The Displaced Nation

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

Expats and other world adventurers, let me guess. You have you spent the past week making resolutions about

  • staying positive about your new life in Country X;
  • indulging in less of the local stodge;
  • giving up the smoking habit that no one is nagging you about now that you’re so far away from home;
  • and/or taking advantage of travel opportunities within the region that may never come your way again

— while also knowing full well that at some point in the not-distant future, you’ll end up stuffing your face with marshmallows (metaphorically speaking).

Never mind, it happens to the best of us, as psychologist Walter Mischel — he of the marshmallow experimentrecently told Abby Hunstman of the Huffington Post. Apparently, it has something to do with the way impulses work in the brain. The key is to trick the brain by coming up with strategies to avoid the marshmallow or treat it as something else.

Today I’d like to propose something I found to be one of the most effective strategies for turning away from the marshmallows you’ve discovered in your new home abroad or, for more veteran expats, turning these marshmallows into something new and exotic. My advice is to find a mentor or a muse in your adopted land — someone who can teach you something new, or who inspires you by their example to try new things…

Trust me, if you choose the right mentor +/or muse, benefits like the following will soon accrue:

1) More exotic looks — and a book deal.

Back when I lived abroad, first in England and then in Japan, I was always studying other women for style and beauty tips. I made a muse of everyone from Princess Diana (I could hardly help it as her image was being constantly thrust in front of me) to the stewardesses I encountered on All Nippon Airways. Have you ever seen the film Fear and Trembling, based on the autobiographical novel of that name, by the oft-displaced Amélie Nothomb? On ANA flights, I behaved a little like the film’s young Belgian protagonist, Amélie, who secretly adulates her supervisor Miss Fubuki. I simply couldn’t believe the world contained such attractive women…

The pay-off came upon my repatriation to the US. With such a wide array of fashion and beauty influences, I’d begun to resemble Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence — with my Laura Ashley dresses, hair ornaments, strings of (real) pearls, and habit of bowing to everyone.

Is it any wonder my (Japanese) husband-to-be nicknamed me the Duchess? (Better than being the sheltered May Welland, surely?)

My one regret is that I didn’t parlay these style tips into a best-seller — unlike Jennifer Scott, one of the authors who was featured on TDN this past year. While studying in Paris, Scott was in a mentoring relationship with Madame Chic and Madame Bohemienne. (The former was the matriarch in her host family; the latter, in her boyfriend’s host family.) Mme C & Mme B took her under their wing and taught her everything she knows about personal style, preparation of food, home decor, entertaining, make-up, you name it…and is now imparting to others in her Simon & Schuster-published book.

2) More memorable dinner parties.

As mentioned in a previous post, I adopted actress and Indian cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey as my muse shortly after settling down in the UK. I was (still am) madly in love with her, her cookbooks, even her writing style.

And her recipes do me proud to this day.

Right before Christmas I threw a dinner party for 10 featuring beef cooked in yogurt and black pepper, black cod in a coriander marinade, and several of her vegetable dishes.

It was divine — if I say so myself! To be fair, the guests liked it, too…

3) Improved language skills.

Now the ideal mentor for an adult seeking to pick up a new foreign language is a boyfriend or girlfriend in the local culture — preferably one with gobs of patience. The Japanese have the perfect expression for it: iki jibiki, or walking dictionary.

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

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained…

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

4) A fondness for angels who dance on pinheads.

After seeing the film Lost in Translation, I became an advocate for expats giving themselves intellectual challenges. Really, there’s no excuse for ennui of the sort displayed by Scarlett Johansson character, in a well-traveled life.

It was while living in the UK as a grad student that I discovered the extraordinary scholar-writer Marina Warner, who remains an inspiration to this day. Warner, who grew up in Brussels and Cambridge and was educated at convent school and Oxford University, is best known for her books on feminism and myth.

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

In her person, too, she is something of a goddess. Though I’d encountered women of formidable intellect before, I found her more appealing than most, I think because she wears her learning lightly and has an ethereal presence, like one of the original Muses.

Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes has written of her “incandescent intelligence and Apulian beauty” (she is half Italian, half English). The one time I met her — I asked her to sign my copy of her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Lost Father — I could see what he meant.

I was gobsmacked.

Major girl crush!

(Don’t have a girl crush? Get one! It will enrich your life immeasurably.)

5) Greater powers of mindfulness — and a book deal.

Third Culture Kid Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow but grew up and was educated in the US. She has started the new year by putting out a book with Viking entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Who would guess that a young Russian-born woman would use Conan Doyle’s fictional creations, Holmes and Watson, as her muses? But, as she explains in a recent article in Slate, she has learned everything she knows about the art of mindfulness from that master British sleuth:

Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe those details that most of us don’t even realize we don’t see.

So moved is she by Holmes’s example — and so frustrated by her own, much more limited observational powers — Konnikova does the boldest of all thought experiments: she gives up the Internet…

So does her physiological and emotional well-being improve as a result? Does her mind stop wandering away from the present? Does she become happier? I won’t give it away lest you would like to make Konnikova this year’s muse and invest in her book. Hint: If you do, we may not see you here for a while. 😦

6) The confidence to travel on your own.

We expats tend to be a little less intrepid than the average global wanderer: we’re a little too attached to our creature comforts and may need a kick to become more adventuresome. But even avid travelers sometimes lose their courage, as Amy Baker recently reported in a post for Vagabondish. She recounts the first time she met a Swedish solo traveler in Morocco, who had lived on her own in Zimbabwe for 10 years. This Swede is now her friend — and muse:

She was level-headed, organized and fiercely independent — all characteristics that I aim to embody as a female traveler.

With this “fearless Swedish warrior woman” in mind, Amy started venturing out on her lonesome — and hasn’t looked back.

* * *

Readers, the above is not intended as an exhaustive list as I’m hoping you can contribute your own experiences with mentors and muses abroad: What do you do to avoid the “marshmallows” of the (too?) well-traveled life? Who have you met that has inspired you to new creative, intellectual, or travel heights? Please let us know in the comments. In the meantime, I wish you a happy, healthy — and most of all, intellectually stimulating — new year!

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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BOOK REVIEW: “Expat Life Slice By Slice” by Apple Gidley

TITLE: Expat Life Slice by Slice
AUTHOR: Apple Gidley
Twitter: @ExpatApple
PUBLICATION DATE: March 2012 (Summertime Publishers)
FORMAT: Ebook (Kindle) and Paperback, available from Amazon
GENRE: Memoir
SOURCE: Review copy from author

Author Bio:

Apple Gidley became an expat at the tender age of one month old, in Kano, Nigeria. Since her early initiation into global wandering, she has relocated 26 times through 12 countries, acquiring a husband and two children en route.

Apple is known to thousands as ExpatApple, through her popular blog at the Daily Telegraph.


“From marauding monkeys to strange men in her bedroom, from Africa to Australasia to America, with stops in Melanesia, the Caribbean and Europe along the way, Apple Gidley vividly sketches her itinerant global life. The challenges of expatriation, whether finding a home, a job, or a school are faced mostly with equanimity. Touched with humour and pathos, places come alive with stories of people met and cultures learned, with a few foreign faux pas added to the mix.”

(Source: book description)


If anyone is qualified to issue advice on expat life, Apple Gidley is that person. Born to an English father and Australian mother, she takes the label “Serial Expat” to new heights.  She was a TCK before the term was invented (instead classed unflatteringly as an “expat brat”) and continued the global wandering throughout her adult life, with 26 relocations through 12 countries to date.

Her memoir provides fascinating reading, about places and lifestyles that most of us will never experience, and at times is almost anachronistic:  reading her reminiscences about servants, voluntary work, and charity committees, there’s a time warp sensation of stepping into a Somerset Maugham short story.

Although the book is a record of Apple’s patchwork life, most expats will relate to the emotional experiences she describes, no matter where in the world they are or  how many countries they’ve lived in. For example, we worry that leaving our family and friends behind will increase the emotional distance as well as the physical. After a while, we realise that this is mostly not the case, and that those who allow physical distance to become an obstacle weren’t so emotionally close in the first place. In Chapter 8, “Eighth Slice: Staying Connected”, she says:

As we age we draw closer still. We believe in family but do not see each other for years at a time, and yet we are all aware of where each of us is in the world, still scattered and testaments to a global upbringing.

In “Ninth Slice: Death at a Distance”, Apple deals with the elephant-in-the-room topic: the illness or death of a family member while we are thousands of miles away. During such times, it’s easy to beat ourselves up for choosing a nomadic lifestyle;  if our associated guilt trips were eligible for air miles, we could afford to fly back and forth to be with our loved ones as often as we wanted. In describing her own experiences of bereavement, Apple’s practical, matter-of-fact approach, plus her insights gleaned from other cultures’ attitudes to old age and death, reminds us that the old cliché of “life goes on” holds true, even after “death at a distance”.

Whether you’re a veteran expat, a re-pat, or are just about to embark upon your first move to another country, “Expat Life Slice By Slice” should be on your reading list.

Words of wisdom:

On TCKs:

For those children brought up as TCKs…a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude to different customs, colours and cultures is the norm. As this demographic grows, let’s hope for an even greater understanding of cultural differences for all our children.

On voluntary work:

Volunteering is work, sometimes harder than a paid position because it is the cause keeping you there and not the salary.

On making new connections:

Picking up people around the world to share your life with is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and sometimes you know straight away they will continue to stay in it.

On “Home”

Home is with me wherever I go…It is not a single building or a single country, but many of them.


STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post.

Image:  Book cover – “Expat Life Slice By Slice”

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BOOK REVIEW: “The Chalk Circle,” by Tara L. Masih, Ed.

TITLE: The Chalk Circle
AUTHOR: Tara L. Masih (Editor)
LITERARY AWARDS: 2012 Skipping Stones Honor Award
PUBLICATION DATE: May 2012 (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing)
FORMAT: Ebook (Kindle) and Paperback
GENRE: Anthology/Autobiography
SOURCE: Review copy from author

Author Bio:

Tara L. Masih, a native of Long Island, N.Y., is the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, and the author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (a National Best Books Award finalist). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including ConfrontationHayden’s Ferry ReviewNatural Bridge,The PedestalNight Train, and The Caribbean Writer); and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine‘s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations.

(Source: Author’s website)


Award-winning editor Tara L. Masih put out a call in 2007 for intercultural essays dealing with the subjects of  “culture, race, and a sense of place.” The prizewinners are gathered for the first time in a ground-breaking anthology that explores many facets of culture not previously found under one cover. The powerful, honest, thoughtful voices — Native American, African American, Asian, European, Jewish, White — speak daringly on topics not often discussed in the open, on subjects such as racism, anti-Semitism, war, self-identity, gender, societal expectations.

(Source: book description)


I’ll be honest: anthologies are not what I head for when I enter a bookshop. My gripe is that the tales are too short, and that just as you are getting into the swing of a story, it ends.

This collection of real-life snapshots, on the other hand, is different. Like most other writers, I have an addiction to people-watching and surreptitious eavesdropping, so an anthology of confessions on multicultural issues, by prize-winning writers, is right up my alley.

Because of the book’s broad topic of “culture, race, and a sense of place,” the essay subjects range widely, as each writer offers his or her own perspective on the topic. Not all of the pieces are about living abroad in another country. One such essay, which also struck me as the most poignant, was “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow,” by Samuel Autman. An African-American who grew up in an all-black neighbourhood of St. Louis, Missouri, Autman became the first black reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah during the early 1990s. His recollections of that time show, clearly, that one does not need to cross oceans to feel like a fish out of water in the worst possible way.

The essay that will probably strike the loudest chord with TDN readers is “Fragments: Finding Center,” by Sarah J. Stoner. An American-born writer who, until the age of 18, had never lived in the country of her passport but had grown up in Uganda, Morocco, Belgium, and Thailand, Stoner writes of her first days at college. This pivotal life experience also coincided with her first days of living in America, a country she can technically call “home” but which feels like anything but:

A pronounced British accent or status as an exchange student would work wonders for me in this moment. But my bland and unremarkable exterior offers no such grace. I appear deceptively American.

Because everyone’s experiences are unique, different essays will appeal to different readers. A solitary person myself, I was fascinated by “Connections,” by Betty Jo Goddard, in which the 78-year-old writer describes her isolated existence in Alaska, and her feelings about using modern technology to stay connected to the world.

Everyone, though, will be touched by “Tightrope Across the Abyss,” by Shanti Elke Bannwart, a woman born in Germany at the start of World War II. In this piece, Bannwart tells the story of her neighbor, Bettina Goering. Goering is the great-niece of Herman Göring, right-hand man of Adolf Hitler, who swallowed cyanide two hours before he was due to be hanged at Nuremberg. Her  struggles to reconcile herself with her Nazi ancestry have already been documented in the film Bloodlineswhere she “seeks redemption by facing Holocaust survivor and artist Ruth Rich in Sidney, Australia.” Bannwart, with her own 70-year burden of having a Nazi father decorated by Hitler, meets her neighbor Goering, and in doing so finds the nugget of peace and self-forgiveness that has evaded her for so long.

Words of wisdom:

On the convenience of the label “TCK”:

Yes. I’m a Third Culture Kid.

I was relieved to finally have a shortened version of, “Well, I am American but I never lived in America until college. I went to high school in Thailand and before that I lived in Belgium and then Morocco before that. Yes, I was born in the U.S., but we left for Uganda when I was seventeen days old.”

(From “Fragments: Finding Center,” by Sarah J. Stoner)

On getting to know a place:

Places are best soaked in through the tongue, sent stomach-ward, digested and incorporated into the body. To know a place is to visit local markets, order things with unpronounceable names, and eat street food no matter the time of day.

(From “Assailing Otherness” by Katrina Grigg-Saito)

On using technology to stay in touch:

Such connections [phone and email]…are available even to “hermits” living on a ridge-top at the end of nowhere. Are they needed? No. But they enrich my life. My life is full of potential connections.

(From “Connections,” by Betty Jo Goddard)


Although this anthology of autobiographical experiences is a slight departure from the usual books we review at Displaced Nation, it’s a valuable and high quality addition to our stable of “displaced reading.” The sheer variety of experiences depicted in the book means that all readers, wherever they hale from and wherever they are at present, will find something that resonates.

“The Chalk Circle” can be purchased here. 

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s trip to Woodhaven, where Libby is feeling more and more like an exhibit on  the Jerry Springer Show.

Image:  Book cover – “The Chalk Circle”

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RANDOM NOMAD: Wendy Williams, Canadian Expat in Austria

Place of birth: Northern Ontario, Canada
Passport: Canadian, and apparently I can live in Austria forever now with my unlimited Aufenhaltsbewilligung.
Overseas history: Austria (present), Germany, Switzerland, Slovak Republic, UK. I have also worked on a project basis for extended periods in Sweden, Tunisia, Holland and Estonia.
Occupation: Author*
Cyberspace coordinates: The Glolo Blog; The Globalisation of Love (Facebook page); and @WilliamsGloLo (Twitter handle)
*Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love, one of the top books for expats in 2011.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Burning curiosity! I just love to know what is around the next corner — and the corner after that, too. My grandparents are all immigrants to Canada from Europe, and I guess listening to their stories about their homelands got me thinking that “home” can be very different and it can be anywhere.

Is anyone else in your family “displaced” besides your grandparents?
I am the only of my siblings who went back across the pond, as my grandmother would say — though they certainly come to visit me in Austria (and to ski!).

You’ve lived in quite a few places in Europe before moving to Vienna with your Austrian husband. Does any one moment of that time abroad stand out as your “most displaced”?
While vacationing on one of the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, I fell ill and required an injection in my, ahem, gluteus maximus. It was 1995, when the so-called Turbot War took place between Canada and Spain — a dispute over fishing rights along the coast of Canada that challenged international diplomatic relations between the two countries. The doctor held up the rather long needle and said, “So, you’re from Canada are you? You like to fish?” I remember thinking, “Uh-oh, this is going to hurt!” It may be conjecture, but I felt the jab of the needle was particularly forceful.

Is there any particular moment that stands out as your “least displaced”?
It happens all the time while skiing in Austria. I grew up skiing on a tiny little bump of a hill and always dreamed about the long alpine slopes of Austria. I was lucky enough to marry an Austrian who is also a passionate skier, and we ski frequently throughout the winter. I feel right at home as I swish, swish down the slopes. I enjoy the après ski, too!

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Georgia in the Caucasus: Antique brass candle holders
From Murano, a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon: A red Murano chandelier
From Morocco: An onyx stone bathroom sink
From Austria: An 18th-century Tyrolean kitchen table
From France: A yellow ceramic Pernot jug
My house is a diary of my travels through life, and as you can see, I plan to continue living that way on The Displaced Nation — even though it will entail dragging in a rather large and heavy suitcase!

You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Appetizer: My husband’s pumpkin soup with 100% pure Austrian pumpkin seed oil
Salad: Arugula mixed salad with blue cheese, grapes, cranberries, pear and pistachios — as served at the Loriot in Washington, D.C.
Main course: Viennese Schnitzel with potato salad … of course!
Dessert: My mom’s lemon meringue pie
Drinks: Bubbly to start — Crémant d’Alsace is one of my favourites; and for the main course, red wine from Burgenland in Austria.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country where you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Actually, I would like to loan you an expression that my husband picked it up while living in Australia: Happy as Larry. (I picked it up from him while living in Austria.)

This month we are looking into parties and celebrations abroad. What has been your most memorable party or celebration since you became “displaced” from your native land?
The celebration of my 10th wedding anniversary, in 2008! My husband and I had about 50 friends in a small restaurant in Vienna that served elegant, locally-sourced organic food. An opera singer sang “‘O Sole Mio” so beautifully we thought the wine glasses would burst like in a cartoon. We gave a speech about our 10 years together and then announced what we had planned for the upcoming years — I was four months pregnant. The crowd went wild with excitement and gave a 10-minute standing ovation amongst congratulatory hugs, tears and high fives. It was total kitsch and corny Hollywood romance — and we loved every minute of it!

The Displaced Nation has just turned one year old. Can you give us some advice on themes to cover in our second year — anything you think should be on our radar?
Multicultural couples — what I call GloLo couples — usually meet in interesting ways. Chance and coincidence often conspire to bring two people together. It would be fun if The Displaced Nation could feature some stories from GloLo couples about how they met — and whether their displaced lives brought them together — and how they worked things out so they can stay together.

Editor’s note: In February Wendy Williams contributed a post to The Displaced Nation that has remained very popular: Why “expat” is a misleading term for multicultural couples.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Wendy William into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Wendy — find amusing.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, as she discovers that Oliver’s mum and her own mother have more in common than she’d realized. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Wendy wrapped up against the elements — but is she in Austria, her adopted home, or Northern Ontario, her birthplace? (Hint: It was minus 25 degrees Celsius.)

Is The Displaced Nation for expats, travelers — or both?

When we started up The Displaced Nation on April Fool’s Day, many people wondered: is it a site for fools, be they expats, travelers, or both?

From the perspective of outsiders — people who aren’t in the biz — that distinction may seem frivolous. After all, many travelers become expats and many expats travel.

But from the inside, it’s very clear who the travelers and expats are. Both are interested in viewing the world’s rich tapestry firsthand — but expats tend to focus on the intricacies of particular patterns, whereas global travelers want to take in as much of the picture as they can, including the tattered bits.

So, who is more displaced — the expats or the travelers?

The answer is neither. Feeling displaced is a state of mind. To continue the tapestry metaphor, part of you identifies with the new patterns you’re looking at, while another part thinks it’s a confused mess compared to the patterns you’re used to.

Not all global residents feel displaced; same for global travelers. And there are even cases where a person has never traveled except in an armchair — but has ended up feeling displaced by what they’ve read.

As a student of Shakespeare, I’m often reminded of the King Lear line:

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” – William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.4.230

Except that King Lear felt this way at the end of his life; many of us global voyagers get there rather earlier. Is it any wonder we feel like fools?!

Now, if you’ve noticed that our site tends to be expat-centric, it’s because two of our writers are expats and the other one (me), a former expat.

Reflecting this imbalance, I’ve started commissioning guest posts by writers — switching metaphors here, but only slightly — who can spin the kind of travel yarn that focuses on the ways travel can make you feel misplaced, displaced, out of place — and, in the process, challenge who you are as a person.

Thus far we’ve featured three such yarns:

1) My first flirtation with the lawlessness of global travel: 4 painful lessons, by Lara Sterling
Sterling has done it all, from round-the-world trips to expat stints. In this article she reports on the shock/horror she experienced after falling in love with a German traveler and following him all the way to war-torn Guatemala — only to discover he was engaged in criminal activities. Part of her was with him, fascinated — they were in a lawless land, so was there any reason to abide by the laws back home? But another part of her was repelled, and couldn’t wait to get back to the United States.

2) In search of 007th heaven, a travel yarn in three parts, by Sebastian Doggart
Doggart — a Brit who lives in New York City and blogs for the Daily Telegraph‘s expat site — tells of the pilgrimage he made to Goldeneye, the Jamaican coastal retreat where Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels. As a Bond fan, he had fun identifying the sights that made it into Fleming’s stories and films. But he also felt alienated that Goldeneye had become GoldeneEye, a playground of the rich and famous — sensing that Fleming, who wrote for the masses, would not approve.

3) How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts, by Joy Richards
Richards lives in her native England and travels whenever she can. Here she describes her first foray into Fez, Morocco, which was also her first time in an Arab country. She decided to go with the flow, finding that she could relate to the Moroccan sense of shame through her parents’ values, didn’t mind “covering up” (is it any worse than being urged by the Western media to put your body on display?), and had a knack for bargaining. But the flow stopped as soon as she became aware of corrupt police tactics along with some cracks in the society’s facade.

* * *

As The Displaced Nation assumes its normal schedule next month, we hope to feature still more travel yarns.

Meanwhile, can you kindly do us a favor by answering these questions:
1) Would you like to see travel play an even bigger part in our article mix?
2) If so, can you suggest any candidates for guest posts, as well as countries/regions you’d like to hear more about?

Much obliged, as always, for your input!


STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on the less-than-enchanting challenges of vacationing with family.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 2)

We welcome back Joy Richards to The Displaced Nation for the second part of her travel yarn about a trip she made in May to visit a British expat friend in Fez, Morocco. In Part 1, Richards learns about the Moroccan concept of hshuma (forbidden, shameful) and reveals she rather likes “covering up.” In Part 2, she discovers she has an innate bargaining instinct while shopping in the Fez medina, but then an incident occurs on a day trip to the Roman ruins that gets her thinking…   

My traveling companions and I are about to go shopping in the Fez medina (walled city), and I wonder to myself: is this how I might feel if I were to attend a football match in England as a lone woman? Actually, women are even less obvious in Fez than they are in British football stadiums.

Morocco prizes its reputation as a “modern” country. It is so modern that the King of Morocco took a computer engineer from Fez, Salma Bennani, as his wife.

However, here in the Medina, where women wear traditional dress and all of the shopkeepers are male, the occupation of the King’s wife seems beside the point.

Shopping until you, or the price, drop

Not as confrontational as football but requiring almost as much as strategy and skill, shopping in Fez is an interactive game. Rarely will any item have a price tag on it, so buying does not happen quickly. Typically, the interchange goes something like:

“How much is this?”

“It is very beautiful.” Seller places the item into your hands. “You like?”

“It depends how much it is.”

“I give you best price. I give you very good price because your friend lives here.”

“What is your best price?”

“She” — gesturing to my friend — “is like family. I give you best price.” Seller begins to wrap the item.

“Don’t wrap it. How much is it?”

“200 dirhams, very good price, best in medina.”

“No, too expensive.”

“No, very good price.”

“100 dirhams.”

“No no. 200 dirhams best price.”

“Ok. No thank you.”

“For you 190 dirhams. Yes.” Begins wrapping again.

“No. Too expensive. 150 dirhams…”

This will continue, and may include either buyer or seller declaring that they are no longer interested and even walking away, until a price is agreed. Probably around 170 if the starting point is 200.

I start bargaining for a scarf, and somewhere through the process, I lose sight of the exchange rate and feel that haggling for ten minutes to get a reduction of 10 dirhams (about 70p) is worth it.

So I take the scarf and put it in my bag with the rest of my loot, the result of a morning’s hard bargaining.

As someone who has haggled over the price of a laptop in PC World (the UK’s largest computing store) — and done so successfully — I have slipped into this mode of shopping rather easily.

Somewhere in my memory is my Mum’s belief that any shopkeeper would “rob you blind if given half a chance.” As a child, shopping was frequently interrupted by Mum asking for a reduction in price on the basis of some imperceptible fault or inadequacy with the proposed purchase. Obtaining the reduction was accompanied by a sense of pride and challenging social injustice.

Ah, Mother, you would have been proud of me.

However as one of my traveling companions points out: “We are not in Kansas any more!”

No, not in Kansas, or in Northampton where my parents lived and I grew up — but I reckon my Mum could have popped on her headscarf, picked up her handbag and got her week’s shopping at a good price.

Mind you, she probably wouldn’t have bought her sausages at the stall with the camel’s head hanging up.

An excursion, and a close encounter

My English friend who lives in Fez suggests that we venture into the countryside to visit nearby towns and the amazing Roman remains of Volublis. We have a great day out. The roads are chaotic, and we feel fortunate to have a friendly and helpful driver, Mustapha, who repeatedly saves us from serious accidents.

But then, as we are driving past the orange farms on our way back to Fez, the police pull us over.

Mustapha has been talking to the police officers for some time and is clearly becoming agitated. He comes back for his wallet and informs us they claim he was speeding.

My friend asks him in Arabic if he has to pay a “back hander.” Yes, he has to pay 200 dirhams (probably 2-3 day’s pay for him).

He goes back over with the money, and the discussion grows even more heated. When he finally comes back, he reports that the policeman said: “You and your f***ing taxi with your f***ing tourists! You should pay 500 dirham. Perhaps we will get you stopped again.”

“These are our police,” he shrugs. “They do what they want and make money for themselves. We cannot trust them, and they are part of our government. It is not right.”

At that very moment, a 1965 country song by Roger Miller, telling of a swinging England with “bobbies on bicycles two by two” pops into my head. The reality it depicts is of course a long way from today’s Britain, where our police are accused of using excessive force in managing demonstrations and of taking payments from journalists for information.

But even if the British law enforcement system isn’t all squeaky clean, I know that when my partner was done for speeding recently, it was not due to the whim of a corrupt police officer. The evidence was fair and reliable, and the fine went to the court — not into the pocket of any policeman.

A plethora of questions, and precious few answers

I’ve been in Fez for a couple of days, and I still have very little idea of the forces that govern people’s behavior: the modern state and its representatives, the traditions of the medina and the controls of hshuma, or both?

Many Westerners are now living in Fez, some of whom are buying up cheap traditional properties. I wonder how they perceive fitting in to the future of this medieval city.

Reviewing the events of the past couple of days, I realize I have many more questions than answers:

  • Was it simply an accident that one of my female friends, who refused to be hshuma-ed out of smoking on the street, got hit on the hand by a stone?
  • Why does the babysitter my friend employs for her daughter, Francesca, have to stay the night rather than walk home through the medina?
  • Will the young boys who, according to some expat observers, sniff glue — and who now have access to satellite TV — uphold the traditional values? How many of Morocco’s young men respond to the call to prayer?
  • Moving on to the country’s young women: how do they make sense of the various and contradictory influences on their lives — and decide what to wear? What do they want, and are they allowed to want it?

The friend whom I visited, who is English and a single mother, told me that as a Western woman, she is a “third sex” in the Fez medina, neither male nor female in terms of what she is allowed and expected to do. She sees opportunities in this strange and wonderful place that would not be there for her in England. She also acknowledges that there will be a point when this way of living is too claustrophobic for her and Francesca.

Overall, Fez is a “find” for a tourist like me — I was delighted to find somewhere so exotic and so accessible from Britain. And, if I step back into my memories of traditional working class culture of the 50s and 60s, I think that we Brits were not always so different to the people of Fez medina. Our world has changed, and theirs is apparently changing now as well.

Or is it? I am left with a feeling that modernity poses a considerable threat to those living and working in this walled city, many of whom would find it easier to maintain the status quo of a traditional Muslim culture.

Would I go back to visit? Yes. Would I live there? No. When I said good-bye to my friend, I was sad to leave her. Our visit had been memorable as well as highly stimulating. I hope she can continue to live safely in her chosen city, and I also hope, and pray, that if the cracks in this fragile society become too wide, she will notice them and remember as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”

Images (top to bottom): The markets of the Fez medina; camel meat for sale; the ruins of the Roman town of Volubilis (Oualili); and the Royal Palace at Meknes, about 60km north of Fez.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Australian author Gabrielle Wang, whose books for children and young adults encourage them to broaden their cultural horizons.

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How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 1)

We welcome Joy Richards to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. Though she lives and works in the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire, UK, Richards seizes the opportunity to travel whenever she can. In May, she journeyed to Fez, Morocco, to visit an English friend who lives in that city. It was her first foray into North Africa and her first time in an Arab country. Richards found herself thinking deeply about one of the topics raised in our blog this month: the challenge of bridging two cultures that have developed separately over thousands of years and therefore do not share the same basic beliefs and values.

My trip to Morocco was full of uncertainties. I was traveling with two friends I had worked with in the past but had very little contact with in the last three years. God bless Facebook for bringing us together again — but I was unsure how holidaying together would work.

We were staying with another ex-work colleague who lives as a single parent with her little girl in the ancient medina (walled city) of Fez. She has lived here for about three years earning an income by arranging tours for visitors to experience the food of Fez. I knew nothing about her home and again had not had any regular contact in three years.

But most worrying of all, we were traveling not long after the major events of the Arab Spring and only a few weeks after the suicide bomb in the main square of the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. Would our short time together be safe and enjoyable?

As the plane landed in Morocco, I immediately noticed the sun was unlike the British sun. It had “photo-shopped” the scenery around me to the maximum color intensity, contrast and brightness.

The black glove treatment

Screwing up my eyes in the late afternoon light, I walked into the small and crowded airport and began queuing for immigration. Ability to queue is clearly a skill shared by Brits and Moroccans.

By the time I got to the baggage area, I could see that that the Moroccan women from our flight were all more covered than when they had left England. (My female friend and I had taken advice from our host in Fez and had traveled in trousers and loose tops with sleeves.)

One lady was totally covered — including her hands, which were in black gloves. As she chatted to her small son in Arabic and he replied in English, with a slight northern accent, it was not the veil or the long black gown that looked strange to me, but the gloves.

Black gloves on a hot May afternoon in an airport in Morocco — and yet I’m old enough to remember summer gloves. Lacy or nylon with a frill, they were worn for church and weddings, even for parties. Polite British gloves worn by polite, fashion-conscious British women in the 1950s and 1960s.

But soon my travel companions and I would be slipping back in time much further than the 50s or 60s, as our taxi dropped us at the entrance to the world’s most intact Islamic medieval city, the Fez medina.

The winding mysteries of the medina

Our friend and her little girl, Francesca, met our little threesome at the gate. We plunged head on into narrow, crowded alleyways full of donkeys, skinny cats, open fronted shops, chickens, vegetables… There were children playing, men selling — and so many smells.

Fez’s medina is said to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free area, and no wonder. Cars couldn’t have squeezed through even if allowed.

I was excited, confused, aware of being female and English and of not knowing this place.

I had read my guidebook, which warned of unwanted and persistent attention from shopkeepers and “faux guides,” and walked on purposefully, not making eye contact with any of the locals. I determinedly ignored every greeting whether in Arabic, French or (occasionally) in English.

My friend and her daughter had clearly not read the same guidebook as they stopped and chatted to several men on the way to their house.

As we turned up a narrow, dusty alley which was to take us to my friend’s house, there was another greeting shouted by a man on the street: “Welcome to Fez.” And then: “Welcome to Fez, family of Francesca.”

I turned, smiled and said hello. Suddenly it had dawned on me that intense, close living in this way required constant greeting. Relationships must be established and confirmed for everyone to feel safe and comfortable.

My friend’s home, at the end of a dark alley, was deceptively unappealing. Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful traditional house decorated with carved wood and traditional Moroccan tiles. That evening, we talked and ate and drank wine as friends do.

Our hostess had bought the wine in one of the large modern supermarkets in the Ville Nouvelle — the modern and rapidly developing part of Fez that has spread out around the Medina.

Alcohol is not illegal in the Medina but is disapproved of. Or, to put it in the Moroccan Arabic dialect (Dirja), alcohol is hshuma (pronounced h’shoo-mah). A very useful phrase, it’s equivalent to a very loud British “Tch, tut, tut” (or the American tsk-tsk) — but, unlike our expressions, hshuma carries the further connotation of being shamed by one’s peers. It’s used when someone has been drinking, smoking, hanging out at a café (women, mainly in small towns), wearing shorts (men or women), dancing with the opposite sex, or engaging in other forbidden acts.

My friend had been heard “clinking” as she tried to get a taxi back to the medina and was evicted from the cab as she had alcohol with her — hshuma.

I work as a psychotherapist and much of my work includes challenging personal shame and its destructive effects, but here in this intense and exotic environment the social control of hshuma in some ways made sense, as a way of navigating the social structure.

Thank goodness for my mum and her directives

The following day my friends and I set out into the Medina, shoulders and legs covered so as not to offend and not to attract unwanted attention.

As foreigners we would not be expected to wear the djellaba (traditional long, hooded outer robe) and headscarf of the local women. Nevertheless, we were expected to be discreet. Skimpy clothes would be hshuma.

My mother brought me up with a good understanding of what was “common” as well as a clear directive that I was not to be “common.” The list of “common” characteristics and behaviours could fill several pages but included: dyed hair, bright lipstick, exposed cleavage, short skirts, a “lot of thigh,” swearing, smoking in public, bare shoulders (unless at the seaside or a dinner dance).

Any woman being common is this way was “no better than she ought to be” and would probably “get into trouble” (some sort of sexual misadventure).

So, stepping out into the medina, I was able to apply my mother’s rule about not looking “common” so as not to be socially ostracized.

A throwback or a step forward?

I wrestled with trying to decide if I minded applying these guidelines to myself in this traditional, Muslim city. Was I being respected or controlled?

I have been, in my youth, a dedicated follower of fashion and have worn mini-skirts, hot pants and many other items of clothing that exposed my body to the casual view of all.

Even now, as a woman of a certain age, I know that I can attract male attention with a bit of cleavage. That is, of course, my choice — but what is the message the Western media delivers to women of all ages? We must be young, slim and, above all, sexy. Boobs, booty and thighs…get them displayed.

So what was the message in the Fez medina? Women’s bodies are private, respected, not to be displayed.

I don’t like being told what to wear, but I realized that I — and I can only speak for myself — felt more comfortable and relaxed with less of my flesh exposed.

As a Western woman, I am glad that I am free to be divorced (as I am) and to have a career (as I do). But does that mean I want my granddaughters to be free to put their bodies on display when they are pubescent, as so many British girls do?

As I hear the call to prayer echoing over the medina, I am being prompted to challenge my assumptions about, my expectations of, this society.

I am an outsider, and as a non-Muslim I can only peer through the entrances into any of the mosques in the city, catching glimpses of beauty and faith, unquestioning perhaps — Inshallah (as God wills it).

My will, society’s will, God’s will — that requires a lot of untangling.

Images (clockwise from top left): The gateway into the Fez medina; a chick-pea salesman inside the medina; Richards’s mother, Thelma Browett, in headscarf while on holiday in Scotland (taken by Ron Browett); and the inner courtyard of the home where Richards stayed in Fez.

STAY TUNED for next week’s installment of Joy Richards’s travel yarn, and on Monday, for Part 2 of “Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all.”

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Nation. That way, you won’t miss a single issue. SPECIAL OFFER: New subscribers receive a FREE copy of “A Royally Displaced Tea.”

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