The Displaced Nation

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The Displaced Q: Can travel and the expat life lead to a healthier diet?

Part of the formula for feeling better about oneself — TDN’s theme this month — is eating a healthier diet. Today Tony James Slater, the newest addition to our team, poses a Displaced Q on the eating habits of travelers and expats.

I’m not sure what qualifies me to pose a question about food, since my idea of healthy eating is using low-fat mayonnaise on a full English breakfast — but hey, I’d love to hear your side of the story…

I think I have what you might consider to be a rather controversial point of view, which is that traveling and leading an expat lifestyle can lead to a healthier diet — but for the most part do not.

WAIT! Before you hit the comments with that vitriolic reply — hear me out. I may be wrong (my past wrongness is legendary), but I believe I have a point. Tell you what — I’ll lay out my opinion (which I’ve put a lot of thought into), and then you can tell me if I’m talking out of my asparagus.

Chopping veggies: too much like hard work?

Plenty of people see travel as a way to reinvent themselves. I should know, I did exactly that, as explained in my last post about volunteering in Ecuador.

But reinventing your lifestyle is one thing — your diet is something else. I think statistically speaking (and I’m no expert) 99.9% of us have struggled with our diet at some point or other.

It’s not a change like deciding to make more “me time,” or adding the beach into your daily itinerary. We struggle because changing our diet requires that dreaded thing: commitment.

And the enemy of commitment is convenience.

Ah, convenience…the single biggest factor driving the fast-food phenomenon worldwide. Is it easier to swing past KFC on your way home from work than it is to get home and start chopping vegetables?

You bet it is.

What’s more, this instant gratification factor appeals not just to the terminally lazy — like me — but to an awful lot of people in a world where free time is increasingly under pressure.

The food you know…

So you’re in a new country. You tour the neighborhood. What’s the first thing you’ll recognize — whether in Cairo, Bangkok, Buenos Aires or Paris? Chances are it’ll be a fast-food joint. It’s just so easy. Nothing new to challenge you — either your palette or your linguistic skills. Just point and grunt, to be rewarded with something you could have bought within five minute’s drive of the last place you lived.

Don’t get me wrong. As I travel I make an effort to eat everything — including, on occasion, things I shouldn’t. (Apparently, the wings stay on the locust, even if they have got most of the soy sauce on them — who knew?)

Still, there is the part of me that, after a few days dining from street vendors, really craves a burger. Or a pizza. Something Western, that tastes of home.

As British writer George Miller once remarked:

The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.

Asia — the exception?

There are certain countries with a deserved reputation as a mecca for healthy eating — yes, I’m talking about Japan here. In fact, most Asian countries are considered to have a healthy yet appealing diet, with an emphasis on seafood and simplicity.

For the better part of a year in Thailand I lived like a king. Fresh fruit for breakfast every morning, compared with jam on toast, bacon and sausage back home — score one for healthier eating!

Simple meals of chicken and rice, or noodles from street vendors were my staples. They were as cheap as they were delicious!

And yet… It was all fried. The rice was fried. The chicken was fried. The noodles… Is it possible to overdose on MSG?

I had no control over how my food was cooked and no kitchen to prepare it myself. Back home I fry things occasionally, but I’m a path-of-least-resistance kinda guy. My food isn’t always healthy (burgers, schnitzels, chips) — but I’d stick it in the oven or grill it. So the score…is tricky to say on this one.

And then there’s the booze…

Thailand is famous — at least amongst the 18-35 age group — less for its culinary marvels than for its parties. Score one (a large ONE) + a whisky chaser for the unhealthy diet.

Do you drink more when you travel? Cocktail by the pool? Glass of wine or two in the evening, because why not — you feel so free? Yeah, you do. Don’t worry — so does everyone else. But that’s another nail in the coffin of a healthier diet…

(And yes, I know all about anti-oxidants. That’s how I justify red wine too.)

* * *

In my experience, to eat anything decent, you have to work for it. The easier food is to find, and the more recognizable, the less healthy it tends to be.

If you’re prepared to experiment with different recipes and ingredients, different cooking apparatus and utensils, to learn a few words in the local language and risk using them in the market — then you can manage it.

But if you’re prepared to do all that for the sake of eating healthy, chances are you do it at home too, in which case you’ll eat healthily wherever you are. And probably outlive me by at least a decade.

So, as I said at the beginning: can travel encourage one to adopt a healthier diet? Well, I think it can…but doesn’t.

Am I full of carp? Am I talking sushi? What do you think?

TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. He even deprived the world of sandalwood one tree at a time in Australia (though he still maintains it was an accident). Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an opinion piece by Lawrence Hunt on what drives today’s young people to seek spiritual enlightenment abroad.

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

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Image: Tony Slater with his girlfriend (now wife), Krista, in an open shack-style cafe in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia. Krista is eating nasi goreng, a Balinese veggie curry (over fried rice), whereas Tony has ordered a burger (but will it be too Asianized for his tastes?).

Top 10 expat & travel posts on spiritual escapes

As the holidays draw to a close and a new calendar year commences, many of us find ourselves desperately in need of some “me” time — a chance to reassess our “to do” lists and decide which of our life goals deserves top priority.

Gah?? Did I just write that? Talk about understatements! If you’re like me, you are lucky if you can remember that you used to have personal goals at one point. (My only aims for the past few weeks have been writing x many cards, wrapping x many gifts, hosting/visiting x many relations…)

That could be why Kate Allison’s post on Monday — announcing that The Displaced Nation has dedicated this month to spiritual escapes — was a goad to such debate. Does the quest for spiritual enlightenment require geographical displacement, away from the demands of family and everyday life? And what about those who are already living far away from “home” — do they need to displace themselves even further, to the most obscure corners of the globe? (Wait, aren’t some of them already living there?!)

Having tracked this topic on social media for several weeks, I would like to share my top 10 findings as further food for meditation, so to speak… My hope is that these writers can help us disentangle our thoughts — which might otherwise come to resemble advanced yoga positions — on the best techniques for getting in touch with the innermost core of our beings.

As usual, and as befits our blog’s slightly irreverent tone, they’re from a mix of indie and conventional publications.

1) Meditation vacation
Author: Matthew Green (@MattGreenAfPak), a reporter covering Pakistan and Afghanistan and author of The Wizard of the Nile
Publication: Financial Times, Life & Arts (@FTlifeandarts)
Why it’s helpful: Spending so much time in war zones, Green desperately needed the kind of retreat where alcohol, email — and talking — are all banned. During his 10-day “Buddhist boot camp” at the Himachal Vipassana Centre in the Himalayas, he ended up weeping harder than he could remember, for a reason he couldn’t fathom — but he also had to bite his lip to stifle the kind of giggles he hadn’t felt since school!

2) The Joy of Quiet
Author: Pico Iyer, British essayist, novelist, travel writer, and Third Culture Kid (born in Britain to Indian parents, he grew up in California), who once said: “And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere.”
Publication: New York Times Week in Review (@nytopinion)
Why it’s helpful: Iyer suggests that there’s something in the zeitgeist to make us all in need of stillness at this particular moment — that the more ways we have to connect, the more desperate we become to unplug, and would pay almost anything for the privilege. (Hmmm… Perhaps I should end this post right here?) I also found it interesting that as a writer, he prefers to live in rural Japan,

“in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.”

(Presumably the other part, which he doesn’t mention, is that his wife is Japanese.) Almost needless to say, Iyer has never tweeted or gone on Facebook.

3) The Threshold
Author: Catherine Yiğit (@Yarzac), a writer who was born, bred and buttered in Ireland but who now lives as an expat (also mother and wife) in northwestern Turkey near the mythical city of Troy.
Publication: The Skaian Gates: Notes from an Online Wanderer (Yiğit’s personal blog)
Why it’s helpful: If you’re serious about bringing change to your life, sometimes it helps to take a “tough love” approach. Yiğit found the kick she needed for empowering herself after stumbling upon a program for women writers called “A Year with Myself.” The approach, she says, is gentler than that taken by the unmercifully profane Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig), he of the author-advice blog Terrible Minds. (Ironically, Yiğit cites a post by Wendig that I’d shortlisted for this top-ten list: 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing Right F****** Now. But then I found Yiğit’s post — and could relate to her yearning for some blend of toughness and forgiveness to help her cross the threshold…)

4) A year in awe over the fabulously mundane
Author: Lauren Alissa Hunter (@SankofaMeLately ), world traveler, former expat in China, and blogger (SankofaMe Lately), currently in search of a publisher for her WIP.
Publication: She Writes (@shewritesdotcom), a virtual workplace for women who write from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
Why it’s helpful: Wannabe novelists, before making any major changes to your life this year, take heed of this rather cautionary tale. A year ago, Hunter upped and quit her job and booked a one-way flight to China in hopes it would spark her creativity as a writer. But instead of finding serenity, she found “intense loneliness, terrifying introspection, emotional vulnerability.” Still, at least she discovered where “home” is — her native United States. What’s more, she currently finds the mundane simply fabulous.

5) The (hateful) ties that bind: Expats and cultural criticism
Author: Camden Luxford (@camdenluxford), an Australian traveler and freelance writer who is now an expat in Argentina. Note: Luxford has been one of TDN’s Random Nomads.
Publication: The Brink of Something Else (Luxford’s blog)
Why it’s helpful: In her inimitable style, Luxford raises the vexed issue of why some expats can’t resist slagging off the countries where they live. Though she didn’t design the post as a contemplation on the January blahs, it dovetails neatly with TDN’s current theme. Are some of us feeling low simply because we can’t stand the thought of starting a new calendar year in the same old same old country? Or because we’re no longer that thrilled about being a world traveler? Burn-out is a serious condition. If you think you might be a victim, I would suggest adding to the comments on Luxford’s post as a first step to recovery… (In this connection, it’s also worth taking a look at the post Struggling in Seville by Ayngelina on her Bacon is magic blog. Ayngelina was traveling solo through Latin America, ended up in Spain — and then decided she was done with being a nomad and would return to Canada. Her post attracted a whopping 168 comments!)

6) 10 of the world’s best yoga retreats 2012
Author: Susan Greenwood (@Pedalfeet) — Guardian writer, bike rider & blogger (Pedalfeet)
Publication: Guardian Travel (@GuardianTravel)
Why it’s helpful: One of the things that always puts me off considering a yoga retreat is the cost — for which you’ll need some controlled breathing even before you’ve learned the proper technique! Greenwood claims that the retreats on her list qualify not only as inspirational but also affordable. I’m not sure if that’s true, especially if you had to add the cost of airplane travel to the cost of the retreat (most of these places aren’t exactly offering bargain-basement prices). Still, the Yoga Barn in Bali seems surprisingly unpretentious and good value — eat-pray-love, anyone?
Worth noting: This Saturday’s Guardian Travel has a special issue on healthy holidays and “courses that will change your life.”

7) 5 magical places in China to disconnect from the world and recharge
Author: “travelingman” Troy on GotSaga (From California, he is now planning a trip to Peru.)
Publication: GotSaga (@GotSaga), an online community for sharing travel sagas, tips, and destinations.
Why it’s helpful: Having been to Mainland China several times, I wouldn’t put it first on my destination list for spiritual escapes, though it’s such a large country it’s bound to have a few spots that are conducive to contemplation — especially if you’re willing to venture to the back of Outer Mongolia. Though Troy doesn’t completely persuade me — some of his proposed retreats sound rather touristy — I do like the idea of glimpsing rural life amid the bamboo forests of Huzhou, which also boasts the distinction of having the world’s only museum devoted to bamboo. As I rather like things that are in bad taste, I might even be tempted to take home some kitsch bamboo products along with my white tea, for the memories. (Listen, if you can find peace of mind in today’s China, you can find it anywhere! No need for fancy yoga retreats…)

8) Happy New Year and the Clutter-free Home
Author: Jennifer L. Scott (@jenlyneva), author of Lessons from Madame Chic, a how-to book based on her experience of living in posh apartment in Paris for a semester while a student at the University of Southern California. (NOTE: The book was featured on our 2011 expat book list.)
Publication: The Daily Connoisseur (Scott’s popular lifestyle blog)
Why it’s helpful: I love the idea of someone deriving powerful life lessons from a study-abroad experience and then distilling them into a “Top 20” list for the benefit of wider humanity. (I’m also rather jealous — have always wanted to do something like that with my years in Japan…) And what better time to contemplate such life lessons than in January — beginning with the need to declutter. Because they understand the pleasure of only using the best things you own, the French apparently excel at getting rid of excess belongings (or not buying them in the first place). Les gens extraordinaires!

9) Quick and Dirty Japanese: It’s What’s for Dinner
Author: Larissa Reinhart Hoffman (@RisWrites), a former expat in various parts of Japan, with a WIP entitled “Portrait of a Dead Guy.”
Publication: The ExPat Returneth: A place to express what you miss about living abroad (a new blog just started up by Hoffman — she hopes to recruit other writers eventually).
Why it’s helpful: Have you included healthier eating in your New Year’s resolutions? Then you ought to be eating Japanese food, Hoffman states. She also gives short shrift to complaints that it’s too hard to tackle their cooking, insisting that if she can handle making Japanese food (she was a late bloomer to cooking), anyone can. While living in Japan as an expat with her (American) husband and their two girls, Hoffman developed a repertoire of what she likes to call “quick and dirty” recipes (the Japanese might be horrified by the latter adjective!). Her main message:

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to make home-style Japanese food.

Thank God.

10) The Buzz in Mexico
Author: Melina Gerosa Bellows, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Kids and Huffington Post blogger
Publication: Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler (@NatGeoTraveler)
Why it’s helpful: Bellows spins the yarn of her recent trip to Tulum, Mexico. She was on a mission to follow the path of the stingless Melipona beecheii bee, which is now endangered — a cause of concern to all those who value traditional Mayan culture. As she explains:

At risk of dying along with the insect is a beekeeping tradition that for centuries has been sacred to the Maya for its spiritual benefits.

In the process, she slows down and learns to value the art of “just being” (pun intended?). Her story is a reminder of how peace of mind can hit you over the head when you least expect it — in Bellows’ case, while on a work assignment (albeit to a very agreeable part of the world, where even bees behave in a civilized manner).

* * *

Question: Can you suggest any other works that should have made the list?

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a contrarian perspective on spiritual escapes from TDN contributor Anthony Windram.

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

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Image: MorgueFile

12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Kate Reuterswärd, American expat in Sweden (12/12)

Current home: Lund, Sweden
Past overseas locations: Italy (Perugia) and Austria (Vienna) — both for six months
Cyberspace coordinates: transatlantic sketches (personal blog), Expat Blog (guest blog for Swedish Institute, a division of the Swedish government) and @kwise321 (Twitter handle)
Recent posts: “You’re Celebrating on the Wrong Day! — and other things you didn’t know about Christmas in Sweden” (Expat Blog: December 27, 2011); “Work makes me happy” (transatlantic sketches: December 29, 2011); “What a year!” (Expat Blog: December 31, 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
Actually, it’s my first Christmas outside the United States! I’ll be in Lund with my husband and his parents, his sister and her family, and some family friends. I’m looking forward to it.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
In the US, I always looked forward to baking Christmas cookies and getting gifts for my family and friends. Sometimes my gifts are homemade, sometimes bought at a store, but I love brainstorming the perfect thing for someone. Here, though, the season is full of Christmassy activities: attending glögg parties, decorating the house with lights and going to Christmas markets. It’s the active part of the holiday season that I like the most in Sweden.

Will you be on or offline?
Totally online and hopefully Skyping with my family and friends on a regular basis.

Are you sending any cards?
My husband and I just got married and it was a sort of spur-of-the-moment decision, so we’re sending a combination Christmas/“Oh hey, we’re married!” card. We’ll be writing thank you’s to the people who were there and a little update to people who weren’t.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
Panettone. My family eats this traditional Italian holiday bread for Christmas breakfast with fruit salad, coffee, and mimosas every year. They sell it in Sweden, too, so I’ll be introducing the tradition here.

Have you read any good books this year other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
I have really enjoyed these two essay collections (though I have to admit that I haven’t finished either of them yet):
1) The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton (Pantheon, 2002): A thoughtful contemplation on different aspects of travel. As de Botton says, “Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere else, but the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams.”
2) A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, 1997): His essay on taking a week long cruise in the Caribbean was so true and so funny that I laughed out loud at several points.

If you could travel anywhere for the holidays, where would it be?
No travel dreams for Christmas unless it were to assemble my family and my husband’s all in the same place at the same time. But for New Year’s Eve, I’d love to return to the countryside in County Cork, Ireland, where I went two years ago with a group of eight friends, one of whom has a cabin there. We would all hole up that cabin again to eat, drink lots of champagne, and welcome in the New Year.

What famous person do you think it would be fun to spend New Year’s Eve with?
Despite having attended some exciting New Year’s Eve parties in the U.S. and Europe, I’m not sure I would want to spend New Year’s Eve with a famous person I didn’t feel close to. That said, Dorothy Parker would be hilarious to sit next to at an event like New Year’s Eve — as long as she didn’t turn against me. I would just want to be a fly on the wall.

What’s been your most displaced holiday experience?
Two days come to mind — both having to do with the Fourth of July, not Christmas. The first was in 2010. I had flown back to the States for my friend’s wedding, and then on July 4th I had to fly back to Vienna to go back to work. I spent the entire day in the no man’s land of the Charlotte, JFK, Dusseldorf, and Vienna airports. (I am an extreme budget flyer.) Actually, I’m not sure whether this counts — I didn’t really experience a displaced holiday; I just missed it altogether.

The other time was July 4, 2009. I was spending the summer in Sweden with my then boyfriend (now husband) — my first extended stay in which I started to really get to know his friends and family. We tried to throw a 4th of July party, but something was off. We grilled, we had flags, we had Jell-o shots for a little novelty Americana, but there wasn’t any patriotism and there weren’t any fireworks. For me it felt like a regular barbecue party trying too hard to be something else rather than an actual holiday.

How about the least displaced experience — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
Again, it wasn’t Christmas but Thanksgiving, in 2010. I cooked a traditional Thanksgiving feast with all of my mom’s recipes for almost 30 Swedes. We borrowed a friend’s parents’ apartment to fit everyone in, and it was the coziest, most wonderful celebration. My husband downloaded the Macy’s Day Parade for me as a surprise and streamed it while we were cooking and eating. Best of all, one of my Swedish friends asked me halfway through the meal, “Aren’t we supposed to say what we’re thankful for?” I hadn’t wanted to force them to do that, but everyone got really excited about it, and the whole group took turns saying what they were thankful for in what turned out to be really beautiful toasts to the people in their lives. It was amazing.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
Rested but a little bit sad. So much energy goes into enjoying the holiday season, anticipating Christmas and New Year’s, gift-giving, baking, merry making — and then suddenly it’s all over! And you’ve got all of January and February to slog through until spring is on its way again.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, setting a new theme for the month’s posts on the connection between the displaced life and spiritual awakenings.

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12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Brian Peter, Scottish expat in Brazil (3/12)

Current home: Rio das Ostras, RJ, Brazil
Past overseas location: Houston, Texas, USA
Cyberspace coordinates: A Kilt and a Camera | Travel tales, reviews, photos, interviews and crazy goings on. Because you never know what’s going to happen (blog) and @KiltandaCamera (Twitter handle)
Most recent post: Brazil — “Getting to know Aldeia Velha,” by Peg Peter [Brian’s American photographer wife] (December 19, 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
In Houston.

What will you do when you first arrive?
Peg will arrive three weeks before I do, so the first thing I want to do is hug my wife. After that I’ll put my feet up and relax after the long flight from Rio for a few hours. That night we will spend the evening with good friends we haven’t seen in way too long.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
Relax. We are living in Brazil while I’m working as a manufacturing and production manager in the oil and gas field. The growth in the industry has been enormous. I’ve been working long hours, and long weeks, for too many months. I’m going to turn off my phone, keep my laptop shut and switch my mind off.

So you’ll be offline?
Pegs is the Internet junkie of the team so I trust she’ll let me know if anything important happens out in cyberworld.

Are you sending any cards?
Peg will send a few Christmas cards for us. As for a Christmas letter, we do too many things and go to too many places each year to write something brief. Our family and friends who want to know more about what we’re doing can take a look at our Web site.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
A bloody decent whiskey, and a tin of haggis. If I can find a good smoked mackerel, I’ll eat that too. I really wish I could get my hands on an Orkney black pudding.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
Because of work I haven’t had time to read a single book all year, unless you count industrial engineering books as a good read. But Peg always has her nose in a book. Right now she says she’s really enjoying Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The sense of stepping into another world is something any traveler or expat can relate to.

If you could travel anywhere for New Year’s Eve, where would it be?
I’d love to do an Old Year’s Night in Comrie, a small village in the Scottish highlands. As I remember, its Hogmanay ritual starts in the evening with the kids in a fancy-dress parade riding on the back of a lorrie — a kind of float. That goes on until nearly midnight, when the whole community gathers at the bridge on the side of town near Oban and throws three flambeaux (flaming torches) over it into the River Earn. Then there’s a procession through the village with a pipe band leading the way — the villagers in the middle, the float bringing up the rear. When they reach the bridge at the other end of town, they throw the remaining flambeaux into the river. The whole thing is a ritual to protect the village from evil spirits for the year. Back in the center of town the party, including a céilidh, will go on for hours.

My sister has lived there for the past twenty years. Someday I’ll take Peg back there to show her how my family of Scots does an old fashioned Old Year’s Night properly.

What’s been your most displaced celebration of the holidays?
My first Christmas in Houston. I spent the day in shorts, roasting by the pool. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without freezing your b*******s off.

How about the least displaced — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
Even though we live in Brazil, we always go back to Houston to spend the holidays with Peg’s kids. I’ve enjoyed the last few holidays with them, among new family, but I still don’t feel at home as much as I did back in Scotland– especially since I’m so far away from my own adult sons.

However, last year was a bit more exciting because Peg and I had a big secret plan between us. On Boxing Day we hopped on a plane and flew to the Caribbean. One long haul, three airports, three islands and one ferry later we arrived on St. John in the US Virgin Islands, where we eloped on the beach on December 28th. The photo above was taken of us on the ferry ride over to the courthouse in Charlotte Amalie to pick up our marriage license the day before. This year, of course, we’ll have our first anniversary!

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
It’s a bit anti-climactic. I start the new year with a long flight back to Brazil, which is a country we love living in, but it means back to work for a while. When my job is done there, we’ll have more time to travel when we please. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy as much of Brazil as we can. We both love to travel and look forward to the day when we can just keep going.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s featured nomad (4/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

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12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Robin Graham, Irish Expat in Spain (1/12)

Current home: Tarifa, Spain
Past overseas locations: UK, Netherlands, Israel, and a previous stay in Spain
Cyberspace coordinates: a lot of wind… (blog) and @robinjgraham (Twitter handle)
Most recent post: “Gran Bretaña” (December 21, 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
In Hampshire, England. My mother lives there now with her husband, as does my brother and his family.

What will you do when you first arrive?
Once all the greetings are out of the way I may well go for a walk. I’ll be in the town where I spent my adolescent years and there will be memories and perhaps one or two stories for my fiancée, who will be visiting for the first time.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
TV off, lights off. Candles on, perhaps a fire. To sit in the near dark and talk; to feel connected to all the people who are doing that around the world and to those who have done it down through the centuries. I am not religious but something about gathering with loved ones in the depths of winter seems to run deep.

Will you be on or offline?
I will tell myself to be offline and will fail. Lessline? Halfline? Online Lite?

Are you sending any cards?
Don’t do cards as a result of a selfish and entirely misspent youth. Not going to start now.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
Tricky. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. If there’s goose I’ll be happy. Roast potatoes never hurt either.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
Ghosts of Spain (2008) is an account of a journalist’s (Giles Tremlett‘s) trips around the country in search of its hidden history, particularly with regard to the civil war and Franco era, and how the country has changed since that era ended with his death in the mid-seventies. It fills a gap that I would have thought was there for many expats in many countries; a chance to get under the skin of your adopted country in your own language.

Foreign Flavours is the second anthology from the online writers group Writers Abroad. The theme is food (and drink) as experienced by the expat, and the collection is nothing if not varied — from short stories to journalistic pieces to recipes; it’s a real kitchen companion. All of the proceeds from the book go to the Book Bus, a registered charity that aims to provide books to and increase literacy rates among children in the developing world.

If you could travel anywhere for Christmas, where would it be?
I was brought up on the premise that an ideal Christmas would involve snow and reindeer, so the notion of an isolated but cosy log cabin in the woods of Lapland has a distinct appeal. Family around me — great. Just my fiancée — better.

What famous person do you think it would be fun to spend some time time with over the holidays?
Richard Dawkins. We could pontificate on the merits of an atheist world view whilst getting tipsy on eggnog, pigging out on Advent chocolates and singing Christmas carols. I hear he does a mean rendition of “Silent Night,” and I’m sure he’d be good company.

What’s been your most displaced Christmas experience?
I spent one Christmas entirely alone in Holland. Broke. Cue violins — it was an episode in that misspent youth I mentioned. My least Christmassy Christmas.

How about the least displaced experience — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
When I was a child most Christmas cards, cookie tins and cake wrappers would, for some reason, feature images of snow-laden Bavarian countryside. Castles and cutesy villages with snowy candlelit windows in the darkness. So to find myself in Bavaria a few years ago with my fiancee’s folks, watching families sled down a nearby hill in the evening, attending midnight mass in a 14th century church with an exquisitely painted ceiling, sitting in the house with candles and glühwein and stollen; that would have to be the one that ticked all the boxes for me.

This Christmas coming will be special, too — a family gathering such as there hasn’t been for long time.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
Honestly? Relieved, ready to get on with it!

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s featured nomad (2/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

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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I’ll (not) be home for Christmas: A holiday travel yarn

Today we welcome Kat Selvocki to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. A retired roller derby skater and yogini who has lived in New York City for the past six years, Selvocki is en route to Sydney, Australia, to start a new chapter in her life as a yoga teacher. In this travel yarn, she contemplates being in Europe for the holidays, without any family.

When I left Brooklyn on September 27, I had every intention of arriving in Australia by December 23. That way, even though I was away from my parents and brother for the first time ever on Christmas, I would at least be able to spend the holiday with my cousins on the other side of the globe.

One of the first rules of travel is that things never go exactly as planned. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve been in Europe for two months with no sign of purchasing a plane ticket to Australia.

By the time I finished the first leg of my travels — two weeks in Iceland volunteering on farms — I had a feeling I’d be in Europe longer than initially expected. My one hesitation was that, after spending thirty some years celebrating Christmas with my family, the idea of spending it alone scared the hell out of me.

I spent a solo New Year’s Eve in my Queens apartment in 2007; I’d decided I didn’t feel like venturing out and about into the craziness of New York that night. Though I don’t especially enjoy that particular holiday, there was something upsetting about wishing myself a happy new year. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake.

Central Europe works its charm

I arrived in Prague the day before Thanksgiving and was greeted by friends who immediately invited me to spend Christmas with them in Austria.

Prague is one of my favorite cities in the world, and the holiday season is one of the best times to be there, its Christkindlmarkts being among the best in Europe. Mugs of glühwein (mulled wine), tubes of bread coated with cinnamon, palačinky (Czech crêpes) dripping with lemon and sugar, the glimmer of fairy lights, handicrafts for sale, Christmas trees, live concerts — what’s not to like?

Though I didn’t have the space in my bags this time around to purchase any gifts at the markets, I was happy to return for some of my favorite Czech treats. As I perused the stands one chilly Saturday, I happily munched on lázeňské oplatky, large round spa wafers served with chocolate filling sandwiched in between.

The flavor brought back memories of Christmas Eve dinners of my youth, spent with my paternal grandparents. Though my grandmother and grandfather were both born in the United States, they continued some traditions passed down from their Polish parents. On December 24, my grandmother would serve a meatless meal at their house: fish that my grandfather had caught that fall, homemade pierogi (the Polish equivalent of ravioli, stuffed with potato and cheese), and vegetables from their friend’s farm.

We began the meal with those wafers, breaking pieces from each other’s opłatek as a symbol of forgiveness and the spirit of Christmas, as well as a reminder of the importance of family.

The ghost of holidays past

Prague was also where I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home, in 2002. I was on a study abroad program with American University, and all of us had gathered to celebrate at one of our favorite pubs, where our program director had reserved several long tables for us, piled with food — mostly Czech versions of traditional Thanksgiving dishes like stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. The American ideas were there, but the execution and seasonings were distinctly Czech.

(At least this was an improvement over a Thanksgiving dinner that a friend of mine had during her Parisian semester abroad, where bowls of peanut butter were served alongside the turkey and roasted vegetables.)

At my table, my tall anarchist friend with a mohawk carved the turkey. After we’d feasted, several classmates took over the restaurant’s upright bass and piano as the rest of us cheered and clapped.

Most of us had met only three months earlier, but there was a tight bond between us that day.

I called home later in the evening. My cousin’s husband answered the phone, and at first he couldn’t believe it was me, all the way from Europe. He yelled to the rest of my family to get on the phone. Though I probably used up my phone card, it was worth it.

My mother came to visit me in Prague not long afterwards. She, too, couldn’t resist the siren song of all the beautiful handmade items at the holiday markets. She settled on a blown glass ornament covered with simple stars made out of straw. It still hangs on my parents’ tree today, an annual reminder of when she and I traveled together.

Holidays are all about the 3 Fs: Family, Friends & (especially!) Food

My family and I have always enjoyed the culinary traditions associated with each of the holidays, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. While Christmas was always tops for me as a kid, over the years my allegiance has shifted, and I now look forward the most to sharing the Thanksgiving meal with my nearest and dearest. (This may have been triggered by extended Christmas vacations in college, which so often seemed to end in ridiculous battles with my parents.)

Last month, I was lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice — each time with a mix of American travelers/expats and international friends.

At the first of these dinners, which took place in Prague, my Belgian friend asked the Americans in the room about the significance of Thanksgiving. While I think he might have meant historically, I replied with the answer that is truest to me: Thanksgiving is about eating lots of food and spending time with people you love.

On that occasion, friends new and old shared their talents in the kitchen. One friend made a traditional Austrian stuffing, while another roasted three Cornish hens and taught us how to make mulled wine. We mashed potatoes together — both white spuds and sweet — and roasted a colorful array of vegetables. I offered my baking talents with a pear-plum pie, inspired by a drink I’d had the night before.

The small kitchen of our rented apartment quickly filled with the mingling scents of cinnamon and cloves, parsley and chives.

I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

The lingering fairy tale of New York

Some of my holiday nostalgia also relates to my recent past — to the six years I’ve just spent living and working as a volunteer manager in New York City. There may be no place more magical than Central Europe, but there’s also something I’ll always miss about being in Manhattan during the holidays.

During each of the six years that I lived in New York, I would have periods of doubt over whether I wanted to stay. But then December would come along and I’d fall in love with the city all over again.

Some of my fondest memories are of walking around late at night gazing at the major Christmas displays in the shop windows. I preferred viewing the windows at that time, with fewer tourists around and the street lamps casting an atmospheric glow.

My favorites were always Bergdorf Goodman’s windows; I could stand and stare at those for hours and never quite take in all of the perfectly arranged details.

And, while my friends are currently lamenting the unseasonably warm weather in New York, I’m cherishing the memories of December nights when I would get off the subway in Brooklyn or Queens and walk home through a fresh layer of snow, surrounded by silent streets.

Volunteerism, burning bright

Still, the náměstís of Prague and plätze of Graz have proved to be a pretty good distraction, as has the volunteer work that I did in Iceland, when I first arrived in Europe.

After visiting Iceland in November of last year, I wanted to go back again and, after a bit of research, learned that there were a few Icelandic farms looking for volunteer labor.

Assisting with the end-of-season harvest — a time of year when farms need all the hands they can get: it seemed like the perfect way to experience one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen, along with learning new skills.

At the organic farm I went to near Egilsstaðir in northeastern Iceland, called Vallanes, there were 11 of us volunteering (4 Americans, 3 Germans, 1 Italian, 1 Tasmanian, 1 Singaporean, and 1 Belgian), plus two paid workers (1 German and 1 Icelander, in case you’re curious).

The friendships we all formed in the turnip fields and the kitchen were an unexpected bonus.

Though it was sad to leave when the season ended, the spirit of Vallanes remains with me as I contemplate the next chapter of my life, the adventure of setting up as a yoga instructor in Sydney.

The saying that your friends are the family you choose becomes more true for me every year. This year, the holidays might not be the same as they were when I was young, and while I miss my family and it’s hard to be away, I’m enjoying the opportunity to soak up — and create — new traditions of my own while sharing the ones with which I was raised. Traveling alone has opened my heart to a variety of new people and experiences.

All of it feels right somehow, at this current crossroads — which led me to leave the familiarity of my old job, New York, and the United States to pursue a new career halfway around the world.

This New Year’s Eve will see me in Vienna. I will not be alone but with a mix of expats and native Austrians, drinking red wine and watching fireworks — concluding a year of transitions and ringing in what I hope will be an exciting new life overseas in 2012.

NOTE: You can read more about Kat Selvocki’s travel adventures on her blog, Pierced Hearts and True Love, and sample some of her gluten-free baking recipes at Kat of All Trades. You can also hire her to give you personalized yoga lessons over Skype; details on

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a list of 2011 books for, by, and about expats.

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

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Images (top to bottom): Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square in Prague) decked out for the holidays; waffle stall at the Christkindlmarkt in Graz; Bergdorf Goodman’s window, 2010; mulled wine in preparation for an Austrian Thanksgiving dinner. All photos by the multi-talented (yes, she does photography, too!) Kat Selvocki.

RANDOM NOMAD: Turner Jansen, American Canine in Holland

Date & place of birth: November 2004, probably West Virginia*
Countries, states, cities lived in: West Virginia (Berkeley): 2004-05; Maryland (Knoxville): 2005-08; The Netherlands (Utrecht): 2008-11; (Amersfoort): 2011 – present.
Canine parentage: Boxer, Chinese Shar-Pei, Great Pyrenees, Retriever, Italian Spinone, English Springer Spaniel…any other guesses?!
Human parentage: Tiffany & Bram Jansen
Cyberspace coordinates: Clogs and Tulips | An American in Holland and @clogsandtulips (mother’s blog** and Twitter handle) ; @turnerinNL (my Twitter handle)
*I was dumped at a shelter when I was only a baby.
**She even has a post about me: “Expat’s Best Friend”

Tell us, how did you get the name Turner?
My brother and I were dropped off at the shelter in West Virginia together, and our two-legged caretakers named us Turner and Hooch after the Tom Hanks movie by the same name (for those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy!). Hooch was adopted before I was, so my mother, Tiffany, never got to meet him. She thought about changing my name, but in the end she decided that Turner was a unique name for a dog — and that it fit me somehow. /(^.^)\

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My dad is from the Netherlands, so after my parents got married, Mommy and I moved to be with him.

Describe for us the moment when you felt most displaced — when you asked yourself the question: what’s a nice dog like me doing in a place like this?
The first time I walked around the city of Utrecht. I came from the countryside in the US, and wasn’t used to all the people and cars. And there are so many bicycles here — bikes are scary!

Describe for us the moment when you felt least displaced — when you felt more at home in an adopted homeland than you had in the land of your birth.
We recently moved from an apartment in busy Utrecht to a house in quiet Amersfoort — with a backyard! Our house is a nice size — not too big, not too small. I love when we have friends or family over to visit, and I can show them my backyard and all my toys. Amersfoort is all the things I loved about living in Maryland plus all the things I loved about living in Utrecht.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I have a squeaky toy that looks like the Dutch birthday cake tompouce that I love to play with. I would also bring my doggie musical chairs trophies from the US. They don’t have games like that for dogs here and I am very proud of the fact that I have so many of them!

The Displaced Nation will fix you a welcome meal. What would you like us to serve you?
I LOVE bread (croissants, krentenbollen, bagels, whole wheat bread) and French and Dutch cheeses. Here in the Netherlands, dishes where you boil and mash together vegetables with potatoes are very popular and I love them! The only one I can’t have is zuurkool stamppot (sauerkraut-and-potato mash with bacon) because sauerkraut makes dogs very very sick (my parents and I found that out the hard way!).

Have you learned any commands in other languages since going abroad, and if so can you give us an example?
Daddy talks to me in Dutch only if I’m being bad, so I don’t really care for the language. I have learned how to “shake” on both the English and Dutch commands of “paw” and “poot.” But for some reason, I only sit when given the command in English, even though the Dutch zit sounds almost the same. Mommy says I have a disease called Selective Hearing.

Have you made any new friends with canines or other creatures in your adopted land?
I don’t really play much with other dogs. I prefer being with humans and cats. I have seen my first hedgehogs since coming here and I love them! I just wish they weren’t so afraid of me. They always curl up so I can’t talk to them.

I see you’re already kitted out for the holidays. Where will you be celebrating?
I’m getting a (human) little sister in December, so we’re staying at home in the Netherlands.

That’s very exciting! I presume you’re looking forward to spending the holidays in your new home?
I love when friends and family come to visit, and I love getting presents and treats. We just now celebrated Sinterklaas, and I feasted on those special little ginger/spice cookies called pepernoten. My Dutch grandparents always get me my own bag! I also like seeing my Christmas stocking hung up next to Mommy’s and Daddy’s and listening to Christmas carols once Sinterklaas is over. And on Christmas morning, Mommy always makes waffles and even gives me a small waffle or two of my own mixed with milk and syrup! <:@)

Readers — yay or nay for letting Turner 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 Turner and his parents — find amusing.)

img: Turner Jansen under the table at Café Olivier Utrecht — taken in September 2009 but jazzed up for this post. (Turner’s comment: “Not sure I like this hat. Woof!”)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is still recovering from the shock of her mother-in-law’s body piercing. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner

Born in: Eugene, Oregon (but raised in Plains, Montana, a town of 1,200)
Passport: USA*
Countries, states, cities lived in: Washington (Yakima, Tacoma, Spokane): 1989-95; Alaska (Anchorage): 1995-97; Bolivia (Bañado de la Cruz & Santa Cruz): 1997; 1998 – 2002; Washington (Seattle): 2002-03; Massachusetts (Cambridge): 2003-05; Guatemala (Guatemala City): 2004; California (Duarte): 2006-10; Colombia (Bogotá): 2010 – present.
Cyberspace coordinates: Staying for Tea | Good Principles and Practice of Community-based International Development (blog); @AaronAusland (Twitter handle); Aaron Ausland at Huffington Post (column)
*My passport is only three years old, but multiple entries to about 40 countries filled it right up and I’ve had to add more pages. By the end of this year, I will have slept somewhere other than home about 190 of the 365 nights.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My late first wife and I wanted to make a difference in the world and were particularly passionate about issues of justice, peace, and poverty. After graduating from university, we decided that maybe the best place to match our greatest gifts with the world’s greatest needs was in the public policy arena. We thought it would be good to represent a view on behalf of the marginalized — those uninvited to the table where policy decisions are made that nevertheless affect their lives in profound ways. In particular, we were thinking of illiterate poor persons living in underdeveloped countries ruled by bad or incompetent leaders and subjected to all the crap that comes with weak institutions of governance.

But we realized it would be pretty lame to run off to graduate school straight out of undergrad and then find some job in a policy think tank or as a Congressional aide in the hopes of working our way up to having a place at the table with a mind to represent these unrepresented views when we really hadn’t a clue what they were.

So we made a three-year commitment with the Mennonite Central Committee to go live and serve in a Bolivian village with people who fit this description.

We were young, hopeful, idealistic, earnest, and naïve. I can say that I’m not so young anymore.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I have a brother who served in Iraq for a couple of years, but he now lives about a hundred meters from our dad’s house in Yakima, Washington. I’m really the only one in my family who has chosen a lifestyle for which the question “Where are you from?” generates a confusing jumble of explanation rather than a simple city-state combo. 

Unless you count my son, Thiago. He’s six and is definitely more “displaced” than me. He literally speaks of living in two different “worlds.” In one “world” he speaks Spanish, has a home and school in Colombia, where his sister was born, and has family in Bolivia (his mother is Bolivian). In the other world” — where he says he is really from — he speaks English and has friends in California and a large family on my side including a whole set from my late first wife. Yesterday he told his mother: “My brain is confused, I don’t know where I should live. All my friends are in California, but my cousins are in Bolivia, and I go to school in Colombia and have friends there, too.” Poor little nomad.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
For me the question was “How the hell did a small town boy from Montana end up here?” Physically, at that moment, “here” was a stainless steel operating table in a dark and empty hospital room in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. But more profoundly, “here” was a situation so far from my expectations, I was literally struggling to connect the dots and figure out how I had gotten myself there. I was 25 years old. Somewhere in a ravine a hundred miles away lay the broken body of my wife. A few hours earlier, the public bus in which we were riding had missed a turn on the narrow, winding road that passes through the Andean foothills and tumbled 1,000 feet into the dark.

She and I had gone to Bolivia with a long-term vision of our lives together, and now I was here, in a foreign land, alone, the slate of the future wiped clean. It was so profoundly disorientating, I just kept coming back to the question: “How did I get here?” Maybe it was a way to push off the searing emotional pain that would come with facing into my new reality, but the question wouldn’t go away. What sequence of events and decisions led me here? Did I make a mistake?

I remembered scenes from my idyllic boyhood in small-town Montana when my whole world was contained in a 100- mile radius and a handful of friends and family members. How had the world gotten so big, so uncertain, so complicated? And what was I doing wandering around in it like a lost child? How had I gotten here?

Much later, I would decide that I hadn’t made any mistakes. My first wife and I had made decisions based on a set of values that we held in earnest and I continue to hold. The fact that those decisions led to tragedy does not diminish the certainty of those values — it just means that those who hold them are not exempt from catastrophic loss that come to all who live.

I know you were probably hoping for a funny anecdote about crazy food or wacky cultural misunderstanding, but this is my one true displacement story.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Nowadays, I feel a sort of indifference about the whole location thing, to be honest. Whether I’m living in Cambridge attending the Kennedy School of Government, or setting up a new home in Colombia, or sitting where I am at this moment at an outdoor bar in a hotel in Bamako, Mali, I feel neither particularly at home nor particularly displaced. Feeling at home has a lot less to do with place than it used to, and it’s often unpredictable. I can feel more at home in Albania when I have a good macchiato and an Internet connection to video Skype with my children than I might in a hotel in Atlanta after a missed flight, with a dead computer battery. I can feel more at home when I’m sharing a beer with a fellow expat I’ve just met in rural Cambodia than I might sharing a beer with an old friend I grew up with who never left Montana.

I’ve experienced profound moments in my adopted homelands — from becoming a widower, to getting married, to rejoicing at the birth of my daughter, to undergoing major medical treatment. In each of these, it was the people who surrounded me that made me feel at home, and the uniqueness of the event that made me feel displaced. The location or culture has ceased to hold much power over my perception of self at particular moments.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’ll bring my wife from Bolivia, my son from the USA, and my daughter from Colombia. They are certainly a curious bunch, but I can’t live without them.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Well, the cuisines of places like India, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Mexico are always worth sharing. The rich complexities that have come from centuries of experimentation with combinations of local flavors as well as some exotic additions from old trade routes are heritage gifts to the world. But, I’m sure someone will bring a few dishes from these parts into the Displaced Nation, so maybe I’ll bring some less likely ones such as the rich Malian sauce made in part from the boiled fruit of the baobab tree; the surprisingly filling chicken hearts strung on a kabob, flavored with soy sauce and charcoal smoke, sold on the streets of Bolivia; or maybe a lesser known dish from Mexico — the corn smut omelet made with cuitlacoche, a purplish fungus that grows on corn; or maybe I’ll just bring the beer…

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
I think I’ll pass on this one. Pole sana (so sorry!) as we say in Swahili. Actually, maybe that’s a good one. Pole (pronounced POH-lay) doesn’t have an exact English equivalent — it’s used to say you empathize and understand someone’s problems, without the connotation of inferiority that “I pity you” might have.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you cherish?
I’ve never really had a specific role model for philanthropic displacement. That said, I’ve always been impressed with people who make long-term commitments to live among the people they wish to serve and voluntarily forego access to comforts and safety they might otherwise enjoy.

There are some famous examples like Mother Theresa, but the ones that have had the biggest personal impact on me are unknowns — volunteers and professionals I’ve met and worked with along the way. Such people taught me how to live with a kitchen stocked with just 12 items — that’s counting the spices. They taught me how to bring my water up from the river in the morning and hang it in a tree from a bucket painted black so that the sun would heat the water throughout the day, in preparation for a warm evening bucket shower. I learned how to capture rain water, how to build dry latrines, how to trust local medicinal practices, how to enjoy silence, how to walk the equivalent of a marathon a day to visit local families, how to sit and unhurriedly share tea over conversations that circle around rather than cut to the chase, how to embrace simplicity as a virtue… I also forgot how to complain and remembered to be grateful in the midst of scarcity.

Most of my role models didn’t do anything spectacular — they didn’t invent microfinance or the treadle pump, they didn’t negotiate peace accords or write a best seller. But the way they displaced themselves so thoroughly, the way they embraced their local communities with such authenticity — this had a big impact on how the communities valued their presence and their contribution, and on me.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
No, not really. It’s not that I think voluntourism is unequivocally a bad thing, but I just don’t think you can expect people to gain a very accurate understanding of complex problems under such circumstances. In fact, I think it’s more likely to leave them with a distorted understanding. There is a saying I picked up somewhere that goes something like this:

Travel to a new place for three weeks and you can write a book, travel for three months and you can write an article, travel for three years and you’ll likely have nothing to say.

There’s just something about a short and intense exposure that seems to set very strong ideas into the minds of those who’ve experienced it. But their ideas are biased by the specificity, narrowness, and brevity of that experience.

For example, someone who has had a high-impact experience volunteering in an orphanage for a week may feel they know more about the issue than people who haven’t had that experience. In fact, they may actually know less due to the biases they have picked up. It’s like believing you know something about the average person in a country from a single observation.

Sometimes, people know just enough to be dangerous; they mistake their shallow knowledge for an actual understanding of some enormously complex problem, and they act on it in ways that are ultimately irresponsible.

The truth is, the problems facing our planet are complex and we should all be grateful for the specialists who have dedicated their lives to understanding and addressing them. Doing something serious about addressing these problems will require professionals, not hobbyists; lifers, not tourists.

Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to pass through as a tourist, but with regards to your question here, we need to guard against self-deception. I’ve taken a few tours of a number of hydro-electric projects across the Western USA. I think they are really interesting. But, I know better than to believe I know the first thing about harnessing the power of water to generate electricity while balancing the ecological, economic, legal, social and political interests of farmers, consumers, industry, and the environment.

Likewise, you can’t take a two-day tour of an urban slum in Kenya and think you understand poverty, urban migration, economic development, or whatever other angle one might give such a tour.

For a broader scope of my thoughts on voluntourism, I encourage you to see my blog posts:

Readers — yay or nay for letting Aaron Ausland 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 Aaron — find amusing.)

img: Aaron Ausland in Mexico City (he’s the suit!). While on a lunch break from her work conducting a month-long operations audit of an NGO office, Aaron happened upon a lucha libre wrestling match putting on an outdoor show, and decided it would be amusing to pose with the star luchadore.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, when we get to find out whether she’s recovered from eating her mother-in-law’s undercooked Thanksgiving turkey. (Not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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RANDOM NOMAD: Adria Schmidt, Career Consultant at Violence Intervention Program & Former Peace Corps Volunteer

Born in: Phoenixville, Pennsylvania USA
Passport: USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Pennsylvania (Collegeville & Landenberg): 1985-87 & 1996 – 2004; Ohio (Cincinnati): 1987-96; Massachusetts (Boston): 2004-06, 2008-09; Argentina (Buenos Aires): 2007-08; Dominican Republic (Cambita Garabitos, San Cristóbal province): 2009-11; New York (New York): June 2011 – present.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I guess you can say I left my homeland in search of a home. I never felt very “at home” as a teenager in Pennsylvania, so when the opportunity came to travel to Spain on a class trip I went eagerly. On this short trip I found that I felt more comfortable with some parts of the Spanish culture than with my own. The seed of wanderlust was planted.

When I went to school in Boston at Northeastern University, I decided to study the Spanish language, partly because of my interest in the language and the culture of Ibero-America, and partly because of my wish to study abroad.

Under Northeastern’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” program, I worked in Puebla, Mexico in a women’s prison, as well as in a small indigenous village in the mountains of Cuetzalan, where the people spoke only Nahuati. Both were amazing experiences.

And under Northeastern’s study abroad program, I lived in Argentina for nearly a year — during which I decided I wanted to help impoverished people in developing countries so would try joining the Peace Corps. Two years and one Master’s degree later, I was finally accepted and sent off to the Dominican Republic.

So did I ever find that “home” I was looking for? To be honest, my travels have only nurtured that original seed of restlessness. The more I travel the more I discover about myself and others — and the more I realize how much I still have to learn. For now, at least, home is wherever I want it to be.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
As far as my immediate family goes, no one is or has ever been “displaced” — although I do like to think that my travels have inspired family members to explore other countries. My father was always one of those people who felt it would never be necessary to leave the United States as he had everything he wanted or needed right here. But when I went to Argentina, my parents decided to visit, and my dad absolutely fell in love with the country. To this day, he tells people that Argentina has the best pastries in the world. Now when I tell my parents I’m going overseas, they no longer respond by saying: “Why do you want to go there?” Instead it’s “When can we visit?”

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
One night in Cambita my host sister’s husband brought me a guayaba (guava). He was really excited for me to try one for the first time, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had eaten this fruit before in Mexico. After I ate it I started to feel nauseous and dizzy. Soon my lips began to swell and my whole face was itchy. I was having an allergic reaction to a chemical (a fertilizer or pesticide) that had been used on the fruit. I called the Peace Corps doctor, who told me to take two Benadryl and then a shower to wash the chemicals off.

When I got to the shower — an outdoor zinc and cement block latrine with a drain in the middle — I hung my towel on the cement blocks and poured cold water from a bucket over my head. It was already dark and I couldn’t see anything.

As soon as I finished, I wrapped the towel around myself and as I was heading back to the house, I felt a small sting on my stomach, then another one on my back, and another one on my chest. Soon my whole body was burning with these sharp little stings. Inside my towel was a colony of fire ants! I ran to my room, only to find it occupied. My host parents, Doña Romita and Don Rafael, were busy adjusting a new table the latter had constructed from an old cabinet. All I wanted to do was rip off my towel, but I could not get naked in front of my 70-year-old hosts!

By that time, the ants were all over my body. I was jumping up and down, shaking my towel and yelling for them to get out of the room. In all the commotion the oil lamp was knocked over and shattered on the floor. Doña Romita refused to let me in the room with the glass on the floor. Still unsure of what was wrong with me, she rushed me to her room. I quickly closed the door and whipped the towel off, slapping the ants off my body.

Just when I thought the nightmare was over I looked up and realized the shades were wide open and everyone outside the house had seen me naked and jumping around. At that moment, Doña Romita knocked on the door to tell me that my project partner and his wife were there to see me.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
After being in the Dominican Republic for more than a year, I came back to the States to visit my friends and family. One night, while out with some friends all the girls couldn’t stop talking about their weight. They were commenting about how beautiful one of our friends was because they had never seen her so skinny before. All I could think of was how sickly she looked and how much I wanted to feed her. I couldn’t understand why being skinny was considered better while in the Dominican Republic being called “fat” or (my favorite) “fatty” was a compliment. My view of what was healthy and beautiful had been altered from my time in the Peace Corps.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Argentina: All the ingredients and utensils for brewing maté, a drink made from the leaves of the yerba maté plant, containing caffeine and related compounds. (This is sadly ironic since I accidentally left behind my maté in my apartment in Buenos Aires.) The yerba is packed into a hallowed-out gourd, which is then filled with boiling water. You drink the mixture directly from the gourd using a metallic straw with a filter at the bottom, called a bombilla. Some people walk around with a thermos of hot water and the gourd to drink maté whenever they have the urge. It has a very strong, bitter taste, but you can add liquid sugar.

From the Dominican Republic: Some large jugs of the tree bark, sticks and herbs that can be used for making the classic Dominican drink mamajuana. I assume the Displaced Nation has honey and rum we can add to it? After filling with rum and honey, you let the jug sit for a few days. You can also add cinnamon sticks soaked in red wine and honey, or raw squid and seafood soaked in rum. Men use the seafood mamajuana to boost their virility. Regular mamajuana supposedly cleans the blood, provides a tonic for liver and kidneys, relieves menstruation pains, and cures many other ailments (depending on who you talk to).

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
I would make the meal I ate the most of in the Dominican Republic: rice, beans, plantains, and overcooked spaghetti with carnation milk, canned tomatoes, and corn. It’s the perfect carb overload — are any of you marathon runners?

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From Argentina: Che, boludo. Che is similar to the American word “dude.” I love che because it means that whenever I’m talking to someone and can’t remember their name, I can just call them che. Boludo technically means “jerk” (or worse), but it can also be used in an endearing way. My Argentinian friends and I always used to greet each other with a “Che, boludo!”
From the Dominican Republic: Vaina — though it technically means the pod around pigeon peas (gandules), everyone uses it to mean a thing or object. If I ever got stuck and couldn’t think of the Spanish word for something, I would just call it vaina while pointing to the object with my lips. It’s a great word for anyone learning Spanish.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you cherish?
Strangely, I have never had a role model for this kind of travel. I was always drawn to it — but for some reason never felt the need to seek out others who had done it before me. My family were against my joining the Peace Corps because of fears for my health and safety. A psychic I met at a Renaissance fair right before leaving for Argentina told me I was going to do the Peace Corps. I don’t really believe in psychics but everything she told me that day has come true. So perhaps it was simply a matter of fate?

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Voluntourism is a tricky subject for me personally. On one hand I feel that it is ridiculous to pay someone’s plane ticket, lodging, food, and transportation at a more luxurious level than any host country national has ever experienced to have them “volunteer” and do a job that a local person would probably be more than willing and capable of doing had all that money been spent on their salary. On the other hand, I do realize the value of cross-cultural communications for both parties and that, on the occasions when it’s done correctly, the volunteer might actually be able to transfer a valuable skill to the host country nationals. In short, it all depends on how the voluntourism is being executed.

While in the Dominican Republic, I observed many volunteers who were asked to do jobs that could have been, and in some cases even were once done by Dominicans. It wasn’t that the local population didn’t have the knowledge or training to do some of these jobs; it was that they didn’t have the money to pay a salaried person and wanted a “free” volunteer instead.

Luckily, most Peace Corps volunteers were successfully trained to avoid taking jobs away from Dominicans, and instead focus on areas where they and their community felt the need was greatest.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Adria Schmidt 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 Adria — find amusing.)

img: Hair washing ritual in Constanza, a mountainous area of the Dominican Republic, in spring of this year. Adria Schmidt is the one getting her hair washed — the one doing the washing is Rebecca, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and they are in the home of another Peace Corps volunteer, Malia (not pictured). Due to the primitive plumbing conditions, hair washing has to be done in the kitchen, by heating water up on the stove.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who finds herself celebrating her first Thanksgiving under less-than-ideal circumstances. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Lentfer, International Aid Consultant, Writer & Blogger

Born in: Bruning, Nebraska USA
Passports: USA
Countries, states, cities lived in: Zimbabwe (Mutare & Harare): 1999 & 2002-04; Michigan (Detroit): 1999-2000; Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh): 2000-2002; Namibia (Windhoek): a few months in 2001; Malawi (Lilongwe): 2004-05; California (Santa Cruz): 2005-10; Washington, DC: two weeks ago-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: How Matters | Aid effectiveness is not what we do, but HOW we do it (blog); @intldogooder (Twitter handle)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I grew up on a pig farm in Bruning, Nebraska, population 248. The graduating class of my secondary school had 16 people. Every time the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is uttered, I think “If only they really knew…” Thinking back, there were two very important teachers, one in high school, and another at university, who were extremely influential in shaping and expanding my world view. And my parents certainly raised me to cultivate a curiosity about life. This, along with my insatiable, youthful desire to get as far away from Nebraska as possible, was a combustible mix that shaped my career and life path.

Is anyone else in your family a “displaced” person?
I was the first person in my family to go or live abroad. I don’t think I even knew anyone who had been to Africa before my first trip abroad, at age 19.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
On the bustling Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2003. I always hated driving to city centre, but a colleague and I had to go to the immigration office to update our work permits. When we came out of the office, our car was blocked by another on the street. So we just got into the car and waited.

Eventually a man came up my driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. Not knowing him, I rolled the window down a couple of inches. This seemed to anger him and he walked away to talk to another man, a companion of his, who started yelling out to walkers-by that this white woman [me] would not roll down my window — I must think Africans are “stinky,” on and on… Luckily people didn’t engage him. There was a dynamic going on that I didn’t understand — apparently, I had parked in the man’s space, and he felt justified in scolding and harassing me for that.

After a few more minutes, the original man came back to my window, pulled out his wallet and his War Veterans identification card, placed it up against the glass and menacingly dragged it across. And then it made sense. The card, along with the man’s demeanor, indicated that he was probably one of the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war for independence, who’d been recruited by the Mugabe government for help in brutally suppressing opposition demonstrations, in murdering and torturing opposition leaders, and in seizing land on behalf of the government elite.

Eventually, the man had had enough with me. He motioned for the car behind me to move, and I backed out and drove away very quickly.

Obviously, my experience that day was nothing compared to the very real and severe political violence and torture experienced then and now by Zimbabwe’s opposition supporters. If I felt displaced, imagine how black and white Zimbabweans felt who were violently displaced from their lands on behalf of so-called fast-track land resettlement. And on another level, my experience was nothing compared to the everyday torments of living in a country where in a sense everyone (war veterans included) has been displaced from a state of personal dignity and safety, through subtle yet deliberate expressions of power.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Also in Zimbabwe — when talking with a group of local leaders in 2008. We were sharing stories about the issues women face in their struggles to raise families and improve their communities. One woman shared a brilliant story of triumph from being a physically and emotionally abused wife to now owning her own hairdressing business. She cried as she bravely told us about her life, and many others shared her tears.

Because I was there as a visitor, I was expected to respond (through a translator), and I took a chance in trying to break the tension and make the moment a bit lighter. I told her that I could tell she was a hairdresser because her plaits [braids] looked so perfect.

After the pause in which the translator shared what I had said, the room erupted in laughter. We were all reminded, no matter where we were from, of the sweetness of laughter through tears.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I had quite the African basket collection going for a while until they were stolen from my storage unit in Santa Cruz. That’s all the thieves got since I was in the process of moving at the time. Their house probably looks really cool now.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Peanut butter vegetable stew is what I crave — from Zimbabwe. Let me know which of these recipes you fancy:

You may add one word or expression from the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Zvakaoma. This is a phrase in Shona that means, “it’s tough” or “it’s difficult.” It also roughly translates to “shucks” in English or “c’est la vie” in French. It was a phrase I heard often in Zimbabwe because of the severe economic downturn and the unavailability of basic commodities and cash during my time there. To my ears, it was a very compassionate phrase. Zvakaoma — I lament with you; I feel your frustration and pain. Sometimes a well-timed zvakaoma can get you through your day.

This month we are looking into “philanthropic displacement” — when people travel or become expats on behalf of helping others less fortunate than themselves. Do you have a role model you look up to when engaged in this kind of travel — whose words of advice you remember when you find yourself in a difficult situation?
Great question — one that we aid workers should always be asking themselves as well, because how we go about developing our role or calling can have an impact on our effectiveness as helpers. Helping is hard. Unfortunately, there aren’t any simple solutions to aiding the poor.

Having worked in international aid and philanthropy for over a decade, I’ve come to admire the people who have managed not to totally lose their idealism and commitment to the work. So many aid workers become jaded and cynical — I can’t help but wonder if this hinders their effectiveness in the field.

In addition, I really look up to the leaders of local nonprofits and grassroots organizations in the countries where I’ve worked. I’ve had the privilege of working with over three hundred such groups in southern and eastern Africa during my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics though some were also independent. They extend support and services into areas that are not reached sufficiently by government or international agencies.

The web of local initiatives in the developing world is still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced. conservatively estimates there well may be over a million such groups around the world! In my experience, these local leaders are there for kids, families and communities, whether funding or support from outsiders is available or not. Watching them and their persistence keeps me going.

Voluntourism is said to be the fastest growing segment of the travel industry (itself one of the world’s fastest growing industries). Do you think this kind of travel can help the uninitiated understand the problems our planet is facing?
Aid workers easily get frustrated when we see harm being done by well-meaning but naive tourists. Though if we are honest, that is how many of us got our start in this work. A great article by writer J.B. MacKinnon, entitled “The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism,” provides a reality check. He wrote:

First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.

To anyone considering voluntourism, I can recommend PEPY Tours in Cambodia. It’s doing voluntourism responsibly, thoughtfully, and respectfully — and has a great blog to follow, Lessons I Learned.

In general, I’d advise volun-tourists to ask critical questions of whatever project or trip in which they’re involved. Link the big issues to what you’re trying to do locally. It’s important to be curious about the root causes of poverty and vulnerability and what is needed for long-term change. Commit yourself to this learning process and never stop asking the deeper questions, whether it’s your first trip abroad or you’ve been working “in the field” for decades.

It’s also vital to recognize that every community has important non-monetary assets. When we come from a perspective of “we have so much, they have so little,” it’s easy to miss this. So the question becomes: “Who are the local leaders who are already doing great work who need the resources I have to offer?”

Finally, don’t let your good work become all about you. Place local people’s efforts before your own, in order to foster ownership and sustainability. Remember that whatever you do will always be secondary to the relationships you build.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Lentfer 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 Jennifer — find amusing.)

img: From corn to cassava — Jennifer Lentfer talking with farmer and local leader Jones Pilo in Zomba, Malawi (2007).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is hoping that Oliver’s visit back to Milton Keynes doesn’t result in any surprise guests (Sandra, for instance!) at their first Thanksgiving. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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