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EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: Chandi Wyant’s algorithm for “Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy” (1/2)


Hello, Displaced Nationers—or should I say ciao in honor of our special guest, Chandi Wyant, player number three in our Expat Author Game?

Born in California, Chandi has lived in Qatar, India, Italy, Switzerland, and England, but of these, Italy easily stands out as her favorite. Her passion for the boot-shaped country began when she lived there in her late teens, a commitment that has only deepened over the years. Having learned Italian, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Florentine Renaissance history (giving her an excuse for plenty more visits).

And now she’s living in Italy again! Back in America for a while, Chandi relocated to Lucca a few months ago, a city on the Serchio river in Italy’s Tuscany region.

I ask you, who wouldn’t want to be displaced in Lucca? As Lonely Planet puts it:

“Lovely Lucca endears itself to everyone who visits.”

But life for Chandi hasn’t always been an Italian idyll. When she reached her early forties, her marriage of 10 years imploded, and she was struck by a debilitating illness from which she nearly died (in an Italian hospital!).

Her solution to this mid-life crisis? To take a 40-day-long walk along Via Francigena, the historic pilgrimage route that runs from France to Italy. She reasoned that, although she had been weakened by illness, she could still walk. And, like pilgrims of long ago, she hoped that trekking over the Apennines, through the valleys of Tuscany until reaching Rome, would help to restore her in body and spirit.

To find out what happened on her solo adventure, I urge you to read her newly published memoir, Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy.

Hm, for an author who has withstood so much pain, including having to do most of her epic walk while suffering from plantar fasciitis (that’s what walking on asphalt for several days, with a pack on one’s back, will do to the feet), I wonder if Chandi might find our Expat Author Game a bit of cake walk?

In any event, let’s see how she handles Part One: namely, developing an algorithm for her new book. (Part Two is available here.)

If we like Return to Glow, which movie/musical/play/TV series would we also like?

The first two movies that come to mind are Wild and The Way. In Wild you’ve got a single woman on a long-distance walk, so that’s the same as my book, although mine takes place in Italy and is on an ancient pilgrimage route. So then The Way comes in because it is on a European pilgrimage route—albeit in Spain, not Italy, and the protagonist is a man. Now, to add a movie that honors the sensuality of Italy, I would choose Stealing Beauty. It’s about an American girl’s summer in Tuscany and it’s very visually lush. Bertolucci is masterful at bringing alive a sensual and sybaritic Tuscan summer. My pilgrimage was not at all sensual or sybaritic, but what Bertolucci captures in this film is also what captured my heart when I first fell in love with Italy at age 19, and what kept me returning there for the past 30 years.

What meal or dish would go well with reading your book?

If I may, I like to reference a post I wrote for my blog, Paradise of Exiles, about the three best dishes I ate in Florence last year:
1) Arista di maiale con salvia e rosmarino (roasted pork loin with sage and rosemary)
2) Tagliatelle con porcini e nepitella (pasta with porcini mushrooms and calamint, aka basil thyme)
3) Pizza bianca con asparagi, cipolloti primaverili, fiordilatte, e pecorino Romano (pizza with asparagus, spring onions, fresh mozzarella, and pecorino cheese)

Any of these three dishes would go wonderfully when reading my book!

If your book had a signature cocktail, what would it be?

Vin Santo, Tuscany’s dessert wine.

Are there any special clothes/headgear/costumes/accessories we could wear to put us in the mood for reading your book?

In a museum on the pilgrimage route I saw a replica of what a pilgrim from the middle ages wore, including the long staff that was carried with a gourd tied to it (the medieval Nalgene bottle!). You need a cloak, a seashell hanging around your neck, and a long staff with a gourd.

If we wanted to take a mini-trip to understand your story better, where would you recommend we travel and which one or two sights should we take in?

Pick any location on the Via Francigena in Italy! Or take my suggestions in this post of four small places found along the route, that are perhaps less familiar to tourists, and that contain historic sites worth discovering:
1) Pontremoli, a town at the base of the Apennines, on the Magra River.
2) Bagno Vignoni, a town in southern Tuscany where the main piazza is a pool of steaming thermal water!
3) Bolsena, a town in the region of Lazio, near the shores of Lake Bolsena.
4) Sutri, a town in northern Lazio that was one of the last strongholds of the Etruscans.

* * *

So, readers, tell us: Has Chandi come up with a winning algorithm? Does the thought of slipping into a medieval travel cloak and taking a swig of Vin Santo from your gourd while trekking along the Via Francigena make you want to buy Chandi’s book? How about supping on pizza bianca while recalling the excitement of reading/watching Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and/or imagining yourself immersed in the relaxing thermal baths at Bagno Vignoni?

If by now you’re starting to feel your inner glow, be sure to check out Chandi’s author site and its companion Facebook and Instagram pages.

And STAY TUNED for Part Two next week!

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

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Photo credits: Book cover and other photos (supplied).

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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.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

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Trevi Fountain blesses American woman’s coins, granting her true love, a new life abroad, and now a book (we’re giving it away!)

Catherine Tondelli book signing photoWhile an expat in Japan, I mastered the ritual of tossing coins into the offering box, or saisenbako, at the Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple while clapping twice (to attract divine attention) and then making a short prayer.

In the West, of course, we toss coins into fountains and make a wish, but I’d never been one for doing that.

I might start trying it, though, now I’ve read Catherine Tondelli’s memoir, Three Coins in the Fountain, which recounts the luck she had in finding a mate the moment she tossed three coins into the Trevi fountain in the Città Eterna.

Sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood film, doesn’t it? Except, wait a minute, that film has already been done (in the 1950s)!

And it’s real life we are talking about here, not the movies.

Besides, Tondelli has kindly granted me three wishes:

  1. She will answer some questions about her memoir as well as her writing process (see below).
  2. She will GIVE AWAY TWO COPIES (hard copy or Kindle) to the two readers who toss in the best comment below.
  3. She will make the book available for free download for a short period—to be revealed at some point in our weekly Displaced Dispatch. (What? Not a subscriber? SIGN UP NOW!)

Before we start, I should mention that Tondelli’s book has been likened to another book recounting travels in the wake of divorce: Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. But for me, a half-Italian American, Tondelli’s more restricted itinerary makes a a lot more sense. Who needs India and Bali when you can easily get the whole package—great food, a renewed faith in relationships and family, and love—in Bella Italia?

Like me, Tondelli is half-Italian, and I like to think it’s that ancestry that made her realize the truth of Madonna Louise Ciccone’s assertion: “Italians do it better.”

* * *

3-Coins-in-Fountain-by-Catherine-Tondelli_dropshadowWelcome, Catherine. I read your book not long after I’d finished Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend, which we featured in this space this past November. But that was an autobiographical novel based on Jackie’s marriage to an Italian man. So here’s my question: did you ever consider telling your story as fiction, or perhaps using it to develop a film script for a romantic comedy?
I originally thought about writing it as a novel, but my story was so unique and it gave so much hope to women who have given up all hope of ever finding the man of their dreams after 40 years old. Most people would never believe that stories like this really do happen and that true love will find you as easily as tossing some coins in a fountain. I also felt that many people could relate to my crazy stories of growing up in a large family. In the 1960s it was normal to have families of seven or more children; but, with the exception of Cheaper by the Dozen, there is very little written about large families. You have a lot of crazy stories when you grow up with ten siblings!

Yes, I noticed in the press release for the book that you grew up in Chicago as one of 11 kids who were left behind by a deadbeat, jazz musician dad. Can you tell us a little more about your relationship with the man who bequeathed you the surname “Tondelli”? After all, he features in the book quite a bit as well.
I had a very challenging relationship with my father and harbored resentment towards him for many years. I was only 12 years old when he walked out on my mother. It had a huge impact on the relationships I had and the men I chose. A daughter’s first bonding with any man is with her father: he is her first boyfriend, role model for the men she chooses. We often repeat what we know rather than what we want: we need “familiar,” even if it’s unhealthy. I kept choosing unsuitable men until fate stepped in and finally tossed me a “get a good man” coin to throw in the Trevi fountain.

Did you and your father ever reconcile?
I didn’t speak to him for twenty years. We finally reunited when I was attending a conference in Las Vegas and he was a musician playing on the strip. I called him and we had dinner together. We hugged and kissed at the end of the evening: it was a huge healing moment in my life. I was never as close to him as I was to my mother but we had a good relationship up until the day he passed away one year ago. Writing about him also helped me to heal.

Sono pazzo di te (I’m crazy about you…or am I just crazy?!)

Now turning to the man who would become your husband, the handsome and irrepressible Fausto. Since romance is a big part of what your book is about, I’d like to recount the first moment when the pair of you set eyes on each other. Newly divorced, you were traveling in Italy with your mom and had by that time reached Rome and the Fontana di Trevi, where your mother handed you three coins and urged you to wish for a nice man to come into your life. At that very moment, you heard an Italian man say: “Eeffa you wanta your wish to comb true, you avv to trow the coins witah your layft (h)and as eet’s closer to your (h)art…”
Yes, and then he asked if I knew “de meaning of da tree coins”:

“Da first coin, you find your love in Rome, da second coin, you return to Rome and the t(h)ird coin, you marry in Rome.”

And that’s what happened: he and I fell in love, I returned, and we got married.

Chi ama me, ama il mio gatto (Whoever loves me, loves my cat)

Jackie Townsend entitled her book “Imperfect Pairings” because she thinks Americans have an idyllic view of cross-cultural marriage with Europeans, thinking it sounds very romantic—whereas the reality tends to be culture clash after culture clash. You seem to believe in the romance while also acknowledging there were hurdles along the way. After you got over assuming Fausto was gay, you suspected you might be just one in a long line of fountain pick-ups. And even after he at last won your trust, you and he had to struggle to get used to each other’s habits. He did not take well at first to sleeping with your beloved Siamese cats, for instance.
Three Coins is not your stereotypical girl-on-holiday-meets-man-of-her-dreams-and-lives-happily-ever-after. Yes, we did meet on my trip to Italy, but falling in love and moving to Italy was the last thing I’d expected. I came to Italy only after I had worked for three years in London and only when finding a good job in Rome. And when he proposed, I called my sister.

I like that you put a map at the beginning of the book, showing all the destinations you and Fausto traveled to together, before you decided to live in the same place. I presume Italy and Italian culture were an adjustment?
Even though I grew up in an Italian American household, the cultural learning curve for me was huge.
My mother descends from Irish stock, and Fausto couldn’t believe his ears when I told him my Irish grandmother had put money aside in her will to host a luncheon following her funeral for all her friends and family. When his father passed away, we went down to the morgue to say our last goodbye and then off to the church and finally the cemetery, all within two hours. No lunch, no funeral home, no photographs—it was all too fast, no time to mourn to grieve with family or friends. A real Mork & Mindy moment for me.

Was that your most displaced moment: when you thought, what’s a nice girl like me doing with an Italian?
That’s one, and another would be the Christmas after we moved into our new palazzo in Rome. I went to our five neighbors in the building and brought them Christmas cookies I made and a bottle of Spumante. Fausto looked at me with all my plates of cookies and bottles of Asti in my hand and said: “My love, what are you doing??” I went on to explain that we always bring something over to the next door neighbors in America for Christmas. He just stood there and smiled and said “We don’t do that in Italy.” I said, well, we’re going to start now!

Can you also pinpoint your least displaced moment, the first time you realized you felt much more comfortable with him and in Italy than you do with a man from your own culture in the U.S.?
I think it was when there was a Lazio (Rome) football game on TV and instead he took me to see a classical music concert at the Auditorium. He wasn’t telling me all night how much he was giving up for me…he really enjoyed the concert! I am a big baseball fan, not soccer. I was thrilled.

Non si serra mai una porta che non se n’apra un’altra (When one door closes another opens)

Moving on to the writing of the book: What was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Being constantly turned down by traditional publishers. Also, people I knew who already had books published weren’t very encouraging. Luckily, I didn’t let them get me down. After shopping it around for about six months, I decided to self publish. I realized with all my marketing and PR experience I could do a better job then they could in promoting my book in getting it to the right audience.

I see that you’ve listed Francesca Maggi as a co-author. How did that relationship work?
I was lucky as she was an editor and also an author and a friend. She had just published Burnt by the Tuscan Sun, and I asked for her help on the editing process. I gave her my manuscript and she polished and refined it pointing out my weaknesses and suggested options to strengthen those areas. She was instrumental in getting the flow right and helped with the technical elements. She was a natural choice for me as we share a common love of Italy and America, and she knew my husband well.

Can you offer any advice for others who are writing memoirs and hoping to publish them?
Don’t get discouraged. Publishing a book is not easy but if you have a good story, you now at least have options to get it out there. I love this quote by women’s fiction writer Jennifer Weiner:

The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence—the ability to make yourself work at your craft, every day—the belief, even in the face of obstacles, that you’ve got something worth saying.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
I really thought the target would be women between 20 and 60 (I do get a lot of emails from women like myself, and am happy they can relate), but I have been amazed at how many men also have written to me to say how much they enjoyed reading it. Obviously anyone who loves Italy, old-time romance, or stories of expat life in Europe would find it entertaining.

What do men like about the book?
I’ve had some nice comments from men who said that they were taking notes on Fausto’s techniques… Many of them also grew up in a large family. Also, Fausto was still a bachelor at 50. His story, too, can be inspiring!

Living La Dolce Vita

In your book you question whether Americans have their values in the right place given that we take so little vacation compared to people in Europe. Have you continued to feel this way about the U.S. since marrying Fausto and settling down in Rome?
Two years ago I decided to live like the Romans do and started working for myself so I could spend more time in the US visiting family and friends and also have more time to enjoy La Dolce Vita.

Do you think you could come back to live in the United States? What would be the adjustments?
After living in Italy for more than 12 years it would be very difficult for me to return to live in the US. Fausto and I have discussed moving back to California as he also acts in film and there are many more opportunities, but then we thought: how can we go and live in a city where they close the restaurants at ten o’clock? It would be very difficult to replace our lifestyle in the US. That said, I would love to transport the US postal office here as Italy still doesn’t have postal stamp machines. I bring my book and my computer now when I go to the post office as I know I’ll be spending the day there.

10 Questions for Catherine Tondelli

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Blood from a Stone, by Donna Leone, part of her crime series set in Venice.
2. Favorite literary genre: Biographies or autobiographies: real-life stories are always so much more interesting than anything you could make up. That said, I also enjoy reading fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I usually have long flights as my mother lives in San Diego and I fly from Rome three or four times per year to see her couple that with all the travel I do for my work (am working on events in Dubai, Nairobi, Singapore and London at the moment). I always have three or four books in my library at home that I wait eagerly to put in my carry-on bag for my long, hopefully peaceful journey. I am old fashioned and still like to feel the paper when i read a book.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Jimmy Carter’s book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. I believe that Jimmy Carter has been one of our great leaders yet he is so humble. He was my 95-year-old grandmother’s favorite president. He tells us that for example the USA gives far less foreign aid to developing countries than most people imagine. And, much of this aid goes to certain select countries whose loyalty we are trying to buy rather than because we want to help the poor. The book opened up my eyes to understand how we are perceived internationally. It will give Obama a good reminder that values and morals are more important than being powerful.
5. Favorite books as a child: Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
6. Favorite heroine: I have many but at the moment it is Malala, the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban and survived.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Beatrix Potter. I loved her books as a child, and she was also one of the early pioneer woman who broke the male barrier in publishing.
8. Your reading habits: I like to read in bed with my two Siamese cats (Stella and Luisa) on my lap.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Three Coins in the Fountain, of course!
10. The book you plan to read next: E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, by Pam Grout. She provides experiments that prove our thoughts really do create our reality.

* * *

Thanks so much, Catherine. Readers, your turn! Any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Catherine? What would YOU wish for with your three coins, having heard her story? Come on, Valentine’s Day is coming! Surely, someone out there aspires to be the next heart wearing the valentine of the Frank Sinatra song?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s TCK TALENT column, by Lisa Liang.

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

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

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

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

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

So who can aid us, provide our inspiration?

Why, the muses of course!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great work, if you can get it!

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

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

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

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

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

The mind boggles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Catching up with this year’s Random Nomads over the holidays (3/3)

RandomNomadXmasPassportIt’s Christmas Day and the holiday party continues for the expats and other global voyagers who washed up on the Displaced Nation’s shores in 2012. Remember all those Random Nomads who proposed to make us exotic meals based on their far-ranging meanderings? Not to mention their suitcases full of treasures they’d collected and their vocabularies full of strange words… How are they doing these days, and do they have any exciting plans for the holidays? Third in a three-part series (see also Part One and Part Two).

During the final third of 2012, we met some expats and intrepid world travelers who, I think it’s fair to say, have developed some rather unusual hobbies and eating habits. The two are one and the same in the case of Brian MacDuckston, who was featured on our site this past August. He has made a habit of eating ramen in as many Tokyo venues as possible — a hobby that was quirky enough to attract the attention of the New York Times. In addition to Brian — a San Franciscan who originally went to Japan to teach English — we encountered:

  • Liv Gaunt, an Englishwoman who became an expat accidentally, while pursuing her love of scuba diving and underwater photography. Now based in Australia, she told us she has a passion for sharks but would happily do without sea urchins.
  • Mark Wiens, an American third culture kid who now lives in Thailand and travels all over — he feels least displaced when sampling other countries’ street foods.
  • Jessica Festa, an American traveler who loves to venture off the beaten track and eat locally — she did not hesitate to eat cuy in Ecuador (even though it reminded her of her pet guinea pig, Joey, named after a school crush).
  • Larissa Reinhart, a small-town Midwesterner who lived in Japan for several years and, since repatriating, has taken up the pen as a crime novelist. She is now living in small-town Georgia but hopes to go abroad again. She provides recipes for Asian fried chicken, among other delicacies, on her blog about life as an ex-expat.
  • Patricia Winton, an American who responded to 9/11 by giving up her comfortable life in Washington to become an expat crime writer in Rome. She also invested in a pasta-making machine…
  • Bart Schaneman, a Nebraskan who wanted to see the world and has made his home in Seoul, where he is an editor for an English-language newspaper and author of a travelogue on the Trans-Siberian railway. He is a huge fan of kimchi.

Three of this esteemed group are with us today. What have they been up to since a few months ago, and are they cooking up anything special for the holidays, besides chatting with us?

Brian with Ramen_Xmas1) BRIAN MACDUCKSTON

Have there been any big changes in your life since we last spoke?
I’ve been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched my first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. A start! I also started a ramen class aimed at non-Japanese speakers. Check it out!

How will you be spending the holidays this year?
A nice staycation in Tokyo.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating, dare I ask?
I’m trying to eat more high-class sushi, but I’ll probably just stick to a lot of ramen for the next few weeks.

Can you recommend any books or films you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life?
I really enjoyed Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about the most revered sushi chef in the world. [Editor’s note: The film has been available on Netflix since last August.]

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
I want to train myself to stop using double spaces after periods when I write. Not a big goal, but important for someone who has an interest in being paid for my writing.

A worthy goal, imho! (I’ve had to correct quite a few in my time…) So, any upcoming travel plans?
My father will visit Japan, so I am planning a luxury week-long trip of eating and relaxing in hot springs. Two things I’m good at!

LarissaReinhart&Reinhart2) LARISSA REINHART

Any big developments in your life since we last spoke?
My second Cherry Tucker Mystery, Still Life in Brunswick Stew, has a release date of May 21, 2013. [Editor’s note: As mentioned in Larissa’s interview, the first in her Cherry Tucker series, Portrait of a Dead Guy, came out this year.]

How will you be spending the holidays this year?
We travel to visit my family in Illinois and St. Louis after Christmas through New Year’s.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
There’s this Italian grocery, Viviano’s, in the Italian district of St. Louis, called The Hill in St. Louis, that I really look forward to visiting. I’ll stock up on cheap wine and Italian staples for the coming year.

Can you recommend any books or films you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life?
Yes, two Japanese films:

  1. The fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I highly recommend — even for non-sushi fans. The film is beautifully shot and reveals what it takes to be a true master at something. Incredible.
  2. The gorgeous The Secret World of Arrietty (aka The Borrower Arrietty), scripted by Hayao Miyazaki. We were excited to see Arrietty because we saw the ads for the movie when we were still living in Japan (and I’m a big fan of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, on which the film is based, as well as of Miyazaki).

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
To spend less time on social media and more time writing. I love chatting online, but I need to be more disciplined about getting away from the “water cooler” and back to work.

Any upcoming travel plans?
Disney World for spring break! Woot! And we’re hoping to get back overseas soon, but no definite plans yet.

PatriciaWintonwithholly3) PATRICIA WINTON

Any big changes in your life since we last spoke a couple of months ago?
The month after you featured me, I put my long-time WIP in the bottom drawer for a while and started a new one. I’ve written about 30,000 words. This one, also a mystery, is set in Florence. It takes place during the 500th anniversary celebration of the world’s first culinary society.

Meanwhile, my blog partners at Novel Adventurers are working on an anthology of long short stories. We are an adventurous group comprising (besides me):

  • an Australian who has lived in South America
  • an American of Swiss-German origin who is married to a man from Iran, where they frequently travel
  • an American with close family ties in India, where she frequently travels
  • an American specializing in things Russian, who is married to a Kyrgyz
  • a former Peace Corps volunteer who writes about the Caribbean
  • an American who grew up on a sailboat traveling the world and has lived as an adult in many countries.

We’ll be writing about travel and adventure from international perspectives. It will be some time before it sees publication, but I’ll keep you posted. I think it will interest the Displaced Nation!

Where will you be spending the holidays this year?
I’m spending the holidays quietly at home. I plan to visit a friend in the country for New Year’s weekend. The holidays here last almost three weeks, ending on January 6. Nativity scenes are a big deal here, and I plan to visit various churches to view, and photograph, them as I usually do. I’ll write about them on my blog, Italian Intrigues, on January 3rd.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
Christmas Eve in Italy is devoted to eating fish — usually seven fish dishes from antipasto onward. I’m trying out a new recipe for sea bass stuffed with frutta del mare (non-fin fish). I’m using clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and baby octopus, all well laced with garlic. And I always make the holiday custard that comes from my Tennessee childhood.

Can you recommend any books you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life?
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. While it was published in 2010, I didn’t read it until this year, and I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s about a man with one foot in Mexico and the other in the US — but that’s a vast oversimplification. After the young man’s Mexican mother dies, he works for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera while Leon Trotsky is staying with them. He later moves to the US to join his American father. He eventually becomes a successful writer caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt. I don’t want to include spoilers here, but it’s fabulous. The boy/man is a foreigner in both countries and speaks both languages with an accent.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
Not that I want to share.

Last but not least, do you have any upcoming travel plans?
No concrete travel plans at the moment. While composing these answers, I received an email about a tour of Uzbekistan that sounds really alluring. And I will probably go to the US to attend a mystery writers conference.

* * *

Readers, any questions for this rather motley (one former expat and two current ones) but highly creative bunch?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post — expat Anthony Windram’s musings on spending Boxing Day in a country that associates boxing with punching, not (Christmas) punch.

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Images: Passport photo from Morguefiles; portrait photos are from the nomads (Larissa Reinhart’s shows her family in front of one of their favorite Japanese manga characters, Shin-chan, a sort of Bart Simpson of Japan — the creator, Yoshito Usui, had recently died).

RANDOM NOMAD: Patricia Winton, Crime Writer, Expat in Rome & Lover of La Dolce Vita

Place of birth: In a farmhouse belonging to my paternal grandparents near Pelham, Tennessee, on a snowy December night
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Italy (Marina di Pisa, Livorno, Rome): 1969-70; 1970-71; 2002 – present.
Occupation: Crime Writer. My protag is an Italian American journalist rebuilding a career as a food writer in Italy. She first appeared in “Feeding Frenzy,” one of the mystery stories in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology, edited by Ramona DeFelice Long (Wildside Press, 2011). She’s waiting in the wings in an as yet unsold manuscript, set in Rome. She will solve another crime in the novel I’m beginning next week (for National Novel Writing Month), set in Florence.
Cyberspace coordinates: Italian Intrigues — Notes about life in Italy, food and wine, mysteries and crime (blog); Novel Adventurers — Seven writers blog about their passion for culture, travel, and storytelling (collaborative blog); @patriciawinton (Twitter handle); and Novel Adventurers (FB page).

What made you abandon your homeland for Italy?
I had the opportunity to come live in Italy when I was quite a young woman, and I lost my heart to the land, the people, and the cuisine — not to mention the wine. I talked about coming back to live for years, but life intervened. Following 9/11 (I worked a block from the White House at the time), I really felt my mortality and decided it was time to make the move. Or to stop talking about it.

Was anyone else in your immediate family displaced?
One of my sisters lived in Panama for three years. Another lives in New Mexico, a state that many people think is a foreign country. One classic example: New Mexicans had trouble trying to get tickets to the Atlanta Olympics and were told to go the the Mexican consulate. The situation is so ridiculous that New Mexico Magazine runs a monthly column called “One of Our 50 Is Missing.”

Tell me about the moment during your various stays in Italy when you felt the most displaced.
“Bureaucracy” may be a French word, but the Italians invented it. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to consider the Biblical story of Christmas: a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, each to his own city.

Getting together the paperwork to file for permanent residency was a nightmare. After almost a year of compiling documents, it all came down to what the Italians saw as a discrepancy: my passport lists my place of birth as Tennessee while my birth certificate, issued by the state of Tennessee, listed my place of birth as Pelham. Getting that sorted out took six months. During the interregnum, every document including my permission to stay expired. I couldn’t renew anything until the residency question was settled.

When did you feel the least displaced?
It’s always at table. On the edge of a Tuscan vineyard enjoying homemade pasta and good wine, sharing laughter with friends. Before a roaring fire in a chilly stately home with simple chicken and salad, but more laughter and wine. With a group of strangers in at a local market luncheonette, querying a table-mate about her meal and being offered a share.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of the countries where you’ve traveled or lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A morsa di prosciutto (prosciutto holder). While most prosciutto crudo sold in Italy as elsewhere is machine-sliced, traditional purists want it cut by hand. To hold the ham steady, it’s placed in the morsa, a large clamp that hold it, while a knife is used to slice.

Hmmm… I hope it won’t be deployed by the murderer in one of your crime novels as an instrument of torture! I understand that when you first went to Italy, you learned to make pasta by hand, and then took a pasta machine back to the United States, where you taught many others how to make it, while also writing a food column for a newspaper. We are therefore looking forward to the meal you are invited to prepare for Displaced Nation members, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?

Indeed, I’ll be serving a traditional Italian meal:
Antipasto (appetizer): Fiori di zucca faraciti (zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, dipped in batter and fried)
Primo piatto (first plate — traditionally the pasta, rice, or soup course): Gnocchi di Zucca alla Gorgonzola (pumpkin dumplings with gorgonzola sauce)
Secondo piatto (main course): Grigliata Mista di Pesce (mixed fish grill)
Contorni (vegetable accompaniment): Finocchio (fennel)
Frutta: Pesca (peach)
Dolce (dessert): Tiramisù
Bevande (drinks): Acqua minerale frizzante (fizzy mineral water); and Falanghina (white wine made from one of the oldest grapes grown in Italy)
.

And now can you please suggest an Italian word or expression for the Displaced Nation’s argot?
One that I’m currently enjoying is in gamba, meaning “in the leg.” In general, it means “to be an expert” or “to be good at what you do.” But it means so much more. I wrote an extensive piece about the phrase at Novel Adventurers recently.

Halloween is nearly upon us, and many of our posts of late have been about horror and that sort of thing. Tell me, do you keep up American Halloween celebrations in Rome?
I haven’t really celebrated Halloween since I was a child. I spent much of my adult life working on political campaigns. With Halloween falling days before the election, I never seemed to get organized for it. Here in Italy, it’s a relatively new holiday and more for adults than children, really. Children dress up for carnival, wearing their costumes to school for days before Martedì Grasso (Italian for Mardi Gras).

There are Halloween-related items for sale (plastic Jack O’ Lanterns and such), but no pumpkins for making Jack O’ Lanterns. Those are reserved for cooking. If I do anything to celebrate, I cook pumpkin, either as a vegetable or as part of the primo piatto.

Also in keeping with the season, we’ve started exchanging expat horror stories on the site. What’s the creepiest situation you’ve encountered on your travels?
The creepiest thing that ever happened to me occurred many years ago on a train from Munich to Florence. It started off pleasantly enough. I shared a compartment with five or six other people. A couple of them spoke only German. One woman spoke Italian and German, a man spoke German and English, and I spoke English and Italian. We had a polyglot conversation, with people translating for others and listening to see how much of the foreign tongues we could decipher. It was lots of fun. They all left the train before I did, and each warned me to be careful on my long journey as they descended one by one.

Alone, I moved near the window, and the rocking of the train lulled me to sleep. Quite some time later, I was awakened by the conductor turning on the lights to check tickets. I discovered that I had been joined in the compartment by a man who was in the act of pleasuring himself in the dark while I slept.

Now THAT’s creepy! Readers — yay or nay for letting Patricia Winton into The Displaced Nation? Not only can she cook, but she can tell a shocking story! (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Patricia — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another horrifying Displaced Q by Tony James Slater!

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Img: Patricia Winton (author photo)

For expat novelist Laura Graham, even a dark Tuscan alley has La Dolce Vita to spare

“Down a Tuscan Alley” — when I first heard the title of Laura Graham’s debut novel about an Englishwoman in Tuscany, I assumed it would be a thriller or mystery. Something nefarious would happen down a Tuscan alley, and the protagonist, whose name is Lorri, would find herself enmeshed in events beyond her comprehension, fearful of getting caught in the crossfire between rival Mafia gangs…

The book is no such thing, I’m happy to report (I’m not a fan of Mafia thrillers). Strange things do happen in the dark alley outside of the tiny flat where Lorri lives in the Centro Storico (village on a hill) of the Tuscan town of Sinalunga — but nothing worse than a peeping Tom. And at one point there’s a shady-looking man following Lorri — but he turns out to be (relatively speaking) harmless.

No, the book’s real mystery has to do with why Lorri is living in a tiny Tuscan village on her own. Well, she’s not on her own but has two cats. The last time she was in Sinalunga, it was with her husband, Richard. They had bought the flat together and Richard fixed it up. But now their marriage is over because of Richard’s infidelity. Or Lorri thinks it is over — Richard is having second thoughts.

Lorri, however, is determined. She has come to Italy to get lost in the culture and start her life again. But is she doing the right thing? Her Italian neighbors treat her with some suspicion: what’s a woman doing living on her own, with no visible means of support? (She has decided to do B&B in her little flat, but since it has only one bedroom, when the guests come, she has to sleep on the sitting room floor.)

And she also has to persuade herself to trust her gut instincts. As she says toward the start of the novel:

Am I crazy to come here? Hardly any grasp of the language, forty-seven, alone and with virtually no money? Many would think so…

Lest you think we’re venturing into Under the Tuscan Sun territory, rest assured, we’re not. Lorri does not take life, let alone her midlife predicament, too seriously. This is a flat overlooking an alley we’re talking about, not a 250-year-old villa. And so what if she ends up seizing an opportunity to get involved with the handsome young builder Ronaldo? Isn’t La Dolce Amore the quickest way to obtain La Dolce Vita?

But before I get too carried away with the story, let me turn the conversation over to Laura Graham, who has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about both her book and her life story — which, as she freely admits, the novel is based on.

The decision to write an autobiographical novel

Thank you so much, Laura, for agreeing to this chat. Your story — both in the book and in real life — neatly combines the two themes we’ve been talking about on The Displaced Nation this month: the quest for La Dolce Vita and the need for taking a “midlife gap year,” which sometimes heralds an even bigger life change. But let’s start by having you talk a little about your background — where you were born, what you studied and why you went to live in Italy.
I was born and brought up on the Isle of Tiree on the West Coast of Scotland for the first six years of my life. I then came to London and entered a convent school.

Later, as an adult, I won a scholarship to study drama at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for two years. I received the prize for being the most promising student and immediately got a job understudying Helen Mirren in The Balcony at the Aldwych Theatre in London. I had a long and successful acting career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic, also on television.

When my long relationship ended with my former partner, I felt the need to turn my life around and decided to begin again in Italy. About ten years before, I’d invested £6,000 in a tiny hilltop village apartment in Tuscany, never thinking that one day it would become my permanent home. I still live in the village, but in a house, with my partner Rosalbo, a property restorer and an artist (he paints cats!). Besides writing, I run my own holiday agency, called “Laura’s Houses.”

Down the Tuscan Alley is your first novel. Have you written anything else?
I have also written a book for children called A Tale of Two Tuscan Cats, which was published last October. It has recently come out in Italian. Rosalbo did the illustrations.

What made you decide to write a novel about a middle-aged woman who is determined to change her life by moving abroad?
Because I’ve experienced it and thought it would make a good story — and might help others so inclined.

Why a novel and not a memoir?
I wrote my story in a novel form to protect the people I wrote about — I’ve changed their names, although some of them are now dead.

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
Women like myself, who want more from life than just settling into middle age with nothing but memories. Life is to be lived!

One of your Amazon reviewers wrote: “Brava! Brava! Brava! I loved reading Down a Tuscan Alley. The comic cast of characters brought me to the heart of bellisima Italia.” Other readers, however, said they were grateful that the book isn’t just about how beautiful Italy is. To which parts of the story have most readers responded?
The parts that are thought-provoking — about losing oneself in another culture in order to find oneself — and the humor are what people seem to enjoy.

Getting to the heart of La Dolce Vita…

From the time she arrives Italy, Lorri seems to be in touch with the little things that make her Tuscan alley so different from the Devonshire alley where she was living with friends, just before she left: the old stone steps, the steeple of the magnificent ochre-colored church she can see from her window, the birdsong… Is there something special about Italy that awakens the five senses?
In my opinion it is the light that awakens the senses. The light in Tuscany touches something in you, brings you to life — it’s like a medicine, a tonic.

Since you’re a former actress, would you say that daily life in Italy is more theatrical?
Living in Italy is certainly more theatrical than living in the UK. The people here are open and spontaneous.

And Lorri immediately becomes part of that drama. As her elderly English-speaking neighbor in Sinalunga, Lionello Torossi, says: “The people are delighted to see you…You are their portable theater.” But doesn’t some of the charm of a place have to do with its novelty value? Wouldn’t an Italian feel charmed by a Devonshire alley?
I think the Italians would be fascinated by a Devonshire back alley, if only to think — how is it possible to live there?

…and La Dolce Amore

At one point, Lorri is contemplating her affair with Ronaldo and says to herself: “How can you speak with your heart when you don’t know the words?” Call me a skeptic, but couldn’t their relationship change for the worse once their verbal communications improve?
No, I think Lorri would still find Ronaldo enchanting once she’s able to understand more of the language. But perhaps also more infuriating at times!

Lorri also says, with reference to Ronaldo: “These torrid passions are what happens to English women in hot countries.” Is romance so very different in Italy as compared to the UK?
Torrid passions indeed! The Italian art of seduction is very different from the UK. An Italian makes a woman feel every inch a woman and delights in her beauty and femininity no matter what her age.

Many of The Displaced Nation’s readers are in cross-cultural relationships. What do you find to be the biggest challenge about getting together with someone of another culture?
I cannot pretend it’s easy getting together for a long time with someone of a different culture — although it’s not the culture so much as the mentality. There are many things to learn, mainly about one’s self — and that’s always a challenge. Here in Italy, it’s the language I find most difficult and the humor, which is somewhat different from ours. Of the two, language is the bigger difficulty. Communicating is the key to success when living in another country. Otherwise, you can’t offer as much as yourself as you would like to.

The challenge of exporting La Dolce Vita

After living in a small Italian community for so long, do you think you could ever fit back into living in Britain?
No, I can’t imagine myself living again in the UK even though I go back twice a year and enjoy it. But if I had to I would adjust simply because I’m English. But the biggest culture shock — apart from the food — would be the people. I’ve grown so used to the warmth of the Italians.

Could you bottle the formula you’ve developed for La Dolce Vita in Tuscany and bring it back with you?
The only way to bottle the formula of the Tuscan Dolce Vita is to carry it inside my heart — and take it with me wherever I go.

Coming soon!

Please tell me that you’re working on another book. By the time I finished Down a Tuscan Alley, I’d grown fond of Lorri, Ronaldo and the various neighbors — and felt bereft!
I am on the last chapter of my next book: The Story of Kelly McCloud. This is also set in Italy and is about a young woman who takes a job as a housesitter in an Italian villa. Amongst an eccentric English family, a fallen angel and a dragon, she discovers how to use the whole of her brain and realizes the potentiality of the human race.

Assolutamente favoloso! Thanks so much, Laura!

Readers, you can purchase Down a Tuscan Alley on Amazon. You can also read more about Laura Graham at her author site. And, should you now feel tempted into trying out La Dolce Vita for yourself, then consider renting one of her two houses in the Centro Storico of Sinalunga. What are you waiting for?!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby, who has traded her Boston Red Sox cap for a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker in her quest to uncover her husband’s roots. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Laura Graham, on the terrace outside her house in Tuscany.

THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the most delicate flavor you’ve sampled on your travels?

In a month where many of our posts have explored La Dolce Vita, I’ve been posing a series of questions to nomadic types on the sensory delights the wider world has to offer.

Week after week, we’ve seen that if there’s such a thing as a formula for The Sweet Life — La Dolce Vita — it lies in learning how to take pleasure in simple things.

And, bless my little cotton socks, I happen to be a very simple sort.

Confession: I’m a bit taste-bud challenged!

As this is our week for taste, I was tempted to make a rather tasteless joke — but then thought better of it. Instead I will quote from displaced Chinese writer Lin Yutang, author of The Importance of Living (aptly titled, given our theme):

What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?

As much as I love travel, I’m one of those who finds it challenging to sample new tastes. It does not help matters that people seem to detect this about me right away and like to take the mickey by tricking me into trying new things.

The worst instance of that was in an Egyptian bazaar. One of the vendors encouraged me to taste the bright blue powder that was piled up enticingly in bowls identical to the cumin and crushed garlic you see on every spice stall in virtually every Middle Eastern bazaar. He pantomimed that I should wet the tip of my finger and dip it in for a sample…then chortled like mad as my face screwed up and my tongue shot out in disgust. It tasted like soap! Indeed, it was soap — laundry detergent, to be precise, which they sell by weight.  (Well, you’ve got to get your kicks from something! Actually, I think if I had to work all day long in a spice stall, I’d be playing tricks on tourists, too.)

Nothing like a Big Mac fix…

And now let us turn to the words of another wise man, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates:

The best seasoning for food is hunger.

For me this is borne out every time I hit the supermarket whilst hungry. Everything on the shelves sounds so delicious…far more so than when I discover it weeks later mouldering in the back of my cupboard, wondering why on earth I bought it.

It’s taught me never to go shopping on an empty stomach — a luxury that, for millions of people around the world, isn’t an option…

But back to Socrates. Hunger can certainly make anything taste better. After one particularly long (two-month) hike in Australia, where I lived almost exclusively on instant noodles, two-minute pasta packets, bread and water (and okay, a fair bit of chocolate!), I craved nothing so much as the rich, additive-laden satisfaction of a Big Mac. Even my wife agreed! The moment we reached Albany, Western Australia, the town the end of the trail, we didn’t even stop to rest our feet — just hiked straight through into McDonalds, and ordered about a thousand calories of heart-attack in a paper bag for each of us.

You know something? That burger tasted better than anything has ever tasted in any restaurant anywhere, ever. I mean it! I only wish I could have eaten more, but after a thousand kilometers on fairly limited rations, neither of us could finish more than half the meal. (For which I’m sure our arteries are still thanking us!)

…or a simple Thai stir-fry

In Thailand I was always at my hungriest after a full day’s diving. Diving seems like such a relaxing sport, but leading two dives a day gave me the most voracious appetite I’d ever known. I’d blast through the jungle on my little blue scooter with just one thought in mind: get to the market NOW!

Though I’d acquired a taste for quite spicy food, I always made a beeline for the same stall: a friendly old bloke with a wok and burner fastened to the sidecar of his motorbike. He served up thinly-sliced chicken on fried rice, with a small bowl of flavored water that I thought must be soup or tea, but was never quite sure which.

Whatever.

His stir-fries were plain, fresh, and SO delicious — I almost always went back for another serving! After I’d been going there for a couple of weeks, I didn’t even have to ask; the stall holder had a second portion ready for me as soon as I’d finished the first! I dread to think what happened to his takings when I left.

But the most delicate flavor of them all…

But there was something even more simple that attracted my taste buds while I was living in Thailand — so simple that it didn’t even involve cooking! I refer to the fruit salad I used to have for breakfast (on the rare mornings when I wasn’t diving) at the Thai resort where I lived. The resort owner, who was also the chef, was one of those people who whip up anything, and it was all fantastic. Pad Thai with crushed peanuts, various other noodle dishes, and deep-fried dumpling what-nots even the Thais can’t describe — so call them “no-names”!

But this woman’s fruit salad outdid them all — even though I had no idea what most of the fruits were! You can honestly taste the difference when you’re eating something that’s been picked less than fifty meters away. That fruit was so juicy, moist and colorful, it’s ruined me for fruit from anywhere else!

It just doesn’t taste the same when it comes from a supermarket down the road. Or maybe it did, before it was flash-frozen for transport and crossed an ocean or two.

It’s nothing to do with my carbon-footprint conscience, or a decision to support local industries. It Just Tastes Better.

Does that make me a snob?

It certainly makes me borderline malnourished.

Because I don’t get my 5 A Day. Not regularly. I just wait until my next trip to Thailand, where I try and eat my year’s supply of fresh fruit in two weeks.

As for what that does to my system…well, it’s not exactly delicate!

So tell me: what is the most delicate (or delicious) flavor(s) you’ve encountered on your travels? You can tell me in the comments, or jump on Twitter and drop a line to me @TonyJamesSlater +/or @DisplacedNation. And if you happen to have a mouthwatering photo to accompany your story, be sure to send it to me at tony@thedisplacednation.com. I’m working on the promised “la dolce vita” slideshow! 🙂

Bon appétit!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, an entertaining poll asking you to vote on which celebrities are most in need of a mid-life gap year! (Something fun for the holiday weekend…)

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I

Living La Dolce Vita with Heather Hamilton — Writer, Sailor & Adventurer

One year ago almost to the day, Heather Hamilton and her husband cast off their docklines in Annapolis, Maryland, in their 40-foot ketch. Since then, they’ve covered over 3,500 miles, up the east coast of the U.S. and down through the Caribbean island chain. Life on the open seas with nary a care in the world — sounds like La Dolce Vita, doesn’t it? I asked Hamilton to share the sensory highlights of her nautical adventures, along with a few “sweet life” tips for confirmed landlubbers.

Most heart-stopping sights

On the terrifyingly heart-stopping end of the spectrum: the sight of my mizzen-mast rocking back and forth (definitely something you don’t want) while the boat lurched in 12-foot seas and 45-knot winds. It nearly caused a heart attack. It was our first coastal offshore passage, and we were already sleep deprived and exhausted by the time the storm blew up overnight. We hove-to — that is, basically set the sails so that the boat could kind of “park” and wait out the blow. Pip was below, trying to get some rest, when I noticed that the mizzen sail just kept getting looser and looser, despite my many attempts to tighten it. Then I noticed the mast moving. PANIC!

Turns out, we had just had the rigging replaced, and during the big storm the new rig decided to undergo its initial stretching. The loosening of the stays had allowed the chocks to fall out of the mast’s base.

Despite the howling wind and lurching seas, Pip was able to tighten the rig and replace the chocks — only to discover that the pounding into the waves had splintered the bowsprit platform. After hours of work, we had finally secured the boat. We collapsed in a heap for some rest.

On the heart-stoppingly beautiful side of the spectrum: the hundreds of dolphins that danced around us on our trip down the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Norfolk, Virginia. Despite having spent my childhood sailing with my dad in California and having sailed for five years on the Chesapeake, I’d never seen dolphins in the wild. On this particular day, I saw more than I’ve ever seen since: the pod stretched literally further than the eye could see. We radioed a sailing buddy who was two miles ahead of us and he was also surrounded. They played in our bow wave and did acrobatic flips around the boat — but the most astounding thing was their sheer numbers. Hundreds is probably an understatement; there may well have been a thousand dolphins frolicking around us. It was magic.

Most intoxicating scent

Ganja. It’s ever-present in many of the Caribbean islands, and its characteristic skunky smell is nothing if not intoxicating. Local youths and gnarled old rastas alike lounge around the town square smoking their joints; in certain places you get the impression that half the population is stoned. Boat vendors — the men who approach your boat in an anchorage to help you anchor, sell you fish/fruit/veggies, do your laundry, or otherwise do just about anything you will pay them for (uh, no thanks…) — seem particularly fond of weed, often puffing away as they row their boats along.

As we entered a bay in St. Vincent, one particularly ill-mannered vendor shouted at me for declining his services. He sported a spliff literally the size of a stogie, leading Pip to dub him “Stoner Churchill.” His aggression was surprising. Given the amount of weed he’d clearly ingested, one would have expected a much mellower response!

Dreamiest sounds

When I was at home, I had a fancy-schmancy alarm clock that allowed you to fall asleep or awaken to different sounds, like a Zen bell or running water. My two favorites to listen to while falling asleep were the ocean waves and the frogs. Who doesn’t love to fall asleep to the sound of surf? And the sound of the frogs reminded me of the few weeks every spring when the spring peepers went wild in the remote Appalachian area where I grew up.

One night, when we were moored in the national park in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, I fell asleep in the cockpit to these two sounds playing in harmony: the real surf gently breaking on the rocks only a hundred yards from the boat, and the nighttime frogs’ chorus providing the treble counterpoint. Heaven.

Most delicate flavors

Tree-ripened mango in Dominica — actually, the taste itself is nowhere near delicate, but I enjoyed the subtle distinctions between the different kinds of mango the island has. We arrived in Dominica in mid-April, just as these tropical fruits were coming into season. Everywhere you looked, sticky children and adults were peeling mangoes and gnawing the flesh off the seed as they walked down the street, chilled on their porches, or waited for the bus. Mangoes rolled in the gutters, where they became treats for street dogs and chickens. Since mango trees are everywhere, it’s simple to pick up a long stick and knock down a few ripe ones anytime you get the craving.

One day, we hiked several miles to the top of a hill where we were greeted by the sight of a stunningly beautiful little farm nestled in the jungle. There were coconut palms, banana trees, taro and sweet potato plants cascading down the steep hills. The farm’s owner, Ti-Babe, was a gnarled old man with approximately six remaining teeth and the warmest smile and eyes you can imagine. Ti-Babe answered all of our questions about his farm before insisting that he load us up with mangoes, peeling open both the large and small mangoes he grew so that we could taste the difference between the two. (The smaller mango had an amazing flavor, with a little sour to balance the sickly sweetness characteristic of a really ripe mango, but was very fibrous.) We sucked on mangoes the whole way back, arriving back at the boat exhausted, sticky and sated.



Softest physical sensations

The feel of the current across my skin while floating along snorkeling in perfectly clear turquoise waters, bright tropical fish flitting underneath in the dappled sunlight. (Pretty much every other physical sensation on a cruising sailboat is intense, painful, or just uncomfortable!)

Most interesting unexpected encounter with a stranger

The other day, I talked the owner of a local beach bar in Bequia, the largest island in the Grenadines, into allowing me to write an article about how she makes her roti, which are a flat bread wrapped around curried fillings, a kind of West Indian burrito. I’d heard that her roti were excellent, but was most intrigued as other sailors had cautioned me that she took a long time to make them — mixing and rolling out the tortilla-like dough for each order rather than making several in a batch. We’d chatted with Ruthie briefly at the bar the day before, when her eight-year old son proudly served us our beers. Her wicked sense of humor promised a fun afternoon in the kitchen.

Ruthie chopped ingredients for the fillings and then walked me through the labor-intensive process of creating the dough, which involves folding cooked, mashed yellow split peas into a flour dough and then rolling it out carefully. While the dough rested, she demonstrated how to make the fillings — both the vegetarian (black-eyed pea/pumpkin) and fish kind, both of which are strongly flavored with Trinidadian curry powder, which is milder and sweeter than the spices used for Indian curries in the States.

As Pip and I tucked into the final, delicious product, we invited Ruthie to sit with us and chat — and that’s when the real fun started. She regaled us with stories of island life, including a side-splitting story about a gay dog she once had. We talked about life and politics and travel, laughing the afternoon away over beers and her delicious food. It was the first serious conversation I’ve had with a local that lasted more than ten minutes, and I know that when we return to Bequia in the future, I’ll seek out Ruthie right away to catch up and continue building our friendship.

The place that stimulates all five senses

Because my life is constant travel, my boat is that place. Living on a voyaging sailboat means that your senses are constantly being stimulated — and not always in pleasant ways. You are stimulated for instance by the smell of a full holding tank, the sight of an approaching squall, the sound of a storm howling in the rigging, the sensation of a rough anchorage that makes you seasick in your own home, and the bitter, dry taste of fear. On the other hand, taking your home with you opens amazing possibilities: staying in one place for long enough to really get to know it; taking days off to do nothing, knowing that another hike or snorkel or town will be there the next day to explore; meeting not just locals but adventurers who have sailed from all over the world; and — most importantly — going to sleep every night in a bed of your very own, cats cuddled at your side. A sailor’s life is bittersweet.

Favorite artist with a sense of dolce vita

In the British Virgin Islands, I was entranced by the art of a man named Aragorn, who had started an artists’ cooperative, complete with pottery studio and organic garden, in the town of Trellis Bay. Every month, Aragorn’s Studio hosts a full moon party, a traditional Caribbean jump-up held on the beach. Trellis Bay’s party is legendary because of Aragorn’s art. Known for his sculpture, Aragorn recently started creating large outdoor fire sculptures: steel spheres, pyramids or cubes that come to life with fire. He hand cuts elaborate silhouetted shapes into the steel to tell a story. On full-moon night, he mounts these sculptures in the sea just beyond the shoreline, fuels them with firewood and sets them ablaze. The roaring fire within the sculptures, each of which is the height of a man, makes the almost prehistoric-style figures seem to dance in the darkness, evoking the earliest cave paintings. All of the elements — water, earth, wind, fire — combine to evoke a kind of primal beauty.

Favorite travel quote

“Every great and commanding moment is the product of some enthusiasm.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I truly believe that without enthusiasm, life risks not only being terribly boring, but meaningless as well. Great things do not generally occur because one stumbles into them, but instead are the product of passion. Travel, with its many discomforts and trials, requires that one persevere with enthusiasm and passion. If you manage to do that, you’ll be rewarded accordingly — with great and commanding moments.

Advice for living la dolce vita under more mundane circumstances

The very same thing that makes travel great — but takes the most work — is something you can do at home: seek out new experiences and take the time to talk with people you meet while having them. I spent 15 years in Washington, DC, and while I hit the art museums more than some people would, I certainly didn’t begin to plumb the depths of experiences I could have had in that city. I wish I had taken the time to attend a service at the African-Methodist-Episcopalian church around the corner, whose rockin’ gospel shook the neighborhood windows every Sunday morning. I didn’t take any funky, historical tours or visit the off-the-beaten-path attractions. Most importantly, I didn’t take as much time to talk to people about their lives as I would have liked. When I travel, I’m good at asking questions and drawing people out; at home, I was in such a hurry to get things done that I didn’t take the time to ask the quirky characters omnipresent in any city about their lives. Travel is definitely a state of mind, a way of becoming an observer rather than a doer. Take a day now and then to become a traveler in your home town; it’s amazing what stories people have to tell.

A self-described “overachieving save-the-worlder” who used to run an international affairs advocacy group in Washington, D.C., Heather Hamilton is enjoying her newest incarnation as a writer, sailor and adventurer in the company of her husband, Pip Fryers. (Fryers has been sailing since he was a wee laddie in the Lake District of northern England.) You can learn more about this adventuresome pair and see where their boat is right now on their Picaroon Blog.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another expat book review, by Kate Allison.

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Staring at the sun — and 3 little “nothing” moments in my displaced life

Yesterday in San Francisco, at the corner of Folsom and 8th, I saw a middle-aged man holding up a sheet of dark glass and staring at the sun through it. “It’s beautiful,” he said to me as I passed him on the sidewalk, “so beautiful.”

I smiled in reply to him, secretly wary that he just another cracked, panhandling prophet in a city full of them.

“Do you want to look at the sun through it?” he asked, indicating his sheet of glass. I looked at him confused. “It’s welder’s glass,” he said by way of explanation.

Yes, he must be mad, I thought, and just before I was about to smile a “no, thank you,” and carry on walking, albeit at a hurried pace, he held the glass up at me, and through it, like some wonderful magic trick, the sun appeared as dark disc apart from a brilliant cresent of light at the bottom. That there was a partial solar eclipse had completely passed me by. I hadn’t been able to see the effect with the naked eye, the sun looked larger, a little hazier, but nothing out of the ordinary and it would have passed me by, but here on this particularly street corner was this happy, smiling man performing what at first seemed like a magic trick, and making sure that a small moment of joy wouldn’t pass me. So I took hold of this stranger’s sheet of glass and looked straight at the sun through it, and he was right — it was so beautiful.

This week, The Displaced Nation asked if I could write about three chance encounters experienced in my adopted homeland that I found moving or bittersweet. Moments like I experienced yesterday on Folsom and 8th.

This ties in with an idea that has long interested me, and inspires my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated — it’s what I think of as little moments of nothing*. Moments that on the surface may seem mundane, or insignificant, but that move you or are the catalyst for deeper thoughts. My own little dipped madeleines.

As this is something I do at times on my personal blog, I am going to reproduce here three little moments of nothing that I have already been posted over there.

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1) A rock and a hard place

A garage forecourt in Kingman, Arizona is not the sort of place you expect to visit on a sightseeing tour. But a sightseeing tour is precisely what I am on, and a garage forecourt in Kingman, Arizona, is precisely where I find myself. In fact, this is the second time today I’ve found myself on this same depressing patch of asphalt.

To be fair, I should clarify that I have been on a bus tour of the Grand Canyon and now, late in the day, we are making our way back to Nevada. We’re certainly not stopping in Kingman for reasons of historical interest. We are not here to learn that it was in Kingman that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were married. Gable driving the two of them all the way here from Hollywood in his cream-colored roadster during a break in the filming of Gone with the Wind. In the town they purchased a marriage license from a dumb struck clerk named Viola Olsen before being married by the nearest Methodist Minister they could find. We are not here to learn about the town’s connection with Route 66. We are not here to learn that it was in Kingman that Timothy McVeigh renounced his US citizenship, turned his home into a bunker and began making homemade bombs.

No, this is a purely pragmatic stop; a convenient place on the I40 to stretch the legs, grab a bite to eat, and empty the bladder. In the morning on our way out to the Canyon we stopped here. I bought a ham sandwich at a Chevron garage as I couldn’t stomach the thought of my other option — McDonald’s — that early. The women working in the garage were pleasant, hefty, corn-fed girls. All three had the same hairstyle, an architectural triumph of ringlets and hairspray piled high atop their heads, it looked like it belonged in a 1987 High School Prom. Once back outside on the forecourt a number of men tried to pan-handle me. There was, I thought, something off about the place. By its very nature, you expect a stop like this to be full of folks on the move, but instead there was an unsettling stillness. A number of the people gave off the impression that they’ve been standing around in this same forecourt all their adulthood. It could be that some of the sketchier elements in the town have a rough idea of what the sightseeing bus’s itinerary is — and they come especially and try and get some change out of the tourists.

And now after a long day, we’re back. A bus load of predominantly foreign tourists, here to pay a brief visit like some cut-price UN delegation: Japanese, Thai, Italian, Canadian, French, Australian and British make up our contingent. Some of us are loud and overbearing, and some of us think that everything needs to be documented by our cameras, and some of us have spent all day complaining, and some of us have spent all day gushing in delight, and some of us — if the snoring has been anything to go by — have spent all day asleep, and we are all thoroughly sick of the sight of each other.

Thanks to the evening breeze, the forecourt smells even more strongly of gasoline, pitch and fried grease than it did earlier. Off we all trot, against my better judgment, to the McDonald’s. Every night it’s a different cast, but it’s always the same show that the locals get to enjoy when the sightseeing tour stops here: a tired group of hungry tourists that mewl and bark and garble in their strange tongues and accents. We soon take over and overwhelm the McDonald’s; we create long lines for the toilets, even longer lines for the food along with a white noise of strongly accented English and misunderstood orders.

It’s all too much for one Arizonian. I think it’s one of the men that pan-handled me early in the day. He has a similar looking beard, the same sun-blistered complexion, and the same jittery demeanor.  He is angry with the Frenchman queuing behind him for what he perceives as an invasion of his personal space, and he is getting irate with how long it is taking the Turkish family in front of him to order, but their English is poor and they and the cashier are struggling to make themselves understood. When he finally gets to place his order and is waiting for his chicken McNuggets, he scans carefully all of the other people waiting in line, and scowls at these interlopers with their ridiculous anoraks and backpacks. He takes his McNuggets and barges his way out through the line, needlessly aggressive. As he passes, he elbows me. “F***in’ furriners,” he mutters.

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2) “In my father’s house.”

The shoes of the man sat opposite me on the “E” train are made from black leather, long since scuffed to grey. They are on the whole unexceptional, but for a large fleur-de-lis that has been embossed below the lacing. Their one time appropriateness for special occasions has been worn away.

On the subway and on the underground I often find myself staring intently at the shoes of my fellow passengers. It is not from a fetish, it is just that I keep my eyes on the floor, avoiding eye contact with those around me, or I keep my eyes on the page of a book I am reading. A few minutes before, when we pulled into a station, I stopped reading, put my book on my lap, and cast my eyes to the floor. Occasionally a glance is stolen, such as the one I make at the man wearing the fleur-de-lis shoes. He is a thin, middle-aged black man wearing a blue suit that like his shoes is faded by wear.  He sings “In my father’s house.” Well, he sort of sings “In my father’s house.” It is not the whole hymn that he regales the train with, it is just that one phrase — half-sung, half-shouted every thirty seconds or so. Looking up I see that most of the other passengers have their eyes to the ground, particularly when he sing/shouts “In my father’s house,” though every time he does that he looks around. I don’t feel he looks around for a reaction, but for recognition. Perhaps feeling that things have descended again into commuter quietness, he again sing/shouts “In my father’s house.” I put my eyes to the floor and look at the fleur-de-lis pattern.

Queens Plaza is his stop. As he leaves the train, he notices the book in my lap — God: A Biography, by Jack Miles. He seems happy with my reading material and looking at me, he sings/shouts “In my father’s house” as if I’m the only of his “E” train flock that understands the importance and virtue of his ministry. Then he leaves the train before I have time to explain that reading a book called God does not make me virtuous as he might think it does, and that the book is a critical look at the Old Testament. It considers God a literary character and so casts him in the light of literary theory. Not that I would have said that if I had the time.

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3) Angels and iced tea

In this almost empty coffee shop three elderly women, lifelong friends perhaps, crowd round a table and converse over iced tea. They talk at length about their new pastor, about his energy and his youthfulness. They talk at length about angels, about their unwavering belief in them and their experiences of them. The loudest of the women, her hair an unconvincing shade of red, starts to talk about her youngest granddaughter — about how she’s as sharp as a tack, but hasn’t she started asking the trickiest of questions. The red-haired woman confides to her two companions that she has spoken with their youthful and energetic pastor about how to respond to these questions.

For instance, she tells the other two, only the other day the granddaughter had said, “Grandma, why do we have to go to Church?”

She was, she freely admits, flummoxed by how to answer, but then she remembered the pastor’s words. “Aw, sweetie, that’s a matter of faith.”

Yesterday, she continues, when she was driving her granddaughter home from school the girl had asked, “Grandma, why do we call trees trees?”

She once again patiently said to her granddaughter, “Aw, sweetie, that’s a matter of faith.”

In the almost empty coffee shop the three women gently laugh at the ridiculous things that children say, take a sip of iced tea, and start talking about angels again.

*The film director Max Ophüls once wrote about art: “Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.” Most of my life I seem to spend in search of moments of little nothings that I end up attaching great importance to. It probably makes me a nightmare to deal with it as a friend or companion.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an account of la dolce vita from a fresh perspective!

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