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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Jo Parfitt’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back, and she’s accompanied by another “great” in the expat publishing world, Jo Parfitt, who has published 30+ books herself while also helping at least a hundred new expat writers publish their first great works. Wow. Who among us can compete? —ML Awanohara

Hello Displaced Nationers! It is my pleasure to present to you the venerable Jo Parfitt, who has been an expat for more than three decades while also carving out a career for herself as author, journalist, writing mentor/teacher, and publisher.

This is not Jo’s first time on the Displaced Nation. A couple of years ago, another expat author, Ana McGinley, interviewed Jo about her decision to found Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Summertime, by the way, is turning 10 years old this year. Congratulations, Jo!

As Jo reported to Ana, one of her own books, A Career in Your Suitcase, remains one of Summertime’s top five bestsellers. Is it any wonder, given that Jo is her own best example? Among the many places where she’s lived and worked are three I know well: my native Malaysia, my husband’s home country of Britain, and my current home of the Netherlands, where Jo, too, now resides.

And now let’s hear about Jo’s experience as a serial expat—and how living in so many different places has fed her creative life.

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Welcome, Jo, to the Displaced Nation. First let’s do a quick review of all the places you’ve called “home”. You were born in Stamford, a town in Lincolnshire, UK. A few years back, Stamford was rated the best place to live by the Sunday Times. But you were not content to stay put. Instead you have lived in Dubai, Oman, Norway, Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, and the Netherlands. What got you started on this peripatetic life?

I went abroad the day after I got married, when I was 26. My boyfriend had gone to Dubai for work and I had to marry him to follow him. Before that happened, I already knew I loved being overseas. I had done a French degree and a year abroad, so I was already travelling before I met my husband. But still, I hadn’t imagined living in Dubai and, in fact, did not want to go there at all. But my husband (he was my fiancé at the time) said: “Come for six months. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And thirty years later, we are still living abroad…

Why didn’t you want to go to Dubai?

At that time I was running my own business and doing quite well. And I was really happy in my career and didn’t want to give it up. Career has always been really important to me. When I closed down my business (I was in a partnership) to move to Dubai, I found it absolutely devastating.

So Dubai was a hard landing?

I was the first expat wife in my husband’s company. They had no support for me at all. We weren’t given our own apartment. I ended up sharing a flat with some other chaps who were in my husband’s office. I was lost and lonely and I knew nothing about networking, I knew nothing about portable careers, I knew nothing about being an expat. But then I found a job opportunity for somebody to do some freelance CV writing. So I did, and eventually I became a journalist. When I submitted my CV they said: “Well you’re not very good but you’ve got potential. So you work for me and I’ll shout at you a lot and you’ll learn.” So that’s what happened. One thing led to another and I had a career again.

Can you tell us about where you went next?

From Dubai, we went to Oman for two-and-a-half years, which was heaven. We loved it. We left too soon because after Oman we went to Stavanger, in southwestern Norway. We went from heat and and living outdoors and having help in the house to a cold and rainy place with no help. We stayed 18 months—actually, we cut that posting short. (I’ve been back to Stavanger since and I thought it was wonderful, but at that time, it was just not for me.) We moved back to Stamford, but I didn’t fit in anymore. We were based in the UK for seven years while my husband would commute on the plane or bus or train for work, until finally we decided it was time we all stayed together as a family again, and we went to live in The Hague. My husband and I also moved to Brunei for a short posting, staying just a few months before returning to The Hague. From there my husband got a job in Kuala Lumpur. For me, living in Malaysia was a dream come true. We’d traveled to Southeast Asia while living in Dubai, and I knew right away I wanted to live in that part of the world some day. It was fantastic.

When you repeat being an expat so many times, do you end up being drawn to cities, where you’ll find other well-traveled people?

In Dubai and Oman it was impossible to get to meet the locals; one has no choice but to live in the expat bubble. In Norway, my home was on the edges of the expat bubble because I didn’t feel that they were really my kind of person. To be honest, I don’t know who I thought my kind of person was. I was depressed in Norway, so nothing would have made me happy. When I went back in England, I realized I didn’t fit in anymore because I’ve lived overseas, so I found my community by starting up a professional network of women writers.

In general have you found that living in cities tends to feed your creative drive?

I wrote a blog called Sunny Interval while based in Kuala Lumpur. I wrote briefly in Brunei. Wherever I went, I found things to write about, generally about transition. I am a poet and a columnist at heart. I love finding parallels and being able to compare and contrast cultures. That said, I lost my mojo in KL for quite a long time—I couldn’t seem to find the beautiful bits. But then I had an experience that absolutely changed my life: an opportunity to write a book on Penang, which is located on Malaysia’s northwest coast. As part of the research, I had to interview Penangites, I had to understand the history and get under the skin of the place. That’s when I realised that getting under the skin of a place is the thing that WILL feed your soul, even if the place is not inherently beautiful. It was such a privilege to get to know Muslims and Buddhists, Chinese, Malay, and Indian, and call them all friends.

Does language tend to be a barrier when you’re in a non-English speaking place?

Even though I’m a linguist, I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, I know very little Dutch. But when I went to Malaysia, I decided that I would learn Malay, and it made a huge difference. Boleh lah! (Can do!) And now that I’m back in The Hague, I’m determined to speak more Dutch. I think it’s very important to learn the language, and I am ashamed that I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, or Dutch the first time around.

How about the more remote places you have lived? Do they, too, feed your creativity and if so in what ways? And how do you keep from feeling isolated?

I write! As I mentioned, I did a degree in French. As part of my studies, I did a year teaching in France in a really boring small town and I didn’t have any friends there either. I would walk around the town for something to do. And I would walk in the shops and I would look in the windows. And I looked at the wonderful display of tarts and I just thought: “”French Tarts”—that’s a great title for a book. I’ll write it.” And what it did was it gave me something interesting to do and a way to meet people and eat (which I loved!). Because I couldn’t cook I decided to ask everybody I met in the town if they’d have me to dinner, and if they had me to dinner they had to make me a tart and I would write about it and would put their recipe in my book! I was 20. I had utmost confidence that they would say yes. So I went to dinner with the doctor, the dentist, the lady who ran the baby shop, teachers from the school, the man who ran the bicycle shop… I just said to anybody, I want to come to dinner. And I wrote the draft of French Tarts, which came out when I was 24. That was my first book.

What a great story! And I happen to know that’s not your only cookery book. After all, you brand yourself as a bookcook…

When I was in Oman, I had the idea with a friend of mine of writing a cookbook on dates because none of the expats knew how to cook with dates. So we wrote a cookbook on dates. We invented the recipes (I could cook by then!) and did everything else. Though it looked terrible, it sold very well because people wanted the content.

Are there any other remote places where you’ve lived that have fed your creativity?

The most remote place I’ve lived in was Kuala Belait in Brunei, which for those who don’t know if a small sovereign state on the north coast of the island of Borneo (the rest of the island is Malaysian and Indonesian). Kuala Belait was really remote. There was nothing to do there at all. I actually went online and googled bloggers in the area. And I found one blogger, who was 20 years younger. I met her for coffee. I did everything I could to find people. In the end, I started a writer’s circle. I ran a few writing classes and joined a French conversation group. And I was only there for three months. You have to make an effort to reach out to people, but the Internet does make it easier.

I know you’re a great networker. Do you tend to network online or in person?

I network with people online. But I also make sure I network with people in person. I sometimes think, it’s been three weeks and I haven’t seen anybody apart from my family, so I get on the phone and book lunches and things.

Do writers sometimes find it a struggle to meet people IRL?

When I was working from home as a writer, I realised that if I stayed in all day and all evening and wrote, I got depressed. And so I used to go for a walk at lunchtimes and at least try to engage with somebody in a shop. I am an introvert when I work. But I feed my soul by being out. I like to see people face to face every week. I don’t think you get much energy from talking to somebody through the email and texting.

You have 31 books! Do you have a favorite?

Out of my 31 books, I would say that a couple have been pivotal for me. One I’ve already mentioned: French Tarts. It made me realise that If you’ve got a good idea, then you can do anything. The other is A Career in Your Suitcase, which is now in its fourth edition and still going strong. I had the idea for writing it when we first went to Norway. There were no English publications for me to write for. I started working on this and an expat anthology called Forced to Fly.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I’m in The Hague now. I like belonging in a community. I love the fact that everything’s familiar. When you’ve moved and moved and moved, you really want to feel that you belong somewhere. And knowing the way and not having to use a map and knowing where the doctors is: it’s a great feeling. Here in The Hague I’ve also come back to old friends, and that’s been fantastic. I didn’t have friends in England really. They’d all gone off to university or wherever. England was difficult. I think Norway was the hardest. England was the next hardest. Coming back here to the Netherlands has been the easiest because it wasn’t a repatriation as I thought it might feel. It was a reposting. It had all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Tell me about your new venture taking writers away on retreats. I believe you call them “me”-treats?

This has been an ambition of mine for some time. I’m holding what I call Writing Me-Treats. These are residential holidays for four or five nights. They’re for people who love to write, to come and indulge in writing and sharing and doing beautiful things that will make them feel really inspired. For example, in The Hague, we will do the walk in the Jewish quarter and talk about what happened to the Jews. Understanding that has really deepened my love of the place. My first writer’s Me-Treat is in Penang, this month. My next writer’s Me-Treat is in The Hague, which I have timed to be exactly after the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference. The next one is in France, in a mini chateau. Then Devon. Then Tuscany.

Do you have any advice for other global creatives?

If you’re a writer, try getting into a writers circle. That’s where I found my soulmates. People come, we do some speed writing, we share what we’ve written, then I create a task and we do an exercise. It’s about being forced to write, not having an excuse or procrastinating. It shows people what they can do in 10 minutes. It empowers them to think they are good enough. I think a lot of writers want to keep what they’ve written to themselves because they’re too afraid to share it. Or they’re too scared that somebody else will plagiarise it. Which is a real worry. What you get in a writer’s circle is a safe space. People get very friendly. They get very close.

I should remind our readers at this juncture that you have your own publishing house for expat books.

Yes, I run Summertime Publishing. I’ve been helping people to write books since 2002. I teach people online and have three online courses: people can study by email as well. Four years ago I decided to run this writer’s scholarship, the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residency. I would train writers, they would cover the FIGT conference, and I would publish what they wrote. This is about to be my fifth year. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get training from me for free, to get lots of mentoring for free, and to increase their network.

Any recommendations for the wannabe writers out there?

The other thing I would recommend is that you either write a journal, and do it religiously, or write a blog. Whenever something happens, that I think is of note. I write a blog post. I write it for people I know, so I feel safe enough to be authentic and vulnerable, to show how stupid I am, and my mistakes. And I write as if no stranger will read it. And it becomes a record of my life. A lot of people are very scared to expose themselves like that. But don’t be.

Thanks so much, Jo, for sharing your story with us.

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Readers, any further questions for the extraordinary Jo Parfitt on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the communities you’ve lived in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see Doreen interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Photos via Pixabay.

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Ruth Van Reken’s creative life as Adult Third Culture Kid


Columnist Doreen Brett is back, and she’s accompanied by someone whose “homes” have ranged from Africa to the American Midwest, and who knows better than any of us here what it means to feel culturally displaced. Hm, who else could it be other than the indomitable Ruth Van Reken? —ML Awanohara

Hello Displaced Nationers! It is my pleasure to present to you Ruth Van Reken, an expert in cross-cultural identity and globally mobile families. She is renowned internationally for her compassion, knowledge and insight into what it means to be a child growing up among worlds, otherwise known as a Third Culture Kid.

An American, Ruth was born in Kano, Nigeria, to missionary parents. Although her mom was raised in Chicago, being a TCK is a tradition on the paternal side of her family: her father, too, was a TCK (he was born in Rasht, Iran, then known as Persia, where his parents lived). It’s a tradition Ruth has continued: both her children and first grandchild are TCKs.

Among her many accomplishments, Ruth is co-founder and past chairperson of Families in Global Transition (FIGT), a forum for globally mobile individuals, families, and those working with them, the signature event being an annual conference. She is also the co-author, with David Pollock, of the now-classic Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, soon to be out in its third edition.

Ruth often speaks about issues related to the global lifestyle and has developed the website Cross Cultural Kids as a hub for children of refugees, immigrants, minorities, career expatriates, mixed race, and bicultural families. The way she sees it, not just TCKs but all children who have experienced a globalized upbringing or some form of displacement from their parents’ home/culture are forming a “new normal” in today’s globalizing world.

Now let’s hear about Ruth’s own experiences of living in various locations abroad—and how those locations have fed her creative life.

* * *

Ruth, I understand you’ve just celebrated your 72nd birthday. Happy birthday! And welcome to the Displaced Nation. As I mentioned just now, you were born and grew up in Nigeria. What I didn’t mention is that you lived in Liberia and Kenya as an adult, with your husband and family. How did you come to spend so much of your life in Africa?

Spending 13 years of my childhood in Nigeria was the result of my parents deciding to accept a teaching job in that country. Later, when I got married, my husband and I chose to live and work in Liberia—he as a pediatrician, and me as a nurse. It didn’t go quite to plan. I didn’t end up doing nursing because they were trying to use Liberians for nursing, and we couldn’t get visas to visit my parents in Nigeria even though I had grown up there and loved the country. It was postwar, and all the Nigerians cared about is that I had an American passport. When I finally got to visit my parents, it was a journey of clarification for me. Nigeria wasn’t my world. There had been big changes politically. There were soldiers in the airport. I still really loved the country but could see it wasn’t mine. Later we moved to Kenya.

Would you say it’s normal to live in this way?

For some of us, for whom the seeds are planted early, it’s normal to live like this. Some may think that it’s radical, or how would you dare. But for me it’s the way life is, and it’s good. My hardest move was from Kenya to my current home of Indianapolis, when I thought my travels are over! I’ve come to enjoy where I live right now, but at the time, I thought the international lifestyle was missing. Everybody’s lived here forever and is the same.

How did you keep from feeling isolated through your many moves?

Feeling isolated? I’m an EE (Extreme Extrovert)! There are always people, as long as you don’t demand that they have to be just like you. My hobby is that I like to talk, and I also like to go out, even if it’s to shop for groceries in a little mud hut someplace. So I never felt isolated. Africa is a very social environment. It’s warm all year. In Kenya I joined an International Women’s Club. We had a group of 17 women of 14 different nationalities meeting together every week.

Many of us expats or people who’ve grown up as Third Culture Kids gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” Has that been your experience?

Chicago is quite a global city now, but it was very different when I first moved back home, pre-immigration days. My family lived in a neighborhood where everyone was segregated into traditional communities. That’s why, when I came back as a 13-year-old, everybody was from there and white, and although I looked like I should fit, I didn’t. That was a bad year for me. After one year, I did the chameleon thing and pretended to blend in. I would not tell anyone I was from Africa.

What about when you moved your own family back to the United States?

When my husband and I moved back to Indianapolis, we chose the suburbs as we were specifically looking at schools for the kids. I saw one school and thought, “Everyone looks the same. My kids won’t fit in here.” We found a school where the kids had many looks—a school with multi-nationalities and multi-backgrounds. I felt our kids are going to fit in here better, they have more space to be themselves. You know, somebody here once said: “You think you know everything and you’re so proud because you’ve been everywhere.” I was shocked and horrified. I told her:

“If I just try to be the suburban housewife, then I have a place. But if I ever let you know who I am, then I have no place.”

How did your life in Kenya compare to this?

Kenya was easier for me. When we were sitting with the other expats, we would often be talking about who we are and where they’ve been. That conversation was acceptable for that group. I realized that I don’t understand my neighbor’s job in tech, and he doesn’t understand mine, but we can be great friends on a million other subjects. You can make a bridge of the human story. The more stories we share, the more we connect in those spaces of humanity. In time, I found my space.

I know from reading your books that you think TCKs have special gifts.

I think the biggest gift of being a TCK is that I can connect, and I am sure you do too, to the humanity in people who don’t look like me, and who are from different backgrounds. We can connect with different cultures in some ways. We understand how much the human heart wants to belong.

Can you give us a concrete illustration of a work of yours that was nurtured out of the places you have lived in?

Although my parents were teachers for local schools, they sent me to an international boarding school when I was six years old, as was the norm, so I would learn American history and culture and be prepared for repatriation. I was there for three years, and after that I spent a year in the United States with my gran. Finally, my mother asked if I would like to be home schooled, so from fourth grade onwards, she taught me lessons in her classrooms in the Nigerian schools. I was able to connect to my family, I had Nigerian friends, I learnt the language and played games with them. Years later, when my husband and I had been in Liberia for some time, my daughter wanted to go to boarding school because all her friends were going there. I got depressed, with unresolved grief from my childhood. That was a discovery for me, of the impact of transition on my life. I started writing letters to my parents as if I were six years old again. These then became my memoir, Letters I Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. Here’s an excerpt:

May 1958. “Today we’re leaving Africa… It’s unbearable to think that I may never again see my home or closest friends or the country that I love so much. It’s sort of like a death—to lose your whole world in one moment.”

Readers responded that they’d felt this way too. This was when I first heard of “TCK”. My first book wasn’t a conscious choice. My second book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, which I co-wrote with David Pollock, was bigger than me and my story. I traveled to 50 different countries for the TCK work.

And let me tell you about my home here in Indianapolis. When I first arrived, my life in boxes, I put up some African things on the walls. My daughter’s friend took it all down, and said you’re in America now. But my bookcase still has musical instruments from all around the world. Every culture makes music through four ways—percussion, string, wind, and brass. These are the same four ways to make music all over the world. This display, too, is a creative expression of my life.

You still live in Indianapolis. Does that city feed your creativity as well?

With immigration, I realized the world was coming to Indianapolis, but people here weren’t attuned to it (for example, in human resources and schools). I started seminars here, and with the help of some friends with organizational skills, my efforts grew into Families in Global Transitions (FIGT).

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

On September 8th, we will be releasing the third edition of Third Culture Kids, with more stories and more diversity of TCKs. My interest is in the innumerable ways people are growing up cross-culturally now. I think a lot of Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) feel lost and aren’t feeling internally where they belong. Human beings need a place to fit, we need to find new ways to name identity so people can belong in positive ways. They should be able to say: Given the reality of my life, I can accept where I’ve come from instead of trying to fix what’s different about me.

Do you have any parting advice for your fellow ATCKs?

Come for the next Families in Global Transitions (FIGT). I think we find our tribe there. You don’t have to explain yourselves to the group. And whatever project you’re working on, that book, that website, there’s an empowerment to go back and continue and finish the writing, finish the project.

Ruth, your story resonates with me in so many ways! Thank you for sharing it.

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Readers, any further questions for the amazing Ruth Van Reken on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the communities you’ve lived in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see Doreen interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening collage: 245 Kano City Nigeria 1995, by David Holt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Chicago Skyline from Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, by Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waterside Stores (Monrovia, Liberia), by Mark Fischer via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 774 Redbud Lane (Greenwood, Indiana), by Bart Everson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Kenya via Pixabay and photo of Ruth supplied.

Photo of girl via Pixabay.

Book covers supplied.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Cristina Baldan’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back. Having introduced herself to us in her opening column, she will use this second post to interview serial expat Cristina Baldan, about the impact of her various “homes” on her creative output. Did she appreciate living far from the madding crowd, or is it crowds that give her inspiration? Or perhaps a bit of both? —ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! As ML mentioned, I’m excited to welcome my first guest to the Displaced Nation: photographer, graphic designer and serial expat Cristina Baldan. A native of Italy, Cristina has lived in eight different countries in the past 16 years. Her present abode is in Maastricht, the southernmost point of the Netherlands, spanning the border with Belgium. On the creative side: she was involved in the creation of the site Expatclic, a multilingual platform that supports expat women, and is currently developing the site What Expats Can Do. It’s a new kind of initiative, and she’ll tell us about it below.

* * *

Welcome, Cristina, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Italy but have lived on five continents and eight different locations. How did that come about?

I grew up and lived in the same town in Italy for 30 years, but then things started to change: I found a better job in a bigger city, and I got married and had my first child. My husband’s career then brought us to eight different locations in 16 years: Saudi Arabia, Nigeria (two different cities), France, Australia, Italy again, Canada, and now Maastricht. In the meantime, my family grew to five members plus one dog and, without completely realizing it, I was the living embodiment of the trailing spouse who would never be able to go back to her career in finance. Nowadays I am more aware of the richness that this kind of lifestyle has brought to my personal identity, and I am starting to find ways to rebuild my purpose and contribute something of worth to the wider world.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” Have you found this to be the case?

I enjoy living in big cities. The anonymity allows you to move around and explore the location despite cultural, social, linguistic or even physical constraints. It is easier to open yourself to new experiences, meet people at your own pace, and navigate the cultural challenges. When I was living in more isolated places, I found life much harder. In those places, locals can identify you immediately as a foreigner and this can be difficult to manage. Getting in touch with the local culture is not an easy process, and in rural or small-town environments it may require a huge amount of time—time that an expat like me doesn’t have, as the next move is always approaching. In cities, by contrast, people are more used to people coming and going, and the settling-in process is accelerated. Big cities also offer activities as ways to meet other internationals. An expat spouse who cannot work because of being home with kids and/or for visa reasons risks staying at home too much and never really facing up to culture shock.

So would you say that cities nurture your creativity more than rural environments?

All the places I lived in as an expat have nurtured my creativity in different ways. The nomadic way of life opened my mind: there was an entire world out there I had not been aware of, and I was eager to share it with others. My first hosting country was Saudi Arabia, where tradition and culture are fascinating but also difficult to explore. As a woman I was not allowed to be alone in public, walk alone in the street, drive, or indulge in conversations with men who weren’t relatives. Logistically this meant being confined mostly at home or in “Western adapted” locations. I had very few contacts with locals and few possibilities to get to know the local culture. Writing was the first thing I tried to do; it began mostly as a way to tell stories to the family and friends left behind: letters, emails, blogs… But then when I moved to Africa, writing became insufficient. There were so many new colours, situations, people: words were not enough any more. At that point I discovered documentary photography. Then, as I was gaining more and more knowledge about connections among cultures—and found myself particularly interested in the visual effects of those connections—I began to study graphic design and visual communication.

Can you give us a concrete illustration of a work of yours that was nurtured out of the places you have been to?

The images you see here were selected for, and displayed at, the first LagosPhoto Festival (in 2010). They belong to my photo series “Streets Economics – Lagos through and behind windows”.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan – the above four images cannot be copied, downloaded, or used in any way without the express, written permission of the photographer.

You’ve lived in so many places, but have referred to just two of them, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria (Lagos), in this conversation. What was it about these two locations that stimulated your creativity?

For me, it wasn’t the remoteness of these two places on the map that I found stimulating; rather, it was the remoteness of their cultures, which I wanted to get to know but there were so many constraints. Creativity grows when you’re facing external constraints, at least that’s been my experience. In Saudi Arabia, my freedom was restricted in various ways, so I turned to writing. In Nigeria, I tended to take photographs through the windows of my car, as this was least intrusive. And in Nigeria, photography was also the answer for me as I couldn’t get the requisite materials and colors from the market for painting pictures.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I am currently organizing our move back to Canada: it is time for us to settle down in one place after so many years of nomadic life. As soon as I get there, I am planning to open my freelance business as an intercultural graphic designer and photographer. Meanwhile, I am nurturing my new project, which was launched a few months ago (we presented it at FIGT 2017): whatexpatscando.com. We are trying to engage as many expats as possible in working toward a better world by leveraging our experiences and skills in managing cultural diversity. Please join us!

Thank you, Cristina!

* * *

Readers, any further questions for Cristina on on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the community you live in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening collage: All images are from Pixabay.
The four photos of Lagos were taken by Cristina Baldan and supplied by her for this post.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Doreen Brett’s creative life as an expat in Holland


At a moment when I feel far from the madding crowd myself despite being in a big city—it’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States, when most New Yorkers flock to the beach—it’s my pleasure to welcome new columnist Doreen Brett to the Displaced Nation. She was introduced to me by former Culture Shock Toolbox columnist Hélène (“H.E.”) Rybol: they met in Singapore, where they were roommates for a while.

Like Hélène, Doreen grew up among several different cultures. Her grandparents emigrated from India to Malaysia, and the family spoke English as their first language. While based in Malaysia, she attended school in Singapore.

Doreen’s horizons widened still more once she reached adulthood. A few years ago, she moved to the UK with her British husband; they now make their home in the Netherlands.

Doreen loves exploring wild, remote places—and it’s this passion of hers that has inspired her column, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” From next month, she will be interviewing expats who have chosen to live in some off-the-beaten-track locations. Did the experience lead to cultural immersion, and in what ways did it foster creativity?

To kick off the series, Doreen has agreed to have me pose to her the same series of questions she plans to ask other international creatives.

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Welcome, Doreen, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Malaysia but were educated in Singapore. How did that come about?

I was born in Johor, the Malaysian state on the Straights of Johor, which separates Malaysia from the Republic of Singapore. When I was six years old, my parents decided to send me to school in Singapore, since my family was English speaking and schools in Malaysia tend to teach only in Malay. My parents were influenced by a neighbor of ours, a close family friend, who was the principal of a school in Singapore. She spoke very highly of the city-state’s educational system. In any event, that’s how I came to living in one country while attending school in another! Every morning I would wake up at 5:00 a.m., sit sleepily on a yellow school bus and travel across customs. Once school finished, I would make my way home again, through immigration checks. As a child, it became second nature for me to keep my passport in my pocket, for daily use. It marked the beginning of what has thus far been a life of travel.

What brought you to your current location, the Netherlands?

My husband is British. We moved from Singapore to his native UK to live and work. We lived in his home town, Billericay (a small town in Essex, not far from London), for a few years before moving to London to avoid the commute to work. We only recently moved to a small city in the Netherlands, again for work.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” How did you find life in Singapore as compared to in Malaysia?

When I think of Malaysia, there is very much a community feel to the place and the people. You always know your neighbors; family and friends drop by without any notice (and are readily welcomed with a snack–every house always has snacks prepared for impromptu visits); and weddings are celebrated on a large scale–500 people is a small number. In fact, the further you get from the city, the more of a village feel there is and the more you will experience these community bonds. Rather than finding your “tribe”, the tribe will find you and welcome you with open arms! Singapore, by contrast, is very much a global city, with all the conveniences such places have to offer, including a vast variety of food choices available day and night, efficient and safe transport links, and of course, a plethora of cultures living in one space.

Once you moved to the UK, you went from living in a small town to living in London. Which did you prefer?

To be honest, coming from a background that values community, I felt alienated in both locations. If only I had known about the Displaced Nation then, I would have realized there was nothing unusual in my reluctance to head out into what I perceived was an unfriendly environment. Even when I moved to London, a place where virtually everyone is “displaced”—it is very much a global city—I still felt this disconnect. Being in a global city does not guarantee a sense of companionship and belonging. You can be in a room full of people and still feel alone. It was only when I took steps to reach out, and get past cultural differences, that I began to find people I could connect with. And while city life is of course convenient, and there are always things to do, I found that I never got any space to myself, to just BE.

How do you feel about your latest “home”?

Where I live in the Netherlands is much quieter than the flat we had in London. It’s a complete switch in lifestyle. Like a detox of sorts. I absolutely love it. All in all I have to say that I love being outside of global cities. On the surface, cities have more people and hence provide more opportunities to connect with others; but I think that relationships forged in communities outside the city limits will trump this any day.

How do you keep from feeling isolated?

I do not feel isolated, no matter where in the world I am. I always have a small, steady group of friends and family I can turn to—my global tribe.

I understand you enjoy writing. Do you foresee that in your current location you’ll be able to nurture your creativity?

Being in the Netherlands gives me time to pursue my creative interests and the opportunity to develop my writing. Currently I am working on writing a fictional piece, and of course my protagonist travels, and I am embellishing the tale with the flavours of the different cultures I have experienced.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I’ve only just moved to the Netherlands, so I would like to stay put for a bit. Fingers crossed that this move goes well!

Thank you, Doreen!

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Readers, any further questions for Doreen on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the community you live in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Photo credits:
Opening collage (bottom to top): Sultan Ibrahim Building, Johor, Malaysia, by Bernard Spragg via Flickr (CC0 1.0); Singapore, by Neils de Vries via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Bellericay High Street, by Steve Hancocks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Picadilly Circus, by mrgarethm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Doreen Brett feeling happily displaced in Holland as the sun is shining (supplied). Sea image is from Pixabay.
2nd visual: Madi + Pika // Reception, by Azlan DuPree via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
3rd visual: Oxford Street in London via Pixabay.

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