A couple of days ago we were Wonderlanded with the award-winning Swedish poet Lene Fogelberg, who is now an expat and a writer. This post, which I’ve titled “The Girl in the Mirror,” is an excerpt from Chapter 44 of Lene’s newly published memoir, Beautiful Affliction. It describes the moment when Lene was staring into a mirror in a hospital room having removed all her clothes in preparation for emergency open-heart surgery. (As those who read her interview will know, she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect shortly after her arrival with her family on the East Coast of the United States, and given only a week to live unless she had medical intervention.)
Unlike Alice, however, Lene has little desire to step through the looking-glass without knowing whether she will end up queen of her own heart…
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IT IS A SMALL ROOM. A toilet. A sink. A soap and disinfectant dispenser on the wall. A single lamp over the mirror. A pale face. Is this me? These eyes, small blood vessels, black pupils dilated. I have nowhere to run. The door is locked and there is no window where I could crawl out, and even if there had been one, I would force myself to stay.
Everything. She said everything.
My shoes. Into the bag. Sweatpants. On top of my shoes. Sweater next. Fold. Into the bag. I’m getting dizzy bending over and getting up, but I have to do this. Slowly. T-shirt. Bra. Underpants. Socks.
Who will open this bag, take out these clothes, unfold them? The floor is cold under my feet. No jewelry. No rings, no necklace. Nothing to keep my hair from my face. Just skin.
The girl in the mirror is shaking and fighting back tears and her eyes tell me: Do not look away do not dare look away you have to see this. Her chest swelling and shrinking, narrow shoulders, purple nipples, bluish skin stretched over her ribs.
It was all just pretend, she says, the roles you played, the costumes you wore. This is the real you.
Here is my body. Which I have fought and pleaded with and commanded and cared for and decorated and dressed and undressed and loved and hated. Here it is. Pale and thin. And yet it has been heavy, so heavy to carry. In a way it would be a relief to finally step out of it, fold it, and put it in a coffin.
But in these eyes I can see Ingrid and Stina dancing, and in these hands I can feel Anders’s touch, and on this forehead I can feel him stroking me gently, and in this scalp I can feel the pull of my mother braiding my hair, and on these shoulders I can feel the weight of my dad’s arm telling me he loves me without using words. They are all there; my body remembers them, all the memories written on my skin and in every movement.
I have done everything they told me. Followed the instructions. But this is the point where that’s not enough. It has to be my own decision. It has to be me reaching for the robe. Me putting it on. Me reaching for the bag. Me looking into the mirror one last time.
The girl in the mirror is staring at me, pleading, please don’t make me.
Is this really happening? Or am I down in the corner, my head in my hands, refusing to make this decision? Crying that it is not fair, it is not fair.
Please, please, don’t make me.
There is no other way. You know it.
And the girl in the mirror is silent. And she looks away.
Excerpt from Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir, by Lene Fogelberg
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Thank you so much, Lene! I find it extraordinary that you can write so poetically about your adventure of stepping through such a macabre looking-glass and confronting the “real you”. Your powers of self-observation make me think of Alice’s declaration:
I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
Except Alice was a timid young woman, whereas you write from your heart about your heart. As you put it in a recent tweet:
There is no shortcut when you write from your heart. You drill through every layer protecting your innermost secrets.
Readers, what do you think? Has this excerpt from Lene’s book moved you, and made you want to read more? Beautiful Affliction, published by She Writes Press, is now available from Amazon or Good Reads. You can also visit Lene’s author site, whee she keeps a blog, and/or stay social by following her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And of course you can also express appreciation for Lene in the comments below. ~ML
Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.
This month we travel
the hole with Lene Fogelberg, a Swede who has lived in quite a few places but right now can be found in Jakarta, Indonesia.
With her long red hair and blue eyes, she looks a little like a Swedish Alice. What’s more, her biography of her early years is not dissimilar to that of Alice Liddell, the muse behind the Lewis Carroll story. Growing up in a small town by the sea, Lene was full of curiosity about the wider world and also in love with words. Describing her youth in a recent guest blog post, Lene says that for her,
written words danced lightly as feathers on the page. I loved to read and made weekly visits to our small town library, the bicycle ride home always wobbly with the heavy pile of books on the rack.
But while similarities are rife to Carroll’s Alice, the “wonderlanded” story Lene lived as an adult in fact comes closer to Czech director Jan Švankmajer’s surrealistic interpretation in his 1988 film, Něco z Alenky.
Něco z Alenky means “something from Alice,” and Lene ended up taking something from Alice’s story when, after moving to the United States with her husband and children, she found herself being wheeled through a rabbit warren of hospital rooms into an operating theatre. As in Švankmajer’s film, she was in a bizarre dream rather than a classic fairy tale.
Strangely, from the time she was young Lene had suspected there was something wrong with her heart. She even harbored a not-so-secret fear of dying young, trying to make the most of each moment. But Swedish doctors repeatedly dismissed her concerns, treating her like a hypochondriac.
And then, it happened: her worst nightmare came true. Shortly after arriving in America she went to have a physical so she could get an American driver’s license—and the American woman doctor informed her she had a congenital heart condition and only a week to live.
Lene survived two emergency open-heart surgeries to tell her story: quite literally! Her memoir (and first book), Beautiful Affliction, is out this week from She Writes Press. Until now, Lene had written in Swedish, mostly poetry, for which she has won some awards. But even though she chose to write her memoir in English, she retains her poetic style, as we will see later in the week when we publish a short book excerpt.
But before that happens, let’s have Lene will take us down into her rather harrowing rabbit hole. True, she’s had some reprieve since since recovering from her surgeries and moving to Jakarta—but only some, as Jakarta is the kind of place where you have to take your life into your own hands to cross the street. But I’m getting ahead of the story—over to Lene!
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Lene Fogelberg: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Just to give you a little more of my background: I grew up in the south of Sweden, in a small town by the ocean. As ML says, I often stood looking out over the ocean following the waves in my imagination, wondering about all the exciting places in this world. In my youth I spent a couple of summers in France studying French and falling in love with this beautiful country.
As newlyweds my husband and I moved to Germany as students for a year, where I learned the language and took care of our newborn baby (just three months old when we arrived). After Germany, we moved back to Sweden and stayed there until my husband’s employer offered him a position in the United States. We moved to a small town outside of Philadelphia, called Radnor. That became the scene of my life-threatening health crisis. How it erupted and played out is the topic of my book, which, as ML mentioned, came out this week.
We spent a year and a half in the United States in total and then moved back to Sweden for a couple of years. Nearly four years ago we relocated to Jakarta, but in December we will be moving again: to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“Stop this moment, I tell you!” But [Alice] went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears…
After moving to the US there was a huge pool of tears because of the drama that unfolded in the weeks following the transition. My husband and I had to have physicals prior to getting our American driver’s licenses, and as soon as the doctor put the stethoscope to my chest she reacted to the sound of my heart. It turned out I had a fatal congenital heart disease and that I’d lived longer with this disease than anyone the US doctors had ever met.
[S]he felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?”
The events that unfolded are covered in my book Beautiful Affliction, which is a crazy story, full of heart and physical drama, not unlike Alice’s own confrontations with her changing body.
“Where should I go?” –Alice. “That depends on where you want to end up.” –The Cheshire Cat
Although my physical crisis was great, Jakarta has been one of the biggest challenges in a “wonderland” sense. The city is chaotic, with heavy traffic that is always jammed, making it difficult to navigate. I was shell-shocked for the first six months.
“Oh, I beg your pardon!” [Alice] exclaimed in a tone of great dismay…
Here in Jakarta where the population is mostly Muslim I try not to show too much skin. I wear clothes with sleeves and never skirts shorter than the knees.
I would invite my family and friends from Sweden and serve all the delicious fruit that can be found here in Indonesia. I know how you can long for sunshine during the long, dark Swedish winters and I would love to give them all a vacation full of sunshine and fruit smoothies.
“Well!” thought Alice to herself. “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs!”
I am getting more and more courageous. I guess living abroad gives me a sense of “I can do this” and when faced with challenges I can now say to myself: “You have been through worse.”
Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass
Stay busy so you don’t lose yourself to too much introspection. Especially if you are a traveling spouse coming with your expat partner. Make friends who can go with you to explore your new country. And whenever you go on excursions, try to learn the language so you can speak with locals and really get to know the country more than from a tourist’s point of view. The feeling of discovering gems of knowledge that are not in the tourist guides, like a local saying, is very rewarding and makes you feel connected to your new “home”.
Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…
My next writing project is a novel that takes place here in Jakarta. It is a hilarious and heart-breaking story where I combine the ancient myths of Java with modern society and where East meets West. The first draft is basically finished and I hope to follow up my debut book with this story. It is kind of crazy and sometimes I wonder why I am writing it, but I am in love with the characters so I keep going. It is very much a fruit of my “down the rabbit hole” feelings. I would say that most of my writing comes from a place deep inside where I feel like I have discovered something unsettling with the world we live in and, because I need to pinpoint it, I write about it, in an effort to grasp it.
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Thank you, Lene! Being wonderlanded with you was a moving experience. I sense you are a very special person to have survived so much and still be full of curiosity about the world. Readers, please leave your responses to Lene’s story in the comments. And be sure to tune in later in the week when we feature a sample of her writing! ~ML
STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Lene writes about her wonderlanded experience.
Happy summer/winter/rainy season, international readers! As some of you may recall, last month I talked to Cathleen Hadley, a fellow ATCK contributor to the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, dedicated to telling the stories of those of us who grew up among different countries. Today I’m interviewing another Limbo contributor, Alice Shu-Hsien Wu. An intercultural communication consultant and lecturer at Cornell University, Alice is particularly interested in intercultural adjustment and in internationally mobile families. She has produced two acclaimed videos about college students who have led internationally mobile, nomadic lives, in which the students themselves discuss such challenges as transition, cultural identity, and rootlessness.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Alice. I understand that you were internationally mobile while growing up, living in England, Finland and Sweden in addition to the United States.
Yes, my father was a biochemistry professor and had sabbaticals in various places. We went from New York City to Palo Alto, California, when I was 6 and to Upstate New York when I was 7, and then to England when I was 11 and back to New York State when I was 12. We also sometimes traveled to various countries where my father had meetings. I was a Rotary exchange student in Finland when I was 17; went to college and grad school in New York; and then, at age 26, went to Sweden to study and work, returning two years later to Ithaca, New York, where I still live.
Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I’ve been happy in many places—one of my favorites was California because of the sunny weather, fruit trees and flowers in my yard, and sand in the playgrounds (I was 6 then, remember). This was a welcome change from living in NYC—where the playgrounds were concrete and you weren’t allowed to walk on the small amounts of grass.
“Then when I got here it was a big adjustment identity thing: I didn’t feel American…” – Lynn, US
How did you find your various “repatriation” experiences?
My repatriation from Sweden was probably the most challenging—since I had lived there longer and gotten more immersed in the culture through school, work, and friends. I remember thinking American TV newscasters smiled and laughed too much compared to Swedish commentators and that college and grad students in the United States dressed very informally compared to students in Stockholm. Everything in the U.S. seemed bigger than I had become accustomed to in Sweden—gigantic tableware and portions in restaurants (especially in California), huge shopping carts and vast numbers of products in supermarkets. Also, I was surprised by the general lack of discussion about current world events in the U.S., compared to the amount and frequency of these discussions in Europe.
Now you sound like the other Alice: in Wonderland! (I mention because she’s the Displaced Nation’s mascot.) As an instructor at Cornell, you’ve made two important documentaries about global nomads/TCKs, Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the Future (1994) and Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium (2001). What did you like best about the creative process?
Meeting the students and getting to know them—they were fascinating, honest, and articulate. I screened the first global nomads video for the student interviewees at the end of the school year, and they liked it so much they decided to form a global nomads club. They asked me to be their advisor and I ended up working with them for the next three years. They were amazingly creative, active, and energetic and brought a lot to the campus community.
“Global Nomads have the ability to educate others…” – Liliona, Ghana
What attracted you to the documentary format? I have talked to other ATCK actors like myself and to novelists and artists, but you are my first videographer.
Clearly, there are many effective ways to portray the GN/TCK experience, but I was more familiar with the documentary format since I’d used it in teaching. For example, I’d used videos during intercultural training sessions for students and staff at Cornell to introduce topics like cultural adjustment, culture shock, and reentry shock. I also videoed international students as well as first-generation Americans who were participating in panels about aspects of American culture, as well as some international students who were teaching and doing role-plays. So I was very comfortable with the format. I really like being able to feature students’ own words and impressions—especially when I can capture them interacting with other students. In the first video, all of the students were from Cornell. In the second video, the students were from six different schools across the United States: San Diego State University, Colorado State University, The College of Wooster, George Mason University, Syracuse University, and Cornell.
In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you describe the impact of the videos not only on the college students who participated in them but also on the TCKs in your audiences. You produced these two documentaries in the era before social media. How did the news spread?
I showed the videos to as many groups at Cornell as I could: students, including Resident Advisors in dorms and the members of an international student discussion group, as well as groups of staff. I also screened them at international and intercultural conferences. Also, the students who appeared in the first video were great with promotions. They showed it to their dorm-mates to help them understand the GN experience, as well as at an initial meeting of their global nomads club to introduce prospective members to the concept. And they traveled together to a Global Nomads International (GNI) collegiate conference in Virginia where they screened it for GNs and TCKs from other colleges. Audience members who’d been TCKs/GNs could really relate to the students on screen, and word soon spread.
“I never wanted to put down roots…”- Brian, US
Did making these videos help you to better understand yourself as an ATCK?
I could relate to many things that the students talked about, and making the videos helped me think about some of my own experiences such as leaving my friends many times and having friends in many different places.
Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures? Or are you like many TCKs who are more likely to identify with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given that we’ll identify with them!)
I identify with some aspects of Nordic cultures like Sweden and Finland, some aspects of Chinese culture (due to my family background), and some aspects of American culture. I always seem to meet global nomads and Third Culture Kids wherever I go: I really enjoy it. After learning about the concept of global nomads and Third Culture Kids at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication and from the late, great David Pollock, I realized that a lot of the friends I’d made at college were global nomads (and they were very interested in learning more once I’d informed them).
As an ATCK, do you want to move frequently, or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My suitcase is always partly packed so it is easy to go on the next trip. On a recent trip to the West Coast, I was thinking about how much I love seeing all the gates listing flights to various parts of the world. I like to imagine what it would be like to jump on one of these planes and end up in a new part of the world. That said, I also enjoy having a home base, especially since I have kids who are quite rooted and don’t like me to be away for very long.
Are you working on a new TCK video project?
Yes. This spring I filmed three panels of Cornell students at Cornell’s Language House. This time I am looking at the influence of technology on the global nomad/TCK experience and how this compares to the experiences of GN/TCK students in my previous two videos. In addition, I am making a video that follows up on some of the students who participated in my first two films, and am planning to use social media tools.
It seems like only yesterday that we were reviewing Helena Halme‘s first novel, The Englishman, and today we have the pleasure of a guest post by Halme describing the themes of another new novel, Coffee and Vodka. Plus she is kindly giving away 3 copies! (Details below.) A Finnish expat in London, Halme was featured in our Random Nomad interview series, and we called on her again for an international fashion special (she is a self-confessed fashion maven). Today, though, we celebrate Halme as an international creative who bravely explores themes of displacement and cross-culturalism through fiction. So, brew yourself a cup of coffee and/or pour a glass of vodka, and let’s hear what Helena Halme has to say!
My novel Coffee and Vodka has been dubbed “Nordic Noir meets family saga”—but its central theme is really the displacement a young girl feels when her family moves countries, from Finland to neighboring Sweden.
Eeva is eleven and lives in a small town in Finland when her father decides that they will emigrate to Sweden in search of a better life. There the displacement the family experiences causes a rift so severe Eeva is still reeling from it thirty years later, when she is forced to re-live the dramatic events of her childhood.
Outsiders tend to think of Scandinavian countries as being similar in many respects. How could the impact of emigrating to a Nordic neighbor be so severe?
But for anyone who’s ever visited Finland and Sweden, the difference between the two is obvious: Finnish is a notoriously difficult tongue, and the country’s culture has been heavily influenced by the hundred years it spent under the rule of its Eastern neighbor, Russia.
Sweden on the other hand has no history of having been subjugated to another country’s rule. It remained neutral during the war, profiting from its mineral reserves and undisturbed industry.
Sweden has traditionally been the richest of Scandinavian countries. At one time it ruled over all its neighbors, and as late as the end of 17th century, Finland too was part of Sweden—before Sweden handed it over to Russia. Many of the wealthy, land-owning Finns spoke Swedish as their native tongue.
Even today, Sweden is very much considered in Finland as its Big Brother (for better or worse). For decades after WWII, many Finns emigrated to Sweden in search of a better life. But Finns were shunned in Sweden because of their different language and customs: they were seen as poor people who drank too much, didn’t learn the language and were often violent.
Notably, had I been writing about Sweden and its other Scandinavian neighbors, Norway and Denmark, the cultural differences would have been more subtle, of the kind that expats often find between the United States and the United Kingdom. This is because Swedes, Norwegians and Danes can (more or less) understand each other’s languages. (Anyone who wants to get an appreciation for the kinds of cultural differences that exist between, for instance, Sweden and Denmark, should try watching the Danish/Swedish TV series, The Bridge.)
Portrayal of little-known cultural differences in a novel
How to convey these historical, cultural and economic differences in a novel? First, I decided to set the story at the time, during the 1970s, when immigration from Finland to Sweden was at its peak. Also at that time, foreign travel and even foreign telephone calls were rare because so expensive. Once you’d emigrated, it was hard to go back or even have much contact with your native land again.
I thought that a story about displacement would be less poignant when you can spend hours on Skype speaking with your nearest and dearest, or can browse the Internet in your own language.
In addition, I decided that the family at the center of my story would make the move from a small town in Finland, Tampere, to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, as a way of further highlighting the differences between the two countries, and hence the challenges facing the Finnish immigrant family.
Getting into my characters’ heads
After I’d decided on the time and the setting, I told the story the way I always approach writing; I tried to get inside the heads of the characters. I began by seeing the world through the eyes of the 11-year-old Eeva.
How would she react to being uprooted? Did it matter to her how far geographically she was going to go?
Of course not. Just moving to a different town in Finland would have shaken Eeva. But to be moved to a country where she understood nothing people said to her, and to a large capital city with a different way of life? That would be life-changing.
In the first chapter we see Eeva living in Finland, safe in her world. When her father and mother excitedly inform her and her sister, Anja, that they are moving to Sweden, Pappa says:
In Stockholm everything is bigger and better.
This simple sentence indicates that the move will have positive effect on the family’s economics circumstances.
Later, when the family first see their new flat in Stockholm, we see how impressed they all are by the size and quality of the apartment, even though they eventually realize it’s far away from the city centre, in an immigrant area.
In Stockholm the sisters get their own bedrooms—in contrast to an earlier scene where, during the last night the family spend in Finland, the girls have to share the sofa in their grandmother’s small flat.
To suggest the first chinks in the shiny new world the family have entered, I describe the first shopping trip Mamma takes with Eeva and Anja. It’s also the first time the girls hear the then-common abuse directed at Finns: Javla Finnar (Fucking Finns)—after Eeva nearly collides with a Swedish woman’s shopping trolley.
During the same shopping trip, a sales assistant is rude to Mamma when she overhears the family speaking Finnish. This episode visibly shakes Mamma, and she seems quiet and withdrawn afterwards.
When I considered how Mamma and the girls would react to this kind of rejection, I decided that they would try to learn Swedish and blend in as quickly as possible.
I show this desire for Eeva and Anja to sound convincingly Swedish when the girls go shopping with Mamma, and on leaving the flat remind her not to speak at all (not even in Swedish) in the tunnelbana (metro) so that the people around them won’t know that they are from Finland. At this stage the girls had already mastered the language well enough to pass as being Swedish-born.
But I thought Pappa would not react as well as the female members of his family to the situation. As his family begin to enjoy Sweden, learning how to appreciate their new surroundings as well as master the language, he grows resentful. Even though he originally had hopes of his family fitting in, he becomes jealous of the women’s success at adopting and adapting to Swedish ways, and regrets the move.
And so the stage is set for a tragedy. But that’s another part of the story—one you can read in Coffee and Vodka!
As luck would have it, I have THREE COPIES to give away. All you have to do is to post a thoughtful comment on this post. I will choose three of the best comments and send to each of you, in whatever format you choose.
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Kiitos—or should I say tack?—Helena!What’s more, I understand we haven’t caught up with all of your books yet—you have a new one out, The Red King of Helsinki, described as Nordic noir meets Cold War espionage. Sounds tantalizing: will you please come back again???
Readers, to whet your taste even more for Coffee and Vodka, here are some excerpts from Amazon.com reader reviews:
It’s a beautifully written story about a family in turmoil, caused partly by the displacement, but also partly due to the cracks in family dynamics which were already evident before the move to Stockholm. I really liked the voice of Eeva as a 11-year-old full of hope and fear, and then 30 years later as a grown woman who’s unable to commit to a loving relationship.
Set between Finland and Sweden, between the 1970s and the present milllenium, Coffee and Vodka reveals what it was like for a young girl to be uprooted from her home and transplanted to another country. One where she doesn’t speak the language and is despised for her nationality. I’m not ashamed to say this novel made me cry, but it also made me smile. … [E]ven if these things are as foreign to you as they are to me, along with the settings in this novel, Eeva’s story will still strike a chord.
Don’t forget to comment on Helena Halme’s post to be eligible to win a free copy! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!
The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on June 1, 2013.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, on creative international entrepreneurship.
Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!
When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.
It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.
I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.
Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees
A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)
Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…
Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.
Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)
Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)
It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.
Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?
WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!
1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers
This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:
1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia) SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.
2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden) SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.
3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton) SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
2) Best Foreign Displaced Film
This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:
1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes) SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.
2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila) SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:
[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch) SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:
The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
3) Most Displaced Director
This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:
1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:
Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.
2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:
Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress
This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:
1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:
His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.
[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.
[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.
2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.
3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
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Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Place of birth:Arcadia, California, USA Passport: USA & Sweden Overseas history:Sweden (Landskrona, Malmö): 2005 – present. Occupation: Unemployed and looking for a job. Meanwhile, I’m studying more Swedish since I’m far from fluent. Cyberspace coordinates:Mag Wheels (Posterous) and @magsinsweden (Twitter handle).
What made you give up California for Sweden?
My husband is Swedish. After working for five years at the California lab for a small pharmaceutical company, he really wanted to go back home. We started the process in 2003, and a couple of years later, in spring 2005, we finally made the move.
How did the pair of you meet?
He was working as a chemist in Sweden and the company transferred him to their lab in California. We met on a Yahoo message board — he was looking for people to meet in California before he moved. I had been online dating a bit, and when I saw his message I replied. We started to exchange e-mails, then letters and phone calls. After six months we met in real life. 🙂 We dated for a few months and got engaged soon after. We have been married for 12 years. We have no children but share of life with our seven-year-old border terrier named Jake.
So now you’re displaced. Do you share that fate with anyone else in your immediate family?
No! I’m the only one in my family that lives between cultures.
You’re also job searching in a foreign land. Are jobs hard to come by in Sweden?
Without fluent Swedish, finding work is very hard, especially if you want something more than a temp job. I worked in the retail industry in the States. It took me six years to find a job in that field — and then I was laid off last spring.
Since so many Swedes speak better English than us native English speakers, companies will hire the Swede over the expat. That said, even without Swedish, expats who have good IT skills, a university education and are young may find more doors open to them in this market than someone of my background.
Since we live in Malmö, I’ve now extended my search across the Øresund Bridge, to Copenhagen, Denmark. The job market is better over there.
In March of this year you’ll have been in Sweden for eight years. When have you felt the most displaced?
When I first started learning Swedish — and was facing all the challenges that come with learning a new language. For a long time, I didn’t understand anything people were saying around me. And even now, after almost eight years of living here, I don’t feel like myself when attempting to speak the language.
When have you felt the least displaced?
When I became a citizen and went to the lunch for new immigrants, where I was given an official certificate saying that I’m SWEDISH!
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from the country where you’ve lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
Difficult… From Sweden I think I would bring this little book of Swedish verbs that I carry around since I always get the verb form wrong! 😉 From California — well, it’s impossible to pick just one thing as there’s so much of everything!
You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?
I’ll make you a casual dinner of pyttipanna, similar to bubble and squeak in the UK. It’s a dish made with fried potatoes, onions, and bell peppers. Sometimes you eat it with a fried egg. Most people put ketchup on it.
As you’re such a diligent student of the Swedish language, can you donate a Swedish word or expression to the Displaced Nation’s argot?
Actually, I’ll lend you two: 1) Fika — it refers to a taking a break with a coffee and an open-face sandwich or pastry. Most Swedish people have it once or twice a day. I think you would enjoy it. 2) Farthinder — that means speed bump. I love this word. It makes me laugh every time I see a signpost for one.
This month, we’ve been focusing on the need for mentors: people who teach us what we need to know, or remind us of things we have buried deep. Have you found discovered any new mentors, whether physically present or not, in your life abroad?
I have met people along the way that I would never have been friendly with in my old life in California. Living abroad has given me a new appreciation for people from other cultures whom I’ve gotten to know by having dinner with their families or joining in their celebrations. For instance, I have a friend from Iraq who has been wonderful to me when I was really struggling to fit in and get Sweden. She moved to Sweden with her kids in the 1990s.
If you had all the money and time in the world, what topic(s) would you choose to study in your adopted country?
Well, I’m already studying Swedish, but assuming I were fluent, I would study the history of Scandinavia. I would particularly like to learn more about the people who have come from other places to live in Sweden. How do they adjust to the life here? I love my adopted country but still find it a culture shock in many ways!
Which part of the culture is still shocking?
To be honest, I think it’s the Swedes themselves. Most Swedes are very reserved and it’s hard to befriend them. People don’t talk to each other on the bus or in shops. As a American I have always been very friendly and will chat up a stranger. But now I very rarely do it.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Maggie Eriksson into The Displaced Nation? True, she and her Swedish hubbie have a special chemistry, which must help to alleviate the symptoms of displacement — but could she have picked a more different place to live from California? Doubtful… (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Maggie — find amusing!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s thought-provoking guest post by Andy Martin, comparing the forcibly displaced to those of us who’ve made the choice to be displaced.
Expats and other world adventurers, let me guess. You have you spent the past week making resolutions about
staying positive about your new life in Country X;
indulging in less of the local stodge;
giving up the smoking habit that no one is nagging you about now that you’re so far away from home;
and/or taking advantage of travel opportunities within the region that may never come your way again
— while also knowing full well that at some point in the not-distant future, you’ll end up stuffing your face with marshmallows (metaphorically speaking).
Never mind, it happens to the best of us, as psychologist Walter Mischel — he of the marshmallow experiment — recently told Abby Hunstman of the Huffington Post. Apparently, it has something to do with the way impulses work in the brain. The key is to trick the brain by coming up with strategies to avoid the marshmallow or treat it as something else.
Today I’d like to propose something I found to be one of the most effective strategies for turning away from the marshmallows you’ve discovered in your new home abroad or, for more veteran expats, turning these marshmallows into something new and exotic. My advice is to find a mentor or a muse in your adopted land — someone who can teach you something new, or who inspires you by their example to try new things…
Trust me, if you choose the right mentor +/or muse, benefits like the following will soon accrue:
1) More exotic looks — and a book deal.
Back when I lived abroad, first in England and then in Japan, I was always studying other women for style and beauty tips. I made a muse of everyone from Princess Diana (I could hardly help it as her image was being constantly thrust in front of me) to the stewardesses I encountered on All Nippon Airways. Have you ever seen the film Fear and Trembling, based on the autobiographical novel of that name, by the oft-displaced Amélie Nothomb? On ANA flights, I behaved a little like the film’s young Belgian protagonist, Amélie, who secretly adulates her supervisor Miss Fubuki. I simply couldn’t believe the world contained such attractive women…
The pay-off came upon my repatriation to the US. With such a wide array of fashion and beauty influences, I’d begun to resemble Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence — with my Laura Ashley dresses, hair ornaments, strings of (real) pearls, and habit of bowing to everyone.
Is it any wonder my (Japanese) husband-to-be nicknamed me the Duchess? (Better than being the sheltered May Welland, surely?)
My one regret is that I didn’t parlay these style tips into a best-seller — unlike Jennifer Scott, one of the authors who was featured on TDN this past year. While studying in Paris, Scott was in a mentoring relationship with Madame Chic and Madame Bohemienne. (The former was the matriarch in her host family; the latter, in her boyfriend’s host family.) Mme C & Mme B took her under their wing and taught her everything she knows about personal style, preparation of food, home decor, entertaining, make-up, you name it…and is now imparting to others in her Simon & Schuster-published book.
2) More memorable dinner parties.
As mentioned in a previous post, I adopted actress and Indian cookbook writer Madhur Jaffrey as my muse shortly after settling down in the UK. I was (still am) madly in love with her, her cookbooks, even her writing style.
And her recipes do me proud to this day.
Right before Christmas I threw a dinner party for 10 featuring beef cooked in yogurt and black pepper, black cod in a coriander marinade, and several of her vegetable dishes.
It was divine — if I say so myself! To be fair, the guests liked it, too…
3) Improved language skills.
Now the ideal mentor for an adult seeking to pick up a new foreign language is a boyfriend or girlfriend in the local culture — preferably one with gobs of patience. The Japanese have the perfect expression for it: iki jibiki, or walking dictionary.
After seeing the film Lost in Translation, I became an advocate for expats giving themselves intellectual challenges. Really, there’s no excuse for ennui of the sort displayed by Scarlett Johansson character, in a well-traveled life.
It was while living in the UK as a grad student that I discovered the extraordinary scholar-writer Marina Warner, who remains an inspiration to this day. Warner, who grew up in Brussels and Cambridge and was educated at convent school and Oxford University, is best known for her books on feminism and myth.
In her person, too, she is something of a goddess. Though I’d encountered women of formidable intellect before, I found her more appealing than most, I think because she wears her learning lightly and has an ethereal presence, like one of the original Muses.
Booker prizewinner Julian Barnes has written of her “incandescent intelligence and Apulian beauty” (she is half Italian, half English). The one time I met her — I asked her to sign my copy of her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Lost Father — I could see what he meant.
I was gobsmacked.
Major girl crush!
(Don’t have a girl crush? Get one! It will enrich your life immeasurably.)
5) Greater powers of mindfulness — and a book deal.
Third Culture Kid Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow but grew up and was educated in the US. She has started the new year by putting out a book with Viking entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Who would guess that a young Russian-born woman would use Conan Doyle’s fictional creations, Holmes and Watson, as her muses? But, as she explains in a recent article in Slate, she has learned everything she knows about the art of mindfulness from that master British sleuth:
Mindfulness allows Holmes to observe those details that most of us don’t even realize we don’t see.
So moved is she by Holmes’s example — and so frustrated by her own, much more limited observational powers — Konnikova does the boldest of all thought experiments: she gives up the Internet…
So does her physiological and emotional well-being improve as a result? Does her mind stop wandering away from the present? Does she become happier? I won’t give it away lest you would like to make Konnikova this year’s muse and invest in her book. Hint: If you do, we may not see you here for a while. 😦
6) The confidence to travel on your own.
We expats tend to be a little less intrepid than the average global wanderer: we’re a little too attached to our creature comforts and may need a kick to become more adventuresome. But even avid travelers sometimes lose their courage, as Amy Baker recently reported in a post for Vagabondish. She recounts the first time she met a Swedish solo traveler in Morocco, who had lived on her own in Zimbabwe for 10 years. This Swede is now her friend — and muse:
She was level-headed, organized and fiercely independent — all characteristics that I aim to embody as a female traveler.
With this “fearless Swedish warrior woman” in mind, Amy started venturing out on her lonesome — and hasn’t looked back.
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Readers, the above is not intended as an exhaustive list as I’m hoping you can contribute your own experiences with mentors and muses abroad: What do you do to avoid the “marshmallows” of the (too?) well-traveled life? Who have you met that has inspired you to new creative, intellectual, or travel heights? Please let us know in the comments. In the meantime, I wish you a happy, healthy — and most of all, intellectually stimulating — new year!
Image courtesy of bulldogza / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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 email@example.com
Woo! That’s Thanksgiving over and I am still full to busting. Oh readers, your Mary-Sue has been one greedy piggy, she is one stuffed turkey — but it was all worth it as she had a lovely time with her family. Yes, she is one mucho happy Mary-Sue.
My oldest child and middle child were back home for the holidays and so I got to feed them and my three lovely grandkids — bliss. Even my youngest was able to extract himself from World of Warcraft and his basement room to join us for dinner.
We had a great time watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on NBC. Other than the Kermit balloon, my favorite part was watching those delightful Kidz Bop Kids sing on a float. Don’t you just want to feed their adorable little faces full of cranberries and mashed potatoes? I do!
And then there’s Matt Lauer hosting the parade. Mmmmh, mmmmh. I know what I am giving thanks for this year. . . Matt’s dreamy eyes. After watching SkyFall this weekend, I think that when Daniel Craig hangs up his tux, Matt’s the guy to replace him. Not only has he got the looks, but you believe he can kill a man. . . with his bare arms!
Anyhoo, enough with my wild thoughts and on with all your problems!
Based on the thousands of similar questions I receive this time of year, this time I am doing something a little different, spicing things up, by issuing a list of six tips for any of you expats and others out there who find the holidays befuddling.
Here we go! Mary-Sue’s top 6 tips for having an amazing holiday!
1) FOOD — BE CREATIVE WITH YOUR LEFTOVERS
We are still trying to work out what to do with all this leftover turkey from our first American Thanksgiving. We’ve got turkey sandwiches coming out of our ears at this point. Can you think of anything more creative?
— A Swedish family in New England
Yes, nothing gets you out of the holiday spirit than eating dreary leftovers. Try and think outside the box. Why just have the leftovers for food? That’s the sort of dreary thinking of a Rachel Ray. Sandwiches, curry, it’s all boring. What you could do with your leftover turkey is use it to make an arts and craft project. It’s a great way of getting the kids or grandkids involved in the holidays, too. Think of the turkey carcass as your canvas and really go to town on it with some acrylic paint. Or why not take that turkey and make a seasonal ottoman with it — the perfect way to put your feet up while watching Hallmark Christmas movies!
I’m finally in the Northern hemisphere for Christmas, and it doesn’t feel much different than this time of year in Perth, where I come from in Australia. Temps have yet to get below freezing; and as I’m sure you know, we had a hurricane in late October.
Sigh! Will I ever be able to have a white Christmas?
– Aussie in Baltimore
Living in Oklahoma, I can relate to this. To really get that fun, cosy Christmas feeling when temps aren’t as low as you would like, do what I do: wear tops that expose your midriff. When you get a kidney chill, that’s when you know you’re doing things right.
3) ROMANCE — FOR A TRULY GREAT HOLIDAY, KEEP THINGS ROMANTIC
My Japanese girlfriend keeps hinting that I should give her a ring on Christmas Eve. By that I don’t mean a telephone call but a diamond. I told her I’m not Japanese (they have a thing about getting engaged at the end of the year), but she says Christmas engagements are also popular in the West.
Actually I always thought of her as my iki jibiki (walking dictionary — Japanese is an extremely difficult language), but if I do decide to get engaged, should I be using their cultural norms? What’s wrong with her learning ours?
Ah, nothing like getting pressurized into a proposal — that always works out for all involved. I like this Cold Stone Christmas cake idea, but I suggest you do an old-school version of it. I know that it is traditional in England to hide coins in the Christmas pudding and then a child eating the pudding either chokes to death, cuts open their mouth or ends up a penny richer. I suggest you do something like that and hide the ring deep into a seasonal, suet-y pudding. If she chokes, breaks any teeth or cuts her mouth, then you’ll know it wasn’t meant to be, and can renege on the proposal.
I was looking forward to being in the US instead of the UK for Christmas as I thought it might mean buying fewer gifts for friends and relations, but now I learn that everyone expects a hand-out in New York City, from the doorman to the garage guy to the hairdresser. Who knew? And how much do I owe all these people I don’t know?
– Newbie British expat in New York
You can give them an actual gift instead of money. I find signed copies of my book (“Treat Every Day Like It Counts. . .because it does” by Mary-Sue Wallace, published by PublishAmerica) and a signed, framed photograph does the trick. Don’t have your own book published? That’s okay, you can just give them a copy of mine.
We are expats in Singapore, and my husband thinks we should use the week off between Christmas and New Year’s to travel within Southeast Asia, instead of going home to the United States to be with our families. But isn’t that what Christmas is about — family? And how can we possibly celebrate Christmas in a non-Christian country?
– The better half of an American exec in Singapore (we’re originally from Georgia)
Actually, it’s about baby Jesus, not your family in Georgia. However, I begrudgingly take your point that it’s nice to be with your family when thinking about baby J.C. You can travel to your family over the holidays, not away from them.
6) HOLIDAY ENTERTAINMENT — WHEREVER YOU ARE IN THE WORLD, CONSULT YOUR LOCAL LISTINGS
I’m an American in the UK and would like to experience the best of Christmas/New Year’s traditions here. Besides Scrooge, what are they?
– Linda of London
I live in Tulsa, OK. Do they not have Time Out in London? They probably have some tradition with those Beefeaters at the Tower. Yeah, they eat beef at the Tower every Christmas Eve. It’s a very quaint ceremony — be sure to go to it — or, whatever.
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That’s your dose of Mary-Sue for November. God bless y’all!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad, a chap who is ever-thankful for his expat lifestyle.
Today we are delighted to review Helena Halme’s book, The Englishman. Helena is a regular visitor to The Displaced Nation, where she has been featured both as a Random Nomad, and as Cleopatra For The Day.The Englishman is available from Amazon (UK and US) — and for a limited time this week, is free to download as a Kindle ebook!
Helena Halme grew up in Finland and Sweden, and left Finland for good when she married her English husband. She now lives in London. The Englishman is her first book.
At the age of twenty, Kaisa has her life mapped out. After university in Helsinki, she’s going to marry her well-to-do fiancé, Matti, and live happily ever after. But in October 1980, she’s invited to a British Embassy cocktail party, and meets a dashing Naval officer. In the chilly Esplanade Park the Englishman and Kaisa share passionate, secret kisses and promise to meet up again. But they live thousands of miles apart – and Kaisa is engaged to be married.
At the height of the Cold War the Englishman chases Russian submarines whilst Kaisa’s stuck in a country friendly with the Soviet Union. Will their love go the distance?
(Source: Amazon.com book description)
The Englishman is semi-autobiographical, based on the author’s blog posts on How I came to be in England, which, after an enthusiastic response from readers, she was inspired to turn into a fully fledged novel.
It is a love story: the account of the long-distance romance between English Naval officer Peter and Finnish student Kaisa, as this star-crossed couple discovers that Shakespeare’s words are still true, even in the 1980s, and the course of true love never runs smooth. Together, they contend with a broken engagement, long separations, the Falklands War, inevitable cultural differences, and the small matter of a member of the British armed forces wanting to marry a citizen of a country bordering the Soviet Union.
No matter where you are from, or even if you and your partner are from the same cultural background – if you’ve ever been in a long-distance relationship, The Englishman will strike a chord. Loving from afar in the early 1980s was a different matter than it is now: no Skype, no Facebook, no texting, but instead the sweet agony of waiting for letters in the mail and for the landline telephone to ring. Kaisa and her Englishman remind us of the forgotten pleasures of delayed, rather than immediate, gratification.
Especially recommended for romantics who grew up listening to Chrissie Hynde and wearing leg warmers the first time they were in fashion.
“The Englishman” can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and from October 8 – 12 is available to download free of charge.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s ghosty posty, a spooky Displaced Q from Tony James Slater!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Shoot! Is it October already? I don’t know how the time flies. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of fall. Who would be living in Tulsa. It just gets grey here, no burnt ochres like in Vermont. In fact, I wouldn’t know a burnt ochre if I saw one. Is it like a vole (please don’t feel the need to write in. I’m not that stupid. I know it’s not a rodent). Anyhoo, on with this month’s questions.
I can’t resist asking you: how does the Wallace household celebrate Halloween? I can imagine it’s quite an occasion!
– Ian (a British fan of yours) in Iowa
Well I can tell you that we don’t celebrate Halloween like the Larsons across the street. She gives out fruit to the kids in the neighborhood. Why would you even do that? It’s just cruel, isn’t it?
No, it’s a time of excess over at the Wallace household. That’s why I wake up the day after Halloween and don’t have to worry about finding the trees outside my house covered in toilet paper.
I buy plenty of Reese’s peanut butter cups because who doesn’t love them? I hear in Europe they have what they call food mountains when they have too much of a particular food source, well let me tell you that the Wallace household ends up with a Reese’s peanut butter cup mountain come Halloween.
My wife and I have lived in the United States since last May, and I must say, she is throwing herself into the life here with considerable vigour. She is now talking about hosting a Halloween party for some of our fellow expats, and inviting a few of our American neighbors. She has suggested that she and I dress up as an Elephant and a Donkey, in celebration of the American election season. No pun intended, but that would make me feel a bit of, well, an ass, to use the local dialect.
I wonder if I could talk her into going as a Milkman and Pregnant Lady instead? At least that would be true to our native (British) culture.
– Stephen in St. Louis
So let me guess this right regarding your Halloween costumes, your wife was to be satirical and you want to be lewd? Gee, what is it with you Brits. You always think your jokes are funny and yet they always just seem to be about sex. Just go as something horror related and stop trying to over think it. If you really want to be true to your native culture why not go as King George III. Bam! Yes, I went there.
My husband writes mystery books for a living. He and I have decided to live in England for a few years while he does research on his latest story. He insists that we look for an old isolated cottage somewhere deep in the heart of the countryside, where he can be free to write. But I feel certain that those oldy-worldy thatched roof places may be haunted. And what if I have to stay in a house like that on my own, should he be called up to London to meet his agent or give a talk.
Do you think I’m strange to be so afraid of (admittedly English) ghosts?
– Susan of Savannah, Georgia, soon to be of Suffolk, East Anglia
If you’re going to be living in East Anglia I’d be more concerned with the living than the dead. They’re a scary in-bred bunch, though coming from Georgia you should be able to handle it. I kid, I kid…well not about East Anglia.
***** Dear Mary-Sue,
Do Westerners see Western ghosts, Chinese see Chinese ghosts, and Africans see African ghosts, or can we see each other’s?
– Just Curious
And does Just Curious see ghosts of low intelligence?
When I first saw the farmhouse in Tuscany that my husband and I are now renting while we look for a place to live for our retirement, I thought to myself: Frances Mayes, eat your heart out! However, we’ve just now found out from one of our neighbors that a murder took place here about ten years ago — and ever since, the house has always been rented to expats. I’m thinking we should consult with the local Catholic priest about whether he could perform an exorcism — casting out evil spirits and all that. But my husband says, don’t be silly — it just adds to the atmosphere.
What do you advise?
-Victoria of Vulterra (formerly of Wellington, NZ)
First thing I would be doing is renegotiating a lower rental fee and not thinking about calling the local Padre.
***** Dear Mary-Sue,
In my opinion, Asian ghosts are far freakier — and hence scarier — than Western ones. Especially the Japanese kind. I mean, what’s a vampire compared to a wailing Asian woman with a very pale face and long, jet black hair? Actually, I’m scaring myself even as I write this…
– Ted of Tsukuba (formerly of Texas)
Yeah, I mean Casper has nothing on the Krasue from Thai legend. Now that’s freaky. I’d like to see Stephen in St Louis go to his party dressed as that.
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