The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Cristina Baldan’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back. Having introduced herself to us in her opening column, she will use this second post to interview serial expat Cristina Baldan, about the impact of her various “homes” on her creative output. Did she appreciate living far from the madding crowd, or is it crowds that give her inspiration? Or perhaps a bit of both? —ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! As ML mentioned, I’m excited to welcome my first guest to the Displaced Nation: photographer, graphic designer and serial expat Cristina Baldan. A native of Italy, Cristina has lived in eight different countries in the past 16 years. Her present abode is in Maastricht, the southernmost point of the Netherlands, spanning the border with Belgium. On the creative side: she was involved in the creation of the site Expatclic, a multilingual platform that supports expat women, and is currently developing the site What Expats Can Do. It’s a new kind of initiative, and she’ll tell us about it below.

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Welcome, Cristina, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Italy but have lived on five continents and eight different locations. How did that come about?

I grew up and lived in the same town in Italy for 30 years, but then things started to change: I found a better job in a bigger city, and I got married and had my first child. My husband’s career then brought us to eight different locations in 16 years: Saudi Arabia, Nigeria (two different cities), France, Australia, Italy again, Canada, and now Maastricht. In the meantime, my family grew to five members plus one dog and, without completely realizing it, I was the living embodiment of the trailing spouse who would never be able to go back to her career in finance. Nowadays I am more aware of the richness that this kind of lifestyle has brought to my personal identity, and I am starting to find ways to rebuild my purpose and contribute something of worth to the wider world.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” Have you found this to be the case?

I enjoy living in big cities. The anonymity allows you to move around and explore the location despite cultural, social, linguistic or even physical constraints. It is easier to open yourself to new experiences, meet people at your own pace, and navigate the cultural challenges. When I was living in more isolated places, I found life much harder. In those places, locals can identify you immediately as a foreigner and this can be difficult to manage. Getting in touch with the local culture is not an easy process, and in rural or small-town environments it may require a huge amount of time—time that an expat like me doesn’t have, as the next move is always approaching. In cities, by contrast, people are more used to people coming and going, and the settling-in process is accelerated. Big cities also offer activities as ways to meet other internationals. An expat spouse who cannot work because of being home with kids and/or for visa reasons risks staying at home too much and never really facing up to culture shock.

So would you say that cities nurture your creativity more than rural environments?

All the places I lived in as an expat have nurtured my creativity in different ways. The nomadic way of life opened my mind: there was an entire world out there I had not been aware of, and I was eager to share it with others. My first hosting country was Saudi Arabia, where tradition and culture are fascinating but also difficult to explore. As a woman I was not allowed to be alone in public, walk alone in the street, drive, or indulge in conversations with men who weren’t relatives. Logistically this meant being confined mostly at home or in “Western adapted” locations. I had very few contacts with locals and few possibilities to get to know the local culture. Writing was the first thing I tried to do; it began mostly as a way to tell stories to the family and friends left behind: letters, emails, blogs… But then when I moved to Africa, writing became insufficient. There were so many new colours, situations, people: words were not enough any more. At that point I discovered documentary photography. Then, as I was gaining more and more knowledge about connections among cultures—and found myself particularly interested in the visual effects of those connections—I began to study graphic design and visual communication.

Can you give us a concrete illustration of a work of yours that was nurtured out of the places you have been to?

The images you see here were selected for, and displayed at, the first LagosPhoto Festival (in 2010). They belong to my photo series “Streets Economics – Lagos through and behind windows”.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan – the above four images cannot be copied, downloaded, or used in any way without the express, written permission of the photographer.

You’ve lived in so many places, but have referred to just two of them, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria (Lagos), in this conversation. What was it about these two locations that stimulated your creativity?

For me, it wasn’t the remoteness of these two places on the map that I found stimulating; rather, it was the remoteness of their cultures, which I wanted to get to know but there were so many constraints. Creativity grows when you’re facing external constraints, at least that’s been my experience. In Saudi Arabia, my freedom was restricted in various ways, so I turned to writing. In Nigeria, I tended to take photographs through the windows of my car, as this was least intrusive. And in Nigeria, photography was also the answer for me as I couldn’t get the requisite materials and colors from the market for painting pictures.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I am currently organizing our move back to Canada: it is time for us to settle down in one place after so many years of nomadic life. As soon as I get there, I am planning to open my freelance business as an intercultural graphic designer and photographer. Meanwhile, I am nurturing my new project, which was launched a few months ago (we presented it at FIGT 2017): whatexpatscando.com. We are trying to engage as many expats as possible in working toward a better world by leveraging our experiences and skills in managing cultural diversity. Please join us!

Thank you, Cristina!

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Readers, any further questions for Cristina on on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the community you live in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits:
Opening collage: All images are from Pixabay.
The four photos of Lagos were taken by Cristina Baldan and supplied by her for this post.

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