old city, bombs had caved in the skyline, dropping telegraph poles, power lines and tram cables onto burnt-out lorries and trams. Shops were destroyed or boarded up, and glass, chunks of plaster and shrapnel paved the streets. Field kitchens had sprouted at the major intersections, and in alleys off Alexanderplatz girls were already soliciting. Outside one bombed-out tenement Vera read the chalked inscription, Everyone in this shelter has been saved. Around the corner: My angel where are you? Leave a message for your Sigi. In a house without walls on Unter den Linden, a man played Bach on a grand piano, and below him, in a lake fed by a burst water main, a fur stole clung to a hatstand. Half the people on the streets wore a uniform: police, air-raid wardens, women postal workers. Soldiers moved in squads and the only vehicles were staff cars and Wehrmacht lorries, as if the army had conquered Berlin and deployed clerks and shop assistants to the front in a fleet of private cars.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Cormac McCarthy for the poetry and grandeur of his descriptions, in Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, of the border regions of Mexico and the United States. Colm Tóibín for his evocation of the eroding coastline of County Wexford in his early novel The Heather Blazing. William Styron for the magnificent range of settings in Sophie’s Choice, from post-war New York, New England and North Carolina to Warsaw under German occupation and the netherworld of Auschwitz.

* * *

Readers, what did you think of Steven’s suggestions on evoking place? Next month, my guest will be Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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“Unenthusiastic about enthusiasm”: On Sarah Lyall, the relief of being a returning expat, and never getting over the feeling of cultural discombobulation

CulturallyDiscombobulatedFor today’s post ML Awanohara (doyenne of this particular piece of the interweb) suggested that Sarah Lyall‘s recent piece in The New York Times (“Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”) might provide me with a suitable topic to chisel out a post for the Displaced Nation.

I’ll be honest and admit (though I never articulated this to ML) that I was rather resistant and a tad unenthusiastic to the idea. I’d previously skim-read Sarah Lyall’s book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and found myself irritated by her observations about her life as an American transplant to London.

In short, I didn’t enjoy it. I was left uncharmed and felt it had about it an omnipresent smug tone.

Bill Bryson did it best

Recently, I’ve had a similar reaction with British academic Terry Eagleton‘s new book, Across The Pond (goodness, even the title sounds like another sub-Bryson knock-off), about his thoughts on living in America.

So I’m an equal-opportunity offender on this matter.

Perhaps foreigner-writing-about-their-adopted-home is a sub-genre that is not for me, which is unfortunate considering that’s the very subject of my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated (now that I think of it, it sounds like a sub-Bryson knock-off, too). Having read Lyall’s article, I suppose she would call this attitude typically English: at once self-loathing and arrogant.

So I decided I would ignore ML’s suggestion and instead write another Capital Ideas post. As I was about to start writing it (well, start thinking about writing it, if I’m going to be entirely honest), I noticed in my inbox an email from my wife telling me to read this article.  Like Sarah Lyall, Mrs W is an American who has spent time living in London before returning to the US.

Putting my initial reservations to one side, I decided to see just what I was missing.

I must admit, Sarah’s right about L.G.

First, a little bit of background: Sarah Lyall has been The New York Times London correspondent for 18 years. Her article this week was about her repatriation to her home country.

I’ll be honest. Unlike when I read her book, The Anglo Files, I found myself more charmed by her writing and observations. This could be the result of the shorter form of a newspaper article, my mellowing, or far more likely our common enemy that is Loyd Grossman—Sarah’s wish on first moving to the UK was that she wouldn’t end up sounding like her more famous compatriot.

Readers who have not spent any considerable time in the UK are probably oblivious to L.G.’s existence. A television presenter (who was host of the original MasterChef, which other than name bears scant resemblance to Fox’s Gordon Ramsey vehicle) as well as a range of pasta sauces (I’ve no idea why, given that he’s not a chef), Loyd Grossman is in possession of the oddest transatlantic accent. It’s preppy New Englander meets Sloane Square yuppie, and just hearing it makes you want to declare class war.

For all of us in clear and present danger of one day developing a transatlantic accent, Loyd Grossman is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale.

…and about us?

Sometimes when I am reading a foreigner’s perspective on the British, I am struck by how awful we sound—a complete bunch of miserable bastards that have developed a carapace of irony and delight in popping positivity like it were a balloon at a child’s birthday party.

Is it any wonder Sarah got a bit fed up with our lack of enthusiasm:

…Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities—straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters—and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.)

Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.

“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

After reading this piece, my wife said that she’d forgotten that so much of my personality was cultural. “I thought,” she said, “that it might be time for you to have some therapy, but then I realized you’re just British—no amount of therapy can fix that.”

* * *

I’ve not experienced what it is like to repatriate yourself back home. I do know, however, that many of you have. Do let me know in the comments below what struck you about moving back and what you missed about the adopted country you left.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing

ADMillerIn the second of our series “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews AD Miller, the British author and journalist.

About AD Miller

AD Miller was born in London in 1974. He studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton, where he began his journalistic career writing travel pieces about America. Returning to London, he worked as a television producer before joining The Economist to write about British politics and culture. In 2004 he became The Economist’s correspondent in Moscow, travelling widely across Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently the magazine’s Writer at Large; he lives in London with his wife Emma, daughter Milly and son Jacob. He wrote a critically acclaimed non-fiction book, The Earl of Petticoat Lane, in 2006. His second novel, Snowdrops, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.

About his novel, Snowdrops

A fast-paced drama that unfolds during a beautiful but lethally cold Russian winter. Ostensibly a story of naive foreigners and cynical natives, the novel becomes something richer and darker: a tale of erotic obsession, self-deception and moral freefall. It is set in a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw.

Q&A on Location, Locution

JJ Marsh: Which comes first, story or location?  
AD Miller: Story. But locations can be suggestive of certain kinds of story. For example, Russia lends itself to tales of moral challenge and to philosophical inquiry.

JJM: How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
ADM: Take notes. Write down what people wear on the Metro and what the vendors on commuter trains are selling. You will recollect less than you think you will. For historical settings, read old newspapers and unpublished memoirs. Remember it is the inconsequential detail that is most important.

JJM: Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
ADM: Smell. Sounds. Language (especially slang and proverbs). Clothes. And weather: in Snowdrops, the Russian winter functions as a sort of ancillary sub-plot.

JJM: How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
ADM: You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.

JJM: Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
ADM: There’s a passage in Snowdrops in which Nick, the narrator, is taxiing at night alongside “the soupy Moscow River, not yet frozen and curling mysteriously through the wild city”, which is OK.

JJM: Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
ADM: Isaac Babel and Giorgio Bassani (Odessa and Ferrara respectively).

* * *

Thanks, JJ, for that fabulous interview! Readers, any comments on what AD Miller had to say? Up next month in Location, Locution: Steven Conte, Australian author of The Zookeeper’s War.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Eight months into my expat life, two roads diverged and I — I took the one home

Kat Collage_dropshadowToday we welcome back Kat Selvocki to the Displaced Nation. She wrote for us once before: a travel yarn about spending Christmas in Europe with friends. She had just been toiling in the farmlands of Iceland as a volunteer, and was about to head Down Under to begin a new life as a yoga instructor in Sydney. Now, just over a year later, she is back in the United States. What happened? Here is Kat’s repatriation story.

— ML Awanohara

As my year-long working holiday visa for Australia began to wane, I started considering my options.

Or rather, my option.

I teach yoga: a career that doesn’t generally allow for work sponsorship. I also had a rocky relationship with my Australian boyfriend.

The only I way I could feasibly stay in Sydney was to enroll in a course.

I’d heard tales from other expats of reasonably-priced options — reasonably-priced meaning anything under $8,000 a year — but knew in my heart it wasn’t going to work. I no longer had that kind of cash in the bank, and even if I had, you wouldn’t catch me spending it on some ridiculous “business basics” class.

It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to stay; I just wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot my life after spending just eight months building a new life in Australia. There were places I still wanted to visit in that vast country, things I still wanted to do. And I loved the classes I was teaching.

But then I got glandular fever — commonly known in the US as mono, or the kissing disease. A month into fighting overwhelming exhaustion, all I wanted was for things to be easy again. In the end, it was having a such a debilitating illness that drove me over the edge.

I bought a plane ticket home.

The three emotions of repatriation

First came relief:

  • No more comments about how my tattoos, taste in music, or style were “too American.”
  • No more complicated calculations to figure out when friends or family would be available to Skype.
  • No more job rejections on the basis of not being a citizen.
  • And most importantly: central heating in abundance — finally, I’d stop getting sick so often!

Self-doubt followed. I’d spent years wanting to live as an expat, and when I finally had the opportunity, I’d been utterly miserable.

Had I failed, or not tried hard enough?

Should I have fought to stay longer, or at least until the end of my visa?

Were my reasons for leaving the right ones?

Why hadn’t I applied for that job working at a roadhouse waitress in the Outback, so that I’d at least seen more of the country?

Next up: fear. As I headed off to Oxford, UK, at the end of last year, to spend Christmas with friends before returning to the States to seek work, the wheel had come full circle. As reported on this blog in December 2011, I’d spent my first Christmas away from family, in Europe, on my way to a new life in Australia.

Whereas before I’d been full of excitement and anticipation, this time I was full of worry. I worried about how welcoming people would be when I returned. So many of my relationships had disintegrated while I was away, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of distance or because people were fed up with my use of Aussie slang in our conversations … or was it all my whining about being so bloody tired? (Hm, there’s that slang again!)

I had no idea whether finding work would actually be any easier, especially considering the much higher unemployment rate in the US.

I didn’t know how to talk about my time in Sydney without sounding bitter or depressed — but was also afraid that even if I sounded upbeat, people wouldn’t care to hear about it.

Old habits die hard…

I’d always believed that if something doesn’t work, you can simply head back to the place you were before.

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about that.

I had decided to move back to Seattle, a city where I’d lived eight years earlier. But would that be a terrible mistake? I pictured trying — and failing — to recreate the life I’d loved before.

Last time I wrote for the Displaced Nation, I reminisced about the four months I’d spent living in Prague on a study abroad. What I didn’t report was the depression and reverse culture shock I battle against upon returning to the United States.

If that were true after a mere four months, what impact would a year-and-a-half away have? Would I be feeling even more out of place? I dreaded the long readjustment.

I also worried about money, and whether I had enough to get settled again quickly.

…or do they?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. (Except for the money concerns. Then again, I’m convinced that no matter how much I’d saved before returning, I still would have worried.)

From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was as if someone had flipped a switch inside of me. Even though things had changed — something that was particularly evident in New York City, which I passed through on the way to the West Coast (I’d lived there after Seattle) — it all felt normal. Easy. Almost as if I’d never left. My internal map and compass worked again; I knew where I was and where I was going.

And I still believe that — even though, two months after returning to the States, I continue to look the wrong way when crossing the street.

* * *

Thanks, Kat, for sharing your story. I found it very moving. Readers, any comments, questions for Kat — any similar stories to share?

Kat Selvocki — badass yoga instructor, photographer, writer and traveler — is currently kicking ass and taking names in Seattle after returning from her expat adventures. Learn more about her on her Web site: You can also follow her on Twitter: @katselvocki.

STAY TUNED for the final post in our fashion and style series, by the ever-so-stylish Kate Allison! (Well, she certainly has flair!)

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images: (clockwise, starting top left) Chelsea Market, NYC; Capitol Hill, Seattle; Circular Quay, Sydney; Chelsea Market, NYC; The Rocks, Sydney; in the air when flying from Sydney to Melbourne; Pioneer Square, Seattle. Center shot of Kat Selvocki was taken in Seattle. All photos are Kat’s with the exception of the Circular Quay in Sydney, which came from Morguefiles.

LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 5) Keep calm and pour some tea

Teatime CollageDecember greetings, everyone! Can you see us twinkling? The Displaced Nation wants to be part of your Festival of Lights this December — a source of brightness and enLIGHTenment during the dark days of winter. (Unless, of course, you reside in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, you should be helping all of us to feel brighter!)

But before we get to that — Kate Allison will be delivering some tips tomorrow on generating holiday cheer regardless of location — do you fancy what the Brits would call a cuppa?

If you said no, that you’d prefer coffee or cold beverage, I suspect you may be a compatriot of mine. Once upon a time, I was an American like you — I didn’t drink any caffeinated beverages apart from Diet Coke. But then I traveled to Europe and Asia, and now I can’t imagine a life without tea. As the Chinese lady who owns Ching Ching Cha, a traditional Chinese tea house in Georgetown, DC, once remarked to me, when I told her how much I’d grown to like tea from my travels: “For me, tea is a way of life.”

Those who already know what I’m talking about may read no further. But for the unconvinced, here are 10 lessons I learned while living in two major tea-drinking nations, Britain and Japan, for many years. (If you’re the bucket-list-keeping type, think of it is as 10 reasons to develop a tea-drinking habit before you die!)

1) Even if coffee is more your cup of tea, so to speak, give tea a chance.

Coffee is great for that jolt to the system. One of its most effective uses, apart from first thing in the morning when you’re going to work, is for the jet lag that occurs after a really long international flight — say between the United States and Japan. (Japanese, btw, love coffee as much as the English do — and perhaps thanks to German influence, can make an even better cup than anyone in the UK or the USA.) But unlike coffee, tea is what keeps you going day in day out, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the sustenance beverage for the marathon known as life.

2) I mean tea, not tisanes.

I apologize to those expats who’ve spent their formative years in France. I have nothing against those herbal drinks with medicinal qualities. I just think it would be a shame to miss out on the kind of caffeine that tea has to offer — the kind that produces sustained mental alertness. Not to mention tea’s own medicinal qualities — all of those lovely antioxidants. Why do you think the Japanese live so long, with all their bad habits of smoking, drinking to excess and overwork? Likewise, the English writer, George Orwell, was able to sustain himself on cups of tea when living “down and out” in Paris and London.

3) Tea has a special role to play in the holiday season.

It’s the perfect libation to help you recover when your feet are aching after a full day of shopping and wrapping gifts (surely, the bane of any adult female’s existence this time of year!) or when you think your hand will drop off if you have to write one more Christmas card. It’s also the perfect drink to serve, because so convivial and relaxing, when meeting up with friends or family you haven’t seen in a long time.

4) Tea is a primary aid for developing a more stoical attitude towards life.

As explained in the very first post in this series, I found it a bit of a challenge to adapt to the brand of stoicism-cum-fatalism both of these small islands, England and Japan, have cultivated over the centuries. But the day I worked out the connection between tea-drinking and stoicism marked the beginning of the end of my struggle. If only I’d paid closer attention to Orwell, who said:

All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.

5) Tea may also be the key to a philosophical approach to life.

The process of drinking a cuppa slows you down for long enough to clear your head of pressing thoughts and work out what is important. Strangely, I found Brits to be almost as insistent on the importance of a regular tea-drinking habit as the Japanese — even though it’s the latter who are renowned for their Zen approach to tea. Take these words of Rudyard Kipling’s, for example:

We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe

It reads like a haiku, doesn’t it? Certainly, his sentiments are not far removed from the Japanese proverb:

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.

6) The rituals are just as important as the tea itself.

After nearly a decade of living in Britain, I had it all down to a fine art: boiling water to serve tea, heating the pot, putting the milk in the cup first, and pouring the tea without spilling. To this day, I cannot imagine making a pot of tea without pouring hot water in it first to heat the pot. The water and the pot need to be at the right temperature to brew the tea properly. Imagine the affront I experienced upon returning to this country and being served a cup of either semi-warm water or boiling water with a Lipton’s tea bag on the side. And though I found some of the Japanese tea-drinking rituals a bit obscure, especially those related to the tea ceremony — twirl the cup around three times, really? — I still took delight in the spectacle.

7) Tea should be served with something sweet.

“Tea and biccies, anyone?” as they say in England — usually meaning the chocolate-coated digestive biscuits. And the perfect way to offset the super bitter green tea (macha) of the Japanese tea ceremony is with the almost sickeningly sweet kashi and wagashi — confections that are usually served beforehand. A tad of sugar helps this most medicinal of teas go down. Not only that but it’s a beautiful combination, as anyone who has sampled green tea ice cream, by now a classic flavor, will attest.

8) Tea should be served in an aesthetically pleasing cup — never paper or plastic!

Part of the pleasure of taking tea at Fortnum & Mason’s or the Ritz is the bone china it is served in. If the world had a treasure chest, surely it would contain a full set of Wedgwood or Royal Doulton? In Japan, by contrast, it is the roughness and imperfection of the tea cup that provides aesthetic pleasure, or, if you’re drinking Western tea (usually served with lemon, not milk), the sheen of a fine china tea cup — either English (Wedgwood Wild Strawberry is very popular there) or a Japanese version (eg, Noritake). Can’t be bothered with china? At the very least, make your tea in a proper mug.

9) Tea is the ultimate social drink.

Perhaps the British writer known as Saki (yes, he was born in the Far East) put it best when he wrote:

Find yourself a cup of tea; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things.

Japanese may not be as fond of having a natter when they take tea; nevertheless, they see it as a custom that fosters social harmony.

10) No one should ever be too busy for a tea break.

My fellow Americans, are you still with me? This pointer is particularly for you — particularly those of you who are always crazy busy — although as Tim Kreider pointed out on the New York Times‘s Opinionator blog, it’s often not clear why what you’re doing is so important. Perhaps if you took time out for a regular tea break, you would slow down a bit — see 5) — and find an escape from your self-imposed “busy trap.”


And now I must leave you as the clock says ten to three — only, is there still honey for my tea?

Readers, do you agree that tea may be the answer? Or is this just another of my moonbat pronouncements that’s put you in need of a strong cup of Joe?!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post from Kate Allison.

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Img: Collage made of two photos available on Flickr via Creative Commons: (left) “High tea,” by John Heaven, and “Japanese tea ceremony,” by JoshBerglund19.

Some like it boiled: When it’s hot outside, go somewhere even hotter for vacation!

“Have a good summer!” The doctor’s receptionist hands me my receipt. “Are you going away?”

“Yes, to Florida,” I say. (Wait for it, wait for it…)

“Florida?” she screeches. In August?”

Bring quickly to the boil…

That old saying, the one about only mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun, apparently has a Northeast American variation: Only mad dogs and Englishmen go south to the midsummer sun.

On the face of it, it makes sense. Why bother to fly south when the mercury is already at 90 degrees in New England, as it has been for much of this summer?

That’s all well and good, but no one questions your sanity in winter, when you announce you’re leaving the cold February gloom to find even colder weather in which to ski. If anyone did question it, the reasoning would be: “But the snow’s better in Colorado/Italy/Switzerland!”

Simmer for 7 days…

Well — she said defiantly —  in summer, the sun and palm trees are better in Florida. Or Aruba. Or the Cayman Islands. While I love the maple and oak trees of New England in the Fall, they don’t look right amid tropical temperatures. It’s like lying on a sun lounger on an expanse of white sand, waiting for a margarita, and the waiter bringing you a cup of tomato soup instead. It’s just wrong.

“A-ha!” someone is bound to say. “But what about the hurricanes?”

True enough. Tropical Storm Isaac is right now barreling its way toward the Gulf Coast, where it is expected to reach hurricane strength. Yet the Northeast is not immune to summer storms, either. Exactly one year ago, Hurricane Irene arrived in Connecticut, downing trees and knocking out power for days. Two months later, the same thing happened again, but this time with a snowstorm called Alfred.

Now, you don’t see that very often in the Keys.

Remove from the heat…

The people who shun the roasting climes in summer prefer to go south in the colder months, and that’s fair enough. As I said in a post last Christmas, I would love to spend December 25 in a desert-island-like setting (albeit with room service.) That, however, means going farther south than good old Florida. I’ve had friends do the Disney water rides at Thanksgiving and come back home with streaming colds to prove it.

Thank you, but I’ll pass on that particular souvenir.

…And serve in July.

Perhaps this perverse determination to find somewhere hotter than my home climate stems from my nationality. I am from the country whose residents flee for two weeks every year in search of the summer that nearly always evades England.  Perhaps I am genetically programmed to be suspicious of summer’s consistency in my place of residence, imagining that it can only be guaranteed a few thousand miles nearer the equator.

The only solution to this state of suspicion and dissatisfaction, as I see it, is to move there permanently. Perhaps it would have its drawbacks: people who move to Florida or the Caribbean often say they “miss the seasons.”

Me, though, I would happily give some seasons a miss.


STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, in which Tony James Slater tells us what it’s like to be an expat writer!

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Image: MorgueFile

THE DISPLACED Q: As an expat, do you ever get confused about which team to support at the Olympics?

The long-anticipated Games of the XXX Olympiad, also known as London 2012, are now in full swing. Some members of the Displaced Nation team are looking a tad bleary eyed after staying up late several nights in a row to watch their favorite events (gymnastics, anyone? or how about some synchronized diving?).

Maybe we’re getting grouchy from the lack of sleep, but we’re beginning to engage in some surprisingly heated debates — surprising given how much we looked forward to the arrival of the Games.

Or perhaps it’s not surprising given that most, if not all, of us residents have confused, hybrid nationalities…

In any event, here’s my displaced question for YOU: What if an athlete or team from your native land ends up competing with one from your adopted country?

Now pay heed, because this could be important.

I studied in Cardiff, Wales, where this sort of thing can be a matter of life and death. I’m English y’see, and while Wales may be part of the United Kingdom, it’s also its own country. For which I can hardly blame it…

Historically, Wales and England have not been the best of friends — in fact in one English city, it’s still legal to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow at certain times of the year.

For some reason it’s one law they just keep forgetting to appeal…

To say the English have treated the Welsh unfairly is…well, fair. We were utter bastards to them back in the day, as we were to pretty much every other civilization with which we came into contact. That’s why they all rose up and threw us out at various points in time.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson — that infamous stiff upper lip isn’t the only national trait we’re known for. Yes, we Brits are an arrogant lot — legendarily so — and never more so than in the arena of international sport.

Luckily we’re not very good at most of it, or we’d have been involved in even more wars.

The art of living dangerously in a country of sore losers

But the Welsh, alas, aren’t much better; on the contrary, they have a horrible habit of being even worse than we are. Rugby is supposed to be their game, yet we English keep beating them at it. And if you’re the only English bloke in the immediate vicinity shortly after such a humiliating defeat occurs…well, the Welsh aren’t known for having a magnanimous, forgiving nature. They are known, rather, as barbarian tribes so unruly that even the Romans couldn’t subjugate them.

I never once tried to subjugate anyone, but in my three years at university I was on the short end of a serious subjugation every time the Welsh lost to England. Which was depressingly often.

So, herein lies the dilemma: You’re an expat. Your birth-home team is playing your adopted-home team. Do you:
a) Cheer for the local team to curry popularity — even if you’re dying inside with every goal scored by the locals?
b) Cheer for your native country’s team to show character, and honesty, and that you’re not afraid – even if, inside, you are actually terrified at what the locals may do to you afterwards?
c) Find a nice, comfy hole to lie in for a week or so until all the excitement dies down? (Note: Not for heroes. I’ve been known to adopt this tactic.)

Both a) and b) are seriously risky strategies. When questioned by a drunk and excitable Welshman, approximately five feet tall and about the same girth — along with ten of his veteran drinking buddies — it was always something of a lottery. Declare for my homeland, and pray I was in better shape athletically (or at least less drunk) than any of them; or declare for Wales, and risk getting beaten up anyway because they thought I was taking the mickey.

My answer varied (like my patriotism) with the number of pints I’d drunk.

(Note to self: Singing “God Save The Queen” loudly in response is almost never a good idea, even if you are drunk enough to hardly feel a thing. And especially when you haven’t even bothered to learn the words…)

The art of not having an opinion

Thankfully, I have since come up with my patented Ultimate Solution™ to this problem, after years of suffering one way or the other — or sometimes both ways simultaneously — at the hands of my ancestral foes.

I don’t cheer for my home team. Either of them. Because to be honest, I don’t give two figs about a sport unless I’m actually playing it, and then if I win, at least I’m dressed in the right gear for running away.

Let’s break this strategy down a little more.

Taking this approach means you can celebrate every goal. If “your” team loses, you’re not too heavily committed, having cheered equally for both sides in their best moments.

Indeed, no one will be 100% sure which side you’re on, and as you’ve shared at least a few cheers with their side, they’re bound to feel more kindly disposed towards you than if you’d been screaming obscenities at their favorite player.

The second, and even more important part of this strategy is:


As Leo “The Lip” Durocher, manager of several Major League baseball teams, once said (in 1946):

Nice guys finish last.

It doesn’t matter who wins in the end. No, really, it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the saying “It’s only a game!” — because it is.

And while some people honestly admire a winner, and are happy to let them enjoy their well-earned celebration, in my experience most people have a bitter spot in their hearts for those who beat them — or their team. And it’s not a healthy place to be for anyone — basically, they can’t stand someone who beats them.

But everyone loves a loser.

If your birth-home team loses, be the humble eater-of-pie. Congratulate your new-found compatriots and maybe let slip — in an unguarded moment — that you knew they would win anyway as you’d had a horrible feeling that they were actually a much better team.

And if your adopted-home team loses — join them in commiserating. Because let’s face it, people from your home country are a bunch of so and sos — except you, of course. Which is why you’re here, and not there… “They” never play fairly. One day, hopefully soon, the local team will show ’em who’s boss. And until then, well, you might as well drown your sorrows with the rest of the losers…

Either way it goes, you get points for being a good sportsman. That’s what I call winning by default.

* * *

Okay, readers, now it’s your turn to weigh in on this vexed question. Do you ever feel confused about who you should be rooting for at the Olympics, or is this a moment when blind nationalism sets in, and it’s your home athlete/team or nothing?

Tell me what you think!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another in our “expat moment” series…

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Image: MorgueFile

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