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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

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JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works


This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of Expatclic.com, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.

 

Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

Welcome, Deborah, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

Deborah's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Deborah’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Deborah.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Deborah? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
***************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In honor of Mother’s Day, three books by and about strong international women

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green has some eclectic picks for displaced reads—all of which feature women who transcend national boundaries.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Mother’s Day is coming up in the United States on May 8 (the UK celebrated its mums in March). As an American who lives abroad, I am marking the occasion by reading the beautiful, intriguing A Mother’s Secret, by Renita D’Silva, which came out in early April.

renita and a mother's secret

Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India. Reflecting that background, D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, was about an Indian woman who has been exiled from her family for more than a decade and is living in London (it was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014).

Her latest work, A Mother’s Secret, which came out in early April, tells the story of Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants. Jaya struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.

I haven’t finished A Mother’s Secret yet—and hadn’t even planned on reviewing it—but I’m still willing to recommend it on the strength of D’Silva’s mesmerizing descriptions of India, along with the finely woven mystery connecting Jaya to her mother and to Kali. In D’Silva’s hands, the the India of several decades ago becomes a place of lush, gothic beauty. Take, for instance, her description of a ruined mansion feared by the villagers and rumored to be haunted:

“Oh there’s a curse all right,” the rickshaw driver huffs. “No boy child survives in that family. Everyone associated with that mansion is cursed with unhappiness, insanity, death. You must be out of your mind to go there, and I have warned you plenty. But it’s none of my business, as long as you pay me three times the fare like you promised.” The rickshaw driver’s hair drips with sweat as his ramshackle vehicle brings them closer and closer to the ruin, which looms over the earth-tinged emerald fields, painting the mud below the dark black of clotted blood.

While on the theme of women’s lives, allow me to segue into another book I finished recently, My Life on the Road, by American feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list, and also a pick by fellow Displaced Nation columnist HE Rybol for a 2016 read.)

Gloria Steinem portrait and book

As one doesn’t automatically associate with Steinem with travel, I was surprised to learn how much time she has actually spent “on the road.” Her childhood, I was fascinated to discover, consisted of a series of road trips across the United States with her nomadic parents, who made a living selling antiques. She credits these childhood travels with shaping her later talents as a journalist and organizer. And although she no longer leads a peripatetic life—she bought property and established a home base—she estimates she spends more nights out of her house than in it.

Steinem writes:

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories— in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

Notably, one of Steinem’s formative experiences came after her graduation from Smith College, when she won a fellowship to study in India for two years. Living in India broadened her horizons and made her aware of the extent of human suffering in the world. India was also where she learned about the “talking circle”—an intimate form of storytelling “in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”

The book isn’t a chronological history of this 82-year-old iconic figure’s travels in America and abroad, but rather a (sometimes disjointed) collection of thoughts about why she enjoys constant movement, and a series of vignettes about the people—and personalities—she’s met along the way.

One of the biggest personalities is her father—a larger-than-life figure from whom Steinem has inherited a love of the nomadic life:

I can’t imagine my father living any other life. When I see him in my mind’s eye, he is always the traveler, eating in a diner instead of a dining room, taking his clothes out of a suitcase instead of a closet, looking for motel VACANCY signs instead of a home, making puns instead of plans, choosing spontaneity over certainty.

When I first picked up the book, I was a little apprehensive that it would be all about Steinem’s political views. (Given that this is an election year in the United States, I’m getting my quota of political reading from the daily news!)

Naturally, Steinem does write about politics—after 40 years devoted to leading a revolution for women’s equality, how could she not? For example, Steinem was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and she drops the usual names you’d expect from that era.

But the majority of her stories are what the title suggests—tales about ordinary people she has encountered on the road, such as taxi drivers or people she met at roadside diners or in airports while on her way to conferences or political events. An example:

Our older driver is like a rough trade character from a Tennessee Williams play— complete with an undershirt revealing tattoos, and an old Marine Corps photo stuck in the frame of his hack license. Clearly, this is his taxi and his world.

The friendships she forges with people across the country, particularly with Native American activists, enliven the book and underscore Steinem’s interest in getting to know local communities—though I sometimes got the bittersweet feeling that, given her restlessness, she will never be more than observer of these grassroots circles. In one such passage, Steinem details a trip she once took to a Native American site in Ohio with the author Alice Walker and Walker’s assistant, Deborah Matthews:

That night we join Deborah’s mother, her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, and teachers and neighbors at a community potluck supper in the school gym. It’s a welcome for us. With the slow-paced humor and warmth I’ve come to cherish, they talk about the history of small-town Ohio, and are delighted that we are interested. Deborah’s grandmother has lived her entire life near Adena mounds that may be even older than the one we just saw. They reminisce about everything from romantic outings in the Great Circle Earthworks to the connection they feel to people they just call “the ancients.”

In short, I’d recommend My Life on the Road not only to anyone interested in Steinem herself and the 1960s American feminist movement, but also to anyone with a passion for travel. (That said, if you’re fed up with hearing about American politics already this year, you might wait until after November to start reading!)

Before I sign off for this month, a book I’d like to mention to any readers thirsting for some armchair adventure is Displaced Nationer and current expat Jennifer S. Alderson’s Down and Out in Kathmandu, which came out at the end of last year and was in my to-be-read pile for 2016.

Jennifer Alderson and book cover

The first in a planned series of international thrillers, the book introduces us to protagonist Zelda Richardson, a burnt-out Seattle-based computer programmer who is heading to Nepal for a volunteer teaching gig.

Teaching English in Nepal is nothing like Zelda expects—relationships with her host families are fraught, facilities are limited and the students are less than impressed with Zelda herself. While struggling to deal with the strange culture and her unruly classroom, she crosses paths with Ian, an Australian backpacker who is on a teaching sabbatical and simply searching for the best weed he can find.

And then, of course, as often happens when you link up with backpackers, Zelda finds herself entangled with an international gang of smugglers who believe she and Ian have stolen their diamonds. They also cross paths with Tommy, a shady Canadian in Thailand…

Alderson’s next Zelda book, The Lover’s Portrait, is set in Amsterdam and is due out at the end of next month.

* * *

Until next time, happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 6 writers talk expat- and travel-themed books: last year’s faves, this year’s must-reads

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has canvassed several international creatives for their favorite expat- and travel-themed books of 2015, along with what’s on their bedside tables in 2016.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Last month I wrote to you about my Goodreads Reading Challenge, which, at 34 books and counting, is still proving (ahem) something of a challenge.

For this month’s column, instead of focusing on my 300-book goal, I decided to find out what other international creatives, several of whom have been featured in this column and/or on the Displaced Nation, have been reading.

I asked each of them to answer these two questions:

  1. What were the best books you read last year on displaced/expat/travel themes?
  2. What books are you looking forward to this year in the same or similar genres?  

Their responses are nothing short of tantalizing!

So much so that I’m now wondering…can I squeeze any more in?!

Please take a look:

* * *

MARK ADAMS, bestselling author

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book about Alaska, so the 49th State has occupied a lot of my reading hours. Naturally, I’ve reread John McPhee’s classic Coming into the Country and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But two slightly less well-known books with an Alaska connection have really stuck with me.

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire_coverThe first is John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America, by Kim Heacox (Lyons Press, 2014). This is a great example of history that comes alive by weaving names, dates and events with passion for a cause, in this case environmentalism. Today, Alaska’s shrinking glaciers are viewed mostly by passengers aboard cruise ships who look up while sampling their breakfast buffets. To Muir, though, they were living things, mysteries that held timeless wisdom. Heacox makes a stirring argument that Muir’s early trips to Alaska jump-started the modern conservation movement.

Deadliest_State_coverThe second book is Kalee Thompson’s The Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History (Harper-Collins, 2010). When I realized that my book research was going to take me deep into the Bering Sea, which I wasn’t even sure I could place on a map, I reached for a copy of this. I’m not sure it was the right choice for someone who’ll be sailing those frigid and famously turbulent waters soon, but any readers who like tales along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down will find that Thompson’s tick-tock re-creation of this lifesaving mission really places them amid the freezing chaos of the action.

Sunnys_Nights_coverOne book I’ve already read and loved in 2016 takes place very far from Alaska. It’s Tim Sultan’s delightful Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World, a memoir that tells the story of a curious young man who lands in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s after a peripatetic and somewhat disorienting youth in Laos, the Ivory Coast and Germany. Sultan finds a home at what must be the strangest tavern north of New Orleans—Sunny’s opens only one night a week and its clientele runs from Mafiosi to nuns—and takes on the bar’s namesake owner as a sort of surrogate father. It’s a stained-glass window offering a nostalgic glimpse of a Brooklyn that has largely vanished.

The Seven Storey Mountain_coverNow, a book I’m looking forward to reading this year: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace; Fiftieth Anniversary ed., 1998). When I attended Catholic school in the 1970s, there were probably copies of Thomas Merton’s huge bestseller in every classroom, which is a shame, because most grade schoolers would be more interested in reading the phone book. Now that I’m older and no longer required to recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, I have the life experience that pushes one to ponder big questions, such as the meaning of life. Merton made that leap much earlier; he was an urbane, Ivy League-educated writer who abandoned a budding career at age 23 to cloister himself in a Kentucky monastery. (As a writer, I’m almost as awed by his decision to donate all royalties to his monastic order.) This is the story of his circuitous path toward embracing a life of pure spirituality.

Mark Adams is the bestselling author of Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, which was reviewed for this column in May of last year.


JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and author

Savage Harvest_coverLast year, while researching my third novel, I was lucky enough to come across Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014) It is simply one of the best nonfiction travel adventure stories I have read in a very long time. An award-winning American journalist, Hoffman recounts his fascinating journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retraces the last art-collecting expedition made by anthropologist Michael Rockefeller. He juxtaposes his own travels through the Asmat region with a fictive reconstruction of Rockefeller’s final days before his mysterious disappearance, based on extensive archival research and new eyewitness accounts. He effortlessly combines mystery, adventure, personal self-discovery and colonial history into one captivating novel.

The Travelers_cover
When reviewing my bookshelf last week, I noticed I’ve bought quite a few international thrillers and mysteries featuring American expat protagonists this past year. So in that vein, I’m most looking forward to reading Chris Pavone’s The Travelers, (Crown, March 2016). Pavone is an American writer whose first novel, The Expats, is set primarily in the capitals of Luxembourg, Belgium and France. That book was a stylish, fast-paced thriller, yet what caught my attention the most was the lyrical and natural way in which he described these cities without slowing the plot down. His latest thriller promises to crisscross South America and Europe. I can’t wait to read it!

Gallery Pieces_coverAnother mystery/thriller I just learned about is Gallery Pieces: An Art Mystery, by Larry Witham (Archway Publishing, 2015). It’s about an American art expert who travels through Europe attempting to track down artwork stolen during World War Two. it sounds like a great story. Editor’s note: Larry Witham is a former journalist and foreign correspondent who became a full-time writer and artist (painting and drawing) around ten years ago.

Jennifer S. Alderson is the author of Down and Out in Kathmandu and American expat in the Netherlands.


MARIANNE BOHR, Displaced Nation columnist and memoirist

TheRentCollectorOf the travel/expat books I read in 2015, three come to mind immediately. The first is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright (Shadow Mountain, 2013). This gritty yet heart-warming story is set in the largest municipal dump located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a country about which I knew little. A couple with a chronically ill son live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They struggle to pay the titular rent collector, a bitter, alcoholic woman, every month. Books play a key role in this tale of perseverance.

Wright was inspired to write the book by his son Trevor’s 2012 documentary, River of Victory, who in turn was inspired by the people he met when volunteering as a humanitarian aid worker for the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

A Sport and a Pastime_coverLast year I also enjoyed reading the classic novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter, which was originally published in 1967. (it was republished by Open Road Media in 2012). It’s an erotic tale told in tight prose that takes place in a small town in France. I couldn’t put it down.
Editor’s note: James Salter, who died last year, had a passion for European culture and particularly for France. Though he eventually became a full-time writer, he started his life as an officer in the United States Air Force, just after the end of World War II, and was stationed overseas, in Korea, Germany and France.

Coconut Latitudes_coverAnother book I enjoyed was The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean, by Rita M. Gardner. It’s a coming-of-age memoir set in the Dominican Republic, where Gardner’s father transplanted his young American family. What begins as a dream of life in paradise soon takes a few wrong turns. The book, which came out a year before mine with She Writes Press, was a Gold Medal Winner for Autobiography/Memoir at the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Editor’s Note: Rita Gardner is a Displaced Nationer who was interviewed for A Picture Says… and featured for Valentine’s Day. Her book was on our “Best of 2014” list.)

Things Can Only Get Feta_coverThis year, I’m looking forward to reading Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis, by Marjory McGinn (2nd Ed.; Pelagos Press, 2015)
I’ve read many memoirs about expats on the isles of Greece, but this one by a transplanted Scottish couple intrigues me because of its location on the Mani Peninsula of the Peloponnese. The rugged landscape and fierce independent people of this part of Greece has always been on my list to visit for an extended period of time, and I can’t wait to delve into this volume. Editor’s note: Marjory McGinn’s sequel, Homer Is Where the Heart Is, made the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 nonfiction expat books.

TheDiscoveryofFrance_coverAnother volume on my bedside table is The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). I have owned this book for almost eight years, ever since it was published. I am a Francophile through and through and yet, the book keeps getting pushed aside for others. A history of France from the perspective of its provinces, it received outstanding reviews when it was published, and I am determined to read it in 2016. Editor’s note: For those who like stories of displacement, the author, Graham Robb, is originally from Manchester, UK, but took his Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Tennessee. He married an alumna of Vanderbilt University, and they live in Oxford, UK.

Peanut Butter and Naan_cover Another book on my to-read list is Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson’s Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which came out with She Writes Press in 2014. This story by a woman whose husband is transferred from the US to India intrigued me the moment I read a review. They uproot their family of five children from their pampered existence in Nashville, Tennessee, to India, where they encounter extreme poverty, malaria, and no conveniences. I’m particularly interested in reading about how the children reacted to the move.

Marianne C. Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, which came out last year with She Writes Press. It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list for expat nonfiction. She also contributes an occasional column, World of Words, to the Displaced Nation.


JESSICA PAN, expat and memoirist

TheUnbecoming_coverThe best book I read last year about displaced/expat/travel themes was The Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking, 2015). It’s about a first-class jewel thief Julie from California, who’s really Grace from Tennessee. She makes her way to Paris, where she works for a shady antiques restorer, turning out objets d’art that are exquisite fakes. I loved how the protagonist re-invents herself in Paris—and yet, of course, her past comes back to find her. Gripping and inventive, with an unpredictable love story.

This year I’m looking forward to reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories, by Sara Majka, which came out with Graywolf Press in January. Cities_Ive_Never_Lived_In_coverOnce again, these linked short stories are about reinvention, which is one of my favorite things about living abroad (and I like to think about the many versions of myself I’ve formed and perhaps left in Beijing, Melbourne and now London).

Majka’s is the second book to come out in a collaboration between Graywolf and the journal A Public Space, to which Majka has contributed (they are also promoting her book). She made her debut in the journal seven years ago with the short story “Saint Andrews Hotel”; you can read it here.

Jessica Pan is the co-author of the 2014 memoir Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults. A graduate of Brown University, she worked as an editor of an expat magazine and a TV report in Beijing, earned a journalism degree in Melbourne, Australia, and now makes her living as a London-based writer.


H.E. RYBOL, Displaced Nation columnist, adult TCK and author

Write_This_Second_coverOne of the best books I read last year was Write This Second, by Kira Lynne Allen (Prashanti Press, 2015). Written in verse, the book tells the author’s story about overcoming trauma and reclaiming her life. Allen searingly chronicles a childhood blown apart by racism, incest, and rape, and a young adulthood marred by addiction, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress—but then she finds redemption in the recovery process and healing in her art. A sense of displacement permeates part of the book. Like other readers, I found the experience of this book life changing.

Thank You for Being Expendable_coverAnother book I enjoyed reading last year was Thank You For Being Expendable: And Other Experiences, by Colby Buzzell (Byliner, 2015). Buzzell is an Iraq War veteran, and he wrote these stories, 36 in total, over a decade of making his way back home. Though there were aspects of his adventures I didn’t appreciate, I really took to his style. Like Kira Lynne Allen, he is honest and unfiltered. I also liked that he takes his readers to China, England and other places exploring underground culture while he attempts to return to civilian life and the sense of being expendable.

Florence_and_Me_coverMy last pick for top 2015 reads is Florence and Me: The story of how the city of Florence befriended an American girl from Brooklyn, by Elaine Bertolotti (self-published, 2014). Bertolotti is a proud Italian American whose grandparents were born in Italy. She moved to Florence in the 1970s and taught English while also somehow managing to start up her own art studio and sustain an artistic career. She took pains to master the Italian language as well. Bertolotti says she likes to think of herself as one of the pioneers who paved the road for all the Americans who’ve followed her into the expat life in Italy. Her book is a short, fun read.

My Life on the Road_coverThis year I’m looking forward to reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015). Can’t wait!
Beth’s note: I’m also reading this, this month. It’s great so far!
Editor’s note: Steinem’s book, her first in 20 years, is on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 expat nonfiction list. We gave her the status of honorary expat for her extensive travels within and outside the United States.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and contributes the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.


SHANNON YOUNG, expat, author, and Displaced Nation columnist

Here Comes the Sun_coverOne of the best books I read last year was the memoir Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras, by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2015). Lowitz is an American woman who travels to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man and begins a life with him in Tokyo. Together they pursue adoption and start a yoga studio. What I liked: Lowitz writes about her experiences with heartfelt vulnerability. Her prose is often poetic as she gets at the heart of the displaced experience and explores a longing for motherhood that took her by surprise. Editor’s note: Leza Lowitz still lives in Tokyo with her husband and son. She calls herself an “accidental global citizen.” She is the author of 17 books in several different genres.

Seafaring Women_coverAnother book I enjoyed was Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives, by David Cordingly (Random House, 2009). It’s an account of the lives of women during the golden age of sail. These are true stories of women who left their homes to go to sea and settle in port towns all over the globe. What I liked: This book is a different take on the displaced theme. It explores the lives of real women who had a unique kind of expat experience in the great seafaring days. As with modern expats, some went to sea for adventure, some were pursuing employment opportunities (occasionally but not always disguised as men), and some were accompanying spouses. One thing’s for sure: nothing is better than real-life female pirates!

The Expatriates A Novel_coverThis year, I’m most looking forward to The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee (Viking, January 2016). Lee’s novel follows the lives of three expatriate women in Hong Kong. Why I’m interested: Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was one of the first books I read about Hong Kong. In fact, I bought it on the plane after visiting my now-husband several months before moving to Hong Kong to be with him. I’m looking forward to reading her new novel about the expatriate experience and comparing it to my own life as an expat here.

Shannon Young is a Hong Kong-based expat, Displaced Nation columnist (she contributes the bimonthly column Diary of an Expat Writer) and author of the new release Ferry Tale.

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Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!

Still not seeing the right book for your next armchair adventure? Browsing ML’s great posts about fiction and nonfiction reads for 2016 is an excellent place to start. And, if you’re interested in Asia, I’d also recommend this blog post by Australian-born British novelist and writer Renae Lucas Hall, who writes about Japan. She’s listed some very intriguing books about Japan that she read in 2015 or will be reading in 2016.

So, readers, what’s on your bedside tables, and are you planning to add any of the above books?

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 11 Expat- and Travel-themed Books to Expand Our Horizons in 2016

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her personal picks for expat- and travel-themed books to watch for in 2016.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

It’s been quite a long time since I last wrote to you here. Since my last column we’ve started 2016, celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Monkey, written and revised our new year’s resolutions, and (hopefully) read some really great books!

As part of my own (ever-evolving) New Year’s resolutions I signed up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. It’s currently showing that I’m 22 books behind schedule for my overly optimistic goal of 300 books this year—but, hey, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, right?

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 7.33.56 PM
Now, usually in this column I talk about books I’ve already read, but this month I’d like to highlight some that I haven’t. There are, of course, lots of intriguing books coming out this year—more than I can cover adequately in one column! But, of the expat- or international-themed books coming out in 2016 that caught my eye, I’ve chosen 11 to feature in this post, one for each month left in 2016. Take a look!

* * *

Beginning with…a Thriller and a Mystery

CambodiaNoir_cover_300x200Cambodia Noir, by Nick Seeley (March 15, 2016)
The debut novel from an American journalist who has been working out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Cambodia Noir is a thriller that I’ve had on my to-be-read list ever since I first heard about it. The plot: A young American woman who is working as an intern at a local paper in Phnom Penh, June Saito, disappears. Her sister hires a retired photojournalist with first-hand knowledge of the corrupt, dissolute ways of the Cambodian capital, to look for her. Author Nick Seeley got his start as a foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh. He’s been hailed as a “fresh voice” exploring the depths of the Far East’s underworld.


InspectorSinghInvestigates_cover_300x200Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, by Shamini Flint (April 7, 2016)
Always the fan of international crime fiction, I’m excited that one of my favorite series—a series of charming crime novels featuring the portly, lovable Sikh policeman Inspector Singh—is getting a new addition this year. Author Shamini Flint is sending Singh to Britain Diary of a Tennis Prodigy_cover_300x200in the seventh book in her series. Each book provides not only a puzzle for the reader to solve but also a close-up look at the locations where the books are set. This is the Inspector’s first time out of Asia, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he discovers in the UK.

And, a special note for readers with kids: on January 1 Flint, who is a Singapore-based Malaysian, published a middle-grade book, Diary of a Tennis Prodigy, with illustrator Sally Heinrich (Sally formerly lived in Singapore and Malaysia but is now based in Adelaide, Australia).

And Now Let’s Add Three Travel Memoirs…

No Baggage_cover_300x200No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, by Clara Bensen (January 5, 2016)
I love memoirs that read like novels, as I’m hoping this one will! Recovering from a quarter-life meltdown, 25-year-old Bensen signs up for an online dating account, and to her surprise, ends up meeting Jeff, a university professor who proposes they take a three-week experimental trip spanning eight countries, with no plans or baggage. Her story resonates with the adventurer in me—I can’t wait to take a look.


Little Dribbling_cover_300x200The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson (January 19, 2016)
It may already be old news to anyone who’s been in a bookstore recently—or read our Displaced Dispatch!—but the world’s favorite traveler, humor writer and expat, Bill Bryson, has a new travelogue out. It’s another of his road-trip books. (I much prefer these to his other writings such as A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home—they started out great, but I ended up leaving them unfinished…) Bryson made a journey through Britain 20 years ago, which was forever immortalized in his bestselling classic, Notes from a Small Island. In Little Dribbling, he follows the “Bryson line” from bottom to top of his adopted home country. I’m looking forward to being in his company again.


In Other Words_cover_300x200In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri (and translations by Ann Goldstein) (February 9, 2016)
As a London-born Indian-American, world-class novelist Jhumpa Lahiri excels at writing in English—yet has long harbored a passion for the Italian language. Not wanting to miss out, she moved her family to Rome to immerse herself and quickly reached a point where she was writing only in Italian. She kept a journal in Italian that has evolved into this dual-language memoir. As an expat who’s now tried to learn three foreign languages while abroad, I’m curious to see how Lahiri’s experiences match up to my own. (The critics would apparently like to see her go back to English!)

…Along with Two Works of Literary Fiction and a Harlequin Romance

WhatBelongstoYou_cover_300x200What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)
An American professor working in Sofia, Bulgaria, hooks up with a male prostitute in a public toilet and slowly becomes more involved than he anticipated. Reviewers cite Greenwell’s lyrical prose as reason alone for picking up his debut novel, but I’m interested in seeing how this young writer—who himself once worked as an expat English teacher in Bulgaria—depicts the city and the relationships between locals and foreigners. (This book, too, was mentioned in a recent Displaced Dispatch.)


TheHighMountainsofPortugal_cover_300x200The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel (February 2, 2016)
Going over this years’ publishers lists, I’m now looking forward to reading a book by an author whose last book I despised. My friends were all gushing over Yann Martel’s 2002 novel Life of Pi; but, while it has an admittedly awesome premise, the story left me cold. But I’m excited to check out the chronically traveling Canadian author’s next book, which is set in Portugal and intertwines the century-spanning stories of a young man reading an old journal, a mystery-loving pathologist, and a Canadian diplomat. I’m planning a trip to Lisbon later this year, and hope to read this book before I go.


UndertheSpanishStairs_cover_300x200Under the Spanish Stars, by Alli Sinclair (February 1, 2016)
I’m pleased to report that former expat Alli Sinclair—my friend and former co-blogger from Novel Adventurers—has published her second romantic mystery novel this month. (Congratulations, Alli!) The action takes place in her native Australia and also in Spain. The plot: an Australian woman travels to her grandmother’s homeland of Andalucía to unravel a family mystery. She ends up meeting a passionate flamenco guitarist and learns her grandmother’s past is not what she imagined.

Finally, to Top Things Off, How About a Couple of YA Books?

I don’t read a lot of young adult books, but descriptions of two novels I saw reviewed recently stuck with me. Funnily enough, both books’ titles start with “Up”—maybe it’s the implied optimism that caught me? We could use a bit of cheer in our displaced world…

Up from the Sea_cover_300x200Up from the Sea, by Leza Lowitz (January 12, 2016)
This is a novel in verse. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, Kai, whose coastal village is obliterated by the March 2011 tsunami, after which he is offered a trip to New York to meet children who had been affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The trip also provides an opportunity for him to go in search of his estranged American father. Author Leza Lowitz is an American expat writer and translator living in Tokyo, where she also runs a popular yoga studio. Her favorite themes to explore in her writing include the idea of place, displacement and what “home” means to expatriate women.


UPtothisPointe_cover_300x200Up to this Pointe, by Jennifer Longo (January 19, 2016)
I’m always fascinated by stories of Antarctica so have my eye on this book about a teenage girl who aspires to be a professional ballerina but, when her grand plan goes awry, sets out on an expedition to McMurdo Station (the U.S. Antarctic research center) in the footsteps of her relative and explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Notably, Seattle-based author Jennifer Longo wanted to be a ballerina until she finally had to admit that her talent for writing exceeded her talent for dance. Like me, she harbors an obsessive love of Antarctica. I admire the way she has woven these two themes together!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, what do you think? What are you looking forward to reading this year? Any much-anticipated displaced reads that should be added to my list?

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Uprooted from life in the UK, Vanessa Couchman writes novels about people with roots

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

This month’s guest, Vanessa Couchman, was uprooted from her native UK in 1997, when she moved, with her husband (who is Swedish) to an 18th-century farmhouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region, in southwest France. Between the pair of them (he has lived in France twice and in the UK) they have clocked up nearly 60 years of living abroad!

Like many Scandinavians, her better half is fluent in several languages, but Vanessa has done her best to catch up. “My French was hopeless when we first moved here,” she told me, “but, by force of perseverance, I am now almost fluent.”

She still enjoys occasional visits to London for art galleries, bookshops and museums, but in general, she says, England makes her feel like a fish out of water. As she puts it on Life on La Lune, the blog she keeps about her life in France:

I love living here, even if aspects of French life are still unfathomable.

As for work, like my guest last month, Rachel Abbott, Vanessa is a refugee from corporate life in the UK (she worked first in publishing and then in public sector auditing and research). Unlike Rachel, she still has a day job: running her own copywriting business and writing magazine and journal articles about aspects of French life.

But being an expat has also enabled her to become what she calls on her writer’s blog a “young author” of fiction (“young” because she started comparatively late): specifically, historical fiction, which harks back to one of her great passions in life (she read history at Oxford University). She produced her first novel, The House at Zaronza, a year-and-a-half ago with Crooked Cat Publishing.

Thanks to modern technology, Vanessa can live in rural France without being cut off from other English-language writers. She belongs to Writers Abroad, an online community of expat writers based in countries from Nova Scotia to Australia. “This is a great support network and has helped improve my writing no end,” she says. “The members have all become friends, even though I may never meet some of them.”

And these days there are more English-language writers in her local area—enough for Vanessa to help establish, in 2013, an annual Franco-British literary festival in the nearby village of Perisot.

But I mustn’t gloss over an extremely important detail about this expat author’s story. Although she has written short stories set in rural France, Vanessa chose to set her first novel in early 20th-century Corsica. As she told another interviewer:

Corsica is almost a character in its own right in “The House at Zaronza” and a lot of people have remarked that it comes over strongly. I ought to be getting commission from the Corsica Tourist Board!

Vanessa Cushman France and Corsica

Living in one place while dreaming of another. Photo credits: (top row) Midi-Pyrénées region in southwest France, where Vanessa Couchman lives (via Pixabay); the square tower of the Château of Cornusson, in Parisot, by Thérèse Gaigé via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Vanessa Couchman and Nonza Paoline Tower, Corsica (both supplied); (bottom row) Corsican village and Filitosa IX stern face captured in granite (both supplied).

Corsica?! What’s more, the novel explores a topic that seemingly has not been nearly as important to Vanessa as it is to her characters: “how centuries of Corsican history and culture remain deeply rooted in people, even if they move away,” as she puts it. We see this dynamic in her main character, Maria, when she leaves Corsica to serve as a military nurse on the Western Front during World War I. Unlike her creator, Maria feels displaced.

So what has drawn Vanessa Couchman so powerfully to this particular location? Perhaps there is something about this Mediterranean island’s own displacement that appeals to her? Annexed by France in 1769, Corsica retains a distinctly Italian flavor. Vanessa, too, is some kind of mix: an Oxford-trained historian who feels more at home in the French countryside than in the UK, a “young author” of historical fiction…

But instead of speculating, let’s see what Vanessa herself has to say on the topic of location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Vanessa, to Location, Locution. I can vouch for the fact that you have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

For my first novel, The House at Zaronza, story and location came together, really. As you said, it is set mostly on Corsica. In fact it is based on a true story my husband and I came across on holiday there. The owners of the B&B found some old love letters hidden in a niche in the attic when they restored the house. They were from the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house in the 1890s. Her parents would have disapproved, so they met in secret. She was required to marry a cousin to keep the family property together, which was common in Corsica into the 20th century.

The story kept nagging at me, so I had to write it. I’m very attached to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with its rugged and majestic scenery—we’ve visited six times! And so it made perfect sense to set the novel there, especially as it has distinct cultural and historical elements that I was able to use in the story. The house and the village of the title are loosely based on real life, which enabled me to visualise the place as I wrote it, although I changed a number of aspects, including the name. The name of the village in the title of my book, Zaronza, is invented.

The House at Zaronza_cover_pm

As you hinted in your introduction, Corsica won’t leave me alone and so my second novel—a work in progress—is set there, too. A third is in my head, also against the backdrop of the island.

That said, I do also want to set novels in southwest France, where I live, one day. As you also mentioned, a number of my short stories are already set here.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of Corsica?

I believe it’s important for readers to feel they are there so that they get fully involved with the characters and their surroundings. That means evoking a complete sensory picture of the place. I went to a great workshop about creating a world for your novel. We were told to go outside for 10 minutes and make notes of what we saw, touched, heard, smelled and even tasted. This heightened sensory awareness is very valuable when describing a place.

I also think that using particular objects or landmarks in a novel gives them symbolic significance and helps to add depth to the setting. So, in The House at Zaronza, the front door often catches on the flagstones, a ruined tower on top of a hill is a place the heroine, Maria, always goes to think, and her father’s stylet (a Corsican dagger) becomes a symbol of him.

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

All of those things are important to me and I try to weave them into my writing. When it comes to Corsica, I am particularly interested in its culture. I’ve been greatly influenced by a wonderful book called Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica, by Dorothy Carrington, who first visited Corsica just after World War II. She was so taken with it that she eventually lived there and became an international authority on its history and culture. I wish I could have met her, but she died aged 91 in 2002.

Despite being French since 1768, and Genoese before that, Corsica has always been a land apart. It has been invaded, conquered and occupied from prehistoric times, so the island was a cultural melting pot, and as you speculated at the outset, I think that appeals to me. Different traditions have overlaid one another, such as Christianity on top of paganism. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when we visited a megalithic site at Filitosa, where standing stones carved with stern human faces have been excavated.

Until very recently, the Corsicans had strong superstitious beliefs, some of which I am writing into my second novel. The geography of this mountainous island and the isolation of many of the villages also led to the development of solid clan bonds. The concept of honour is very deep-seated and to infringe someone’s honour was a serious matter that could lead to vendettas of long duration. I find all this fascinating, though it’s easy for people to parody it.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a short extract from The House at Zaronza. A young British woman has come to Corsica for the first time to find out more about her Corsican forebears:

She moved to the other window and opened it. A salt-laden breeze wafted in. For a moment, the sight of the purple-tinged mountains on the other side of the bay made her hold her breath. The sun’s lengthening rays tinted the sea with red and gold. Another scent prickled her nostrils, aromatic and dry like sun-baked mud. She closed her eyes and breathed it in. This was the unique aroma of Corsica, that many Corsicans claim they can detect miles out to sea: part of the magic of the island, the Circe that had enchanted many a traveller before Rachel.

VanessaCouchman_quotes_small

Photo credits: (left) Corsica Ferries, by Conan via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); The witch Circe poisons Odysseu’s men, by Alessandro Allori (1580), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I wouldn’t advise using a real place as a setting if you don’t know it at all. There are exceptions— the summit of Everest, for example, or the South Pole—which most people are unlikely ever to visit; and there are plenty of descriptions of them to draw on. Having said that, the novelist Rosie Thomas has been to both of those extreme locations and is a distinct example of someone who has visited all the exotic places she writes about. But if you really want your readers to get inside a place, I believe you have to know it yourself. I would feel uneasy trying to describe somewhere I have never been.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible to know a location too well. If you write about the place you live in, there’s a danger that you start taking for granted what visitors see as fresh and new. I try to prevent this by visiting places I know well in SW France, finding out new things about them and then recording them on my French life blog.

I also take many photos, both of Corsica when we are there and of my region in France. These visual prompts help me a lot when I’m writing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are so many! But some stand out for me and have influenced my own writing. Hannah Kent‘s first novel Burial Rites is set in 19th-century Iceland, and she evokes brilliantly the uncompromising landscape and climate, the hard and unforgiving life of the people and the plight of unmarried women at that time. Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, a time when the city was wealthy and thriving but stifled by the strict morality that prevailed. They both evoke a strong sense of place in these two very different novels. This is challenging in any novel, but particularly in an historical novel, where you have to describe locations that may have changed significantly over time. Khaled Hosseini‘s novels set in Afghanistan have given me a much deeper insight into that troubled country and its modern history.

Vanessa Inspirational Reads

Vanessa’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Vanessa!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Vanessa Couchman? Please leave them in the comments below before she immerses herself in all things Corsican again…

And if you’d like to discover more about Vanessa, why not visit her site about living in France, Life on La Lune, as well as her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @Vanessainfrance and Facebook.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Rachel Abbott, proof positive it’s never too late to become a best-selling novelist—and expat

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Rachel Abbott, did not start out as a writer, though she claims she always had a novel in her head. Born in Manchester, she trained as a systems analyst but then ended up founding her own interactive media company, where, as managing director, she wrote everyday but mostly board reports, user manuals, and creative treatments for clients.

Around 15 years ago, she sold the company and moved with her husband to Le Marche, in central Italy. The pair set to work on renovating a ruined small monastery, where they lived for several years.

When six-foot snowdrifts prevented her from leaving the house for a couple of weeks, Rachel started writing and found she couldn’t stop. She self-published her first novel just over four years ago, a psychological thriller called Only the Innocent, which is set very briefly in Italy but mostly takes place in rural Oxfordshire.

Only the Innocent reached the number 1 spot in the Kindle store just over three months later and went on to become the second highest selling self-published title in 2012. It was subsequently published by Thomas and Mercer in the USA, where in just a few months it achieved number 1 in the US charts, making Rachel’s debut a number one bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian newspaper dubbed Rachel “the e-publishing sensation of 2012” while The Observer stated “self-published authors such as Rachel Abbott are the trade’s hottest property.”

That’s how this Mancunian fell into a brilliant new career. Two years after her break-out success, Rachel released her long-awaited second novel, The Back Road—which quickly reached number 2 on the UK Kindle chart and has over 450 five-star reviews. (The back road of the title is in a made-up village called Little Melham, in the heart of the English countryside.)

Rachel's first two psychological thrillers, both international bestsellers.

Rachel’s first two psychological thrillers, both of which rapidly became international bestsellers.

Her latest works, Sleep Tight (partially set in Anglesey, one of the Channel Islands, which Rachel visited as a child), Stranger Child and Nowhere Child have followed the same pattern of success. All of them take place mainly within Rachel’s hometown of Manchester.

Rachel's latest three books. Stranger Child, a stand-alone novella but featuring the same characters as Stranger Child, came out in October.

Rachel’s latest three books. The very latest, Nowhere Child, came out in October. It’s a stand-alone novella but features the same characters as Stranger Child.

As far as the expat life goes, Rachel now divides her time between Italy (where she lives in her second property, an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands, which is just off the coast of France. She explains her decision to spend time on this beautiful island as follows:

“There are so many wonderful aspects of living in another country—not least getting to understand their culture. Italians are extreme in their emotions, and that—for me—was a joy to watch, even when they are shouting at each other (because it usually doesn’t last). I did, however, struggle with the language. I can now speak reasonable Italian, but as a writer I found it difficult not to be speaking English all the time! I discovered that from time to time I struggled to remember the correct English words, and I felt it was time to move back to an English-speaking country if I was to continue to write. So I moved to Alderney. Not quite the UK, but close. It’s a wonderful island, and life here is as perfect as it gets.”

Despite her new-found worldliness, Rachel insists she remains a Lancastrian at heart.

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) ; Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Rachel Abbott (inset, supplied); Whitworth Street, Manchester, by Mikey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Montalto delle Marche, by Sgobbone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Braye Beach (Alderney, Channel Islands), by TheOnlyMoxey via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

* * *

Welcome, Rachel, to Location, Locution. It seems your writing career and your expat life developed in tandem, but which comes first when you are writing, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

In all cases, my story has come first. My most recent books are set in Manchester, but the locations within Manchester are determined by the story. My concern is that I am going to run out of spooky places for the strange goings on that I need in my stories!

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have a very visual imagination, and in every major location in any of my books, I know exactly what it looks like. That’s my starting point. I can wander the halls of houses, or creep along canal banks at night. So I know what I can see. I then start to think about what it might smell like—and much of that is determined by what is happening. A house can smell of baking cakes, or of rotting food—so I imagine myself there, and think how it might smell. Finally, I listen. What will the sounds be like? Where is the location—outdoors or indoors? What are the surroundings like—are there trains nearby, or a distant motorway? I close my eyes, and I am there—feeling what my characters are feeling.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the stage in the story. The character might be walking along a country lane, but if she is scared, the overhanging trees, dripping with rain from the recent storm would be the features to focus on. If it’s a happy day, it might be the cows munching contentedly on the grass in the fields. With this in mind, any feature can help to create that sense of the location.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Here’s a passage from my latest, Nowhere Child:

The freezing November wind is bouncing off the damp walls, hitting us in icy blasts as if someone keeps opening and closing a door. But there isn’t any door—just a gaping black hole. There are four or five groups of us down here, sitting in twos and threes huddled around our feeble fires. We keep to ourselves mostly. I can see the odd face, lit from below by the weak yellow flames, features hovering, disembodied, against the black walls, the eyes hollow pits. I can hear the occasional murmur of conversation but mostly I listen to the steady drip from the roof. It is relentless, and I’m not surprised when Andy says that dripping water is used as a form of torture. Another drop joins in, this time with a slightly different tone. There is a pause, and for a second I wonder if it’s stopped. But of course it hasn’t. Drip-drop. Drip-drop.

Nowhere_child_quote

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Some settings exist in my imagination. Others have to be realistic. I am currently writing a story about an area of Manchester that I didn’t know existed—even though I lived there for a large proportion of my life. I have been unable to visit it myself in time to write the first draft of the book, but my sister lives nearby. So she has been out on research trips for me, taking photos and videos. I have used to map to pinpoint the places that I want her to take pictures of, and I’ve also used Google Maps—in walkabout mode—to get me close enough. I have studied this place in as much detail as possible without an actual visit, and I will visit it myself before the final version is written.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love the sense of location in Daphne Du Maurier’s books—in particular, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. One is set in a magnificent, if malevolent old property, the other a run down and gloomy inn, which is never open to the public. The locations are so vivid in these books that a mental image is formed even before seeing them on the big screen!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don't even need to see Hitchcock's films!

The locations of these two Daphne du Maurier classics are so vivid, you don’t even need to see Hitchcock’s films!

Thanks so much, Rachel!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Rachel Abbott? Please leave them in the comments below before she jets off to one of her exotic locales…

And if you’d like to discover more about Rachel, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @RachelAbbott.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

WORLD OF WORDS: She spoke in Italian to me, I spoke in English to her, and we had a perfect conversation

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, has a story for us about one of the pleasanter linguistic surprises that occurred during year-long travels. Naturally, it happened on an Italian train!

Sometimes the basics of another language are all you need.

For this month’s post, I’d like to share a story about the time when my husband, Joe, and I were on a train from Naples to Sicily.

* * *

All aboard!

We board the train in Naples behind a pack of uniformed, fully armed carabinieri—images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We picture the potential for some seriously illegal transactions on this particular itinerary: Naples bound for Sicily.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/jm3/960186/ (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en; Man with shotgun in Sicily[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Man_with_shotgun_in_Sicily.jpg], by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0); Man with shotgun in Sicily, by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Our train travels down the boot to its toe and eventually on to Taormina, our Sicilian destination. The trip will take seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island across the Strait of Messina. We discuss the merits of building a tunnel but it makes no seismic sense, our guidebook says; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out the possibility. But then we read the real reason is that organized crime controls the crossing—and they like the status quo.

Next station stop: Villa San Giovanni (after which the train will board a ferry to the island of Sicilia!)

We stop at Villa San Giovanni, the town at the western tip of mainland Italy. She, Italian, 30-something, boards the train with great flourish and an oversized valise.

Joe and I are in deep conversation about the logistics of our arrival in Taormina and simply say, “Buongiorno,” after helping her hoist her bag onto the rack overhead.

We finally arrive at the terminal where they split the train into two and roll the cars onto rails in the ferry’s cargo hold. This impressive engineering feat can take some time and during the process, our carriage loses power (no lights or air conditioning), adding an element of the sinister to the experience.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily[https://www.flickr.com/photos/comprock/5292490503/], by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily, by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


Joe, a ship engineer, ever interested in anything marine, goes off to observe the transfer logistics. I stay in our darkened train compartment to chat with the young woman sitting across from me.

Once it’s just the two of us, she asks brightly, “Dove alloggia lì Sicilia?” She wants to know where we’ll stay once we arrive on Sicily.

“We have a hotel in Taormina,” I reply, “the Bel Soggiorno.” And just like that, we establish an understanding for the conversation that ensues. She will speak in her melodic Italian and I will respond in English, each of us knowing just enough of the other’s language to understand but not speak.

She gushes that she loves the Bel Soggiorno, telling me the views of Mount Etna are spectacular and the terrace looking over the sea is so romantic.

“I’m happy to hear that,” I respond, “because our room is only $80 and I was afraid it would be a bit dumpy.”

“Oh no,” she tells me in Italian. “It’s just that it’s early March and rates are very low.”

Her name is Carolina, the Italian version of our daughter’s name, so I like her right away. She’s of that breed of seriously overweight women who don’t behave like they’re heavy: she’s confident, has perfect makeup, is dressed to the nines in bright colors, wears high-heeled suede boots, and carries herself with panache. She knows what to do with what she has, maximizing her assets, as the Italians like to say, in true Italian bella figura style.

Photo credit: Untitled[https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovemaegan/4532998717/], by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: Untitled, by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Our conversation is a particularly satisfying lopsided exchange because we manage to share so much in spite of our Italian-English volley. I fill her in on Joe’s and my gap year traveling through Europe, she teaches me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia–See-CHEE-lya) and I explain the geography of the States.

Like many Europeans, the two places she is most anxious to visit are New York City and California. She asks if she can see them both in a week. I smile, draw a map on the back of her ticket and explain just how far apart they are, suggesting she needs at least three weeks to see them properly.

“It’s almost 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco,” I tell her and California is a big state.

She responds with a laugh, “Allora, mi prendo tre settimane!” Then I’ll take three weeks!

Passengers may now go on deck to view Straits of Messina…

We leave the train for a quick look at our passage across the water, but the wind is fierce, kicking up whitecaps, and we quickly return to the dim warmth of our compartment. I learn that Carolina lives in Naples—she’s a native Neopolitana—and works in an art gallery. She is headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend. She makes the trip once a month and he travels north with the same frequency to see her.

I ask if she thinks she’ll marry him and she tells me with a wink that she hopes they’ll get engaged this weekend.

“Bravo,” I respond with a giggle and a clap and then ask about a luna di miele—a honeymoon.

Before I finish asking, she says, “Capri,” accent on the first syllable. “Andiamo a Capri.”

I mentally say a quick thank you to my French and Spanish teachers over the years. Knowing these two Romance languages paved the way for this delightful conversation in Italian.

Photo credit: More gossip[https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncanh1/5893263199/], by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credit: More gossip, by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Next stop: Taormina, Sicily

Joe finally returns to his seat once the train is reconnected in Messina for the last leg of our all-day journey. After another twenty minutes, we descend with Carolina onto Taormina’s platform as she drags her bright pink, hard-shelled suitcase, the travel of choice of so many young Italian women, behind her.

She kisses my cheeks, turns and waves, warbling, “Goodbye,” and I call, “Arrivederci!

She embraces her beloved and then ducks into his red sports car.

I follow Joe to the taxi stand, imagine a honeymoon on the horizon, and soon we’re winding up the hill to the Bel Soggiorno.

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri)[https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/20298529790/], by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/;Waving goodbye[https://www.flickr.com/photos/wherearethejoneses/1341937768/], by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/; Volcano Etna at sunset[https://www.flickr.com/photos/gnuckx/4692956069/], by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri), by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waving goodbye, by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Volcano Etna at sunset, by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for this enchanting story! I must say, I admire the way you reach across linguistic barriers and find words in common. In situations where others might give up, you are undaunted. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a world of words?

Readers, have you ever, like Marianne, enjoyed a conversation with someone even though you were both speaking in different languages? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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For this peripatetic Sardinian writer who has settled down (for now) in Rome, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGreetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs! “A Picture Says…” columnist James King is still away, so I am filling in again.

My guest this month is Angela Corrias, a well-traveled freelance writer who was born in the Italian island of Sardinia.

There’s a lot about Angela’s story that captivates me. For a start, there’s this photo of her on her Chasing the Unexpected blog’s About Me page, where she’s wearing a head scarf and looks Middle Eastern.

I had seen her “I heart my city” article on the National Geographic Traveler‘s site, which was all about Rome (where she now lives), so I assumed she was Italian… But was my assumption incorrect?

I also knew from her NatGeo article that she has traveled extensively and been an expat several times.

Hmm…that still doesn’t explain why she’s wearing a head scarf.

As I read more about Angela, I became even more intrigued. “[W]hat I like the most when I travel,” she writes on her About page, “is to dig deep into other countries’ culture, traditions, social customs and explore them in all their idiosyncrasies. I’ve always tried to avoid filling my posts with the basic information available by performing a simple Google search, and strived to publish more personal impressions instead.”

Something new I learned from her blog was that she is also a “wannabe photographer.”

It was at that point I knew that we had to feature Angela in “A Picture Says…,” and luckily she was “angel” enough to oblige!

Angela Corrias in Jiasalmer, India, one of the many stops in her travels (photo supplied)

In front of India’s Golden City, Jaisalmer, stands Angela Corrias, the woman who finds gold in all her travels. (Photo supplied)

* * *

Hi, Angela, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’d like to start by asking: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
Hi, ML, and thank you for inviting me to take part in this column. And just to clear up your confusion, no, I’m not Middle Eastern. I was born in Sardinia, Italy’s second biggest island off the coast of Rome, and while my first international trip was to nearby France to visit relatives when I was just three years old, I’ve always considered my travel initiation to have been the first time I crossed the equator at the age of 13 to go to Brazil. It was my first long-haul flight and very first immersion in a culture different from mine. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Brazil.

Now, I know from reading that Nat Geo article that, since reaching adulthood, you’ve traveled far and wide and also been an expat. What are some of the countries you’ve been to, and which have you actually lived in?
I’ve traveled extensively around Europe, living for two years each in Dublin and London. I’ve visited countries like Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Finland, Romania, Turkey and even Monte Carlo (once). In the Middle East, I’ve been to Lebanon, the UAE and Iran (many times). I’ve also spent a great deal of time in Asia. I lived for one year in China (Shanghai) and was able to travel around visiting countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia. And I mustn’t forget Brazil. I’ve traveled there many times with a quick jaunt to Argentina once—the only two countries I’ve visited in South America so far.

Ah, so THAT explains the head scarf! All those trips to Iran… Where are you living right now and why?
After almost ten years of the expat and nomadic lifestyle, I decided two years ago to come back to Italy and live in Rome. While I’m not ruling out completely another expat/nomadic experience, I’m liking it here so far. The city is extremely lively and constantly inspires me for writing and taking pictures. And it has an international airport, which makes it easy for me to book flights to any destination.

“To one that watches, everything is revealed.” —Italian proverb

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of what has clearly been for you a “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
I’ll start with a photo that I took last year at the beautiful Imam Square at the center of Isfahan, Iran, a city that boasts an amazing history, impressive architecture and one the world’s most beautiful bazaars. Recently Iran has become for me one of the countries where I feel most at home—not just because locals actually mistake me for an Iranian and refuse to believe that I don’t speak Persian, but because I feel I can just unwind and enjoy what the country has to offer, from its stunning art to its beautiful and diverse nature to the warmth of its people.

The vast Iman Square in Iran, an important historical site. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

The vast Iman Square, an important historical site in Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Another place where I feel at home is my actual home, Sardinia. I left it some 17 years ago and go back far less than I would like to. I took this photo in the lovely coastal town of Bosa this past August, when I treated myself with a full 12-day stay after years of never visiting for more than a week. Sardinia is actually the kind of place where many people, including foreigners, can easily feel comfortable, and eventually settle down. A quiet, laid-back and relaxed lifestyle, its own cuisine, and a hospitable atmosphere—these are just a few of the features that can make anyone feel at home.

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Fishing plays an important role in the economy of Basa, Sardinia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

I took this third photo at a tea market in Shanghai, when living in China. For me it represents a truly traditional Chinese moment. Before moving to China, I had lived in Dublin for two years and in London for another two years, but neither of these cities made me feel I wanted to stay, and from the beginning I knew I would leave once I’d had the experience I was looking for. This changed in China. Despite the initial culture shock, once I started Chinese-language classes and began to speak with the locals, who are always very happy to see foreigners making the effort to learn their extremely difficult language, I instantly felt comfortable and as though I could settle for some time.

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Sampling Chinese tea culture in Shanghai. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, you’ve taken us from a vast square in Iran to an intimate setting of a tea house in Shanghai, which gives me a clear idea of the breadth of your travels. And that photo of the insides of a fishing boat in your native Sardinia—it seems so intimate. I can tell how much you know and love your homeland, or should I say “homeisland”?

“It all ends with biscuits and wine.” —Italian proverb

Having seen these first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
Everywhere I go, one of the first places I visit are the local markets. I took this photo at a market in the town of Roulos in Cambodia, near Siem Reap, where most vendors lay out their products and merchandise on the ground. Witnessing this feast of fruits, veggies and different local fish being sold by locals to locals was a great way to soak up the local atmosphere and sense of community.

The market in Roulos, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Roadside market in Roulos, Cambodia (not far from Ankor Wat). Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Iran is also a place where I very much enjoy taking photos. First of all, the people are always willing to be photographed and they often take it as a chance to strike up a conversation, which is the best possible outcome of a day out as a traveler. Secondly, it’s not very hard to take nice photos thanks to the beauty of its historical landmarks, architecture, parks and bazaars. Finally, Iranian style has a certain opulence, which translates into lavish meals, sophisticated art and loud gatherings. I took this photo at my friend’s house in the city of Lahidjan, in Gilan Province, Iran (on the Caspian Sea). Her mother had prepared some traditional dishes so that I could sample the local cuisine.

An Iranian feast. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

A sumptuous feast of traditional foods in Lahijan, Iran. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Maybe because I live here now, but Rome is also one of my favorite places to capture with my camera. It offers many diverse subjects and situations, ranging from ancient Roman baths and villas to the traditional life of the Garbatella area, the industrial archaeology of the Ostiense neighborhood or the urban pop art that is gradually turning Rome’s suburbs into open-air museums. The photo I chose is from an area called Quadraro, once mainly considered a working-class district and now revamped thanks to a street art project that has taken over most walls around the neighborhood.

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Street art livens up Quadraro, a neighborhood in Rome’s southeast periphery. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Wow, that last one makes me think of an Italian Alice in Wonderland! And the two food photos were amazing, each in their own way.

“When in Rome…” —early Christian proverb (now universal)

I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
Yes, I do feel I need to be cautious when taking photos of people as I’m essentially capturing a moment of their life. I must admit, I love taking photos of the locals as they add to the value of the image and give a great sense of place, but obviously if I’m close and have the chance to converse, I always try to get familiar and make them feel more at ease. I also try not to point my lens directly in anyone’s face.

In Cambodia, for example, I had the opportunity to visit two floating villages, Kompong Khleang near Siem Reap and Phsar Krom on the way to Phnom Penh, and while I understand that tours are organized to make visitors experience life on the water and show them how Cambodians live, I sometimes felt as if we were invading their private space. I could imagine the locals wondering why tourists were so interested in their daily life—a life that seemed to me a never-ending struggle for survival.

Here is a photo from that trip, which perhaps helps to demonstrate my point:

Kompong Khleang, considered the most authentic of the three floating villages around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

Kompong Khleang, a floating village near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and home to around 1,800 families. Photo credit: Angela Corrias (supplied).

“Take pleasure in your dreams…” —Giotto di Bondone

When did you become interested in photography?
Ever since I decided to work as a freelance writer, I’ve taken photos to accompany my articles. Gradually, however, especially after I took a course on reportage photography in Rome, photography has became more of a passion and a source of inspiration, so much so that I’m starting to think about focusing on photography alone and having an exhibition one day. I enjoy devoting a whole day to taking pictures. And of course, the more I take photos the better I do with my writing. It gives me ideas for blog posts.

What is it about this art form that drew you in?
Sometimes with a camera you can capture moments, looks, colors that maybe you don’t notice and you realize only afterwards, when looking at the photos. I also like the way images can be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s perspective. We need words, too, to avoid misunderstandings, but when it comes to art forms, an image can convey emotions and a kind of poetry that speaks to other people.

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
After seven years of Nikon D50, I upgraded my photo gear with a Nikon D7100 last year, and I love it. I have four lenses: the normal 18-55 that I bought with my first camera and that I’m about to replace with one with bigger aperture; a Nikon 70-200; a Sigma 10-20; and a Nikon 50mm. While I started as a self-learner, I eventually felt the need to take a course, during which I improved a lot, especially when it comes to choosing the appropriate lens for particular subjects and situations. For post-processing software I use Adobe Photoshop—an early version, though, which I might need to upgrade.

“Either learn, or leave.” —Roman proverb

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
My advice would be to take time to interact with locals as much as possible. Understanding the host culture is crucial in order to take the pictures that will capture the essence of a place. Another piece of advice that I always try to follow myself, even though I know it’s not as straightforward as it may sound, is to get out of your comfort zone, even if this means feeling confused at first. You will adapt eventually; human beings always do. Finally, never be so arrogant to travel with the idea of imposing your own lifestyle and values on others, because it’s hardly ever the case that one culture is superior. It’s always better to travel with the idea of learning rather than teaching.

Thank you, Angela! I appreciate your sharing a selection of photos that show us how deeply you connect with the local scenery and people on your travels into various parts of the world. You seem to take the opposite approach to that of the Roman statesman Julius Caesar, he of veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) fame. At the same time, you clearly feel a strong connection with your native Sardinia and your new home of Rome. Your travels appear to have made you appreciate Italy’s own brand of beauty. Thank you again for doing this interview. Essere uno stinco di santo.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Angela’s peripatetic life and her photography advice? Please leave any questions or feedback for her in the comments!

If you want to get to know Angela Corrias and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her author site, where if you sign up for her e-newsletter, you’ll receive a free photo ebook on the Venice Carnival. Going to Rome any time soon? Visit Angela’s other site, Rome Actually, about her Roman adventures. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

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