The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: New Zealand

For this global nomad, botany buff and blossoming novelist, a picture says…

Cinda 1000 Words CollageWelcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is Cinda MacKinnon, an American who grew up overseas and is the author of an award-winning novel set in one of her former homes, Colombia. Called A Place in the World, the book was featured almost exactly a year ago on the Displaced Nation.

Cinda shoots mainly “macro” (extremely close up) pictures, a habit she developed because of her interest in nature and plants—especially wildflowers. A writer, former university lecturer, and environmental scientist, Cinda is trained in geology and has also nurtured a life-long passion for botany. It’s telling that the protagonist of her novel is a botanist!

Cinda enjoys hunting down rare plants and taking photos that show their minute details, such as the number of anthers (the part of the stamen that contains pollen), so that botanists will be able to identify them.

She now lives in northern California, where the California Native Plant Society has become a fan of her photos and sometimes asks her to supply a few of them for their newsletters and exhibits. Who knew?

* * *

Hi, Cinda. Welcome back to the Displaced Nation. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to discuss your photo-travel experiences. When I first started following your blog, I assumed you were a writer—but then was delighted to discover that you’ve also taken some excellent photos. I know you’ve already been over some of this ground in your interview with ML Awanohara, but can you tell me where you were born and when you spread your wings to start traveling on your own?
I was born on an Air Force base in Louisiana, but lived there only a week. My dad was already stationed in Greece, and my mother followed him as soon as she was able to travel. I lived in Greece and Germany as a pre-schooler and then in Colombia when my father changed his job and began working as a military attaché for U.S. embassies. Having fallen in love with Latin America, my parents retired in Costa Rica when I was in seventh grade so, happily, I was able to stay in that part of the world through high school…and beyond. After college in the United States, I moved to New Zealand with my husband (back then, they told us we had to get married to immigrate together!). We came to California when he finished his PhD. And here we’ve been ever since, although I view that move to California—I was in my thirties—as the first time I actually lived in the States. Even though my passport said I was a citizen, it has taken me a while to feel like I belong here.

You have been an expat almost since birth—what is known as a Third Culture Kid. Would you say that your wanderlust comes from your nomadic upbringing?
Once I grew up, I wanted to see more of Latin America and as a young family we could do that cheaply. Next I visited Europe to see some of the places I’d lived with my parents, but like so many others ended up falling in love with Italy and France. I think language had as much to do with it as the culture and people. Growing up speaking Spanish, it was fairly easy for me to be understood in Italian, and I found French so beautiful that I have become a perennial student. Recently, my husband and I explored Central Europe along the Danube River, from southern Germany to Budapest. That splendid trip provided fodder for at least five blog posts.

Mais oui. I have always loved the French language, too. Where exactly do you live in northern California?
We live in a semi-rural area nestled in the hills and yet are only 30 minutes from San Francisco—an unusual situation due to geography, which insures our immediate surroundings will never be developed.

“Are not flowers the stars of the earth…”—A.J. Balfour 

And now let’s have a look at a few of your shots that capture favorite memories. Can you tell us the story behind each of them, what makes them so special?
This is one of the first wildflowers I photographed and is still a great favorite of mine: a shooting star, or Dodecatheon clevelandii:

Dodecatheon clevelandii, aka shooting star. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnonn.

Dodecatheon clevelandii, aka shooting star. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnonn.

The next photo is of the odd-looking Tiburon Lily, Calochortus tiburonensis, which blooms only a few weeks a year and is quite rare; it evolved on serpentine soils, which gives rise to unusual plants that can tolerate this somewhat toxic chemistry. Indeed, you can find this little lily in only one place: on Ring Mountain (a single hill really), north of San Francisco:

Calochortus tiburonensis. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Calochortus tiburonensis, found only on Ring Mountain. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Another peculiar wildflower is C. tolmiei, nicknamed “pussy ears”. It is challenging to capture the tiny hairs and other features as it is barely 2.5 cm across—plus it tends to grow on coastal slopes where the wind wreaks havoc with your focus!
Calochortus tolmiei, aka pussy ears. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Calochortus tolmiei, aka pussy ears. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


I’ve taken quite a few photos of wild flowers without having a clue what their names were. I’m getting a real lesson in flora here. Thank you, Cinda. I can see why they call botany the “science of beauty.”

“I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”—Claude Monet

I know you have photos of scenery, too, and these next four, I believe, have a special significance for you.
I mentioned I am a bit of a Francophile and a favorite region of mine is the Dordogne Valley. This is a place with history, from Richard the Lionheart to Joan of Arc; pre-history (the Cro-Magnon cave paintings); and beauty. I talked my husband into renting a canoe and we paddled down the Dordogne River, past castles, ancient bridges and towns. This photo with the medieval Château de Castelnaud in the background is a memento of that glorious day:

Canoeing on the Dordogne in glorious weather. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Canoe with a view, la rivière Dordogne. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Next, I’d like to show you a photo of a very different place, in California. Actually, I can give you a choice of two: would you rather see the California desert before a rain storm or one of Arvin, a city in southern California? Arvin is interesting because it’s set in hilly grassland that half of the year is dry and dormant but explodes into wildflowers in the spring (if the winter is wet). What’s your pleasure?

Can I have both?
Mais oui! Here’s the Sierras:

The stormy Sierras. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

The stormy Sierras. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


And now for Arvin in all of its glory:
A profusion of wildflowers in Arvin. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

A profusion of wildflowers in Arvin. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Both photos are so lovely! That’s why I decided to give you this bonus. But if I really was forced to choose, the desert before the rain is so dramatic. I think you should turn it into a photo-painting using Topaz Adjust or Impression. What’s your last shot?
Another California landscape I’m fond of is Monterey County. When I was a teenager, I read all of John Steinbeck’s novels, never dreaming I would live in California much less end up working in the Salinas Valley as a hydro-geologist for several years. On arriving I felt as though I’d been there before. The town of Monterey itself has become a tourist attraction, but if you go out into the countryside there are still scenes like this one, with the adobe house on the hill:

An enchanted realm near Monterey, California. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

An enchanted realm near Monterey, California. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Please God, don’t let them turn it into another orchard or development!

Here here! I noticed you haven’t included any photos of people. Do you feel reserved about taking photos of strangers?
Yes , and I don’t like portraits to look overly posed. So first I try to take photos surreptitiously. If that’s not possible, I try to be respectful by asking if it’s okay– preferably in their own language. No matter where I travel, I learn some basic phrases in the language of the country (Hungarian was the hardest so far!), but I’ve found that “okay?” seems to be a universal word.

You are right: “okay” seems to have been adopted by most of the planet, though it’s origins are unclear. One theory is that it was derived from a shorthand way foreign-born Americans in the 1830s developed for writing “all correct”—only they’d spelled it “korrect”!

“I will touch a hundred flowers/And not pick one.”–Edna St. Vincent Millay

What motivates you to record what you see through photographs? Is it the ability to capture something unique, which will never be seen again?
Hmmm… I barely think of myself as a photographer; it is one of several hobbies! But certainly, what you say is true of fleeting blooms, and photos do help to preserve memories of wonderful places, whose beauty could vanish. But I think what really led me to photography was my interest in plant nomenclature. I like to block out weeks of time every year to hike in hills, valleys and deserts and search for rare blooms. It is a bit of a treasure hunt, and my photos of evidence of the riches I uncover.

Your modesty is charming, but I think you definitely have an artist’s eye and many of your photographs could be transformed into beautiful pictures with a little more post processing. Which leads me to the technical stuff. Some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use, and how you handle post-processing.
I use a Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR with a macro lens when I am looking for wildflowers in the spring. But for traveling I’ve started to just put my trusty Canon PowerShot in my pocket. I usually use Photoshop for post-processing, but as you’ve pointed out, I’m not adept at all the advanced features. I use “auto” first, and that is generally all I need, except I often crop a shot and, if needed, adjust the lightning or clean up stray blemishes.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
It is not the equipment—it is in the eye. Some of my better pictures were taken with a point and shoot. I asked a professional photographer friend if he thought I should buy some filters or another lens, and he said his best shots are sometimes with his cell phone! I guess the motto is “be prepared” for something that catches your eye—be ready for the special moment when the light is right. Make sure your subject doesn’t appear to have an antenna sprouting out of his head at that moment. Don’t use the “sharpen” feature for portraits as it accentuates flaws (unless you want that for character) and can give a severe look. And don’t make your friends look at 200 mediocre photos of your vacation—please cull out the unappealing or out-of-focus ones! (My rule of thumb for talks is 1 to 1.5 slides per minute—that’s 60 to 90 per hour—nobody wants to see more than that.)

Very succinct and good advice, Cinda—right up my street. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your fascinating story in this interview.

* * *

front-cover-place-in-worldReaders, what do you make of Cinda’s close-up photos of exotic plants and her photography advice? I find it curious that she writes about people looking for their place in the world, yet is obsessed with the kinds of flowers that bloom where they are planted. As Georgia O’Keefe once put it:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.”

Please leave any questions or comments for Cinda in the comments!

Meanwhile, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards for more of her botany photos. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page. And don’t forget to read her book if you haven’t done so yet, many glowing reviews for which can be found here.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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And the July 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors July’s four Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) STEVE LUNT, British barrister and expat in the Far East (first Hong Kong and now the Philippines)

For his post: “My invitation to paradise was printed on a T-shirt,” on Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 25 July 2014
Snippet:

The tidal rhythms of island life seem to suit the mind and body. After a week in Boracay, you might forget that other world, where you have to strive more, earn more and worry more.

Small wonder then that so many expats forget to leave.

Citation: First off, Mr. Lunt QC, we’d like to pass judgement on this little adventure of yours. Let’s see. According to your testimony, you were having a “chilly winter” in Hong Kong when you happened to notice someone wearing a T-shirt promoting Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination. It read:

Quit your job. Buy a ticket. Fall in love. Stay forever …

—and you decided to do just that. Now, does the defendant plead guilty or not guilty of barmy behavior? Off with your head… (Sorry, this is the first chance we’ve had to use that line in an Alice citation, and we simply couldn’t resist.) Moving right along to your observation about expats who are guilty of staying forever: we note that in your own case, you left the white sands of Boracay for the bright lights of Manila after 10 months. While this is a healthy sign, the jury is still out on your long-term intentions. All we can say is that forgetfulness is surprisingly common among us displaced types. Take Alice for instance. After stepping through the looking-glass, she enters the wood where things have no names and immediately forgets her own name:

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

Suffice it to say that the moment you hear a Palawan Bearded Pig cry out, “I’m a Palawan Bearded Pig! and dear me! You’re an English barrister!”, it will be time to get the heck out of there. We rest our case.

2) LUCILLE CELANO, indie author and New Zealander in New Caledonia

For her post: The downsides of living in a Pacific paradise on Stuff.co.nz
Posted on: 15 July 2014
Snippet:

International contracts in mining and development bring in [to New Caledonia] entire families who must cope with a life not their own. Kids are thrown into school wondering what planet they’ve arrived on. No allowances are made for these children in the local system and the French syllabus of reading, writing and mathematics (and nothing else) seems alien to parents used to school rooms full of colour and creativity.

Citation: Lucille, we’ve long suspected that Paradise has many downsides, so thank you for writing this post. But, as to this business of expat children receiving a French-style education, are you sure that’s not an upside? Maybe we’ve been drinking the Pamela Druckerman Koolaid for too long (has her book, Bringing Up Bébé, reached New Caledonia yet?), but Drukerman, an American expat in Paris, pretty much has us persuaded that if your bébé isn’t doing well in school, it’s a sign of bad parenting. According to Druckerman, the French have a knack for getting the balance right between good parenting and good teaching, the evidence being the kids themselves. French kids are much better behaved than—while also being just as boisterous, curious and creative as—kids elsewhere. That said, it sounds as though you’ve got enough toxic matter in the air from that nickel smelter, and we wouldn’t want Druckerman’s thesis to add any more. The way things are going with that New Calendonian expat crowd, we predict it won’t be long before a Mock Turtle stands up and says he’s had the “best of educations,” far superior to anyone else’s in the room. And just think, if said Mock Turtle held sway, all expat offspring would be forced to study the “different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” On the other hand, his idea of classes taking place in the sea might have a certain appeal. Isn’t New Caledonia one of THE diving spots in the South Pacific? Yes, yes, we know it’s no paradise, or if it is, it’s a paradise with flaws. Actually, now that you’ve gotten us thinking about French-style learning, we’re remembering a line of Victor Hugo’s that you may wish to use on the expat crowd, next time things get on your nerves:

An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.

3) BARNABY EALES, freelance journalist and director of a translation service, former expat but now living in East Sussex, UK

For his post: A return to my beautiful, mad school in Paris, on Telegraph Expat
Posted on: 7 July 2014
Snippet:

Madame Boulic, the mother of my second host French family, dropped me off at the [British School of Paris]’s anniversary party and reunion. To her amusement, a banner at the entrance to the school read: “We are all mad here.”

Ahead of the evening BBQ party, the theme of the summer fête was Alice in Wonderland, and in the cultural sense, living in this part of France is all about being in wonderland: exposed to French culture and language while receiving a British education. An outsider within.

Citation: Barnaby, thank you for sharing this charming story of your misspent youth at a school for (predominantly, at the time you went there) British expats in France. And we’re head over heels for the idea of an Alice-themed summer fête being thrown by such a displaced institution. In our book, that’s calling a spade a spade, or should we say, a heart a heart? We have just one item in need of clarification, though, after reading your post. You mention beer and Jägermeister being enjoyed. But what about wine? We are recalling, of course, this exchange between Alice and the March Hare:

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

That would not be terribly civil, to use Alice’s word, especially in light of the growing numbers of French students at BSP. À la vôtre!

4) EMMA THIEME, fifth-generation Maine girl living off-the-grid in Washington County, Matador Network contributor and MatadorU faculty member

For her post: The First Time I Felt Independence, on Matador Network
Posted on: 4 July 2014
Snippet:

I wish I could say that this worry gene didn’t pass on to me, but I too have felt myself hugging a loved one too tightly when saying goodbye. I’ve saved countless voicemails as if they were soon-to-be artifacts. I’ve even gone so far as imagining the minute details of myself, distraught, at a funeral. What would I wear? Who would bring me? How soon would I return to work?

Citation: Listen, Emma, “worry” is Alice in Wonderland’s middle name! Honestly, has there ever been a bigger fretter in the history of English literature? Don’t even think about competing with her. But the nice thing about Alice, and we suspect you have this gene as well, is that despite her aversion to nasty predicaments, she handles them with aplomb. How about the time when she eats the cookie in the White Rabbit’s house and grows to the point where her arms and legs are sticking out the windows and doors, yet still has the presence of mind to conduct a little conversation with her extremities:

“Good-bye, feet!” (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off). “Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I shan’t be able! I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can;—but I must be kind to them,’ thought Alice, “or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go!”

And, while we don’t wish to be too literal, perhaps your worrying nature has kept your feet, which are clearly itching to travel and have adventures, from fulfilling their true potential. Had you thought of talking to your feet, as Alice does, and reassuring them of your intention to let them lead the way? We feel certain they appreciated your outburst at the Denver airport: “Wow, I’m alive!” (Hmmm…and now that you’re a domestic expat, having moved from Maine to Washington State, are they getting ideas about moving abroad? It would not surprise us.)

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly 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!

Related posts:

And the June 2014 Alices go to … these 4 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, the Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not, listen up. (Hey, why aren’t you? Off with your head!)

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors June’s four Alice recipients. They are (drumroll…):

1) ANDREW CREELMAN, British expat in São Paulo, blogger and author of the memoir Trying to Understand Brazilian Culture

For his post: What It’s Like to Watch World Cup Games on the Streets of São Paulo, on his blog, What About São Paulo?
Posted on: 19 June 2014
Snippet:

Watching England vs Italy
The day I’d been waiting for had arrived! I’d managed to recruit a Dane, an American and a couple of Brazilians to support England with me, and we all headed over to the Fan fest area just in time for the English national anthem. I belted this out with gusto, and I noticed I wasn’t alone; there were at least 100 other Brits I could almost hear singing too.

Then the Italian anthem started, and things took an unexpected turn. It was as if EVERYONE else was singing along to this, waving their Italian flags. But then São Paulo is home to a huge number of Brazilians of Italian descent, and for some reason, I hadn’t even thought about this before arriving. To make things worse, there was a group of big, burly Italians stood by us, clearly very passionate about this song and the team.

Citation: Andrew, we’re surprised you didn’t perfect your capoeira kicks before venturing into the FIFA Fan Fest area of São Paulo to watch England play Italy. But it seems you were that clueless. Your story in fact puts us in mind of Alice when she was handed a flamingo and gopher and told to play croquet. She was “in such confusion that she never knew whether it was her turn or not.” Likewise, we note that you were jumping up and down when you imagined England had scored a goal when in fact the ball had hit the outside of the net. Still, it’s a good thing you were mistaken or else those “big, burly” Brazilians of Italian descent might have screamed “Off with his head!”. As it was, their smirks must have made you feel a right wally. Welcome to the Fédération Internationale de Alice (FIA). And, yes, it’s time to invest in the Brazilian equivalent of Spec Savers.

2) CLAIRE BOLDEN MCGILL, British expat in Maryland and blogger at UKDesperateHousewifeUSA

For her post: Brazil 2014: The World Cup Widow’s Guide to Surviving It Stateside, to Lawrence Brown’s blog, Lost in the Pond
Posted on: 12 June 2014
Snippet:

List of activities for making World Cup widowhood fun

3. Buy a big hat and pretend you’re a rich British aristocrat. There is no other reason to do this, other than it’s something fun to do when the game is on.

Really go to town on the British accent. Order or make tea and be all lah-dee-dah, and poo-poo lemon and sweetener, get a proper milk jug and dunk in a Custard Cream. Keep being posh and drink tea and say posh British things during the game.

Citation: Love it, love it, love it, Claire! Only can we make just one wee suggestion, that while outfitted in this rather outlandish garb, you borrow a line from the March Hare and say to your husband, very earnestly: “Take some more tea.” Then when he says he hasn’t had any tea yet so can hardly take more, you can say:

“You mean you can’t take LESS. It’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.”

Just think, he may look away from the screen for an instant, wondering whether you’ve gone totally barking. Mmmmm… Okay, probably not. Still, a Mad Hatter Tea Party would be marginally more entertaining than playing World Cup bingo with yourself (No 6).

3) JANE DEAN, blogger, editor, writer; English-born global resident (but currently in the Netherlands)

For her post: The Non-Expat Expat: Not Fitting The Box to her blog, Wordgeyser
Posted on: 28 May 2014
Snippet:

Today we have no concept of “home” in a geographic sense. This used to worry me and I know it caused consternation for our families that we no longer felt, or identified ourselves as, “British”. I used to feel wholly American, now not so much. I find I can’t identify with any given nationality, but am most comfortable surrounded by people like me, who are from everywhere.

Citation: Jane, at a time when America is about to celebrate its independence from Britain, we find it refreshing to encounter your “nothing is permanent, not even nationality” perspective. British one day and “wholly American” the next—it’s a pivot that can only be rivaled by the German football players on Team USA. What’s more, it’s impressive that you’ve renounced expat-hood as an alternative identity. We, too, have never identified with the expat label and, upon reading your post, suddenly understood why: it’s because we’ve all been “local” (only one of us has had an expat package, in Japan). Like you, we would advise others who feel they are “from everywhere” not to spend too much time on the Alice-in-Wonderland puzzle of “Who in the world am I?” The sooner one can get over the feeling of having arms and feet poking out of the windows and doors of the White Rabbit’s house—or, as you would put it, Jane, “not fitting the box”—the better. To echo your words: “The worst disasters make the best stories down the years.”

4) BRITTANY JORDT, diehard Wisconsinite, “almost expat” in New Zealand and travel blogger

For her post: Reflections on a year and a half abroad, from an almost expat on her blog, Today I’m 20-Something
Posted on: 13 May 2014
Snippet:

Which brings me to my point: anyone who tells you they don’t miss home is either lying or doesn’t have a home worth missing. In the first case, you can hardly blame a person for denying how much they long for the land of their birth, especially when (as is often the case) it’s not feasible to go back. The second scenario is one I don’t envy, even if the homesickness sometimes drags me down.

Citation: Well said, Brittany! Listen, a rainy day in Auckland, the kind that makes you wear socks with your slippers and huddle around the propane heater, would bring out the homesick in anyone, even those of us who don’t have homes worth missing. But your point is well taken. You’re not in Wisconsin any more. To return to Alice (don’t you imagine she and Dorothy would be friends?), a person who is living abroad, particularly on the other side of the world, in the Land of Feijoas no less, would be lying if they didn’t occasionally admit to having a moment like this:

“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

We also love that you refer to yourself as an “almost expat—a person who still feels the tug of home on her heart”. It’s the perfect way to describe the existential ambivalence that goes hand in hand with a life of displacement, that persistent feeling of: “There’s no place like home…There’s no place…” Is it any wonder that the Kiwi granny thought you were a keeper? 🙂

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly 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!

Related posts:

HERE BE DRAGONS: Dreaming up a landscape from your world travels for a work of fantasy

HBD Landscape CollageWelcome to the second post in our new series, HERE BE DRAGONS, in which fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany, brings our attention to the connection between fantasy writing and a life of international travel and residency. In the series opener, he pointed out how expat life in all of its glorious strangeness can be a feed for the fantasy writer’s imagination. And today? He talks about how one’s travels can inspire other-worldly landscapes.

—ML Awanohara

Many people think that fantasy is a genre set apart, but fantasy stories, like those in any other genre, center on compelling characters and the struggles they face. As epic fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss once said:

If you want to write a fantasy story with Norse gods, sentient robots, and telepathic dinosaurs, you can do just that. Want to throw in a vampire and a lesbian unicorn while you’re at it? Go ahead. Nothing’s off limits. But the endless possibility of the genre is a trap. It’s easy to get distracted by the glittering props available to you and forget what you’re supposed to be doing: telling a good story.

Yet clearly there are some elements that set fantasy writing apart, and today I want to talk about one of them: landscapes. By “landscapes” I of course refer to the great swaths of nature not created by man. Often in fantasy writing, they are more than just a backdrop—they represent the force of primal nature that must be appeased or overcome. A landscape can also inform how a society is built and what drives it. (I will devote some time to urban-scapes and architecture in future posts.)

Obviously, setting plays a major part in other genres—see the works featured by JJ Marsh in her Location, Locution column—but I would argue that in fantasy writing, a great deal of time should be devoted to conjuring up a physical landscape for your make-believe world. Tolkien understood this very well. The Lord of the Rings would not have the same impact without those soaring mountain ranges.

“What are men to rocks and mountains?” —Jane Austen

Speaking of Lord of the Rings: After joining my wife in New Zealand during her round-the-world trip some years ago, I suddenly understood why Peter Jackson filmed his Lord of the Rings series in his native land. (Older TV series such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Disney’s Hercules were likewise filmed in New Zealand.) The landscape is so varied, so grand and… well…conducive to fantasy! I don’t know which portions of the Rings movies were filmed where, but I certainly had some ideas on our day through Fiordland National Park, which occupies the South Island’s southwest corner. This is the park surrounding Milford Sound, considered to be one of the world’s top travel destinations.

Due to my fear of flying, I never imagined I would make it as far as New Zealand (literally, half a world away)—but I’m so glad I did. After stopping in Queenstown, we took an overnight bus trip out to Milford Sound. Our bus was glass topped—our first hint of the wonders to come. Between Queenstown and the park entrance are lakes and rolling hills—pretty enough; but once you hit the edge of the park, the scenery becomes much more fantastic. We entered a dense beech forest that evoked visions of natural spirits. Then, after traversing the three valleys toward Milford, we caught sight of the mountains.

How to describe those mountains, which the early Queenstown settlers nicknamed The Remarkables? The human mind tries to makes sense of new experiences based on information it has already collected. For instance, we compare a new food to something we’ve already eaten or a a new piece of technology to X on steroids. But the mountains in Fiordland did not really compare to anything I’d seen before. Those I’d seen before were big, but somehow these were even bigger, and more awe-inspiring.

Sitting at the top of the Homer Tunnel gazing down into the valley, I could readily imagine ten thousand orcs (mythical humanoid creatures, the idea for which was developed by Tolkien) rushing up to besiege our bus of a dozen tourists.

We were surrounded on three sides by enormous sheer rock faces with what looked like trickles of water flowing down them, about a handspan wide. But then our guide informed us that these streams were a meter wide, which meant the mountains were not as close as I’d thought: they were a couple of miles away. So much bigger than I’d imagined! Um…my vision of ten thousand orcs began to seem rather pitiful.

Steam-powered dreams

Queenstown is in Otago, a region that opened up after gold was struck in the 1860s. This led to an influx of foreign miners, many of whom were goldrush veterans.

So while the landscape before me conjured up the feeling of Middle-earth, the setting for most of Tolkien’s fantasy writings, in reality most of the region’s early settlers were part of the Steam Age.

QueenOfCloudPirates_coverI didn’t consciously think about it during our tour, but now that I’m writing a series of fantasy novellas, Crossing the Dropline, I can see that my impressions of the mountains, along with my thoughts about the steam era, have fed into my imaginative process. For instance, Cloud Rock is a precious resource in the story. It powers flight and comes from only one region, called Beyond the Dropline, a harsh landscape that is both protected and contested by different groups. So the challenge becomes: can the power of Cloud Rock be harnessed outside of the Dropline?

South of the Dropline, raw ore [Cloud Rock] no longer had as much power. The real breakthrough of rotor technology was how to use it outside of the ranges. Natives had been floating with ore for centuries before the league explorers brought a sample back and engineers developed a way of refining and attuning it to the energy of Air in the rest of the world. That was only thirty years ago and hailed as the advent of powered flight. From that point on the Iron League had controlled the skies and had grown in influence. They had shifted from sea vessels to airships and proceeded to grow their trade empire around the Circle Sea and over the mountains into the west. Lors had heard on the news that the other nations were growing uncomfortable, but the news man had reassured them that the League diplomacy corps had everything under control.

At the mercy of nature

Nature is sometimes a primal force that characters in a fantasy story must overcome. My wife and I had perfect weather on our trip through Fiordland, but it was not hard to imagine a torrential storm ricocheting off the mountains and threatening to wash us over a steep cliff. In my novella series, the characters have to contend with not only human antagonists but with mountains that float in the sky:

He could see the front of the dark clouds out beyond the floating mountain peaks. An ever churning mass of dark clouds stacked into a formidable wall moving slowly away from them. Then another flash lit the sky and Lors saw what Arnhelm had been watching.

On top of the massive wall of clouds strode the figure of a bearded man. He loomed the size of one of the tall steel buildings in downtown Ironholme and was wrapped in a robe made of the clouds. He shone with a pale white light. Every step he took on the clouds caused sparks to ripple out and illuminate the sky.

“Storm giant,” Jason said from next to Lors. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

The first book only hints at it, but soon the spirits of the howling North will try to tempt the characters. They will become more present as the series develops.

* * *

I made the trip to Fjordland years before I started writing novellas, but the memory of those mountains continues to haunt—and inspire—me.

How about you? Do you have a landscape in mind you think will affect your writing one day, or perhaps already has? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you’ve been fantasizing about particular topics, let me know, and I’ll attempt to stretch my imagination to discuss in a future post.

Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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For TCK writer Cinda MacKinnon, fiction is a way to revisit “homes” she has cherished

Cinda MacKinnon CollageWhen I first returned to the United States after my extended expat journey, I remember humming to myself:

There’s a place for me,
Somewhere a place for me.

But then last month, when I went to see our monthly columnist Elizabeth Liang perform her one-woman show, Alien Citizen, I realized that my displacement, which took place as an adult, does not compare to that of Third Culture Kids. Most expats have been global residents by choice, whereas TCKs had no choice in being dragged around the globe by their parents. They and they alone have earned the epithet of “global nomad”.

Elizabeth has found a place for herself in theatrical circles. And today we talk to another adult TCK, Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon, who has found a place in fiction writers’ groups. Based on the first novel she produced, tellingly entitled A Place in the World, it seems fair to say that Cinda thrives on creating fictional characters whose lives resemble her own in some way, and then placing them in a part of the world where she has fond memories of spending some portion of her formative years, as a TCK.

In brief, A Place in the World centers around a young American woman named Alicia, who marries a Colombian and goes to live on his family’s remote coffee finca in the “cloud” forests of the Andes Mountains. Calamities strike one after another and Alicia ends up running the finca alone.

According to the book description, A Place in the World is a romantic adventure story, with a multicultural cast of characters, in the same vein as Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa.

Unlike Dineson’s work, however, it is not a memoir. Cinda may have loved her time in Colombia, but she didn’t marry a Colombian. And though she always wanted to be a biologist, she became an environmental scientist instead.

Well, enough from me. Let’s find out more about Cinda, why she wrote the book, and the book-writing process. And don’t forget to comment at the end of the interview! As Cinda has agreed to be this month’s featured author, we will be giving away ONE FREE E-COPY of her book to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!

* * *

APlaceintheWorld_coverCinda, pura vida. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning: what made you decide to write a novel about an American woman who lives in the cloud forests of Colombia?
Well, like all writers the story was simply in my head. Contrary to what I’d been told to do, I wrote for myself, without the idea of publishing—at least when I first got started. But I guess there were also some motivating factors. As you mentioned, I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. My family lived in Greece, Germany, Colombia, and Costa Rica because my father was in the United States Air Force and then worked as an attaché to American embassies. I spent my formative years—and by far the longest time—in Colombia and Costa Rica. I wanted to be a rainforest biologist. That didn’t happen, but I’ve been able to live this dream through my protagonist, Alicia. Writing the book gave me an excuse to visit and study tropical nature in several places.

What impact did writing about the experience have on you overall—did it help you process what you’d been through as a TCK?
I love Latin America—the setting and culture are comfortable to me. The book gave me a chance to write about the people in that part of the world who were enormously kind to me. Growing up as a girl without a country, I came “home” for the first time to the States for college and felt totally out of place. Writing gave expression to some of this unanticipated culture shock.

What kinds of books have influenced you as a writer?
When I look at my Goodreads list of top 40 favorite books I see there is a definite multicultural theme: 30 are set in other countries, written by foreign authors or about expats. A few eclectic examples:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Crime and Punishment, by F. Dostoyevsky
  • Zorba the Greek, by N. Kazantzakis
  • Tortilla Curtain, by T.C  Boyle
  • Small Kingdoms, by A. Hobbet
  • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by J. Alvarez
  • Eva Luna, by I. Allende
  • Caravans and Hawaii, by James Michener
  • The Thorn Birds, by C. McCullough
  • Pillars of the Earth, by K. Follett;
  • The Paris Wife, P. McLain;
  • Lost in Translation (different from the movie), by N. Mones
  • Dreaming in Cuban, by C. Garcia.

A fish out of water…

As you know, we like to talk about “displacement” on this site. When you were growing up as a TCK, what was your most displaced moment?
When I was working in New Zealand as a young adult. I’d lived in four or five different countries and could make myself understood in several languages so wasn’t expecting that to be a problem in NZ. I remember being with a colleague trying to order a milkshake, and the lady behind the counter asked me to repeat myself. “A chocolate milkshake, please,” I said as clearly as I could. She looked at me blankly and said, “Say it one more time dear, I’m trying very hard to understand you, but your accent is so thick.” As we left the shop, I told my work mate, “I don’t know what I got, but it sure isn’t chocolate!” Alistair smiled and replied, “I thought you asked for ‘banahnah’”!  Go figure!

Yes, having been to New Zealand, I can kind of imagine that! What was your least displaced moment, when you felt that the peripatetic life suited you, and you were at “home”?
As an eighth grader arriving in Costa Rica from Colombia. My first week I was accepted as part of the class and invited to a party. I spoke Spanish and felt I fit in. Costa Ricans are a hospitable people, but I think I was also especially lucky to have been in that particular class. They were—and are—an exceptionally nice group of people; they still meet every month or so for dinner, and any classmate who happens to be in town is invited to drop in. I found life in Costa Rica to be nurturing.

You mentioned the counter culture shock you experienced when coming back to America for college. What was the biggest challenge you faced at that moment?
Well, it wasn’t one thing but all the little things: I was dressed “wrong”, didn’t know the music, had never been to a football game… I just really felt like a fish out of water and wanted to go back to Costa Rica—so, after a couple years, I did! (For a while…)

Clearing the writing & publishing hurdles

Moving on to A Place in the World: what was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Beginnings are the most difficult for me, as well as writing synopses for agents and publishers. In general, however, the answer is: time. Finding time to write while I was still working; finding time to meet my indispensable writing critique group; and once edited and published, finding time to speak at bookstores, do interviews, and write posts for my own blog!

What was your path to publishing?
Like any previously unpublished author, I had a difficult time. I had one agent hold onto my novel for six months as we discussed strategies and then (with the downturn in the markets) told me they had decided not to handle unpublished writers anymore. This has become a mantra with traditional publishers. (J.K. Rowlings was turned down dozens of times before finding a publisher for Harry Potter.) After a couple of years (during which time I was polishing the manuscript with my critique group), I decided to “indie” publish. There is a range of providers between traditional publisher and self publishing; and my publisher, VirtualBookworm, is one of those in the middle. I paid for my own editor (she was great—an expat who married a Latino) and a very small fee towards printing; but I get a bigger percentage per book than with a big publisher. I’ve been happy with all the support they have given me and would do it again.

What audience did you intend for the book? Has it been reaching those people?  Can other kinds of expats, who haven’t lived in Latin America, relate to Alicia’s story as well?
I think of it as “mainstream” fiction that will appeal to anyone who likes to read about other places and cultures; but yes, it has been popular with expats. I rather thought that alumni from the overseas schools I went to would be interested, and that has been the case. I’m heartened and amazed at the support and e-mails I’ve received from adults of all ages.

Are you working on any other writing projects?
Yes (she says hesitantly). Hesitantly because, as you might guess from what I’ve already told you, I’m working pretty much FT—and finding time for creative writing is harder than usual! I do have several ideas that I’ve started: one set in Hawaii, another in Costa Rica, and a third in Europe. This last might be of interest to your followers, as it will be about a group of kids in an international school in Switzerland written from the point of view several different characters, taking their experiences into adulthood. And then my writers group thinks I should do a memoir. So I don’t know which of these schemes will “win”, but I intend to set priorities before the New Year.

10 Questions for Cinda MacKinnon

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, comes to mind, but how great is great? I could go back to Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis.
2. Favorite literary genre: Literary and mainstream—especially multicultural or historical.

3. Reading habits on a plane: Anything—even the airline magazine in a pinch, but I usually take my Kindle with a good novel. Also, planes provide great down time to write!

4. Book(s) you would recommend to other TCKs, expats: Other than my “multicultural” fiction list above, it would be two books: Tales of Wonder, a fascinating autobiography about growing up in China almost a century ago, by Huston Smith; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself—Bill Bryson’s funny take on coming home after years abroad.

5. Favorite books as a child: Fairy Tales, by Brothers Grimm. When I was a little older, the Nancy Drew mysteries and I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to my little brother.
6. Favorite heroine: In fiction: Nancy Drew? In real life: There are too many to choose just one.

7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck.
8. Your reading habits: I take a break every afternoon and I get a little reading in, and then my husband and I always read before turning out the light.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A Place in the World! Seriously, two fans have suggested this and I love the idea. I visualize the opening as the cloud forest seen from the air and then zooming in to the tiled roof house with the veranda and bougainvillea. (This is actually a possibility! A colleague of mine is a script writer and mentioned that it would make a good movie.)
10. The book you plan to read next:  I just started Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Then I’ll probably read The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, or Cristina García’s new novel, King of Cuba.

* * *

Thanks, Cinda! Though I’ve never been to Colombia, I find myself enamoured of the idea of finding a place for myself in a cloud forest. It’s actually an apt metaphor for how many of us “displaced” types live: with our heads in the clouds, pretending we are somewhere else half the time.

Readers, how about you? Is your head in the cloud (forest) after listening to Cinda? BTW, if you’re as new to Colombian cloud forests as I am, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page.

And don’t forget to comment on this post! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 2, 2013.

NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book, you can always get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on Smashwords or Amazon.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when monthly columnist JJ Marsh talks “location, locution” with best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.

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 (left to right): Valle de Cocora in Columbia, with wax palms towering over the cloud forest, courtesy McKay Savage on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0); Cinda MacKinnon as a child in Colombia; Cinda MacKinnon now (she lives in northern California); and Cinda with her husband in front of Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city center of Bogotá, Colombia, taken just this past summer.

6 Alice-in-Wonderland themes for creatives abroad to explore in their works

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

Call us zany, but when we first started this site two years ago, someone (no, not me!) had the bright idea of picking a literary or historical figure and using that person as a source of inspiration for a month-long series of posts.

June 2011, for instance, was Alice in Wonderland month; July, Pocahontas month; September, Robert Persig month; and October, Julia Child month.

You’ll never guess which one of these themes proved most popular: why, Alice of course! What international traveler or expat hasn’t experienced the sensation of stepping through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole? Like Alice, those of us who venture beyond borders must furiously navigate the new environments we uncover. Also like Alice, we are prone to feeling lonely and a bit sorry for ourselves on occasion.

Most expats can also relate to Alice’s gradual loss of self-identity. As she confesses to the Caterpillar:

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you see.”

In today’s post, I propose to revisit Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece for themes that are worth exploring from a creative angle. Here are six that I find myself thinking about a lot, when trying to parse my own expat experience (an American, I lived first in England and then in Japan). WARNING: Tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat!

1) The old adage about trusting your gut doesn’t always work when it comes to your actual gut.

ALICE PASSAGE: In Alice’s Wonderland, a jar labeled “Orange Marmalade” is not actually a jar full of orange marmalade.
APPLIES TO: Expats in Japan, who are always biting into pastries in the hopes of tasting chocolate and tasting azuki bean paste instead. Indeed, should you ever be in need of an Alice-like culinary experience, Japan has got to be your place. There’s the wasabi Kit Kats, of course. And how about the time when Carole Hallett Mobbs’s friend in Tokyo bought a sandwich with a lumpy filling? As Carole reported in her guest post for us:

A gentle squeeze sent a whole cooked potato shooting across the room.

ANOTHER ALICE FOOD PASSAGE: Fearing the contents of the “Drink Me” bottle may be poison, Alice is pleasantly surprised:

it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.

APPLIES TO: International travelers who venture to remote spots and are pleasantly surprised by the local cuisine. Actually, you don’t even have to be somewhere remote. Tokyo was where I developed a fondness for hirezake (hot sake with fugu fin) — talk about poisonous cocktails! And travel author Janet Brown told us she dreaded trying fried grasshoppers while living in Bangkok,  only to find she liked them as much as popcorn! But even dedicated locavores, such as Jessica Festa, can have an Alice moment from time to time. I’ll never forget the story about her first experience eating cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador. As she tells it, she saw it on the grill and thought it resembled her childhood pet, Joey. Repressing her better instinct not to eat anything she grew up playing with, she took a bite and said: “Holy crap, this is delicious!”

2) Communications with others and in general are far from satisfactory.

ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice is “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was, saying good-bye to her feet, she cries “Curiouser and curiouser!”—and then feels surprised that “for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.”
APPLIES TO: Native English speakers living in a non-English speaking country. Their English inevitably morphs into the version the locals speak; spelling, too, deteriorates, and doesn’t come back.

ANOTHER ALICE MISCOMMUNICATION: Alice repeatedly offends the creatures in Wonderland without even trying.
APPLIES TO: Anyone who finds themselves “tone deaf” in Bangkok, as the aforementioned Janet Brown once did. (NOTE: Applies equally to those struggling to learn other Asian tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.) As she explained in her interview with us:

The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck.

3) Committing to another country can sometimes mean altering your body size (or wishing you could).

ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice first lands in Wonderland, she finds herself too large for the doorway out of the dark hall into the beautiful garden.
APPLIES TO: Anyone over 5’5″ living in Japan, Korea or Southeast Asia, who has to keep their head down when entering traditional dwellings for fear of getting a concussion.

ANOTHER BODY-CHANGING ALICE MOMENT: At the instruction of the Caterpillar, Alice tries eating portions of mushroom he’s been sitting on, which make her grow and shrink.
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who find themselves going back and forth between the obesity epidemic in United States and almost anywhere else in the world, where people simply eat less and walk more. While living in Tokyo I soon reached my lowest body weight ever without even trying: all those meals of clear soup, rice, veggies and fish. Now that I’m back in America, I weigh ten pounds more, while in England I was somewhere in between…

4) People in other countries have their own relationships with Father Time.

ALICE PASSAGE: Alice experiences the full gamut: from the White Rabbit dashing about with his stopwatch for fear of being late for an important date, to the slackers at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, who waste time “asking riddles that have no answers.”
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who’ve had the chance to live in Southern Europe, South America, or other places notorious for their laid-back approach to time, as well as in Germany, Switzerland or Japan where people pride themselves on their punctuality. Compared to Japan, I found England a Southern European country. When I was living in Tokyo and visiting the UK during summers, I was always late to appointments because I’d forgotten that trains don’t run on time (or at all). And most of the time, I had their sympathies. Whereas in Japan, I swear a White Rabbit must be in charge of public transport. You can set your watch by the trains! No excuses for lateness…

5) The laws and practices of another land can take some getting used to.

ALICE PASSAGE:

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

APPLIES TO: Anyone who displaces themselves to a country with a radically different life philosophy. For instance, as an American I found that one of the biggest challenges of getting used to England and then Japan, the two small-island nations where I lived, was that I could never quite accept the natives’ stoicism. As I wrote in the first of my “Lessons from Two Small Islands” posts:

Where the citizens of each of these countries saw grace, strength, endurance, and perseverance, I saw passivity, masochism, fatalism and pain. “Why is everyone bowing so readily to their fates?” I would ask myself repeatedly.

And, though I never committed an act of “queue rage” while standing in line at the post office in the English town where I lived, I came pretty close—especially when watching others who’d come in after I did get served before me.

On those occasions, I felt like crying out: why don’t we try a serpentine line instead?

And what about all those expats living in countries with byzantine immigration laws? Apparently, Alice’s own home, the UK, is among the worst. As we learned from interviewing New Zealander Vicki Jeffels, it essentially tells any wannabe immigrants: “Off with your heads!” Even if you’re from the Commonwealth! Still, at least they no longer discriminate… (Jeffels sorted out her visa problems in the end but has since repatriated.)

6) “Pool of tears” moments eventually build resilience.

ALICE PASSAGES: Alice goes from “shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep” to holding her own in Wonderland (see #5).
APPLIES TO: Well, really all of us. In the previous incarnation of the Displaced Nation, I had a Random Nomads column in which I would interview expats or veterans of international travel and ask them to describe their “most displaced” and “least displaced” moments. Many had difficulty with the former request, I guess because they felt uncomfortable going down the Rabbit Hole and examining their hearts more closely. The American Brian MacDuckston, though, was the rare exception. His “pool of tears” moment was his very first day of work as an English teacher in Japan. He somehow managed to get on the wrong train (every foreigner in Japan’s nightmare) and ended up in a “depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand.” He was late for his first class and wanted to quit. Since then, however, he has emerged as one of the leading experts on Japanese ramen. Last we heard, he’d been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched his first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. Way to go, Brian, in treating that screaming railway worker as a Jack of Spades!

* * *

So, are you ready to inject a bit of Alice into your Great Work on the voluntarily displaced life? And can you think of any more inspirational passages from Lewis Carroll? (No doubt there are more, and I will think of some of them as soon as I post this.)

Meantime, the Displaced Nation will continue its tradition of awarding “Alices” to writers who capture the curious, unreal side of the displaced life—only we will now be awarding one per week, via our Displaced Dispatch. What, not a subscriber yet? CLICK HERE NOW—or off with your head! Recommendations of posts (your own, other bloggers’) for Alices are also warmly appreciated. Please send to ML@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our Old World/New World 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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THE DISPLACED POLL: Which of these 4 exotic sports should be part of the Olympics?

One thing everyone in Britain knows at the moment — if not everyone in the world — is that the Games of the XXX Olympiad (July 27 – August 12, 2012) are coming to London!

Although this grandest of international sporting events is still a ways off, we’re already starting to get into the mood at The Displaced Nation.

So I’ve decided to review some of the sports I’ve observed in my travels around the world that I’d like to see making an appearance at the Summer Olympic Games. And I’ll need your help with deciding on the most suitable candidate, which I’ll of course put forward to the International Olympic Committee — which will of course guarantee its inclusion if not this year then in four years’ time. Well, maybe. 🙂

Because I’m a recent addition to the population of the Southern Hemisphere, I’ve picked some of the more interesting and praiseworthy activities from my part of the world, which, I believe, have been under-represented at a set of games that had their origins in ancient Greece.

I know there’s loads of candidates in the UK, in Europe and the US — we’ve all heard about cheese-rolling and bog snorkeling and beard-growing…haven’t we? Ah well, maybe we’ll get to those crazy sports next week.

I’ll open with an oddly appropriate quote from the American sports journalist Robert Strauss, on how success is achieved:

It’s a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired; you quit when the gorilla is tired.

With that in mind, let’s get down to the voting for the Next Olympic Sport. Here are your four candidates:

1) From Australia: SHEEP SHEARING

It’s a job; it’s a sport; it’s a hobby…the Aussies even hold a world championship of their own! Apparently seasoned shearers (or “guns”) can have the complete fleece off a medium-sized sheep is as little as two minutes. The current champion is Aussie Brendan Boyle, who in 2007 singlehandedly deprived 841 sheep of their coats in 24 hours! Hell, I think he deserves a medal just for wanting to. Or perhaps something more akin to a straight-jacket…

2) From South Africa: OSTRICH RACING

Yes, it’s true. It’s a sport and everything! They have jockeys and racetracks and…well, everything else you would expect, though it certainly isn’t sponsored by Goodyear. There are ostrich farms that occasionally let tourists have a go — but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Not only are ostriches damn hard to get on, harder to stay on and capable of doing over 40 mph — they’re also quite dangerous. Near Oudtshoorn, where the sport is most famously practiced, there are two or three people killed every year by ostriches — and up to a hundred world-wide! Brilliant. Kicked to death by an ostrich is going on my list of all-time weirdest ways to die!

Amazingly enough, this sport is on the increase. If you happen to live in New Jersey, you might get chance to see some — there’s a camel and ostrich race coming to the Meadowlands Racetrack in four days’ time!

3) From India: ROLLER SKATING LIMBO

I know, not exactly Southern Hemisphere — but this sport is so amazing it has to be given a chance! Check it out:

Like most sports, this probably goes on in other places too. Other, equally crazy places… But for the feat of flexibility this activity requires, you really can’t beat the Birthplace of Yoga when it comes to training. In India, when roller-skating under bars and beams ceases to be enough of a challenge, they try skating under cars! And when that’s no enough — under LOTS of cars!

In October of last year, an 11-year-old boy Rohan Ajit Kokane took advantage of the 35cm ground clearance and skated, blindfolded, underneath 20 cars in a row — a new Guinness World Record! If asked how he’d felt during the challenge, I’m sure he’d have replied “a little low…”

4) From New Zealand: ZORBING

Well, it’s hard to see how rolling down a hill in a giant inflatable ball could become competitive enough for a spot in the Olympics —  unless the challenge was to see how many times you could do it without being violently sick all over yourself, whilst still inside…! (Oh yeah, that would take some cleaning up!)

As an athletic activity though, you can’t beat zorbing. Trust the New Zealanders to come up with such an immensely fun sport! I can foresee zorbing obstacle courses coming into vogue in the not-distant future — after all, you can literally walk on water in one of these things. Or, wait — is that the next Olympic sport? White-water zorbing! Now surely there’s something medal-worthy in that? As for an athlete who would like to compete? Me. I’ll do it! Please…?

So what do you think, Displaced Nation-ers?

Which of these four is worthy of being the next Olympic sport?

Cast your votes in our poll — and if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear ‘em! Comment below, or hit us up on Twitter: @DisplacedNation and/or @TonyJamesSlater

Img: Tony James Slater celebrates his zorbing success (2009).

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s Random Nomad interview with a champion linguist.

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THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the most heart-stopping view you’ve seen on your travels?

It was the perfect day. The weather was incredible. We’d looked beyond the ski area boundary signs before, of course, but this — the crystal clear visibility — meant we could see for hundreds of miles.

From this high up — the very pinnacle of Mount Hutt, in the New Zealand Alps — we could actually see the curvature of the earth. And it looked like the snow-wrapped mountains extended the whole way there.

The photo at right can’t come close to doing the view justice — especially as some idiot couldn’t resist parking himself in the frame! (Sorry, folks!)

Every time I look at this picture I well up, not because it’s good but because the memory — of unspoilt nature at its most breathtaking — is so special. I was living what The Displaced Nation likes to call la dolce vita.

Today and for the remainder of the month, I’ll be urging you to live la dolce vita as well, by conjuring up the sensory aspects of travel.

This week, I’m talking up the need to train your eyes to see the beauty all around you when you travel. In my case, in fact, this requirement of la dolce vita comes rather naturally. I see beauty everywhere I go — in nature, in ancient structures, even in the occasional female of the species(!). In 1878, the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford coined the following phrase in her novel Molly Bawm:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

One of the meanings I take from it is that you see what you look for; so, look for beauty and you’ll find it almost everywhere. (The reverse, of course, is also true.)

But that’s just my tin-pot philosophy, and this week we’re asking you to come up with the most heart-stopping view from your travels. Now that narrows it down considerably, because for me a “view” means a landscape — and I find there are elements a landscape has to have for me to really put it up on that pedestal:

1) It has to be isolated. Maybe that’s just me, but I love the wilderness, that connection to nature, that feeling that this view may not have changed for a thousand years or more.

2) It has it be high-up. I love to be high (no double entendre intended!). A bit of altitude can reveal the magnificence of even a tortured landscape. How peaceful does the Earth look from space, eh?

3) It has to be dramatic. What separates one pretty landscape from another? In my humble opinion, there needs to be some drama, something visually astounding: the scale of the place; the way color dominates it; the patterns of light and dark; the capture of elemental forces at work… Drama is in most places if you look for it.

I very rarely take pictures — which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to a life of writing and blogging. I’d been in Thailand for six months and taken only one photo when my parents (in despair!) sent me a camera for Christmas. It was great! I gave it to a friend.

Luckily, I am now married to one of the afore-mentioned beautiful women — and the pictures I don’t take, she makes up for in spades. Seriously. She has been known to take over a hundred pictures just to ensure having one good one (but she keeps them all). She takes photos of flowers! Of swans! Of cows! And of yours truly! Thank goodness — otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to share with you the above alpine view, except with words.

So, please — tell us about your favorite views! Where is the most beautiful, jaw-dropping place you’ve seen with your own two eyes? I’d especially love to know, as I plan on visiting a few of them :0)

Please tell all in the comments! In addition, I urge you to send me a photo of that view: tony@thedisplacednation.com. With the help of my better half, I may be staging a “la dolce vita slideshow” before long!

STAY TUNED…for Monday when The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, Mary-Sue Wallace, will be addressing cross-cultural quandaries and travel-related confusion.

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Img: Tony James Slater in the New Zealand Alps, taken at the top of Mount Hutt (December 2009).

In honor of Obscura Day, a tribute to 5 obscure treasures near places I’ve called home

It’s been a month of celebration for The Displaced Nation, beginning with the announcement of our very first birthday on April 1 (no fooling!).

We may be nearing the end of the month, but the festive spirit continues unabated. In fact, in today’s post I’m hosting my own little celebration of Obscura Day, which takes place tomorrow, April 28.

As you may know — or maybe not, since by definition, it’s a little obscure! — Obscura Day is where people all over the world get to show off the unusual and little-known places of interest near wherever they call home. Locals volunteer to give guided tours of such spots — and it’s all organized by the folks who’ve set up Atlas Obscura, a user-generated and editor-curated compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica.

To do my part in enhancing the Obscura Day cause, I’ve rounded up the 5 most interesting and unusual places near the various towns and cities I’ve called home in the past five years.

1. Sail Rock (Hin Bai), off Koh Phangan, Thailand

I happened upon this rock, which for me is one of the foremost world treasures, when living in Thailand in 2007. I was staying in Thong Sala, on the island of Koh Phangan, to train as a professional diver.

This small rock protruding from the Gulf of Thailand doesn’t look like much from the surface, but it’s a world-class diving site — and a comparatively undiscovered one, as it lies off a tiny island famed more for its party scene than its underwater exploration.

There is a vertical tunnel through part of the rock which is absolutely teeming with aquatic life.

I had to earn my way in there by learning enough control over my diving gear and techniques to keep the descent smooth and calm. My boss was very concerned that this place would be preserved for future generations of divers, and he knew how clumsy I was out of the water!

But at long last the day came when I was allowed to enter. I drifted gently downwards, spinning slowly in place to take it all in. I was in a tube filled with corals and sponges, surrounded by weird and colorful creatures like nothing on land. Tendrils waved, lethal looking spikes and spines protruded, fur-like coverings rippled. All in brilliant shades of blue, green, yellow…it was the closest I can imagine to being on some alien planet in a galaxy far, far away!

And yet this amazing world had been right underneath my boat the whole time!

2. Lookout Trees near Pemberton, in the South West region of Western Australia

It was not long after I started living in Perth (where I still am!) that I discovered the Lookout Trees near Pemberton — unimaginably tall trees that had been used as look-out posts for vigilant fire-spotters for almost fifty years. Now they can be climbed, just for the hell of it, by anyone who is a) curious, and b) has the balls of a concrete elephant!

It’s a long — LONG — way to climb on steel rungs driven into the side of the trees, 58 meters (or 190 feet!) to the viewing platform, perched rather precariously above the forest canopy. You can see for hundreds of miles from this towering vantage point, which is all the well; you certainly need something to take your mind off the twin thoughts that a) you’re ridiculously exposed, insanely high and supported only by a single tree, and b) you’re going to have to climb back down…

If you do make it up, you’ll be amazed. At your own bravery as much as the view. If you don’t…well, you’re not alone. More than three quarters of the people who try it never make the top.

3. Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England

My list wouldn’t be complete without an obscure-ish (nothing is truly obscure any more on the overdeveloped British Isles) sight that’s near my original hometown of Highbridge, in Somerset. I speak of the Cheddar Gorge, a 137m-deep split in the Earth’s crust revealing a fantastic labyrinth of caves extending nearly half a kilometre under the ground.

It wasn’t until I was visiting last year that I made the effort to tour the gorge. There’s a company that runs a caving experience for any level of tourist — so I took my Mum! Bless her, she did have fun slithering across ledges, abseiling down underground cliff faces, and best of all — squeezing through tight tunnels carved by water flowing through the caves.

My favorite part was making her laugh by describing the look of just one end of her protruding from the tunnel. She found it so funny that she couldn’t stop laughing to pull herself any further, and was stuck half-in, half-out for quite some time!

Thankfully, there were experienced guides helping us along and tough overalls and wellies — every part of us was encrusted with mud by the time we saw the sun again.

It was quite a relief to emerge from the darkness, especially after the ritual of turning off our helmet lights in the deepest recess of the cave — experiencing an absence of light so profound I could touch my own eyeball without seeing my finger. Spooky…and awesome!

4. Knife-making in Barrytown, New Zealand

An unassuming little bay on the rugged northwestern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, you could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing in Barrytown at all. You’d mostly be right — I passed through there on a road trip in 2010, trying to get a better sense of the island I was living on (yes, I was living in Christchurch at the time).

I checked into a completely empty backpackers hostel (a novelty itself in tourist-mad New Zealand) and noticed a lone advertising flyer on the wall…which is how I came to meet Robyn and Steve, a couple of modern-day artisans, in their home-based knife-making workshop.

Steve is a self-taught blacksmith. Under his tutelage, I heated and hammered metal, ground and sharpened a blade, carved and polished a handle… and within the day I had created a perfect steel knife like something right out of Lord of the Rings!

It was a fantastic feeling to know I’d hand-crafted something so beautiful and unique — well, okay, I had a bit of help from the expert! As a skill, it was highly addictive.

I quizzed him late into the night about just how difficult it would be to make a sword the same way — and got the feeling I wasn’t the first person to ask him that!

If you ever get chance, do this. Obscure? Check! And absolutely fascinating.

5. Sedlec Ossuary, near Prague, Czech Republic

Okay, I wasn’t really living in Prague — I was just passing through in 2006 — but for obscure treasures, this one takes the biscuit!

Not too far from the city — in a suburban part of Southern Bohemia — lies a small Roman Catholic chapel beneath a small cemetery, known as the Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Chapel, as it’s decorated entirely in human bones. There are bones everywhere one looks, from streamers and chandeliers made from complete skeletons, artfully rearranged, to giant pyramids of skulls on display in the four corners. Altar statues and wall decorations are also fashioned completely from bones — it’s estimated that over 40,000 bodies have contributed to the décor!

Perhaps more macabre is that this isn’t some ancient monument to the grotesque, a product of some long-forgotten civilization like the Mayans; no, this is modern work. Although many of the remains date back to the Black Death in the 14th century, the artful sculpting and artistic arrangement of the bones happened just over a century ago!

It really has to be seen to be believed. Especially as photos aren’t allowed — unless you’re very persuasive, and happen to be in there on your own (which is exceedingly creepy)…and happen to have 100 Czech koruna ($4) to bribe the curator!

***

So. What’s unusual about where you live? Are there any undiscovered gems nearby — cool places, crazy things to do, strange legends? Tell, tell! We want to know! Let us know all about them in the comments. Cheers to obscurity!

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

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Images: Tony Slater’s own photos

4 films that will make you want to travel — and one that won’t!

Now, there’s a pretty standard list of travel-inspiring movies out there; it’s everywhere you look online, and it goes something like this:

But I wanted to give you some slightly more alternative choices — because I try to avoid being ordinary whenever possible. Yes, okay, you can say it — because I’m downright weird. So in place of those otherwise awesome films, may I present to you the following movies which have inspired me personally:

1) The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), directed by Stephan Elliot

Why I love this film: It’s ridiculous and lots of fun, which is pretty much how I think all life should be! As three Sydney drag queens travel through the barren Australian outback, we get to see that iconic terrain, vast and empty and aching to be explored. This film has it all: humor, a light-hearted way of handling a serious message (about homophobia) and visuals to die for as the trio procession through some of Australia’s most awe-inspiring scenery. In a big pink bus.
Personal note: Not only did I travel to Australia and fall in love with a woman who considers this her favorite movie ever –- I also had the good fortune to be with her when she decided to re-enact one of the film’s famous scenes, when the drag queens hike around King’s Canyon in their fabulous dresses! I’d say we got mixed reactions from the other tourists — probably me, most of all…
Memorable line:

Felicia: The only life I saw for the last million miles were the hypnotized bunnies. Most of them are now wedged in the tires.

2) Black Sheep (2007), directed by Jonathan King

Also ran: Actually, I was going to nominate The Lord of the Rings trilogy but then decided — NO! I can’t use it. It’s too easy. Plus we’ve already had one film with Hugo Weaving (the mighty Elrond played a drag queen in Priscilla!). I know, across the three films they showcase the sights of New Zealand at their jaw-dropping best — anyone who hasn’t watched these films and felt an urgent need to visit New Zealand needs to watch them again but ignore the kick-ass sword fighting… Yeah, I know. That’s never going to happen.
Why Black Sheep won out: The rugged landscape looks every bit as impressive in this movie as it does in Lord of the Rings — but it’s also populated by were-sheep, an accidental result of some unusual genetic manipulation… See it, and laugh at the New Zealanders. Oddly enough, they’ll love you for it. It’s the Kiwis’ love of poking fun at everything, especially themselves — their self-deprecating humor — that really made me want to visit the place. I felt like I would fit in there. And I did — I stayed for two years. By the time I left, I was on a first-name basis with the entire population.
Memorable lines:

There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand…and they’re pi**ed off!

Harry (as the were-sheep charge towards them): F**k, the sheep!
Tucker: No mate, we haven’t time for that.

3) Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Sofia Coppola

Why I love this film: It’s an odd one, this one. The first time I watched it, my mind boggled at how something so boring, with nothing remotely resembling a plot, could get made into a movie. Then I watched it again. And again. Because it was the rainy season in Thailand, where I was living, so I couldn’t go outside — and we only had three DVDs in English, so we watched all of them every day. For two months. Somewhere around the halfway point of this torturous process, I fell in love with Lost in Translation — maybe I just needed to relax to appreciate it? Once I stopped looking for something to happen, I started to understand what it was all about: loneliness, uncertainty, being adrift and confused in a completely alien culture. And ever since then I’ve desperately wanted to go to Tokyo. Well, not enough to actually go there — yet — but you know what I mean. I do travel vicariously — just sometimes — and this is one of ‘em.
Caveat: If, like me, you’re a fan of films where, you know, stuff happens — it might take you a few viewings to get used to it. Forty or fifty should do the trick.
Memorable line:

Charlotte: Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.

4) Ip Man (2008), directed by Wilson Yip

Why I love this film: The closest I’ve come to China are the little “made in” labels on almost everything I own. This film, however, kindled a desire to visit China that I never knew I had in me. It’s the biographical story of the most famous kung fu practitioner in the world — not Bruce Lee but his teacher in Wing Chun kung fu, master Ip Man. It’s set in Foshan, China in the 1930s-40s during the Japanese Invasion, but was filmed in Shanghai. It follows the family of the master as he becomes ensnared in the war, losing everything over the course of the Occupation and being forced to face the hardest choices a man could make. The insight into a lifestyle and culture so utterly different from my own was fascinating enough, but this is a story both moving and powerful.
Audience participation: I dare anyone to watch it and not leap off the couch at some point with a cry of “Yeah, kick his ASS!” Ahem. Okay, so maybe that’s just me.
In sum: Will it make you want to visit China? I think so. Will it make you want to learn kung fu? I absolutely guarantee it!

And because I’m a contrary kind of guy, I just had to retaliate against my own optimism by highlighting a film that made me NOT want to travel:

5) Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2002), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund

Why I don’t recommend this film: The film is set in the 1970s, in the poorest districts surrounding Rio de Janeiro, where drugs and guns rule and the population live in a fear only matched by their misery. I saw it in South America, in its native Portuguese — but with Spanish subtitles. Given my fledgeling abilities in that language, as described in a previous post, I may have failed to grasp every nuance of the story, but basically what I took from it was: “DON’T EVER GO THERE! They will kill you for the hell of it.”
Analysis:There is poverty everywhere in the world — I’ve worked in homeless shelters in the UK and seen people every bit as desperate as the denizens of Brazilian favelas (shanty towns). But these kind of places, where automatic weapons are more readily available than McDonald’s hamburgers and life is so very cheap…they absolutely terrify me.
In sum: Brazil remains on my list of all-time favorite, must-visit countries — but no way am I going anywhere near the favelas in Rio. This film has put me off — for life.

* * *

And finally…there’s one character that stands head and shoulders (and hat!) above all the rest when it comes to inspiring my travels. I’ve carefully avoided mentioning his films, as I was trying hard to keep this a cheese-free list — but I can’t hold it in any more.

I WANT TO BE INDIANA JONES!

I know, I know! So does everybody in the world, ever. Even people in remote tribes that have never been contacted by the Western world, secretly harbor a desire to be Indiana Jones — they just don’t know how to put it into words.

So — now it’s your turn!
1) What films have made you want to travel? And why?
2) What films have made you want to run screaming from the very idea of travel — and why?
3) If you WERE Indiana Jones — what would you do?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on cinema and the expat life.

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Images: Tony James Slater (yes, that’s really him!) playing out his fantasy of being Indiana Jones; film posters courtesy Wikipedia.

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