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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works

This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.


Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (2/2)


Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), empties the remainder of her treasure chest that she brought to us two days ago, stuffed with recommended reads to take you through the summer.

Hello again. As explained in Part One of this post, I reached out to some of my bookish friends as well as a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently reviewed to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

Here are the rest of the recommendations I received, including a few from yours truly and ML Awanohara (Displaced Nation’s founding editor) at the end. Enjoy!

* * *

MARK ADAMS, best-selling travel writer and author of Meet Me In Atlantis (which we reviewed in May): My recommendations are a classic travelogue, a biography of an intrepid traveler, and an adventure novel.

The-Snow_Leopard_cover_300xThe Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen (Viking Press, 1978)
Shortly before he died, I had the honor of interviewing Matthiessen at his home on Long Island. I was surprised by how concerned he seemed, knowing that his death was rapidly approaching, that he would be remembered less as a novelist than as the author of The Snow Leopard. I went back to reread it for the first time in twenty years and was amazed by how good it was—a moving story about a man’s search for meaning through Zen Buddhism after the death of his young wife, intertwined flawlessly with a thrilling narrative about an incredible journey through the Himalayas. So fresh and evocative it could have been published yesterday.

Bruce-Chatwin_A-Biography_cover_300xBruce Chatwin: A Biography, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Anchor, 2001)
Chatwin, of course, is one of the great travel writers of all time; he practically reinvented the genre with books like In Patagonia and The Songlines. But as Shakespeare’s brilliant biography demonstrates, Chatwin’s greatest creation may have been the globetrotting persona that he carefully presented to the world. The descriptions—decodings might be a better term—of how Chatwin assembled his literary works will be absolutely riveting to anyone who has tried his or her hand at trying to pin down the essence of a place using only words.

State-of-Wonder_cover_300xState of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2011)
I once heard Ann Patchett on the radio, talking about the job of a novelist. She described it as “creating a world.” No one creates worlds with quite the skill that Patchett does. Reading her descriptions of pharmaceutical research being conducted in the Amazon is like being dropped into the jungle—you can feel the sweat beading on your forehead and the buzz of malarial mosquitoes preparing to land on the back of your neck. And you know what? Patchett’s Bel Canto, which takes place in Lima, Peru, is an equally brilliant tale that performs the magic tricks that only great fiction can, allowing you to read minds and travel through time and space.

MARIANNE C. BOHR, Displaced Nationer and author of the soon-to-be-published Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries: My summer reads are usually of the meaty kind because as a teacher, I have more time in July and August to pay close attention and savor every word. As one who suffers wanderlust daily, my three choices all have to do with travel. They are very different books, but each grabs my heart in a different way and I could read them over and over, each time discovering something new.
Bohr Collage

The Drifters, by James A. Michener (Random House, 1971)
This book takes me back to my youth and the thirst for exotic adventure that goes along with being young.

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, by Mary Morris (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998)
I wanted to head straight to Mexico when I read this heart-wrenching book and also felt like the author was a new friend when I finished.

An Italian Affair, by Laura Fraser (Vintage, 2001)
What a guilty pleasure immersing myself in this book of islands, romance, lust and longing is. I could read it again and again.

SHIREEN JILLA, adult TCK and former expat and author of The Art of Unpacking Your Life (which we reviewed in May) and Exiled (which we featured in 2011): I would pack three very different books:
Jilla Collage

Red Dust: A Path Through China, by Ma Jian (Vintage, 2002)
Dissident artist Ma Jian’s diary of his walk across China in the wake of his divorce and threatened arrest is utterly enlightening, moving, profound and playful. Walking is clearly an under-rated pastime.

Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2009)
A powerful, beautiful novel about the crazed nature of modern urban life, it elevates Egan to one of the greats of American literature.

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant (NYRB Classics, 2011)
A regular writer for the New Yorker, Gallant penned these short stories about expats and exiles in Europe particularly Paris. They are brilliantly laid bare. (Born in Montreal, Gallant moved to Paris when she was 28 determined to be a full-time writer. She lived there until her death in 2014.)

BETH GREEN, writer, expat, TCK and BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST columnist: Here are my three picks, one of which I’ve not read and two that I have:

The-Messenger-of-Athens_cover_300xThe Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi (Reagan Author Books, 2010)
Summer is the best time to really sink into a mystery series. I love taking a few titles from an established series and binge reading them on the beach or by the pool. Previously, I’ve done this with Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley novels, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire mysteries. This year I’ll be spending some time on the beach in Greece, so I’ve got my eyes set on British writer Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Inspector mysteries, which depict ugly crimes based on the seven deadly sins in beautiful Mediterranean surroundings. The series now has seven books, of which Messenger is the first. (Born in England, Zouroudi worked in the UK and the USA before giving it all up to live on a Greek island. She married a Greek as well.)

swamplandia_coverSwamplandia! by Karen Russell (Vintage, 2011)
This darkly fascinating and somewhat magical story of a girl and her siblings abandoned in a run-down theme park in Florida fascinated me when I read it a few years ago. It’s both a chilling odyssey into a swampland netherworld and an exploration of subcultures of the kind rarely seen in American books. For me it had the right amount of tension to keep you turning pages and the right amount of whimsy to keep the potentially depressing material light enough for a summer read.

Daughter-of-Fortune_cover_300xDaughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende, trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2014)
Summer is a time for voyages—or at least reading about them! I can name a whole bagful of road trip books I’d happily re-read over summer, but for pure swashbuckling joy I have to recommend Isabel Allende’s historical cross-cultural adventure Daughter of Fortune. An upper-class girl raised in an English enclave in Chile in the 1800s stows away to follow her lover to the gold fields of California. I haven’t read the sequel, Portrait in Sepia, yet, but I’m guessing it’s also worth adding to that beach bag. (Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Allende lives in California.)

ML AWANOHARA, former expat and Displaced Nation founding editor: We are constantly reporting on new displaced reads in the Displaced Dispatch, which comes out once a week. Just to give you a taste of the kinds of things we feature, here is a selection. As you can see, it comprises a work of historical nonfiction that reads like a novel, a memoir with elements of Nordic myth, and a novel by a once-displaced poet, all with beach-bag potential.

Daughters_of_the_Samurai_cover_300xDaughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura (W.W. Norton, May 2015)
Call it the early Japanese version of our gap year or junior year abroad. The story begins in 1871, after Commodore Perry’s ships opened Japan to the outside world, when five young women were sent to the United States on a mission to learn Western ways and help nurture a new generation of enlightened Japanese leaders. Three of them stayed for ten years and returned to Japan determined to revolutionize women’s education. Several critics have said the book reads like a modern fairy tale. But if the women faced many hurdles in the course of their unusual journey, the tale doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. “I cannot tell you how I feel,” one of them remarked upon her return to her native land, “but I should like to give one good scream.” Janice Nimura, an American who is married to a Japanese, has spent time living in Japan.

Passage-of-the-stork_cover_300xPassage of the Stork: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance, by Madeleine Lenagh (Springtime Books, March 2015)
Madeleine Lenagh is American but spent her first five years as an expat child in Europe, after which she grew up in Connecticut. Rebelling against her mother’s interference in her love life, she set out to travel across Europe alone. Arriving in the Netherlands broke, she took a job as an au pair—and the rest is history. She has now been living in the land of cheese and tulips for over four decades and speaks fluent Dutch. But that’s her travel history. Her own personal history remained repressed until she wrote this memoir. One of the things that interests me about it is that Lenagh chose to weave together the narrative using Nordic mythology. (As long-term followers of the Displaced Nation will know, we are fond of doing the same with the Alice in Wonderland story.) Passage of the Stork is a publication of Springtime Books, the new fledgling of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in books by expats and for expats and is the brainchild of global nomad Jo Parfitt.

hausfrau_coverHausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House, March 2015)
This novel by Texas-born American poet Jill Alexander Essbaum, her first, depicts an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage to a Swiss banker. They are living with their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. In the spirit of Essbaum’s erotic poetry, Anna (yes, the name is a nod to Tolstoy’s heroine) engages in a series of messy affairs. Now, is this book the expat answer to Fifty Shades? Actually, the answer to that question interests me less than the fact that Essbaum herself was once a hausfrau in Dietlikon, near Zürich, where she moved with her first husband, an American interested in studying Jungian psychoanalysis. Like Anna, she experienced intense loneliness and isolation—albeit no torrid affairs. Who would have guessed?

* * *

Thank you so much for your recommendations, ML and everyone else! Readers, it’s your turn now. What books are you looking forward to popping in the book bag this summer? And, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, what books are getting you through the winter?

Also, can I echo ML’s contribution by urging you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week. And please feel welcome to make recommendations for books to be featured in the Dispatch, and in this column, by contacting ML at

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is here with her first column of 2015. For those who haven’t been following: she is building up quite a collection of stories about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which is receiving rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Happy New Year, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Gene Bell-Villada, author of the Third Culture Kid memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics and co-editor of my first published essay in the TCK/global-nomad anthology: Writing Out of Limbo. Gene grew up in Latin America and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; he is a Professor of Romance Languages (Spanish), Latin American Literature, and Modernism at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is also a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Gene. Like me, you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage. Since you were born in Haiti and grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela as the son of an Asian-Polynesian mother from Hawaii and a WASP father from Kansas, your identity development was complex and nuanced, as you make clear in your memoir.  Can you tell us how you identify yourself these days?
Like the title of my memoir, I identify myself as an Overseas American, of mixed WASP and Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian ethnicity, with a Caribbean-Hispanic upbringing. I wrote my memoir in great measure to disentangle and explain that background—for myself and others! More broadly, in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, by default, I happened to be a cosmopolitan, and that I couldn’t feel “local” even if I wished to. And so, I set out to make the best of that cosmopolitanism and build on it.


Tell us two things you miss about each of your childhood countries.
From my three childhood countries, I miss mostly the Latin informality and warmth…and salsa dancing! From Puerto Rico, I’ve fond memories of the University campus that was next door to my first home in Río Piedras, and where my mother would take us for walks. From Cuba I miss the richness of the music and folk culture. About Caracas, 3,000 feet above sea level, I remember its mild climate and “eternal spring.”

“Puerto Ricans do a lot of hugging, Dickie reflected. His parents and relatives almost never did.”

Your TCK childhood had extra upheaval due to your parents’ divorce and your two years at a military school in Cuba while your parents each lived in other countries. I imagine that affected your feelings about where you lived.
I must admit, I don’t “miss” most of what I lived in my 17 years in the Spanish Caribbean. I had a very difficult childhood, in which I never really “belonged” to any of those countries, had little contact with the expat community, and was leading a painful, dysfunctional family life. Since my brother and I were put away in a military school in Cuba, it’s not a place that I would “miss.” The circumstances of my upbringing have made childhood nostalgia an elusive sentiment for me.

After a young adulthood in New Mexico (briefly), Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York—and some trips to Europe—you settled in Williamstown, MA.  When did you come to feel that it was home, inasmuch as any place can be for an ATCK?
My wife and I actually have had homes in two locations in Massachusetts: Williamstown and Cambridge. So we lived both in the city, where we had our home life, and the country, where I taught. And I guess I realized sometime in the 1970s that New England had become my home. The place had enough cultural density, layered history, and overall cosmopolitanism for me to feel at ease in those parts. (I’d also earned my Ph.D at Harvard.) I even turned down a job offer from UCLA in 1976 because by then I felt attached enough to Massachusetts to stay there. Plus, I didn’t look forward to living in my car on the LA freeways, or putting up with Los Angeles pollution, which was fairly serious back then!

“‘Ah, but you speak such good Spanish…'”

Have you returned to any of the Latin American countries in which you grew up? 
I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and to Venezuela, always experiencing those mixed feelings. When I visited my old neighborhood in Hato Rey, PR, in 2012, I found it largely changed. Moreover, during a previous visit to San Juan in 1985, I went for a stroll at the University grounds. At the sight of the palm trees at the entrance and the tower looming above it all, I fell to the ground, crying. It was a reminder that much of my youth there, when I’d believed that I was an “American” boy in the tropics, had been illusory.

As for Cuba, I could only go back under very specific conditions—not because of the regime, which I’m not against, but owing to my painful personal memories of the place. I worry that seeing certain streets and buildings might elicit a wrenching sadness in me.

Since you’re a professor of Latin American literature and have written about the heavyweights in the field, I presume you’ve also visited quite a few countries in the region at this point. What were your impressions?
Inasmuch as I’ve written books and articles about Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Mexican literature, I’ve been more than once to Argentina, Colombia, Perú, and Mexico. Going to and traveling in those countries brought insight into their literary works that one cannot get simply from reading them in one’s study. On the other hand, my Latin American and Caribbean background proved enormously helpful in accessing the culture and the society of those places. Indeed, García Márquez’s world is the Caribbean coast of Colombia; exploring that area in 1982 and 1988 was a lot like being back in San Juan and Havana! Writing about it was fun, a bit like a return to my childhood, without the pain.

“She was from New York. Didn’t people from New York listen to classical music?”

Although you have always had a passion for classical and Latin music, you ultimately found ways to express yourself through writing fiction and nonfiction. Does music still play a big role in your life? 
Music is my first love. If I hadn’t had a late start at the piano (a fact that unfortunately set me back several years), I might have stayed with it. I turned to literature, in some measure, because it didn’t require advanced hand-muscle skills! But once I got involved with the written word, I strived to make my prose style as artistic, expressive, and fun as music can be, and I worked to give it rhythm and melody. (Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.) I still play piano, though.

Is there a particular work that you are most proud of having written, and if so, why?
I feel equally attached to all of them! Each one has had its role in my life. My books on Borges and García Márquez (which have sold well and gone through second editions) are used in AP courses, and are consulted by general readers, here and abroad. From early on, I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S. readers, and those volumes serve that purpose.

My book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, on the other hand, grew out of my cosmopolitanism and my desire to deal with the uses of art as both escape and expression. (In some subliminal way, it’s autobiographical.) The volume covers the phenomenon of aestheticism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I felt vindicated when the thing was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award (there I was, sharing space with Cynthia Ozick and William H. Gass). It also got translated into Serbian and Chinese! When I asked my two translators just what had drawn them to the book, they both replied that what I’d said about Latin American aestheticism was also applicable to analogous 19th-century movements in Serbia and Taiwan. So my cosmopolitanism had shed light on some corners elsewhere in this world.

My two books of fiction focus in part on TCK issues, plus such cultural-specific matters as American relativism or the seductive influence of Ayn Rand.

But I finally turned to memoir because I felt it was the way to confront head-on the question of my crazy, mixed-up background, to make sense out of it all and give it a living shape. The process of remembering that past, and crafting it and getting it out there, has proved enormously therapeutic. It also led to my meeting Nina Sichel and, then, you, Lisa, via our essay collection, Writing Out Of Limbo!

My latest volume is a kind of experiment, starting with its very title: On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear. Besides dissecting the two authors, I tease out my troubled relationship to them, delve once again into my own life history, and finally move on to the larger problem of a rising, spreading libertarianism in this country. There’s even an Appendix in which I throw in a number of spoofs of my own of hard-line libertarians! (I’ve been playing with satires of something or other ever since I was in middle school in Puerto Rico…)

You’re a true international creative, with works that run the entire gamut! Tell us, what’s next? Fiction? Nonfiction? Something else?
I have stuff in the works, but am in the process of rethinking my projects in the wake of my wife’s death in 2013. (Widowerhood does things to your mind and spirit, alas.)

Where can people find your works?
All my books are available from Amazon and local bookstores, as well as from any good library!

Thank you, Gene, for sharing your wonderfully inspiring story with the Displaced Nation. So, readers, any questions or comments for Gene? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: All subheadings are taken from Gene’s book The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella & 13 Stories.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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RANDOM NOMAD: Jessica Festa, Backpacker, Offbeat Traveler & Locavore

Place of birth: Long Island, New York, USA
Passport: USA — but I’m planning on starting the papers for my Italian passport soon (my grandparents were born there).
Overseas history: Australia (Sydney): 2008. I’ve also backpacked through western Europe (for partying and food!), South America (for surreal landscapes and hiking trails), and Southeast Asia/China and Ghana (for volunteer projects).
Occupation: Freelance travel writer. I have my own site and also write for Gadling, Viator and Matador, among others.
Cyberspace coordinates: Jessie on a Journey — Taking you beyond the guidebook (travel-zine); @JessonaJourney (Twitter handle); Jessie on a Journey (FB page for backpacking community); and Jessie on a Journey (Pinterest).

What made you leave the United States for the Land of Oz?
I chose Australia for studying abroad because I wanted to be able to communicate in English — it was my first time going abroad alone.

On your site you describe yourself as a “natural backpacker.” How did you find living in one country?
It’s so different living somewhere than just traveling to it. When you have a part-time job, class schedule, gym membership, local hangout, go-to grocery store, etc, you really begin to feel a strong connection to a place. Sydney is such a great city. That said, I did not give up my backpacking habit entirely. I also traveled a lot through Australia when studying!

Tell me about the moment on your travels when you felt the most displaced.
I had many moments like that when I did a homestay for a month in Ghana, in West Africa. I was doing orphanage work, and absolutely loved the experience — but the culture is just completely different. Especially in city areas, it’s very loud and chaotic, and people will shout at you and grab your skin to feel if it’s real. They don’t get many tourists, so they’re just curious and wanting to get to know you — but sometimes it got a little too intense.

When have you felt the most comfortable?
In Sydney. I actually called my family crying the night before my flight back to New York, saying I had a new home and would not be returning. I had this camaraderie with my neighbors and so many connections to the community, I really felt like a local.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of the countries where you’ve traveled or lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
My collection of paintings, jewelry and handcrafted items:

  • Ghanaian artwork and wooden masks
  • Handmade jewelry from Sydney and Bolivia
  • A handwoven purse from Peru
  • Alpaca socks from Ecuador
  • Banksy artwork from the UK
  • Masapán (bread dough art) from Calderón, Ecuador
  • A hand-sewn water-bottle holder from Thailand

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

Appetizer: Locro, a thick soup with potatoes, avocado, cheese and vegetables from the Andes.
Main: A pesto pasta with some kind of meat mixed in from the Cinque Terre in Italy.
Dessert: Salzburger Nockerl, a sweet soufflé from Austria.
Drink: Malbec wine from Argentina.

I wonder if you could also add a word or expression from one or more of the countries you’ve visited to the Displaced Nation’s argot.
“No worries” from Australia. Such a great phrase for life. I have it tattooed on my foot!

This week you received a “Food Alice” from the Displaced Nation for your post about the first time you tried cuy, or guinea pig, in Ecuador — you said your dinner reminded you of your pet guinea pig, Joey, named after a school crush. So, does food play a big role in your travels?
For me it’s about trying new things. It doesn’t need to be in the fanciest restaurant or prepared by a Michelin chef, just something truly local. For example, in South America while many of the other backpackers went to guidebook-rated restaurants, I always opted for the tiny, simple, dimly-lit local hangouts. I ate 2- and 3-course meals for a $1, and the food was fresh and local. It was exactly what everyday people in the community were having, and that was important to me.

If you were to design a world tour based on food, what would be your top five recommendations?
1) Mendoza, Argentina — try asado (barbecued meat) with a glass of Malbec.
2) Cinque Terre, Italy — try the pesto pasta that I served to you in my meal!
3) Naples, Italy — try the pizza.
4) Cuzco, Peru — try the cuy (guinea pig) or, if you’re too squeamish, the lomo saltado: strips of marinated steak served over white rice and with French fries.
5) Munich, Germany — try the brätwurst. It is like no other sausage I’ve ever tasted, and tastes so much better in Germany!

To be honest, I’m not so sure about going to Cuzco for cuy.
Really? I love it. I’m planning to go back, and possibly move, to Peru or Ecuador in March. I’m already looking forward to getting my fill of cuy again!

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jessica Festa into The Displaced Nation? At least she’s not planning to serve us guinea pig for dinner — that’s a mercy! (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jessie — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, which will most likely be on food. (No, we haven’t finished gorging ourselves yet!)

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img: Jessie Festa enjoying one of the biggest and best empanadas in all of Peru, at the Point Hostels in Máncora (May 2012).

RANDOM NOMAD: Camden Luxford, Hostel Owner, Freelance Writer/Blogger & Student

Born in: Mackay, Queensland, Australia
Passport: Australia
Countries lived in: United Kingdom (Brighton, Oxford, Edinburgh, and a country hotel near Crickhowell, Powys, Mid Wales): 2005-06; Peru (Cusco): 2009-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: The Brink of Something Else (blog)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I left, at 20, because I’d always had an itch. As a kid, I’d poured over National Geographics and Lonely Planets, plotting these exotic routes across strange lands. I think I imagined myself some kind of Lara Croft-type figure. Then I grew up and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, so I boringly did what thousands of Australian 20-somethings do every year — took off to the UK for a couple of years.

Is anyone else in your immediate family displaced?
Dad’s displaced — in a jet-setting, corporate type of way. He always traveled a lot for work when I was young, domestically and internationally, and now he’s semi-retired and living most of the year in Italy. It’s handy, ‘cos now I have a great place to stay close to really good pizza and wine.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
Waiting at the police station to report an alcoholic Latino ex for threatening to kill me, and having the cops not really care. I just thought in that moment, what I wouldn’t do to be back home, away from this machismo, in a place were I instinctively understand how men and women relate to each other.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Every Wednesday I get together with my closest friends here in Cusco for lunch. We cook, open a few bottles of wine, and laugh away all the week’s problems and dramas. It’s my Cusco family, and when we sit around the table, teasing each other mercilessly, I feel completely at home.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I tend not to hold on to things, just memories — and a hard drive full of photos. So I’ll describe a treasured photo from each country, instead.

From England: One of myself and my friends on the pebbly beach of Brighton. It’s a candid, and nobody’s posing, we’re just scattered about doing our thing. A couple of the boys are playing chess, a small group is talking, I’m reading a book, someone’s playing guitar. It’s a lovely slice of our lives that summer.

From Wales: Tintern Abbey caught just as the sun set. I was driving, turned a corner, and that sight took my breath away.

From Scotland: An entire album covering my 22nd birthday — from the moment my roommates woke me up with fairy bread and beer until about 4:00 a.m. the following morning. The deteriorating respectability is spectacularly documented.

From Peru: A Photoshopped-together photo of “Yamanyá,” the name of my hostel, spelled out in fire. We were camping by the Templo de la Luna (Moon Temple) outside of Cusco, and after half a bottle of rum I pulled out the camera and an Argentinian friend lit a stick on fire. It kept us entertained for more than an hour.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Definitely a starter of ceviche: thin fish strips flash-marinated in lime with a touch of coriander, a load of chile, and a pile of fresh red onion, accompanied by a very cold Cusqueña beer. Served on the sand within spraying distance of the waves.

Then, in anticipation of my upcoming move to Buenos Aires, it’s a thick Argentinian steak cooked rare, with a glass of Malbec. Good meat is hard to come by in Cusco, and I miss it.

For dessert we’ll visit Dad in Italy: tiramisu, and then a strong espresso to finish the caffeine kick.

Then the Pisco gets opened, and it’s chilcanos all round: Pisco, ginger ale, a drop of Angostura bitters and a squeeze of lime.

You may add one word or expression from the country you’re living in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From the UK: Minging has always stuck with me; I have no idea why. For the uninitiated it means disgusting, ugly, gross.
From Peru: Sí, no? — a delightfully Limeñan turn of phrase whose English translation (yes, no?) doesn’t make any sense at all.

It’s Zen and the Art of the Road Trip month at The Displaced Nation. Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, famously said: “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.” Do you agree?
I’ve always loved long, uncomfortable journeys, whether in car, train, bus, boat, or on foot — the process of being in transit, of movement, of change. I even have a sick fascination with long stopovers in airports: sleeping curled up on an uncomfortable bench, announcements blaring over the loudspeakers.

So for me, yes, the journey is a little better. Having been here, in Cusco, for almost two years, I’m growing uncomfortably restless. My mother argues that this is fear of commitment on an epic scale, but I like my life most — feel like I’m learning the most — when I’m on the move, and in the first blush of a new life in a new place.

I will point out in my own defense that I maintain my work and studies even while on the road. In a very stop-start sort of fashion, I’m finishing a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and a Bachelor of Commerce in Economics from Deakin University in Melbourne, as part of their off-campus program. So I’m not completely irresponsible. (So there, Mum.)

Pirsig’s book details two types of personalities: 1) those who are interested mostly in gestalts so focus on being in the moment, not rational analysis; and 2) those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics. Which type are you?
Despite a thoroughly scientific upbringing and education — Dad’s an engineer — and a very rational approach to my studies, when it comes to travel and expat life I’m all about the gestalts. I stayed in Cusco on little more than a whim, and recently returned from an ill-planned but exhilaratingly unpredictable road trip to Ecuador in a Volkswagen Kombi. Every moment of that road trip was a surprise — the cast of characters, a rotating mix of backpackers and South American musicians and circus performers. We followed the sun north, took a minor detour inland to teach a music and clowning workshop to the children in a poor community, and played music on the beach.

But although I laughed and made wonderful new friends and was constantly surrounded by music, this road trip, with its constant visits to mechanics, was also the reminder I needed of the importance of the rational type of personality. Road trips in general are a wonderful encapsulation of this duality, I think. Driving with the windows down on the highway with the music blaring, going where the wind takes you…but going there in a machine that needs care and understanding and maintenance. I’ve leaned too heavily to the romantic side, and it’s time to start taking better care of my machine.

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

img: Camden Luxford on her recent road trip — in a tiny community about two hours form Pedernales in Ecuador, where she helped put on a juggling (among other things) workshop. She is posing with some of the kids and a teacher, along with members of the Colombian cumbia band she had as passengers for a couple of weeks. Yes, that’s the famous Kombi in the background!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, whose road-trip adventure of last week ended on a dramatic note. What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

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6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you

Any wannabe expat/travel writer would do well to consult with Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, herself a novelist and former expat, before beginning their Great Works. Kristin offers a wealth of writing tips on Writerhead, a blog that she launched on April 1 of this year (which, coincidentally, was the same day we launched The Displaced Nation).

Of the helpful hints Kristin has offered thus far, I have many favorites, but if I had to pick one, it would be her post entitled “Write Wee.” In her breathlessly inimitable style, Kristin assures us that producing a multi-volume series on one’s overseas adventures is not the way to go:

Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.

Find one story and tell it.

Just it.

The only thing I would add is that in general, women are better at extracting such nuggets than men.

Actually, what got me started in thinking about the difference in travel writing styles of the sexes was a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Edwardian novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, who penned the much-loved work, The Enchanted April, about four women who escape to a medieval castle in Italy for a much-needed break from their routines.

For me, von Arnim typifies one of characteristics that makes women’s travel writing so special (no doubt there are many more!). As she wandered far and wide across Europe and America, she paid extremely careful attention to the details of her surroundings.

A forerunner of what today we’d call a nature freak, she could get lost in telling the story of watching a “nightingale on a hornbeam, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun…” — I quote from her largely autobiographical novel The Solitary Summer, about a woman, also called Elizabeth, who is anything but solitary. She has a husband, to whom she refers as the Man of Wrath, small child and household to care for.

Perhaps such descriptive powers are born of necessity. Women have little choice but to make the most of spinning tales out of the moments they snatch from lives that are otherwise spent ministering to the needs of others — even when they’re technically on vacation.

Having combed through the pages of The Virago Book of Women Travellers (ed. Mary Morris with Larry O’Connor), I think I may be on to something. I discovered any number of women travel writers with the power to enchant their readers by capturing in their works the moments, exchanges, and personal ephiphanies their wanderings have yielded.

Here are six whose “nuggets” continue to gleam for us modern-day nomads:

Frances Trollope (1780-1863)

Who was she? Mother of Anthony and like her son, a prolific writer of novels (34 in total!).
Key work: Domestic Manners of the Americans, a travel book that made her name, about the four years she spent pursuing opportunities in the United States after her family suffered financial setbacks.

At length my wish of obtaining a house in the country was gratified….But even this was not enough to satisfy us when we first escaped from the city, and we determined upon having a day’s enjoyment of the wildest forest scenery we could find. So we packed up books, albums, pencils, and sandwiches, and, despite a burning sun, dragged up a hill so steep that we sometimes fancied we could rest ourselves against it by only leaning forward a little. In panting and in groaning we reached the top, hoping to be refreshed by the purest breath of heaven; but to have tasted the breath of heaven we must have climbed yet farther, even to the tops of the trees themselves, for we soon found that the air beneath them stirred not, nor ever had stirred, as it seemed to us, since first it settled there, so heavily did it weigh upon our lungs.

Still we were determined to enjoy ourselves, and forward we went, crunching knee deep through aboriginal leaves, hoping to reach some spot less perfectly air-tight than our landing place. Wearied with the fruitless search, we decided on reposing awhile on the trunk of a fallen tree; being all comfortably exhausted, the idea of sitting down on this tempting log was conceived and executed simultaneously by the whole party, and the whole party sunk together through its treacherous surface into a mass of rotten rubbish that had formed part of the pith and marrow of the eternal forest a hundred years before.

We were by no means the only sufferers from the accident; frogs, lizards, locusts, katydids, beetles, and hornets, had the whole of their various tenements disturbed, and testified their displeasure very naturally by annoying us as much as possible in return; we were bit, we were stung, we were scratched; and when, at last, we succeeded in raining ourselves from the venerable ruin, we presented as woeful a spectacle as can well be imagined. We shook our (not ambrosial) garments, and panting with heat, stings, and vexation, moved a few paces from the scene of our misfortune, and again sat down; but this time it was upon the solid earth.

We had no sooner begun to “chew the cud” of the bitter fancy that had beguiled us to these mountain solitudes than a new annoyance assailed us. A cloud of mosquitoes gathered round, and while each sharp proboscis sucked our blood, they teased us with their humming chorus, till we lost all patience, and started again on our feet, pretty firmly resolved never to try the al fresco joys of an American forest again.

Flora Tristan (1803-1844)

Who was she? French reformer who campaigned for workers’ and women’s rights; grandmother to artist Paul Gauguin.
Key work: Peregrinations of a Pariah, about a trip she made alone to Peru to stake her claim to her family’s fortune.

Mr. Smith took me to the house of his correspondents, and here once more I found all of the luxury and comfort characteristic of the English. The servants were English, and like their masters they were dressed just as they would have been in England. The house had a verandah, as do all the houses in Lima, and this is very convenient in hot countries, as it gives shelter from the sun and enables one to walk all round the house to take the air. This particular verandah was embellished with pretty English blinds. I stayed there for some time and could survey in comfort the only long wide street which constitutes the whole of Callao. It was a Sunday, and sailors in holiday attire were strolling about; I saw groups of Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans — in short, a mixture from nearly every nation — and I heard snatches from every tongue. As I listened to these sailors, I began to understand the charm they find in their adventurous life… When I tired of looking at the street I cast a glance into the large drawing-room whose windows overlooked the verandah, where five or six immaculately dressed Englishmen, their handsome faces calm and impassive, were drinking grog and smoking excellent Havana cigars as they swung gently to and fro from hammocks from Guayaquil suspended from the ceiling.

Mary Anne Barker (1831 – 1911)

Who was she? Jamaica-born, England-educated author and journalist who with her second husband tried to run a sheep station in New Zealand (they later traveled to Mauritius, Western Australia, Barbados and Trinidad for his colonial appointments).
Key works: Station Life in New Zealand (1870); First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking (1874); A Year’s Housekeeping in South Africa (1880).

All this beauty would have been almost too oppressive, it was on such a large scale and the solitude was so intense, if it had not been for the pretty little touch of life and movement afforded by the hut belonging to the station we were bound for. It was only a rough building, made of slabs of wood with cob between; but there was a bit of fence and the corner of a garden and an English grass paddock, which looked about as big as a pocket-handkerchief from where we stood. A horse or two and a couple of cows were tethered near, and we could hear the bark of a dog. A more complete hermitage could not have been desired by Diogenes himself, and for the first time we felt ashamed of invading the recluse in such a formidable body, but ungrudging, open-handed hospitality is so universal in New Zealand that we took courage and began our descent. … We put the least scratched and most respectable-looking member of the party in the van, and followed him, amid much barking of dogs, to the low porch; and after hearing a cheery “Come in,” answering our modest tap at the door, we trooped in one after the other till the little room was quite full. I never saw such astonishment on any human face as on that of the poor master of the house, who could not stir from his chair by the fire, on account of a bad wound in his leg from an axe. There he sat quite helpless, a moment ago so solitary, and now finding himself the centre of a large, odd-looking crowd of strangers. He was a middle-aged Scotchman, probably of not a very elevated position in life, and had passed many years in this lonely spot, and yet he showed himself quite equal to the occasion.

After that first uncontrollable look of amazement he did the honours of his poor hut with the utmost courtesy… His only apology was for being unable to rise form his arm-chair (made out of half a barrel and an old flour-sack by the way); he made us perfectly welcome, took it for granted we were hungry — hunger is a very mild world to express my appetite, for one… I never felt more awkward in my life than when I stooped to enter that low doorway, and yet in a minute I was quite at my ease again; but of the whole party I was naturally the one who puzzled him the most. In the first place, I strongly suspect that he had doubts as to my being anything but a boy in a rather long kilt; and when this point was explained, he could not understand what a “female,” as he also called me, was doing on a rough hunting expedition. He particularly inquired more than once if I had come of my own free will, and could not understand what pleasure I found in walking so far.

Vivienne de Watteville (1900 – 1957)

Who was she? British writer and adventurer who accompanied her father on a safari in Kenya. After he was killed by a lion, she finished the trip on her own.
Key works: Out in the Blue (1927); Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (1937).

Finally, it was the boys themselves who pointed to the summit and said it was not very far.

Enviously, I admired the way they could climb. As for me, … I was badly spent; my knees trembled as I panted up through the reeling boulders. …

At last I climbed above the forest zone, passing beneath the last outposts — stunted trees ragged with beard-moss in whose chequered shade lay a carpet of tiny peas … whose blossoms were a lovely transparent blue. Above them flitted miniature butterflies, as though the petals themselves had taken wing. …

The top, when I at last reached it, was, after all, not really the top, and beyond a dipping saddle another granite head still frowned down upon me.

But meanwhile, below me the south side disclosed a grassing depression girt about by the two summits and bare granite screes; and amid that desolation the grass stretched so green and rural that you had looked there for shepherds with their flocks. Instead of which, on the far side of a quaking bog, I saw — grey among the grey slabs — two rhino.

… I drew to within forty yards of the rhino, yet they still looked like a couple of grey boulders as they browsed off an isolated patch of sere grass. …

The wind had risen to a tearing gale, and nosing straight into it I approached the rhino somewhat downhill. There was no chance of this steady blow jumping around to betray me, and it was strong enough to carry away any sound of my footsteps. Precaution was therefore unnecessary, and I walked boldly up to them. Just how close I was, it is hard to say; but I felt that I could have flipped a pebble at them, and I noted subconsciously that the eye of the one nearest me was not dark brown as I had imagined it, but the colour of sherry.

… he now came deliberately towards me nose to the ground, and horn foremost, full of suspicion. … In the finder [of my small cinema camera] I saw his tail go up, and knew that he was on the point of charging. Though it was the impression of a fraction of a second, it was unforgettable. …

… I read the danger signal, yet in a kind of trance of excitement I still held the camera against my forehead. Then Mohamed fired a shot over the rhino’s head to scare him, and I turned and fled for my very life.

M. F. K. Fisher (1908 – 1992)

Who was she? A preeminent American food writer, whose books are an amalgam of food literature, travel and memoir.
Key works: How to Cook a Wolf (1942); Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964); Dubious Honors (1988); Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1991).

Monsieur Venot was a town character and was supposed to be the stingiest and most disagreeable man in Dijon, if not in the whole of France. But I did not know this, and I assumed that it was all right to treat him as if he were a polite and even generous person. I never bought much from him but textbooks, because I had no extra money, but I often spent hours in his cluttered shop, looking at books and asking him things, and sniffing the fine papers there, and even sitting copying things from books he would suggest I use at his worktable, with his compliments and his ink and often his paper. In other words, he was polite and generous to me, and I liked him. …

In Monsieur Venot’s shop I learned to like French books better than any others. They bent to the hand and had to be cut, page by page. I liked that; having to work to earn the reward, cutting impatiently through the cheap paper of a “train novel,” the kind bought in railroad stations to be thrown away and then as often kept for many years, precious for one reason or another. I liked the way the paper crumbled a little into my lap or my blanket or my plate, along the edges of each page.

Mary Lee Settle (1918 – 2005)

Who was she? American writer, novelist and expat, one of the founders of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Key works: “Beulah Quintet” novel series (1956-1982), about the history of her native West Virginia (and hence of America); Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place (1991).

I hadn’t heard anything move, yet he stood there in front of me, smiling, quite silent, a large strong Turkish man, holding in his hand a small bunch of sweet wild thyme. He held it toward me, saying nothing, still smiling. There was something so gentle about him that I could not be afraid. I took the wild thyme, and I thanked him, in Turkish. He smiled again and touched his mouth and his ear. He was deaf and dumb. I still have the wild thyme, pressed and dried, kept like a Victorian lady’s souvenir of the Holy Land.

Dumb was the wrong word for him. There was no need for speech. He was an actor, an eloquent mime. I pointed to the atrium below and held my hands apart to show I didn’t know how to get down into it. He took my arm, and carefully, slowly, led me down a steep pile of rubble.

He mimed the opening of a nonexistent door and ushered me through it. He showed me roofless room after roofless room after roofless room as if he had discovered them. …

I think he had scared people before, and he was happy that there was someone who would let him show his house, for it was his house. Maybe he didn’t sleep there. I don’t know. I only know that he treated me as a guest in a ruin ten feet below the levee of the ground, and that he took me from room to room where once there had been marble walls and now there was only stone, where he was host and owner for a little while.

He showed me a small pool, held out his hand the height of a small child, and then swam across the air. All the time he smiled. He took me to a larger pool and swam again. Then he grabbed my arm and led me through a dark corridor toward what I thought was at first a cave. It was not. He sat down in an niche in the corridor, and strained until his face was pink, to show me it was the toilet. Then he took me into the kitchen where there were two ovens. …

For the first one he rolled dough for bread, kneaded it in air, slapped it, and put it in the oven. Then he took it out, broke it, and shared it with me. I ate the air with him. …

When I gave my friend, my arkadaş, some money, he kissed my hand and held it to his forehead, and then, pleased with the sun and me, and the fact that someone had not run away from him who lived like Caliban in a ruin, he put his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then I went down the hill to Ephesus. When I looked back to wave he had disappeared.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a tell-all from Kate Allison on what inspired her to create her fictional expat heroine, Libby.

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