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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling bluff on Bi Bim Bap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expats 1, Tourists 0

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

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

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

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

That, we believe is the uniqueness of living overseas.

Expats trump tourists.

How naughtily satisfying.  One-upmanship indeed.

A Tower of Babel for the food industry

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

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

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

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

Expat living: A licence to boast

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

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

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

Be gentle when you judge us.

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

* * *

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

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!


STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Pastry or pie dough? Whatever you call it, it’s child’s play.

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

This month, Joanna comes clean about the reasons for her dissatisfaction with the world today. Who knew that pastry (that’s pie dough to Americans) could be such a contentious subject?

* * *

You know how it is when you have known someone for a while.  Not long, but a while.  Things are so pleasant, and positive and fun, you can’t imagine ever getting irritated with them.  Then one day, you just are.  I’m afraid, my darlings, it is the day of revelation of a certain grumpiness in my personality.  A grumpiness that I usually do backbends to hide, but now I feel our relationship demands a little more honesty.

What on earth, you must be asking, could make Sunshine Lady feel less than, well, sunshiney?  Well, if you must know (and you know you must)  — it’s the sad state of the world’s flaky pastry.  We have come to a point in our culinary evolution where we have all but lost respect for the art of pastry making.  Supermarket shelves are heaving with the frozen stuff, and ready-made pie-crusts are to be found in abundance.  Marie-Antoine Carême, that French master of the art of the Mille Feuille  or thousand leaves of pastry, must be turning in his grave like a poorly controlled rotary whisk. That his peaceful rest is being tampered with can only make me feel justified in my fury.

Child’s play (doh)

Flaky pastry is a subject dear to my heart.  I first learned the rudiments of the art at the tender age of 12.  It was the pinnacle of a year’s pastry training.  We began with scones, worked up to shortcrust, then rough puff or cheat’s flaky, and then to flaky.  By the age of 15 or 16 we were all capable of producing a three course meal which included bread, a béchamel or similar sauce and pastry from scratch in a space of but 2 ½ hours.  Having survived this exam it’s difficult to be impressed by the stresses of Masterchef, or indeed the controlling of flight patterns at Heathrow. I may be exaggerating with the Air Traffic Controller bit, but I stand by my comments on Masterchef.  You see, flaky pastry wasn’t even the star of the show, it was just a skill to be demonstrated alongside the rest — in a very short space of time.

Nowadays, I like to make a day of my pastry making.  I download some good Radio 4 programmes to listen to.  In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg always hits the spot, and I take far longer than 2 ½ hours to make a large batch to use and freeze.  I find the rolling, addition of butter, folding and rolling, a therapeutic, meditational and endlessly gratifying process.  Best, is that the end, the product, homemade, without additives and addictively light, is without parallel.

I’ll repeat that. Homemade pastry is without equal — and I dare to write that, albeit behind locked shutters, in France.

A pastry protest

A few years ago I cancelled my subscription to BBC Good Food magazine.  It was in protest against their increasingly habitual calls for frozen pastry in their recipes.  Not “or you can buy some frozen pastry if pushed for time”, but brazenly, “2 sheets of good frozen pastry” as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world.  “Good frozen pastry” should be a shocker of an oxymoron to anyone who takes their food even halfway seriously.  For heaven’s sake, that their readers bought a magazine with the title “Good Food” suggests not only they have an interest in GOOD Food but that they might be open to the gentle suggestion they make their own pastry?  Indeed, BBC, it is possible that they expect to make their own pastry and require a recipe for it?

If I am wrong — and in this mood it’s hard to own the possibility — might I politely suggest the title is renamed BBC  OK, But Not Quite Good Enough FoodBBC Good Food is not the only transgressor, of course, but it is the only magazine for which I had a subscription and thus the opportunity to register my grievances.

French frozen pastry — it’s got to be better, right?

I can understand why you would buy pastries from a patissier here in France.  A qualified patissier is well-trained and takes a pride in being in the van of pastry production.  A patissier’s products are worlds away from frozen products mass-produced in some factory on the outskirts of Dijon. I believe the patissiers of France share my outrage at the frozen product of which I speak.  (Surely, surely they must?) 

In the spirit of fairness and a desire to appear reasonable, I decided to try a few samples of available frozen pastry here in France.  The stuff has taken over in the same depressing way the Nespresso machine has sidelined truly great coffee, and the world seems to be willing to accept mediocre as long as it is reliably so.

I tried to pick out the pure butter pastries or the ones that advertised themselves as Granny’s best, as if I were a BBC Good Food reader searching for two good sheets.  I took them home, baked them, carefully labeled them to avoid mix-ups and then herded my four kids into the kitchen for the taste test.   I had some misgivings about that last part.  They can be annoying at times, but they are my own, and by now, I had read the ingredients on the packets.  Despite the promises of “sans additives” and “pur buerre” I was perturbed by some of the contents. What flavourings do you need in a butter pastry other than butter itself ?  As for Granny, well — she evidently swapped the butter for palm and sunflower oil, and spent the savings on gin.  She certainly wasn’t sober when she made the thick and flabby batch I sampled, which cooked up into an oily mess.

Happily the kids survived, and the general consensus was that the pastry samples were all “OK” — just not very tasty.  Generally, the pastries rose into crisp puffs with an empty hollow where 947 leaves would have been expected. But OK, I take the point that not all of us have the time or inclination to spend a day listening to Melvyn in the kitchen, no matter how divine he might be.  If that is your case and pastry-making is a bother to you, I think it would be better to whip up a simple bowl of pasta or salad with some nice bread and forget about the quiches and tarts.

Homemade — it really is best.

Mass produced, marketed, and well-travelled frozen flaky pastry doesn’t have a hope in hell of bettering anything made at home. If you are going down the frozen route, just be sure to read the packets carefully.  Even some of the pure butter brands slip in various extras and a great deal of salt, if my raging thirst that night was anything to go by.

But stop!  Why issue advice on how to buy this stuff?   The top advice is to get into the kitchen and discover that most of the hours involved in making this kind of pastry are actually spent waiting for it to chill in the fridge between rollings.  An ideal time for a cup of tea or a glass of rose – and you’re still, technically, ‘working’.

It’s a win-win situation.

“If a  Bunch of 12 year Old Girls Can Do It, So Can You” Flaky Pastry Recipe

IMG_0091I can’t accept any credit for this recipe. It’s the first I learned.  Since then I have tried many other wonderful recipes and many methods of making flaky pastry, but this one is delicious and reliable.  The lard gives the pastry the short crispiness which one should demand in a flaky pastry, while the butter gives the flavor.  Lard is fat from the stomach of the pig.  It is clarified for use in much the same way as ghee is clarified.  If you are American, you might well be asking if Crisco is lard.  The short answer is “no”.  Crisco is vegetable based and lard is an animal fat.  Neither should be eaten in vast quantity, but at least lard is natural.  Use Crisco if you will, but use lard if you want excellence.

I should have mentioned that if you are worried about the fat content, you are in the wrong place.  It’s the fat that gives the flavour and texture.  If you are unhappy about it, go and buy a lettuce.

You will need:

  • 225 g plain flour pinch of salt
  • 80 g lard
  • 80 g butter      (blend both fats together and chill well)
  • Chilled water — about 120 mls
  • Dash of lemon juice

Rub a quarter of the fat into the flour and salt.  Then slowly add enough chilled water (about 120 mls) with a dash of lemon juice to bring the mixture together into a messy ball.  Now roll out into a rectangle shape about the size of a brownie pan.  Use a knife to score lines 1/3 and 2/3 down.  Use about a ¼ of the remaining butter to “dob” over the top two-thirds.  Fold up the bottom layer and down the top layer to form an envelope.  Turn the dough around to the vertical and repeat the process twice, but without butter.  Wrap in cling film and chill for 10 minutes.

Repeat the process until you have used up the remaining two quarters of fat. Wrap well and chill for at least an hour.

After the first few rollings you will find this pastry very easy to handle.  That’s the thing about flaky pastry, despite its reputation — it is very easy-going.

You can use this basic flaky for any recipe that calls for frozen pastry!  I love to make beef pies with it, but it is equally useful for sweet recipes.

Once you have mastered it, you can start to explore other methods.  This, though, is a good start..  Do try it and, please, never go back to frozen.   I hope that my work is done here.

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

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

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Images: Joanna’s daughter, Catherine, proving that even 11-year-olds can make flaky pastry


And the June 2013 Alices go to… these 5 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

As subscribers to our weekly newsletter know, each week our Displaced Dispatch presents an “Alice Award” to a writer who we think has a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of the displaced life of global residency and travel. Not only that, but this person has used their befuddlement as a spur to their own (or others’) creativity.

Today’s post honors June’s five Alice recipients, beginning with the most recent and this time including citations.

So, without further ado: The June 2013 Alices go to (drumroll…):

1) LILLIAN AFRICANO, president of the Society of American Travel Writers

Source:How to use words to cinematic effect in your travel writing.” in Matador Network
Posted on: 21 June 2013

Once a satisfying story has been told, it needs an ending, ideally, one that circles around to the beginning and gracefully achieves a satisfying sense of closure. If a good travel story is like a cinema of the mind, then whoever heard of a movie that had no ending?

Citation: Lillian, your advocacy of the cinematic style puts us in mind of Alice, who, before plunging into her adventures, expresses a similar thought:

…once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or

And although Alice’s creator, Lewis Carroll, died around the time the first motion picture camera was invented, he clearly believed in telling stories in clear, vivid word pictures. What’s more, the story of Alice’s wonderland adventures circles round to where it began, with Alice waking up on the lap of her sister, who is brushing stray leaves from her face. Like many of us who return from a long international journey, Alice can’t quite believe that she actually underwent such a metamorphosis. Still, she manages to persuade her sister, who after sending Alice to get her tea, dozes off while watching the sun set half-believing herself to be in Wonderland. (Hmmm…if you can persuade the kind of person who doesn’t read picture books, that’s some pretty good storytelling!)

2) ACe Callwood & the other creators of Coffitivity

Source: “How the Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity“— a report on Coffitivity by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times
Posted on: 21 June 2013
Snippet: As the Times article explains, Coffitivity plays an ambient coffee shop soundtrack that, according to researchers, helps people concentrate. Co-founder ACe Callwood says that, although the site attracted only just over a hundred page views when it first started on March 4th, since then traffic has “exploded”:

Seoul, Korea, is our top user city. New York City is second, followed by London, L.A. and Chicago.

Citation: ACe, we understand that you and your partners are now developing new coffee shop soundtracks tailored to specific countries. For the sake of us creative internationals (see #4, Mike Sowden, below), we wonder if you’d also consider a “Lewis Carroll” track since many of us in that category are trying to account for topsy-turvy ideas of life we’ve obtained from living overseas. We are aware it will take some research to find the right sounds, but our hunch is that some mix of rustling grass, rippling waters, tinkling sheep-bells, a bit of Victorian singing, and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood chatter will do the trick.

3) ANNABEL KANTARIA, Telegraph Expat blogger

Source: “Do you suffer from fake accent syndrome?” in Telegraph Expat blog
Posted on: 6 June 2013

Just like the “transatlantic twang” of those who divide their time between the UK and US, the generic global accent of the UAE takes a little from English, Arabic, Hindi and Tagalog, and spits out some sort of accent and vocabulary that we all hope everyone will be able to understand.

Citation: Hmmm… Annabel, especially given those blonde locks of yours, are you sure you’re not Alice reincarnated? Because this is the SECOND time we’ve awarded you an Alice. Either you know the works of Lewis Carroll very well and/or life in the Emirates has given you a special grasp on his canon of works. Last time you received an Alice, it was for a post that told us about the importance of playing by the rules, which reminded us of Alice’s croquet match under the Queen of Hearts’s stern command. This time, you talk about the odd, fake-sounding accents people pick up in foreign spots—which reminds us of poor Alice’s initial meeting with Mouse:

“Perhaps it doesn’t understand English,” thought Alice; “I daresay it’s a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror.” … So she began again: “Ou est ma chatte?: which was the first sentence in her French lesson-book. The Mouse gave a sudden leap out of the water, and seemed to quiver all over with fright. “Oh, I beg your pardon!” cried Alice hastily, afraid that she had hurt the poor animal’s feelings. “I quite forgot you didn’t like cats.”

Stuff and nonsense, to be sure!

4) MIKE SOWDEN, travel writer

Source: “Why I Blog (On A Napkin)” in Fevered Mutterings—Misadventures in Travel & Storytelling blog
Posted on: 26 May, 2013
Snippet: Notably, Sowden should be a consultant for Coffitivity’s “international creative” app (see #2 above). He reports that he is writing this post

…next to a sunlit window in a Costa coffee house in Birmingham… A regular Chai latte is to the right of my laptop, and I’m fascinated by the lazy snow of cinnamon drifting to the bottom of the glass.

But the passages we really love refer to his napkin diagram:

  • “[Potential blog] [s]ponsors hover in the middle reaches of napkin-space.”
  • “Let’s soar into the upper napkinsphere. … It’s the ideal audience of your blog: anyone with a brain and a pulse.”
  • “This is what the fold in the napkin is all about, just under that line/curve. It’s a mountain you have to climb. A mountain made of enormous amounts of hard work, business planning, Art, applied psychology, smart, non-spammy marketing and all sorts of heart-on-sleeve public-facing transparency and vulnerability. It’s a process of learning how to make something those people will genuinely find meaningful. In business, this is the hardest thing in the world. It’s a mountain littered with the remains of failed expeditions, and it’ll probably end up littered with some of your own.”

Citation: Wow, Mike, you are certainly drinking the coffee if you can see a mountain in the folds of a Costa napkin, and use that image to tell a story about the thru-the-looking-glass challenges most bloggers face. Say, no wonder they pay you (or should be paying you) the big bucks for travel writing! I think other expat and travel bloggers will agree with us that it’s a fantasy feat worthy of Carroll.

5) PATRICIA WINTON, crime writer, food guru and American expat in Rome

Source: “The Tiramisù Is Out of This World” in Italian Intrigues blog
Posted on: 23 May 2013
Snippet: In this post, Winton reports that Chef Davide Scabin, whose restaurant (near Turin) ranks as one of the world’s 50 best, was chosen to prepare a new menu of Italian foods for the astronauts who took off in the European supply spacecraft Albert Einstein ATV [automated transfer vehicle], on June 5th (note: it successfully docked with the International Space Station on June 15th):

Each meal must also have a 36-month shelf life and be prepared without salt. Against this rigorous backdrop, Chef Scabin discovered another challenge. “The olfactory system doesn’t function at 100 percent in space. The astronauts eat with the sensation of having a cold,” he said…

Thanks to Chef Scabin’s efforts, the crew—who include one Italian, Luca Parmitano—are now feasting not on food from NASA or Roskosmoson (its Russian counterpart), but on lasagna, risotto, caponata, eggplant Parmesan, and for dessert—tiramisù.
Citation: To be honest, we weren’t sure whether to award the Alice to Chef Scabin, for spending two years thinking about how to translate Italian food for outer space without turning it into a Mad Hatter’s tea party; Luca Parmitano, for blogging(!) about his “out of this displaced world” experience from the spacecraft; or to Patricia Winton, for making this strange tale known to the expat and travel community. But we decided to go with Winton. Given her penchant for mystery and deceit, could it even be that she fabricated this story just because she fancied a world where astronauts could feast on tiramisù instead of the freeze-dried ice cream served by NASA on the Apollo missions? Stranger things have happened! 🙂

* * *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, and do you have any posts you’d like to see among July’s Alice Awards? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on these weekly sources of inspiration. Get on our subscription list now!

Speaking of creative chefs, STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, by Global Food Gossip Joanna Masters-Maggs.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance whether you’re one of our Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

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

This month, Joanna addresses the issues facing a wine-loving girl who finds herself living in a dry country for two years.

* * *

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whined to my husband casting my eyes around the restaurant in something close to desperation.  “I think it must be time for repatriation, don’t you?”

My husband had taken me to a smart restaurant in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on our first night in The Kingdom.  It was such an attractive place: lovely china and glasses, a chic wooden floor, attentive waiters and delightful food. Yet it was all, so, so wrongIt wasn’t just that I was clad in a form-engulfing abaya, the sleeves of which kept getting in the way of everything.  It wasn’t that we had been ushered to the less well-appointed “Family Section” without views over the The Gulf.  Annoying as those facts were, they weren’t the only irritant.

“Look.” I held up my large balloon shaped wine glass for inspection. Full of San Pellegrino, it shimmered under the tasteful lighting. “What’s the point of all this wonderful food if you just wash it away with water?”

“It’s nice water. Italian,” encouraged David, whose heart must have already been sinking in the knowledge that he had two more years to live with a discontented missus.

“It’s. Not. Wine.” I enunciated my words carefully. “And I have beef.”

More to the point, I had a beef. Let me make this clear for anyone who has not had the Saudi experience: there is no alcohol to be had anywhere.  It is forbidden, interdit, prohibido, indeed, haram.  Occasionally a hapless supermarket manager might mistakenly stock chocolate liqueurs, but who wants those, with or without a good Chateaubriand?

Home-brewing, the expats’ hobby

I’m all for fitting into the lifestyles of the places where I wash up, but I like a bit of give and take. Several years without wine or bacon didn’t seem like give and take for a girl who is half English and half Irish. On that first night, I would have considered raiding a Church’s communion wine but, of course, there are no churches in Saudi either.

So started a two-year quest to find an acceptable alcoholic drink which would inject a little of the warmth wine offers to a dinner party, and a little of the naughty fun that oils the wheels of a party the rest of the world over.

Our starting point was the homemade wine with which most expats become acquainted.  I won’t bore you with the recipe; suffice to say it involves a water cooler bottle, gallons of red or white grape juice, lemon, lots of sugar, yeast and a handful of teabags – for the tannin, of  course.  This lot is heated up then transferred to the water bottle and bunged up with the special cork and an impressive-looking glass “curly wurly” tube.  After four or five weeks, when the smell of yeast has subsided, the wine can be bottled.

The resulting wines can vary surprisingly, but in one thing they are identical: each is truly appalling.  It doesn’t matter the method used, the care taken or the expensive ingredients experimented with — fresh blueberries in Saudi, anyone? — it is just dreadful.  We knew someone who actually made a batch from grapes he had trodden himself. Well, perhaps that never did sound promising.

Vimto — with a Tixylix chaser

During the weeks of waiting for our wine to ferment, I realized why even cough mixture was banned in The Kingdom.  A few dry company dinners complete with presentations and speeches convinced me that teetotalism is not advisable, at least not before retirement. If you must spend dinner with a bunch of people not entirely of your choosing, a slug of Tixylix would be welcome.

I began to view anything sold in bulk with grave suspicion.  Why, for example, would anyone wish to buy large quantities of Vimto, a cordial traditionally found in fish and chip shops in Northern England?  Could it be possible that it was the secret to a sloe gin sort of drink?  The adverts on massive billboards throughout the city suggested a sophistication more readily associated with champagne than a fruit squash. That observation led to an ill-advised attempt at a Vimto-based wine. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the result was the cough mixture a million sleepless Saudi parents would have been grateful for. Never mind; undeterred, we continued our experiments with a dedication and wanton disregard for our health that the Curies would have admired.

Putting the fizz in compound life

Early in our stay in Saudi, I heard rumours of “The Champagne Lady” of another compound.  She had, so it was said, perfected a sort of sparkling wine which, if not exactly champagne, was a far more pleasant drink than Saudi Ordinaire.  My search for her was rewarded in time and she proved generous with her recipe.  The key requirements were a strong lemonade bottle with a wired cork, unsweetened white grape juice and just two grains of yeast. Even one grain over requirements could result in a nasty glass-shattering explosion.  One must resolve to keep the fledgling beverage in the fridge and not agitate it for two weeks — harder than it sounds in a household with four kids. After guarding the fridge door like an over-zealous Rottweiler for the required time, I could pull down the wire to cork the bottle then leave it in its comatose state for a further two weeks.  The  “pop” on opening was deeply gratifying; the flavor, surprisingly, “not so bad”. Rather like Appeltiser, it did not cause one’s face to reflexively contort while downing it.  Champagne it was not, but drinkable it was.

Add the Perrier and face the grapes of wrath

Two years of experimentation taught us two things.  Firstly, the only way to make a drink that approximated a bone fide drink one might find on sale elsewhere was not to serve our wine straight but to make a “Pimms” cocktail from it.  We would pour it over a glassful of ice and top up with lemonade.  After adding plenty of mint, cucumber and any other vegetation to hand, we could, at a stretch, imagine ourselves at Wimbledon.  Unlike the wine alone, it was vaguely similar to what we wished it was.  That alone justified the considerable number of Pimms parties we hosted in our time.

The second thing we learned, as a direct consequence of the first thing we learned, is that a wine snob is a wine snob whatever his situation.  Making our “cocktail” on occasion caused as much offence as if we had used a Grand Cru as the base, especially if mixed it with someone else’s wine.  The snorts of outrage could have been no stronger.  Indeed cutting someone else’s wine with anything from Perrier to club soda to ice, was to run the risk of causing deep and enduring offense.  There are certain people (and you know who you are) who should remember wine is meant to be fun.  You need every laugh you can get in certain circumstances, and a dodgy Saudi Red ought to be the perfect vehicle for hilarity.


Oh, and in case you were wondering — why the popularity of Vimto? It turns out that it is the Saudi drink of choice during the Iftar breakfast enjoyed at sundown each day of Ramadan.  It addresses low blood sugar levels after a day of fasting and stands up well to the full flavoured food on offer – and it doesn’t make you screw up your face when you drink it.

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

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

Image: Joanna in her abaya, celebrating an English goal during the World Cup

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: There’s no taste like home

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

Today’s topic for discussion in the kitchen is something very dear to Joanna’s heart: English food.

Before I left the shores of England over 16 years ago, I never gave a thought to British recipes and ingredients as long as I had a supply of strong English teabags. And once I left England and adopted a “displaced” lifestyle, not being able to find ingredients for familiar English recipes simply meant an opportunity to try something new and wonderful, because I love cooking. I tasted and cooked my way around the world and lost touch with food from home.

Now, some people might be unkind enough to suggest that this was for the best, given England’s reputation for lacklustre food. How unfair! A difficult century of war and rationing, followed by the arrival of new convenience foods had an adverse affect on home cooking and restaurants alike. If I had to collect my rations for weeks in order to make a cake, I would probably lose interest within days. The new packets and tins must have seemed welcome relief from the effort of thinking about how to put a meal together. But that’s another story. For now, take it from me that properly cooked English food made with quality ingredients and which doesn’t substitute homemade for pre-packed, is a wonderful thing. It is a wonderful thing.

However. Back to me, living overseas: I felt it was important to learn to cook the local food, and I took this task very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that one day the realization hit me that, in eight years of motherhood, I couldn’t recall having made a single traditional English dish for my kids. Why on earth not? This was the culinary equivalent of refusing to speak to your child in your native tongue, and potentially just as psychologically damaging.

We had just arrived in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has a large expat population, and a certain supermarket, Hock Choon, caters to it shamelessly. During one expedition there, I picked up a distinctive green and gold tin of Golden Syrup.

“What’s that?” asked my kids, crowding around, eager to look at this strange foreign product.

Oh dear. What woeful ignorance of an iconic British product. My own children didn’t know that Golden Syrup is to foie gras what corn syrup is to Spam.

Clearly there was some cultural awareness to be taught.

A taste of home

On the drive home I began to feel a tingle of excitement. A quest had begun. A project is a good thing to have in the difficult first few months in a new country. It keeps you from mourning over your lost life elsewhere. I determined that I would cook English favourites for my kids and I would cook them well. No corner cutting, no packets, and certainly no shop bought pastry—one thing thankfully, that was conspicuous by its absence at Hock Choon.

That Sunday I produced my kids’ first-ever Sunday roast. It was simple stuff: just chicken, roast potatoes and green beans, but I just felt such a damn capable mother as I carried it to the dining table. Steamed syrup pudding came next, and custard too — the real deal, made with cream, eggs and a steady nerve.

My children stared with fixed intensity as I lifted the dish to reveal the pudding in its full golden glory. Accustomed to tarts and tortes, they were unsure what they were facing.

“Umm…what is it called?” asked six-year-old Isabel, as I poured custard on her serving.

Seconds later she discovered what everyone does when they try this delight of English baking. The name gives no hint of its tender lightness. It doesn’t swamp the vanilla delicacy of custard. Here was something that looked as though it could break storefronts for ram raiders, but which in reality was a frou-frou pussycat of buttery, light delight. With relief, I surveyed the smiles of my family. There would be no pudding mutiny that night.

Over the months that came, aided by the marvelously stocked Hock Choon, I mastered steak and kidney pie with homemade suet pastry, roast racks of lamb, and liver and onions. On the pudding side, Bakewell tart became a firm favourite and more than adequate British competition for a tarte au citron.

Bravely, I served English food for my children’s Korean and Japanese friends and found they delighted in the names of some of the dishes. I lost count of the number of children who couldn’t wait to tell their parents they had eaten “toads” and that they were delicious. Toad in the Hole, if the fat and oven are hot enough, is a glorious combination of light and golden batter, meaty sausages and sweet onion gravy. I remember one lovely Chinese mum being genuinely disappointed to learn that it was a pork dish and not a spin on frog legs.

Now, my children have favourites recipes from England and are fiercely defensive of their national dishes. Criticism is met with an invitation home for dinner and on those nights I cook with extra care. I am happy to report that we have enjoyed quite a lot of success. No longer are we bashful when our food or produce is knocked—we talk back. That’s important. Food forges a sense of belonging to somewhere.

One more thing before I go: Clotted Cream

905482_10151362556866828_2018383220_oEngland is rightly famous for its dairy products, king of which is clotted cream. It hails from South West England, particularly Devon, but also Dorset and South Somerset. This is the stuff traditionally served with scones and for which ‘cream tea’ is named. I like to serve it with fruit tarts at dinner and — oh, let’s be frank, this is the cream that goes anywhere. Just don’t waste it in cooking.

It’s quite difficult to find outside Britain, but not to worry—you can make your own.


You need “raw” cream. It can be called heavy, whipping, double or single cream, just as long as it isn’t UHT (ultra heat treated). UHT won’t separate, and you need to separate the cream from the milk.

Now put that cream in an ovenproof dish and cover. Place it in an oven preheated to 180°F or 80°C and leave for 8-12 hours—yes, you read that correctly.

When a thick, yellowish crust of mascarpone-like consistency has been achieved, remove the dish, wait for it to cool, then refrigerate for a minimum of 8 hours. Scoop it in to jars, cover and eat within a few days.

That should be the easiest part of all.

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

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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

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Images: all photos by Joanna and used with her permission

Marry a diplomat, travel the world and write expat guides: Talking to new author Véronique Martin-Place

Veronique and her bookAs some readers may know, before the Displaced Nation, I had my own blog, called “Seen the Elephant” — which I used as an outlet while struggling to readjust to life in America after having lived abroad, in England and Japan, for quite a few years. (The name for the blog came from the expression used by Victorian travelers: “Been there, done that, seen the elephant.” Which is how I felt…)

It was because of that blog that I got to know today’s guest, Véronique Martin-Place, since she, too, was quite active in the expat blogging world.

And when I found out she was a Frenchwoman living in Chicago, I was intrigued. What did she make of the city of broad shoulders, jazz, and deep-dish pizza?

I asked her this and a host of other questions in an interview for my blog. For starters, she said that she and her family — her husband is a French diplomat and they have two young daughters — were gradually finding their feet in Chicago. (She did not, however, mention she was planning to write a book of that title!) She didn’t entirely approve of America’s throw-away society and still cooked every day for her family — she even offered her recipe for “real” vinaigrette in the comments. She also reported she’d seen plenty of elephants while living in Sri Lanka (her husband’s second assignment, after Norway).

Véronique leads life in the fast lane. A little over three years since our conversation, I find that she has written the definitive expat guide to Chicago: Finding Your Feet in Chicago — The essential guide for expat families (Summertime, 2012). And she is already putting her feet down in a brand new city, one of the world’s trendiest… Here is our exchange:

Bonjour, Véronique! When we last spoke, toward the end of 2010, you told me you’d arrived in Chicago with hopes of getting a job, but then the recession hit, so you’d started up your own writing business. When did you hatch the plan to write a book for expats in the Windy City?
I was already thinking about it when we connected. After witnessing several incidences of culture shock at my daughters’ school, I realized I wasn’t alone in having troubles. Several families from different parts of the world had moved to Chicago around the same time. All of us were in need of information and advice. Meanwhile, I’d started up my blog, Expat Forever, to share my experiences about Chicago — tips on where to settle, which schools to choose, etc. I looked around for local guidebooks to recommend — but there was nothing. So I decided to write one myself.

finding-your-feet-in-chicago-3D-Book CoverThat reminds me of the famous quote by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” How long did it take you to produce the book?
From the idea to holding the book in my hands, it took one year and a half! Writing the book directly in English was difficult at the beginning, since English is not my native language. But after a while, I got used to it.

Besides writing in English, what was the most challenging part of the process?
Editing the manuscript. I decided to hire an editor to help with the task.

I know from our previous conversation that having fresh, healthy food is important to you — after all, that’s part of being French! I also seem to recall that you were not a fan of Chicago pizza. You said it was too heavy. But did you cover it in your book?
Of course! I have a chapter dedicated to “Having fun in Chicago,” which includes a section on family-friendly dining out. Before giving my top 10 Chicago child-friendly restaurants, I explain what the Chicago specialties are and insist that children (and their parents) MUST try them. That includes Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs.

What has been the response thus far?
Rather good, I think. I’ve gotten only five-stars comments on Amazon!

Which sections are the most popular?
Readers say they like having so much practical information on family-related topics — not just the advice itself, but all the personal anecdotes and testimonials I include from expat parents. I talked to lots of them and wrote up their stories as “blog posts” or interviews. The stories really speak to the kinds of anxieties most expats have — and they make the book an easy, fun read.

And now your husband has moved on to a diplomatic post in Shanghai! Tell me, does ANYTHING about China remind you of the United States, or are these two countries poles apart?
The United States and China are definitely different cultures — but one similarity struck me right away. Both are consumerist societies. In the US, everything is done to make you purchase and there are plenty of opportunities for you to part with your money. Here in Shanghai, it seems that the only occupation is “shopping.” It’s the only activity people urge you to do from the moment you arrive — visit malls, markets, supermarkets and so on. And I can tell you they have tons of malls, tons of markets (from traditional, the kinds that sell crickets and flowers, to modern, selling electronics, furniture, shoes, and so on), and many, many supermarkets.

How did you prepare yourself and your two daughters for the move?
We didn’t have the chance to make a look-see visit. But six months before moving to Chicago, I’d gone to Shanghai on business, so I had a picture of what to expect: a very urbanized and polluted city. That is also why we decided to settle in the new and “green” development area of Shanghai that is called Pudong.

Did your daughters have any idea of the change they were in for?
My husband and I found some videos about the city on the Internet for them to watch. Fortunately, they’d studied some Mandarin at their American elementary school, so already knew a lot about Chinese traditions and stories. To be honest, I think we learned as much from them about cultural matters as they learned from us on the practical aspects. It was real team work!

I know it’s still early days, but what have you enjoyed the most about living in Shanghai?
Perhaps surprisingly, the fact I can bike! In Pudong, there are a lot of protected biking trails, so it allows me to discover independently this part of the city, and it’s much faster than by foot. But I don’t bike in Puxi (the other side of the Huangpu River, which divides the city into two regions: Pudong, where I live, and Puxi, the city’s historic center). It’s too dangerous.

What is the feature you enjoy the least?
Shanghai is extremely urbanized and I miss greenery. Also, it is very polluted, though less so than Beijing.

What is the top piece of advice you’d give to anyone thinking of becoming an expat in that part of the world — particularly a trailing spouse?
I have five — and actually, they’re for anywhere, not just Shanghai:
1) Learn the language.
2) Get involved in your local community.
3) Keep doing your (or start new) hobbies and/or sports.
4) Discover your surroundings little by little, and you’ll eventually come to know the city as well as the content of your pocket.
5) If you are an accompanying spouse and cannot work locally, go back to school and get new skills, or volunteer to do something you can use professionally upon returning home for good.

And now I have to ask you the obvious question: any plans to write Finding Your Feet in Shanghai?
Many people have indeed asked me that question. And I must admit, the idea was in the back of my mind when I first started my book for expats in Chicago. I thought to myself, this can be the first in a collection, and the next one will be about the city where my husband gets posted next. But at least at this point, I don’t think I’ll write an expat guide to Shanghai. One reason is that there are already lots of books, magazines as well as Web sites for expats in this city. There isn’t the same need as there was in Chicago. But another reason is that my time here is so limited. My husband’s post is for just three years. I’d have to spend all of my time doing research and interviews, getting to know the city like my pocket. And that’s before I can start writing. My book on Chicago was released a couple of weeks after I left to fly to Shanghai — which didn’t give me any time for promoting it locally. I found that very frustrating and wouldn’t want to repeat the experience. Books these days have to be promoted like crazy, and although you can do a lot of it online, I don’t think online promotions can replace interacting with readers in person.

But surely you’ll write another book?
I may not write another book for expat families living in Shanghai, but I already know I will write another book about expatriation. Actually, I have already started it. But I cannot say much more. It is too early.

Aha! You are always so mysterious… Last but not least, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Rien Ne S’oppose a la Nuit (Nothing Holds Back the Night), by Delphine de Vigan.
2. Favorite literary genre: Memoirs — but also novels, illustrated books like the ones of Danny Gregory (I love his writings and drawings), and carnets de voyage (travel journals). And I have to confess that I still read a lot of children books, especially picture books. My dream is to write and illustrate one.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Something fun and easy to read on my Kindle! I travel light.
4. The one book you’d require the president of France to read, and why: My book, of course! I’m joking. I would like him to read Les mots pour le dire (The Words to Say It), by Marie Cardinal. Everyone should read it.
5. Favorite books as a child: Astérix and Obélix comic book stories, by René Goscinny (illustrated by Albert Uderzo) and Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), by Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
6. Favorite heroine: Anna Karenina
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: There are several — all alive and all women: Robin Pascoe, the author of four books about expatriation; Anne Lamott; Annie Ernaux; and the aforementioned Delphine De Vigan.
8. Your reading habits: Every evening, at least one hour, and Sundays as much as I can.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Hidden in Paris, by Corine Gantz
10. The book you plan to read next: The Help (but I got the French translation), by Kathryn Stockett.

* * *

Wow, what a stimulating list! Readers, any questions or comments for Véronique while we have her attention? Ce qu’est une femme extraordinaire — I think you’ll agree!

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

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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Images: Véronique Martin-Place with her Chicago book; the book cover in 3D (author’s own photos).

RANDOM NOMAD: Russell VJ Ward, A Bloke from Basingstoke with a Bloomin’ Extraordinary Life

Russell Ward Collage_pmPlace of birth: Basingstoke*, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Passports: UK & Australia
Overseas history: Canada (Vancouver and Ottawa): 2003-06; Australia (Sydney, New South Wales): 2006 – present.
Occupation: Civil servant in New South Wales (state) government; blogger; wannabe fiction writer and entrepreneur — currently setting up a corporate writing business.
Cyberspace coordinates: In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (2012 finalist in the Best Australian Blogs competition); In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (Facebook page); @RussellVJWard (Twitter handle).
*Basingstoke (aka Amazingstoke) is a small commuter town in the south of England that is occasionally voted one of the less preferred towns in Britain — though not by me!

So tell me, how did a bloke from Basingstoke end up in the lovely harbour city of Sydney?
As much as I like Basingstoke, displacement came easy! I always had a burning desire to experience life in a country different to my own. I wanted to explore new environments, opportunities and activities. I was initially drawn to Canada as my grandfather was Canadian, and I had a long-held desire to explore this great country. I left England in 2003 in pursuit of less stress, more emphasis on the greater outdoors, and for a healthier and fuller way of living life. In Canada I lived by mountains and the snow. I blame my Australian wife for the subsequent move to Australia — she wanted to come back home for a while, and knew I was a soft touch for living by the ocean. These days, when spending every available minute doing something, anything, by the beach, I blame her and curse her and blame her some more…

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
My grandfather is my opposite number. He met my grandmother while serving with the Canadian Army in Europe during World War II and married her while based in the UK. He returned to Canada several times but ultimately lived out the rest of his life in England.

And wasn’t your wife also displaced at some point? Otherwise, the pair of you would never have met…
Yes, my wife was working in England for a year, while also spending time with her English family (her mother is English and moved to Australia when she was 12). We met in my home town at the gym of all places — she always used to go to the same classes as me.

It sounds as though you’re living the dream in Sydney, but I can imagine you’ve had your displaced moments. Which one stands out?
It occurred just after we arrived in Sydney with our two dogs. I was walking them at a small park opposite our rental house. The younger pup was playing under a tree with his ball when I noticed something dangling out of the tree immediately above him. As I got closer, I realized said dangly thing was a humungous python wrapped around a branch, with its head swinging perilously close to my dog’s own. Thankfully, he’s an obedient little guy (my dog, not the snake) so he came to me as soon as I called. I remember standing there muttering over and over to myself: “What have I done? Where have I taken us? Did I just see a python hanging from a tree?” It became even more surreal when an elderly couple strolled past the tree while out for their morning walk. “Watch out for the python!” I called out. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” the white haired gent replied. “He’s just a harmless diamond python.” I knew then that I was truly displaced … and a lonnnnnnng way from Kansas, Dorothy.

When have you felt the least displaced?
The moment last November when our son, Elliot, was born. Australia was now his place of birth and it suddenly had a new, much more personal, meaning for me. This wild and rugged, unashamedly and devastatingly beautiful country will always be his home, wherever we are as a family in the future. He is an Australian first and foremost — and I’m incredibly proud of having provided that for him.

I’ve seen some of Elliott’s baby pix on Facebook and I must say, he’s adorable! No wonder you’re a proud papa! Besides your wife and new baby, you may bring one precious item or curiosity you’ve collected from the country (or each of the countries) you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Canada: A bowl of poutine — a bowl full of french fries coated with brown gravy and topped off with curd cheese (which is a strange thing to be carrying in your suitcase and no doubt illegal to carry on your travels, but there you go). I’ve always had a penchant for the odd hot chip or fry. When I landed in Canada and somebody introduced me to this delightful French-Canadian dish, I knew I’d found my manna from heaven. Poutine. The very word itself makes me salivate.
From Australia: Probably a pair of budgie smugglers, which, though I’ve never worn — I can never quite get my head around the concept of wearing — would remind me of Oz as the majority of Australian men over the age of 40 wear them. FYI, the budgie smuggler — otherwise known as the “tighty-whitey” or “banana hammock” — is Australian slang for men’s tight-fitting Speedo-style swimwear. It’s something I shall never be seen wearing unless on a desert island by myself.

Don’t even think about it once you’re inside The Displaced Nation. We like to keep a sense of decorum. Next question: Can you donate any words or expressions from your travels to our displaced argot?
From Canada: It has to be “eh?”. “Canada, eh?” is something of a legendary sentence! “How’s it going, eh?” Used often and everywhere, it’s cute, quaint and so very Canadian. I also adore the way Canadians say “out”. Next time you’re near a Canadian, ask him or her to say it and you’ll see why.
From Australia: I’m going to avoid the “g’day” and “no worries” stereotypes and go with “ah yeah” — which I’m told I say all the time and which my friends tell me sounds very Australian. I think I probably used to say it in Amazingstoke, but years later, with the Aussie twang, it sounds less Jude Law and more Steve Irwin.

Let’s move on (or back) to food. You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu? No poutine, please, we’re displaced!

Appetizer: From Canada — okay, no poutine but possibly a serving of waffles with Canadian maple syrup. I know, it’s not all that healthy and it’ll fill you up as a starter, but it was either that or the BeaverTails (fried dough pastry that resemble a beaver’s tail).
Main: I’ll revert to my current Australian habitat and chuck a couple of steaks with a few prawns on the barbie. (I know it’s an overused cliche — but one I’ve found to be true of life in the land down under.)
Dessert: I’ll whip up a key lime pie — a taste acquired from my short period of time working in the US. The pie was served on my arrival and, after seven hours of cattle-class airplane food, was quite easily the most delicious thing I’d tasted all day.
Drinks: I could share a few schooners of Australian lager, but instead I’ll opt for a jug of iced tea for the non-alcohol drinkers out there — I used to consume it by the gallon when living in Vancouver.

A theme we’ve been exploring this month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is cross-cultural love. Thanks to your Aussie wife, you qualify! Tell me, what’s your idea of a romantic evening for two — and has it changed since the time when you were an unattached male who hadn’t yet left Britain?
It’s quite similar to when I lived in Britain: i.e., dinner for two, flowers, chocolates, a card and so on. In other words, fairly traditional. The difference now is the setting. In Sydney we’ll sit by the water at a local restaurant, maybe at the edge of the sand on one of the Northern Beaches. The sound of the ocean can be quite soothing … but is it an aphrodisiac, I hear you ask? Next time, I’ll order the oysters and let you know!

😀 Our other theme of the month is film, in honor of the Oscars. Can you recommend any films that speak to the situation of expats and their displacement?
A film I watched recently that I’d thoroughly recommend and which completely spoke to the expat situation was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a British comedy-drama about a group of retirees who travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. The most interesting part for me was the way in which the different characters deal with their displacement, especially to such a polar-opposite country to their own. Some cope well, others not so. And the parallels with everyday expat living are apparent throughout.

That’s actually one of the films we nominated for this year’s Displaced Oscars — results to be announced in our Dispatch on Saturday! We’ll be sure to register your vote before then.

So, readers — yay or nay for letting Russell Ward into The Displaced Nation? Among other contradictions, he’s an Aussie citizen but can’t seem to cope with nonpoisonous snakes and refuses to don a budgie smuggler. And he claims to be loyal to Basing/Amazingstoke, but wants to serve us Canadian (sweet) iced tea. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Russell — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a review of Jeff Jung’s new book on mid-life career changes involving travel and the expat life.

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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Images (top to bottom): Banner from Russell VJ Ward’s blog; with his wife on Sydney Harbour (2010); photo he uses for his blog — taken in Launceston, Tasmania, in 2011; wearing Canadian mittens on Avalon Beach, Sydney, just before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics — his way of showing his Canadian friends that he was supporting their athletes: “You should have seen the looks I got from the locals; it was a 35 degree Celsius day and I looked like a madman!”

RANDOM NOMAD: Christina Ashcroft, British Expat, Australian Citizen, and Writer of Hot Paranormal Romance

Christina Ashcroft Tiara WriterPlace of birth: Croydon*, South London, United Kingdom
Passport: Australia (My UK passport expired a few years ago.)
Overseas history: Australia (just outside Perth, Western Australia): 1998 – present. “I live five minutes from the beach!”
Occupation: Writer of steamy historical and paranormal romance for Penguin and Ellora’s Cave.
Cyberspace coordinates: Christina Ashcroft: Welcome to my dark world of archangelic eroticism (author site) and @ChristinaAsh_ (Twitter handle).
*I always get very excited whenever I see Croydon mentioned in a book (which isn’t very often!)

Before moving to Australia, you lived in England all of your life. What made you take the leap to Down Under?
My husband and I were high school sweethearts — he, too, comes from South London (Upper Norwood). We had talked about moving to Australia off and on for several years. We used to watch the programs on the TV of expats, and it all seemed very exotic and exciting. The decider came when my brother made the move to Perth, WA, in 1994. We visited him in ’96 when he got married (to the girl he’d gone to Uni with in the UK). Despite being chased by the biggest cockroach in the history of cockroaches, we fell in love with the country. We arrived home in early January to ice and snow, and within a couple of weeks we filed our application! We moved out here with our three kids.

So your brother is also “displaced”?
Yes, he, his wife and two daughters live about an hour from us.

In your 15 years in Oz, when have you felt the most displaced — apart from the time when you were literally displaced by that cockroach?
Only when there’s a big family get together in the UK and we know we can’t make it. We used to have great family parties and I really miss them. Apart from that I’ve honestly never felt displaced, except for the first month or so when I did get a bit homesick… 🙂

When have you felt the least displaced?
When I’m spending time in front of my laptop, lost in the mystical worlds of my characters. I’ve made a lot of writer friends online but I’ll never forget the first time I met up with my two critique partners (CPs) in the “real world.” It was just magic. I had found my tribe, and even though I’d had to travel to the other side of the world before we found each other, it was completely worth it. Funnily enough one of my CPs is also an expat from the UK who moved to New Zealand, but now lives in Australia. The other one is an Australian who was living in the UK when we first met online but she has now moved back to Oz.

It sounds as though you credit the move to Australia with your decision to become an author.
I’ve often wondered whether my career would have followed the same route if we’d stayed in the UK. While I’ve always loved writing it wasn’t until we moved to Australia that I decided to to write with the aim of publication. The support, encouragement and friendship I’ve found in the Romance Writers of Australia has been phenomenal. I also don’t think I would have met up with my CPs, and they are the ones who originally suggested I should try writing erotic romance.

ArchangelofMercyCoverAll this talk of erotic romance is helping to put us in the mood for Valentine’s Day. Can you tell us a little more about the plots of your books?
My paranormal romances feature fallen bad ass Archangels and the women who capture their hearts. I’m thrilled that my first Archangel book, Archangel of Mercy, was a finalist in the 2012 Australian Romance Readers Award for Favorite Paranormal Romance.

Wow, congratulations! And don’t you write historical romances as well?
My historical romances are set during the first century when Rome invaded Britain. There are sexy warrior heroes, magical Druid heroines and powerful goddesses.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected while living in Australia into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase besides your books?
Well, I’ve not brought a suitcase, I’ve brought a traveling basket with my three adorable kitties! 🙂 I’d always had cats in England, but we were here for 12 years before I finally adopted two sisters. One of them had four kittens but unfortunately only one survived. We spoil him terribly!

You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?

It would have to be a barbeque, of course! Not only can you cook practically anything on the BBQ but it always tastes a lot better than having to cook it in the kitchen. Plus it means I don’t have to actually do any cooking, since my husband and son take over with tongs and fork — always a bonus!

Since lamb is very popular here, we could have lamb and capsicum kebabs with salad and fresh crusty bread, washed down with a local wine and cold beer. Seeing as I’m from the UK, I should only ever drink warm beer, but I have to confess I’ve joined the Dark Side on that one!

For dessert — what could be yummier than a mango cheesecake?

Can you donate an Aussie word or expression to the Displaced Nation’s argot?
One of the best expressions in Australia is “No worries.” While my children take great delight in telling me I still sound “so British,” I do love saying “no worries.” It’s just so laid back and zen and also rolls off the tongue very easily!

Returning one last time to this month’s Valentine’s Day theme, what’s your idea of a romantic evening for two? Has it changed since the time when you were still living in Britain?
Room service in a fabulous hotel with a gorgeous view of the ocean. We’d eat our meal on the balcony as we watched the sun set and later we’d crack open a bottle of bubbly in the private spa. Although we’ve only managed this romantic getaway a couple of times in recent years, we never did anything like it in Britain.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Christina Ashcroft into The Displaced Nation? She drinks cold beer yet her children accuse her of being “so British.” And, though we might enjoy her erotic tales of fallen archangels and the women who capture their hearts around Valentine’s Day, would we benefit from a steady diet of this out-of-this-displaced-world fare? (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Christina — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our “Capital Ideas” series — focusing on one of the world’s most romantic cities (but of course!).

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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img: Christina Ashcroft looking a little bit displaced(?) at the Romance Writers of Australia conference held in August 2012. Christina says: “My critique group call ourselves the Tiara Girls, so we take along our tiaras and wear them at the Friday night conference cocktail party. It’s just a bit of fun!”

RANDOM NOMAD: Andy Martin, UK-qualified Social Worker, Football Geek & Now a São Paulo Resident

Andy_MartinPlace of birth: Chatham, Kent, United Kingdom
Passport: UK
Overseas history: Brasil (São Paulo): February 2012 – present. I also had a period of travel around South America between 2007 and 2008.
Occupation: NGO Volunteer, English teacher, blogger
Cyberspace coordinates: The book is on the table: An Englishman’s guide to living in São Paulo (blog) and @andyhpmartin (Twitter handle).

What made you give up London for São Paulo?
For some reason — probably because I’m a massive football geek — I had always wanted to go to South America, and so when I found out that one of my best friends was planning to travel there, it took very little persuasion for me to tag along. Then whilst there I met my future wife, who is Brazilian, and it all got a bit more complicated.

First she moved to live with me in the UK. We got married and stayed in London for three years. However, she had deferred her degree in Brazil to move to London, where I had a job as a social worker. I am a qualified social worker and spent almost nine years working in various social or community work roles. For most of that time I specialized in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. But when my job became uncertain due to government cuts (due to the economic crisis), it seemed like the perfect opportunity to move to Brazil so that my wife could finally get everything finished.

So now you’re a trailing spouse. Does anyone in your immediate family share that fate, or do they all live in the UK?
When I first traveled to South America in 2007, I was pretty much the first person in my entire family who had ever traveled outside of Europe, so I can’t really say there’s any significant history or influence of having the urge to want to explore or become “displaced.”

You haven’t been in São Paulo for long, but can you pinpoint a moment when you have felt displaced?
I had been to São Paulo twice before I moved here and I was already quite familiar with South America as a whole, so was pretty well prepared for what to expect — although there’s no doubting that living somewhere and just visiting are entirely different things.

But if I had to pick one thing, it wouldn’t be a moment but more the constant challenge of living somewhere where you are unable to speak your mother tongue. We Brits are notoriously bad at learning languages, and I can barely remember any of the French or German I learned at school. I did learn some Spanish whilst traveling in 2007, and in some ways this helped because of its similarities with Portuguese, although on the other hand it was also a hindrance because of their very many differences.

Not being able to fully communicate your thoughts is obviously very frustrating and when you’re having a bad day, it just intensifies your sense of displacement and dislocation. Fortunately, Brazilians are pretty intrigued by people (especially those from the “West”) who have moved to Brazil and are trying to learn Portuguese. They’re often very forgiving when you make mistakes. It also helps that many Brazilians themselves tend not to speak grammatically correct Portuguese, so in effect your own mistakes are just contributing towards the evolution of the language (that’s what I like to convince myself, anyway!).

When have you felt the least displaced?
One of the things I love about Brazilians is their general informality. As someone who’s never worked in an office or a suit, I feel right at home. For example, people are often referred to by their nicknames (even the former President was) and rarely, if ever, by their surnames. Also, Brazilians tend not to make a big deal out of social occasions — it’s more about making sure you’re surrounded by the people who matter to you. As long as there’s cold beer, everyone’s happy.

How could you not feel at ease?

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from the country where you’ve lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
Again, as a self-confessed football nerd, I think it would have to be my collection of football shirts. I have one from pretty much every country I’ve been to, and I’ve lost count of how many I’ve acquired in South America.

You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?

Starter: Salgadinhos (savoury snacks) are fantastic so a platter of these, including:

Main: It’d have to be a churrasco (Brazilian BBQ). That may sound pretty unimaginative, but once you’ve had a Brazilian BBQ, especially those from the south, you’ll forever wonder why it took you so long to do so.
Dessert: A selection of some of Brazil’s finest (and weirdest looking) fruits. Believe me, I’ve seen fruits in the markets here which look like they have been imported from Mars. They taste great, though.
Drinks: Brazil’s most famous cocktail, a caipirinha, which is a hangover-inducing concoction of cachaça (sugar cane rum), lime, sugar and ice. Refreshing, tasty and deceptively lethal.

Now that you are hard at work learning the language, can you donate a Brazilian Portuguese word or expression to the Displaced Nation’s argot?
Tudo bem? This is pretty much said every time you greet someone in Brazil and literally translates as “Is everything okay?” It reflects quite nicely, as I mentioned previously, how Brazilians prefer to keep things simple and informal.

This month, we’ve been focusing on the need for mentors: people who teach us what we need to know, or remind us of things we have buried deep. Have you found discovered any new mentors, whether physically present or not, in your life abroad?
As mentioned in my guest post this month for the Displaced Nation, when I’m going through a period where I’m missing home or things get tough, I often think about some of the kids I worked with back home in London (in my last job I worked with unaccompanied minors from countries such as Afghanistan).

Thinking about the challenges they as young kids faced after fleeing their home countries — but then still being able, on the whole, to go on and make the most of their new lives — always helps me to put into perspective the things I tend to moan or stress about here, in what is fortunately a much easier experience of displacement.

Apart from that, I read as widely as possible. For instance, I recently really enjoyed Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

If you had all the money and time in the world, what topic(s) would you choose to study in your adopted country?
I guess, given my pre-existing interest and work experiences with migration, I’d like to study the history of migration to Brazil. Brazil is a country defined by (im)migration — for example, my wife has indigenous, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese heritage, a mix that is is pretty normal for Brazilians. It would be fascinating to piece it all together in order to get a more holistic understanding of who Brazilians really are.

I’ve always wanted to do a PhD, so who knows, maybe this might be my research proposal one day!

Readers — yay or nay for letting Andy Martin into The Displaced Nation? A social worker who is taking lessons from the Brazilians on how to be more social? Who is used to helping the displaced and is now displaced himself — so may be in need of our help? (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Andy — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an expat take on the muses of Classical Antiquity.

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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Img: Andy Martin travels within his native land (the Norfolk Broads, 2010), a couple of years before his expatriation.

RANDOM NOMAD: Maggie Eriksson, Displaced Californian in Sweden and Student of Swedish

Maggie_pmPlace of birth: Arcadia, California, USA
Passport: USA & Sweden
Overseas history: Sweden (Landskrona, Malmö): 2005 – present.
Occupation: Unemployed and looking for a job. Meanwhile, I’m studying more Swedish since I’m far from fluent.
Cyberspace coordinates: Mag Wheels (Posterous) and @magsinsweden (Twitter handle).

What made you give up California for Sweden?
My husband is Swedish. After working for five years at the California lab for a small pharmaceutical company, he really wanted to go back home. We started the process in 2003, and a couple of years later, in spring 2005, we finally made the move.

How did the pair of you meet?
He was working as a chemist in Sweden and the company transferred him to their lab in California. We met on a Yahoo message board — he was looking for people to meet in California before he moved. I had been online dating a bit, and when I saw his message I replied. We started to exchange e-mails, then letters and phone calls. After six months we met in real life. 🙂 We dated for a few months and got engaged soon after. We have been married for 12 years. We have no children but share of life with our seven-year-old border terrier named Jake.

What things about Sweden did he miss when living in your part of the world?
Besides his family and friends, he missed Swedish Christmas, Swedish candy, the country’s socialized health care, and its four seasons.

So now you’re displaced. Do you share that fate with anyone else in your immediate family?
No! I’m the only one in my family that lives between cultures.

You’re also job searching in a foreign land. Are jobs hard to come by in Sweden?
Without fluent Swedish, finding work is very hard, especially if you want something more than a temp job. I worked in the retail industry in the States. It took me six years to find a job in that field — and then I was laid off last spring.

Since so many Swedes speak better English than us native English speakers, companies will hire the Swede over the expat. That said, even without Swedish, expats who have good IT skills, a university education and are young may find more doors open to them in this market than someone of my background.

Since we live in Malmö, I’ve now extended my search across the Øresund Bridge, to Copenhagen, Denmark. The job market is better over there.

In March of this year you’ll have been in Sweden for eight years. When have you felt the most displaced?
When I first started learning Swedish — and was facing all the challenges that come with learning a new language. For a long time, I didn’t understand anything people were saying around me. And even now, after almost eight years of living here, I don’t feel like myself when attempting to speak the language.

When have you felt the least displaced?
When I became a citizen and went to the lunch for new immigrants, where I was given an official certificate saying that I’m SWEDISH!

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from the country where you’ve lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
Difficult… From Sweden I think I would bring this little book of Swedish verbs that I carry around since I always get the verb form wrong! 😉 From California — well, it’s impossible to pick just one thing as there’s so much of everything!

You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?

I’ll make you a casual dinner of pyttipanna, similar to bubble and squeak in the UK. It’s a dish made with fried potatoes, onions, and bell peppers. Sometimes you eat it with a fried egg. Most people put ketchup on it.

As you’re such a diligent student of the Swedish language, can you donate a Swedish word or expression to the Displaced Nation’s argot?
Actually, I’ll lend you two:
1) Fika — it refers to a taking a break with a coffee and an open-face sandwich or pastry. Most Swedish people have it once or twice a day. I think you would enjoy it.
2) Farthinder — that means speed bump. I love this word. It makes me laugh every time I see a signpost for one.

This month, we’ve been focusing on the need for mentors: people who teach us what we need to know, or remind us of things we have buried deep. Have you found discovered any new mentors, whether physically present or not, in your life abroad?
I have met people along the way that I would never have been friendly with in my old life in California. Living abroad has given me a new appreciation for people from other cultures whom I’ve gotten to know by having dinner with their families or joining in their celebrations. For instance, I have a friend from Iraq who has been wonderful to me when I was really struggling to fit in and get Sweden. She moved to Sweden with her kids in the 1990s.

If you had all the money and time in the world, what topic(s) would you choose to study in your adopted country?
Well, I’m already studying Swedish, but assuming I were fluent, I would study the history of Scandinavia. I would particularly like to learn more about the people who have come from other places to live in Sweden. How do they adjust to the life here? I love my adopted country but still find it a culture shock in many ways!

Which part of the culture is still shocking?
To be honest, I think it’s the Swedes themselves. Most Swedes are very reserved and it’s hard to befriend them. People don’t talk to each other on the bus or in shops. As a American I have always been very friendly and will chat up a stranger. But now I very rarely do it.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Maggie Eriksson into The Displaced Nation? True, she and her Swedish hubbie have a special chemistry, which must help to alleviate the symptoms of displacement — but could she have picked a more different place to live from California? Doubtful… (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Maggie — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s thought-provoking guest post by Andy Martin, comparing the forcibly displaced to those of us who’ve made the choice to be displaced.

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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Img: Maggie Eriksson outside her flat in Malmö, Sweden (October 2012).

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