The Displaced Nation

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Doreen Brett’s creative life as an expat in Holland


At a moment when I feel far from the madding crowd myself despite being in a big city—it’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States, when most New Yorkers flock to the beach—it’s my pleasure to welcome new columnist Doreen Brett to the Displaced Nation. She was introduced to me by former Culture Shock Toolbox columnist Hélène (“H.E.”) Rybol: they met in Singapore, where they were roommates for a while.

Like Hélène, Doreen grew up among several different cultures. Her grandparents emigrated from India to Malaysia, and the family spoke English as their first language. While based in Malaysia, she attended school in Singapore.

Doreen’s horizons widened still more once she reached adulthood. A few years ago, she moved to the UK with her British husband; they now make their home in the Netherlands.

Doreen loves exploring wild, remote places—and it’s this passion of hers that has inspired her column, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” From next month, she will be interviewing expats who have chosen to live in some off-the-beaten-track locations. Did the experience lead to cultural immersion, and in what ways did it foster creativity?

To kick off the series, Doreen has agreed to have me pose to her the same series of questions she plans to ask other international creatives.

* * *

Welcome, Doreen, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Malaysia but were educated in Singapore. How did that come about?

I was born in Johor, the Malaysian state on the Straights of Johor, which separates Malaysia from the Republic of Singapore. When I was six years old, my parents decided to send me to school in Singapore, since my family was English speaking and schools in Malaysia tend to teach only in Malay. My parents were influenced by a neighbor of ours, a close family friend, who was the principal of a school in Singapore. She spoke very highly of the city-state’s educational system. In any event, that’s how I came to living in one country while attending school in another! Every morning I would wake up at 5:00 a.m., sit sleepily on a yellow school bus and travel across customs. Once school finished, I would make my way home again, through immigration checks. As a child, it became second nature for me to keep my passport in my pocket, for daily use. It marked the beginning of what has thus far been a life of travel.

What brought you to your current location, the Netherlands?

My husband is British. We moved from Singapore to his native UK to live and work. We lived in his home town, Billericay (a small town in Essex, not far from London), for a few years before moving to London to avoid the commute to work. We only recently moved to a small city in the Netherlands, again for work.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” How did you find life in Singapore as compared to in Malaysia?

When I think of Malaysia, there is very much a community feel to the place and the people. You always know your neighbors; family and friends drop by without any notice (and are readily welcomed with a snack–every house always has snacks prepared for impromptu visits); and weddings are celebrated on a large scale–500 people is a small number. In fact, the further you get from the city, the more of a village feel there is and the more you will experience these community bonds. Rather than finding your “tribe”, the tribe will find you and welcome you with open arms! Singapore, by contrast, is very much a global city, with all the conveniences such places have to offer, including a vast variety of food choices available day and night, efficient and safe transport links, and of course, a plethora of cultures living in one space.

Once you moved to the UK, you went from living in a small town to living in London. Which did you prefer?

To be honest, coming from a background that values community, I felt alienated in both locations. If only I had known about the Displaced Nation then, I would have realized there was nothing unusual in my reluctance to head out into what I perceived was an unfriendly environment. Even when I moved to London, a place where virtually everyone is “displaced”—it is very much a global city—I still felt this disconnect. Being in a global city does not guarantee a sense of companionship and belonging. You can be in a room full of people and still feel alone. It was only when I took steps to reach out, and get past cultural differences, that I began to find people I could connect with. And while city life is of course convenient, and there are always things to do, I found that I never got any space to myself, to just BE.

How do you feel about your latest “home”?

Where I live in the Netherlands is much quieter than the flat we had in London. It’s a complete switch in lifestyle. Like a detox of sorts. I absolutely love it. All in all I have to say that I love being outside of global cities. On the surface, cities have more people and hence provide more opportunities to connect with others; but I think that relationships forged in communities outside the city limits will trump this any day.

How do you keep from feeling isolated?

I do not feel isolated, no matter where in the world I am. I always have a small, steady group of friends and family I can turn to—my global tribe.

I understand you enjoy writing. Do you foresee that in your current location you’ll be able to nurture your creativity?

Being in the Netherlands gives me time to pursue my creative interests and the opportunity to develop my writing. Currently I am working on writing a fictional piece, and of course my protagonist travels, and I am embellishing the tale with the flavours of the different cultures I have experienced.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I’ve only just moved to the Netherlands, so I would like to stay put for a bit. Fingers crossed that this move goes well!

Thank you, Doreen!

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Readers, any further questions for Doreen on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the community you live in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

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

Photo credits:
Opening collage (bottom to top): Sultan Ibrahim Building, Johor, Malaysia, by Bernard Spragg via Flickr (CC0 1.0); Singapore, by Neils de Vries via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Bellericay High Street, by Steve Hancocks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Picadilly Circus, by mrgarethm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Doreen Brett feeling happily displaced in Holland as the sun is shining (supplied). Sea image is from Pixabay.
2nd visual: Madi + Pika // Reception, by Azlan DuPree via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
3rd visual: Oxford Street in London via Pixabay.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Dinah Jefferies melds themes of displacement and loss with the seductive beauty of the East

dinah-jefferies-location-locution
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Dinah Jefferies. Dinah has led an unusually eventful life: not only has she lived in various countries but she has also suffered the loss of a child. These experiences have fueled a writing career that took off when Dinah reached her mid-sixties.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Dinah Jefferies, who was born in 1948 in Malaya—as Malaysia was known then—where she spent the first nine years of her life, growing up against the background of civil war. Once Malaya gained independence from England, her parents decided to move back home.

Dinah found it wrenching. As she told a UK magazine:

“I was incredibly happy in Malaya. We just wore flip-flops and pants at home; it was so hot… I loved going to the Chinese quarter with my amah, sitting cross-legged on straw mats with her family, eating bright yellow, strong-tasting ice cream. It was like nothing like I’ve ever tasted since.”

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

“I just remember absolute devastation when I saw what England was like: February, the middle of winter – grey, cold, wet; no sunshine; horrible clothes.”

Dinah was bullied at school, and although she defended herself, that “feeling of not being quite a member of anything has stayed with me all my life.”

This outsider status led to a certain restlessness, which should be familiar to any of our Third Culture Kid readers. As a teenager, Dinah lived in Tuscany and worked as an au pair for an Italian countess. Much later, with her second husband, she attempted to retire in a 16th-century village in Northern Andalusia—a plan cut short after they lost most of their money in the crash of 2008.

But the experience that shattered life as she knew it was the death of her son in 1985, when he was just 14. Formally trained as an artist, Dinah channeled her unrelenting grief into her art work. Later her move to Spain afforded an opportunity to experiment with fiction writing. After settling in Gloucestershire to be near her grandchildren, she took to writing full time and found she enjoyed weaving her experiences of loss and displacement into stories set in the “extremely seductive beauty of the East.”

Dinah’s first published novel, The Separation, came out in 2014, when she was 65 years old. Set in 1950s Malaya, the book tells the story of a mother who journeys through the civil-war-torn jungle to find out why her husband and daughters moved up country without her.

Dinah landed a contract with Viking Penguin for that book and has produced a novel for them every year since:

  • The Tea Planter’s Wife (2015). Set in 1920s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book revolves around a young Englishwoman who has married a tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he’s been keeping some terrible secrets about his past.
  • The Silk Merchant’s Daughter (2016): Set in 1950s French Indochina (now Vietnam), the era when militants were determined to end French rule, the story concerns a half-French, half Vietnamese woman who is torn between two worlds.
  • Before the Rains (forthcoming, February 2017): Set in 1930s India, the book follows the progress of a British photojournalist who is sent to photograph the royal family in the princely state of Rajputana (Rajasthan). She ends up falling in love with the Prince’s brother…

To research her books Dinah has traveled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. She will be speaking at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, should any of you Displaced Nationers find yourselves in that part of the world.
dinah-jefferies-4-books

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Welcome, Dinah, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For all four of my books the location came first, though story comes a very close second. Once I’ve decided on the place, I then research the period and usually while researching that, the kind of characters I want begin to emerge. Sometimes I have the kernel of an idea before I hit on the location. For The Tea Planter’s Wife I did have the idea of a life-changing secret before I chose Sri Lanka—or Ceylon as it was then known.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

It’s all about sensory detail. For my third book, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, set in Vietnam, it was all about evoking the contrast between the elegant French quarter of Hanoi, as opposed to the clutter and noise of the ancient Vietnamese quarter with canaries singing in bamboo cages and the scent of charcoal and ginger in the air. The setting has to work to support the story in some way, and as this is a story of a woman caught between two worlds. I needed to show how different those two worlds were.

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

All those and more. I include everything I can to create the atmosphere of the place and the time. For historical fiction, one has to get the historical details right, too: the type of buildings, what people wore, their mindset, etc. It’s about what the characters would be seeing in their daily lives and how they would be interacting with their surroundings. For me the landscape has to almost be a character in itself. I try to re-create the beauty of the world in question as well as its unique personality.

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

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

“Below her, gentle, flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea-pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.”

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

I like to know it as well as I can and I always visit a location I’m planning to use. Just being in a place can help in ways you never could have imagined if you hadn’t been there. When doing research for The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was staying at a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and found a library of wonderful books I’d never have known about back home. Those books provided me with amazing details, as did sitting outside in the evening watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. Being there made it real.

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

I love Julia Gregson’s book East of The Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India. Also Simon Mawer’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky set in wartime France. Both are great books with terrifically realistic settings that are an important element of the story.

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

Interesting! I should tell you that one of my other guests, the novelist Hazel Gaynor, chose your books—The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter—in answer to this question. Also, my very next guest will be one of your picks, Simon Mawer.

Thanks so much, Dinah, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dinah Jefferies and her novels, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dinah! Dinah, your Third Culture Kid story tells us so much about you. I wonder if it’s the reason location comes first, before story? And hats off to you for starting a writing career in your sixties. What a tribute to resilience, as well as to the therapeutic power of art! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Dinah in Hall of Mirrors at Amer Fort (near Jaipur, India) and of Malacca, Malaya, supplied by Dinah Jefferies; and photo of England: Rainy Day, by David Wright via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Visual that accompanies the quotation: Tea Picking In Sri Lanka, by Steenbergs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The expat life is a craft you can practice, and there are bandaids, laughter & alone time when it doesn’t go well

Mrs EE Culture Shock Toolbox

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a seasoned expat, who like herself is an Adult Third Culture Kid, for some advice on handling culture shock. They also talk reverse culture shock.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’d like you to meet Mrs Ersatz Expat! You might recognize her from her namesake blog where she describes herself as “a 30 something global soul, a perpetual expat” and writes about her life in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan (the list goes on…). Her photo of the indoor beach in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, complete with water slides and beach volleyball court, will make you want to experience blizzards in a whole new way!

Mrs EE prefers to remain anonymous online (hence “Mrs EE”), seriously dislikes milky tea and harbors a love for gadgets which, according to her, improve “life disproportionately compared with their actual value.” Her blog even features a series of said useless doodads, with photos! They include washing machine covers, neck rings for babies, double eye-lid tape and chair socks.

Mrs EE was born into a global life. She grew up in several countries, including a stint in a scary-sounding boarding school in the UK. She kindly took the time to share some of her culture shock stories and experiences. Join us as we talk about cringe-worthy boarding school moments (including a close encounter with Marmite!), along with some self-preservation tips such as laughing your head off and remembering to make time for yourself…

* * *

A warm welcome, Mrs EE, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I am an Irish citizen born in the Netherlands to a Dutch (naturalized Irish)/Irish family. We lived in the Netherlands for two years after I was born and returned there for a further three short postings over the following 20 years. I also spent significant periods living with my grandparents in the Netherlands when my mother was very ill and receiving hospital treatment there. I probably had more personal and cultural connections with the Netherlands than any other country up until I was around 14 years old. After the Netherlands my family had postings in Norway, the UK, Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela.

I was in boarding school in the UK when my family moved to Nigeria and only visited them for school holidays. I subsequently went to university in the UK, where I met my British husband and started my career. Nowadays I have more personal and cultural connections with the UK (my parents retired there and my sister lives there) than any other country, and many people who meet me believe I am British.

A few years after our first child was born my husband and I were offered the opportunity to expatriate, and we moved to Kazakhstan. After that we spent 18 months in Malaysia (both East and West during that period), and we are now in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That makes a total of nine countries and I think 11 or 12 postings give or take. I have never lived in my passport country. I last visited Ireland five years ago.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth?

All the time! The process of handing money over is always fraught. In some countries no one cares as long as they get it. In others, you put the money down and never hand it over. In yet other places you use only your right hand while others expect you to use both. I now have this habit of putting money down on the counter with my right hand—it seems to cover most bases.

handing over money

And I think you have some memorable stories about that British boarding school you attended?

The most cringe-worthy moment I ever had was on the very first day. I was 11 years old, joined mid-year and no one in my family had ever boarded before so I was rather at sea with the whole experience. My mother had dropped me off the night before and was on her way to meet my father in Nigeria. I knew the mail service was so bad I would not hear from them at all before I arrived, alone, in Lagos airport in three months’ time. I was rather scared and, although I had lived in England for the two years leading up to the move and attended an English school, I had lived with my parents so I was not truly culturally immersed in British food and traditions, let alone boarding traditions, which most of the other girls had heard about from their mothers and aunts.

I went down to breakfast and was rather bemused by being offered tea with or without sugar. While there was sugar on the table this was only for sprinkling on cereal (yes really!): we were not allowed to put that sugar in our tea. I asked for it with sugar and noticed with horror that it came with the milk already in. I am not allergic to milk but don’t have it often so it made me gag. At the same time I spread my toast with what I thought was chocolate spread. It turned out to be something called Marmite—a salty British sandwich spread for which the advertising tagline is you either love it or hate it. Well, I hated it.

The matron at the head of our table yelled at me for being greedy, taking food I wasn’t eating and, shaming me in front of all the girls, made me eat and drink every piece of food.

How did you handle that situation?

I finished my food and ran to the loos, when we were released for the five minutes before prayers, to be sick and burst into tears. I could not have a hot drink at breakfast for the entire two years I was in that boarding school, and I retain an abiding hatred for that woman and my time there.

Horrors of British Boarding School

THE HORRORS OF BRITISH BOARDING SCHOOL: Being offered milky tea with no sugar; tasting Marmite when you thought it was chocolate spread; and being shamed by Matron.

Would you handle the situation differently now?

If someone tried to do that to me now I would stand up to them, of course! If I saw someone doing that to a child I would be furious. No amount of cultural sensitivity to host cultures should require a child be shamed by a grown up, particularly when their parents are not around to defend them. Years later when my husband was a deputy house master and we were house parents, I came home from work to find the whole of the youngest year in our flat. They had committed some minor infraction for which they had been punished. They missed their supper and the Matron would not allow them to have any replacement meal. We cooked them bacon sandwiches and put in a formal complaint to the school.

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

It’s very hard to say, I moved so many times as a child that adapting to new cultures and expectations has become rather the norm for me. I wouldn’t say I exhibit any particular finesse as such but I do find that the transitions are less of a shock to me than to many of the people I meet because they are an integral part of my life rather than a once–thrice in a lifetime experience. That is not to say that I don’t experience stress, culture shock, bereavement at leaving a posting or any of those feelings that are the bread-and-butter of expat life. It’s just that I know to expect them and I know how they impact me. I also have an insight into how our children are feeling because I lived their life as opposed to just seeing them go through it.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Resilience! Expat life is hard, and you don’t become a craftsman overnight. You have to practice and get used to handling the unexpected, which gets thrown at you every day from the moment you get through immigration control and out of the airport. Some days will be unbelievably hard but, once you get through them, put away the toolbox and rest, and then get it out again and have another go. You have to be willing to take the hits, stand up and endure. Eventually, it will get easier.

I like the idea of taking the hits and moving on. Everyone should have Bandaids in their Culture Shock Toolbox.

That’s true, and you also need to know when you’re getting close to the end of your reserves and need some downtime. Whether it’s a holiday or a trip home to see relatives, time on your own or with your spouse and children, or even just a quick coffee with a friend (in person or over Skype), make sure that you get it. And you also have to make time just for yourself.

Finally, I would suggest cultivating a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at your mistakes rather than feel too bad about them. I remember one time, a month or so into our posting in Kazakhstan, we went to a fast food outlet in a food court and ordered four burger meals (we could not read the menu or order anything more complicated at the time). We were given five Danish pastries. I remember we sat there laughing our heads off to stop ourselves crying with frustration. Of course, by the time we left we could read menus, order specific food with variations and send it back if it was not to our liking and then we had to learn the process all over again in a new country!

Bandaids laughter time for self

POSSIBLE REMEDIES/FIXES: Bandaids, laughter, and self-care should be in every expat’s Culture Shock Toolbox.

That seems like sound advice! If you can laugh, your recovery from cultural mishaps will be much quicker, that’s for sure. And now can I ask whether you have any tips for handling reverse culture shock?

I have never gone home as such, but I do get a sense of this when we travel to the Netherlands. Of course we are not moving there to live so it’s not as intense but I do experience a wave of sadness that the country I grew up in effectively no longer exists. People behave differently, the TV programs are different, I no longer speak the language as easily, and many of the people with whom I spent most of my time are now dead. I feel out of time and out of place. I don’t think I would ever go back there to live, it’s too sad. My parents never returned to their native lands, choosing instead to settle in the UK where they had based our education. I think they realised that 30 years of expat life made it too hard for them to return.

How about if you end up back in the UK, where your husband is from and where you think of as “home”?

I am not sure what will help us transition back to life in the UK when we finally end our expat lives. I think a lot will depend on our children. We are currently debating whether or not to send them to boarding school in England when they’re older. If we do we will, of course, be back there far more often than if we don’t, and our children as well as our parents and siblings will help keep us far more grounded than if we had no family around. In the meantime, I make sure that Britain is not a distant country, reading a spread of papers and news magazines every day. The Internet has been a godsend in this regard. I remember as a child Radio 4 was on constantly and people would bring out tapes of CNN and the World Service which would do the rounds; a four-hour snapshot of the news. Papers and magazines were on circulation lists and as my father was promoted we got the papers more quickly. These days I can read the news as soon as it’s published, it’s truly fantastic.

Thank you so much, Mrs EE, for sharing your experiences so openly. What you say about resilience and taking time for ourselves is so true. We just have to look onwards and forwards while managing our own energy resources, and remember that it’s not only OK but necessary to take a break and treat ourselves with a little TLC. Bandaids, laughter and alone time should be in every expat’s culture shock toolbox!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any boarding school horror stories to share? Please leave them in the comments, along with any questions you have for Mrs EE.

Hm, there’s actually a question I forgot to ask her: why does she call herself “ersatz”, which means not genuine or fake? Is it because she is enjoying the expat life so much? On that note, I’ll leave you with her photo of chair socks:
Chair sox-515
(Who knew chairs could get cold feet, too?!)

For more entertainment of this kind, be sure to follow Mrs EE’s blog. She is also on Twitter.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab 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 much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top collage: Photos of England, Ireland, Holland and Jeddah from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Ersatz Expat and her blog branding (supplied). Next visual: “Money in hand” photo from Pixabay. Second collage: (clockwise from top left) Memories of boarding school, by jinterwas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); tea service photo via Pixabay; SHAME!, by Mills Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Marmite, thickly spread on toasted bread, by Kent Fredric via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last collage: Hammer and nail, solitary woman & laughter photos via Pixabay; and 流血後の親指 (Your thumb after an accident), by Hisakazu Watanabe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of chair socks is courtesy of Ersatz Expat.

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

booklust-wanderlust-2015

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

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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Beginning with…a Thriller and a Mystery

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


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

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

And Now Let’s Add Three Travel Memoirs…

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

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Wonderlanded with Lene Fogelberg, award-winning poet, writer, and double open-heart surgery survivor

There’s something from Alice in Lene Fogelberg’s story. Photo credits (clockwise, from top left): NecoZAlenky (original Czech film poster for Something from Alice) via Wikimedia Commons; Lene Fogelberg author photo (supplied); operating room via Pixabay.

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Lene Fogelberg, a Swede who has lived in quite a few places but right now can be found in Jakarta, Indonesia.

With her long red hair and blue eyes, she looks a little like a Swedish Alice. What’s more, her biography of her early years is not dissimilar to that of Alice Liddell, the muse behind the Lewis Carroll story. Growing up in a small town by the sea, Lene was full of curiosity about the wider world and also in love with words. Describing her youth in a recent guest blog post, Lene says that for her,

written words danced lightly as feathers on the page. I loved to read and made weekly visits to our small town library, the bicycle ride home always wobbly with the heavy pile of books on the rack.

But while similarities are rife to Carroll’s Alice, the “wonderlanded” story Lene lived as an adult in fact comes closer to Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s surrealistic interpretation in his 1988 film, Něco z Alenky.

Něco z Alenky means “something from Alice,” and Lene ended up taking something from Alice’s story when, after moving to the United States with her husband and children, she found herself being wheeled through a rabbit warren of hospital rooms into an operating theatre. As in Švankmajer’s film, she was in a bizarre dream rather than a classic fairy tale.

Strangely, from the time she was young Lene had suspected there was something wrong with her heart. She even harbored a not-so-secret fear of dying young, trying to make the most of each moment. But Swedish doctors repeatedly dismissed her concerns, treating her like a hypochondriac.

And then, it happened: her worst nightmare came true. Shortly after arriving in America she went to have a physical so she could get an American driver’s license—and the American woman doctor informed her she had a congenital heart condition and only a week to live.

Lene survived two emergency open-heart surgeries to tell her story: quite literally! Her memoir (and first book), Beautiful Affliction, is out this week from She Writes Press. Until now, Lene had written in Swedish, mostly poetry, for which she has won some awards. But even though she chose to write her memoir in English, she retains her poetic style, as we will see later in the week when we publish a short book excerpt.

But before that happens, let’s have Lene will take us down into her rather harrowing rabbit hole. True, she’s had some reprieve since since recovering from her surgeries and moving to Jakarta—but only some, as Jakarta is the kind of place where you have to take your life into your own hands to cross the street. But I’m getting ahead of the story—over to Lene!

* * *

Lene Fogelberg: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Just to give you a little more of my background: I grew up in the south of Sweden, in a small town by the ocean. As ML says, I often stood looking out over the ocean following the waves in my imagination, wondering about all the exciting places in this world. In my youth I spent a couple of summers in France studying French and falling in love with this beautiful country.

As newlyweds my husband and I moved to Germany as students for a year, where I learned the language and took care of our newborn baby (just three months old when we arrived). After Germany, we moved back to Sweden and stayed there until my husband’s employer offered him a position in the United States. We moved to a small town outside of Philadelphia, called Radnor. That became the scene of my life-threatening health crisis. How it erupted and played out is the topic of my book, which, as ML mentioned, came out this week.

We spent a year and a half in the United States in total and then moved back to Sweden for a couple of years. Nearly four years ago we relocated to Jakarta, but in December we will be moving again: to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Stop this moment, I tell you!” But [Alice] went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears…

After moving to the US there was a huge pool of tears because of the drama that unfolded in the weeks following the transition. My husband and I had to have physicals prior to getting our American driver’s licenses, and as soon as the doctor put the stethoscope to my chest she reacted to the sound of my heart. It turned out I had a fatal congenital heart disease and that I’d lived longer with this disease than anyone the US doctors had ever met.

Beautiful Affliction story

As Lene attests in her newly published memoir, her “rabbit-hole” experience was full of heart, tears and physical drama. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Front and back cover art for Lene’s book (supplied); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustration by Milo Winter (1916), via Wikimedia Commons; The White Rabbit’s House, by Kurt Bauschardt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

[S]he felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?”

The events that unfolded are covered in my book Beautiful Affliction, which is a crazy story, full of heart and physical drama, not unlike Alice’s own confrontations with her changing body.

“Where should I go?” –Alice. “That depends on where you want to end up.” –The Cheshire Cat

Although my physical crisis was great, Jakarta has been one of the biggest challenges in a “wonderland” sense. The city is chaotic, with heavy traffic that is always jammed, making it difficult to navigate. I was shell-shocked for the first six months.

“Oh, I beg your pardon!” [Alice] exclaimed in a tone of great dismay…

Here in Jakarta where the population is mostly Muslim I try not to show too much skin. I wear clothes with sleeves and never skirts shorter than the knees.

skirt and shoes Alice in Wonderland

Photo credit: Alice shoes, by Shimelle Laine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see, a dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry.”

Greeting people here in Indonesia can be a minefield. The safest bet is to put my hands together and say, “Namaste.”

“There’s certainly too much pepper in that soup!” Alice said to herself, as well as she could for sneezing.

I love nasi goreng and all the Indonesian dishes—but without the chili, which is too spicy for me.

Nasi Goreng Hold the Chili

Photo credits: Nasi goreng (fried rice), by Tracy Hunter; (inset) Nothing is real, nibble and drink me…, by Wonderlane. Both images via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would invite my family and friends from Sweden and serve all the delicious fruit that can be found here in Indonesia. I know how you can long for sunshine during the long, dark Swedish winters and I would love to give them all a vacation full of sunshine and fruit smoothies.

Tropical Tea Party

Photo credits: A Swedish Mad Hatter [my description], by Rodrigo Parás via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Fruit stall in Bali, by Midori via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

“Well!” thought Alice to herself. “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs!”

I am getting more and more courageous. I guess living abroad gives me a sense of “I can do this” and when faced with challenges I can now say to myself: “You have been through worse.”

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

Stay busy so you don’t lose yourself to too much introspection. Especially if you are a traveling spouse coming with your expat partner. Make friends who can go with you to explore your new country. And whenever you go on excursions, try to learn the language so you can speak with locals and really get to know the country more than from a tourist’s point of view. The feeling of discovering gems of knowledge that are not in the tourist guides, like a local saying, is very rewarding and makes you feel connected to your new “home”.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…

My next writing project is a novel that takes place here in Jakarta. It is a hilarious and heart-breaking story where I combine the ancient myths of Java with modern society and where East meets West. The first draft is basically finished and I hope to follow up my debut book with this story. It is kind of crazy and sometimes I wonder why I am writing it, but I am in love with the characters so I keep going. It is very much a fruit of my “down the rabbit hole” feelings. I would say that most of my writing comes from a place deep inside where I feel like I have discovered something unsettling with the world we live in and, because I need to pinpoint it, I write about it, in an effort to grasp it.

* * *

Thank you, Lene! Being wonderlanded with you was a moving experience. I sense you are a very special person to have survived so much and still be full of curiosity about the world. Readers, please leave your responses to Lene’s story in the comments. And be sure to tune in later in the week when we feature a sample of her writing! ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Lene writes about her wonderlanded experience.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: The story of Jo Parfitt and her expat press, Summertime Publishing

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! As our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is still honeymooning (literally—congratulations, Beth!), we have loaned her space this month to seasoned expat and freelance writer Ana McGinley, who will tell us the story of a well-known international creative in the expat book world: Jo Parfitt, founder of Summertime Publishing.

Hello, readers, and thanks Displaced Nation for this opportunity to talk about Jo Parfitt. A journalist, editor, writer, speaker and teacher, Jo has lived abroad for 26 years—in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and now Malaysia. She is the founder of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Eighteen years ago, Jo published A Career in Your Suitcase, her guide to creating a portable career. Now in its 4th edition, the book continues to grow in popularity as the number of expat accompanying partners, mostly women, find themselves seeking new mobile careers to replace the jobs and careers relinquished to embark on a global relocation.

Jo Parfitt and A Career in a Suitcase

Jo Parfitt on Bankastraat, Den Haag, Netherlands, one of many former homes; book cover art for her bestseller, A Career in a Suitcase, now in its 4th edition.

Jo’s own career in a suitcase

The success of that book inspired Jo to set up her own business mentoring expats in search of suitable career opportunities. Having written 31 books herself, Jo decided to extend her training to include writing skills guidance for new authors. Several of them have partnered with her to publish their works, and Summertime Publishing—which she’d first set up to publish her cookbook, Dates, written while living in Oman—took off.

After nearly two decades, Summertime has a catalogue of over 100 publications covering many facets of expat life, including:

Summertime Top Five

Jo recruits her dream team…

A year ago, Jo enlisted the help of former Displaced Nation columnist Jack Scott, he of Jack the Hack fame. Jack had published his book, Perking the Pansies (a memoir based on his popular expat blog of that name), with Jo (he now has a sequel out: Turkey Street).

In addition to Jack, Jo has hired Jane Dean (who was Jack’s editor).

Jo, Jane and Jack have British roots, although Jane is now a US citizen, yet all three are based in different global locations: Jo in Kuala Lumpur; Jack in Norwich, UK; and Jane in The Hague, Netherlands. All three have in common the experience of relinquishing previous careers to accompany their partners—and establishing successful portable careers in the publishing world.

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

Today Jo takes care of sales and marketing, business growth, client intake, big-picture edits and manuscript assessment at Summertime Publishing. Jane is the chief editor and production manager, and Jack is responsible for royalties, administration, digitization and social media.

Business is conducted digitally via computer networking and bi-monthly business meetings on Skype—and regular Skype meetings with their team of designers. The three aim to physically meet each year for the company annual general meeting.

Jo says that the recent expansion of her business is directly related to the growth in the globally mobile workforce. As more people relocate to new locations, the thirst for knowledge about expat issues, both unique and common to specific destinations, increases. Expats tend to be well-educated individuals capable of resettling in unfamiliar places and adjusting to new cultures, without losing their own cultural identity. By necessity expat partners often dive deep into the culture of their new destination, interacting with local people and services daily. These accrued experiences, good and bad, can form a strong basis for a good story.

The summertime—& sunshine—of the expat life

Anyone who is familiar with Jo has noticed a theme running through her life and work having to do with summertime and sunshine. Jo says she named her press “Summertime” after the song by Gershwin, which she sees as her theme tune. “I am a positive person and love the optimism and hope in the lyrics,” she says.

Having spent ten years in the intense sunshine of the Middle East, Jo has also published a novel called Sunshine Soup, about expat life in Dubai, and she currently keeps a blog about the life she leads with her husband in Malaysia, called Sunny Interval, because after postings in Europe they get to enjoy the sunshine again.

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval[http://sunnyinterval.com/2014/11/23/life-ocean-microwave/]

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval.

There is also, of course, Jo’s sunny disposition to consider. “I am an optimist at heart and like to see the good in everyone,” she says, adding that, since setting up her press, “my motto has been Sharing What I Know to Help Others to Grow.”

Further to which, in closing I’d like to share some tips Jo has for expats who dream of writing a book:

• Do your own market research to see whether books covering your topic already exist. Most mainstream bookstores do not have a specified section for expatriate books—so look online.

• Visit Expat Bookshop and Summertime Publishing. (Interested in publishing with us? Send a message via the contact form on the site.)

• Download the free booklets offered by Summertime Publishing:

• Consider the practical aspects of publishing a book. Writers who enter a contract with Summertime Publishing will be offered editing, printing and promoting services tailored to suit their individual needs.

• Most importantly, assess your available time and lifestyle and evaluate the real possibilities of being able to regularly focus on your book project. writing a book demands a high level of focus.

And now for Jo’s parting pearls:

I believe everyone has a story in them. I tell someone that if their story is likely to inspire, support, inform or entertain another person then it is worth telling.

* * *

Thank you, Ana, for introducing us to Jo Parfitt. Her dedication to the cause of publishing expat works, along with her sunny disposition, has extended the feeling of summertime for me a little longer! Readers, how about you? Any questions for Ana +/or Jo?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

Born in Australia, Ana McGinley has now lived in seven countries in 15 years, so more than qualifies as a serial expat. She writes, edits, reviews and researches articles for various online publications, including serving as the review coordinator for Summertime Publishing—all of which distracts her from finishing her book about caring for ageing parents from abroad, a topic related to her previous work as a social worker with older people. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her Canadian husband and four children, all born on different continents. To get to know Ana better, please follow her HuffPost column. You can also view her portfolio of published works here.

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: To ease the stress of yet another international move, tea all round and some jammie biscuits?

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat (and soon to be repat!) Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share.

As I write this, we are in the middle of packing for our eighth international move.

By the way, I don’t count moves within countries as an actual move. Indeed, when people complain about having to move from one house to another, I have an unpleasant tendency to judge them for being just a little, well, weak.

Call me strange, but I have almost come to enjoy the stress because I know how deeply the memories will be imprinted as a result.

I especially relish the sweaty dirtiness of a move in a hot climate. You look dreadful and just don’t care. The joy of the dirt sloughing off you in the shower at the end of the day, is unspeakably satisfying. As they say, you never appreciate water until you have experienced thirst.

Memories set to the soundtrack of masking tape being torn from the roll and objects being wrapped in rustling paper—I have a few, including:

  • Watching the Malaysian movers slip on and off their shoes as the moved in and out of our house, no matter how heavy their load.
  • Spying the Brazilian workers taking a siesta under the removal van.
  • Above all, enjoying the sight of my children playing for days with empty boxes.

Tea, all round?

Tea all round

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) “We’re Moving!” by David Goehring via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Moving Day, by Cambodia4kids.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Allied Movers, allied Moving Truck, by Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (overlay) Tea time, by Daniela Vladimirova via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In England it is customary to offer tea to anyone who comes to work around your house. It politely defines their status as providers of services rather than servants.

I have come to associate removal men with strong, sweetened tea and a biscuit to go with it. No move has ever been complete without these accompaniments—and my biscuit of choice under the circumstances is the Jammie Dodger.

A Jammie Dodger comprises two vanilla biscuits sandwiched together with a red jam and possibly buttercream, too. The upper biscuit boasts a little cut out to reveal a little filling—what a tease!

Jammie Dodgers are freely available in English supermarkets. The store-bought version used to do the trick, but I am afraid I have, like an addict, come to demand something more refined as my drug of choice.

No dodging the Jammie Dodger

Years ago, while living in Virginia as a student, I started to make my own Jammie Dodgers, craving as I did a taste of home. Come on, I had to tolerate Lipton Yellow Label tea, which lacks the body I demand. If I couldn’t magic up a suitable English blend, at least there was something I could do about the biscuit situation.

Jammie Dan[https://www.flickr.com/photos/lacuna007/3399511720/], by Andrea Black via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

Jammie Dan, by Andrea Black via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I hit on a good combination of a shortbread style biscuit and a good-quality jam. Imagine my surprise on discovering these were so much better than the factory version—so much so that I have never again willingly returned to the supermarket to buy them. I was young, remember. I still am. As the years passed I have tweaked that recipe until nothing surpasses it.

Arriving in France I was astonished discover that there was a chain of French bakeries that came very close to my recipe. What a disaster for my thighs! They could no longer look forward to being given a respite on the days when I don’t have time to bake.

Even the French can’t resist!

Known as sablé (literally, sand) for their sandy, crumbly texture, these confiture-filled delights are uncharacteristically large for a French pâtisserie. I relish the idea that even the French find them difficult to resist despite being a nation of “Oui, mais only one”.

I understand their dilemma. The sablé’s crumbly, buttery, shortbread-like texture offers what food technicians call “mouth fill”.

Talking of fillings, the French version comes generally in raspberry or chocolate as well as the ill-advised Nutella. Hm.. France really ought to give the concept of the Nutella sablé a rethink. This biscuit calls for a contrasting texture, so non merci to Nutella, here at least.

Photo credits: flickr black day[https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/11273242073/], by Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/] ; nutella cookies[https://www.flickr.com/photos/ginnerobot/7095126765/], by Ginny via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

Photo credits: flickr black day, by Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY 2.0); nutella cookies, by Ginny via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Apart from the size, the other difference in a French Jammie dodger is that instead of one hole cut in the upper biscuit to expose the filling there can be as many as three. Alors, the French can actually do vulgar excess it would seem!

Personally, I love the idea of the French ditching the restrained elegance we are so used to seeing from them. I also love that it is a jammie biscuit that drove them to it.

Cate the Cake: She’s the biscuit!

This move is the most special of all my international moves, because this time, my daughter is providing the Jammie Dodgers that fuel us. Since arriving in France, Catherine has developed first an interest in baking and then in patisserie—developments that have made my heart sing a special version of the 1812 Overture.

Instead of the “La Marseillaise” being quieted by the Russian national anthem, we have a case of “God Save the Queen” being, if not crushed by the French anthem, at least over-laid and dusted down with a Gallic flourish.

Cate the Cake (a weak nickname, but I can’t resist) has taken courses in all sorts of things from éclairs to crème brûlée. She has brought a certain French flair to my Jammie Dodger, making them even more irresistible, if that were possible.

Cate the Cake She's the biscuit

Having the patience and perfectionism I so entirely lack, she is willing to stare through the oven door until just the right shade of pale delicacy is reached that ensures the texture is melting, but not cloying. Adhering strictly to butter only, the flavor is delectable and well worth an extra few centimeters to the waistline. These beauties scream for a strong cup of English blend tea made with leaves, not a bag, and steeped a full five minutes.

Talking of which, I think I’ll nip in to the kitchen before the teapot is packed and give the packers a cultural experience to remember. After all, it’s the presence of workmen in the house that provides the impetus (or excuse?) for an extra-special tea-and-biscuits ritual.

*****************************

Jammy Dodgers/Sablés

Ingredients
• 250g plain flour
• 200g butter, cut into small cubes
• 100g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 2 free-range egg yolks
• Raspberry or Strawberry Jam

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F
2. Place the flour, butter, icing sugar and salt into a bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
3. Add the egg yolks and mix until a dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness of about 0.5cm. Cut out shapes using a 4cm cutter.
4. Divide the sablés in half. Using a 2cm, fluted cutter, make a hole in the middle of half of the sablé biscuits and discard the dough. Place all the sablés on a baking tray.
5. Liberally dust the tops with icing sugar passed through a fine sieve.
6. Bake the sablés for 10-12 minutes, or until pale golden-brown and crisp. Remove and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
7. Using a teaspoon, place a small dollop of jam on a whole sablé. Place a sablé (with a hole) over the whole sablé biscuit.

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Can you relate to Joanna’s instinct for strong tea and Jammie Dodgers? And can you offer any other food tips to alleviate the stress of an international move? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Is humankind getting too fussy to share food, one of our most basic bonding rituals?

Global Food Gossip April 2015

Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied) and three forbidden foods: Wheat , by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); dairy, by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); and peanuts, by Daniella Segura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

Dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale
Because of thy wretched bowels?

—Paraphrase of Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3)

Readers, I hope you will indulge me in this dramatic, and admittedly somewhat unseemly, turn of a Shakespearean phrase. Not long ago, I was planning a simple supper for a few couples and had just received a third text informing me of various food allergies. The relaxed and convivial supper I had imagined was rapidly becoming a nightmare of compromise and unsatisfactory substitutions.

Somehow I had to come up with a delicious menu that didn’t involve dairy, flour or meat.

I should have known not to invite a bunch of people I barely knew, but I was feeling expansive at the time. I’d also been envisioning a pleasant few days pottering through familiar recipes in my kitchen—only to find myself feeling cross, taken for granted and somewhat overwhelmed.

As those of you who are cooks will know, “simple” suppers never take less than days to bring off in the desired relaxed and blasé style—so one really needs to enjoy the preparation. Frankly, getting ready for this particular dinner was beginning to feel like a challenge on a brutal reality show.

I also felt I could empathize with the nearly 100 restaurateurs in Britain who last month signed a letter protesting the new EU rules requiring restaurants to audit their menus for allergens from lupins to eggs. These allergens must be flagged on menus. Failure to do so could result in a $5,000 fine which, for most restaurants, could be the difference between survival and going to the wall. They rightly point out that having to undertake such work will also reduce the spontaneity of their menus and reduce creativity.

Modern etiquette requires hosts to ask guests if there is anything they don’t eat.

SirTobyBelch

Toby jug (named after Sir Toby Belch), by Graham and Sheila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is when the guest can mention any genuine allergies—not their likes and dislikes. I might feign polite interest, but I don’t really care to hear about your digestive issues.

Of course, I do want to know if you are actually c(o)eliac. Curmudgeonly as I can be, I get that this is a very real health issue and I will go to any lengths, happily, to accommodate it.

If I have to jump through culinary hoops because you “really feel that you have more energy since you gave up wheat,” I am, frankly, annoyed.

I once entertained a guest and made the mistake of including in a recipe an ingredient he had repeatedly informed me caused a severe allergic reaction.

To this day I cannot explain how I so deliberately included it; however, when I realized my mistake, it was with a heart-stopping thump in the middle of the night. I agonized for hours, caught a moral maze of whether or not I should call and confess my reckless stupidity or not. As dawn broke, so, too, did the suspicion that if this had been a true allergy, I could have expected some drama before the end of the evening. If I am going to get careless while entertaining an allergy sufferer, I expect the subsequent experience to include severe anaphylactic shock and hysterical calls for an ambulance…

Sure enough, by lunchtime I had received the text thanking me for a lovely evening. The experience has left me deeply suspicious of subsequent allergy stories.

It can’t be fun living with an allergy, but neither can it be everyone else’s responsibility and expense.

During the time when we lived as expats in Malaysia, my children were at school in Kuala Lumpur. Peanut butter was not banned. How can you ban it in a country where peanut oil is a major component of the air? But if your child took in nuts or peanut butter to school, it was their responsibility to sit with kids with who claimed peanut allergies, so that the latter wouldn’t feel isolated.

How severe could such allergies be, I wondered? Indeed, at that time, and probably to this day, Malaysian Airlines tested the peanut-withstanding ability of all those entering the country by serving peanuts with the aperitifs—long after other airlines had bailed.

(While on this topic, it’s worth noting that, according to the latest medical studies, those who consume a greater amount of peanuts have about a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This effect is a result of the peanuts’ ability to lower cholesterol and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.)

When you are invited to eat at someone’s house, you are being asked to share with the family.

dinner party quote

Dinner party, by Elin B via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

As we expats know better than anyone else, the dinner party is an age-old, worldwide gesture of hospitality and friendship. We must take every measure to protect this prized human tradition.

Listen, it is even possible to desensitize ourselves to allergies. I recently saw a documentary about a little boy who showed extreme allergy to a new dog brought into the family. Instead of re-homing the dog, the family decided that the positive aspects of owning a pet were worth making an effort for. They began a desensitization programme at a local hospital and, in time, the boy could begin a wonderful relationship with his dog.

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! To what extent has food fussiness become an item in your social circle? Are you a victim, or do you agree with the curmudgeonly Joanna, that fussy eaters are making dinner parties and other group meals less fun for the rest of us? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: How (not) to feed a convalescent expat

JoannaJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her column for like-minded food gossips.

This month: The state of worldwide hospital food.

* * *

“The last thing you need on top of everything else when you are in hospital is red wee.”

So ended my husband’s texted tirade after a few days in an Abu Dhabi hospital following an emergency appendectomy which turned out to be less than straightforward.  The indignities, pain, and discomfort could be handled with fortitude, but the food had caused the British stiff upper lip some serious challenges.  Beetroot was served at every meal and in every conceivable form — none of which was remotely welcome to this convalescent.

Almost unbelievably, the day after my husband was admitted to a Middle Eastern hospital, my 9-year-old son was diagnosed with the same condition and admitted to Taunton Hospital, in Somerset, England, for the same operation.  Patrick took it all in his stride, only threatening mutiny when a disposable bottle, apparently made of the same recycled cardboard as egg cartons, was proffered in response to his request to go to the loo.  With furious determination he heaved himself upright  and made his way to the bathrooms, wheeling his drip ahead of him and making my heart swell with maternal pride.

Several hours later, when wrinkled potato wedges and bright orange fish fingers confronted him, Patrick’s attitude was rather different.  My husband’s texted complaint lacked the colour a human voice could give the words.  My son’s anguished “Why, why, why?” however, provided a glimpse of  The Husband’s state of mind when he composed his text.  The pitch of “Why can’t I just have a tuna sandwich?”  swung from already-stressed contralto to end-of-tether soprano.

KISS: Keep It Simple, Sandwich

This question is one I ask myself every time I face airline food.  Why not a sandwich? A simple sandwich is perfect food for those on the go; ask any hill-walker. It is easily transported and eaten and requires little in the way of tableware.  It certainly beats sub-standard wannabe home-cooking, or, more depressingly, wannabe gourmet cooking.  KLM used to do a nice sandwich on granary, a little oatcake and a good cup of tea or coffee on their London to Schiphol shuttle.  I have never enjoyed airborne eating as much.  Flights since, even champagne-soaked upgrades, have never hit the spot as well.

Hospitals, like airlines, are susceptible to the curse of being the girl who tries too hard at parties and embarrasses everyone, for different reasons of course.  Airlines because they feel they are part of the same package as the business trip or holiday and have to provide something special.  Hospitals, being in the health business. feel under pressure to produce something healthy and balanced.  Easy healthy and balanced is a lump of protein, a lump of carbohydrate and some boiled veg.  Each element can be whatever is readily to hand in the locale.  Obviously, beetroot is easy to come by in Abu Dhabi – who’d have thought?

A few years ago I found myself admitted with an unpleasant stomach bug to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur.  During my recovery, meal after meal was placed in front of me,  each consisting of overdone, indigestible chicken in glutinous sauce with rice and boiled vegetables. (Never talk to me again about English food.) Not appetizing at any time, but certainly not in the recovery period.  At the end of day two I was begging for cream crackers and jelly.  Even if I was unable to eat them, they were easier to tolerate the look of in the post-prandial two hours that the staff took to remove the debris.

The Victorians –now, they knew how to run a sickroom

When I’m sick I crave the ideal Victorian sickroom.  I want chicken soup, broth, and little crustless sandwiches cut into triangles.  I want food that makes me feel pampered and I want it in miniature form.  What I don’t want is big hunks of meat that I have to take a hacksaw to.  I don’t want to bother with a knife and fork.  I’d like little sips of water, or tea and maybe the odd ginger biscuit.  Some soft-boiled eggs and soldiers (fingers of toast) would be nice too.  In short, give me the whole Victorian sickroom vibe complete with flowery china and a little vase of flowers.  Do that and I’ll put on a white nighty, brush my hair and smarten up my convalescent act accordingly.

What explains this wanton disregard for dainty and light in preference for The Undigestibles? I suggest it is because hospitals the world over want us out, and want us out fast. In cash-strapped UK NHS land, beds are at a premium and waiting lists must be kept down.  Make things too comfortable and delicious and who knows how long malingering patients will stay?  I also imagine American insurance companies would like to minimize the number of nights their customers spend in hospitals which are often more costly than excellent hotels.

If you can’t keep it simple, keep it real

So, what’s my point talking about all this in our “displaced” world?  I suppose it is simple, really.  I want any experience that takes place outside of my own country to be distinctive and of that place.  If a hospital cannot, or will not, convert its menu into something I might find in Little Women, I want to lose my appetite for something distinctive.  If I have some indescribably unpleasant stomach complaint and find myself again in hospital in KL, I want to be unable to eat Malaysian food, truly Malaysian food.  If I’m not eating, give me beef rendang to reject and not boiled chicken breasts.  If I am in Rio, I want to lose my appetite for black beans and chiffonade of couve (actually, that will never happen) and if I ever end up in a  Abu Dhabi hospital, I want to reject grated raw beetroot.

You see, be it Victorian pampered convalescent on a chaise longue, or expat overseas, I yearn to feel special when I am sick.  Is that really too much to ask?

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

Image:

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Winning the war of Global Food One-upmanship

JoannaJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her column for like-minded food gossips.

This month: The war of foodie one-upmanship, or “Who’s travelled the most?”

* * *

“I’m doing it the Malaysian way” said my friend with satisfaction as she poured her too hot tea from one cup to another and back again to cool it.

It was my cue to ask “How do you mean?” thus allowing her to launch into (yet another) story of how things are done in some place or other she had visited.

It was hot, I was grumpy, and my friend’s tone was just a touch too self-satisfied.

The pause grew as I busied myself with milk and sugar.  It extended into a grim silence as I resolutely avoided asking.  Not generous of me, I know, but in my defense I have never pretended to be Pollyanna, and sometimes those “we found this marvelous place just off the beaten track” stories just get on your nerves.

It would be another 5 years before I lived in Malaysia and discovered Teh Tarik for myself.  The pouring trick was not to do with cooling, but with the mixing and frothing of a sort of tea made with condensed milk.  An environmentally friendly cuppotino, I suppose.

Look where I’ve been — and you have not!

All expats have probably found themselves on one side or another, or both, of this conversation.  Expats and serious travellers are all engaged in an endless war of covert operations.  We maneuver for superiority by exposing snippets of our discoveries and being impressed, or not, by those of others.  We certainly don’t like to admit to this unedifying trait of One-upmanship, preferring instead to see ourselves as laid back free spirits and survivors of alien situations.  Yet, the truth is, it is our Achilles heel.

Expat tales of unusual foods, which hopefully Waitrose will not discover before we get home, allow us to say “look where I’ve been, and you have not”. While appearing to share generously of our experience, we want to show what we know and what those who stayed at home do not.

Calling bluff on Bi Bim Bap

“You’ll never go hungry in a Korean restaurant if you can just remember to ask for Bi Bim Bap.  After all, who could forget a word like Bi Bim Bap?”

My friend’s hands spread out, palms up.  Her shoulders and eyebrows rose in perfect synchronicity.  The gesture suggested that not only was it impossible to forget such a word once heard, but that not knowing about Bi Bim Bap was unimaginable in itself.  We had reached the point that expats will recognise from the cold war of One-upmanship.

I faced a difficult choice.  Was I going to expose my lack of knowledge over “Bi Bim Bap” and lose a little position in the “most well travelled”, or was I going to take the dangerous but potentially game-winning risk of pretending that I knew what it was and indeed had been taught to produce one by a well-known Korean chef whom I had just happened to bump into?

The advantage of the first approach is  the warm glow of generosity of giving another a moment to shine. That and the fact you might actually learn something interesting.  The second approach means you avoid having to listen to a long-winded boast.

Does she actually think she invented the Bi Bim Bap? you mutter darkly to yourself.

Of course, in not asking, you remain in frustrating ignorance, especially if you forget to Google it upon returning home.  More seriously, you risk exposure as a fraud.  That is enough to chill the heart.

You might be thinking that the example of Bi Bim Bap was a little repetitive, following so quickly as it does on the heels of Teh Tarek.  I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the opportunity to show off – again.  As I say, it is a hazard of being an expat with an unfortunate interest in food.

Expats 1, Tourists 0

Hari Raya Aidilfitri:  outlying suburb of KL far from the Tourist Zone.  These stalls offer traditional foods for  to locals and a wealth of boasting opportunities for the lucky expat passerby.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri: outlying suburb of KL far from the Tourist Zone. These stalls offer traditional foods for to locals and a wealth of boasting opportunities for the lucky expat passerby.

Expats like to think that living overseas gives you a window on a world that tourists or those who remain at home will never see.  Tourists will never have to face the problems of daily life in a strange language or culture.  They will never have to get the electricity turned on, find a plumber, or do the weekly family shop.  A tourist’s world in many respects doesn’t differ hugely from place to place.   Pre-booked hotels, transport from airports, organized trips on air-conditioned buses.  Even backpackers travels follow a familiar path.

The wonderful Nasi Lemak (coconut rice to you) of a tourist hotel was doubtless an experience, just not the same as the hawker stall the expat discovers in the backstreet to which they have been directed to find a furniture repair store.

That, we believe is the uniqueness of living overseas.

Expats trump tourists.

How naughtily satisfying.  One-upmanship indeed.

A Tower of Babel for the food industry

As the globalization of food companies and supermarkets continues to homogenise world food experiences, the expats’ territory is further threatened.  The same products appear the world over and are marketed similarly in the name of brand identity.

Take the confectionary market.  An advert for Maynards Sour Patch Kids is currently airing on UK television.  It has been voiced over in an American accent and uses American vocabulary such as “soda”. It upsets me. Maynards was bought by Cadbury, which in turn was bought by American Kraft, but why did a company with a uniquely English Quaker social and economic philosophy have to be marketed in England in much the same way as it is probably marketed in America?  How could this happen to the company of a man who had invented the wine gum to help wean the impoverished working class off the demon drink?

Sour Patch Kids should be sold in America to American kids.  Maynards should be selling wine gums to English kids, using an English accent.  Kids should be allowed the thrill of receiving a unique item from granny or auntie when she returns from her travels.   They should be asking friends visiting those countries to “bring us back a packet”.  They should be learning at an early age the delicate game of Travellers’ One-upmanship.

The joy unbounded of discovering a packet of a long remembered treat is equal to the joy of a pig that unearths a truffle.  These are the experiences of travel and expatness that must not be lost.  They will be lost, mark my words, if Haribo takes over the world as it threatens to do so, with their gummy bears and fizzy cola.  Brands unique to different countries must be guarded jealously, much as France guards the name “champagne”.  Mexican Chili sweets, English Trebor mints and American Peanut Butter Cups can then keep their allure and remain in production.  The thrill of the chase and the discovery of the new should not be lost.  A world of confectionary should there for us all.

Expat living: A licence to boast

Expats have a sneaky feeling that knowledge of and access to certain foods is our earned right.  It is cheating if the supermarkets bring them to homebodies and tourists collect them at the airport on the way out.

I feel I have earned the right to drone on about wonderful Venezuelan coffee and why it is so difficult to find because I survived Caracas’ toilet roll shortage of 2009.  Really, every day for weeks I drove around all the supermarkets of the city searching out any flushable paper products.  Like the natives of the city, I bought my one allocated packet in one supermarket, got in the car and drove to the next.  If there was none, I bought none.   Expat and local as one in a shared quest.  It was while diligently scouring the shelves of every aisle in one that I found the white shrink-wrapped bricks of Venezuelan coffee nirvana.  They represented the ideal pick-me-up after shopping, the ideal gift for home, the ideal story to tell.   I had earned my licence to boast.

As I say, I’m far from perfect, but I’m not alone.  Global Food One-upmanship is not a truly bad fault in the great scheme of things and we combatants do ameliorate our annoyingness with gifts of the delicious foods we have found whenever we can.

Be gentle when you judge us.

P.S.  Bi bim bap is a Korean dish meaning “mixed rice”.  Rice is topped with vegetables and raw or fried egg and different meats.  The sauce is chilli based.

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

Image:

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

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