The Displaced Nation

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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.

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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!

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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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