The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Road trips

The road trip and the teenage soul

Beginning today, Charlotte Day joins The Displaced Nation as monthly columnist and will comment on our themes from her third culture kid (Australia-US-UK) perspective. September, of course, was road trip month. Though Charlotte has yet to earn her driver’s license, the prospect of free time between high school and university has begun to fuel her imagination…

Sitting at my English boarding school desk, with English boarding school weather drizzling down from the sky outside my window, the idea of a road trip seems utterly foreign. While I’ve been putting together my application for English universities over the past week, which involves a disgustingly trite “personal statement,” the post-exam summer has been jeering at me from behind an ever-growing pile of books.

The road trip represents all of a stressed and stifled sixth former’s ideals, the first being absolute freedom. This freedom is born more of security than anything else — exams finished, hopefully a university offer in the bag, five whole months to dispose of, no looming responsibilities. The image of the angst-ridden teenager is romanticized and misguided: we do not seek malaise and uncertainty but rather comfort and certainty.

Evaluated in this sense, the road trip is akin to a ghost story. The pleasure we take in listening to ghost stories comes from the knowledge that, though the tale itself may threaten, secure reality encircles and protects us. Teenagers nowadays go adventuring in South America, more often than not supervised by charitable organizations and subsidized by their parents. Setting off into the wilds, they seek a future that doesn’t seem vulnerable to any current of chance. Rather, adventure is a brief detour from a pre-set plan.

I have often contemplated my own post-exam adventure in the form of a road trip across the Australian desert with one of my oldest friends. Yet, I am tempted to wonder, what is the point of venturing into the unknown, if only to return to the comfort of the known?

A true coming-of-age adventure would take courage — and would not end in merely turning the van around and arriving home with several memory-sticks full of photographs. That said, I do not cancel the possibility of driving through my native country — an experience that would very likely prove both enjoyable and “life-changing” in a tame sense. But my phantom road trip, eschewing tameness and security, is, undoubtedly, more interesting material for this column.

Let us begin, then, with the road. (I can’t say I know much about roads, save that hairpin bends on a mountainside are as hair-raising as country dirt roads are romantic.) Given that this is the Displaced Nation, familiarity with the territory is out of the question. I will forcibly displace myself — ruling out the United States, England and Australia.

Setting out to conquer … Western Siberia?

This still leaves a huge selection of countries — and having done the electronic version of sticking a pin at random in a world atlas, I have settled on Western Siberia.

Given I am a passionate Russophile and speak a modicum of Russian, my cursor couldn’t have landed on a better country. But confronted with the expanse of Western Siberia, it is doubtful that either of these qualities will be of much use. Perhaps it is telling that Google maps cannot plot a journey from Yakutsk, through Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, to Novosibirsk.

One dilemma instantly presents itself: where would I stop and spend the night? I would doubtless end up sleeping in the car for the vast majority of the trip, which brings us to the car itself. In my perhaps misguided road-trip fantasies, I had always pictured one of those old Volkswagen vans — slightly falling apart, squeaking along an endless highway.

But the prospect of breaking down in the middle of Western Siberia does not appeal to me. I must settle for a more prosaic Winnebago-type vehicle, and seek excitement elsewhere. And, as traveling through a wooded desert of sorts, alone, would be not only foolhardy but isolating, a companion seems necessary.

But who, of my sensible friends and relatives, would jump at the chance to travel Siberia in a Winnebago with an insane Russophile?

Given this journey is a child of my fancy, I will not scruple to add another fantastic fabrication: someone whom the power of affection has persuaded to join me on my ill-advised quest. In short, a boyfriend: thoroughly idealized, as a genuine boy in his late teens would prove a terrible nuisance, stuck in a Winnebago from Yakutsk to Novosibirsk. (But of course, the conceit of the comfortable Winnebago is also absurd: such things are found with difficulty in Russia.)

Relishing the … monotony?

You may ask, save an endless parade of trees, open space, greyish vegetation, what would I hope to see? Just that, smattered with the odd town, church cupola, river, lake, blue sky, grey sky, sunrise and sunset.

Unlike Konstantin Levin of Anna Karenina, I do not see myself losing my heart to the Russian land, and devoting my future to wheat threshing. I would become an unfulfilled Chekhovian heroine, stifled in the provinces.

But I believe the fields must be seen, just as we must eat bread, where macaroons would bring more pleasure to the taste buds. Macaroons, far from nourishing, make us fat and complacent. Bread sustains, and makes us grateful to be alive and fed.

I would like to see land in all its endless, characterless glory, to drive from sunrise to sunset, and to talk the night through (although not literally, as I would be loath to crash my Winnebago through exhausted inattention).

I envisage some sort of talisman, suspended from my rear-view mirror—and not one of those scented pine trees, seen so frequently dangling from the rear-view mirrors of American cars. Perhaps an Australian gum leaf on a string, as a reminder of my greater journey’s starting point, now eleven years in the distance.

After all, if I am not to return to the known at the end of this journey, I must bring a fragment of it with me, into the dangerous, the blank, the uncharted space, from which discovery springs.

Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, before she sets out on any phantom — or real — road-trip adventures?

img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, the first in a new series on the joys and challenges of being an expat in France and attempting to master French cookery.

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

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The light-hearted answer to Robert Pirsig — travel author Allie Sommerville

I know what you’re thinking. They can’t seriously be planning to feature Allie Sommerville in a month where they’re celebrating the joys of the open road?

For those who haven’t heard the news yet, Sommerville is the author of Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller, and we’re doing an interview with her today, as well as an e-book giveaway (for DISPLACED DISPATCH subscribers only — sign up NOW!).

But before we proceed, allow me to say a few words in Sommerville’s — and our — defense.

As much as Sommerville may moan about her travel misadventures, as one of her Amazon reviewers puts it: “Methinks she doth protest too much.”

I would concur. In my own interactions with Sommerville, I’ve come to think of her as a gentler, more light-hearted version of Robert Pirsig, who penned the brilliant, if opaque, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, on which we’ve based many of our posts this month.

The two have much more in common than it may at first seem. Like Pirsig, Sommerville has faced the reality of sustained travel on the open road and the many challenges it entails — particularly if your vehicle of choice is a motorcycle or campervan.

Also like him, she has concluded that for a road trip to be a success, you must have a yin and a yang.

The main difference is that for Sommerville, these concepts are physical, not metaphysical — as in two people, herself and her Other Half, Harry.

She is the yin — the dancer, the poet, the writer — to poor Harry’s yang. He is the driver of the couple’s broken down but beloved RV, in charge of all repairs. And when things go awry, as they very often do, Sommerville injects a philosophical sense of humor for some perspective on the situation — a technique on a par with Pirsig’s philosophical musings.

Take, for instance, the very first road trip the couple made in this rickety vehicle, to Spain — all because Sommerville had developed an obsession with British poet Laurie Lee‘s memoir about tramping through Spain.

So far so predictable: Sommerville as driving force behind the adventure, her Other Half as driver. But then what happens when the campervan proves too wide for a Spanish street? He sweats it while she searches for an entertaining story in their predicament:

There was no room for manoeuvre. … With both sides of the van threatening to add a new dimension to the walls of the houses, it was nigh on impossible for either of us even to climb out…

By now we were becoming aware that we’d attracted the interest of several ancient and well-oiled patrons of a bar just up ahead, and our little drama turned into a full-scale pantomime as they began gesticulating and beckoning us on.

“Sí! Sí!…Se puede!” they exclaimed excitedly and at the same time doing what could only be described as some sort of grotesque ritual dance.

This was a good time to remember the meaning of those words in my favourite scene from the language video.

Se puede! They seem to think we can do it!” I translated helpfully.

So, without further ado, I give you the light-hearted Robert Pirsig: Allie Sommerville.

Tell me a little more about your background.
I was born in Croydon, which was in the county of Surrey at the time — now though, notoriously part of Greater London — and my husband is from London. After setting up home in Croydon for a few years, we moved to the Isle of Wight in 1976 to build our own house and give our two young children a better area to grow up in.

We are both, even after all this time, what Islanders call “overners” (an abbreviated form of “overlanders”). Only people actually born here qualify as “caulkheads.”

Uneasy Rider, which was published in 2009, was my first book. I’ve just published my second, a memoir about my childhood, on Kindle. It’s called To set my feet a-dancing and takes a light-hearted look at a time when children were allowed play in the park until dark, clothes were home made and owning a car meant you were rich. I draw a lot upon my time as a young amateur dancer, telling about my appearances with my older sister in shows arranged by our rather eccentric dancing teacher. I also look at schooldays, Christmases past and seaside holidays in an age of innocence.

I began this project after researching my family history for many years. It occurred to me that our children have no idea about how my generation lived as children in late 1950s England. Life has changed beyond anything we could imagine.

I conclude the book with the life stories of my grandparents and their predecessors — things I have gleaned from censuses, birth and marriage certificates, old photographs and conversations with my late mother. These are the lives of ordinary families: people whose lives are not in the history books.

I’m also in the process of writing about a trip my husband and I made around mainland Great Britain in the same old camper van, from the South (i.e., Isle of Wight) to the North (i.e., Scotland). The provisional title is: Miss Potter and the Mathematicians Rabbit — Allie Goes Oop North. The main title is taken from an experience we had in the Lake District.

Moving on to Uneasy Rider: How many road trips have you and your husband made together over the years?
We made six road trips in the converted Leyland Daf campervan of the book, from 1999 to 2004, though our very first trip in a motor caravan was in 1991, with our two teenagers on board.

Do you ever travel by other means?
Of course! We’ve traveled many times by car in France and Switzerland, staying in gîtes, chalets and apartments. My favorite “trip” of all though was on the Cunarder, Queen Mary 2, to New York. Much nicer than “roughing it” in a camper van! I absolutely loved New York and the glamour of the six-day Atlantic crossing, despite sailing through a force 11 gale.

So what made you decide to write a book about your campervan excursions?
During our trips, we had so many events that each time I said, “There’s a book in this!” Before we took off on our first trip (to Spain), I hadn’t found any similar book on the subject of campervanning or caravanning, apart from site-finder guides; it seemed there was a gap in the market.

Whom did you see as the primary audience?
I had in mind other campervanners who would identify with the joys, trials and tribulations of this type of independent travel. I didn’t want it to be one of those “everything is fantastic about travel” books. I hope I tell it like it REALLY is — the ups and downs, the good and the bad. Some campervan “purists” don’t appreciate hearing about the downside of their preferred method of holidaying though. They appear to have gotten together to leave negative reviews on Amazon. But I’m not too sure, by some of the comments, that they’ve actually read it…

Bill Bryson is the master of modern travel writing as far as I’m concerned, and it’s his light-hearted touch that I hope in some way to emulate. A tough act to follow!

Many people take road trips when they are young, to find out more about life and themselves. Does the purpose change once you become middle aged?
Middle aged? I still feel about 17!

As you’ve already mentioned, the purpose of our first trip (to Spain) was to follow in the footsteps of my literary hero, Laurie Lee. In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he tells of his walk across Spain on the cusp of the Civil War in the early 1930s. This book, for some reason, holds a big fascination for me.

That trip was meant to be a one-off. But afterwards we weren’t able to sell the van, so instead of letting it sit in the drive, I seized the opportunity to see as much of the art and architecture of Italy and France as I could. I suppose you could say my purpose was educational!

Which was your favorite place of all those you visited?
Florence has it all. I could never tire of it. We visited this amazing city three times. I was studying Art History at the time, specialist subject “The Early Renaissance.” The Italian people are fantastic, too!

Which was your least favorite?
Spain, especially the Costas (various coastlines), which were full of half-finished blocks of flats. Whether we were unlucky I don’t know, but it was not a friendly country — apart from a few honorable exceptions which I mention in the book: the helpful policeman in Seville who strode into and held up four lanes of speeding traffic for us, the patient shop assistant in the flamenco boutique. I have the feeling that relatively recent history may have altered the Spanish character: George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia found the Spanish people cheerful and friendly.

Robert Pirsig says “It’s a little better to travel than to arrive.” I’m guessing you might not agree with him?
Err…not really. Like Dorothy, my mantra is: there’s no place like home! Having the campervan, however, was almost like taking your home round with you. My best moments during these trips were when we found pleasant campsites to put down temporary roots.

Pirsig claimed there are two types of people: “classical” — practical, DIY fixers, boy-scout prepared types; and “romantic” — those who thrive on surface appearances, don’t want to get involved with the nitty-gritty, and thrive on gestalts.
As you noted in your introduction, I’m definitely “romantic,” and my husband is certainly “classical” — which probably explains why we work as a couple. He drives and sorts out problems, I look forward to seeing the Da Vincis.

Each chapter of your book is a stand-alone story, describing a particular incident. Do you have a favorite?
“The Parable of the Parador” is my stand-out favorite. As I said, it is typical that I get these romantic ideas — and my other half goes along with them, most of the time. That particular chapter though, sees a bit of role reversal, when we get “stuck” on the road into Arcos de la Frontera, to reach the parador (state-run hotel). For once he thinks it’s all hopeless, and I have to be the optimist. When he feels like this about a situation, I know we are REALLY in trouble.

Pirsig advocates traveling on a motorcycle because it puts you there, in the moment, without the barrier of a windscreen. What do you think of his philosophy?
To travel on a motorbike would be my nightmare! I just would feel too exposed. I like to be safe — hence the theme of Uneasy Rider.

Many of the Displaced Nation’s readers are expats. Can you imagine living anywhere besides the Isle of Wight?
We’ve often thought we should have relocated to France some years ago. I’d love to live in a place where you can walk to a baker’s every day for fresh baguettes and croissants. Now, the only place I’d move to is Central London: the London National Gallery and Covent Garden Royal Opera House are big draws.

How well do you fit back into the Isle of Wight after your journeys? Do you suffer from any counter culture shock?
The flippant answer is that being a “townie,” I suffer counter culture shock on the Island every day anyway… even after all this time. However, the main feeling after being in the ‘van for four weeks, though, was that our house did seem HUGE for the first few days .

So what’s next for your travels?
Next year I am fulfilling my long-time ambition of visiting St. Petersburg — on a cruise ship rather than by road. Russia and especially its Tsarist past, fascinates me. Hopefully there will be a book in this, though for all the right reasons!

Readers, do you have any questions for the Amazing Allie? Ask away, before she takes off again!

Images: Allie Sommerville’s author photo and book cover.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, as she prepares to welcome the pitter-patter of little feet. Clawed, furry feet, that is: Fergus is now a canine expat! What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

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

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Gotta helmet? Time to burn some rubber, have a real travel adventure

The Displaced Nation has dedicated the month of September to the ideas within Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But enough with theory. What’s it really like to see the world from the back of a motorcycle — and what are us more timid types missing out on? Rubber hits the road today with Matthew Cashmore, aka The London Biker. Braaaaown… brraaoom…… rrooaaarr………. Take it away, Matthew! NOTE: This post has not been edited for British spelling.

There are some things in life that just have to be done. Laying on your back staring at the stars, wondering which ones are dead and which are still blazing. Getting so drunk on cider that you can no longer stand (perhaps that’s just me). Or travelling the world by motorcycle.

The last, many people would say, is optional. But it’s not. If you feel as I do, motorcycle travel is as essential to life as water or food, then there is only one way to do it.

I’m not the first to point out that seeing the world from a motorcycle is better than any other means of travel — just dig out a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or my personal favourite, Jupiter’s Travels, by Ted Simon.* You’ll only read a quarter of each book before you discover why this method of travel trumps the rest. You’re part of the world in which you’re travelling. There is nothing between you, the elements and the people with whom you interact.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see much of the world. I’ve backpacked, travelled by plane to amazing cities, jumped on buses or driven cars. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can match the experience of the wind rushing past your head trying to knock you off your bike, as you hurtle between towns and villages. And nothing can give you a greater grin than riding across the bay in San Francisco on the back of a growling Harley — safe in the knowledge that in a car this would be just another American highway.

If you don’t ride in the rain, you don’t ride…

It does take a certain amount of effort, though. This summer I did a short run from London out to Budapest via France, Germany, Austria and then into Hungry. The return leg took me through northern Croatia, Slovenia, back into Austria and up into the Alps over into Italy and then back over the Stelvio Pass into Switzerland, France and finally home. It rained the entire trip. Every single morning I was greeted with sheets of rain. I was beginning to suspect it was actually following me to Budapest. Each night I was soaked to the skin — even with the most expensive rain gear. Each night I was dog tired, and I really had to question what I was doing. What kind of a nut case chooses to spend his summer holiday riding a motorbike half way across Europe in the rain?

The reason I, and many others like me, do this is because you can ride for eight days in the rain — and then out of nowhere the clouds will clear and you’ll be presented with a road of perfect grace. A strip of tarmac that sings as you press on, a view that leaves you crying because of its beauty. Something you would never have seen had you been in a car or a bus. Something you’ve had to work to achieve — and it’s even more beautiful for that.

A parable of the hospitality shown to bikers

On the Budapest trip I found myself at the top of the Austrian Alps. I was running a day behind because I’d had a stomach bug back in Budapest. I was determined to make up that lost day so that I could still get over the pass into Switzerland ahead of a (yet another) rain front. I had been riding for ten hours, I had another six ahead of me, and I was already on my fourth change of clothes. I was incredibly fed up. Why on earth was I doing this?

I pulled into the first service stop I’d seen for about 150 miles, 2000 metres above sea level and hidden by cloud, rain and spray. Filling the bike up with petrol I spotted a small restaurant complete with a hotel — bliss, escape! I headed inside, dripping water everywhere. As I walked through the door I must have looked like a monster from the deep. I was dressed head to foot in every single piece of waterproof gear I could find — complete with an army surplus poncho. The restaurant manager took one look at me and ordered me onto a piece of lino, where I promptly created a rather large puddle. She demanded I remove my clothing leaving me standing there in just my thermals. I shivered, waiting for her next command. Did they have ways of making me warm?

My gear was whisked off (it came back nearly dry and very warm), and I was pointed in the direction of the shower and given a hot towel. I emerged a different man. Clean clothes, warm, and for the first time in two days, dry. Ushered to a seat, I took the opportunity to eat well — feasting on sausage and strudel, the best Austria had to offer. Buoyed by such amazing hospitality I got back on the bike and rode on. As I rounded the first corner the rain stopped and I hit Italy, sun, and the kind of twisty roads God clearly made for bikers.

I could say this was a one off, but the more I travel the world by motorbike the more I come to realise that the very thing that makes you vulnerable is the very thing that makes you approachable. It’s different if you’re travelling with other bikers, but when you’re on your own it’s a perfect combination of being totally exposed to the environment and more importantly to people.

This is what makes travelling by motorcycle so special. The openness, the access, the smells, the sounds, the people who are curious because you’ve rolled into town in something other than a bus or 4×4. If you want to experience, to imbibe, the world through which you travel…there is only one option. Gotta helmet?

* Suggested further reading:

Matthew Cashmore works in digital publishing. He keeps track of his “random thoughts” on his blog, The London Biker. He also has a YouTube channel, where he posts videos about his life on the road, camp cooking and related topics.

img: Matthew Cashmore in Budapest, July 2011.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, on the diner food that has played a part in many an American road trip.

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

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RANDOM NOMAD: Kirsty Rice, Freelance Writer & Blogger

Born in: Renmark*, South Australia
Passport: Australia (no one else will have me!)
Countries lived in: Australia (Adelaide & Perth): 1997-98; Indonesia (Jakarta): 1999 – 2001; Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur): 2001-02; Libya (Tripoli): 2002-04; Canada (Calgary): 2004-08; USA (Houston): 2008-09; Qatar (Doha): 2010-present.
Cyberspace coordinates: 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle (blog)
*A small town of 7,500; my parents still live there.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I am married to a former expat child. I know the term is Third Culture Kid, but I don’t really think it applies to him. He was always keen on doing the “expat” thing. I, on the other hand, was raised in the same town that I was born in and wasn’t a great lover of change. Our first move was the result of a promotion for my husband and the fact that I was pregnant with our first child. The plan was to do a two-year posting in Indonesia and to return “home”. That was 7 countries and 12 years ago. I now thrive on change.

So your husband was already “displaced”?
My husband’s parents were expats. He was actually born in New Zealand and then they went to the Philippines for many years before moving to Sydney, then Melbourne, and finally to Brisbane.

How about your kids?
My children were all born in different countries. We were living in Jakarta when I had my first child, my second was born in KL, the third in Malta and the fourth in Canada. Although none of them have lived permanently in Australia (our longest stint has been during school holidays, so a maximum of 12 weeks), they all think of themselves as Australian. My husband and I have both worked hard for that to be the case.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
When we first moved to Tripoli — it was the middle of summer and I had a two-week-old baby and a two-year-old. We then had to endure months of housing hell — we couldn’t find one! For a while, I shared a “guest house” with about sixty men who were rotating in and out of the desert: there were no other women. Breast feeding amongst men who hadn’t seen a woman for a couple of months was a rather unique experience. Due to the weather, fruit and vegetables were limited and small in size. I can remember standing in a fruit and vegetable stand with a screaming baby and a restless toddler wondering how I was going to cook carrots the size of my little finger. I was continually getting lost, and the simplest of tasks seemed very overwhelming. There were many days that I considered getting on a plane — but I’m so pleased I didn’t. Three months later, we had a house, the weather was better, I made friends, and I loved our life in Libya. I was devastated to leave.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
I feel like that here in Qatar. Our children are at a fabulous school, I have a place to write, and my husband works for a Qatari company and really enjoys it. There is so much here in the community for expats, and we are made to feel very welcome. I have made local friends and love heading to the local souqs. I feel that this is very much our second home. In other locations I have felt that we were passing through, but not here.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Indonesia: A jamu (traditional medicine) woman made of silver, given to me by a very dear friend.
From Malaysia: The Selangor pewter tea set I was given as a gift. Each time I use it I think of my friends.
From Libya: A wedding blanket with traditional jewellery pinned to it, which was given as a farewell present. It is such a unique gift and always a talking point when people spot it in our house.
From Canada: Nothing material, just the memory of what it was like to be back to work full time. In Calgary, I returned to the “old” me, remembering who I was pre children and travel. That was Canada’s gift — along with a huge appreciation of weather!
From the U.S. (Houston): A fantastic painting of an American flag that I picked up in San Antonio. It’s 3D and not in the traditional colors. It reminds me that America is far more layered and multidimensional that what I’d given it credit for.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
We’ll have some kind of soup for starters: either Indonesian soto ayam (chicken soup), Libyan soup* (I love it!), or the Canadian version of Italian wedding soup. Though I come from an area in Australia that has a large Italian community, I’d never heard of Italian Wedding Soup — turns out it’s more of a North American thing.

For the mains, perhaps I’ll offer a choice between Malaysian curry or maybe a nasi goreng from Indonesia.

And for drinks, we’ll have margaritas. I learned to make a mean margarita in Houston.

For dessert, a caramel cheesecake — a recipe I picked up from a fellow Aussie in Houston.

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 Indonesia: Satu lagi (one more) — I said that way to often!
From Malaysia: I just loved how you could put lah on the end of everything and automatically make a sentence sound friendlier.
From Tripoli: Shokran (thank you). It was the first Arabic word I learned and makes me think of how special the people in Libya are — so kind and helpful. Incidentally, in learning how to say “pregnancy test,” I discovered that hamil is the word for “pregnant” in Indonesia, Malaysia and Tripoli.
From Canada: Hey — kind of the same as lah in Malaysian.
From the U.S. (Houston): I found myself describing things differently. It wasn’t just “the big tree out the front” but “the big ‘ol tree out the front.”
From Qatar: Right now I’m back to learning Arabic (unsuccessfully). Oh how I wish I had a chip I could just insert into my brain to switch languages. Why haven’t they invented that yet?

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 disagree. I like to arrive, settle and learn how a city/country works. You can learn so much about a place just by trying to get the telephone connected! Traveling through is just a brief picture. I love that we’ve been able to become part of a community everywhere we have lived.

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?
If you read my blog you’ll see there is usually a romantic viewpoint or flowery end to a posting. I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason and not always being logical. Having said that, I am a stickler for details, I hate to enter into things blindly and have to know exactly what the story is. Which personality am I in my expat life? I’m a bit of both. I don’t believe that anyone can be a successful expat without having the flexibility to change with the situation. In our daily lives as expats we need to quickly learn the rules, find out the details, go with the flow and just enjoy the ride. You have to be both.

* Libyan soup is a tomato-based soup. There are many variations. The one I loved was with lamb.

1/2 to 1/3 lb. lamb meat cut into small pieces
1/4 cup oil or “samn” (vegetable ghee)
one large onion
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2-3 tomatoes
1 lemon
1/2 cup orzo, salt, red pepper, Libyan spices (Hararat) or cinnamon

Sauté the onion with meat in oil.
Add parsley and sauté until meet is brown.
Add chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, spices, and stir while sizzling.
Add enough water to cover meat, simmer on medium heat until meat is cooked.
Add more water if needed, and bring to a boil.
Add orzo, simmer until cooked.
Before serving, sprinkle crushed dried mint leaves, and squeeze fresh lemon juice to taste.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Kirsty Rice 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 Kirsty — find amusing.)

img: Kirsty Rice with her family (sans the beagle) at Souq Waqif, Doha, Qatar.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, whose rather dramatic road-trip adventure has come to an end. Time to face reality again in Woodhaven! What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

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Music for a road trip? Anything but a certain song…

Mothers of school age children can spend hours at a time in the car — a mini road trip every day, ferrying the kids between school, karate, swimming lessons, music lessons…

This piece, originally titled “California Guys”, first appeared on my own blog, Marmite and Fluff, after I had heard a certain song on the car radio once too often..

I confess to a certain love of Coen Brothers’ movies, especially The Big Lebowski, and in particular the scene where a taxi driver hauls Jeff Bridges bodily from his cab and drives off in a fury. Bridges’ character, “The Dude,” had been stupid enough to ask the driver to change the radio station, because he’s had a rough day and he hates the f***ing Eagles, man.

Dude. I sympathize. I used to like the Eagles. Our scratched vinyl copy of their Greatest Hits proves it. But some years ago – the month we moved to America, in fact — everything changed. It started with the purchase of a Dodge Grand Caravan, an FM radio, and ten programmable presets. After two days we took the car back to the dealer. “There’s something wrong with this radio!” we complained. “It only plays ‘Hotel California’!”

The repairman twiddled with the dials, humming all the while about a dark desert highway and cool wind in his hair, and shrugged. “Seems fine to me,” he said. “That’s what it’s supposed to play.”

Later that day, pushing a shopping cart through the orange juice aisle, I heard Don Henley’s voice on the supermarket speakers, telling me that I could check out any time I liked but I could never leave. By now, I’d heard him say this so often that I was beginning to believe him, so I abandoned the juice and cart mid-aisle, in case he was serious.

After that, I could only listen to one Eagle at a time. Glenn Frey and “The Heat Is On”? You bet. Don Henley and “Boys Of Summer”? Bring it on and turn it up! But the Eagles ensemble telling me to Take It Easy would – paraphrasing slightly – Take Me To The Limit of my endurance.

Most listeners of American FM radio will know what I mean. It’s not just Eagles, of course; Elton John, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, to name but three — all played ad nauseum. Sometimes it’s as if those artists’ peers never existed. Sometimes it’s as if the Nineties never existed. Ironically, that was what I initially loved about American radio, because I’d never graduated from Eighties’ hairbands to Seattle grunge. So I learned to live with the Eagles et al, because they’d occasionally get off the turntable and let Van Halen have a spin.

Eagles airwave-saturation could even have its advantages. No matter how much I wanted to kick The New Kid out of Town, it also seemed that Cliff Richard, a singer beloved by British radio for fifty years, and shunned by me for — well, not quite that long — was practically unknown over here. Never again would I have to listen to the Cliff Richard Annual Christmas Hit! No more Cliff Richard Recycled Golden Oldies to put me off my morning oatmeal! It was an ill wind, indeed.

And so it remained until my Dodge developed terminal transmission failure and we bade farewell. Enter another car with satellite radio. Enter the Hairbands channel, the Soppy Songs channel, and, to my kids’ dismay, the E Street Channel with 24/7 Springsteen. One day, they will avoid “Born to Run” as much as I avoided “Hotel California”. However, the driver of the car was happy, and that was the main thing.

But nothing lasts forever. Something was missing: a sparring partner, perhaps. The turning point came when I heard a new Eagles’ song and thought, “Darn it! I like this!” I found myself genuinely disappointed that I’d be Too Busy Being Fabulous on vacation at the time of their Connecticut gig. I’d come full circle. It was time to make my peace.

It’s been a gradual process, of course. I can listen to entire lesser-known Eagles songs without changing channels mid-track, but still haven’t managed all of Hotel California. Give me time. At least I no longer want to Kill the Beast.

But everything comes at a price. The satellite radio, my once-savior, turned against me. When I pulled into the garage last night, a song started playing in the car — a song I haven’t heard for a long time. Not since I listened to BBC morning radio, 3000 miles and a decade and a half away. Cliff Richard, sneaking onto American airwaves with a Golden Oldie. He wasn’t supposed to follow me over here. That wasn’t part of the deal.

Or as John Goodman in The Big Lebowski might put it, “This is not ‘Nam. There are rules.”

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Img: MorgueFile

6 kinds of road trips and the best cars, real and fantasy, to travel in

To take a road trip, one must have a suitable mode of transport. Most of our road trips were made in a soccer-mom-mobile — a 1997 Dodge Grand Caravan, high in practicality but decidedly low in street cred. For our young family 14 years ago, however, it was perfect as we traveled through Maine, Quebec, Ontario, and New York.

Robert Pirsig’s Honda motorcycle, no matter how charismatic the ride or perfect the windshield-less view, would have been unfit for purpose if the purpose was to transport two children under the age of four.

So when people ask, “What’s the best vehicle for a road trip?” the answer will depend on another question:

“What kind of road trip?”

1. The Ghost Hunters Trip

The Fantasy – The Scooby Doo Mystery Machine.

The Reality – While the exact make and model of the Mystery Machine is unclear in the original cartoon, and a search on Google images brings up all manner of vehicles painted to resemble it (including a Dodge Grand Caravan — now, why didn’t I think of that?) I feel there is only one van that will fit this role: the VW camper.

A child of the hippie era, the VW encapsulates the eccentricity required for a ghost hunting trip. Film maker Elliott Bristow made a 500,000 mile trip around America between 1968 and 1982, much of it in a VW camper in which he had his own supernatural experience on an old Indian battle site.

Optional extras — large slobbering dog, at additional cost.

2. The Paris Hilton Trip

The FantasyPenelope Pitstop’s pink car from Wacky Races. In a 2009 survey by women’s motor insurer Diamond, around a fifth of the polled female motorists admitted to applying mascara while driving, and three per cent admitted causing an accident by doing so. These numbers statistically equate to “half a million road crashes caused by women applying make-up.” Penelope Pitstop’s pink car with its automatic lipstick applicator, therefore, would be an ideal choice for young women whose multi-tasking ability is limited to watching the road and changing gear.

The Reality — While Penelope’s car may be a reality at car shows (yes, I’ve seen it at Goodwood Festival of Speed) it probably, alas, doesn’t come with a lipstick applicator. All is not lost, though. Earlier this year, Google was lobbying for legislation to make Nevada the first state to allow their self-driving cars on the road, and which would include an exemption on the ban of texting — and therefore, one assumes, the application of lip gloss — at the wheel.

Optional extras — Bring a Southern Belle accent by all means, but leave the Southern Comfort at home. I’m pretty sure even self-driving cars wouldn’t be exempt from drink-driving laws.

3. The Girls’ Weekend

The Fantasy — A blue 1966 Thunderbird, as driven by Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.

The Reality — There are still quite a few of these cars around, at varying prices. Try eBay. However much you pay for the car, don’t expect to find a hitchhiker who looks like Brad Pitt.

Optional extras — Radar detector where legal. Hitchhiker ejector seat.

4. The Flying Visit Trip

The FantasyChitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now, how useful would this car be? On a long stretch of dull highway or upon approaching a traffic jam, to press a button, unfold a set of wings, and zoom ahead like ET on a bicycle. Or when you come to some obstacle in the road — like, say, the Grand Canyon. (See “The Girls’ Weekend”.)

The RealityThe Terrafugia Transition. Is it a car? Is it a plane? It’s both. You land on the runway, fold up the wings, and drive home. The Massachusetts-based manufacturer estimates that the first delivery of this machine will be late 2012, and it will cost just under US$300,000.

Optional extras — Call me pessimistic, but a parachute would be nice.

5. The Great Lakes Trip — without waiting for a bridge

The FantasyJames Bond’s Lotus Esprit. You know the one, in The Spy Who Loved Me. Roger Moore and Barbara Bach take a dive into the sea in this car, which miraculously turns into a submarine. Useful for crossing large stretches of water.

The RealityThe Lotus Elise sQuba. Concept car designer Frank Rinderknecht adapted a Lotus Elise to travel underwater. It can manage about two hours — until the batteries or oxygen run out. Sadly, this car remains just a concept.

Optional extras — As in Hitchhiker’s Guide, never travel in this one without a towel.

6. The Christmas Road Trip

The Fantasy — Santa’s Sleigh and Reindeer. I used to think Santa Claus’s transport was a very neat trick — time travel and flying deer in one machine.

The Reality — No reindeer, but an elk of sorts. This week we came across a road trip post at Sarah Melamed’s site, Food Bridge. (Do check it out. Some great photos, and other wonderful posts on food.) Sarah and her husband rented an RV for the summer and traveled from New York through Maine to Nova Scotia. The RV — pictured above — had a large dent in its front, apparently due to the previous renters crashing it into an elk in Montana. Hence the name Sarah gave it: the Elk-Mobile. The large dent, Sarah says, gave her and her husband credibility among the RV clan, even though they were “amateurs” in the RV world.

Optional extras — deer, readily available in your own back yard, to add a few dings where necessary.

If only I had known it was that simple to gain street cred when I owned my Caravan.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, on the diner food sometimes encountered on American road trips (It’s Food!).

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Image: MorgueFile

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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The Displaced Q: Road trip – a simple journey, or a life-changing event?

Every year, a small number of people in biking leathers get on their motorcycles in Minnesota and set off on back roads toward the Dakotas. From Montana, they swerve briefly into Idaho and Wyoming, before riding across Oregon and down the final stretch to San Francisco.

They’re known as Pirsig’s Pilgrims — bikers who faithfully follow the route that Robert Pirsig took in 1968, as chronicled in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

San Francisco is not the destination, but merely where the journey ends. It’s a pilgrimage, sure — but the whole journey is the destination for these dedicated riders.

Still, the question is — Why? Why do they do this?

I’m not a fan of biking (despite being married to an enthusiast) and traveling 1700 miles in this fashion seems…well. Uncomfortable at best, downright dangerous at worst, is my view of bikes. But perhaps there’s more to this journey than the automotive experience for these people?

Pirsig’s account of the journey  is interspersed with philosophical musings, meanderings, and revelations that make light bulbs flash bright in the reader’s head.

Could his Pilgrims, in fact, be searching for an epiphany?

Many cultures demand a period of time in solitude in which to grow spiritually. Australian Aborigine adolescents, for example, would live in the outback for many months, tracing the paths of their ancestors and, one assumes, learning deeply from the experience.

Today, the nearest equivalent we have in the western world is a few years at college, and while you can argue that the experience transforms, it’s not exactly spiritual. (Not that kind of spirit, anyway.) However, many young people choose to take a gap year, remove themselves from their everyday world, and backpack their way through Asia or Australia.

Could it be that this yearning to travel to nowhere in particular, where the journey itself is the point of the exercise, is part of our make up, a necessary part of everyone’s growth?

And what if we missed out on the experience in our own youth? Backpacking isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for the achy knees that come with a certain age.

Road trips. That’s what happens.

We all know that living abroad as an expat is life-changing, but even expats want to travel within the confines of their new location. Our first vacation while living in the US was a road trip. Armed with a minivan, a preschooler, a four-month-old baby, and all the paraphernalia small children accumulate, we set off from Connecticut toward Maine, Montreal, Toronto, Niagara, and back home through upstate New York. (Readers of last week’s Libby’s Life might find some of this itinerary familiar;  I hasten to add that Libby and I have only the itinerary in common.) It was a good trip, even accounting for children’s travel sickness.

Was it life changing, though? Not really — the most memorable moment of the trip was upon checking into a hotel room in Montreal, to discover that Princess Diana had been involved in a car accident in Paris. I didn’t need to be on a road trip to be affected by that.

But one day, in a few years’ time, we will take another road trip, minus toddler and small baby, and drive across America, coast to coast. Maybe we will ditch the car for a motorcycle in Montana, and by that time I’ll be brave enough to view the Big Sky state without the encumbrance of a windshield. And maybe I’ll have that epiphany.

Or — here’s a thought. Perhaps it’s already waiting, within me. To quote Pirsig:

“The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”

Question: Have you ever taken a road trip, and if so, was it the best or worst thing you ever did? And did it change your life? 

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The John Steinbeck Encyclopaedia of Road Trips

Announcing September’s theme: Zen and the Art of Road Trips

Image: MorgueFile

The John Steinbeck Encyclopedia of Road Trips

When we announced this month’s theme — road trips — some of you may have wondered if we’d gone around the bend. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — really? That’s a book for roadgeeks or — if you get into its philosophical meanderings — Roads Scholars, not for Displaced Nation types, most of whom equate travel with boarding an international flight.

Besides, road trips are for the young and restless — something you do when you’ve just graduated college.

But before you put the brakes on the road-trip idea again, let me convince you to take one more test drive. Only this time, instead of riding pillion on Robert Persig’s motorcycle, you’ll be seated in John Steinbeck’s camper station wagon next to his pet dog, Charley, on a 10,000-mile journey across America — from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to California to Texas to New Orleans and back to New York City.

As the Nobel prize-winning writer puts his engine in gear, may I invite you to peruse our specially compiled John Steinbeck Encyclopedia of Road Trips.

A is for Autumn

John Steinbeck made a road trip across America in the autumn season and in the autumn of his life. He set out from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, shortly after Labor Day in 1960. He was 58 years old and not in the best of health. As Edward Weeks wrote of Steinbeck’s expedition in The Atlantic:

He set out with some misgiving, not sure his health would stand up to the 10,000-mile journey he envisioned; as he traveled, the years sloughed off him…

B is for Bestseller

Steinbeck wrote a book about his journey, Travels with Charley. It reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction on October 21, 1962. To this day, the book retains a special place in the American imagination, despite attempts to challenge its categorization as “non-fiction” (see F).

C is for Charley

Meet Charley, Steinbeck’s middle-aged French poodle, one of the most civilized and attractive dogs in literature. He’s the genuine article, a real French poodle, having been born on the outskirts of Paris, where he also received his training. As his proud owner once said:

…while he knows a little Poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down.

D is for Dog

For Steinbeck, a dog is an ideal companion on the open road as well as being an effective ice breaker:

A dog is a bond between strangers. Many conversations en route began with “What degree of dog is that?”

E is for Environment

Steinbeck was extremely attuned to the intimate connection between people’s lives and the rhythms of nature — weather, geography, the cycles of the seasons. But while nature animates his picaresque tale of his travels with his dog, one of his key observations was the the high price Americans would eventually pay for lives filled with ease and convenience. He felt they were trashing their environment for the sake of material prosperity. (A tad prescient, might we say?)

F is for Fictions

Journalist Bill Steigerwald set out to retrace Steinbeck’s steps on the 50th anniversary of his road trip. He concluded that not only had the Nobel laureate invented characters, he’d also embellished the hardships of his cross-country journey with Charley. In other words, this brilliant author’s much-loved book is loaded with creative fictions. (Wait, I thought all travel writers used some creative license — is there anything wrong with a novelist-turned-travel-writer using some?)

G is for Giant Redwoods

After sorting out his flat tire in Oregon (see O), Steinbeck visited the giant redwoods and ancient Sequoias and found them as awe inspiring as ever:

The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.

Steinbeck was further impressed when his dog, Charley, refused to urinate on the trees…

H is for Hurricane

The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry, and Steinbeck had to delay the start of his trip slightly due to Hurricane Donna, which made a direct hit on Long Island. (Still, it could have been worse. It could have been Hurricane Irene!)

I is for International

While he never became an expat, Steinbeck moved to New York City and took quite a few international trips, mostly to Europe. He hoped that his road trip would enable him to reconnect with both the people and the landscape of his native land. He also wanted to see his birthplace — Salinas, California — one last time.

J is for Jamming

Steinbeck’s journey concluded with jamming Rocinante (see R) across a busy New York City street, during a failed attempt at making a U-turn. He reports having said to the traffic policeman:

Officer, I’ve driven this thing all over the country — mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live — and I’m lost.

K is for Knight-errant

A mainstay of medieval romance literature, the knight-errant wanders the land in search of adventures to prove himself a worthy warrior. Don Quixote is a famous example (see Q). Likewise, Steinbeck hoped to recapture his youth, the spirit of a knight-errant, through his travels. (Makes sense if you’re middle aged and your health is rapidly deteriorating — see P.)

L is for Language (of Road Signs)

Steinbeck closely observes the language of road signs during his trip across country. In New York State, he notes that the road signs are commands: “Stop! No turning!” But in Ohio, the language is gentler, with friendly advice rather than curt demands.

M is for Maine

Steinbeck reports that he learned not to ask for directions in Maine because locals don’t like tourists and tend to give them the wrong directions — another example of regional differences (see L).

N is for North Dakota

Upon arriving at Fargo, North Dakota, Steinbeck declares that the mentality of the American nation has grown “bland.” He fell head over heels in love with Montana, however. NOTE: Steinbeck’s account of meeting an itinerant Shakespearean actor outside the town of Alice, North Dakota, is disputed by the journalist Bill Steigerwald (see F).

O is for Oregon

Having his first flat tire on a remote back road in Oregon inspired Steinbeck to write a send-up of similarly desperate scenes in his most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath:

It was obvious that the other tire might go at any minute, and it was Sunday and it was raining and it was Oregon.

P is for Poignancy

When Steinbeck set out on his road trip, he knew he could have died at any point along the way because of his heart condition. This knowledge suffuses Travels with Charley with a certain poignancy, and perhaps explains why it’s such a beloved book.

Q is for Quixote

As one might expect of a man who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, Steinbeck had a literary hero in mind when he set out on his road trip: Don Quixote. Like the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, it seems that Steinbeck fancied himself a knight-errant in search of adventure (see K). He even named his camper truck for Quixote‘s steed (see R).

R is for Rocinante

As the narrator of Don Quixote explains, its hero feels obliged to find the right name for his horse:

Four days were spent in thinking what name to give it, because (as he said to himself) it was not right that a horse belonging to a knight so famous, and one with such merits of his own, should be without some distinctive name…

At last, Don Quixote calls the skinny steed Rocinante. In a nod to this fictional knight-errant (see K), Steinbeck christened the vehicle for his journey — a green GMC truck, which he’d had custom-fitted with a camper — Rocinante. He even painted the name across the side of the truck in 16th-century Spanish script.

S is for Salinas

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. He wrote his first stories about the Salinas Valley and was determined to see his hometown one last time before he died. Visiting a bar from his youth, he lamented the loss of several regulars as well as quite a few of his childhood chums, wondering if perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right (see Y).

T is for Texas

Steinbeck remarked of Texas that it was the kind of state that “people either passionately love or passionately hate.” He went on:

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. … A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.

Texas was also where Charley (see C) became ill for a few days and stayed in a veterinary hospital. NOTE: From Texas onwards, Steinbeck’s travel writing gives way to social commentary, culminating in the account of a school integration crisis he witnesses firsthand in New Orleans.

U is for U.S. Route 66

In mid-November of 1960, Steinbeck crossed the Mojave Desert and picked up the historical U.S. Route 66 at Barstow, California. He and Charley then drove 1,300 miles to arrive in time for a Texas-style Thanksgiving on a cattle ranch near Amarillo. U.S. Route 66, known colloquially as the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road” was a major path for those who migrated west. In Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, the poor family of sharecroppers, the Joads, make their way west from Oklahoma to California on U.S. Route 66.

V is for Viking Press

Travels with Charley was published by the Viking Press in mid-summer of 1962, several months before Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

W is for Wanderlust

Steinbeck begins Travels with Charley by describing his wanderlust, saying he’s had a life-long impulse to travel and explore the world.

X is for Xena the Warrior Princess

This entry has nothing to do with John Steinbeck, but I have included it in case there are any women travelers who are having trouble identifying with the adventures of a rugged, broad-shouldered, six-foot-tall writer, and his desire to be seen as a knight-errant (see K). Xena the Warrior Princess reminds me of the title of Debbie Anderson’s best-selling guide for women who travel the open road: Simple Rules for…The Road-Warrior Princess.

Y is for “You can’t go home again”

When Steinbeck reached his birthplace of Salinas, he discovered the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s words “You can’t go home again.” Saying good-bye to his hometown for the last time was a bittersweet experience:

I printed once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.

Z is for Zzzzz (under the stars)

Steinbeck reports that camping out with Charley in the American outback — where they enjoyed lots of zzzzz under the stars — was one of the highlights of their trip (though the veracity of that experience is now disputed — see F). But, despite the magnificent setting, both he and Charley often suffered moments of crushing loneliness. Ultimately, man and dog concurred that however much they relished their adventure, home is where the heart is.

So…are you inspired? Can you now see yourself motoring across country in the autumn and/or autumn of your life? And how about attempting a best-selling travelogue? (Or am I still driving you bonkers?!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a Displaced Q about none else than road trips(!).

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Image: MorgueFile

The Displaced Nation observes the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Two members of The Displaced Nation team, ML Awanohara and Kate Allison, were living in the United States at the time of 9/11 — Kate as an expatriate from the UK, and ML as a recent repatriate. In commemoration of Sunday’s 10th anniversary, they recount where they were on that day, as well as the impact it’s had on their lives for the past 10 years.

I moved to New York City about a year before the 9/11 attacks occurred. Though an American, I’d spent a big chunk of my life abroad, in England and Japan.

But on that fateful day, just as the planes crashed into the towers, I was sitting at an outdoor table at a hotel on the island of Santorini, sipping retsina and savoring the sweetness of the tomatoes in my salad while admiring the hotel’s cliff-perched views of the sea.

The man who would become my second husband and I had gone to Crete for vacation. We’d traveled to this extraordinary cycladic island by ferry for the day.

After lunch, we made our way through the winding streets of Fira to the cable car station — we had to take the cable car back down to the beach to catch the ferry back home to Crete. We decided we needed more film and went into a little souvenir shop near the cable car entrance. The man behind the counter said something excitedly in Greek and gestured at the little TV on his wall.

The screen contained a surreal image of a plane crashing into the twin towers and billows of smoke.

I then had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: get on a ferry for six hours, without any way of finding out what was going on. By the time we reached Crete, I had worked myself up into a state of panic over my sister and her young family, who were living in Battery Park City, right next to the twin towers. (Fortunately, my sister and her two-week-old baby were evacuated.)

We spent the rest of our holiday glued to CNN. On the occasions when we ventured out, many Cretans would offer words of sympathy. I remember in particular talking to the proprietor of one of the many open-fronted shops on Souliou Street, in the old quarter of Rethymno. She confessed to me how frightened 9/11 had made her feel. “If they can do that to America, then how can any of us be safe?” she said, gesturing at her wares, mostly hand-made sweaters.

Dogs, buses and other neuroses

In the aftermath of 9/11, I got my very first dog — a black-and-tan cocker spaniel, whom I named Cadbury for his sweetness (that was before I knew he had moods).

There’s nothing more comforting than a pet when undergoing trauma, and like everyone else in New York, I felt traumatized by the knowledge that there were people out there who hated our country enough to target civilians.

I also started riding the bus home from work. In the months following 9/11, there were constant rumors of threats against the subway. I’d lived through the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, and didn’t fancy another round of underground terror.

I liked the bus culture and have been taking buses ever since.

The attacks also deepened my interest in politics and foreign affairs. I understood for the first time how vulnerable cities are in general, and New York in particular. Shouldn’t the opinion of New Yorkers, who are on the front lines, count for more than those of people who live in states that aren’t vulnerable to terrorism? Especially when it comes to choosing our nation’s leaders…

That said, city politics are no better. How many city officials does it take to construct a 9/11 memorial? In fact, fewer (or none at all!) would have been more effective.

But I think what I found most disturbing was the role of religion in international affairs. What was all this talk of “holy wars” and crusades? Were we back in the Middle Ages? No doubt I was influenced by all my years of living in the polytheistic Far East, but I just kept thinking: this monotheism embraced by the West and the Middle East has a lot to answer for. (Give me Buddhism any day!)

A noisy anniversary

We’ve made it 10 years, and that’s a relief. At least, I assume that’s why so many people, along with the mainstream media, are making such a loud noise over this. (Are all ten-year anniversaries commemorated this vociferously?)

What I crave right now, to be honest, is some quiet time, away from all these celebratory undercurrents.

When I first came to NYC in 2000, I lived in Greenwich Village. Whenever I looked down 6th Avenue, the twin towers loomed in the distance, helping to orient me in the right direction.

I now live in the East Village, but perhaps I’ll head toward 6th Avenue this Sunday with my two dogs (Cadbury now has a younger companion) and reflect on my lost landmark.

I may also reflect on the snippet of Zen wisdom that appeared in The Displaced Nation’s Monday post, on road trips:

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.


Summer 2001 marked our five year anniversary of living in the USA. Nine months before the attacks, we moved from New England to Leesburg, Virginia – a busy, rapidly expanding town about forty minutes west of Washington DC. I loved our new location. There were fields, and cows, and rolling hills; narrow streets and brick houses in the town. It was, dare I say it, very English.

September 11 started as a normal, beautiful, sunny day. I put my eight-year-old on the school bus, and went back home with my preschooler.

A little before 10 a.m., a friend phoned me. We chatted for a moment, then she asked where my husband was; since he worked with her husband, and they both traveled abroad in their jobs, this question wasn’t unusual. It’s what expat wives with traveling spouses talk about.

“At the Virginia office this week,” I said. “Yours?”

“India. He left yesterday from Dulles…thank goodness.”

Here, I should explain that I’m not a big TV watcher, especially when it comes to daytime programming, so the TV wasn’t on. If it had been, most likely it would have been tuned to Teletubbies.

“Why ’thank goodness’?” I asked.

Silence at the end of the phone, then “Haven’t you heard? Turn your TV on. It’s unbelievable.”

So I turned the TV on. I stared at the picture of the Twin Towers, not quite comprehending. I heard the announcement that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just forty miles away. The plane was believed to have taken off from Dulles – the airport my husband, his colleagues, and our friends flew from every week. There but for the grace of God.

“World War Three’s just started,” said my friend.


My memories of the rest of that day are disjointed. I tried several times to phone family in England to let them know that we were safe, that no one was traveling this week, and eventually, after many busy signals, I got through. My husband came home from work and I breathed more easily. I didn’t want to be alone with just a four-year-old for company while this was going on.

Reports were vague, rumors rife. There were eleven hijacked planes in the air, there were six hijacked planes in the air. The USAF had shot some down; another two hijacked planes were on the way to Washington. Thirty thousand had died in the towers.

What was clear, however, was that airspace was gradually being cleared, and all planes had to land.

The silence from the skies as this happened was deafening. You don’t realize how much noise comes from overhead aircraft – particularly near a busy airport like Dulles – until the noise isn’t there.

In the early afternoon, rumors were still circulating about a rogue flight on its way to the White House or the Capitol. I went outside into our garden for a moment, and was panicked to hear aircraft engines overhead, because by this time all planes in US airspace had been grounded.

Only later did I discover I had heard Air Force One and its accompanying fighter jets, bringing the President back to Washington.

Our daughter returned from school and wanted to know what was going on. Something was going on, she said; she knew it was, because her teacher was being much nicer than usual and had let the kids draw pictures all day.

How do you explain something like this to a child? For the first time, I wondered at the wisdom of bringing children into this world at all.

Two weeks later, still pondering this question, I discovered we were expecting our third baby. Perhaps it was the answer I needed.


Déjà vu

No one we personally knew died that day, but because of where we had lived in the US, close to both attacks, many people we knew lost friends or relatives. Their grief makes me uneasy when I see movies being made about 9/11. It’s too soon, too raw. I’m not sure when it will ever be anything else.

Something I was asked a lot in the aftermath – Will you be coming back to live in England after this?

The answer was always No. I grew up in Britain during the 70s and 80s, when IRA bombings on the mainland occurred all too often. These things can happen anywhere.

This attitude was somewhat justified four years later, on July 7, 2005. I was in London that day, having arrived at Heathrow the night before. Had I not been jet lagged and so overslept, my children and I could have been on one of those trains that were torn apart by suicide bombers – we had planned some sightseeing that day.

Like I said before – there but for the grace of God…whatever you conceive Him to be.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we return to the theme of road trips.

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

img: Remember — a September 11th memorial image (the New York skyline is reflected in the eye from a silhouette placed on a window), by David Hepworth.

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