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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Best of expat fiction 2015

The title of this post is a lie: you didn’t miss anything. It’s we who missed our deadline of publishing, at the end of 2015, a list of books for, by and about expats.

Dare I suggest that our procrastination could prove fortuitous? Most of us have more time to read now that the holidays are over and the doldrums have set in—along with, for some of us (I refer to those on the East Coast of the USA), a spell of blizzardous weather. What better time to curl up with a book that in some way relates to the themes of international adventure and displacement?

Without further ado, allow me to offer my curated list of the best novels by, for, and about expats and other international creatives in 2015. (Nonfiction coming soon, we promise!)

PLEASE NOTE: The books, which include indie as well as traditionally published novels, are arranged in reverse chronological order.

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Year of the GooseYearoftheGoose_cover_400x (Unnamed Press, December 2015)
Author: Carly J. Hallman
Expat credentials: A native Texan, Hallman lives in Beijing. This is her first novel.
Synopsis: A comic novel about China’s era of the instant tycoon, which has been described as “unhinged”, “outrageous”, “deranged” and “hilarious. The oligarchical, tabloid-driven society it portrays is not unlike our own, which may be why the book was listed as one of the BBC’s 10 books to read in December 2015 as well as selected for the December 2015 Indie Next list.
How we heard about: The Anthill blog


TheNavyWife_cover_400xThe Navy Wife (December 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Originally from Finland, Halme has lived in the UK with her British husband for many years.
Synopsis: The sequel to Halme’s well-received autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed here by Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison), which concerns a long-distance romance between a Finnish woman, Kaisa, and a British naval officer, Peter. We see the couple, despite having tied the knot, facing a number of obstacles and threats to living happily ever after—especially when Kaisa doesn’t take well to the life of a military spouse in a foreign country.How we heard about: Social media, and a comment by Halme on one of our posts.


Seafled_cover_400xSeafled (November 2015), Burnt Sea (August 2015) & Seaswept (April 2015)
Author: Jordan Rivet (aka Shannon Young)
Expat credentials: An American, Young has lived in Hong Kong for the past few years with her half-Chinese husband, a Hong Kong native.
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic adventure series set on a souped-up cruise ship, featuring a prickly female mechanic named Esther. The series, called the Seabound Chronicles, consists of three books and a prequel.
How we heard about: Young writes the popular “Diary of an Expat Writer” column for the Displaced Nation.


TheJapaneseLover_cover_400xThe Japanese Lover (Atria Books, November 2015)
Author: Isabel Allende
Expat credentials: Born in Lima, Peru, to a Chilean diplomatic family, Allende lived in various countries, including Chile, Bolivia, and Beirut. As an adult she worked in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe; she also lived for over a decade in Venezuela. She currently lives in San Rafael, California.
Synopsis: A cross-cultural love story that sweeps from present-day San Francisco to WWII-era Poland the United States. It explores questions of identity, abandonment, and redemption.
How we heard about it: Who hasn’t heard about it? It was one of the most anticipated books of 2015!


TheDisobedientWife_cover_400xThe Disobedient Wife (Cinnamon Press, November 2015)
Author: Annika Milisic-Stanley
Expat credentials: Born to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Milisic-Stanley grew up in England and now lives in Rome. She says she based the plot on stories she heard when living in Dushanbe as a humanitarian aid worker for several years.
Synopsis: The story of the friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and her employer, a trailing expat wife married to a British diplomat.
How we heard about: An interview with Kristin Louise Duncombe, an American writer who has lived in Europe since 2001.


CrimeRave_cover_400xCrime Rave (The Margins Press, November 2015)
Author: Sezin Koehler
Expat credentials: Koehler is an adult Third Culture Kid who lived in Prague for some years and now lives in Florida. She has written several posts for the Displaced Nation, including a two-part series listing movies that depict the horrors of being abroad or otherwise displaced.
Synopsis: The second installment to her debut novel, American Monsters. Picking up where that one left off while jumping genres, the new book presents an alternate universe in which goddesses have free reign over humans, trauma goes hand in hand with superpowers, and Marilyn Monroe lives.
How we heard about: A Facebook post by Koehler


ADecentBomber_cover_400xA Decent Bomber (November 2015)
Author: Alexander McNabb
Expat credentials: A Brit who has been working in, living in and traveling around the Middle East for some thirty years, McNabb was featured on The Displaced Nation three years ago for his “Levant Cycle” trilogy.
Synopsis: Another political thriller—but this one is set in Northern Ireland and concerns a former IRA bomb maker who is drafted against his will into joining the War on Terror.
How we heard about: He sent us a heads up, and Beth Green reviewed the book in her last column. She found it well researched, well written and an enjoyable read.


ThePalestInk_cover_400xThe Palest Ink (Lake Union Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Kay Bratt
Expat credentials: Bratt lived in China for almost five years, where she “fell in love enough with the people to want to write about them forever.” She has since repatriated to the hills of North Carolina. (She is also the author of a memoir, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. )
Synopsis: A story that depicts the coming-of-age of a sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, during a tumultuous period of Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution.
How we heard about: Kindle promotion.


Olivia&Sophia_cover_400xOlivia & Sophia (Monsoon Books, October 2015)
Author: Rosie Milne
Expat credentials: A native Brit, Milne has lived all over Asia; she currently lives in Singapore, where she runs the Asian Books Blog.
Synopsis: A fictional account of the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives: Olivia Devinish and Sophia Hull. Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”
How we heard about: When Rosie Milne was “wonderlanded” on our site, we published a couple of excerpts from the book.


NowhereChild_coverNowhere Child (Black Dot Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Rachel Abbott
Expat credentials: Abbott fled from the corporate life to Italy, which gave her the opportunity to start writing psychological thrillers. Her first one was a break-out hit on Kindle, and she hasn’t looked back. Currently, Abbott divides her time between Italy (where she lives in an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands (just off the coast of France). But although the expat life gave her a new career as a writer, Abbott sets her books mostly in her native Manchester.
Synopsis: A stand-alone novella featuring the same characters as Abbott’s Stranger Child. Eight months ago Tasha Joseph ran away, and her stepmother, Emma, has been searching for her ever since—as are the police, since Tasha could be a vital witness in a criminal trial.
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Abbott for her Location, Locution column in December.


TheHundredYearFlood_cover_400xThe Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, September 2015)
Author: Matthew Salesses
Expat credentials: Salesses was adopted from Korea at the age of two and often writes about race and adoption. This is his first full-length novel.
Synopsis: The mythical and magical story of a 22-year-old Korean-American’s escape to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. He tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between himself and his adopted father.
How we heard about: Social media


TheDressmaker_cover_400xThe Dressmaker (Penguin Books, August 2015*)
Author: Rosalie Ham
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Jerilderie, Australia, Ham now lives in Melbourne. Like most Australians, she has had a period of traveling and living overseas.
Synopsis: A darkly satirical tale of love, revenge, and 1950s fashion. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She plans only to check on her ailing mother and leave. But Tilly decides to stay, and though she is still an outcast, her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Note: The book is soon to be a film starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times
*Originally published in 2000, this is the film adaptation of the book.


CirclingtheSun_cover_400xCircling the Sun (Ballantine Books, July 2015)
Author: Paula McLain
Expat credentials: None! Her breakout novel, The Paris Wife, was about an expat: Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose passionate marriage ended as her husband shot into literary stardom. This time her focus is the Happy Valley set, a decadent community of Europeans in 1920s colonial Kenya. As she told NPR in a recent interview:

You know, I wrote most of The Paris Wife in a coffee shop in Cleveland. I don’t have to tell you that a Starbucks in Cleveland is about as far away from a Parisian cafe as you can possibly get. And I also wrote about Kenya, the wild African frontier, from my home in Cleveland without having ever gone there. You can’t really visit colonial Kenya, can you? You can’t really visit Paris in 1922, except in your imagination.

Synopsis: Based on the real-life story of the fearless and captivating Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator who became caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
How we heard about: A New York Times review by the expat writer Alexandra Fuller.


TheAmbassadorsWife_cover_400xThe Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday, July 2015)
Author: Jennifer Steil
Expat credentials: A Boston-born former journalist, Steil is married to a Brit who once served as ambassador to Yemen, where a suicide bomber attacked him. She is also the author of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about her experiences running a newspaper in Yemen. She lives in Bolivia, where her husband is the European Union ambassador.
Synopsis: A harrowing account of the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband, the British ambassador to an Arab country, must make in the hope of being reunited.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “marriage plots” novel.


TheStarSideofBurnHill_cover_400xThe Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, June 2015)
Author: Naomi Jackson
Expat credentials: A Third Culture Kid, Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.
Synopsis: The story of two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, who are suddenly sent from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “coming of age” novel.


TheWolfBorder_cover_400xThe Wolf Border (Harper, June 2015)
Author: Sarah Hall
Expat credentials: Born in northwest England, Hall lived in Wales while attending Aberystwyth. She went on to study in Scotland (St. Andrews) for an MA, where she met and married an American law student. Though the marriage was short-lived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel writing. The pair was based in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. At that time, Hall visited the Idaho reservation that appears in this book. She currently lives in Norwich, UK.
Synopsis: About a controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, which brings zoologist Rachel Caine, who has lived a solitary existence in a remote section of Idaho, far away from her estranged family in England, back to the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The novel explores the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness—as well as the frontier of the human spirit.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


IntheCountry_cover_400xIn the Country: Stories (Knopf, June 2016)
Author: Mia Alvar
Expat credentials: Born in the Philippines, Alvar was raised in Bahrain and the United States. She now lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Synopsis: A collection of nine short stories about Filipinos living overseas. Alvar has imagined the lives of exiles, emigrants, and wanderers who uprooted their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turned back again.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheDiversClothesLieEmpty_cover_400xThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco, June 2015)
Author: Vendela Vida
Expat credentials: Born and raised in San Francisco, Vida is the daughter of two immigrant parents: a Swedish mother and a Hungarian father. She has become known for producing “travel trauma” narratives, exploring the lives of competent women who feel disintegrating marriages for distant lands (i.e., the Philippines, Finland and Turkey). Her latest novel, considered to be her “finest work” to date, was inspired by a trip she took to Morocco where her bag was stolen.
Synopsis: A literary thriller that probes the malleability of identity, told with lush detail and a sense of humor. Robbed of her money and passport in Casablanca, Morocco, an American woman feels free to be anyone she chooses.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times.


ChinaRichGirlfriend_cover_400xChina Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday, June 2015)
Author: Kevin Kwan
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Singapore, Kwan has lived in Manhattan for the past two decades. He says he still craves “craves pineapple tarts and a decent plate of Hokkien mee.“
Synopsis: Follows the story of the culture-shocked Rachel Chu as she searches for her mysterious birth father in Shanghai in hopes he’ll walk her down the isle at her upcoming wedding. The book is a sequel to Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians, picking up a few years after those events. Both books take place in the world of Hong Kong and Singapore’s super-super elite.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheRocks_cover_400xThe Rocks (Riverhead Books, May 2015)
Author: Peter Nichols
Expat credentials: Nichols grew up partially on Mallorca (while attending boarding school in England), where he got to know other Northern Europeans. He has worked in advertising and as a screenwriter, and a shepherd in Wales. He divides his time between Europe and the United States. In 1997 he produced a riveting memoir, Sea Change, telling of the time when he set off alone across the Atlantic in his beloved 27-foot wooden engineless sailboat, Toad, which he and his (now ex-) wife had lived on for six years, fixing it up, making it into their home, sharing adventures on it.
Synopsis: A tragic double romance, told in reverse, primarily set in a seaside resort in Mallorca and its enduring expat community.
How we heard about: From a book review in the New York Times.


coming-home_cover_400xComing Home (Mira, April 2015)
Author: Annabel Kantaria
Expat credentials: A Telegraph Expat blogger who has been featured on the Displaced Nation, Kantaria has lived in Dubai with her family for several years.
Synopsis: The story of a woman living in Dubai because she wants to flee the pain of her brother’s death but then heads for home upon receiving word of her father’s sudden death. Kantaria says that writing the book helped her “explore that push and pull and sense of displacement you feel when you have a foot in two countries.”
How we heard about: A Telegraph Expat post on expat-themed summer reads, by Rosie Milne


APlaceCalledWinter_cover_400xA Place Called Winter (Grand Central Publishing, March 2015)
Author: Patrick Gale
Expat credentials: Born in the Isle of Wight, Gale was an expat of sorts when his family moved to London. During his misspent youth, he lived at one point in a crumbling French chateau. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End.
Synopsis: The story of a privileged Edwardian man who has a homosexual affair and, for fear of arrest, is forced to abandon his wife and child: he signs up for emigration to the Canadian prairies. He reaches a world as far away as possible from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century England. The story is loosely based on a real-life family mystery of Gale’s gentleman great-grandfather. The plot in a nutshell: “To find yourself, you must sometimes lose everything.”
How we heard about: Gale was a featured author at the Port Eliot Festival, which takes place yearly on an ancient estate in Saint Germans, Cornwall, UK.


TheArtofUnpackingYourLife_cover_400xThe Art of Unpacking Your Life (Bloomsbury Reader, March 2015)
Author: Shireen Jilla
Expat credentials: A journalist-turned-novelist who now lives in London, Jilla has been an expat in Paris, Rome, and New York. The Displaced Nation did a feature on her first novel, Exiled, about a British expat wife in New York.
Synopsis: The story of a group of university friends who set out on the holiday of a lifetime, a safari in the Kalahari, only to find they don’t have much in common any more.
How we heard about: Social media and then Beth Green interviewed her.


TheTehranText_cover_400xThe Tehran Text – The Tana Standish Spy Series #2 (Crooked Cat Publishing, February 2015)
Author: Nik Morton
Expat credentials: Morton spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit (among others) Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also traveled widely in his private life. He and his wife are now retired in Alicante, Spain.
Synposis: Second of Morton’s Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish (first was The Prague Papers). Iran is in ferment and the British Intelligence Service wants Tana Standish’s assessment. It appears that CIA agents are painting too rosy a picture, perhaps because they’re colluding with the state torturers…
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Morton for her Location, Locution column last July.


Outline_cover_400xOutline (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2015)
Author: Rachel Cusk
Expat credentials: Born in Canada, Cusk spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles. She moved to the UK in 1974 and is a graduate of Oxford University. She now lives in London.
Synopsis: About a divorced writer who lives in London with her two youngish children, covering the several days she spends in Athens, where she has gone to teach a writing class. She ends up spending time with a much older Greek bachelor she met on the plane.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times

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Tell me, what have I missed? I’m sure I’ve missed loads!! Kindly leave your recommendations for novels for, by, and about expats that came out in 2015 in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe for the new year?

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, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

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HERE BE DRAGONS: All those cities you’ve visited on your travels? They’re the lego bricks for cityscapes in fantasy writing

Citiscapes Collage

(Clockwise from top) Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, Germany (photo credit: Andrew Couch); tram in Naples (photo credit: Andrew Couch); legos (photo credit: Morguefiles).

HERE BE DRAGONS is back, a column produced by fantasy writer Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany. We at the Displaced Nation have long been aware of the strong connection between fantasy (think Alice in Wonderland) and a life of international travel and residency. And now Andrew has got us pondering the idea of turning our adventures into fantasy stories!

—ML Awanohara

Last month on HERE BE DRAGONS, we talked about landscapes: the soaring mountains, unusual geographical formations, torrential storms, and other distinctive natural phenomena that can be used to build a whole new world for a fantasy story.

This month we move to cityscapes: the landscape’s urban counterpart, which has been largely shaped by the hands of man (or beast, depending on your story).

One thing I am learning while writing fantasy novellaswhich has only been reinforced by the posts for this columnis how much I’ve been influenced by my expat life and international travels when attempting to construct my own worlds.

When the bricks stick together, great things can be accomplished…

After living in Europe for several years, I now have a catalog of cityscapes to draw on, from grungy parts of London to quiet Parisian parks to industrialized Hamburg. What’s more, each area of every city has its own distinct sights, sounds and smells. And I’ve come to think of these various parts as my lego bricks for assembling the fantasy cityscape that features in my novellas.

I have heard that the second book is often harder for writers than the first. I am definitely finding this to be the case, but mostly due to character and plot, not setting. The setting of my next few novellas is the city of Resholm, which is perched on the line of cliffs called the Dropline. In creating Resholm I was heavily influenced by my impressions of Hamburg, a city in northern Germany that has a long history of being a free port. Resholm, too, is a port:

QueenOfCloudPirates_cover

A skyline of towers along the ridge watched over the cargo and warehouse districts which dripped down the side of the steep slope, nearly to the edge of the cliffs themselves. Soaring arches piled on soaring arches cut the area in various places to hold up the docking piers. A handful of ships were moored across the area.

Hamburg also has the Speicherstadt, an area where goods could come and go without having to pay customs. I got to thinking, what would a city feel like if it had been created solely for the purpose of moving goods and not for the people in it? Resholm grew from this contemplation. In the stories, the police force exists primarily to safeguard the movement of goods in and out of the port, not to protect residents from harm:

“I don’t know,” Arnhelm said. An hour had passed since the officers of the Teeth had shuffled Jason and him into separate rooms. “Why don’t you ask her? Why are you even hounding my uncle and me? One of her goons nearly killed us and blew up a building in the docks.”

“Listen here, sonny,” the man said. “First off, neither the town nor its populace is in our jurisdiction. Resholm survives on its free port and our duty is to keep it safe. Safe for goods, safe for money and safe for free trade. In my experience, people take care of themselves. If they are smart.”

He leaned forward, picked up a piece of paper from the table between them and began to read. “Endangering goods in the warehouses. Bypassing a checkpoint. Reckless endangerment of transport. And that is before we even talk about the destroyed building in the docklands.”

Could I have created Resholm by studying photos of cityscapes found on the Internet? Probably, but I don’t think the result would have been as rich. Walking around a city is the best way to pick up its sounds, smells and sensations. Building a fantasy city from such memories, you become aware of the details that need to be included. For instance, I decided to include Hamburg’s tall, red-brick warehouses in the Speicherstadt, complete with their cranes and rails to move goods, in Resholm as well. The architecture so happens to date back to the late 1800s, which is the time period I am aiming to replicate in my story.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you are building…as long as you’re enjoying the fantasy!

Of course, Hamburg is on water and isn’t dripping down the side of a cliff with airships docked at each level, but hey, it’s fantasy, which means I have the freedom to do what I want:

Only one bulb remained lit and he and Lucia left the tram car. They walked up a set of steps to the road which ran along the level five terrace. The smell of engine exhaust, unwashed humanity and a hint of damp stone assaulted Lors’ nose. The constant wind he had gotten used to didn’t seem to penetrate the row of buildings enough to clear the miasma. Despite the lack of wind, the street was cold. The docklands were in perpetual shadow on the northern slope. He could see the sky between the airships docked at the level above, but its light was so weak that lamps on poles shed he needed the scattered poles with their glowing globes to see anything in the eternal twilight.

A pair of tracks ran down the center of the road. Men stood on carts which ran back and forth controlling them with long handles. Sidings led off to both sides at each building. There was plenty of space to walk on either side, but they had to dodge carts and step carefully to make much headway. This was a place built for shipping goods. People served the crates they carried, not the other way around.

By no means does a fantasy city have to be built from a single real world city. The town square of Resholm is based on my memories of Poznań, Poland. The funiculars that service the docklands are from a day I spent wandering in Naples, Italy, and became fascinated with its tramway network. There are also some pieces of the city that owe to my meanderings in New York. But again, these are my lego bricks that I used to construct a stage for my characters to act upon and interact with each other.

Although my books fall more into the adventure—the characters must traverse a wide terrain—there is an entire genre of urban fantasy set solely in cities. If this kind of thing intrigues you, check out the following works:

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Wannabe fantasy writers who are also travel buffs, how about you? Have you collected some cityscapes on your wanderings 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 next week’s fab posts!

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Ask Mary-Sue: Dyngus Day and other great excuses for partying

Mary-Sue Wallace, The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, is back. Her thoughtful advice eases and soothes any cross-cultural quandary or travel-related confusion you may have. Submit your questions and comments here, or else by emailing her at thedisplacednation@gmail.com.

Well, hello there, Mary-Suers. Hope you and yours had an EGGciting Easter (or Passover, though forget the egg-pun if that was the case).

I have to admit to being pooped by Easter weekend! It was one thing after the other in the Wallace household, and that means plenty of work for me, with hubby Jake nowhere to be seen (if the Easter bunny gave away charcoal to the undeserving, like a certain Mr Claus does, then that’s what hubby Jake would have gotten yesterday). So I was left to cook the ham, supervise the little ones when they made a total mess with the egg dying, and organize the egg hunt that we put on in our garden for all the neighborhood kids. Jake just kept watching the golf on TV, telling me someone called Bubba had won — I was unimpressed, let me tell you. If we had a dog house (we don’t, the dogs sleep on the bed with us), that’s where Jake would have been last night.

Anyhoo, you’ve probably had enough of my yapping when there’s your problems to solve, so let’s get on with them — two on this month’s theme of partying, and one a holdover from last month, when I was bombarded with questions on fashion and beauty.

__________________________________________

Dear Mary-Sue,

I am an American living in Poland. I’ve found it interesting to celebrate Easter here, though to be honest, I have my doubts about Dyngus Day, which is celebrated the Monday after Easter (what we used to call Easter Monday back in the town where I grew up in Kansas). On Dyngus Day, the men chase after the ladies with squirt guns, buckets, or other containers of water. They also  hit them on the legs with switches or pussy willows. Ladies allegedly get their revenge the following day by throwing crockery at the men.

What do you make of this custom? I think it all sounds rather pagan — more like a rite of spring than a proper Easter celebration. Would love to get your opinion.

Wendy from Wichita via Warsaw

Dear Wendy,

I’ll be honest, I’m not impressed. Sounds like the sort of shenanigans that my younger, trashy brother Dan and his wife Sandy get up to in Ringling. Dan’s always off getting drunk at the local dive bars, I know for a fact he and his buddies there have organized wet T-shirt competitions. Put Dan near a pert, pretty thing and he’ll bring out his water gun.

Once she finds out, his wife Sandy lets him know precisely what she thinks of him. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she’s thrown a fair few pieces of crockery in her time. Can’t say I blame her, but my sympathies end when one of them comes asking if I can “loan” them the money to bail the other one out.

Is Warsaw like Ringling, Wendy? Think I may have to give it a miss, or open a bail bond there — sounds like I’d make a fortune!

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I’m an English expat in the US — an experience that to be honest has made me even prouder of my British heritage. I’ve just now learned that today is Winston Churchill Day in the US, to celebrate the day in 1963 when our great PM was made an honorary US citizen (posthumously). Looking around, though, I don’t see much sign of celebration, and I’d like to do my part in changing that, for instance, by hanging up a Union Jack flag outside my house. Can you suggest any other measures I could take that would appeal to my new American friends? Perhaps a little party might be in order?

Harry from Harrow on the Hill via Hoboken, NJ

Dear Harry,

Own it completely. Organize a shindig centered around Sir Winston. Perhaps you could hit a cigar bar where you could all smoke like ol’ Winny and maybe indulge in a few brandies. When nicely lubricated, you could then, in the spirit of greater national understanding and that there’s no hard feelings, head to your nearest German restaurant for bratwurst, wiener schnitzel and beer.

Mary-Sue

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Dear Mary-Sue,

I can’t sleep! I recently spent a week in Rome and did some serious window shopping and all I saw was bald mannequins! Just have a look here

I have a hair appointment tomorrow: Should I go bald?

Anon

Dear Anon,

As George Santayana so wisely put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Do we really want to repeat the mistakes of the early 1990s?

I lived through Sinéad O’Connor once, I won’t do so again. If I catch you, Anon, all bald and tearing up a photo of the Pope on Letterman, I will be VERY disappointed.

Mary-Sue
___________________________________________

Anyhoo, that’s all from me readers. I’m so keen to hear about your cultural issues and all your juicy problems. Do drop me a line with any problems you have, or if you want to talk smack about Delilah Rene.

Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She is the best-selling author of Traveling Made Easy, Low-Fat Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, The Art of War: The Authorized Biography of Samantha Brown, and William Shatner’s TekWar: An Unofficial Guide. If you have any questions that you would like Mary-Sue to answer, you can contact her at thedisplacednation@gmail.com, or by adding to the comments below.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post. Mary-Sue has heard it’s going to be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Europe works its charm

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

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

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

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

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

The ghost of holidays past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

The lingering fairy tale of New York

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

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

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

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

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

Volunteerism, burning bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mia Wasikowska — a Third Culture Kid who is no Cinderella

Neatly coinciding with The Displaced Nation’s recent themes of the Royal Wedding and Gothic Tales, Maureen Dowd in her New York Times article “Who Married Up: The Women or the Men?” compares Cinderella with Kate Middleton and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

While the comparison with Kate Middleton is oft-cited, Bronte’s tale is less obvious: the story of a society misfit Plain Jane who suffers a series of gothic melodramas before finally claiming her maimed prince – but on her own terms. It’s possible that at some point during her ten-year waiting game in which Prince William apparently called all the shots, Kate Middleton may have sympathized with Jane Eyre’s wistful statement in the latest adaptation of Bronte’s novel:

“I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man.”

A shooting star who needs no wishes

Mia Wasikowska, who stars in the title role of Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre,” needs no such wishful thinking. The 21-year-old Australian had her first US TV role at 17, was named the following year as one of  Variety magazine’s Top Ten Actors To Watch, and won the 2010 Hollywood Film Festival Award for Best Breakthrough Actress. Until “Jane Eyre” came along, she was best known for her portrayal of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

While it is hard to imagine two female characters more different than Jane Eyre and Alice,  they do share some similarities:  Jane’s feeling of exile, of being shunned by society, is echoed in Burton’s Alice. In an interview with Australian Harper’s Bazaar, Wasikowska spoke of her interpretation of the role:

“Alice has a certain discomfort within herself, within society and among her peers. I feel similarly, or have definitely felt similarly, about all of those things, so I could really understand her not quite fitting in.”

Although Ms. Wasikowska  does not elaborate about her own feelings of displacement — and certainly most young women feel insecure at some time or other —  one can’t help wondering if she is referring to travel experiences in her childhood and teens.

A TCK in Tinseltown

The daughter of an Australian father and Polish-born mother, Wasikowska is a TCK (Third Culture Kid.) She was born and raised in Canberra, Australia, and when she was eight years old the family moved to Szczecin, Poland, for a year, during which time they also traveled in France, Germany and  Russia.  At 17, she was cast in the role of Sophie in HBO’s “In Treatment,” which necessitated a move to Los Angeles.

One could argue that anyone, of any nationality, who is flung into the Hollywood carnival at such a tender age could qualify for the label of TCK.

Ignore the naysayers

The US Department of State defines Third Culture Kids as:

“those who have spent some of their growing up years in a foreign country and experience a sense of not belonging to their passport country when they return to it…they are often considered an oddity [and] what third culture kids want most is to be accepted as the individuals they are.”

A most depressing definition, highlighting the bad and ignoring all the good. It says nothing of the inevitable expansion of horizons that enable a TCK to empathize with other ways of life, to walk in another’s shoes – and if you’re an actor, the ability to walk in another’s shoes is crucial.

It would be nice to think that, despite governmental gloom, TCK experiences played a part in Wasikowska’s professional development and rocketing career.

Home is where reality is

Canberra is still Wasikowska’s home, however, and she lives there with her family between film projects. When asked by PopEater if she was treated like a celebrity at home, she answered:

“I still take the rubbish out and empty the dishwasher. It’s good going back for that reason.”

Well, that’s OK. After all, Kate Middleton said she intended to cook dinner for Prince William when they married.

And I expect even Cinderella swept a few floors in her new castle.

Img: Tomdog/Wikimedia Commons

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