This month I am delighted to welcome Lisa Morrow to the Displaced Nation as the very first guest in our new author interview series, which, in my inimitable style, I’ve devised as a kind of game expat authors can play.
Then, assuming she comes up with the goods, her next challenge would be to take the Displaced Nation’s “test” to measure how well she qualifies as an “international creative”—the results of which will be published in a second post.
It’s to Lisa’s everlasting credit that she was “game” to be the first to take on these considerable challenges. For those who haven’t read it yet, her most recent book, Waiting for Tulips to Bloom, tells the story of what prompted Lisa and her husband to pick up and move from their native Australia to Göztepe, on the Asian side of Istanbul, in 2010. Now, Lisa’s decision to move to Turkey was a long time in coming. She’d first developed a passion for the country and its people when living and working in London many years before. She’d visited Turkey for the first time as a tourist and somehow found her way to Göreme, a town in Cappadocia (central Turkey), where she’d ended up staying for three months. That first stay marked the start of a period of traveling back and forth between Sydney and Istanbul, living between both places, culminating in the “permanent” move almost seven years ago.
Given Lisa’s long exposure to Turkey, the transition to full-time expat life in Istanbul wasn’t as smooth as expected, and her new book recounts both the “drama and the joy involved,” to use Lisa’s words.
And now let’s roll out Lisa’s algorithm, beginning with…
If we like Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom, which movie/musical/play/TV series would we also like?
One film that closely mirrors some of the major themes in my book is The Dressmaker, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Kate Winslet. After making herself into everything her mother wasn’t and escaping the stifling norms of Australian society, Tilly Dunnage (Kate) returns to her hometown. Once there she’s tested by living in a community bound by strict rules governing social intercourse and an unquestioned social hierarchy. Although The Dressmaker is set in Australia, with a main character who’s a native speaker born into the culture, Tilly is as displaced in the fictional town of Dungatar as I have often been in the real world of Turkey. Though a long ways away from 1950s small-town Australia, Turkey is equally rigid about social interactions and power structures. To live here I’ve had to get a handle on them or risk forever being ostracised. However, in order to be comfortable in both my new home and myself, I’ve had to learn to what I’m capable of, and what principles I’m not prepared to relinquish. I’ve also had to be flexible enough to incorporate different ways of seeing and living into my own perspective and daily practices. In both The Dressmaker and my book Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul, belonging, and feeling happy as a result, isn’t predicated on living in your place of birth. It’s about understanding that being displaced is a point of reference from which to start living, regardless of where you find yourself, and not a condition to be cured.
What meal or dish would go well with reading your book?
The dish that would go best with reading my book is Çerkez Tavuğu, or Circassian Chicken as it’s known in English. This dish doesn’t require infinite culinary skill, just a lot of time and patience to prepare it. What results is a cultural and historical delight harking back to the complexity of Turkey’s multicultural past. It reflects my experience of coming to live in Turkey, where I learnt that what I thought was important to know wasn’t helpful, and only by being patient would I ever get what I wanted. I particularly like the inclusion of walnuts in the sauce because they’re a symbol of strength and power. I’ve come to realise I have a lot more of both than I ever knew.
The recipe is quite long so here is a link to the website that gives the closest version of the one I cook. Naturally I make it using a whole chicken because if I’m going to this much trouble, I want to share the results with all my friends. I also add bay leaves to the chicken when I cook it, and freeze any leftover stock to use in soups and casseroles later on. (You never know when you’ll need it!)
If your book had a signature cocktail, what would it be?
It would have to be a champagne cocktail. According to the International Bar Association:
“A champagne cocktail is an alcoholic drink made with sugar, Angostura bitters, champagne, brandy and a maraschino cherry as a garnish.”
I prefer mine with just a sugar cube at the bottom of a chilled champagne flute, two or three drops Angostura Bitters or cognac when available and then filled to the top with brut champagne. It’s the perfect signature drink for my book because like the champagne cocktail, Turkish culture, although bound by regulations, is extremely versatile and adaptable. Few people actually follow the rules and when things go wrong, which they often do, they’re very good at finding alternative ways of doing things. As a person prone to getting hung up on details and subsequently unable to creatively problem-solve, living in Istanbul and constantly having to re-negotiate ways of being stops me falling back into old habits.
Are there any special clothes/headgear/costumes/accessories we could wear to put us in the mood for reading your book?
Definitely a scarf. Not because I live in a predominantly Muslim country, although I do cover my head to show respect when I enter a mosque, but because I’m never without one. For the early chapters of my book a light cotton number in strong summer colours will put you in the mood for my optimism and enthusiasm as I pounded the pavements in Istanbul in search of a new home. As autumn sets in and things start to go pear-shaped, you’ll need something with a bit of body to wind around your neck and shoulders to give comfort when none is on offer. Winter brings biting cold and overwhelming stress, so wrap up tight in a shawl that covers the outfit you’re likely to wear day after day as you battle your fears and doubts. Spring passes in a minute so when summer comes around again choose something to wrap around your hips. Make sure it’s sewn with coins, so you jingle with delight when you join me as I dance for joy.
If we wanted to take a mini-trip to understand your story better, where would you recommend we travel and which one or two sights should we take in?
It would have to be to Istanbul, because it’s a city without substitute. Come on a Friday and head straight to Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a place to experience rather than see, so plunge straight into the crisscross of streets and make your way through the crowds of Friday shoppers, skirt the overflow of devout congregants praying on rugs rolled out onto the sidewalks, take in the scents, sight and sounds of Fish Street, and eat spicy lahmacun with parsley and lemon at Borsam. You’ll see plenty you want to photograph but first just stop, look and feel the energy swirling around you. Living in a city with so many people can be overwhelming, so I always try to balance the mania with more peaceful days out along the shores of the Bosphorus. Two of my favourite neighbourhoods are Kuruçeşme and Arnavutköy, because they offer a glimpse into Turkey’s multicultural past under Ottoman rule. You can find out more about these neighbourhoods in the Discover Istanbul section of my blog, Inside Out Istanbul, and from my book of travel essays with that title, recently updated.
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So, readers, tell us: Has Lisa come up with a winning algorithm? Does the thought of wearing a jingly scarf, sipping a champagne cocktail and feasting on Circassian Chicken, watching Aussie flicks, and traveling to the Asian side of Istanbul (at least from your armchair!) make you want to buy Lisa’s book? At the very least, does it make you want to keep in touch with Lisa and her adventures? If so, be sure to check out her author site You can also follow her on Facebook (she adds photos, tips and vignettes about Istanbul and Turkey to the page nearly every day) and let’s not forget Twitter. And please leave any questions for Lisa in the comments.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts. Will they include Lisa’s next test? (You tell us: do you want to see her move on in the Expat Author Game?)
Regular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, by Kate Allison, is replete with observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when Libby isn’t published, we are featuring posts by writers who are sensitive to the subtle yet powerful differences between new and “olde” worlds. Today we hear from an occasional contributor, Kym Hamer, whose thoughts on the topic immediately drifted to the ten winters she has spent in her adopted home of London. Hmm…is that because her native Melbourne now has highs of 8°C, or 46°F (and overnight lows of -1°C, or 30°F)?
As an Australian who moved to the UK in 2004 and who continues to make London her home almost ten years on, I can’t really afford to have any quarrel with the weather.
It is one of the quintessential British-isms, this obsession with weather, and it is the question I find myself in the midst of most debate about—always at the first meeting and often well into several years of cross-cultural friendship.
The stereotype of Australia’s big blue skies, fresh-faced outdoorsy-ness and neighbourly games of cul-de-sac cricket prevails so strongly in the British psyche, that any suggestion that all is not what it appears Down Under comes across as churlish, un-conversational and bordering on arrogant ungraciousness.
It’s not worth arguing: the Brits like to be right about this.
But what has struck me most about these conversations is that they usually occur in overheated pubs, lounge-rooms, Tube carriages and lifts with the protagonists sitting or standing around in their shirtsleeves complaining about the cold.
I have never met a nation so unwilling to put a jumper on.
(Which reminds me of a rather bad joke: what do you get when you cross a kangaroo and a sheep? A woolly jumper!)
Wrap up warm, but not too warm
I’ve been caught out myself, rugging up [putting on lots of clothes in anticipation of going somewhere bl**dy freezing] upon leaving the house on a chilly morning. Silently congratulating myself on my toasty (sometimes even thermal) attire, I find myself wishing I could dispense with three quarters of it half an hour later.
And let me tell you, it’s a royal pain to carry around a heavy winter coat and quite embarrassing to sit sweating profusely in a job interview because everything you could have possibly taken off—and still remain decent, let alone remotely “put together”—has been shed.
So I’ve learnt to avoid the thermal underwear and to dress in layers. More or less like a pass the parcel parcel.
Tuning into the daily weather forecast on the radio as I open one sleepy eye each morning, I’ve learnt that it pays to double check that the light spring coat hanging at the ready should not be replaced by something more…or less.
But the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is this: it’s the extremities that matter and the right hat, scarf and gloves can make all the difference.
As the temperature and wind chill factor pas de deux through London during any given month, the right “weight” of this essential triumvirate can have me either swanning about in a state of slightly disheveled fabulous-ness or looking as though I’ve been dragged through a damp hedge backwards.
As such I have acquired:
several right “hats”
a range of pashminas—from warm woolly to just to keep the chill off on a “summer” evening
many suitable scarves (they are defined by being more slender in shape than a pashmina)
not one but two perfect pairs of gloves—a heavy-duty, super-warm pair and a lightweight purple leather set.
Which reminds me how hacked off I was to lose one of the heavy duty duo in January—and must make a note to myself to buy the perfect replacement pair. I’ve learnt that’s harder than it sounds. Who knew such things would become so important to me?
And then there’s the bag. My handbag grew exponentially into a “tote” during my first few years in London, becoming big enough to stuff in one or any combination of this trio as I climbed up/down Tube escalators, entered offices and interview rooms, got on and off buses and hugged friends in the doorways of their toasty digs.
Thank goodness other essentials—phones, umbrellas, (e)books—have gotten smaller.
“Bring something warm—if it’s dry we’ll be sitting outside!”
But when I am at home and the climate is just my own again, slippers and cozy throws abound, whether I’m curled up on the couch in the lounge room, cooking up a frenzy in the kitchen or tucked under the duvet in my bedroom. The heating does get turned on but only when a jumper just isn’t enough.
I am famous (or infamous?) for invitations tagged with “bring something warm—if it’s dry we’ll be sitting outside.” Guests laugh knowingly and remark about taking the girl out of Australia and all of that.
But baby, when it’s cold outside, quite frankly you should already know the drill:
Put a bl**dy jumper on!
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Thanks, Kym, for that impassioned account of what it’s like for an Aussie to live in the midst of limeys who’d prefer to moan about the cold instead of taking practical measures. And speaking of whingeing limeys, you’ve given us Yanks yet another reason to feel pleased that we declared our independence from Britain on this day 237 years ago!
Born and raised in Melbourne, Kym Hamer has worked in London in sales and marketing for nearly ten years. She writes the popular blog Gidday from the UK. Also follow Kym on Twitter: @giddayfromtheuk.
STAY TUNED for next week’s series of posts—and a Happy 4th of July Weekend, meanwhile, to US-based readers!
Chic: it’s the je ne sais quoi element of style. It’s hard to pin down, but you know it when you see it: Jackie Kennedy had it; the Kardashians not so much.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines chic as:
“Elegantly and stylishly fashionable.”
while Urban Dictionary’s most popular definition is:
“A classy, sophisticated manner, much like Audrey Hepburn. It is classy, glamorous, without being a pushover, and without being flashy. It’s an element of class.”
Not many of us can emulate the style of Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy, but as it’s desirable to be considered “chic”, sub-definitions have sprung up. Eco Chic, for example, means wearing eco-friendly fabrics such as organic cotton. Other types of chic are, frankly, oxymoronic. Heroin chic, with sunken cheeks and dark circles under the eyes? Prairie chic, with flat caps, and aprons over jeans? Would Jackie and Audrey have endorsed these looks, and if so, would these ladies still bear the tag of “chic”?
But no matter. It seems that any look can be “chic” merely by using the word as a suffix.
So today we’re bringing you a list of chics as they relate to the international traveller. Some are genuine, the invention of fashion designers and stylists. Others are homegrown; variations of Displaced Nation Chic.
The title of a 2006 article by Times fashion editor Lisa Armstrong, Beach Chic is the class of accessories to be worn with a bikini, such as kaftan, hat, and fake tan — subtle, of course, so as not to make the wearer look like a WAG.*
*Wife or Girlfriend of footballer. Most of them seem to have missed the memo about trying to be like Audrey Hepburn after her transformation by Professor Higgins, rather than before.
That interim look after your luggage failed to make its way to the baggage reclaim carousel and instead is taking a 10,000 mile detour. A combination of making do with whatever emergency items you had packed in your hand luggage — if you were smart, you’d at least have put some spare underwear in there — plus hurriedly bought clothes at a local, cut price store. Colors you wouldn’t normally choose, styles that aren’t as flattering or well-fitting as those currently in your wanderlusting suitcase. T-shirts that run and shrink in the wash. Shoes that skin the backs of your heels because they didn’t have exactly your size, but never mind — it’s only for three days, isn’t it?
First Class Chic
Based on the sleep outfits issued in the first class section of flights. Baggy pyjamas that are too wide and too short. Towelling slippers that are too long or too short, but always too wide. For maximum effect, when putting these items of clothing on, place a kitchen chair in a shower cubicle, shut the shower door, and get changed in there.
Named after the British seaside tradition of souvenir hats, Kiss-Me-Quick Chic involves anything with a place name on it. Hats, mugs, cushions, T-shirts, teddy bears, umbrellas, towels, tote bags, dinner services. Not only your person, but your entire home can be chic in this style.
Marzahn Chic, AKA Lichtenberg Chic
I found this on Wiki, and am not convinced the writer isn’t having a joke:
“Refers to the clothing style seen in some eastern and northern parts of Germany. It is composed of sweatpants or tracksuits, basecaps and running shoes. Commonly in bright colors like neon pink or yellow.”
The style of a certain age in busy tourist attractions. Nikon cameras slung around necks, with shiny tracksuits (unisex), slightly short, beige trousers and short-sleeved checked shirt (men), or pastel polyester trousers — preferably peach or aqua — and crocheted or loose-knit top. All-white, brand new Reeboks are mandatory.
Anything to do with Paris. You can have Parisian Chic even if you’re not French. Kristin Scott Thomas lives in Paris, and apparently she has it. Beware of crossing into the Kiss-Me-Quick genre, though. Eiffel Tower necklaces, for example, unless they’re Tiffany (yes, Tiffany does one) in which case you might be able to pass them off as Rich Girl Chic.
The-shipment-just-arrived look. Upturned packing cases making do as bedside tables and coffee tables. Cardboard wardrobes holding all your clothes because this house has no closets. Because of its recycling nature, Relo Chic is a close relative of Eco Chic.
And lastly — with apologies to ML Awanohara —
Seen The Elephant Chic
Kind of like Kiss-Me-Quick Chic, but more subtle. It tells visitors to your house that you’re a traveller, without (literally) spelling it out. African masks on the walls, miniature Buddhas, wall-hanging prayer rugs. The beauty of this chic is you can have it without actually travelling. A quick visit to the Amazon (website, not river) should do the trick.
I didn’t think seriously about fashion and beauty until I, an American East Coaster, became a resident of two small islands: Britain and then Japan.
Both London and Tokyo are fashion capitals, and living in each of these cities, I found that every so often I really enjoy thinking about striking clothing combinations, make-up, and self-pampering.
Would I have discovered this love of what America’s Puritan founders would call frivolity had I stayed in this country? It’s conceivable, especially if I’d moved to New York City, where I now live as a repatriate. (NOTE: While I do not have Puritan ancestry, I was raised to be a bluestocking, not a girl in rhinestone-studded pantyhose.)
But in the event, I discovered fashion and beauty through my travels — and from learning about how women in other countries clothe and groom themselves.
So what, you may ask, were my key take-aways from this relatively speaking decadent period of my life? No specific beauty products or fashions, but these five guiding principles:
1) To get an English rose (or any other perfect) complexion, you have to be born with it. Nevertheless, skin care is worth it.
As a Caucasian woman, one of my beauty ideals was that of the English rose: a woman with flawless porcelain skin and rosy cheeks that look as though they’ve been produced by good bracing walks in the countryside wearing sensible shoes and tweed skirts.
When I first moved to England and encountered some actual English Roses, I wondered: is it because of the climate, the cosmetics from Boots the Chemist, the diet? (How do I get me one of those?)
My research soon revealed that diet has nothing to do with it. Not in a country where people grow up eating chips and crisps.
And as nice as the No7 products are, they can’t work miracles.
So maybe a glowing appearance is the result of England’s unique climatic conditions: a paucity of direct sunlight and the moisturizing drizzle that almost always seems to be in the air?
I hardly think that can be the case, as there are plenty of Britons with problem skin…
Trying not to turn pea green with envy (hardly a flattering shade!), I could come to only one conclusion: you have to be born with it.
But, not to despair! Once I reached Japan, where women are obsessed with their skin — some even use whitening lotions to obtain a creamier complexion — I learned that of all the things you can do for beauty, skin care is the most worthwhile.
Ladies, if you protect your skin, you might find yourself turning into an English Rose when you get a bit older — the Last Rose of Summer, so to speak. While some may swear by Crème de la Mer, I go with the regime I picked up in Japan: sunscreen, a hat and a parasol.
I’d also recommend befriending your dermatologist, who knows a lot more about skin care and sun protection than the woman behind the cosmetics counter…
2) Don’t be afraid of experimenting with your hair: it can add some spice and life to your image.
In the UK one of my English rose-complexioned friends favored a chic bob — but with a streak of blue, green or red in it.
As an American fresh off the boat, I was rather scandalized. Why was she ruining a perfectly good hairstyle?
Over time, however, I came to realize that when you live in a country where skies are often the color of lead, adding a bright color to a strand of hair can brighten up your day.
By the time I left England, I could no longer understand why any woman, once she reached maturity, wouldn’t dye or highlight her hair. She doesn’t know the fun she’s missing out on! And, even though I have yet to streak my hair in an outrageous color, it’s definitely on my bucket list.
In Japan, too, I got some kicks from playing with my hair — this time, by adorning it with the kinds of hair ornaments that have been popular since the times when women wore kimono and kanzashi: combs, hair sticks and pins, hair bands, and fancy barrettes.
I did not have particularly long hair when I first reached Japan, but as long hair is the signature of Japanese ladies — and they were my new role models — I soon had locks long enough to make the most of such accessories. My favorite was the snood — I had one that was attached to a barrette covered with a bow. What a great way to keep long hair out of one’s face.
3) Gemstones and pearls are a girl’s best friend.
Sorry, Marilyn dear, but after living in the UK and Japan, my BFFs are gemstones and pearls. Is this because I went to England in the era of Princess Diana, with her (now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat sapphire ring?
My relationship with colored gemstones only deepened after I moved to Japan and went on several sojourns into Southeast Asia, land of rubies and sapphires, among others.
My engagement ring is a ruby (purchased by my hubby in Tokyo!).
In Japan itself, I fell for pearls and now have quite the collection of necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets, mostly from Wally Yonamine’s in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. The owner, Jane, wife of Wally (a professional baseball player who played with the Yomiuri Giants) is a displaced Japanese Hawaiian.
4) Youth is the time to have fun with fashion.
In the UK, I was taken in by the spectacle of punk and post-punk kids and their strange fashions, while in Japan I found it mesmerizing to watch the Lolita fashions of the Harajuku kids, on a Sunday afternoon.
Eventually, instead of thinking they were weird, I regretted never having had my own equivalent of wearing Doc Martens with a Laura Ashley dresses … sporting long, back-combed hair, pale skin, dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, black nail varnish, along with a spiked bracelet and dog-collar … dressing up like a Victorian boy …
It just wasn’t the done thing, in my stiff, conservative American circles, to wear outlandish garb. And now it’s too late, of course. Youth is the time when you can get away with it. After that, you have to wait for Halloween. (Unless, of course, you want to come across as “mutton dressed as lamb,” as the English say…)
5) Last but not least, my top beauty tip, reinforced by both of these countries: A bath is much preferable to a shower.
At the beginning of living in England, I missed the American shower so much. I was convinced I would never be clean again. But then one day I woke up and realized I’d been brainwashed into believing I needed to have a shower every day. In fact, daily showers dry out the skin. As one dermatologist puts it:
Most people wash far too much. Using piping-hot water combined with harsh soaps can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.
That was around the same time I opened my mind to the possibility that baths — which tend to be favored over showers in the UK (at least in my day) — might actually be preferable. Nothing like a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a book, my English friends would say. Or, as one British beauty site puts it:
A nice bubble bath is the closest you can come to having a spa-like relaxing experience in your own home, without much effort or without spending a lot of money.
Too true! Plus the English shops sell such wonderful bubble bath creams. My favorite was the Perlier Honey Miel (actually from Italy).
Still, I didn’t mind giving all of that up once I reached Tokyo — not the bathing but the bubbles. In the land of the communal bath, you scrub the skin first and then have a long soak in clean hot water, in a tub (ofuro) that is deep rather than long.
Indeed, Japan was where I learned the benefits of exfoliation: I ended up sloughing off dry skin from parts of my body I didn’t know existed. And then the immersion in clean hot water: bliss! Like returning to the womb…
For a Japanese who works long hours, bathing is a sacred time, a ritual. While I haven’t quite converted that far, I have a Pavlovian reaction every time I hear bath water running. Time to go into Total Relax Mode!
I even have a Japanese bath here in my apartment in NYC, and the thought of sitting in it is what keeps me going … That said, I must confess that I sometimes put bubbles in. What can I say? I’m displaced.
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So, readers, what do you make of my five beauty principles? Have you picked up any of your own in the countries where you live? I’m all ears — only please excuse me for a minute while I make sure the bath water isn’t running over. (I don’t want my downstairs neighbors knocking on my door at 3:00 a.m.!)
It’s March, a month when residents of the Displaced Nation turn to fashion ideas, beauty tips and other frivolities we’ve gathered from our travels. To kick off the discussion, we’re delighted to have Georgia Campello as today’s guest. She is married to our newest contributor, Andy Martin — and apparently more qualified to comment on such topics than he. A Brazilian (the couple currently live in São Paulo), Georgia has also lived in Britain. How do the beauty and fashion standards compare?
— ML Awanohara
According to my humble observations of my home country (Brazil) and the country where I once lived as an expat (Britain), and trying not to generalize too far, I think it’s fair to say that Brazilian and British women possess somewhat different ideals of fashion and beauty.
Of course they do, I can hear you say. What can women who live in a country known for sunshine and beaches have in common with the female occupants of a rainy, overcast island? It doesn’t snow in Brazil (and in most places it doesn’t get cold at all), so you are not going to see many women in woolly hats, gloves and scarves. Similarly, women in the UK rarely appear in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops — except on the rare days when the sun suddenly shines.
Yet it’s also true that Britain and Brazil produce many of the world’s most famous beauties: Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Lily Cole; Gisele Bündchen, Alessandra Ambrosio and Adriana Lima.
And even on the level of the ordinary commoner in each of these countries — by that I mean, those of us who aren’t tall, size-zero goddesses — in my experience, we have similar everyday beauty routines: shower every day, shampoo/conditioner, moisturizer, some make-up, some sort of hair styling and off we go… (Is that not the case for most women?)
Have you had a Brazilian?
But hey, it is not that simple.
It seems that Brazilians have put a little more thought into it; at least regarding new procedures and technologies. What do you get before wearing a bikini? That’s right, a Brazilian. It’s even in the Oxford Dictionary!
Have you had a Britain? It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
It’s funny how adding this adjective attaches credibility to such a wide range of treatments. Maybe because Brazilian women are associated with beautiful, half-naked, sun-kissed, beach babes with gorgeous bodies dancing samba.
Well, sorry, guys; that is not the case for most of us.
The fakest of them all?
But I digress.
On the whole, most Brazilian women are indeed more concerned about the way they look and spend much more time/effort/money than most British women do on changing their looks rather than enhancing their natural assets. While women in Britain may flirt with the idea of changing their looks to something other than what they were born with, in my native country they go a little further. Brazil is in the Top Three for plastic surgeries, whereas the UK is 17th.
And you don’t even have to go under the knife. It’s easy to find grown women in Brazil wearing braces to correct their teeth. Likewise, it’s hard to find a woman in Brazil who hasn’t changed her hair color and/or texture with some sort of chemical treatment. As a result, you can see a lot of blonde girls with straight hair all over the place, even when their complexion does little to favor this combination.
A UK equivalent might be the “Oompa Loompas” you see walking around with silly amounts of fake tan on their faces and bodies, or the women with so much make-up they look like they’re wearing masks.
At least we Brazilians have no need for a fake tan, thanks to our relentlessly hot and sunny climate. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to avoid the sun in this part of the world.
Call in the fashion police
For me the biggest difference in style relates to the price/availability of clothes. In the UK you have a choice depending on your budget: designer or High Street. People who don’t have much money can still be stylish as the High Street provides inexpensive knockoffs of the latest looks.
In Brazil, by contrast, clothes tend to be VERY expensive. The so-called popular stores are not cheap, and the quality of the garments they sell is rather poor.
Also, because we’re in the Southern hemisphere, European Fashion Weeks are showing autumn/winter collections while we are boiling at 30+ºC. By the time the latest seasonal styles arrive here, they feel outdated.
There are exceptions, of course, but I do regard British women as more stylish than us Brazilians.
Having said all that, I would caution against making too much of the differences between British and Brazilian women. In the end, most of us women, regardless of nationality, tend to enjoy looking and feeling good. And, as we all know, every woman has her own unique beauty or appeal — which at some level has little to do with her country of origin.
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Thanks, Georgia! Readers, any questions for her? Are you, too, sensitive to beauty and fashion differences between your country of origin and where you are living now (or have lived)? Please share in the comments!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, also on fashion and beauty.
Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!
When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.
It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.
I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.
Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees
A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)
Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…
Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.
Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)
Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)
It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.
Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?
WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!
1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers
This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:
1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia) SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.
2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden) SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.
3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton) SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
2) Best Foreign Displaced Film
This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:
1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes) SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.
2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila) SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:
[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch) SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:
The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
3) Most Displaced Director
This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:
1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:
Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.
2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:
Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress
This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:
1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:
His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.
[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.
[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.
2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.
3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
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Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Amore é gioia, amore é gelosia, amore é soffrire, amore é tenerezza, amore é calore. Amore sei tu! Is it any wonder that Italians always make the top-10 list whenever women are asked to rate the world’s best lovers? We are truly fortunate, then, in having the displaced author Estelle Jobson as today’s guest blogger. As you will see, this South African likens falling in love with an Italian man to feasting on a succulent artichoke — a rather curious analogy, to be sure, until one remembers that artichokes are cultivated in the Mediterranean. It is also a rather mysterious vegetable. How exactly do you eat it? As Jobson shows, it’s a matter of peeling off the outer petals, one at a time… We are also fortunate in that Signora Stella is giving away an autographed copy of the book she wrote on her Roman love story! Grazie mille, Signora! (Details below.)
— ML Awanohara
The first call to write about Italy came when I was ten. With a smudgy HB pencil, I outlined an epic in my lockable, pink diary. It was to be about an extended Italo-American family who would make it big selling tyres. The main character, Pia, was to be my age, torn (theatrically) between her Italian roots and her American life. There would be family dramas (dramatic!), cascades of curls (curly!), Virgin Maries (statues and exclamations), and a stout grandma overseeing boiling pots of pasta. The novel would be shot through with shouting, gesticulating, and emotional-blackmail-meets-amore.
This literary project was soon shelved on the grounds of inadequate content knowledge: I knew nothing of the tyre business and had exhausted my repertoire on Italians. So the plot was filed amongst my many “books to write one day”.
Loving the individual
What I did finish writing, in my thirties, is Finding Rome on the Map of Love, in which travel narrative meets love story. It is an autobiographical account of moving to Rome with an Italian man. It is about love radiating out from the heart of my Italo-South African couple, to love for a family, language, people, culture, and country. Just like the concentric rings within an artichoke. This happens in all relationships, however it is much more pronounced when the language, culture, and people are not those you grew up with. The rings within the artichoke make it very difficult to know which characteristic belongs to whom. Is it your beloved who is prone to interrupting others mid-speech? A family trait? Or that of the whole nation?
Just as Italians are sometimes drawn to the prudish, earnest, and ploddish Protestant way, so are we Anglo-Saxons drawn to their swaggering, flamboyant charm — and sometimes alarmingly cavalier approach to work. It threatens us to the core, yet opposites attract. And how! A part of us secretly longs to become the other. But since we can’t quite pull it off, the next best is to have them close to our hearts. Or better still, right in the bed. We say “Be mine.”
So the beloved in question — termed “the Meterosexual” for his dapper grooming — was in varied and bewitching ways the very opposite of what I grew up with. Unlike the wooden, roughly-hewn South African man, an Italian one may adore you, quite tangibly and vocally (poetically even), from head to toe. Because in his culture, your coiffure and your shoes are crucial. Core-shakingly so. The Meterosexual debated how I should do my hair for a job interview (“Hup? Down? No, hup. More professional!”) and set me straight on shoes that were an insult to an outfit. Certain footwear was actually banned from leaving the cupboard!
For a woman to have her appearance critiqued by a man, even an exquisitely stylish one, demands a certain thickness of skin.
But being South African, I had it.
Loving the family and culture
The next ring of artichoke love is that for your sweetheart’s family and culture. First I had la mamma pressing a hairdryer upon me lest I got a cervicale (the special Italian, wet-hair induced crick in the neck).
And soon thereafter, I was up against what felt like an entire nation (in this case, 60 million citizens) all clucking, fussing, and advising on health, the risk of catching a cold, and what food may be consumed at specific times of day, linked to its digestibility. This counsel was dispatched entirely unsolicited, but with tenderness.
Which is almost the same as love, isn’t it?
Italians regarded me, being Anglo-Saxon, as afflicted with a lumpishly undiscerning cultural palate. I was urged by strangers to read Dante Alighieri, listen to Vivaldi, and, above all, focus on what went into my mouth. The Meterosexual brought home gifts of emerald olive oil, popping with vitality, and parcels of pastries wrapped in a bow, popping with calories. His mother served me the Tuscan carciofini fritti (deep-fried artichokes). And his countryfolk served me regional cuisine, ubiquitous coffees, plus the unloseable gift: an ability to discern the superiority of mozzarella dibufala (female buffalo) over mucca (cow).
Loving a language
Further spirals of love lay in the process of gaining Italian language skills. Italian has delightful suffixes, to make words bigger, smaller, cosier, cuter, or nastier and uglier versions of themselves. This, to an English-speaker, is like playing Lego® with language.
With my ability to converse came a gradual adaptation to local ways. Although, truth be told, it’s easier to learn a foreign language than, for example, to wend your way successfully through the Italian national health system or to fathom the quasi-pagan fetishizing of the modern Catholic saint.
Loving the modus operandi
Living in Rome, I learned to ride a scooter in the city’s hair-raising traffic. This turned out to be a superbly transferable skill, relevant to many other Italian things, such as being honest. Telling the truth, the Italian way, is a flexible, savvy and self-preserving art. People lie with flair. In fact, it isn’t really lying at all, they explain. It’s being diplomatic, being furbo (smart). Banging your head against all this with rigid Protestant morals will only make your cranium ring. The Italians have taught me that blurting out the truth willy-nilly is ill-advised. It is gauche, hurts other people’s feelings, and counter-productive.
Now I know: one good lie deserves another.
Becoming the other
So it is that you start off in love with a foreign person and you end up assimilating their culture. Over time, some of the once-exotic features become yours and you may even lose bits of your cultural DNA, for lack of use (e.g., wearing ugly shoes). When I find myself using an Italian gesture or expression, because nothing else will do, I know I am no longer mimicking.
This is a moment of profound integration: deeper than love, more metaphysical than the first sip of the first cappuccino of the day. It will always be yours. It’s like becoming your own artichoke.
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Readers, I have a confession to make. I’ve always found the artichoke a bit intimidating. I’m not sure I’m any less intimidated after hearing what Estelle has to say — but thanks to her, I’m can now appreciate its succulent taste and tender heart. And I know I prefer it steamy!
I can imagine her dashing Roman metrosexual calling her not just Stella but mia stella polare — his polar star! (And how can I get me a pair of those cool red shoes?)
What about you? Are you eager to hear more about Estelle’s love adventure with an Italian, and with Italy itself?
Finding Rome on the Map of Love is an utterly enchanting and fabulously funny journey outwardly, into the city of Rome, but inwardly, Estelle bravely squares up her options in love and life. Her sharp eye investigates the real and the imagined and her inimitable voice always rings true. … [W]hile the focus is Rome, it is as much about being a stranger in a foreign country and the resourcefulness that is required to learn a language, understand the customs and become familiar with the ways of any new place.
You will adore this book; Estelle and her quirks will delight you, you’ll fall passionately in lust with the Eternal City and its people and be sad when it’s over. … Estelle’s writing skills will astonish you and you will ask, “Where has this writer been and why have I not heard of her?”
When I started reading Estelle Jobson’s observations on Italian culture, I felt I had run into an old friend on a common wavelength. Yes, me too!
Estelle Jobson is a very talented writer with a wonderful ear for the nuance and absurdity of language, and for the cross-culturally bizarre. … The book also boasts an extensive glossary that is bound to satisfy even the most pedantic of linguists.
And let’s not forget the back-cover blurb:
Estelle has an admirable career in publishing and a hectic, yet rich life. When her Italian diplomat boyfriend gets posted to Rome, she throws it all up to accompany him. There, she reinvents herself as Signora Stella, a casalinga (housewife) on the city’s highest hill, Monte Mario. Starting in autumn, she muses on life amongst the Italians and cycles through the seasons and sentiments of the Italian psyche. Signora Stella commences and ends at the same place: Follie, the local hairdresser run by Salvatore, a gay Neapolitan. This book captures a year’s worth of quirky, humorous, vivid observations about life amongst the Italians.
And now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPY!!! Simply leave a comment in answer to the question: **What has been your most entertaining experience with a cross-cultural relationship?**
Extra points for likening it to a vegetable; double the points if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!!!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on March 2, 2013.
NOTE: If you’re not the lucky winner but would still like a print copy, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Estelle Jobson has over a dozen years’ experience in book publishing and a Masters in Publishing from New York University which she attended on a Fulbright. She speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries; three years in Rome. She now lives in Geneva. To find out more about the book and follow its promotion, like the Finding Rome FB page. You can also follow Jobson on Twitter and read her occasional blog posts — for instance, this one on adopting Italian nationality, which she wrote for Novel Adventurers.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when we announce the films that have qualified for this year’s Displaced Oscars!
Expats and other world adventurers, let me guess. You have you spent the past week making resolutions about
staying positive about your new life in Country X;
indulging in less of the local stodge;
giving up the smoking habit that no one is nagging you about now that you’re so far away from home;
and/or taking advantage of travel opportunities within the region that may never come your way again
— while also knowing full well that at some point in the not-distant future, you’ll end up stuffing your face with marshmallows (metaphorically speaking).
Never mind, it happens to the best of us, as psychologist Walter Mischel — he of the marshmallow experiment — recently told Abby Hunstman of the Huffington Post. Apparently, it has something to do with the way impulses work in the brain. The key is to trick the brain by coming up with strategies to avoid the marshmallow or treat it as something else.
Today I’d like to propose something I found to be one of the most effective strategies for turning away from the marshmallows you’ve discovered in your new home abroad or, for more veteran expats, turning these marshmallows into something new and exotic. My advice is to find a mentor or a muse in your adopted land — someone who can teach you something new, or who inspires you by their example to try new things…
Trust me, if you choose the right mentor +/or muse, benefits like the following will soon accrue:
1) More exotic looks — and a book deal.
Back when I lived abroad, first in England and then in Japan, I was always studying other women for style and beauty tips. I made a muse of everyone from Princess Diana (I could hardly help it as her image was being constantly thrust in front of me) to the stewardesses I encountered on All Nippon Airways. Have you ever seen the film Fear and Trembling, based on the autobiographical novel of that name, by the oft-displaced Amélie Nothomb? On ANA flights, I behaved a little like the film’s young Belgian protagonist, Amélie, who secretly adulates her supervisor Miss Fubuki. I simply couldn’t believe the world contained such attractive women…
The pay-off came upon my repatriation to the US. With such a wide array of fashion and beauty influences, I’d begun to resemble Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence — with my Laura Ashley dresses, hair ornaments, strings of (real) pearls, and habit of bowing to everyone.
Is it any wonder my (Japanese) husband-to-be nicknamed me the Duchess? (Better than being the sheltered May Welland, surely?)
My one regret is that I didn’t parlay these style tips into a best-seller — unlike Jennifer Scott, one of the authors who was featured on TDN this past year. While studying in Paris, Scott was in a mentoring relationship with Madame Chic and Madame Bohemienne. (The former was the matriarch in her host family; the latter, in her boyfriend’s host family.) Mme C & Mme B took her under their wing and taught her everything she knows about personal style, preparation of food, home decor, entertaining, make-up, you name it…and is now imparting to others in her Simon & Schuster-published book.
2) More memorable dinner parties.
As mentioned in a previous post, I adopted actress and Indian cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey as my muse shortly after settling down in the UK. I was (still am) madly in love with her, her cookbooks, even her writing style.
And her recipes do me proud to this day.
Right before Christmas I threw a dinner party for 10 featuring beef cooked in yogurt and black pepper, black cod in a coriander marinade, and several of her vegetable dishes.
It was divine — if I say so myself! To be fair, the guests liked it, too…
3) Improved language skills.
Now the ideal mentor for an adult seeking to pick up a new foreign language is a boyfriend or girlfriend in the local culture — preferably one with gobs of patience. The Japanese have the perfect expression for it: iki jibiki, or walking dictionary.
After seeing the film Lost in Translation, I became an advocate for expats giving themselves intellectual challenges. Really, there’s no excuse for ennui of the sort displayed by Scarlett Johansson character, in a well-traveled life.
It was while living in the UK as a grad student that I discovered the extraordinary scholar-writer Marina Warner, who remains an inspiration to this day. Warner, who grew up in Brussels and Cambridge and was educated at convent school and Oxford University, is best known for her books on feminism and myth.
In her person, too, she is something of a goddess. Though I’d encountered women of formidable intellect before, I found her more appealing than most, I think because she wears her learning lightly and has an ethereal presence, like one of the original Muses.
Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes has written of her “incandescent intelligence and Apulian beauty” (she is half Italian, half English). The one time I met her — I asked her to sign my copy of her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Lost Father — I could see what he meant.
I was gobsmacked.
Major girl crush!
(Don’t have a girl crush? Get one! It will enrich your life immeasurably.)
5) Greater powers of mindfulness — and a book deal.
Third Culture Kid Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow but grew up and was educated in the US. She has started the new year by putting out a book with Viking entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Who would guess that a young Russian-born woman would use Conan Doyle’s fictional creations, Holmes and Watson, as her muses? But, as she explains in a recent article in Slate, she has learned everything she knows about the art of mindfulness from that master British sleuth:
Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe those details that most of us don’t even realize we don’t see.
So moved is she by Holmes’s example — and so frustrated by her own, much more limited observational powers — Konnikova does the boldest of all thought experiments: she gives up the Internet…
So does her physiological and emotional well-being improve as a result? Does her mind stop wandering away from the present? Does she become happier? I won’t give it away lest you would like to make Konnikova this year’s muse and invest in her book. Hint: If you do, we may not see you here for a while. 😦
6) The confidence to travel on your own.
We expats tend to be a little less intrepid than the average global wanderer: we’re a little too attached to our creature comforts and may need a kick to become more adventuresome. But even avid travelers sometimes lose their courage, as Amy Baker recently reported in a post for Vagabondish. She recounts the first time she met a Swedish solo traveler in Morocco, who had lived on her own in Zimbabwe for 10 years. This Swede is now her friend — and muse:
She was level-headed, organized and fiercely independent — all characteristics that I aim to embody as a female traveler.
With this “fearless Swedish warrior woman” in mind, Amy started venturing out on her lonesome — and hasn’t looked back.
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Readers, the above is not intended as an exhaustive list as I’m hoping you can contribute your own experiences with mentors and muses abroad: What do you do to avoid the “marshmallows” of the (too?) well-traveled life? Who have you met that has inspired you to new creative, intellectual, or travel heights? Please let us know in the comments. In the meantime, I wish you a happy, healthy — and most of all, intellectually stimulating — new year!
Another in our series focusing on little moments of expat experience — moments that at the time seemed pifflingly insignificant.
As far as I can gather, the main advantage of Independence Day for many people seems to be the opportunity to dust off and wear that stars-and-stripes leather jacket that they bought back in 1979.
Wishing to get into the Independence Day spirit, it was clear that I also needing something “appropriate” to wear if I wanted to blend in successfully so I headed over to Target, a fine American corporation that would hopefully have even finer American clothing for me to purchase.
Finding the Target employee that looked the most patriotic — the telltale signs are a sensible haircut, good posture, and a strong jaw line — I asked where I might find the most patriotic T-shirts in store. Leading me to a selection of T-shirts featuring the stars and stripes, it was difficult for me to contain my disappointment with this somewhat anemic selection.
“Hmmm, do you have anything more patriotic?” I asked.
The patriotic youth seemed a little confused, a look that made him seem increasingly un-American.
“I was,” I said, “looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Something more OTT. I was kinda hoping you’d have one where Jesus is cradling the liberty bell while a bald eagle looks down approvingly?”
He just stared back at me. I’d been wrong about him. His jaw line was not as strong as I’d thought, his posture a little crooked, and his hair-style now I was closer was greasy and ostentatious.
“Why would we have that?” he sneered.
“Because you love this country — that’s why!”Though difficult, I tried to calm myself down and keep my temper in check. “Okay, have you got anything with a bald eagle in full flight in front of the stars and stripes, but, and this is the important bit, with a kick-ass explosion going on behind the flag? No? Nothing?”
“Have you tried Wal-Mart?”
I wandered off disappointed. This must have been how Benedict Arnold felt. You try and give this American lark a try, but you just end up getting kicked in the teeth. And that was when I saw the above little number, which I decided would from now on be my Independence Day T-shirt.
I must have been born with a melancholy nature, because it didn’t take me long to work out that we live in an imperfect world.
Imagine my discomfort, then, when I realized that many of the people who surrounded me in my nation of birth — my fellow Americans — were obsessed with having perfect teeth, perfect bodies and a perfect appearance during their brief time on this earth.
“What’s that about?” I thought to myself at a relatively early age (I was around 6, already on the way to driving my mother, an eternal optimist, crazy). “We’re all going to grow old and die regardless.”
By the time I reached adolescence, I decided that the need to be flawless was my birth nation’s fatal flaw. It was our best feature — hey, no one can deny how good we look flashing those orthodontically-enhanced smiles — but also our worst. The list is long of fabulously talented Americans who have perished in the pursuit of physical perfection.
That lists always begins with Marilyn Monroe — a pretty and bright young thing who ruthlessly remade herself into a sex symbol, and died at age 36. (Among other things, she got work done on her nose and chin to create her classic, timeless look.) And culminates in Michael Jackson, for whom it apparently wasn’t enough to be blessed with good looks and an extraordinary musical talent. No, the King of Pop felt compelled to have lots of plastic surgery — even if it meant destroying his career and himself.
Endearing little imperfections (England)
It’s a pity Marilyn and Michael were never offered the chance to study abroad in England, that’s all I can say. My prolonged stint as a graduate student at a British university soon cured me of any lingering fixations on fixing my looks.
Why bother when the people around you seem so oblivious? None of the Brits I knew seemed to mind that the politicians who were gracing their TV screens had funny eyebrows (cue Michael Heseltine), dowdy outfits (cue Shirley Williams) or speech impediments like rhotacism, pronouncing the sound r as w (cue the now-departed Roy Jenkins).
And not just politicians but also British actresses seemed much less interested than their American counterparts in their looks. On the contrary, such glamorous types appear to thrive on their imperfections — Kate Winslet proudly flaunting her curves, Helen Mirren daring to be sexy despite having wrinkles.
And now we have the English singer Adele (Laurie Blue Adkins), who is fond of saying things like: “Fans are encouraged that I’m not a size 0 — that you don’t have to look a certain way to do well.”
Have I mentioned teeth yet? An American journalist once complimented the comedian Ricky Gervais on being prepared to wear unflattering false teeth for his role as an English dentist in the film Ghost Town — only those were his real chompers! As Gervais told a BBC reporter:
He was horrified that I could have such horrible real teeth. It’s like the biggest difference between the Brits and the Americans, they are obsessed with perfect teeth.
Imperfection is perfection (Japan)
And then I reached my second small island, Japan, which I soon came to see as the Land of Melancholy — and hence as a kind of spiritual home for someone of my proclivities. I instantly appreciated the fact that Japanese revere the cherry blossom not so much for its beauty as for the brevity of that beauty. The blossom lasts just a few days before its petals scatter to the wind.
The Japanese aesthetic that attracts so many of us in the West is based on this notion of flawed beauty. We’re talking wabi-sabihere — the value derived from the Buddhist teaching on life’s impermanence. Wabi-sabi stands in stark contrast to the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection found in many Western countries. (Hey, those Greeks have a lot to answer for, besides their spendthrift ways!)
A good example is the tea ceremonybowl: not quite symmetrical, rough in texture, and often deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. You turn it around slowly to appreciate its hidden beauty, a kind of diamond in the rough…
And did I mention teeth yet? Japan is the land of REALLY crooked teeth. Even some young girls who don’t have crooked teeth apparently are asking their dentists to give them a fang-like yaeba (snaggletooth) as they think it’s charming to be imperfect. Japanese celebrities too, are imperfectly perfect.
Don’t overcultivate your garden
On the face of it, the English cottage garden has very little in common with the Japanese garden — the former full of flowers and exuberance, the latter much more subdued and restrained.
But I think they are alike in one important respect: both embrace imperfection. As California horticulturalist and lover of English gardens Mary Lou Heard once said:
The thing about a cottage garden is that it is not perfect. It is not a sterile place; there is always a lot happening and changing.
Not sterile — I like that. It means that something is breathing, growing, alive…and probably imperfect. To my way of thinking, as informed by my long expat life, a row of perfect brilliant white teeth looks a bit like a row of tomb stones, and a facelifted face, like a death mask.
A Japanese garden celebrates imperfection as well — but by using elements that have a natural, rough finish. If the garden features a wooden bridge, for example, it will be made of planks of different sizes, and the wood itself will have crooked edges or knobs.
For the Japanese, the point is not to restructure reality but to embrace its quirks. That’s why they’d rather see pile of rocks in different colors and sizes than a statue surrounded by carefully landscaped bushes.
As I mentioned in my first post in the series, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” repatriating to the United States has been a feat of Olympian proportions. Clearly I left it a little too long! But at least I stayed away for long enough that, upon coming home again, I have conquered the part of me that says I must always be striving for physical perfection. I no longer fear looking imperfect.
Thus, while my countrymen and women engage in excessive exercising, crash dieting, and surgical enhancements, I am free to sit back and enjoy the beautiful — precisely because it is imperfect — world we live in.
This means I’m not keeping up with the Kardashians. And for a long time, I assumed Mitt Romney was from central casting, not an actual presidential candidate. (I understand he has a problem of coming across as real enough, even among mainstream Americans, which is saying a lot. If I were his image consultant, I’d suggest growing his eyebrows to look more like those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Now that would give him some character.)
If you are a fellow American and are reading this, I suggest that you, too, try weaning yourself off our nation’s physical-perfection kick. Here are a few scenarios close to some I’ve experienced, with pointers on appropriate responses:
1 — The dentist says that in his opinion, you’d look a lot better with straight teeth. Keep calm and inform him that you’ve learned to enjoy nature’s little imperfections. If he persists, then say you were actually thinking of getting a snaggletooth, and does he happen to have any expertise in that area? If not, then whip out a photo of Ricky Gervais’s fangs to show him. (Notably, I did not take my own advice on this. Shortly I returned to the Land of the Straight Teeth, I succumbed to my dentist’s suggestion that I get braces again!)
2 — A woman stops you on the subway to point out you have a run in your stockings, or a work colleague comes up to you to tuck in the label hanging out the back of your blouse. Keep calm and tell them you’ve learned to appreciate life’s little imperfections, and they, too, may wish to get some wabi-sabi in their lives.
3 — You’re picking a mini-labradoodle puppy, and your husband wants to get the one that looks “normal,” but you like the one whose markings have asymmetry, because of her parti-colored poodle father. Keep calm and instruct your husband that the one with the strange spots is much more beautiful, and that one day people will make offers to take her away from you. (True story — my imperfect dog is perfection itself! And no, that is not her in the photo…)
* * *
So, tell me: does any of this make sense, or has living abroad for so long rendered me totally bonkers?!
STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, another in our new “Expat Moments” series, by Anthony Windram.
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