The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Expat artists

EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture unexpectedly beautiful moments of life in other countries


As the summer wears on—and I’m wondering what I am doing working long hours in a big city while everyone else seems to have escaped to beaches or mountains or on other adventures—I’m returning to my series based on the ideas of pop philosopher Alain de Botton. As those familiar with his work will recall, de Botton maintains that art can provide relief from as well as solutions to one’s angst.

But does the art we expats produce play a role in improving people’s lives? That’s what this series of posts explores.

No doubt, the works of international creatives has some appeal to what global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own.” (Expats currently number around 230 million, or about 3 percent of the world’s population.)

But are the works expats produce too specific to their own situations, or do these works, too, speak to broader life problems?

De Botton outlines six specific ways art can respond to human needs. My last post examined his first principle, that art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories. I offered some examples of how international creatives have preserved precious moments of their lives in other countries in their works, not only for themselves but for posterity.

Today let’s look at de Botton’s

PRINCIPLE #2: Art can give us hope. Simple images of happiness touch us. We tend to be moved by small expressions of beauty—not because we are sentimental but precisely because so much of life is not pretty.

The example de Botton cites is Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, (or Nymphéas), a series of around 250 oil paintings that depict the French impressionist’s garden at Giverny. Monet painted the series during the last years of his life, while suffering from cataracts.


Nymphéas, 1915, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

De Botton is of course stirring it up by insisting that beautiful art serves an important purpose. Artists of today seem to be in a race to outdo each other in the outrageous stakes. I’m thinking of Damien Hirst, who built his reputation on artworks displaying dead animals, or their parts, in formaldehyde tanks. Providing a respite from the ugliness of life is the last thing on his mind. Likewise for Jen Lewis, who uses her own menstrual blood to create abstract designs. Provocative, yes, but not my idea of beauty.

Returning to de Botton’s second principle: which expat artists have excelled at producing the kind of beauty that provides relief from life’s less pleasant aspects? (Who are our displaced Monets?)

By way of an answer I’ve arranged a small “exhibition” of works by four visual artists, three painters and one photographer, all of whom have been affiliated in some way with the Displaced Nation. As de Botton has done at several museum exhibitions, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I’ve experienced upon viewing these artists’ works.

#1: “Lost on a Mountaintop,” by Candace Rose Rardon


POST-IT: Those of us who have traversed international boundaries carry in our hearts the fear that we may someday lose our way—literally, of course, but even figuratively, with no family or old friends around to serve as mentors or sounding boards. Candace Rose Rardon shows us the flip side: how glorious to be lost on the top of a mountain range with the world stripped down to pines, sun, wind and hills, ready for you to paint your own scenes on it. Even a stay-at-home curmudgeon could be struck down with wanderlust, at such a prospect. Candace is a writer, sketch artist and illustrator without a location. She tells stories about the world through her words and watercolors.
OUR CONNECTION: Candace was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards.
SEE ALSO: Candace’s blog, The Great Affair; and her first book of travel sketches: Beneath the Lantern’s Glow: Sketches and stories from Southeast Asia and Japan.

#2: Les Mimosas de Mesubenomori,” by Julie Harmsworth

POST-IT: My first (and only) visit to Nagasaki, made while I was living in Japan, had a lasting impact. To this day I carry around images of the damage wreaked on that city from my visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum. But for Julie, who moved to Nagasaki from the United States to teach English, the city was the place of her rebirth as an artist. She often walked to this local park, and this painting is her tribute to its flowering mimosa trees. For a moment her painting makes me forget the pain this city endured, along with the horror for war it engenders. Though one can never lose sight of the darkness, it’s possible to be touched by these simple, beautiful trees.
OUR CONNECTION: We are mutual blogging admirers. Julie, btw, has now moved to France, where she continues her work as a fine artist (hence the French title of her painting).
SEE ALSO: Julie’s portfolio site.

#3: “Russian Market—Phnom Penh,” by A. Spaice

POST-IT: I’ve never been to Phnom Penh but imagine it might be a variation on other Southeast Asian cities (Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Saigon) I’ve visited. From reading descriptions of the Russian Market, which lies in the southern part of Cambodia’s capital city, I can certainly picture it: a narrow warren of stalls, crowded, busy and sweltering, full of the kinds of goods you see in all of the markets in that part of the world (though apparently at better prices), everything from handicrafts to fake Swiss watches to pirated software to designer clothes considered unfit to be shipped abroad because of small flaws. The global economy at its finest! But what does writer and sometime photographer A. Spaice offer us? A glimpse of a splendidly isolated flower and flower-to-be. Such a beautiful reminder that the “I shop therefore I am” credo of Asia isn’t all there is to life!
OUR CONNECTION: A. Spaice was our first international creative to be “wonderlanded” (read her interview and an excerpt from her short book, Bangkok).
SEE ALSO: A. Spaice’s Design Kompany site and weekly e-zine.

#4: “End of the Drought,” by Antrese Wood

POST-IT: The Pampas grasslands of Argentina are one of the most fertile areas in the world. When a drought occurs and its crops are destroyed, not only farmers—but also does the rest of the world—suffers, as world food prices are nudged higher. Antrese’s painting of the grasslands landscape “after the drought” reminds us that even when nature gives the earth and its inhabitants a terrible beating, the rain returns eventually and the beauty of the landscape is restored. If a glimpse of such beauty helps us forget the pain even for a moment, then perhaps it is possible to regroup and carry on. (Note to self: Come back to this painting once the dog days of August have arrived.) An American married to an Argentinian, Antrese has been living in Argentina since 2011.
OUR CONNECTION: Antrese was one of the interviewees in our long-running Random Nomad series. At that time she was about to embark on an ambitious project, “A Portrait of Argentina.”
SEE ALSO: Her portfolio site and her podcast series for artists, SavvyPainter.

Note: All four artists’ works are reproduced here with their permission.

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So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that capture unexpected moments of appreciation for life’s beauty? I know that writing about these works helped to lift me out of my late-July funk, but did you, too, find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with Alice nominations, book giveaways, and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Dipika Kohli on world community art, defining a future, and why “wait and see” won’t cut it

tumblr_m7b7kmftdt1qaqyfmToday TDN welcomes Dipika Kohli, author of The Elopement, which we reviewed in September last year. Raised in America by Indian parents, Dipika now lives with her Japanese husband, Akira, in Durham, North Carolina, where the couple run a design company

Together, they are the driving force behind Stitch, a community art project for which they are currently raising funds on Kickstarter in order to take the project around the globe. 

Dipika, who has channeled her own feelings of displacedness into writing and art, joins us today to tell us more about this exciting project, the first in a series.

We begin with an intro to what Stitch is all about…

Stitch 101

Stitch is about supporting local artists and the art scene; it’s about a community defining the fabric of itself and its future. It’s community art, and an exercise in word-driven intention-setting at the same time.

Dipika and Akira say:

Now, we’re bombarded by images we never chose for ourselves—we let brands and labels do the work to define and express who we are. It doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could choose what we see? In simple, uplifting, people-nominated and people-chosen words and images? Would we, as a community, behave differently? Would we know who we are?


The 276 words representing Durham, NC, in a word-cloud indicating frequency/popularity

For two months, Dipika and Akira talked to hundreds of people in their town of Durham, North Carolina, asking them one question:

What would you like to see Durham become, in one word?

After collecting many words, the residents of Durham voted for those that described their vision of the future Durham — the Durham they would like to be part of.

The resultant 276 words were passed onto two dozen local artists, who created work inspired by these words. Collectively, these pieces create a vision for the town, while money raised from the selling of these pieces will take Stitch to other communities in the world,

“connecting disparate communities with a common thread of art and collective visions.”

And now — over to Dipika:

Insane…or brilliant?

You have to either be insane or brilliant. To do it, I mean. To get up and do the crazy thing that no one believes will ever work. Everyone who says they care about you and your future likes to say, “Just wait, and see.” See if you can save enough. See if you still feel like doing something wild and crazy. Wait. See.

I’m done with that approach.

You see, I’ve been “waiting and seeing” for about a year now. I’ve been wanting to get back on the road, but why? How? What would that accomplish? A little Descartes reincarnation was sitting on my shoulder, niggling.

March, I said, was when I’d pull the trigger. Whether it made “sense” or not to jump ship and move out of my apartment for some unknown adventure ahead.

Taking Flight

March 16. My birthday. The day I launched the book that took me 13 years to get the nerve up to actually publish. So romantic, I thought, to finally upload Flight of Pisces and then move out of my apartment, and “away.” Wherever that might be.

Flight of Pisces was about the time I left Durham, NC, to trek about in India. Footloose and in search of “identity,” I wanted to see the place where my parents originally come from. New Delhi, and Old Delhi. I went solo, and I did it big, culminating in something that all these years later, I shake my head about, thinking, “Did I have some kind of death wish?”

Maybe I did.

Maybe it was survivor’s guilt. Or more, or less. Who knows.

What I do know, and what I can say, is that it had to be the way it was. I had to go and try something that seemed like it was the most absurd and off-the-track kind of thing in the world, in the universe, even, because without having gone and done it, I wouldn’t have ever gotten it. “The glimpse.” A feeling that the world was shifting beneath my feet. And, indeed, it was.

Now, the same feeling is resurfacing.

On the road again

I’m getting lost in the world, again, and on purpose one more time. It’s okay with me that I have a four year-old who’ll be my classmate on this new tour as we go on an educational field trip together to someplace new. I can’t disclose all the details (yet), but I’m trusting it’s going to be okay.

We’ll have just one text with us, in our imaginations. A book that’s got a bunch of blank pages inside, and one image. It’s the cover, and it looks like this:

It’s the drawing I made back in 1994, when I met my husband, Akira Morita. He’s from Japan, and I’m Indian-American, and we eloped to Ireland in 2000. You could say we like to mix it up. Or just trust that we’ll find something wherever we go. One thing’s for sure, we’re always getting to know a bunch of people well, and anyone who’s into the displaced feeling of being elsewhere knows what I mean.

I held a roundtable last year called EXPAT at a place in town called Mad Hatter’s. It’s a little cafe, and about a dozen of us got together to talk about our experiences in places like Ghana, Madagascar, and all parts of Europe, too. Conversations like that made me feel like I was on the road again.

From T-shirt designs to Stitch concept

Now, Akira and I are 18 years older than we were when we met, and we’ve evolved a lot from those days when we thought printing a T-shirt design on a shirt was cool. Our style has gone conceptual, and now we’re doing our biggest art project together yet. It’s called STITCH, and it’s on Kickstarter now through April 28.

Part of the reason we’re doing this is to shape the community for the place where we both have spent the biggest chunks of our life: Durham, North Carolina. But there’s more, too. Lots of things I want to talk about with you in upcoming posts from this new series. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey with me.

Find out more about STITCH here at the Kickstarter website!

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

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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RANDOM NOMAD: Antrese Wood, American Expat in Argentina and Artist on an Epic Expedition

Place of birth: Pomona Valley Hospital. I grew up in Claremont, California — in fact, my mother still lives in the house she brought me home to.
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Honduras (San Pedro Sula): 1986; Argentina (San Antonio de Arredondo + Villa Carlos Paz), 2010-11 + 2011 – present.
Occupation: Artist (painter).
Cyberspace coordinates: (art site + blog); @antresewood (Twitter handle);  Antrese Wood Artist Page (Facebook); and Antrese Wood (Pinterest) — see “A Portrait of Argentina” board.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
A friend of mine in high school asked me to go with her to an American Field Service (AFS) meeting. I went because she didn’t want to go alone. I had no idea what it was, but after the meeting I thought, “Awesome! I’m in!!” I ended up going to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for six months. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish when I left. I memorized the three questions I thought I would get asked most: What is your name, where are you from & how old are you? Unfortunately, I got them mixed up. When someone asked “What is your name?,” with a huge smile I would answer: “I’m 15 years old!” By the time I left, my Spanish was pretty good.

I didn’t travel much until after college, and I didn’t practice my Spanish, so I lost most of it. After college, I got bit by the travel bug again. I would go anywhere if I had the chance. I worked in the video game department at Disney for years, and got to travel a lot with them — all over the US, Vancouver, Montreal, London, Paris, even to the South of France. On my own, I went to South Korea. I also lived in Alaska for a short while (not a foreign country but compared to the Los Angeles culture, it might as well be). At one point I decided I wanted to do a semester with NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School). I choose their semester in Patagonia, and thinking this was my last chance to see South America, I spent a few months exploring Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador.

Indirectly, that is how I met my husband. A friend was worried about my traveling alone, so she introduced me to her friend from Argentina (“even though she doesn’t live there, she can at least give you a few phone numbers just in case…”). Years later, my new Argentine friend introduced me to my future husband.

Which brings me to why I left Los Angeles to live in Argentina: I fell in love.

Wow — that’s some wanderlust! So is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
No one else in my family is displaced. My mother and I both travel as much as possible, but my brothers and sisters are happy where they are.

Can you describe the moment in your Argentinian life when you felt the most displaced?
My husband and I first lived in a tiny town called San Antonio de Arredondo. It’s in el campo — literally, the countryside. But when you move from Los Angeles to a town of barely 5,000…you call it the boondocks. Some friends rented us their quincho (guest house) while they were out of the country. It was in a new neighborhood with few other houses and lots of empty lots. Green and beautiful, but no natural gas, no phone lines…and worst of all, no Internet!

I was used to 24-hour access to everything. The Internet, grocery stores, restaurants…everything. Another thing: San Antonio and Carlos Paz (where we currently live), both honor the siesta. Everything closes between 1:30 and 5:00 p.m.

It was quaint and beautiful at first, but I got tired of riding my bike to the next town to check my email. I’m completely dependent on the Internet. It was in those moments when I admittedly thought “Oh my god, what have I done!?” When we moved to Carlos Paz, the first question I had about the apartment was: “Does it have high-speed Internet?”

And does it?
YES IT DOES!!!….yay!

Now that you have Internet access and are feeling more at home, is there any particular moment that stands out as your least displaced?
As I contemplate this question, a series of images and moments flashes through my head: our house filled with friends for an impromptu dinner; the huge smile on my husband’s face when he cooks for a crowd (he loves it!); looking at the clock and being surprised that it’s already 4:00 a.m…. A big cultural difference is that you can call friends for a dinner, and within an hour or two, your house is filled with all your friends and all their kids. There is always room for just one more.

If I had to pick one event where I didn’t feel displaced, it would definitely be our wedding. It was the best of both worlds. Friends and family from the US, along with about 200 of our “closest” friends from Argentina, came to celebrate. We had a huge asado (barbecue), lots of wine, dancing until 6:30 a.m.

Sounds amazing. And now you may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
Really? only one!?

I’m tempted to pack some fernet, but I’ll bring my mate instead.

Drinking mate is a national pastime in Argentina. The mate is a hollowed out gourd that you fill with tea leaves called yerba. You add hot water and drink the tea from a bombilla (a kind of straw with a filter at the bottom). Typically, it’s shared with other people — one person serves the mate to the circle. Drinking mate plays an important social role; it’s the preferred excuse to get together and hang out. “Let’s have a mate” really means “Let’s hang out and chat for a while.” Most gas stations have a hot water dispenser at exactly the right temperature, and almost any restaurant will fill your thermos regardless of whether you eat there. They understand the importance.

There are various subtleties to preparing mate (sugar, no sugar, with mint, water temperature, etc.), and the opinions on how to properly prepare mate are strong and sometimes fiercely debated. When a person drinks mate alone for the first time, its like a right of passage into adulthood. When my husband came home and found me drinking mate by myself, he said: “AHA!! now you are an Argentine!!”

Let’s move on to food. You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Now we’re talking! This one is pretty easy:

Appetizer: Empanadas — dough filled with just about anything and then baked or fried. They’re a staple here. A common filling is ground beef, olives, hard boiled egg, paprika, cumin and salt. My favorite is the árabes, which is ground beef “cooked” with lemon and aromatic spices.

Main: Definitely an asado: various cuts of Argentine beef, and lamb. The meat here is so good, people are surprised how much flavor it has. Typically the only condiment used is salt. (Argentina would be a difficult place for vegetarians!)

Dessert: We could have ice cream — call and have it delivered (yes, they do!!); but I think I’d prefer to introduce you to alfajores from Las delicias de Mamushka. An alfajor is like a cookie sandwich: two cookies made from cornmeal, filled with dulce de leche. I never liked them until I tried Mamushka’s. Now I’m addicted.

Wine & after-dinner drinks: A nice Malbec wine. I like Trapiche. A few hours later, after dessert and coffee, an ice-cold Fernet con Coka.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
There are so many — again, hard to choose.

Che and “más vale!” are among my favorites.

Che is used all the time here, especially in the province of Córdoba. Depending on the context, it means “hey…” or “umm…” Sometimes, it seems to be used in the same way we Californians use the word “like.” Che Guevara is from this area. He is actually called Che because when he went to Cuba, he used the word so frequently, people just started calling him “Che.”

Más vale is equivalent to “Hell, yeah!!” — and also has a bit of “Let’s do this!!”

This summer we’ve been doing some posts with an Olympics theme. Are you planning to watch the Summer Olympics in London? If so, who will you be rooting for: Americans, Argentines, both, or neither?
I’ll be rooting for them both. In the event that the U.S. squares off against Argentina in a soccer match, I will be wearing a helmet and full body armor — and cheering for the US!

Are Agentines excited about the Games?
In general, Argentines are fanatical about sports. Especially soccer. Messi is a God. During the World Cup, It seemed like every man, woman and child in this country was wearing a blue-and-white striped #10 jersey. We went to a  friend’s house to watch a game. Normally busy streets were completely deserted. The city had literally shut down. There was an eerie silence occasionally broken by simultaneous cheers erupting from the houses and (closed) shops. During national playoffs, you see grown men sobbing uncontrollably after their local team has lost. The first time I saw this, I was flipping channels on TV. As the camera switched from one sobbing man to another, I thought there had been a national disaster. So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that there will be plenty of excitement about the Games!

The Olympics gives me a segue way into your 8-month project to paint Argentina. That strikes me as being an Olympian feat. Can you say a little bit more about it?
Now that you mention it, it is an Olympian feat! The project is called “A Portrait of Argentina.” I will spend eight months visiting the country’s 23 provinces, traversing something like 15,600 miles, painting portraits of the people I meet. I’ll listen to their stories and then paint en plein-aire, the scenes from their daily life. I’m hoping to deliver a cultural portrait of my adopted home.

When did you first conceive of the project?
The idea came out of a period of misery after I left Los Angeles to live in Argentina. The first year I lived here, I saw everything from a touristic point of view. It was quaint, beautiful and…a little quirky. But the second year was more difficult. It was no longer cute and quirky; the honeymoon was over. I made unfair comparisons and was judging everything. My normally optimistic and upbeat attitude shifted to “This sucks.”

I had two obvious choices: go back to California — or change my outlook, appreciate all that is good, and stay. My husband (fiancé at the time) left it up to me (no pressure, eh?). We could pack everything up and head back to Los Angeles, or I could give Argentina another try.

I realized that much of my misery was self imposed. It came from the fact that I had not integrated and was spending the majority of my time alone, working out of the house. You can’t love anything until you take the time to develop a relationship with, and really get to know, it. Here I was, on an adventure of living in another country, and I wasn’t even willing to give it the time of day. What a wasted opportunity!

As I integrated myself more and became determined to learn as much as I could about Argentina, I started taking classes at the university and began developing this idea about painting my way across the country. Painting has always been my way of making sense out of the world. It forces me to pause and really look at my subject.

Is the project having the effect that you’d hoped — is it improving your attitude?
Just by researching the project, looking for “known” and “unknown” people and places, I have a new-found appreciation for this country. I’m realizing how easy it would be to say I know Argentina because I’ve lived here for two years. The fact is, I know a lot about one region in one province of a very large country, and a little bit about a dozen other places. A native New Yorker and a native Alaskan may live in the same country, but they are culturally worlds apart. The same can be said for a Porteño (a person from Buenos Aires) and a person from La Quiaca near the Bolivian border. Same country, worlds apart.

I’m also overjoyed that so many people here seem excited about my project. Obviously, I’m super excited about it (it’s my baby, after all), but when I share my vision with Argentines and their response is equally enthusiastic, it’s just amazing.

I’ve barely started, and already my outlook has changed. I’m owning the project in a way I didn’t at the start.

What do you hope the project will ultimately accomplish?
“A Portrait of Argentina” is both a personal and a professional journey. I expect to be surprised, challenged, and profoundly affected by it. I’ll be seeking out people from diverse backgrounds, looking to honor those who have dedicated their lives to their passion and whose work positively impacts others: scientists, athletes, artists, musicians, teachers, even the abuelita (little old lady) on the street corner. It’s a collaborative project, and I hope to involve as many people as possible. Luckily, the people I’m meeting are quick to offer help and introduce me to others who might want to participate.

Do you ever feel daunted by the scale of the project?
Argentina is a huge country so I’ve set myself a very ambitious goal to cover this much ground in just eight months. When I break it down into small chunks, it feels manageable. When I think about its entirety, it’s overwhelming.

Finance was another daunting prospect. When I first thought about the funds it would take to get me to and from so many places, it seemed completely insane and impossible. I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign with a $25k goal. Kickstarter is all or nothing, so if I didn’t hit the goal, my five-week campaign would end with $0.

There were days when I did let the campaign get to me and was sure it would fail. To keep going, I would sometimes just think, okay, how can I raise just $100?

In addition to a herculean effort by family and friends, I was fortunate to have some key influencers get excited about the project and promote it. In the end, with just 17 hours to spare, I made my goal!

I’m sure I will have some of these same feelings on the road, but I’ve developed a number of tactics to deal with it. I don’t give up easily. Besides, there are too many people supporting me and cheering me on. I know it will be hard, but am I ready for it? Más vale!!

Readers — yay or nay for letting Antrese Wood into The Displaced Nation once she’s finished her travels for her project? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Antrese — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in Libby’s Life, our fictional expat series set in small town New England. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures and/or check out “Who’s Who in Libby’s Life.”)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

img: Antrese Wood displaying her intrepid travel skills on the Machu Picchu trail in Peru. Her comment: “I thought the Follow the Arrow sign was hilarious because 1) the trail is so well marked I cant imagine anyone getting lost; and 2) this was the one and only sign on the trail and it was near the end of the four-day hike. The other hilarious thing about the photo, at least to me, is that if you look closely, you can see my knee is bleeding. I had just spent 80 days carrying a backpack two-three times as heavy in seriously remote back country, no trails, no markers, nothing. We had to sign a waiver acknowledging the understanding that if something should happen, it could take a helicopter up to a week to arrive. I made it through without a scratch. Here, on this comparative cake-walk, on a perfectly even trail, I fell for no apparent reason and totally skinned up my knee.”

RANDOM NOMAD: Isabelle Bryer, French Expat in the City of Angels

Place of birth: Bourgoin, France — a small town between Lyon and Grenoble.
Passport: France and now USA*
Overseas history: USA (New York City): 1990; USA (Los Angeles): 1991 – present.
Occupation: Artist and art instructor
Cyberspace coordinates: Isabelle Bryer Paintings (artist site and blog); Isabelle Bryer Paintings (Facebook page); and @IsaBryerArt (Twitter handle).
*I decided to become a US citizen after I had my first baby. Since she was an American, I thought it would be prudent to be a citizen, too — I’m not sure what I was afraid of! To this day, I can remember swearing allegiance to the American flag in a giant room full of 6,000 immigrants with the song “God Bless the USA” blasting through loudspeakers. It felt surreal but I found it hard not to get emotional with people crying all around me. Some of them had waited many, many years for this moment and were escaping countries where they had few rights and even less opportunities. It made me feel spoiled, coming from France and seeing this process simply as an administrative hurdle.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I left because I couldn’t wait to start living my own life. In France I always felt “the daughter of” or “the sister of” (I have three older brothers). I felt that everything I was doing was dictated by what was expected of me by everyone else. When I arrived in New York, I felt as though I could reinvent myself. Of course my new identity was that of “the French girl” — but at least it felt exotic! I loved that everything was odd, new and exciting.

It took me three months to be able to speak English efficiently, and still I was constantly making mistakes! To this day, I make some mistakes, which never cease to make my husband and two kids laugh! Mainly, I put accents on the wrong part of some words — in French everything is pronounced “flat” with no emphasis on any particular syllable.

During that year in New York, I worked as a fashion consultant. I went back and forth between New York and Europe about five times within the year. I would visit European cities — Paris, Barcelona, Milan, Florence — and act as a “fashion spy,” taking photos and sketches of trendy designs that might inspire American designers. Then I would go back to NYC and compile everything in books that were sold to clothing manufacturers. The job was very badly paid, but it was way more exciting than my old life!

I met my husband when he was in New York on business. A few months later, I moved with him to Los Angeles.

So your husband is an American. Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
I was the first and only one of my family to leave my town. They all still live there, which is good because I can easily see everyone when I go for a visit.

Can you describe the moment when you felt the most displaced?
When I was living in New York, I was going home late from work by subway. There was a homeless guy in the car trying to eat his hand and screaming. It really terrified me, but I didn’t want to exit before my stop because I was afraid of I’d get lost in the wrong neighborhood. That was the moment when I realized “I’m definitely not in Bourgoin anymore!”

That said, I also remember walking alone down one of the avenues on the west side of New York on a sunny Sunday morning. I felt like a French country girl who’d been dropped in the middle of West Side Story. Everywhere I looked seemed like a movie set. I felt entirely displaced while also having the sense of floating on air. I just loved it.

Is there any particular moment that stands out as your “least displaced”?
When I’m alone and painting in my art studio, I have the feeling of being in the exact right place. I am not sure that I would have found in France what I was supposed to do in life. Sometimes you have to leave your familiar surroundings to start over and become who you were meant to be.

Can you describe the kind of art you do?
I guess the closest description might be “naive surrealism.” My work is very much inspired by folktales.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’d like to carry in a couple of memories of curious times.

From New York: A night at the wild nightclub Copacabana. In the early 1990s it was the place to be: beautiful people, drag queens and transsexuals, with everyone dancing to disco music. You could see Madonna’s dancers practicing “voguing” in the back room. One night I also found myself starstruck — I was going down the stairs behind Iggy Pop.

From L.A.: A typical afternoon at my favorite place, Cafe Mimosa in Topanga Canyon, which I think must have been the birthplace of the peace and love culture. Mimosa is owned by Claire, also a French native. The most amazing crowds assemble there, making you feel as though you’re a character in a hippie revival play. It’s not uncommon to see barefoot people, a man with a huge cockatoo on his shoulder, another one carrying a baby goat. You might run into someone who wants to read your aura for free. The ads on the cafe’s bulletin board offer the services of horse or dog whisperers, dream interpreters, or people ready to loan you their herd of goat to mow your lawn in an environmentally friendly way. It is one of the best places in the world to sip your vanilla chai and people watch. I would love for you all to experience it.

You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Appetizer: Lemon rolls (spicy tuna on the inside, fresh tuna on the outside, topped with thin lemon slices and pine nuts in a delicious sauce) and Asian rolls from my favorite sushi place in LA, Kushiyu.
Main course: Baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. Watching my mother-in-law serve this dish for the first time was an absolute culture shock. I couldn’t wait to call my family in France to tell them that these crazy Americans put rows of chamallows on top of sweet potatoes to bake in the oven and serve with turkey. To this day, I refuse to eat these baked sweet potatoes with meat but love to have them for dessert.
Dessert: A Galette des Rois that I would make myself. It’s a French cake made of puffed pastry stuffed with frangipane (a mix of sugar, almond powder and eggs). You hide little figurines of a queen and a king inside the galette before you serve it, and whoever finds one in their slice gets to wear a crown for the day. I have successfully introduced this tradition to my family and friends in the United States.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country where you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
One of the first expressions I learned when living in New York was “That’s how the cookie crumbles” — basically the American equivalent of “C’est la vie!

This month we are looking at the concept of “la dolce vita” — by that we mean living with an open heart and soul, indulging in life with all your senses. Can you tell me about a recent instance when you felt you were living la dolce vita?
I remember floating on my back in my swimming pool on a perfect warm April morning, watching hummingbirds fluttering by (and also a few helicopters since it’s Los Angeles, after all!). Living in California is still exotic to me. I feel like I’m on a permanent vacation, which I love.

If you were to take the adult equivalent of a “gap year” now or in the near future, where would you go and what would you do?
If I could take a year off, I would take my family to visit a few far-away places like India, China and Japan. I would pack drawing pads and a digital camera and keep a record of all the beautiful things we encountered on our travels. I would use it for inspiration when back in my studio.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Isabelle Bryer into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Isa — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode of “Libby’s Life”, with another bulletin from Kate — who seems to be regretting her rash promise to “stay with Libby for a while.” (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: Isabelle Bryer and four of her paintings.

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