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Tag Archives: Intellectual stimulation

Is it cooler to be married to someone from another country? Yes, particularly if they’re Brazilian!

Is it cooler being married to someone from another country? In my experience, it’s often everyone else who seems to think so, although maybe that’s because I happen to be married to someone from a country whose people are perennially voted the coolest nationality on the planet.

Typically, as soon as I mention that I’m married to a Brazilian the almost universal reaction is:

“Cool! I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil!”

Such reactions inevitably tend to be informed by the idealized images most people have about Brazil and Brazilians:

  • Carnaval
  • Samba
  • Football
  • Exotic beaches frequented by beautiful people wearing minuscule pieces of beach attire.

Brazil is, of course, far more complex than this. It’s as equally well-known for its

  • Favelas
  • Drugs
  • Gang violence
  • And…errr…films about favelas, drugs and gang violence.

Naturally though, people tend to assume that I probably haven’t married a gun-wielding, drug-pusher from the favelas, and so it’s the cool, beach-loving Brazilians they tend to envisage whenever I mention my marital status.

So, in everyone else’s eyes at least, my story of marrying the Brazilian girl I met in Argentina is way cooler than that about the girl they met in their local boozer in London.

And to be fair, it is a pretty cool story.

Cool as in mind-expanding

Yes, the samba, the beaches and the football (especially the football!) make life exciting, but what’s even cooler is that marriage to a Brazilian woman has been a life-changer — in a good way. For instance:

1) My horizons have been broadened immeasurably.
I’ve learned to view things through the eyes of someone who’s experienced them within another country and culture. Thus, things you may have previously found exotic, unusual or irrational become familiar, normal and logical.

2) I now see “cultural differences” in a positive light.
True, cultural differences have the potential to make a relationship fractious. But in our case, these cultural differences help to fill in certain gaps that we’d always looked for in the people we’d dated.

As a self-conscious Brit (British stereotype No 1: tick), I find it appealing to have a naturally sociable and confident wife (Brazilian stereotype No 1: tick), who is able to take control of social situations in which I’d otherwise feel uncomfortable. Her effortless sociability is the perfect counterbalance to my stuttering inability to engage in anything other than mindless small talk with most strangers.

By the same token, she appears to have found it a pleasant surprise to encounter a man who was a little less “forward” than what she had been used to in Brazil.

That, and the fact that I was the only man she’d ever met who could cook, I imagine.

3) I also think that cultural differences are often overdone.
Despite the perceived and real differences between our countries and cultures, there are occasions when I realize that in many ways, my wife and I aren’t all that different. As a football geek, I’ve found my wife’s interest in watching football one of life’s great blessings (Brazilian stereotype No. 2: tick; British stereotype No. 2: tick). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come home to find her watching a game on the telly.

Cool as in constant adventure

Another cool thing about marrying someone from another country is that life becomes more adventurous — at times rather literally. For example:

1) I’ve had the opportunity to learn and explore a culture and country with what effectively amounts to having a free tour guide.
And, let’s face it, where would you rather go when you have to go and visit the in-laws: Brazil or another boring town in England?

2) I’ve now embarked on the adventure of learning another language.
This is something I’d always wanted to do but was too lazy. Also, language schooling is pretty appalling in the UK — I can barely remember any of the French of German that I learnt all those years ago.

Whilst it’s still a work in progress, my Portuguese is now at least functional — and improving everyday.

3) I’ve been able to do something I always wanted to do, live abroad.
Indeed, my language learning has been significantly aided by our recent relocation from London to São Paulo. Would I have done this without my wife? Maybe not, because of circumstances and/or apprehension of moving countries on my own. For me, the option to live in Brazil was instantly made more manageable by my wife being from the country we moved to — my own personal relocation advisor if you will. As explained it my Random Nomad interview, it makes me feel a lot less displaced.

But, not always as cool as it sounds

However, despite how cool all this sounds it’s not to say that marrying someone from another country doesn’t come without its own particular challenges. Here are two that really stand out for me:

1) The early days weren’t easy.
Once we’d both returned home, following what was effectively a holiday romance, there was the little issue of us both living in different continents — a mere 6,000 miles apart.

And then, once we’d decided to give the whole (very) long-distance relationship a go, there was the feeling, similar to the one expressed by fellow Brit James Murray in his column last month, that the few weeks here and there we occasionally managed to spend together consisted mainly of getting re-acclimatized, rather than enjoying each other’s company.

And, of course, there were the usual issues that complicate long-distance relationships: loneliness, uncertainty, jealousy, lack of communication, etc. Fortunately, we had the Internet — a relationship like ours would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.

2) UK immigration laws — need I say more?
When my wife made the crunch decision to move to the UK, there was the added complication of the navigating a Kafka-esque immigration system that does its best to keep out anyone deemed to be from a “developing country.” Four years, various visa refusals, threats of deportation and thousands of pounds later, my wife was finally able to settle her status permanently in the UK.

Rather ironically, as soon as she received permanent status, we scarpered from the economic crisis in Europe to the relative calm in Brazil — where they’ve been far happier to accept me as a resident.

But hey! That’s pretty cool, too.

* * *

Readers, having witnessed Andy’s valentine to his Brazilian wife, what do you think? Are you in a cross-cultural relationship and if so, do you perceive similar benefits? Or are you more jaded than he is — suspecting that the challenges can outweigh the benefits once the “cool factor” wears off? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when a Random Nomad with a finely-tuned sense of romance joins us!

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The 10 Muses of Expat & International Adventure Writing and their 5 most popular tunes

10 muses collageGreetings, Displaced Nation-ers! Ready for a little more intellectual stimulation?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Great Thinkers who can help with task of embracing the well-traveled life and teasing out its deeper meaning, in the new year.

And today I will address the needs of those who have resolved to tackle a major writing project in 2013.

It’s a well-known fact that many of us who live in foreign lands aspire to write novels, memoirs and travelogues about our overseas adventures. But many of us also live in isolated situations (by definition).

So who can aid us, provide our inspiration?

Why, the muses of course!

Tell us, O muses, how to tell our stories…

And we don’t even have to look heavenwards to invoke them! The 10 Muses (that’s one more than the ancients got!) of Expat and International Travel Writing are right in our midst. They have already shared the joys, wonders and value of writing with Displaced Nation readers:

  1. Barbara Conelli, author of the Chique Travel Book series, filled with the charm, beauty, secrets and passion of Italy…
  2. Martin Crosbie, who is writing a trilogy entitled My Temporary Life; in December of last year, he published Book Two: My Name Is Hardly.
  3. Helena Halme, author of the novel The Englishman (2012)
  4. Laura Graham, author of the novel Down a Tuscan Alley (2011)
  5. Matt Krause, author of the memoir A Tight Wide-open Space: Finding love in a Muslim land (2011)
  6. Meagan Adele Lopez, author of the novel Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (2011)
  7. Edith McClintock, author of the mystery novel Monkey Love and Murder (2013)
  8. Alexander McNabb, who is writing the Levant Cycle, a trilogy of books about the Middle East; he released the second book, Beirut — An Explosive Thriller, last September.
  9. Tony James Slater, erstwhile regular at the Displaced Nation and author of a two-book series: The Bear That Ate My Pants: Adventures of a real idiot abroad (2011) and Don’t Need the Whole Dog!, which came out in December.
  10. Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, author of Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband (2011) and of several novels that explore cross-cultural themes between the United States and Japan.

Over the past year on our site, if you were listening closely, these heaven-sent muses were singing a number of tunes. Here are their five top hits:

SONG #1: “Yes, it’s hard; yes it’s uphill. But you’re living the dream, which makes writing a thrill!”

In one of the Displaced Nation’s most popular posts of the past year, Tony James Slater tried to make it out that the life of an expat writer is far from glamorous. Don’t believe him. He was pulling your leg, as usual — or singing off key, to continue the metaphor.

Alexander McNabb has the more accurate rendition. Here’s his account of the prep for his latest thriller, Beirut:

While writing it, I spent hours walking around the city, along the curving corniche and up into the busy streets that cling to the foothills rising from the coast up to the snow-capped mountains. Walking with friends, walking alone — day and night, spring and summer. From the maze of funky little bars of Hamra to the boutiques of Verdun, from the spicy Armenian groceries of Bourj Hammoud to the cafés overlooking the famous rocks at Raouché…

Barbara Conelli is another inspirational example. She explores every nook and cranny of Milan so as to take the reader on an armchair journey. And now she is doing the same with Rome, which will be the subject of her third book in the Chique Travel series.

Great work, if you can get it!

SONG #2: “It’s time to make your creative debut — so why not make it all about you?”

These days it’s hard to tell the difference between a heavily autobiographical novel and a memoir, though one of our muses, Helena Halme, insists that there is a distinction. When questioned about her decision to write The Englishman as a novel — it’s about a young Finnish woman, Kaisa, who meets a dashing British naval officer, a plot that echoes very closely her own life story — she had the following to say:

I tried to write a memoir, but couldn’t! Much of this story is, however, true — but I didn’t think I could call it a memoir as some things were pure fiction. I am a novelist and just keep making stories up.

Hmmm… By that reckoning, perhaps Tony James Slater should be a novelist, too? As regular readers of this blog will know, his favorite topic consists of his own, rather daring but also bumbling, world adventures.

But did a bear really eat his pants, or is he exaggerating for comic effect?

The mind boggles…

But whatever the form, the point is that quite a few of our muses have found plenty of material in their own life experiences. Besides Halme and Slater, we have

  • Martin Crosbie: His protagonist, Malcolm, leaves Scotland for Canada at a formative age, just as he did.
  • Laura Graham: Her protagonist, Lorri, arrives in Italy as a forty-something single and finds a younger Italian man, just as she did.
  • Matt Krause: He has written a memoir on the portion of his life that involved meeting a Turkish woman on a plane and following her back to Turkey. (Reader, he married her!)
  • Meagan Adele Lopez: The protagonist of her debut novel, Del, is offered three questions by her British fiancé (just as Lopez was offered three questions by hers).
  • Edith McClintock: Her protagonist, Emma, works as a researcher in the very Amazonian rainforest where she once conducted her own research.

To conclude, the old adage is alive and well, even (especially?) in expat and travel writing: “Write about what you know and care for…”

SONG #3: “Looking for inspiration from above? The answer lies in cross-cultural love.”

Another theme running through the works of several of our muses is the love that takes place across cultures, usually resulting in marriage. I just now referred to the cross-cultural love stories at the heart of the books produced by Helena Halme (Finnish woman, English man), Laura Graham (Englishwoman, Italian man), Matt Krause (American man, Turkish woman) and Meagan Adele Lopez (American woman, Scotsman).

To this list should be added Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, who has written about Western women getting involved with Japanese men — one of the stranger of all possible unions, to be sure! 😉 — in both fiction and nonfiction (the latter being a bit of a self-help book).

SONG #4: “As your brainstorming proceeds apace, never forget the appeal of place.”

Since travel is a constant for all of us, it should come as no surprise that particular places can become a pull for certain expat writers. They cannot rest until they’ve depicted a place they’ve experienced so that others can live vicariously. Several of our muses represent this principle:

  • Barbara Conelli and her love for “capricious, unpredictable” Milan. To quote from her book: “When the streets of Milan ask you to dance, there’s nothing else to do but put on your ballet shoes and surrender…”
  • Alexander McNabb and his obsession with Beirut. “There can be few places on earth so sexy, dark, cosmopolitan and brittle…,” he writes in his Displaced Nation post.
  • Edith McClintock and her preoccupation with the rainforest and a place called Raleighvallen in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. As her main character, Emma, says:

    I fell completely and irretrievably in love with the rainforest that week — the deep rich smells of dirt and decay and teeming, thriving life; the warm soft light of the rocky moss-covered paths hidden beneath layers of climbing and tumbling lianas and roots; soaring tree trunks wrapped in colorful bromeliads, orchids, moss, and lichens; and the canopy of leaves of every conceivable size and shape….

SONG #5: “Growing weary of fruitless writing sessions? Time to take some acting lessons!”

Four of our ten muses could double as the muses of acting and entertainment:

  • Tony James Slater and Meagan Adele Lopez trained as actors (Lopez actually starred in a bad horror film!) before embarking on their world travels.
  • Laura Graham enjoyed a long career as a stage actress in Britain, working for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic, and on television, before setting herself up as an expat in Tuscany.
  • Wendy Nelson Tokunaga first went to Japan because she won a prize in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. She is an accomplished karaoke artist who can sing jazz as well as j-pop and enka, a type of sentimental ballad.

Why are so many of the Muses of Expat Writing multi-talented, you may ask? Does a former acting/singing career work to one’s advantage when it comes to overseas travel and writing? I like to think so.

Just as Dickens used to act out the dialogue of his characters, I like to think of Tony James Slater reenacting his wild adventures on the road, in the confines of his flat in Perth…

And sometimes this versatility can add a further dimension to the writing. Last we heard from Lopez, she had created a trailer for her book and was trying to convert it to a screenplay. Tokunaga composed and sang an enka to accompany her novel Love in Translation. (It’s impressive!)

Plus these four could always hew to the tradition of wandering minstrel, one of the oldest careers in the book, if their works don’t sell. (Hey, it’s never a bad idea to have a fallback option when you’re a long ways away from family and friends…)

* * *

So, writers out there, did our 10 Muses sing to you? And will you listen to some of their songs again as you face the blank page in 2013? Let me know in the comments. (Only, be careful of criticizing the Muses — they have been known to be vengeful!)

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

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Images: Our Ten Muses (left to right, top to bottom) — Edith McClintock, Barbara Conelli, Tony James Slater; Laura Graham, Martin Crosbie, Helena Halme, Alexander McNabb; Meagan Adele Lopez, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Matt Krause.

A once-displaced author on muses, monkeys & murder — and your chance to win her new book!

EdithmcclintockOur first featured author of the new year, Edith McClintock, is today’s guest. Her post should help to alleviate the January doldrums and this “brass monkey” weather. By way of introduction, I should point out that even though she does write mysteries, she herself is a bit of a mystery. Tee hee-hee ha-ha! On the one hand, she is a former Peace Corps worker, and has worked to preserve rainforests. On the other, she has harbored dreams of killing off her fellow researchers in the Amazon! Indeed, working with Edith sounds about as much fun as a barrel of monkeys! But let’s find out more about her creative muses, shall we, before leaping to any conclusions…

— ML Awanohara

I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided to write a novel. The idea percolated for years starting in my early teens. I did, however, always know — to the extent I even understood book categories, which was not much — that my first book would be a mystery, heavy on romantic suspense, and definitely a touch gothic.

Maybe a modern-day version of M.M. Kaye’s light mysteries (before she wrote The Far Pavilions), each set in an exotic locale.

And maybe a little Barbara Michaels mixed with Elizabeth Peters’ humor.

They were all early muses.

But so was travel. I knew the setting would have to be international, exotic…romantic. I wanted my characters to be trapped in a confined setting — like the best Agatha Christie.

From my first trip to Spain when I was thirteen, across Europe and Central and South America in my twenties, I contemplated castles, ruins, plunging cliffs, and remote islands based on their novelistic setting potential.

We are not aMUSEd: “Writing is hard”

But I needed more than a muse to write a book. I needed an obsession. For me, that’s the only way it could have happened, because writing Monkey Love and Murder was hard. Writing is hard. The rejection was crushing.

I cried. My sister cried. The rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again often felt meaningless. More sacrifice than joy. Sometimes exhilarating. More often tedious and lonely.

The truth is the time lost probably wasn’t worth it. I had demanding, more than full-time jobs. I wrote on weekends and evenings. My friends and family were celebrating, playing, gathering, the sun shining. I was hunched over a computer screen talking to my make-believe world.

It takes a certain arrogance to believe you can even write a book. To believe it will get published. To believe people will actually like it. Maybe love it. I had that in the beginning. For years, really. I had to love the idea, the place, the characters.

The place as muse

Because it took an obsession to keep writing and rewriting, in my case probably much longer than I should have. But it wasn’t a person that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. My muse, my obsession, was the rainforest and a place called Raleighvallen in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve.

MonkeyLoveAndMurder_dropshadowI think my protagonist, Emma, expresses it best:

Even with all the frustrations, I fell completely and irretrievably in love with the rainforest that week — the deep rich smells of dirt and decay and teeming, thriving life; the warm soft light of the rocky moss-covered paths hidden beneath layers of climbing and tumbling lianas and roots; soaring tree trunks wrapped in colorful bromeliads, orchids, moss, and lichens; and the canopy of leaves of every conceivable size and shape. Each day was a new adventure, new wildlife (some good, some terrifying) and ever changing forest, from the sunlit traveling palm groves to the dense, swampy marshes near the river; to the rocky, open forests with the towering trees the spider monkeys loved. I enjoyed watching the spider monkeys too, but I could have been just as happy watching any number of wildlife. It was simply being in the rainforest I loved most.

Like Emma, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Suriname living in the capitol, Paramaribo. Unlike her, I joined a monkey research project post-Peace Corps simply because I wanted to spend more time in the rainforest — and chasing monkeys through the jungle seemed like fun.

It was. Hot, frustrating, itchy and wonderful.

I was there for six months, ideas percolating, but I didn’t begin writing until I came home. That’s when I moved beyond the idea of writing as abstract concept and into deep obsession.

Ignorance plus arrogance — a lethal combo?

I came home to the United States, spent three months working full-time and decided I couldn’t continue. Not yet. I was in the throes of a typical angst-ridden readjustment process combined with the initial bubbling of obsession. So I quit my job and drove cross-country to housesit for my sister and then a friend while I pounded out that first draft. I finished and returned to full-time work again, sure my first draft was destined for the bestseller lists.

I clearly had the arrogance. Unfortunately, I also had heaps of ignorance. I still do. I don’t understand publishing. I may never understand publishing.

Nine years later, following hundreds of rejections, countless rewrites, frequent tears and regular quitting (for months, even a year), my first novel is finally published. People, friends, strangers, will read it. Judge it.

It’s wonderful and scary and it took a passionate, often-painful obsession. But still, I’d do it again. I am doing it — I’ve just finished my second mystery (I hope). I have a plan for the next and the next and the next.

As for Monkey Love and Murder, thankfully, I’m finally over that obsession. And it turns out the best thing about finally being published is that I NEVER have to read or rewrite it again!

But still, I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll like it. I certainly did. For years.

* * *

Whoop! Whoop! Thank you, Edith! Readers, to whet your taste even more, here are a couple of reviews for Edith’s debut novel, Monkey Love and Murder:

Kirkus Review:

This debut from McClintock, who served in the Peace Corps and worked on a monkey research project, has the ring of authenticity, along with romance and a mystery that keeps you guessing.

Library Journal Review:

This romantic-suspense debut is perfect for those seeking adventure mixed in with their mystery. McClintock creates a vivid jungle environment, a perfect venue for a closed-room mystery. Her characters run a little larger than life, making the story feel like a reality TV show. With a bit of Scott Smith’s tone, this would work for Hilary Davidson fans too.

And let’s not forget the blurb:

Emma Parks joins a monkey research project deep in the South American rainforest on a whim. She refuses to admit it might have something to do with a close friend’s death from which she hasn’t recovered, but it’s certainly not because she knows anything about spider monkeys, least of all what they look like. She’s barely arrived when International Wildlife Conservation’s renowned director drowns during a party celebrating the group’s controversial takeover of the park. Tension mounts following the machete murder of a researcher, threatening Emma’s budding primatology career, her secret romance with an Australian zoologist, and more importantly — her life.

Can’t wait to read it? Why not download the first chapter?

I know, I know, one chapter isn’t the same as reading the whole book. SO ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY — in 3 easy steps:
1) Comment on Edith’s post
2) Like her book’s Facebook page
3) Subscribe to our Displaced Dispatch
Yes, of course you can take just one of these steps, or two — but do all three and you’ll have an even greater chance of winning!!! @(‘_’)@

The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch (and on Edith’s Facebook page) on Feb. 2, 2013. She will contact you for your address and is open to shipping anywhere in the world.

NOTE: If you’re not lucky enough to win one of Edith’s books, you can always order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or The Book Depository.

Born in a school bus in the Tennessee woods on the largest commune to come out of the sixties, Edith McClintock works in the conservation and development field and blogs about travel on Novel Adventurers. Although a lifelong reading addict, she didn’t write fiction until post–Peace Corps, when she joined a monkey research project deep in the Amazon. Trapped in a tiny jungle cabin for six months, there was little to do but imagine creative ways to kill off her fellow researchers (all of whom were too nice to make it into her first novel, despite their begging). To find out more about Edith, visit her author’s blog.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, also on expat writing.

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

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Images: Edith McClintock’s author photo (yes, that’s her — in Chinatown in Seattle, buying mangoes) and book cover.

THE DISPLACED Q: With enough time and resources, what would you most like to learn in your adopted culture?

file0001883482933A long time ago, in a country far, far away, my nine-year-old self visited a museum in England. The American Museum in Bath was my first experience of anything American that wasn’t viewed on a black-and-white TV, and, while I recall finding the museum interesting, there was one particular exhibition that is still lodged in my long-term memory: the extensive collection of antique quilts.  Exquisite, detailed, and painstakingly hand-sewn by American women hundreds of years ago, these quilts and the stories behind them fascinated me.

How difficult can it be?

Fast forward a couple of decades, and there I was, newly arrived in New England. I’d worked out the day-to-day details of where to shop, where to bank, and how to order a pizza in a fake American(ish) accent so that it got delivered to the right address. Perhaps it was the amount of free time suddenly on my hands, or the impending arrival of another baby that put me in a domesticated mood, but when I received in the mail a brochure for adult education courses at the local high school, I signed up for Quilting For Beginners. I was in the heart of quilting territory, and I was going to make one of those big quilts. How difficult could it be, if women two hundred years ago made them by hand, by candlelight?

A newfound respect…

The course lasted for eight weeks. If I’d previously admired the Old American quilters whose handiwork graced the museum in Bath, at the end of those eight weeks they had achieved god-like status in my mind. It’s not as if I was a novice at sewing. My mother, an expert needlewoman and daughter of a tailoress herself, had taught me the basics long ago. But whereas I was making a small lap-quilt on an electric sewing machine, many of the much larger quilts I’d seen in Bath would have been made by hand;  the first American patent for a two-thread machine wasn’t issued until 1846.

…and an appreciation for our foremothers

In the same way I am in awe of Austen and Dickens writing without the help of even a typewriter, let alone a Mac, I am humbled to think of the hours these women spent in creating a textile legacy for their country’s future generations. The two month process of learning a craft associated with the part of the world where I was living made me appreciate aspects of the region’s history and early life, perhaps more than visits to American museums on this side of the Atlantic did.

The quilt I made is still here, draped neatly over a chair in the spare bedroom, a reminder of eight weeks  of cutting, pinning, sewing, and then unpicking when it all went wrong — but eventually finishing. Eight weeks of learning a new craft…and so much more.

Readers, what about you? What would you like to learn in your adopted country, and what else would it teach you?

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post!

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

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Image: Morguefile

5 displaced reads for tickling an expat/global wanderer’s intellect

Hello again, expats, global nomads, serial wanderers, world citizens, and internationals!

As suggested in my post of last week about mentors and muses, it being January, we have resolved to think Big Thoughts about displacement.

We all know what it feels like to venture across borders to travel and/or live. But how often do we stand back and look at the trees? Or, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David put it in their theme song for the 1966 British film starring Michael Caine:

What’s it all about, Alfie?

To help us figure it out, I propose that we turn to the works of Big Thinkers. I’m talking about the kinds of people who take the kind of life we lead — living here, there and everywhere — for granted, and are more interested in questions of what we’re all doing on this planet and can learn from each other and from ourselves, for that matter.

Against that rather dramatic background, here are 5 displaced — and displacing — reads for your consideration:

Mastermind_cover_pm1) Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking, January 2013)

Author: Maria Konnikova
Genre: Self-Help; Cognitive Psychology
Synposis: A primer on increasing one’s mindfulness, based on the lessons imparted by British master sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Author’s displaced credentials: Born in Russia, Konnikova arrived in the United States at age 4. Though a Third Culture Kid, she has adapted very well to the American scene. She was educated at Harvard, writes the “Literally Psyched” blog for Scientific American, and is doing a PhD at Columbia University in psychology. That said, she has found a muse in an unexpected place: in the fictional works of the terribly Victorian Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Why it’s stimulating: So many of us are caught up in the literal idea of travel that we forget that the most interesting voyage of them all lies in exploring the inner workings of our own minds. But Konnikova takes us one step further. She suggests displacing ourselves into the mind of the hyper-observant Sherlock Holmes. To show us how, she does a bold thought experiment — something that most of us, especially those who are living in isolation from family and friends, would find anathema: she downloads Freedom, a program that blocks Internet access completely for a specified amount of time, and sees how it affects her writing. She is shocked by the results. Her conclusion:

Thinking like Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a way to enhance your cognitive powers. It is also a way to derive greater happiness and satisfaction from life.

How we heard about it: Konnikova’s recent article in Slate, “Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes?”

TheWorldUntilYesterday_cover_pm2) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (Viking, December 2012)

Author: Jared Diamond
Genre: Social History
Synposis: An account of how people in traditional societies — the New Guinea Highlanders, the Inuit, the Amazonian Indians, the Kalahari San — live and what they can teach the rest of us.
Author’s displaced credentials: A polymath and one of the foremost writers of popular science, Diamond was born in the United States, got a degree from Cambridge University, and has had careers in physiology, ecology (specializing in New Guinea and nearby islands), and geography. With the publication of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, his most popular work to date, he became known for his mastery of global history.
Why it’s stimulating: Diamond displaces us to our (not-so-distant) past by taking us to remote corners of the earth — from the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon rainforest, to Africa’s Kalahari Desert and the Arctic Circle — where it’s possible to encounter people who are managing without air travel, telecommunications and other fruits of modernity. Pointing out that such accoutrements are extremely recent, he asks: what can traditional peoples teach those of us who live in “complex” societies about how we might live better today? As it turns out, Diamond says, we may be better off dialing down the complexity and living closer to our ancestors:

We get ideas about how to bring up our children. We get ideas about how to have a better old age. We get ideas about how not to die of cancer, heart attacks and stroke.

How we heard about it: An interview with Jared Diamond in Smithsonian Magazine.

Immigrant_Advantage_Book_Cover_pm3) The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness, and Hope (Free Press, October 2011)

Author: Claudia Kolker
Genre: Social Sciences; Immigration
Synposis: An examination of some of the customs imported by America’s newest residents.
Author’s displaced credentials: A journalist and Third Culture Kid (her mother was from Mexico and father from Ukraine), Claudia Kolker once worked as a freelance reporter in El Salvador from 1992 to 1995, where she covered the Salvadoran postwar recovery as well as social issues throughout Central America, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She has also reported from Japan and India. She now lives in Houston.
Why it’s stimulating: Kolker was spurred to do her research after discovering that most immigrants to the United States, even those from poor or violence-wracked countries, are physically and mentally healthier — they actually live longer! — than most native-born Americans. In a work that in some ways parallels Jared Diamond’s (#2 above), her book takes us on a tour of immigrant households in the United States — Mexican, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Jamaican, etc. — and shows us that there are things about their values we should not only respect but emulate. I don’t know about you, but I find it refreshing to think that privileged Americans like us, who choose to displace ourselves to other lands, could stand to learn some major life lessons from the forcibly displaced. Kudos to Kolker for turning the tables!
How we heard about it: From a recent interview with Kolker on PBS Newshour.

onthemap_cover_pm4) On the Map: A Mind-expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (Gotham, December 2012)

Author: Simon Garfield
Genre: Social Sciences; Human Geography
Synposis: A history of mankind’s love affair with maps, beginning with Ptolemy’s world map (one of the 100 diagrams that changed the world); moving through the “cartographic dark ages,” which lasted for about a thousand years; and culminating in our modern obsession with maps, which in fact dates from 1450s Venice, when the atlas became a craze.
Author’s displaced credentials: By splitting his life between London and St. Ives, Cornwall, Garfield could be described as a “domestic expat” within the UK.
Why it’s stimulating: “Displacement” of the sort we talk about in this blog requires constant rewriting and editing of the map you were born with — both figuratively and literally. Garfield shows us that while some of our cases may be extreme (the Displaced Nation being a prime example, with our “Here Be Dragons” obsession), mapmaking is something we humans can’t get enough of:

Maps relate and realign our history. They reflect our best and worst attributes — discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction — and they chart our transitions of power. Even as individuals, we seem to have a need to plot a path and track our progress, to imagine possibilities of exploration and escape.

How we heard about it: From a 1 Jan 2013 post by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings blog.

Cosmopolitanism-Appiah-Kwame_cover_pm5) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2007)

Author: Kwame Anthony Appiah
Genre: Politics; Philosophy; Ethics; Globalization
Synposis: An examination of the ancient philosophy of “cosmopolitanism” — the idea that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality — and the influence it has had on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Author’s displaced credentials: Appiah is the product of a cross-cultural union: his mother was an English author and daughter of the statesman Sir Stafford Cripps, and his father a Ghanaian barrister and politician, who was constantly exhorting his children to remember that they were “citizens of the world.” Raised in Ghana and educated in England, Appiah has taught philosophy on three continents and is now a professor at Princeton University.
Why it’s stimulating: Whether we realize it or not, those of us who venture across borders are making a step towards reducing our culturally isolation. We are opening our minds to seeing the world outside our own contextual walls. But how far can we actually take this? Pretty far, claims Appiah, pointing out that we humans are an inter-cultural, intertwined, and interdependent species, just like every other on the planet — replete with cross-pollinations of language, religion, art, dress, rites, metaphysical outlooks, and progeny. But if Appiah rejects the Sam Huntington view of an inevitable clash of civilizations, he is also not a universalist:

Cosmopolitans suppose that all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation. But they don’t suppose, like some Universalists, that we could all come to agreement if only we had the same vocabulary.

How we heard about it: The book was a Global Niche Bookshelf pin, by, on Pinterest.

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Whoa, are you still with me? That was quite a Head Trip! Readers, any responses to this list — any other works to suggest? Much obliged for your input! I think I’ve had a little too much stimulation for one blog post and need to give my brainbox a rest…

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

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Expats, here’s how to enrich your lives in 2013: Choose a mentor or a muse!

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 experimentrecently 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.

Just one caveat: If you’re as language challenged as Tony James Slater, it could prove a headache and, ultimately, a heartache.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained…

(Married people, you might want to give up on this goal. I’m serious…)

4) A fondness for angels who dance on pinheads.

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.

After reading her book Monuments and Maidens, I could never look at a statue in the same way again!

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!

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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

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